Dog Show 101: What’s What at the Westminster Kennel Club

Dog Show 101: What’s What at the Westminster Kennel Club
Shar peis stand in the Breed Showcase area during the 148th Westminster Kennel Club Dog show at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on May 11, 2024. (Julia Nikhinson/AP Photo)

NEW YORK—To the casual viewer, competing at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show might look pretty simple: Get a dog. Groom it. Pose it. Lead it around a ring.

Here are the ins and outs of Westminster, which started Saturday with an agility competition at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York:

How Many Dogs?

Over 2,500 dogs from 200 different breeds and varieties, which are subsets of breeds, signed up to try for the best in show trophy to be awarded Tuesday night.

Hailing from every U.S. state and countries from Chile to Thailand, the lineup includes such familiar breeds as French bulldogs and Labrador retrievers, rarities such as Azawakhs and Norwegian lundehunds and a newcomer, the Lancashire heeler. Chihuahuas are this year’s best-represented breed, with 49 entered.

Two of last year’s seven semifinalists are expected back: Trouble, an American Staffordshire terrier, and Monty, a giant schnauzer, who is currently the nation’s top-ranked dog in The Canine Chronicle magazine’s stats.

Also entered are Comet, a Shih Tzu who won the huge American Kennel Club National Championship show in December, and Stache, a Sealyham terrier who won the National Dog Show that was televised on Thanksgiving.

Then there’s Zaida, an Afghan hound fresh off a win at last month’s World Dog Show in Croatia. Other big-winning competitors include a German shepherd named Mercedes and an otterhound called Melody.

Westminster’s agility and obedience contests Saturday involved a few hundred more dogs, including some mixed-breed ones.

How Do Dogs Get Into the Show?

All the dogs are champions, meaning they have racked up a certain amount of points in the sport’s complicated system.

The process of becoming a show dog begins when breeders determine which puppies are physically and temperamentally suited for what’s known as “conformation” competition.

Some owners show their own dogs. Other canines have professional handlers who crisscross the country to compete most weekends. They might gather intel about rivals’ schedules and ponder judges’ past picks. Some owners even run full-page ads in canine publications to salute and promote their animals.

NTD Photo
A dog stands in the Breed Showcase area at the 148th Westminster Kennel Club Dog show at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on May 11, 2024. (Julia Nikhinson/AP Photo)

How Does Dog Showing Work?

“Conformation” dogs first face off against others of their breed, which sometimes can include dozens of others, sometimes few or even none. Each breed’s winner moves on to a semifinal round of judging against others in a group of dozens of breeds. In the final round, the seven group winners compete for best in show.

Judges decide which dog best matches the ideal, or “standard,” for its breed. For example, a herding dog might need proportions allowing for tight turns, while some hounds might require thick paw pads for rough terrain.

Judges do hands-on examinations and watch the dogs in motion. Distinctions can be very subtle. Show folk often say victory can go to “the dog on the day,” meaning the one that has the performance of a lifetime.

“At Westminster, all the great dogs are in the same place for one of the only times this year,” said dog expert David Frei, who hosted the Westminster telecast for decades. “Everybody wants to be there, and you’re going to have to go head-to-head with your greatest competition.”

What Do Winners Get? What Breeds Have Won, or Not?

Bragging rights and trophies are at stake. There are no cash prizes, though the agility and obedience winners each get to direct a $5,000 Westminster donation to a training club or to the American Kennel Club Humane Fund.

Wire fox terriers have scampered away with the top prize 15 times, most recently in 2019. Poodles of various sizes have won 10 times.

Many breeds have yet to triumph, including such favorites as the Labrador retriever. But a petit basset griffon Vendéen took best in show for the first time last year, as did a bloodhound in 2022.

All winners in the recently added agility and obedience contests also have been purebreds. But there is a special agility prize every year for the top mix, called an “all American dog” in show parlance.

Protests from Animal Rights Activists

Westminster has long faced protests from animal rights activists who view the competition as a deplorable canine beauty contest fueling faddish puppy buying and reckless breeding. The club routinely counters that it celebrates all dogs while highlighting “preservation” of breeds with particular traits.

But this year’s event comes as the U.S. dog show world faces an unexpected and searing reckoning.

Dr. Adam Stafford King, a suburban Chicago veterinarian and Havanese breeder who was set to judge some toy breeds at Westminster, was arrested in March on federal charges of distributing child sexual abuse photos and videos to an online contact. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail.

His attorney, Jonathan Bedi, didn’t respond to an inquiry from The Associated Press but told Chicago media in April that Dr. King has been wrongly accused.

Shortly after Dr. King’s arrest, the American Kennel Club (AKC), which is essentially the governing body for Westminster and thousands of other U.S. dog competitions, revoked his judging privileges and his Westminster appointment was scrapped.

While Dr. King’s alleged crimes didn’t occur at dog shows, the case helped reveal discussions that had percolated quietly for years about whether the AKC has done enough to protect children who compete and apprentice as handlers. A Business Insider investigation in April found four show-world professionals have been convicted since 2008 of crimes against children, some of them at dog events.

The AKC began requiring its field representatives and registered handlers to complete an abuse prevention program in 2021. The club recently switched to a different program and last month extended the requirement to judges, handlers and some others, covering about 20,000 people, spokesperson Brandi Hunter Munden said.

On Thursday, the club approved a policy that could make it easier to sever ties with people, particularly over conduct outside dog shows. The policy calls for discipline, which can include lifetime suspension, for anyone convicted of a crime or found to have engaged in sex offenses, harassment or any conduct endangering someone else’s well-being or that undermines the club, among other misdeeds.

“Our goal is not just to protect the youth in our sport, it’s to protect every individual,” she said. “We want this sport to be safe, inclusive, and family-friendly.”

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