The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show might seem simple to the casual observer: Just get a dog. Groom it. Pose it. It can be led around a circle.
There's more to it than just getting there and exhibiting at the United States' most prestigious dog event, which is now in its 14th year.
Here are some details about the show that starts on Saturday at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, New York.
How many dogs compete?
The best-in-show trophy will be awarded on Tuesday night. Variety is a subset of a breed. (Think of smooth, longhaired, and wirehaired Dachshunds.
The contestants hail from 13 countries and 49 states, ranging from giant Great Danes to tiny Chihuahuas. There are familiar breeds such as Labrador retrievers and rare ones like the sloughi. A newcomer is the bracco Italiano. The Saturday agility and obedience competitions involve several hundred dogs, some of which are mixed breeds.
How do dogs get into the show?
All of the dogs have won a certain number of previous wins and points. Several top dogs are invited to compete, but all dogs can participate.
Breeders determine which puppies from a litter possess the physical attributes and dispositions to excel in a competition known as "conformation".
Some dogs end up at Westminster because their owners learned how to handle a dog that was unexpectedly a high-quality show dog. Some canine contestants travel across the country, either by air or road, with professional handlers. Their strategy may include gathering information about the schedules of rivals, considering past judges' picks, and running ads that celebrate their accomplishments and raise the profile of the animal. It's not called 'campaigning for a dog' without a reason!
What's a dog show doing at a tennis facility?
Westminster has a new home. For decades, it was held in Madison Square Garden. In the last two years, the pandemic forced the move of Westminster to an outdoor venue in Tarrytown, New York. The organizers were eager to return to New York City for this year's event. In the midst of construction plans for a pier that once housed the early rounds of the show, organizers partnered with the U.S. Open Tennis tournament's Flushing Meadows base. Westminster President Donald Sturz says that the event is a "classic dog show in a classic venue".
How does it work?
"Conformation" dogs are first pitted against other breeds of the same type - sometimes there can be dozens, but sometimes only a few or none. The winner of each breed moves on to the semifinal round, where they are judged against other dogs in their 'group', such as hounds or herding canines. The seven group winners will compete in the final round for the title of best in show.
What do judges look for?
The task is to determine which dog matches the breed standard, or ideal.
The standard can be derived from a breed's original purpose and could include anything from the teeth to the tail to temperament. A hound designed to hunt on rough terrain may be required to possess thick paw pads. A herding breed might require proportions to allow for tight, quick turns.
The judges examine the dogs physically and observe them in action, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. In the finals in particular, subtle distinctions are made. The show folk say that the winner can be "the dog of the day" -- or, as we might say, just the one who brings it.
What breeds have won the most?
Wire Fox Terriers have won the top prize fifteen times in records dating back to 1907; most recently, they did so in 2019. Scottish terriers have won five or more awards, as well as English springer spaniels and standard poodles.
Even popular breeds like the Labrador Retriever have not yet won. Winless breeds shouldn't give up hope: a bloodhound won best in show last year for the first ever time.
Westminster's agility competitions and obedience competitions are relatively new. They were only added in the last decade. Almost all agility titles have been won by border collies and almost all obedience titles by Labs. One Lab named Heart won five consecutive titles.
Westminster says there were a few mixed breeds at early shows. However, the Best in Show prize was only awarded to purebreds until 1907. Pedigreed dogs have also won all agility and obedience tests to date. But there is a prize each year for the best mix, or "all American dog" in show parlance.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is irritated by the focus on purebreds. They protest Westminster every year as a repugnant canine pageant. The kennel says that it celebrates dogs of all breeds, while also highlighting the 'preservation-breeding' of those who have acquired skills and traits over many generations.
What do winners get?
Trophies and bragging rights. No cash prizes are awarded, but the agility and obedience champions each receive a $5,000 Westminster donation that can be directed to either a training club of the American Kennel Club Humane Fund.
What's the point?
Participants say that they enjoy showcasing dogs and breeds, especially those that are not seen by many people. Participants also appreciate the friendships formed at dog shows, which bring together dog lovers from all over.
David Frei, the Westminster telecast's host for more than two decades, says, "We can all talk dogs." "That's what makes the sport so beautiful, and dogs are just as beautiful."