Westminster 2013: Dogs on Display or Behind the Scenes

For many people, February isn’t ski season, it’s Westminster Dog Show season. The show represents a rare and dazzling display of nearly 200 different breeds of dogs all brought together in New York City and judged over a two-day event to decide who will walk away with the top honor. Who will be 2013’s Best in Show?

Did you ever wonder ‘What’s with breeds; how and why are there so many different types of dogs?’ What differentiates one dog from another?’ To the inexperienced viewer, a dog show may seem like a disorganized lot of spiffed up canines darting about a ring. However, there is method to the mayhem.

To understand breed, you need to review a little science, particularly genetics. Each of the 187 breeds you’ll see this year at Westminster were created decades, sometimes centuries ago by people to benefit their lives in someway. Japanese hunters needed a fearless companion to track and hold large prey like deer and bear. They routinely mated courageous dogs together until they were satisfied with a dog known today as an Akita. German farmers needed a dog who would both herd and protect their livestock; the German Shepherd Dog came into being. Horse drawn fire trucks had mindfully-bred dogs to navigate alongside the wagon, as well as to protect the horses—the Dalmatian was born. Throughout our history and across the globe, dog breeds were shaped in many diverse and splendid ways.
Of course, most dogs are out of work these days. Many tasks a breed was designed for have been outlawed or supplanted by our technological advancements. But don’t tell your dog that—or argue with a breed’s fancier. Sure, bears are pretty scarce and horse drawn carriages have gone the way of the automobile, but these breeds will still have a strong drive to hunt, run, and guard even in today’s modern, technological world. Though one might debate a city-dweller’s choice of a pet German Shepherd in an apartment more suited, perhaps, to a Pug, people who love their dogs and value their breeds instincts will often go to great lengths to satisfy their dog’s passion for exercise and mental stimulation.
Dog shows initially evolved in the 1800’s to determine which dogs were most suitable for breeding purposes. Fast foreword a couple of centuries, and though a show still serves its intended purpose for dog fanciers—to choose breeding stock—dogs-on-display are now drawing big crowds and big business.
The Westminster Dog Show is put on annually by the American Kennel Club, or the AKC. As the second oldest sporting event in our country’s history (first held in 1877 for hunting breeds,) the show now represents 187 dog breeds. Each breed is assigned a time slot and a specific ring, now located at Chelsea Piers. There will be one judge for each breed who will examine each entry’s confirmation—their movement, bone structure, and stance, to determine one winner who most closely conforms to the breed’s ideal—a written description also known as the breed’s standard. Next, each winner must compete against dogs in its group. The AKC has seven groups that categorize the various breeds according to shared passions and purpose, including the Sporting, Working, Hound, Terrier, Non-Sporting, Toy, and the Herding groups.

Once a winner is chosen from the group, it moves onto the grand finale. Round about 10:00 PM on the second Tuesday of every February, Westminster rolls out the red carpet to seven dogs chosen as the top in their category. Only one will be chosen as Best in Show.

During these final rounds, the show is all pomp and splendor—though the winner gets top bragging right—all the dogs and handlers should be proud to have made it this far. The Westminster Dog show has recently become a specialty show, as each entry has already been awarded the title of Champion.

If you’re going to the show this year, you might spot me wandering the stands or petting the contestants behind the scenes. In years past, when Al Roker was twice the man he is today, I worked the pressroom helping celebrity newscasters with their spots and running judging results to the announcer. These days, I just enjoy the parade.