The Westminster Kennel Club dog show, essentially the Super Bowl of canine conformation shows in America, just crowned their 141st Best in Show winner, Rumor, a gorgeous 5-year old German Shepherd that came out of retirement to take home the big ribbon.
Now, unlike most dog shows, no backstage passes are required at Westminster, offering the public a rare opportunity to meet & mingle with the 202 different breeds showing in the year’s most important event. In fact, not only are the general ticket-buying public granted backstage access, the dogs and their teams of owners, handlers, and groomers are actually required to be present when the hundreds of eager dog-lovers and spectators walk through the benching area on their way to their seats inside Madison Square Garden – although it quickly becomes clear which teams (and dogs) are enjoying the spotlight and which are trying to slink back and look invisible to the troves of people passing through.
Also unlike other dog shows, Westminster takes place in midtown-Manhattan, where grassy patches and potty spots are a rare sight. So, with hundreds of dogs needing a place to “go”, Madison Square Garden set up special indoor potty areas for the dogs. Like the canine version of a port-a-potty, these spaces are basically chain-link kennels lined with plastic and a thick bed of wood-shavings.
Nevertheless, the backstage access at Madison Square Garden offers a rare glimpse into the dog show world and a great opportunity to learn tips and tricks, spill little-known secrets, shatter some dog show myths, and quell some curiosities about the dogs, the handlers, and their (sometimes unusual) grooming habits.
Why Dog Shows?
So what’s the big draw? Why would someone want to enter the dog show world with their dogs? First and foremost, it’s a love of dogs and, more accurately, the love of a specific breed. The folks at Westminster aren’t your run-of-the-mill hobby breeders, they definitely ARE NOT backyard breeders or puppy mill operators. They are people who have devoted their lives – and lots, and lots of money – to their favorite breed.
So, there must be a big payout for winning Best in Show, right? Wrong. Aside from some huge ribbons, gift bags full of loot, and tons of accolades, there is no cash prize for winning at Westminster. But, any breeder will confirm that the offspring from champion dogs can bring in big bucks, particularly considering many past winners have been relatives (sons, daughters, littermates) to prior winners.
Still, the dogs entering the ring at Westminster are well-loved, adored family pets. They sleep in bed with their owners, they share their homes with kids, they probably chewed up their humans’ shoes when they were pups. And, yes, their paws DO smell like corn chips, just like your dog’s paws – we checked. They’re real dogs. Real dogs that participate in a sport. And, like any other dog sport, it takes time, training, socialization and a natural disposition that makes them right for the sport. Dogs are well-socialized from birth and are introduced to conformation shows very early on, sometimes as young as 6 to 8 months old. Proper socialization is hugely important for show dogs. A dog that perfectly conforms to his breed standard won’t stand a chance if he’s skittish, fearful, or aggressive. And grooming. Oh, so much grooming.
Grooming for Game Day
In the same way an NFL player trains for months and then gets geared up for game day, the dogs showing at Westminster begin preparing well in advance of taking to the show ring.
A walk through the show’s backstage benching area (where all the dogs and their teams are lined up in individual cubbies, getting primped and pampered before their turn in the ring) displays a variety of grooming products and tools more impressive than an entire aisle at your local drugstore.
You’ll see hairspray, volumizer, mousse, brushes, rollers, clips, combs, clippers, sponges, spray bottles, blow dryers, and (yes) flat irons, along with some unusual accoutrements like corn starch and rubber gloves – all serving a specific purpose: to look as perfect as possible for the judge. We’re told ‘Adrian’ the Irish Setter that won Reserve Best in Show (aka runner-up) was treated frequently to a bath with Pantene shampoo and conditioner to give his gorgeous, red, flowing locks the gloriously soft sheen we all noticed watching him round the ring.
It’s not unusual to see a groomer spend upwards of twenty minutes perfecting a single ankle pouf on a Poodle, or getting just the perfect amount of height on an Old English Sheepdog’s head by teasing, and brushing, and teasing, and brushing again. Yes, that millimeter of height or single misplaced hair could mean the difference between…