Westminster: America’s dog show

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 "The First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs was held by the WKC in 1877, making it one of the longest continuously held sporting events in the United States, second only to the Kentucky Derby."

By Doris Dressler
Photos by Doris Dressler

Every dog has his day, and an affenpinscher named Banana Joe had his on Feb. 12 when he won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) Dog Show.

I was in hound heaven to have the opportunity to attend the 137th annual event in New York City, which is considered by dog aficionados to be the canine lover’s version of the Super Bowl. That’s one item off any dog lover’s bucket list.

But what does it take to become America’s “top dog?”

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This malamute enjoys having its back end blow-dried.

Westminster Dog Show history
The WKC was formed in 1877, according to westminsterkennelclub.org, to “increase the interest in dogs, and thus improve the breeds, and to hold an Annual Dog Show in the city of New York.”

The First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs was held by the WKC later that year, making it one of the longest continuously held sporting events in the United States, second only to the Kentucky Derby, which was first held two years earlier in 1875.

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This shih tzu has a hair product collection larger than most humans do.

The show drew over 1,200 dogs and was so successful that it was extended from three to four days. According to “The Dog Show, 125 Years of Westminster,” 35 different breeds and a miscellaneous class (which included a mixed breed and a two-legged dog) participated the first year.

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This year’s show had 2,721 dogs competing, with entries from all 50 states and several other countries, making it one of the largest showings ever.

In prior years, all daytime and evening events were held at Madison Square Garden. This year, daytime events were moved to Piers 92 and 94.

The WKC Dog Show is one of the few benched dog shows in the United States. Most dog shows are unbenched, meaning dogs that are entered only need to be present for the actual judging.

In a benched show, participating dogs are required to be in assigned areas (called benches) at all times when they are not in the ring. Spectators can see (and touch) the dogs and talk to handlers, breeders and owners to learn more about the breed.

Moving the daytime activities to the piers allowed more room for benching. Entering the aisles of the benching area is like walking into your local grocery store and reading the signs hanging above each aisle to locate items on your shopping list. But, instead of seeing canned vegetables, canned fruit and juice in aisle one and soup, baking goods and spices in aisle two, spectators find golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and pointers in aisle one and beagles, dachshunds and greyhounds in aisle two.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world
So how does a dog make it to the top? The first hurdle is winning Best of Breed; no small task if you’re a golden retriever or Rhodesian ridgeback (61 and 54 dogs were entered, respectively). Judges were kept busy during the day working 12 rings over two days to determine 187 Best of Breed winners.

Each of the 187 breeds is assigned to one of seven groups that represents characteristics the breeds were bred for. The breeds within each group—Toy, Non-Sporting, Herding, Hound, Working, Terrier and Sporting—then compete for Best of Group. The seven Best of Group winners then compete for the prestigious Best in Show title.

Toy, Non-Sporting, Herding and Hound Groups
The Toy Group consisted of 23 different breeds, including the affenpinscher, who won Best of Group and eventually Best of Show. Toy dogs were originally bred as companion animals.

The Non-Sporting Group appears to be a “catch-all” group. Westminsterkennelclub.org explains that the American Kennel Club (AKC) “originally registered dogs as either sporting or non-sporting. Hounds and Terriers split off the Sporting Group, Toys and Working from the Non-Sporting, and later, Herding from the Working Group. The remaining dogs, with a great diversity of traits not fitting any of the above, comprise the Non-Sporting group.” A bichon frise named Honor, who won Best of Group, was one of the 20 breeds in the Non-Sporting Group.

The Herding Group split off from the Working Group in 1983. An Old English Sheepdog named Swagger beat out 26 other breeds to win Best of Group.

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The Hound Group had 30 participating breeds, including the treeing walker coonhound, one of two newly recognized breeds eligible to participate for the first time. Big Canoe residents take note—Big Canoe Animal Rescue resident Ginger bears a striking resemblance to this breed. An American foxhound named Jewel won Best of Group.

Working, Terrier and Sport Groups
The Working Group is comprised of guard dogs, draft animals and service/police/military dogs and had 28 breeds competing. Matisse, a Portuguese water dog, won Best of Group.

Terrier comes from the Latin word “terra,” which means ground. Terriers were originally bred to hunt and kill vermin—frequently underground. Adam, a smooth fox terrier, beat out 29 other breeds to win Best of Group. The Russell terrier was a new addition to the group this year, a newly recognized breed along with the treeing walker coonhound.

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Poodles are water retrievers originally from Germany. Poodles have their back end shorn to keep them buoyant. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” The Afghan hound is one of the oldest breeds in existence.


The Sporting Group
The Sporting Group consists of dogs that were bred to assist the hunter, either by pointing to, flushing out or retrieving game. A German wirehaired pointer named Oakley beat out 29 other breeds, including the most popular dog in the U.S.—the Labrador retriever—to win Best of Group.

Best in Show
The arena went dark at the Garden toward the end of the second evening in anticipation of the introduction of each of the seven Best in Group winners. While spotlights danced across the arena, each Best in Group winner had its opportunity to “shine” and strut its stuff for the cheering crowd.

The crowd favorite was 20-month-old Swagger, an Old English Sheepdog, who was the Herding Group winner. In addition to winning Best of Breed and Best of Group, Swagger was also the first winner of the newly added Reserve Best in Show award, a runner-up to Best in Show.

Banana Joe took top honors as the first affenpinscher (monkey-terrier, translated from German) to win Best in Show at Westminster. The breed is aptly named, described by the AKC as a “peppy dog that has the face and impish nature of a monkey.”

As top dog, Banana Joe celebrated his win by hitting the talk-show circuit, riding to the top of the Empire State Building, ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and enjoying a steak lunch at Sardi’s. Upon completion of his victory tour, Banana Joe plans to retire to Holland, where, according to bostonglobe.com, he will “be a stud and sit on the couch.”

What a lucky dog!

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