Oh My Dog: The 131st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Some of my life goals are a little unconventional. Mastering the accordion, traveling to every continent before I'm 30, going to Wimbledon (I've accepted that it will only be as a spectator at this point)— these are the things that fill my dreams. Last month, I got to check off one of the seemingly silly items on the list: going to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Finally, I'd get to root for Team Bernese Mountain Dog in person, at the Super Bowl of dog shows no less. Plus, it meant a trip to New York City. What more could a canine-crazy gal ask for?
As luck would have it, all my favorite dogs — the Working Group — were first up for judging at (ouch) 8:30 am on the first day. This is the asterisk to the dog show dream: in exchange for gawking a thousand dogs at once, you're committed to a two-day schedule, 8:00 am to 11:00 pm each day. Luckily, you can come and go as you please. The individual breeds are judged during the day, with the Best-in-Breeds moving on to the Best-in-Group judging in the evening, and the Best-in-Groups advancing to the Best-in-Show finale.
Nearing Madison Square Garden, my Empire State-sized excitement overcame the morning groggies, especially when I spotted the first of the Pedigree street banners announcing the show (and taunting “dogs rule."). Not even a slushy New York snowstorm could kill the mood; that would come when we were stranded at JFK airport for thirteen hours on the way home…
After our tickets were scanned, we made a beeline for the benching area, where the dogs hang out until their judging. I heard you could go “backstage" to see the dogs up close. I imagined dogs sitting on, well, benches, very proper-like, with spectators admiring from afar.
Oh. My. Dog. I was not prepared for what wiggled beyond those double doors.Dogs, everywhere! Dogs to see and meet and pet! Unlike the seasoned dog show-goers, I was completely unaware that you could actually hang with the talent. There were dozens of breeds, with five, six, ten of each breed, arranged in lanes labeled overhead like grocery store aisles; only instead of “Pasta / Rice / Sauce," the signs read “Vizsla / Weimaraner / Spinone Italiano" making for easy dog shopping. Most napped in their kennels, or lounged in the aisles. I made friends with a particularly gregarious Old English Sheepdog named Tucker who plunked his giant fuzzy paw right on my shoulder. Dog groups were clustered together, so you could get your terrier fix here, your herding fix there, and not have to cross paths with a single fluffed up snooty poodle if you didn't want to. You did, however, have to contend with the suffocating throngs of humans crushing their way towards their favorites. (Ironically, the best word to describe a lot of dog people is catty.)
The grooming area was also open for exploration, and after ten minutes' observation it was clear that beauty pageants have nothing on the pomp of the dog show. Highlights: A groomer delicately wrapping a Komondor's dreadlocked mane to prevent tangling; a Bernese Mountain Dog disinterestedly watching his toes dipped in some mystery goo; a Samoyed getting his nose powdered; a Schnauzer getting a beard trim; a Briard getting a blowout. I met Riley, the Best-in-Breed Saint Bernard, but I was not allowed to pet him because he'd just spent an hour on the grooming table before the Group Judging.
The judging floor was open to spectators on the first day. While standing on the center floor of Madison Square Garden was a definite thrill, after touring the benching area, the judging became secondary to this dog lover. Fortunately, watching the people proved just as fun as watching the dogs. Every geeky, gaudy, garish stereotype about dog people was completely fulfilled (author excluded, of course). The dog handlers performed that classic inelegant trot in their sequined suits and sneakers while Bedazzled fans fervently snatched up Labrador alarm clocks, Spaniel lamps, and $96 ties with airbrushed collies in the souvenir shops.
By the end of the two-day extravaganza, I was completely exhausted. None of my favorite dogs won Best in Group, so none went on to the Best in Show judging. An English Springer Spaniel named Champion Felicity's Diamond Jim was named Top Dog. Nonetheless, it was a fun, weird experience and —if you love dogs — a highly recommended way to jazz up your vacation destination.
On the way out, I spied a pair of Siberian Huskies dozing atop their kennels, mirroring my battle-weary warrior feeling. Their “I'd rather be playing in the snow than posing for photos" look inspired a new item on my activities-before-I-croak list: Dogsledding!