TERRYTOWN, New York ( Associated Press) — Thousands of dogs began competing Monday for the top prize at the Westminster Kennel Club’s acclaimed dog show. To the casual viewer, the annual show of dressed-up handlers leading well-behaved dogs around the ring may seem like a somewhat unnatural walk in the park, but choosing a champion is more than that. So, here are some details of the show:
HOW MANY DOGS ARE PARTICIPATED?
Over 3,000 dogs as tiny as a chihuahua and as massive as a mastiff entered to compete for the title of best in the show. Participants represent 209 breeds and varieties (a variety is a subset of a breed; think Toy Poodle and Standard Poodle).
Penny Allen and Bryson Allen showed moody, a Hungarian herding breed that first appeared this year. The duo Hiko, Texas, mother and son, and only 11 years old, but “when we enter the ring, everyone is bareheaded – may the best moody win,” said Penny Allen.
Another recently added breed, the Russian Toy, competes on Tuesday. Separately, about 350 dogs competed in agility and obedience.
HOW IT WORKS?
First, dogs are up against other members of their breed—sometimes dozens of others, sometimes far fewer. Norwegian Buhund Buzz defeated only one opponent, his half-sister, and won his breed on Monday, while 43 Rhodesian Ridgebacks met at the distance of one ring.
Buzz’s breeder, owner, and handler, Amy McLaughlin of Kent, Washington, was a little saddened that she no longer saw the affectionate little shepherds, whom she considers “a hidden gem in the canine world.” But Buzz is not going to stop there – “we have a lot of newcomers,” she said.
The winner from each breed advances to the semi-finals where they are judged against others in their “group” such as hounds, herding dogs or terriers. In the final round, the group winners compete for the title of Best of Show, which will be awarded on Wednesday night.
WHAT ARE JUDGES LOOKING FOR?
Judges are tasked with determining which dog best meets the ideal or “standard” of their breed.
“You see an Afghan and a Beagle – they don’t say which one is better. They say which one is more like the written standard of their breed,” said Westminster spokeswoman Gail Miller Bisher. “This is what kind of dog will convey the key traits of this breed.”
The standard is based on the original function of the breed and can apply to everything from teeth to tail and temperament. For example, a hound built for cross-country hunting may need thick paw pads, while a herding dog needs to be proportioned to make quick and tight turns.
For example, a greyhound trainer must show that a dog can “move like it can catch a wolf,” said trainer Ron Williams of Wantage, New Jersey. Someone displaying a Miniature Pinscher wants to display the tall Hackney gait that is the hallmark of the breed. In the Saluki, certain angles in the legs and feet are being explored that underlie the running speed and athleticism of these lanky, elegant desert hunters.
It looks so elegant that owner Jennifer Rimerman, who was in Westminster on Monday with her Saluki Haney, heard potential owners say, “They would drape my furniture so nicely.”
Indeed, they would, but the Riemermann show dog can also catch a bird in the air.
“The shape of a Saluki really has to fit its function, and its function was not to look pretty on the couch,” said Rimerman of Cape May, New Jersey.
WHAT IS REQUIRED TO PREPARE?
Competing Westminster dogs are well trained to handle themselves in the ring. But preparation can take several hours. Or longer.
Bergamo Shepherds Coco and Sapphire bathed two days before their turn in the ring on Monday because their thick, flocked coat dries in about a day. “It looks like a very thick, wet wool sweater,” explains breeder Yvonne Buniewicz of Quaker Hill, Connecticut. “This is not a laundry dog.”
ARE THERE MIXED BREEDS IN WESTMINSTER?
Yes. They can compete in agility and obedience, but only purebreds are eligible for the title of best in show.
WHAT IS US FOCUS ON PURE BREED?
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals regularly stage protests outside the Westminster Show to denounce what the animal rights group sees as irresponsible representation of purebred animals. The Kennel Club says the exhibit highlights the conservation of a wide range of dog breeds.
WHAT IS THE WINNER OF THE BEST IN THE SHOW?
Show off your rights and trophy. No cash prize.
SO WHAT’S THE MEANING?
“The dog show is for people to see a good dog,” says Vicki Wenzen of Jarrettsville, Md., who took care of Coco on Monday and daughter Tia Williams squired Sapphire.
Many members also appreciate the sense of community that comes when they spend weekends at shows together, sharing tips, places to care for dogs, and their love for dogs.
“You’re developing that rapport because we’re more like a family,” Robin Greenslade of Hudson, New Hampshire, said on Monday as she helped care for her miniature pinscher, Adele, and half a dozen other dogs under handler Kim Calvacchi.
“It really is a lifestyle,” Greenslade said. “And it’s a labor of love.”