From herding to hounds, from toys to terriers, it is one of the biggest weeks on the calendar for dog fanatics and observers alike, all tuning in to see who will win the coveted Best in Show. The favorite? The underdog? Or some pup in between?
Much like the Kentucky Derby, the WKC Dog Show embodies a rich history brimming with interesting characters (human and canine alike!). Only two years separate the inaugural editions of these prestigious events, with the first running of the Kentucky Derby in 1875 and the first WKC Dog Show in 1877.
The Westminster Kennel Club received its name from the former Westminster Hotel – a beloved hot spot attracting New York City’s wealthy and benevolent sportsmen, who would frequently gather for scotch and cigars to share their embellished shooting accomplishments. Conversations often involved gloating about their dog’s abilities – consequently, the Westminster Kennel Club was formed. Under the WKC’s guidance, The First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs was staged in 1877 at Gilmore’s Garden, now known as Madison Square Garden – creating an event for the members to compare their dogs away from the field. The first show drew in 1,201 entries comprised of 35 breeds and was extended from three days to four days due to its extreme popularity.
Rules for entry into the WKC Dog Show in the early days were not mandated or governed – if it was canine, it was eligible. In the Miscellaneous Class at the debut show, a dog named Nellie, who was born with only two legs, and another
dog described as a “cross between a St. Bernard and Russian Setter” were presented. The lack of rules and regulations or pedigree database left judging open to interpretation… and unfortunately, to fraud. Dog show records from the early years indicated there was a propensity for chicanery among exhibitors and reports of dishonest judges. In 1884, proliferating conditions prompted a group of twelve gentlemen fanciers to call a meeting at the Philadelphia Kennel Club – each of the twelve members represented their respective dog club if their club had recently hosted a benched dog show or had run field trials. As a result, The National Bench Association, now known as American Kennel Club (AKC), was born. The first order of business – create a stud book that requires pedigree registration and certification. Today the AKC remains the governing body of dog shows and is the largest purebred dog registry in the world, overseeing 22,000 dog events per year.
THERE’S NO DENYING THE LOVE AND DEVOTION WHEN DOGS AND PEOPLE COMPETE TOGETHER.Gail Miller Bisher
This year, Westminster celebrated their 141st consecutive dog show – an extraordinary accomplishment. “We’ve had a show every year since 1877. It’s incredible to be part of New York City’s history– it just adds to the richness of the event,” stated Gail Miller Bisher, Director of Communications for Westminster Kennel Club. “We’re the oldest tenant of Madison Square Garden. Westminster dog shows have been in all four locations and variations of the Garden, even before it was called Madison Square Garden. These different historical aspects really add to the essence of our events.
Bisher’s background in the dog show world goes back to her early childhood. Her mother was a breeder and a judge and was very active in dog clubs. “I grew up in the sport – as many people do – it’s definitely a family sport with several generations of exhibitors at our show. I started in the sport because I was going to shows as a youngster with my parents, and of course I love dogs so that was easy,” laughed Bisher. “I started showing when I was eight or nine. Even then I knew Westminster was the most prestigious event, the pinnacle of our sport – it is where all the top dogs converge to be part of this historical show.”
Like the Super Bowl and World Series, the road to Westminster takes perseverance, stamina and a winning record. “We have a limited entry, which means we can only accept 2,800 dogs for the dog show,” Bisher continued. “Dogs who have achieved championship status – defeated a certain number of dogs and accumulated 15 points – or a major win towards championship status are eligible to enter on a first come, first serve basis, while the top five dogs in each breed and dogs that have won their National Specialty are guaranteed entry. The National Specialty winners are dogs that have won their breed clubs’ national show. For example, the Dalmatian Club of America will host an annual event where hundreds of Dalmatians are the only breed shown – and whoever wins is automatically invited.”
