Westminster Dog Show Celebrates 145 Years, But 2021 Will Be Different

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
A standard poodle named Siba won Best in Show at the 144th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Feb. 11, 2020, in New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

At the very first Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, held in an open-air building in New York City that P.T. Barnum built for his circus, somewhere around 1,500 canines were displayed for what The New York Times declared "a new fashionable amusement" among members of the city's high society. "[T]he attendance," The Times announced in advance of the show, in the paper's March 28, 1877 edition, "promises to be very select."

That hoity-toity image for the world's most famous dog show may, for some, linger nearly a century-and-a-half later, bolstered by perfectly coiffed poodles performing for tuxedoed judges. But the 145th running of the Westminster show, which begins June 11, is a good bit more than a finely brushed-out coat on a carefully controlled purebred.


Certainly, meticulously bred dogs, often outrageously groomed, are still the show's centerpiece. Beyond that, though, Westminster is an unabashed love-in for all dogs, from the lovable mixed breed to the newest breeds just introduced this year. From the prancing show dog performing for a worldwide audience to that rescue mutt taking up residence on your living room sofa, gnawing on the remains of what were once your favorite pair of flip-flops.

"Westminster is a celebration of dogs, and it's a celebration of companionship. That's something that we have always strived to promote," says Gail Miller Bisher, the director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club, the world's oldest group dedicated to the sport of showing purebred dogs.

"If you ever come to the dog show, we're one of the few benched shows still in existence, and that just means that all the dogs have to stay at the show all day. They're categorized, alphabetically, so if you want to see all the Afghans, they're all together in one area. All the beagles are together. The whole purpose of that is because we are a public education event. It is about educating the public and making sure they learn about the breed before you bring a dog into your home."

The Westminster show will be vastly different this year, due to the remnants of the coronavirus pandemic. But one important aspect will never change: It's still all about the dogs.

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Addie, a Komondor dog, is in the working group at the 144th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.


From Midtown Manhattan to Tarrytown, New York

For the first time in its 145-year history, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will not be held in Manhattan in 2021. Because of the early planning needed to put on a show of this size, and the uncertainty of where the world would be, pandemic-wise, organizers months ago opted to move the show 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of the city, to Tarrytown, New York, and to the 67-acre (27-hectare) Lyndhurst estate. What's more, the show will be without any human spectators.

Westminster, the show, has been through a lot in the century-plus of its existence. Yet it has endured, through the 1918 pandemic, two World Wars and several other threats, both large and small. It was shortened to two days during World War II, and in 1946, because of a tugboat strike in the city, the show was completed in just one day. Last February — just before the COVID struck — the Westminster Kennel Club held its 100th straight show at a Madison Square Garden venue.


Organizers discussed all sorts of scenarios for the 145th showing. Delay it until fall? Online only? Cancel it for the first time ever? Moving to Lyndhurst, a National Trust Historic Site on the Hudson River, in a controlled setting that still would allow for television coverage, won the day. It's the first time, too, that the competition will be held in the month of June.

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
The Masters Agility Championship is a fan favorite and all dogs are welcome to compete. The competition kicks off the 145th Westminster Dog Show June 11.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images


A Shortened Westminster Weekend

In non-pandemic times, the show normally takes place over a week. In 2021, it's an elongated weekend.

Some 2,500 dogs are entered in the show this year. The festivities begin Friday, June 11, with a fan favorite, the Masters Agility Championship, which is open to all dogs, including All-American (non-purebred) types. Some 350 dogs will tackle an obstacle course in the timed event. From the WKC site:


Each dog will compete in two qualifying rounds consisting of a Standard Agility course and a Jumpers with Weaves course. The 10 dogs with the highest combined scores from each height class will move on to the "Championship Round" consisting of a total of 50 dogs.

"We always have a large entry of mixed breed in agility, and then our Masters Obedience Championship is also open to mixed breeds," Bisher says. "Many people that show dogs today still have mixed breeds, too. They're dog lovers. If you're going to put all your extra time, money and energy into traveling around the country showing dogs, you clearly love dogs."

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Several immaculate bichon frise compete in their group at the 144th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.


How the Westminster Show Works

The main event — the 145th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show — is the judging of 209 breeds (and several different varieties of certain breeds) in seven distinct groups. On Saturday, the first four of the seven groups are judged; the hound, toy, non-sporting and herding groups. The final three groups (sporting, working and terrier) are judged Sunday.

Dogs are judged by how closely they conform to their breed's "standards," which are the American Kennel Club-defined ideal features for that breed. The standards cover how the dogs should look, move and their temperament.


Take a longhaired dachshund — one of three varieties of the dachshund breed (including smooth and wirehaired) in the hound group — for an example. To be judged well, a longhaired dachshund must meet appearance criteria like:

The trunk is long and fully muscled. When viewed in profile, the back lies in the straightest possible line between the withers and the short, very slightly arched loin.

And ...

Short hair on the ear is not desirable. Too profuse a coat which masks type, equally long hair over the whole body, a curly coat, or a pronounced parting on the back are faults.

Movement is judged on criteria such as:

Viewed from the front, the legs do not move in exact parallel planes, but incline slightly inward.

And among the requirements for temperament:

The dachshund is clever, lively and courageous to the point of rashness, persevering in above- and below-ground work, with all the senses well-developed. Any display of shyness is a serious fault.

Each dog is judged first among others in the breed (dachshunds against dachshunds), then against members of its group (the hound group includes 35 breeds and varieties, from Afghans to dachshunds to whippets).

If judged best of breed, and then best of group, the dog competes against the winner of the six other groups for Best in Show, Westminster's top prize. That's announced Sunday night.

Here are the breeds that have the most Westminster wins in each group:

  • Hounds: greyhound
  • Toy: Pekingese
  • Non-sporting: standard poodle
  • Herding: German shepherd
  • Sporting: English springer spaniel
  • Working: boxer
  • Terrier: wire fox terrier

In the 144 years of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a dog from the terrier group has won Best in Show a record 47 times. The wire fox terrier has won 15 Best in Show awards, the most by any breed.

The show is clearly not a popularity contest. The most popular dog in America, according to the AKC, is the Labrador retriever (a member of the sporting group), but a Lab has never won Best in Show at Westminster.

The reigning Westminster Best in Show winner is a black standard poodle whose official name is "GCHP CH Stone Run Afternoon Tea." She is otherwise known as "Siba."

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Golden retriever Daniel seems super happy about winning the sporting group at the 144th Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images