Westminster: Greatest Dog-Gone Show on Earth?

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
February 6, 2004
View photo galleries of Westminster Dog Show breeds and past winners.

Westminster isn't your average dog show.

First held in 1877, the show predates the invention of the light bulb, the automobile, basketball, and the World Series.

Second only to the Kentucky Derby as the longest, continuously held U.S. sporting event, it's been held despite power outages, world wars, blizzards, and a national depression.

The contest was started by a group of hunters who regularly met in the bar of a Manhattan hotel to trade stories about their shooting accomplishments and the talents of their dogs. They formed a club—naming it after their favorite hotel: Westminster—and decided to hold a show to compare their dogs in a setting away from the hunting field.

"Right from the very beginning, the very first show we had was an unqualified success," said David Frei, director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club in New York City.

More than 1,200 dogs entered the first show. Tens of thousands of spectators reportedly came to watch. Given the intense public interest, the three-day show was extended to four.

This year, an estimated 10 million people will tune-in to watch 2,500 purebred champions compete at Madison Square Garden in New York. United States cable channel USA Network will broadcast live coverage of the event February 9 and 10.

"These days, even more than ever before, we think of our dogs as members of the family," said Frei who also co-hosts USA Network's annual telecast. "We have this great spiritual and emotional connection to our dogs, and we want to bask in that by watching a show like this on television."

All 162 breeds and varieties recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) will be represented, with the golden retriever having the most entries for an individual breed. Other top entries include: dachshunds, Australian shepherds, pugs, rottweilers, and Labrador retrievers.

Three newly-recognized AKC breeds competing for the first time are the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, German pinscher, and toy fox terrier.

To compete in the show, dogs must be an AKC recognized breed and a champion—a title that can take anywhere from a few weekends to several years to achieve by attending shows and earning the required points.

The top five dogs of each breed are invited to attend. The remaining slots are filled on a first-come basis. On the day entry forms are accepted, it takes less than an hour for the club to fill the 2,500-dog limit.

While a list does rank the country's top dogs, figuring out which one has a shot at winning Westminster isn't as easy as looking at the number one spot.

One reason is that judging is subjective. Dogs are compared to the breed's written standard that describes the ideal specimen. So what one judge considers a perfect dog, based on the written standard, another may not.

In the 14 years Frei has been a television commentator covering the event, he says only about half of the time has the number one dog in the country gone on to win Best In Show, Westminster's highest accolade.

What will be hard to match this year is last year's line-up. The purebreds that competed in Best In Show last year are widely acknowledged among fanciers to be the greatest single lineup in Westminster history, according to Frei.

"Last year, all seven of these dogs stepped right up and put on great shows," said Frei. "And, at the very end, the Best In Show judge truly could have pointed at any of the seven dogs for Best in Show and not gotten an argument."

Getting to the Best In Show ring isn't easy. Dogs must first beat out the competition at the breed and group levels.

At the breed level, the same type of dog competes. There may only be a few competitors in the ring, or there could be dozens. This year, for example, there are 43 golden retrievers. Competition for that breed will be stiff. In comparison only 12 toy fox terriers are entered in their breed-level competition.

The winner of each breed advances to the next level, called group. Purebreds belong to one of seven groups, based on their original use: sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting, and herding.

Winners from each group then advance to Best In Show.

Stepping into the spotlight as this year's Best In Show judge is Burton Yamada of Lake Arrowhead, California. Last year, he judged the working group and has attended the show as a judge, handler, or spectator for more than 20 years.

"Westminster is like no other show," said Yamada, a breeder of champion standard schnauzers. "It's like the Super Bowl where the crowd is revved up and cheering. The dogs also feel the excitement and some dogs will respond to the crowd and turn it on, becoming the ultimate show dog."

Yamada is not allowed watch the group judging. When he walks into the ring Tuesday night, his decision will be based on what he observes at that moment. Even if he's seen a dog at another show, the veteran judge says it won't sway his final decision.

"There are lots of variables that effect a dog's performance so you can never pre-judge," said Yamada, who, when not judging dog shows, works in the defense industry for Northrup Grumman Mission Systems.

Madison Square Garden is noisy and crowded, and when dogs are not being judged in the ring, they are "benched," required to stay in an assigned area all day. This allows handlers to educate the public on their breed as well as responsible ownership. Westminster is one of the few benched shows still held. All the interaction can tire dogs who are used to snoozing instead of schmoozing between judging.

Consequently, some canine competitors show well in the breed and group competitions says Yamada, then fade by the time Best In Show rolls around. Resources on Dogs

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