It’s that time of year again when proud and prancing pooches from around the world vie for the coveted “Best of Show” canine crown at the Westminster Kennel Club’s 138th Annual Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.
A parade of more than 2,800 purebred pups, along with their nervous, dowdy, and often-sequined owners, have been hustling before the keen eyes of lip-pursing breeding specialists since Monday.
And in the sold-out stands are raucous crowds whose passion for canines rivals that of fans of any sport. Indeed, after the Kentucky Derby, the Westminster Dog Show is the oldest-running sporting event in the country, predating the light bulb, the automobile, and even 12 states entering the Union.
Here’s a primer for the Westminster Kennel Club’s Show and Tuesday night’s canine clash:
1. What is the Westminster Dog Show?
In the 1870s, wealthy New York hunters would gather at the Westminster Hotel in Manhattan and brag about their hunting prowess – and their dogs.
In 1877, they decided to put their boasting to the test, starting a competition to judge the most perfect specimen of certain breeds of dogs. This became the First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs, put on by the newly formed Westminster Kennel Club, named for their original Manhattan watering hole.
The show, drawing an entry of 1,201 dogs that year, was held at Gilmore's Garden, the forerunner of the modern Madison Square Garden.
How successful was it?
According to one news account: “To say that the dog show held in the city last week was a success would but poorly convey an idea of what the result really was. It was a magnificent triumph for the dogs and for the projectors of the show. We question if on any previous occasion has there ever assembled in this city such a number of people at one time, and representing as much of the culture, wealth and fashion of the town.”
The Westminster show has been a New York tradition ever since.
2. What kinds of dogs are judged at the Westminster Dog Show?
There are 190 officially recognized purebred varieties eligible for the show. But these breeds are clustered into seven separate “groups,” and dogs must first compete for seven “Best of Breed” titles before becoming finalists for “Best of Show.”
The breed clusters include:
• Sporting dogs: Bred for the hunt, these include the Retriever class, dogs bred to run or swim to fetch fallen game; the Spaniel class, dogs bred to flush out game for waiting hunters; and the Pointer and Setter classes, dogs bred to “point” at unseen game for hunters. Originally, the competition simply divided dogs into Sporting and Non-Sporting categories, before they were eventually divided into the seven current breeding groups.
• Hound dogs: Originally considered Sporting dogs, hounds were bred to take down game themselves or pin it down until the hunter arrives. Hounds also have a superior sense of smell, allowing them to track game for miles. Hounds include Beagles, Dachshunds, and Greyhounds. For the first time, this year’s competition includes the Portuguese Podengo Pequeno.
• Terrier dogs: These “terrestrial” dogs were bred to follow their quarry into subterranean dens, including those of foxes, rats, or mice. Like Hounds, Terriers were once grouped as Sporting dogs, and now include Airedales, Miniature Schnauzers, and Russells. This year, the Rat Terrier was added to the list of eligible breeds.
• Non-Sporting dogs: An original group category, these dogs were later divided into three separate groups, with “Working” and “Toy” dogs getting their own group status. So, basically, “Non-Sporting” dogs are all those breeds that do not quite fit the definitions of other groups. They include Bulldogs, Chow Chows, and Poodles.
• Working dogs: These intelligent and powerfully built dogs were bred to guard homes and livestock, pull weight, or serve with the military or police. They include Akitas, Great Danes, and Rottweilers. This year Chinooks, a New Hampshire breed from the 1920s, was added to the list of breeds eligible to compete.
• Toy dogs: These little pooches were bred for companionship. They are often smaller “toy” versions of breeds in other group categories. They include Chihuahuas, Maltese, and Yorkies.
• Herding dogs: Branching off from the “Working” group in 1983, Herding dogs were bred to help ranchers and farmers move their livestock.
3. How are dogs judged at the Westminster Dog Show?
Each of the 190 breeds judged at Westminster has its own official parent club, an organization that creates a written standard for the breed, describing the dog’s original function, the physical traits bred to fulfill that function, as well as other features like temperament, coat color, and other standard traits. A judge must evaluate how closely a dog meets these official standards – which often leaves plenty of room for subjectivity.
At Westminster, judges first determine the best male and female of a particular breed, selecting a “Winner’s Dog” and a “Winner’s Bitch.” These then move on to compete in one of the seven “Best of Breed” competitions. These seven champions then move on to compete for “Best of Show.”
4. What dogs win most often at the Westminster Dog Show?
Terriers have won “Best In Show” most often, taking home 45 of 103 canine crowns since the award’s inception in 1907, including a record 13 titles for Wire Fox Terriers and 8 for Scottish Terriers. The Sporting group has won 19 times, including six titles for English Springer Spaniels. The Working group has 15 crowns, including four each for Doberman Pinschers and Boxers. The Toy group has won 11 titles, the Non-Sporting group 10, and the Hound group five. Herding dogs have only won a single Best of Show title at Westminster, a German Shepherd in 1987.
5. What are some other fun facts from the Westminster Dog Show?
• There has only been one three-time winner of “Best of Show,” a Smooth Fox Terrier named Warren Remedy, who won in 1907, the first year for the title, 1908, and 1909. Six other dogs have won Best in Show twice, with the last two-time victor, an English Springer Spaniel named Chinoe's Adamant James, winning in 1971 and 1972.
• In the first show in 1877, two Staghounds from the late General George Custer’s pack competed.
• In 1889, a Siberian Wolfhound bred by the Czar of Russia competed at Westminster.
This year, the “Best of Breed” winners have already been chosen, and a judge will determine this year’s “Best of Show” on Tuesday night.