Bulldog Caleb mugs for the camera during a news conference ahead of the 135th Annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show. The dog show runs Feb. 14-15 at Madison Square Garden in New York. AP Photo
Valentines Day this year brings one of my favorite rites of the new year. The 135th Westminster Dog Show takes place on Monday and Tuesday, with group judging airing on television both nights, and minute-by-minute updates online. Even if you're not into dog shows per se, and your family pet is more frazzled than frou frou, here are 7 reasons why you'll still have a blast following Westminster.
1) It's rich and exclusive, but the "little guy" still has a chance
Westminster is the premier dog event in America, and it takes a good dog, a savvy handler, and a doggie bag full of money to do well. To compete at Westminster, a dog must be an American Kennel Club champion, which means that the animal has earned 15 championship points under three different judges, with two major wins of 3 to 5 points. Point value is determined by number of dogs entered in any particular show. Some of the dogs that will show at Westminster are at the top of their breeds, with multiple Best of Breed wins and some multiple Best in Show wins. Some of their owners have spent literally thousands, and some hundreds of thousands, of dollars to campaign their dogs - including entry fees, travel, professional handlers and groomers, and advertising in slick dog breed magazines.
However, there are plenty of handlers at Westminster who will have bred, trained, groomed and shown their own dogs, and sacrificed to make it to the big time. You'll see a few of these successful "owner/handlers" in the big group competitions, and you never know, the chance for a big upset is always there!
2) It's a nailbiter from the get-go
Westminster has a limit of 2,500 entries. The entry form is a test in itself, because if it's not filled out perfectly, out it goes. The club accepts entries only by first class mail - no overnights, Fed Ex, computer or any other fast tracking allowed. Westminster invites the top five dogs in each breed to pre-enter, but the rest are on their own. According to Communications Director David Frei, who I called to ask about this (never mind that I was speechless when he actually answered the phone on the first ring), all the entries sit in the mailbox until the magic closing date of Dec. 3. Then the officials open them one-by-one, until the limit of 2,500 dogs is reached.
The entry fee is $75, and no matter the amount of entries in a breed, only one will win Best of Breed, and go on to group competition. Just for fun, watch the owners' faces as the camera pans on them during competition. I'm betting they have a good supply of antacids with them.
3) You'll see some dogs you didn't know existed, and some you'll swear are pretty strange, indeed
The American Kennel Club has admitted a few new breeds this year, and you'll see some of them at Westminster. They include the Boykin Spaniel, a gundog that is South Carolina's official state dog; Bluetick and Redbone Coonhounds, which pretty self explanatory; Cane Corso, a large and imposing dog used to guard farms and livestock, and hunt; Leonberger, a big, lovable, hairy beast that originated as a German farm dog; and the Icelandic Sheepdog, a herding dog that dates back to the first Viking settlers.
According to the official Westminster website, New York has the most entries this year with 255, followed by the other side of the country - California has 234. Entries have come from every state except North Dakota, (they're probably still buried in snow). The largest entries are Rhodesian Ridgebacks with 56, Golden Retrievers with 46, and French Bulldogs with 44.
4) You'll get a glimpse of some of the most self-assured and highly venerated people in the country - dog show judges
Thirty-two judges from 15 states and three foreign countries will pick the winners at Westminster this year, and Mr. Paolo Dondina of Monterchi, Italy will choose this year's Best in Show. One observation from my personal dog show experiences - handlers treat judges like little gods, and believe me, when you're in the ring, the slightest thing can make or break your win. In AKC shows, the judge has about 2 minutes to take in how you and your dog work together, how the dog moves, and how its structure meets the breed standard. Everything, and I mean everything, has to be perfect in that 2 minutes. If the judge glances at you, you want your dog to be perfectly "stacked," or standing at attention, and please, when he or she "sends you around," you pray that your dog doesn't break into a run instead of that perfect show gait. The very best handlers know how to highlight their dogs' good points and minimize the faults. And, those same handlers make it a lifetime pursuit to know each judge and their preferences better than they know their own family members.
5) You never know what might happen, even on National TV
Even at the pinnacle, at Westminster, on TV no less, the embarrassing can, and does happen. I cringed right along with the owner one year as the cameras and commentators dissected the hows and whys of a dog that had an unfortunate bout of "the squirts" in the group ring. All the travel, pressure, stress, and excitement can get to them, too.
The show is one of the few "benched" events left in the country, which means the dog is available in a viewing area for the entire show, so the public can walk through and see them. It's stressful for dogs and owners alike, so it requires a dog that can take a lot of public interaction.
Last year, PETA staged a protest in the Best in Show ring, and were quickly ushered offstage, and TV. They'd rather none of us owned dogs, let alone showed them. Never mind that these are some of the most pampered animals on the planet - one poodle will reportedly travel to the show this year with her owners in a private jet, accompanied by her owners, professional handler and personal hairstylist.
6) You can test your canine knowledge and pick your favorites, and diss the judges if you don't like their picks
Once the judges pick the Best of Breed winners from the 179 breeds and varieties that are entered this year, another set of judges will pick the best of 7 groups - Toy, Hound, Herding, Working, Sporting, Non-Sporting and Terriers. Then, only 7 dogs will advance to Best in Show competition at the end of the second night of judging. Those 7 dogs will be the cream of the crop, so what will set that one dog, destined to be instantly famous, apart? Think you can pick it before the judge does?
Look for the dog that plays the crowd, and the judge. Many judges will tell you that they keep an eye out for the dog that "asks" for the win. So, you hope that your favorite dog is "on" that night, and that he is always looking perfect when the judge glances his way. Handlers will pray they don't trip over the dog or their pants or skirt, and, as mentioned earlier, Fido doesn't suffer a moment of dispepsia and urp, or worse, on national TV.
7) It's an opportunity for a party
Super Bowl fans don't have anything on dog show folks. Throughout the Quad Cities, the dog show crowd will be divvying up the chips and dip for the humans, and the biscuits for the dogs, before sitting down to view the big show. Just like the armchair quarterbacks of the Super Bowl, you can bet there will be plenty of ringside judging going on as Westminster 2011 commences.
For everything you could possibly ever want to know about Westminster, including some cool old videos and the television schedule, check out the website at www.westminsterkennelclub.org.
I have a friend from Chino Valley who is attending Westminster this year, and her traveling companion is a friend of a former Westminster board member. They'll be staying in the extra room in his suite, sitting in his "box" at the show, and attending his personal party. My friend has never been to New York before, let alone Westminster, and she promises to bring lots of good memories and photos back from her adventure. So stay tuned next week and I'll have a report for you.