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She was told more than a year ago, but Betty Regina Leininger is still amazed she was asked to judge Best in Show for the Westminster Kennel Club.

"Oh, gosh, I can't really believe it. I'm just a gal from the Rock, honey."

Born in St. John's, Nfld., on Tuesday she will become the first Canadian woman ever to judge the category at the annual Westminster dog show – a task given to just one of many veteran dog judges each year.

Chatty and warm, Ms. Leininger is the kind of person you could talk all night with – and we nearly do, jumping subjects from her bouts with cancer to her passion for Latin dancing.

But her true love? "I speak to my mom every day, twice a day." Her mom is in perfect health and still a resident of St. John's at 95, she said, with a "dance card that's pretty full."

Ms. Leininger travels the world to judge dog shows, but frequently makes the trip to visit her family in St. John's. "They used to say I was the only one to run away and join the circus," she said.

"When those wheels touch down on the tarmac, and I step out and breathe in that salty air – there's nothing like it." She brings her oversized, retired show dog chihuahua Bo (short for his stage name, Mr. Bodacious) every year.

A dog lover from an early age , Ms. Leininger grew up with animals in St. John's. "There was always a dog; nothing purebred, whatever happened to come to our family." She co-founded the Newfoundland Kennel Club in the late 1960s , developed a love for animals that would take her around the world as a handler, breeder and judge. She eventually put down roots in Frisco, Tex.

"I've worked very hard and I've come up by the boot straps," she said.

On the eve of the biggest night of her career, she was feeling confident.

"There's a moment that you just know – that's the dog. I want them all to win, but you can't lollygag – you have to make that choice."