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.
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.
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:
"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."
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:
Movement is judged on criteria such as:
And among the requirements for temperament:
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."