Westminster watch

Roo!, a Husky mix, won the 24″ Class at the first annual Westminster Agility Championship on February 8 in New York.

Whether Westminster is must-see TV for you, you’re going to be there in person, or you’re completely new to what is arguably the most famous dog show in the world, we’re here to give you the scoop on the country’s second longest running sporting event, the 138th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, courtesy of some veteran Westminster watchers, including yours truly.

Westminster is often where newly recognized breeds make their debut. Three new breeds are eligible to compete for the first time this year: the Chinook, the Portuguese Podengo Pequeno, and the Rat Terrier.

Returning for a second shot at the brass ring is Swagger (CH Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect), the popular Old English Sheepdog who took Reserve Best in Show last year.

And for the first time, the Westminster show included an agility competition that featured both pure- and (gasp!) mixed-breed dogs. The Masters Agility Championship at Westminster took place on February 8. Among the winners was Roo!, a Husky mix who won the 24″ class (with a time of 30.28), and was also awarded the title of Best All-American (mixed breed).

So, why is Westminster so popular?

Allan Reznik of Eureka Springs, Ark., is editor-in-chief of Dogs in Review, editor-at-large for Dog Fancy, and a breeder-exhibitor of Afghan Hounds and Tibetan Spaniels. He’s been coming to Westminster for more than 40 years. The experience is like no other, he says.

“What makes Westminster so exciting is that it is one of the few shows where all of the top dogs from around the country in every breed compete head to head in the same ring,” Reznik says. “It is wonderful to see them all at the same time and have the opportunity to compare them.

“Westminster is also famous for the surprises that happen. Despite all the two- and four-legged VIPs competing, sometimes an unheard-of ‘Cinderella’ dog and his equally anonymous owner can show like a million bucks to catch the judge’s eye.”

Everyone knows the voice of Westminster. David Frei has co-hosted the live Westminster coverage from Madison Square Garden for 25 consecutive years, so he’s seen it all. One of the most common questions he hears is why popular breeds such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers have never fetched a Best in Show title.

Turns out Terriers take home the title most often, and in general have won Best in Show 45 times. Wire Fox Terriers in particular are the winningest breed, with 13 Bests in Show, followed by Scotties with eight wins. Frei attributes that top-dog status to Terrier temperament.

“I think it’s just the nature of being a terrier. They were bred to look for trouble all the time, and they’re still looking for trouble in the show ring, whether it’s trouble that they need to defend everybody against or just to create trouble on their own. That puts them on their toes all the time, and I think that gives them a little bit of an edge in terms of their showing.”

Frei notes Westminster Kennel Club has only awarded a Best in Show title since 1907, and one year no title was awarded. With 190 different dog breeds and varieties, even if each breed won only once, it’s mathematically impossible for all of them to have had a turn as a winner.

And, of course, Westminster isn’t a popularity contest (although Martha Stewart’s Chow nabbing Best of Breed in 2012 is debatable). The judges are looking at each dog to see how well he matches up to the breed standard, a written description of the ideal dog. Sari Brewster Tietjen of Rhinebeck, N.Y., judged Best in Show in 2009 and selected Sussex Spaniel CH Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee.

“Judges will know the standard by heart and mentally measure a dog against the standard and then against other dogs in the ring to see which one comes closest to being ideal,” Tietjen says. “No dog is ideal, so the decision will necessarily be an objective one based on how an individual weighs the various merits of a dog and then against the others.”

Is the fix ever in? That’s a popular rumor every year: A particular dog won because that was the judge’s breed, they had a well-known handler, or the owner or breeder was being honored for some reason. That’s not very realistic thinking, says breeder and exhibitor Susan LaCroix Hamil of Laguna Beach, Calif., who has had one Bloodhound make it all the way to the Best in Show group, plus a number of Hound Group placements and breed wins and whose current Bloodhound Kiss (GCH Quiet Creek’s Kiss and Tell) has won the breed twice at Westminster.

“High-profile, top-winning dogs have not even gotten out of the breed sometimes. Or if they make it to the Group level, they don’t make it to the Best in Show ring,” Hamil says. “People like to imagine something like that, but when you get three different judges involved — at the breed level, the Group level, and Best in Show — to think that you could somehow exert influence on three people on one day is, well, good luck with that.”

The excitement in the ring, the crowds, and the applause are challenging to the dogs, the handlers, and the judge.

“It is necessary to block all that out and concentrate on the task at hand and keep telling yourself that it is just like any other dog show,” Tietjen says. “Of course, it is not, and deep down inside you know you are experiencing the thrill of a lifetime.”

And remember, Frei says: the real Best in Show dog is the one sitting next to you on your couch at home.

Westminster is televised live:
Monday, February 10: CNBC, 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. EST.
Tuesday, February 11: USA Network, 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. EST (5 p.m. to 8 p.m. PST.

Of course, if you are completely turned off by Westminster, you could watch the hilarious spoof, Best in Show (2000).