By Ann Compton
Journalist and Sheltieholic ~ Owned by Three Shelties
Each year, dog show fans and New Yorkers eagerly await the Westminster Kennel Club Show — the most prestigious dog show in the nation. In a city full of dog lovers, the canine visitors are very welcome. Westminster pennants flutter on each street corner, and news of the arriving dogs and favorites pepper local television and newspapers.
The Westminster Kennel Club show is the second oldest sporting event in the United States, only preceded by the Kentucky Derby, which began two years before the first Westminster Dog Show was held in 1877. The WKC show has taken place every year since it started in New York City at Madison Square Garden, even when it was called Gilmore’s Garden. It has been broadcast on live television since 1948.
Westminster has always been held on the second Monday and Tuesday in February, and seats are frequently sold out. More than 700 members of the media from some 20 countries vie for photographs, stories, and comments from breeders and judges.
But what makes Westminster such a wonderful spectator experience is that it’s one of only a few shows left in the U.S. that is a “benched” show.
That means unless the dog is being groomed for the ring or shown, it must be at an assigned position on a maze of wooden benches behind the scenes, next to the grooming area, where the public can visit with both dogs and breeders.
Dogs showing at Westminster must be in the building by 11:30 a.m., and remain at their benching positions until 8 p.m. on the day their breed is judged. There are signs posted above each aisle, much like a supermarket, listing the breeds in each. It’s important to check on which day your favorite breed is shown if you go, since dogs are only required to be there on the day they are judged.
There is a close parallel between dog shows and some horse shows in the way they are judged. One would think it would be easier to show a dog. There’s no trailer to pull, no tack, no thousand-pound animal. However, if you’re entering the Garden with a dog, you might as well have a horse.
The amount of gear that is needed to accompany a show dog is daunting. You’ll want two crates for each dog – one for the benching area and one for the grooming space; a tack box that is at least as large as you’d need for a horse; a grooming table, various bags to hold supplies such as water, towels, leashes and other necessities; paperwork and documentation; a cooler for your bait–or treats that entice your pooch to perform, with everything packed and secured on a wheeled dolly.
Now, picture getting all of that, along with your dog, into and up to Level 5 in Madison Square Garden.
This is accomplished by the use of the MSG freight elevator, in which as many exhibitors, dogs and gear, can be fit. Minute organization is mandatory, and strong bungee cords to hold it all together are a must!
If you’re lucky enough to own a Sheltie, at least your dog can travel upstairs in a crate, unlike the larger breeds. Their owners have all the gear and the dog! It takes a village to get them inside.
Once in the Garden, finding a square foot or two for your grooming table and crate is a feat worthy of winning the breed, since competitors frequently arrive in the wee hours of the night before to stake out their spot, space being at such a premium.
A dog can be shown in a wide variety of disciplines–obedience, agility, rally, herding, flyball, and many others. Westminster is a show that judges conformation. Dogs must be proven champions able to breed to qualify for Westminster, since conformation judging is all about breeding lines. Championship is achieved when a dog has won enough shows to accumulate the required number of points to earn the coveted “CH” before its name.
Dogs are not judged against each other, but rather according to the AKC breed standards. So, essentially, the judge is looking for the most perfect dog in each breed.
The floor of the Garden, lined with the famous green carpet, is separated during the day for the breed judging into seven rings. Breed judging begins at 8 a.m. Monday and Tuesday and runs until late afternoon, when winners are chosen in all 173 breeds. The Group judging takes place Monday and Tuesday evening, culminating in the Best in Show finale Tuesday night.
Breed winners are awarded in three categories: Best of Breed, Best Opposite Sex, and Awards of Merit. The Best of Breed can be either a male or female, so if a male dog wins BoB, a female wins Best Opposite and vice versa. The Award of Merit is given at the judge’s discretion to dogs who do not place in the top two spots but are deemed exceptional. There can be many or few entrants in each breed, since just earning the credentials to qualify for Westminster is a remarkable achievement.
Best of Breed winners go on to compete in one of seven groups: Sporting, Hound, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting, Herding or Working. Shelties, of course, are part of the Herding Group. Once a winner is chosen in each Group, they compete for Best in Show. Again, this is the dog who comes closest to his or her own breed standard.
An interesting Westminster statistic is that males win twice as often as females. And, although the dogs at Westminster are frequently shown by their owners in other shows, Westminster competitors are most often shown by professional handlers—people who earn their living by training and showing dogs. Indeed, it is rare for an owner/handler to win Best in Show, and has only happened seven times in the history of the event.
This year, there were three new breeds accepted by the American Kennel Club eligible to compete at Westminster: The Irish Red and White Setter, the Norwegian Buhund, and the Pyrenean Shepherd. Both the Buhund and the Shepherd joined the Herding Group breeds. The group was won again this year by the Pulik.
There are always surprises at Westminster. Last year, the lovable senior canine, Stump, a golden-liver colored Sussex Spaniel, lumbered his way to Best in Show, becoming the oldest dog ever to capture the title at age 10.
On Tuesday night this year, the Westminster silver trophy went home with Sadie, the Scottish Terrier, named the best of more than 2,570 dogs that competed. But the real story of Westminster may not be in those who won the ribbons, but in those who left without them.
A woman from Canada with her Old English Sheepdog told me the saga of her trip to New York as she was waiting in line to leave the Garden late Monday night. She’d booked space for she and her Old English on a Sunday flight, in plenty of time to arrive in New York, but when they put her dog in the hold where the large dogs fly, the captain told her he found the heat in the hold wasn’t working and they couldn’t take the dog.
She told him that they were going to Westminster to compete. Her dog had won 25 Bests in Show, and this was to be his retirement show. The captain polled the entire crew and the passengers in the last four rows of the plane, and everyone agreed. She and her dog flew to New York with the dog sitting beside her on the plane. Everyone cheered when they landed and wished her luck. Her dog didn’t win the breed, but he won just by getting there.
Lining up to leave the Garden this week with their dogs and gear, having failed to attain the Best of Breed slot leading to Best in Show, were people from California to Canada and beyond. There was no attitude of defeat, but rather one of eternal optimism—the hallmark of the dog show exhibitor. Almost universally, they each shrugged and said with a smile, “It’s just a dog show,” then began to talk about the show next week, next month or next year, when there’s always another Westminster.
What a wonderful lesson for all of us.