There’s so much to do and see at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show presented by Purina® Pro Plan® that even longtime attendees may not know the ins and outs of the event. There are the breed sessions, competitions in agility and obedience, and of course, the big events of group judging and best in show. But the background of the show is rich with facts you may not know.
1. The name “Westminster” has nothing to do with England.
Around 1876, a group of “sporting gentlemen” would gather at the bar of the Westminster Hotel to talk about hunting and boast about their hunting dogs. One thing led to another, and the group decided it needed a real venue to compare hounds—a dog show in Manhattan. In 1877, they named themselves the Westminster Kennel Club, after their favorite bar, and hosted the First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs. It was held at a venue, Gilmore’s Garden, that would later come to be known as Madison Square Garden.
2. Westminster is the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the country, second only to the Kentucky Derby.
The very first show featured more than 1,200 canine competitors, and Westminster has gained popularity since then. Along with those who attend in person, millions can watch it live on television. Currently, nearly 3,500 dogs compete during Westminster Week events.
3. Where are the dogs when they’re not in the ring?
Historically, Westminster has been a “benched” show, which means that when the dogs and their teams are not competing, they’re required to stay in their assigned area—their “bench”—for the duration of the event. There, dog lovers can see the dogs and all the attendant activity. The only exception is when the dogs are being prepared for showing or being transported to and from the benching area. That’s a lot of downtime for dogs and their teams, and some observers have likened hanging out in the benching area to a tailgate party. That said, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the show’s move to the outdoor grounds of the Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York, it’s now being presented as an unbenched show.
4. Grooming is serious business.
It can take several hours to groom some breeds for the show ring and a lot of work. For those who think their dog’s bath time is a chore, imagine four-to-five hours, multiple brushes, and more hair products than most humans have. Some handlers use high-end people products that you might find in a salon on their dogs: brand name shampoos and conditioners, texturizing sprays, mousse, hairspray, rollers, flat irons, and blow dryers all contribute to show ring perfection.
5. Handlers do much more than trot dogs around the ring.
They play a vital role in a dog’s success or loss. The handler has a strong bond with the dog he or she works with, which helps the dog feel confident, attentive, and comfortable in the ring. The handler is intimately familiar with the breed’s proper stance, posture, and gait and can make subtle adjustments with expert leash handling and well-timed treats. All of this takes practice, practice, and more practice to work out leash handling, speed, and positioning.
6. The handler is also the keeper of the treats.
Sometimes a handler will keep them in a pocket or even in their bra. And yes, you did see a handler take a treat out their own mouth to give to the dog. It isn’t as weird as it seems, because the treats are things like hot dogs, cheese, cooked chicken, or steak. The theory is that by keeping treats (also called “bait”) in their mouth, the handler is focusing the dog’s attention on their face. An interesting side note: many, if not most, of the dogs being shown drink bottled water while on the road to avoid any potential tummy upsets from local water.
7. With all of the time, expense, and work that goes into showing a dog, there must be big prize money?
Actually, no. At the first show, all proceeds from one day went to establishing a shelter for disabled and stray dogs. Since then, Westminster has contributed millions of dollars to rescue, health, and training organizations, as well as to community outreach organizations. But, while there is no actual monetary prize, breeders will tell you that the offspring of champions can bring in serious money.
8. Show dogs are still real dogs.
They’re beloved pets that share in everyday family life, much like any of our dogs do. They may live with kids or other pets, sleep in the bed, track muddy paws through the kitchen, play catch in the backyard, and generally lead the lives of well-loved, happy pets.