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The Greatest Dog Show on Earth

“It can change your life.” The Westminster Kennel Club is not just must-watch TV for dog people, it’s the pinnacle of achievement for its dedicated participants

By: Yaunna Sommersby

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Photographed by Yaunna Sommersby

This is it, the dog event. The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is not only one of the biggest dog shows in the world, but one of the oldest consecutively held sporting events in the US—its 144-year history makes it second only to the Kentucky Derby.

“Our first show, held in 1877, was at Gilmore’s Garden, which was the original name of Madison Square Garden,” shares Gail Miller Bisher, the Communications Director for the WKC. 

A small but dedicated team, of which Gail is a part, works on planning and running the show all year.

“There are many logistical challenges, but our focus is always to continue hosting the best dog event in the world for exhibitors and spectators alike,” says Gail.

For participants, it’s not just a hobby, but a lifestyle. Breeders, owners, and handlers compete at shows and events year-round, with the ultimate goal of qualifying to compete at Westminster. The ones that make it are the chosen few, the cream of the crop. 

This year it was particularly tough to qualify. “Westminster is an all-champions show in 2020,” says Gail. “That means only dogs who have earned an AKC Champion title are eligible to enter the conformation competition. We invite the top five ranked dogs in each breed and the Best of Breed winner of each breed’s National Specialty shows.”

Over 200 AKC-recognized breeds and varieties are eligible to enter the conformation competition this year. 2,500 dogs from countries around the world will be competing this coming February, including the Azawakh, a sighthound breed that will be making its Westminster debut in the Hound group. More than 350 dogs will also compete in Masters Agility and Obedience. (Recently introduced, these events are open to mixed breed dogs as well as purebreds.)

This year’s show will see new and returning faces alike. 

“I have been attending WKC for over 30 years,” says Doug Johnson, who has bred two Best in Show winners, as well as won over 25 Best of Breeds. “It allows the general public into our world and shows them the great value and dedication we have at preserving our breeds.”

Doug breeds Clumber, Sussex, and English Toy Spaniels through his Clussexx kennel. His Clumber Spaniel, Brady, won Best in Show at Westminster in 1996 and his Sussex Spaniel, Stump, won in 2009. 

“WKC has been a big part of my life,” he says. “It brought a great deal of attention to my kennel and the lessor known breed I was breeding, Clumber Spaniels. This win catapulted me to the spotlight and really transformed my life both as a dog breeder and as a person involved in the sport.”

Doug will not be showing this year as he is also an AKC accredited judge and will be judging seven of the Working breeds and seven of the Non-Sporting breeds.

 To qualify to show at Westminster, the teams behind the dogs spend time, money, and countless hours campaigning and working with their dogs. 

“The cost of campaigning a dog can vary as it is based on several factors such as amount of advertising [there are show magazines showcasing dogs, in which you can advertise to hopefully familiarize judges with your dogs and their accomplishments], number of shows entered, handling fees paid, travel expenses, and care/conditioning charges,” says Gail. 

Bill Shelton of Coventry Corgis and his number one Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Dotty will be competing at Westminster this year. “This is a wonderful sport to showcase breeds of dogs and this is a close group of people who are supportive of their friends,” says Bill. “Sharing the company of dogs is a gift.”

Dotty is within the top 20 dogs in the United States, sitting at the #12 top dog spot. Preparation for the main event begins “weeks before, caring for her nutrition, exercise regime, bathing, brushing, and combing regularly,” says Bill. 

He and Dotty work as a team in the show ring and he handles, grooms, and trains her as well. 

“I try to have the best time I possibly can with Dotty. She knows what she’s doing. I’m there to share this incredible moment with her to the best of my ability,” says Bill. “These show dogs after all are someone’s beloved pet first.” 

There are a lot of different pieces and a world of dedicated dog people who come together to put on a major event like this. Last year’s show had over 50,000 attendees, press representing every major news outlet, from the New York Times to US Today, and a TV viewership of 3.5 million.

“What I enjoy most about the events is building the excitement and then having the days of celebration arrive for the masses to enjoy,” says Gail. “Whether its greeting people at the Piers (one of the event locations), conducting media interviews explaining the show, or being an analyst on the FOX Sports telecast, I’m excited to represent the sport and this historic club that is a leader in the world of dogs.” 

“The world watches this show,” adds Doug. “It can change your life!  It certainly did mine. But the very best part is the pride in being able to compete on a level with some of the greatest dogs of these wonderful breeds.”

In NYC for the Show? Here’s Where to Stay

Do like many of the Westminster competitors and stay at the supremely dog-friendly Hotel Pennsylvania, located directly across the street from Madison Square Garden where Best in Show takes place. In addition to being ideally situated, you’ll likely find yourself sharing the hotel lobby and elevators with show dogs, allowing you to pet the coiffed pups and chat with the owners about their turn in the ring!  


Last Updated:

By: Yaunna Sommersby
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