The crowd-pleasing agility competition is available to every registered breed as well as the “All-American Dog” (mixed breeds). Dogs are required to complete the same courses and obstacles, but there are
variances in jump height based on the dog’s size measured from the ground to the top of their withers (shoulders). A tiny Yorkshire Terrier measuring below 11 inches is required to jump at least eight inches while larger breeds may be required to jump up to 24 inches. Dogs weave, seesaw, jump and run against the clock, aiming to complete all obstacles flawlessly – or in record time! – for an action-packed event that is fascinating to spectators of all ages. “There is a lot of practice and teamwork that goes on way before they even get to Westminster. These are Masters level dogs, so you’re going to see the top dogs across the country,” Bisher remarked. “There’s no denying the love and devotion when dogs and people compete together. The dogs will run the course and often times at the end jump into their owner’s arms because they’re so excited, happy and proud of themselves – it’s just a fun thing to watch!”
The Masters Agility Championship is held in conjunction with the AKC Meet the Breeds event which can showcase up to 200 purebred dogs. “The AKC Meet the Breeds event is about education and engagement. Families can come and see hundreds of dogs and puppies, touch and pet the dogs, learn more about them from breeders, owners and handlers… spectators can go from A to Z. So many breeds are represented, and most interesting are those they don’t get to see every day!” Bisher exclaimed. The qualities of the WKC bench show, in conjunction with the AKC Meet the Breeds event, offer those considering dog ownership an up close and personal look at what breed might best match their life. “We pride ourselves on being a bench show for the public to come and find the breed they are interested in. To talk to the people who have been breeding and owning them for many years – learn if a specific breed is the right dog for your lifestyle,” Bisher commented.
The show boasts a charitable spirit as well. The WKC donated a full day of proceeds to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) from their first show in 1877, establishing a home for stray and disabled dogs. For each of the 141 years since, the Club has continued that tradition, raising millions of dollars through multiple programs in support of shelters and homeless dogs to curtail pet overpopulation while educating the public about responsible pet ownership.
The AKC is known as the “club of clubs” – serving as the governing body of all other National Breed Clubs including the WKC, which was the first all-breed member club to join in 1884, followed by the first breed-specific (the American Fox Terrier Club) in 1886. The WKC remained the only all-breed kennel member until 1897 when Rhode Island Kennel Club joined. “They [the AKC] determines if a breed has fulfilled the requirements to become recognized and then that designation makes them eligible to enter our show [Westminster].” Bisher continued, “We call them “new” but they aren’t necessarily new breeds – they could be ancient breeds in other countries, just newly popular in the United States. This year , we had three new breeds – the American Hairless Terrier, Pumi, Sloughi, and in 2016 we had seven new breeds – the Lagotto Romagnolo, Bergamasco, Cirneco dell’Etna, Boerboel, Berger Picard, Spanish Water Dog, and Miniature American Shepherd. Some years you have many and other years you have none. It just depends on if any breed clubs have fulfilled the AKC requirements that year.”
The AKC Judges are required to pervasively study and learn each breed’s ideal and their function. “Each parent club has a written standard depicting the ideal for their breed, a blueprint, from the length of the back, height at withers, coat texture, coat color, eye shape – the standard describes all the characteristics that make up the ideal dog for that particular breed. These traits of anatomic shape, size and temperament, etc. are often connected to the breed’s original purpose,” Bisher stated. “What judges are evaluating is which dog most closely represents the breed’s written standard, so if they are judging a lineup of Beagles, they’re not comparing them to each other necessarily – they’re comparing them to the written ideal. This also happens in the Group competition – they’re not judging if the Beagle is better than the Saluki, they are evaluating if the Beagle more closely resembles its breed’s written standard more than the Saluki resembles the Saluki’s written standard.”
WESTMINSTER DOG SHOW GROUPS
Sporting: These are gun dogs that were developed to assist the hunter, and generally have high energy and stable temperaments. Pointers and Setters point and mark the game, Spaniels flush the bird, Retrievers recover the game from land or water.
Hound: Hounds were originally classified as Sporting dogs, but were assigned their own group in 1930. These dogs are hunters that bring down the game themselves, or hold it at bay until the hunter arrives, or locate the game by tracking it by scent. Sighthounds hunt by sight, Scenthounds by tracking with their superior olfactory senses.
