There’s so much to do and see at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show that even longtime attendees might not be aware of everything that’s going on. There are the daytime sessions at Piers 92 and 94, competitions in agility and obedience, the very popular AKC Meet the Breeds, and of course, the big events at Madison Square Garden. But behind the scenes, in the background and in the history of the show, are rich little tidbits you might not know.
1. The name "Westminster" has nothing to do with England. Around 1876, a group of "sporting gentlemen" would gather at the bar of the Westminster Hotel to talk about hunting and boast about their hunting dogs. One thing led to another, and the group decided it needed a real venue to compare hounds -- a dog show in Manhattan. In 1877, they named themselves the Westminster Kennel Club, after their favorite bar, and hosted the First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs. It was held at a venue, Gilmore’s Garden, that would later come to be known as Madison Square Garden.
2. Westminster is the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the country, second only to the Kentucky Derby. The very first show featured more than 1,200 canine competitors, and Westminster has gained popularity since then. Along with those who attend in person, millions can watch it live on television. Currently, nearly 3,000 compete for the Westminster Best in Show title.
3. All the dogs and their people have to stay somewhere. So, where is everyone when they’re not at the show? The most popular hotel for participants and their humans is the Hotel Pennsylvania. The hotel is more than dog friendly; it caters to the participants with facilities that include a doggy spa with bathing tubs, an exercise area, grooming area, and a potty area. The hotel even has a full-time concierge for the show crowd.
4. Where are the dogs when they’re not in the ring? Westminster is a benched show, which means that when the dogs and their teams are not competing, they’re required to stay in their assigned benching area. There, dog lovers can see the dogs and all the attendant activity. The only exception is when the dogs are being prepared for showing or being transported to and from the benching area. That’s a lot of downtime for dogs and their teams, and some observers have likened hanging out in the benching area to a tailgate party.
5. Grooming is serious business. It can take several hours to groom some breeds for the show ring and a lot of work. For those who think their dog’s bath time is a chore, imagine four-to-five hours, multiple brushes, and more hair products than most humans have. Speaking of humans, some handlers use high-end products that you might find in a salon on their dogs: brand name shampoos and conditioners, texturizing sprays, mousse, hairspray, rollers, flat irons, and blow dryers all contribute to show ring perfection.
6. Handlers do much more than trot dogs around the ring. In fact, they play a vital role in a dog’s success or loss. The handler has a strong bond with the dog he or she works with, which helps the dog feel confident, attentive, and comfortable in the ring. The handler is intimately familiar with the breed’s proper stance, posture, and gait and can make subtle adjustments with expert leash handling and well-timed treats. All of this takes practice, practice, and more practice to work out leash handling, speed, and positioning.
7. The handler is also the keeper of the treats — really good treats. To have treats easily available, a handler will keep them in a pocket, even in her bra. And yes, you did just see a handler take a treat out his own mouth to give to the dog. This isn’t as weird as it seems, because the treats are things like hot dogs, cheese, cooked chicken, or steak. The theory is that by keeping treats in his mouth, the handler is focusing the dog’s attention on his face, or the judge’s face. An interesting anecdotal side note: many, if not most of the dogs, drink bottled water while on the road for shows to avoid any tummy upsets from local water.
8. With all of the time, expense, and work that go into showing a dog, there must be big prize money, right? Actually, no. At the first show, all proceeds from one day went to establishing a shelter for disabled and stray dogs. Since then, Westminster has contributed millions of dollars to various rescue, health, and training organizations, as well as to community outreach organizations. But, while there is no actual monetary prize, breeders will tell you that the offspring of champions can bring in serious money.
9. Show dogs are still real dogs. They’re beloved pets that share in everyday family life, much like any of our dogs do. The may live with kids or other pets, sleep in the bed, track muddy paws through the kitchen, play catch in the backyard, and generally lead the lives of well-loved, happy pets.
The 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will be held Feb. 12 and 13 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.