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Behind the Scenes at Westminster: Dog Show Curiosities, Secrets, and (Sometimes Unusual) Grooming Habits

Backstage access at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show offers a rare 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.

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Flynn, a Bichon Frisé won Best in Show at the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2018. IMAGE: Westminster Kennel Club/Jack Grassa

The Westminster Kennel Club dog show, essentially the Super Bowl of canine conformation shows in America, will soon crown their 143rd Best in Show winner. But, before a perfectly coifed canine is crowned, a LOT goes into prepping for the big event.

The 143rd Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, being held on February 11 and 12, 2019, will showcase a total of 2,800 dogs among 203 breeds and varieties, including two new-to-Westminster breeds, the Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen and the Nederlandse Kooikerhondje.

Now, unlike most dog shows, no backstage passes are required at Westminster, offering the public a rare opportunity to meet & mingle with the 203 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.

A walk through the benching area (or backstage) behind Westminster reveals hundreds of owners, breeders, and enthusiasts eager and willing to share the rich history and details about the breeds they love so much. And, it gives dog lovers a chance to meet and learn about some breeds they didn’t even know existed,

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The Norwegian Lundehund, has a unique set of features not present in any other breed. IMAGE: The Dogington Post

Last year, we met Eva, 2018’s Best in Breed, 2-year old the Norwegian Lundehund. “Lundies” are fairly new to Westminster, having their debut in 2012. This unique breed was nearly extinct when in 1963, only 6 Lundies existed in the world. Today, through purposeful breeding the little dogs – originally bred to hunt Puffins, with some incredible physical features not present in other breeds, like a minimum of 6 toes on each foot, an ability to turn their head upward until it touches their spine, and ears that can be “pinched” closed facing either forward or backward at will – number in the thousands. Best of all, they make fabulous family pets that love to play and snuggle.

And Benji, the Best in Breed, 4-year old Skye Terrier, who we learned is shedless, odorless, danderless, hypoallergenic, and, in addition to being absolutely gorgeous, is quite the cuddler when he isn’t working.

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’ve 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.

Adrian, an Irish Setter keeps his red locks luxurious with the help of Pantene shampoo and conditioner. IMAGE: The Dogington Post.

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. Even last year’s Best in Show winner, Flynn, had his nose dusted with a shimmery powder his handler called “Fairy Frost” to dry the drool from that perfectly coifed, splendidly fluffy face.

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2018 Best in Show winner Flynn, the Bichon, before he was fluffed. IMAGE: The Dogington Post


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