Working: These dogs are generally intelligent and powerfully built, performing a variety of tasks, including guarding homes and livestock, serving as draft animals, and as police, military and service dogs.
Terrier: “Terrier” comes from the Latin word, terra (ground) as these determined and courageous dogs must be small enough and agile enough to “go to ground” to pursue their quarry (rats, foxes, and other
vermin). All but the Australian Terrier and the Miniature Schnauzer were developed in the United Kingdom.
Toy: Toy dogs were bred to be companions for people. They are full of life and spirit and often resemble their larger cousins (e.g., Pomeranian as a Nordic breed, the Papillon a little Spaniel, and the Toy Poodle the smallest variety of the Poodle).
Non-Sporting: The AKC originally registered dogs as either Sporting or Non-Sporting. Hounds and Terriers split off the Sporting Group, Toys and Working from the Non-Sporting, and later, Herding from the Working Group. The remaining dogs, with a great diversity of traits not fitting any of the above, comprise the Non-Sporting Group.
Herding: This group split off from the Working Group in 1983. Herding is a natural instinct in dogs, and their purpose is to serve ranchers and farmers by moving livestock from one place to another.
Carla Vaughn, Jet Linx Tulsa Client Service Specialist and breeder/handler/owner of Whippets, added, “Besides having a dog who is a correct representative of his breed, you also need the dog to enjoy his ‘job’ – to be able perform. Positive reinforcement techniques and a strong connection with the handler allows the dog to relax and enjoy strutting his stuff in the ring.”
Vaughn has been part of the dog show community since she purchased her first Dalmatian 27 years ago. “I realized I was going to have to train him in order to tolerate living with him, so I started with obedience classes, progressing to obedience shows,” she laughed. “A couple years later I purchased my first conformation show dog, a Whippet, and off to the conformation ring I went and have been hooked ever since!”
Bisher and Vaughn both point to the camaraderie in the dog show community. “The dog show world is very much a family community. I have met lifetime friends in my 27 years of showing dogs. I can go to any state and see a familiar face,” Vaughn gushed. Bisher added, “I love seeing people of all ages, of all walks of life – some for fun, some showing for a living – but the one thing that ties everybody together is that they love their dogs and want to spend time with them.”
Owners, handlers and breeders can spend an exorbitant amount of time traveling the nation competing, hoping to capture enough wins to accumulate points and earn the prestigious honor of competing at the WKC Dog Show. At Westminster, male and female dogs compete separately within their respective breed in three different classes – Bred by Exhibitor, American-Bred, Open. Winners in those classes move on to compete for best of the winning dogs – one female winner and one male winner will receive championship points and move on to compete for Best of Breed. Then, Best of Breed winners move on to compete in their AKC recognized Group category – Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting or Herding. Finally, only first-place winners in each group advance to compete for America’s top dog – Best in Show.
The 2017 Best in Show winner, CH Lockenhaus’ Rumor Has It V Kenlyn (Rumor), a German Shepherd Dog (GSD) named after Adele’s 2011 hit song Rumor Has It, made her Westminster debut in 2015, winning Best of Breed and finishing fourth in the Herding Group. Throughout the remainder of 2015, she held number one titles for German Shepherds, Herding dogs and was the number one dog in All-Breeds, closing out the year with an impressive 100th career Best in Show win at the biggest dog show in the United States – the AKC Eukanuba National Championship – making her a heavy favorite to win it all at the 140th WKC Dog Show.
“I had never run a campaign where you’re trying to be top dog all-breed so I wasn’t sure we’d be able to keep her
motivated, but she did outstanding!” marveled Kent Boyles of Kenlyn German Shepherds, Rumor’s co-owner/handler. Boyles’ efforts to keep Rumor’s routine fun and energized included tasty steak bites grilled on his George Forman grill, and healthy doses of running and playing for exercise.
