East Newton Elementary School media specialist Meghen Bassel serves as pet parent to beloved support dog Booker T. Pug. However, her canine expertise extends far beyond the library’s walls—all the way to the Westminster Kennell Club Dog Show in New York. 

by Kari Apted

Booker T. Pug, a short, chunky, greying star who hails from Ohio, has been featured on “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” Disney Plus and National Geographic. “He is a celebrity,” Meghen Bassel said. “I’m just his owner.” Every school day, the 7½-year-old pug accompanies Bassel to East Newton Elementary School, where she works as a media specialist. Booker serves as the school’s mascot and service dog, and by all accounts, he was made for the job. He delights in the adoration he receives from the hundreds of people who filter in and out of the media center on any given day. Bassel had specific requirements when searching for a school therapy dog. 

“The great thing about purebreds is that you know what you’re going to get. I wanted to combine my love of working in schools with working with dogs,” Bassel said. “I researched breeds to find out which ones would fit what I was looking for, which was a small, sturdy and non-threatening breed; and of course, the dog had to be good around children and comfortable in new places.”

All of those standards led Bassel to a reputable breeder in Ohio. 

“Booker has been perfect for the job,” she said. “The whole dog show community was looking out for me to find the right dog. He loves going to work and being around kids. He’s so quiet and calm.”

Bassel has had a lifelong connection to the dog show community. She is a second-generation dog show judge with parents who actively showed and judged dogs from the 1970s to the 1990s. Being immersed in the field made her a natural at following in her parents’ footsteps. 

“Most people don’t start judging dog shows until they’re in their early 60s. I started in my early 20s.”

Meghen Bassel

“Most people don’t start judging dog shows until they’re in their early 60s,” Bassel said. “I started in my early 20s.”

Bassel admits that most people are unaware of the level of education required to be a dog show judge. Many assume dog shows are the canine equivalent of beauty pageants, but nothing could be further from the truth. According to the American Kennel Club, show dogs are measured by how closely they conform to the standard of their breed. Why? Because dogs whose appearances meet the breed’s standard are most likely to produce puppies that also meet the standard. As dogs are given points that add up to show titles, judges must know specific breeds well enough to recognize which dogs exhibit exceptional qualities in each category. There are more than 190 breeds and varieties of dogs recognized by the AKC. Therefore, judges usually concentrate on learning all they can about one breed category or just one specific breed.

“I have a dog judge friend who is also a brain surgeon,” Bassel said. “He told me that it took him longer to learn about dog judging than it did to learn how to operate on human brains.”

Bassel is an expert on dogs in the sporting group, which includes pointers, retrievers and spaniels. She has also studied several breeds of hounds and terriers. In May, she had the opportunity to put her expertise to work judging at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Westminster remains the most famous dog show worldwide and also represents one of America’s oldest sporting events, second only to the Kentucky Derby. “At Westminster, I judged all the spaniel breeds,” Bassel said. “It was quite an honor to judge there.” Because the event was broadcast live during the day, many teachers at East Newton Elementary paused classes to let the students observe Bassel’s judging skills. 

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Juggling two careers and a family can be a challenge. “I’ll often leave work on a Friday, fly somewhere, judge all day on Saturday, fly home Sunday and go back to work on Monday,” Bassel said. In October, she will make a return trip to the United Kingdom to judge at the Gundog Society of Wales show. Bassel has also judged dog shows in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Finland. When scheduling permits, Bassel enjoys bringing her 11-year-old son, Greer, along on her dog show adventures. In the summer of 2022, the pair traveled through several states, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Missouri, visiting museums and other fun places.

As for Booker T. Pug, he always greets his favorite people with happiness when they return home, even if it means competing for attention with the family’s five award-winning Welsh springer spaniels. One of Britain’s oldest breeds, these dogs are medium-sized, with floppy ears and longish white and brown fur. Like pugs, Welsh springer spaniels have a friendly disposition and are highly people-oriented. 

The same can be said of Bassel. When asked what she loves most about judging dog shows, she pointed to the relationships and bonds that are formed. “I love meeting people who are brand new to showing. Some are terribly nervous; their hands will be trembling,” Bassel said. “I love being able to talk to them and put them at ease. I love being able to calm them down.” Booker T. Pug would probably agree with spreading contentment being the best part of his job, too. 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted.

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