Best in Show: The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

New York, the Big Apple – a place of music, theatre, museums, and more!  But in mid-February, New York becomes Dog Town on account of the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Hotels provide special accommodation and rates for dog handlers and their charges, taxis are happy to have canines for a change, and there are special appearances on the Today Show, along with all sorts of other events that go “woof”.   There’s a reason it’s the world’s most famous dog show!

The 143rd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is being held this year at Madison Square Garden on February 11-12 this year.  It’s the second longest continuously held sporting event in the United States (the Kentucky Derby has been running for two more years).  The first Westminster show was held on May 8, 1877.  Dog owners from around the world come to show off their pets and this year will feature more than 2,500 dogs from over 150 breeds.

It all started with a group of sporting gentlemen who met regularly at the Westminster Hotel at Irving Place and 16th Street in Manhattan, to trade stories about their shooting accomplishments and the talents of their dogs.  Eventually they formed a club and named it The Westminster Breeding Association, after their favorite hotel.

The show originated as a place for gun dogs, primarily setters and pointers.  The prizes for these first shows included such items as pearl handled pistols, of use to the hunters and terriermen who worked these dogs in the field.

Since that time, dog shows have drifted away from a focus on working dogs to a focus on the appearance of the dog alone.

The first show took place at Gilmore’s Gardens (the Hippodrome) on the site now occupied by the New York Life Building, which also contains the American Kennel Club headquarters.  The first show drew over 1,200 dogs and proved so popular that the originally scheduled three days, became four.

Gilmore’s Gardens at the time was an old railroad depot, which two years later became the first Madison Square Garden.  Dog breeds listed for the first show included the Long-haired Saint Bernard, the Esquimaux Dog, and the Siberian Bloodhound.  Most dogs had simple names such as Duke, Rover, Mungo, Nellie, and Rex, compared to today’s fancier and longer dog names such as last year’s winner, Rumor, a.k.a. GCH CH Lockenhaus’ Rumor Has It V Kenlyn (although among today’s call names there still number many Dukes, Nellies, Rexes, and the like).  There is a maximum of seven words allowed in an entrant’s name.

The kennel club founded the Angel on a Leash charity in 2004, which trains therapy dogs to work in health care facilities, schools, rehabilitation and hospice, extended care, correctional facilities, and crisis intervention.  Many of the champions of Westminster move on to become therapy dogs.

King Charles Spaniel dog that might be in Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What to Know Before You Go:

This year, the judging will commence on Feb 11, with individual breed judging taking place each day between 8am and 6pm.  As a spectator, you’re able to wander around the benching areas and see the dogs up close being groomed in preparation for their class. The winners of each individual breed are then qualified to be judged in the ‘Group’ event.  There are seven groups: Hound; Toy; Non-Sporting; Herding (these first four are judged on the Monday evening) and, Sporting; Working; and Terrier (these last three are judged on the Tuesday evening).  The winners of each Group section then moves on to the judging of the ‘Best in Show’ competition, judged Tuesday evening.

There are a variety of ticket options available. “MSG Go Anywhere tickets” provide all-day access to both events at Madison Square Garden and the Piers off Westside Highway and are available for $100 for a reserved seat or $75 for a general admission seat, through Ticketmaster.  You might spot celebrities from the Today show, or even Martha Stewart. General admissions tickets for the daytime and night time sessions start at $32 and $40, respectively, for adults.

My personal preference is to attend during the day and watch as many events as possible.  There are up to six rings with competitions running simultaneously, so I arrive early and develop a plan around the breeds I want to see judged.  I especially enjoy walking around the bench areas to see the owners, handlers, and dogs.  There is also an opportunity to buy lots of dog paraphernalia, such as necklaces, sweaters, and cardigans with dog motifs.  Then I head home to watch the Groups and Best in Show judging from the comfort of my lounge as the evening session is televised on the USA channel.

Recommended viewing beforehand is the movie ‘Best in Show’, a mockumentary all about a large dog show not dissimilar to Westminster.  It provides an entertaining look behind the scenes of competitive dog ownership, and is directed by Christopher Guest (Jamie Lee Curtis’ husband), who also directed This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, For your Consideration and A Mighty Wind.

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