Wins in Best of Breed and the Herding Group at the 2016 WKC Dog Show advanced Rumor to Madison Square Garden’s famous green carpet to compete with the six other Group winners for Best in Show. Although an impressive showing, Rumor came up short and her team decided it was time for retirement. “We bred her in May 2016 hoping to continue the gene pool but she didn’t conceive,” Boyles divulged. “We had to make a decision. Do we risk it and try again at the Garden?” Rumor’s team contemplated. “The Puli was the number one show dog from 2016 so I knew we would wind up trying to beat the Puli but from a breeder/handler standpoint, we had to try and win at Westminster… we collectively decided to give it another shot in New York.” Pam McElheney of Lockenhaus German Shepherds, also co-owner of Rumor, added, “Rumor loves the show ring! We talked it over and said we would give her another chance. Wow! Are we glad we did!”
In January 2017, dog-loving fanatics were excited to learn Rumor was jumping back into the ring to compete in the 141st WKC Dog Show. “All Kent had to do was show her in a few all-breed shows to get her used to the show routine again,” McEleheny stated. Rumor entered the best-of-seven ring with confidence, elegance and grace as the crowd whistled and called out her name – she was clearly a crowd favorite. Judge Thomas H. Bradley 3d agreed. “The German Shepherd standard talks about quality and nobility. When you recognize it, it hits you at home and that’s what it really is. She is just magnificent.” Despite the meticulous anatomic and aesthetic scrutiny, dogs shown at Westminster must also have that IT factor – the eye-catching confidence that will stop you in your tracks, demanding attention.
In Westminster’s 141-year history, Rumor is only the second GSD to win Best in Show – the first was fittingly named Manhattan in 1987. “This is what we all are striving for – that one specimen of our chosen breed that is the very best by being the closest to the standard of the breed we are showing,” McEleheny explained. “It is very difficult to get all three in the same animal, but when you do, oh how lucky you are.”
McEleheny has been in the dog show circuit since the mid 1970s with intermittent breaks to raise her two children. “We showed at the AKC sanctioned fun matches to learn about the breed,” she stated. “The GSD breed is the most versatile breed that is recognized by the AKC. These dogs can do herding, tracking, seeing eye, therapy, protection, search and rescue, drug detection, and many other jobs. I have never heard of a job that a GSD has not done.”
Boyles shares the same sentiments and advocates versatility in the GSD breed. “I work with an organization that trains dogs to be support companions for veterans with PTSD, as well as seizure detection dogs and emotional support companions for Autistic children,” he said. “You don’t want to let dog shows dictate what you do – you don’t want to breed dogs just to try and win blue ribbons. Our goal is to breed and have dogs that you can compete with at dog shows, have those that would make excellent family companions and finally, those that we can place in homes where they have jobs, where they are helping someone out. That’s the ultimate result – different jobs within the same litter.”
The sport of showing dogs is a hobby for some and for others, it is a full-time job. It is not uncommon to for dogs competing at the WKC Dog Show to be co-owned and shown by professional handlers – those who are experts in the breed’s attributes and the art of showing. “To be a good professional handler – somebody who makes a living and does really well – the first thing you do is find a mentor and learn from other handlers… learn how to groom the different breeds properly, learn how to show the different breeds properly, how to care for several dogs and how to physically condition them for competition,” Bisher explained. “Then it comes down to a lot of practice to hone your skills.”
Vaughn agreed and added, “Absolutely. You also need the dog to enjoy his ‘job’ and be able to perform and look like he enjoys it. The initial steps to get a dog to positively respond to a show environment starts at a very young age. Getting them used to being handled is important. And to make sure any dog is comfortable and safe, transportation through a pet-friendly provider like Jet Linx ensures additional peace of mind.”
The wisdom Boyles cultivated with Rumor will continue for many years to come. “We’re really looking forward to working with Rumor’s half-brother within the next year,” Boyles mentioned. When asked how Rumor is handling retirement, Boyles beamed, “Right now as we’re talking, she’s nursing 12-day old babies. Four boys and four girls, and she is a really great mother, too!” Boyles also noted that Rumor’s retirement will be spent raising awareness on the importance of service dogs, and visiting children’s hospitals for emotional support.
Be sure to plan your Jet Linx trip to the 2018 WKC Dog Show Feb. 12 and 13, when, as Bisher exclaimed, “all the top dogs will again come to Manhattan and take over the city. It’s a celebration of dogs!”