For the past 137 years, dogs have competed for the title "Best in Show" at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.
"Westminster" as it is often called by those familiar with the show, is America's second-longest continuously held sporting event, behind only the Kentucky Derby. Not even the blizzard of 2013 could stop the dog show!
Dogs as "living, breathing history"
A Chihuahua breeder once explained to me that she views her dogs as " . . . feeling, thinking, living representations of history," which require the utmost care and respect. She said that, in her eyes, they embody the time period in which the breed was developed, the job they were intended to perform and the culture that created them. And, at the same time, she believes that each individual dog deserves to live an excellent life as the dog that he or she is.
Her description of what breeding Chihuahuas means to her deepened my appreciation of these little dogs and of what the breeding of purebred dogs is about when it is done well. First and foremost is the health and welfare of the dogs. Woven throughout the process is the sense of tradition and history that the breeder described.
The point of a conformation dog show is to find the one dog who exemplifies its breed standard most closely, more closely than any other dog in the show. Banana Joe won Best in Show because his cute little body conformed to his breed standard more closely than 2,720 other dogs' bodies did to theirs!
Needless to say, for anyone who values breed standards as having any importance at all or for a person who simply likes to admire beautiful dogs in motion in an elegant setting, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is an extremely exciting event.
The tradition of benching at the dog show
The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is one of the few benched dog shows in this country. Originally, most shows were "benched" in some way. This means that dogs entered in the show were required to be in assigned areas (on benches) at all times when not being judged in the ring. This allows for the public to see the dogs up close, to meet their owners, handlers, breeders and other spectators. The objective is for the dog show to serve as an educational experience for all attending.
There are pros and cons to benched shows. Many dogs enjoy meeting and greeting people. In fact, some of the dogs could not seem to get enough attention! Other dogs tire more easily and prefer to be allowed to sleep, undisturbed, in their crate on their bench. The same goes for their human companions. Some people are very social; others are not.
Whatever one thinks about the experience and practical demands of benching, it is a long standing tradition of Westminster.
The most coveted seats in dogdom
For dog fanciers, a ringside seat at Westminster is like . . . well, like nothing else! Being close to the action permits one to see the dog move, to observe its facial expressions, to watch the judge feel the dog and to experience the show more "naturally," since most dog shows are small and enable spectators to sit at ringside without the need for binoculars.
Most of these seats are spoken for before tickets even go on sale and, of course, the ringside seats are highly prized. The Tuesday night seats are the most precious, since that is the night that the Best in Show title is awarded.
So how is it that ringside seats seem to be gone even before other seats begin to be sold? The ringside seating system works like this: when a person has purchased a ringside ticket once, an invitation to do so again, for the same exact seat, is sent to one's home by the Kennel Club in October of the following year. It is like belonging to a very special club.
Only if one declines the invitation to purchase that seat by a specified date in December is the seat offered for sale to someone else.
If one wants to invite a friend to the show the next year, one must hope that that one's seat can be changed to a location where there are two seats together (and in doing so, one may never sit in the original spot behind the Yorkshire Terriers again!) or that the seat next to yours will be passed over by the person who sat there last year. As these things go, it is truly a nail biter.
If you want a ringside seat and have not had one before, keep an eye on the Westminster Kennel Club website or call the Kennel Club office beginning in October. You will likely be asked to call again in December but it does not hurt to try to be placed on a waiting list if one is being kept.
Westminster Kennel Club Tickets
Director of Operations
Tuxedos and evening gowns
When one is a judge or an an exhibitor at Westminster and when one attends the evening program (and sometimes the daytime program as well,) one dresses for the occasion. This means tuxedos and evening gowns or at least an outfit that one would wear to a Broadway show.
As a dog trainer, I absolutely love this. The dogs are so well behaved and spotlessly clean that worrying about one's clothes around them does not even bear mentioning. There is something about honoring dogs and their history with formal dress that I think is just perfect. I mentioned to this to someone and was told about the Morris and Essex dog show in New Jersey, which is an elegant outdoor show.
Which tradition is your favorite at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show? Send us your comments (below.)
Read more about the history of the Westminster Kennel Club.
To learn about each dog breed, its history, traditions and the American Kennel Club standard for each, visit www.akc.org.
Here are some ways that kids can get involved with dogs:
American Kennel Club Junior Showmanship: Show your pet dog in the ring!
Dog Writers Association of America Junior Writers Award: Write about dogs!
Free posters about dogs and dog safety: Show your parents and teachers!
I want to send a special thank you to Westminster's official photographers, Jack Grassa and Mary Bloom, for permitting the use of their photographs for the slide show which accompanies this article.