The biggest misconception about the Westminster Dog Show is that it’s a beauty pageant for dogs. This is only half true: over the past several years the American Kennel Club, the 133-year-old organization that runs the show and is slowly growing wise to its mass appeal, has been introducing new, more crowd-pleasing elements. Aside from the famous “Best in Show,” in which people in formalwear inspect gums and gaits, the competition now includes “Meet the Breeds,” a sensory overload in which owners showcase their pets in personalized booths (more on that later), and the agility competition, in which dogs of various weight classes follow their handlers through an equestrian-style obstacle course (more on that later as well). There’s also the obedience competition, where dogs are judged on how well they carry out what appear to be doggie square dancing routines with props and costumes. So Westminster is not exactly a canine Miss Universe, but more like Miss Universe crossed with the Olympics with a dash of an industry trade show thrown in for good measure. “Meet the Breeds/Agility” always takes place on Saturday, and is always held, ingeniously, on or around Valentine’s Day. The entire competition lasts three days, but it costs $35 for a “Meet the Breeds/Agility” day pass, and unless you have a severe dog allergy, this will be the best $35 you’ll ever spend.
Those in the know start the day at “Meet the Breeds,” which is typically overrun by visitors, owners, and various dog industry types by 11 am. The event is held in Pier 92, off 55th Street, and upon entering guests are not greeted by dogs, but by vendors of pet insurance, dog toothpaste, and other canine essentials. (For humans, the swag game is solid—every breed seems to have its own coloring book, and many booths give out chocolates and stickers.) Behind them are more than 120 booths featuring AKC-recognized dogs, from “Akitas to Xoloitzcuintlis and everything in between.” This year marked the inclusion of three new breeds: the pumi, the sloughi, and the American hairless terrier, which the New York Times accurately described as having the texture of “a piece of warm bologna.”
Unless you’re a dog obsessive, you probably haven’t heard of the majority of breeds at Westminster. To help, owners lay out pamphlets about the histories of their breeds, information on how to care for them, and related décor, in addition to the dogs themselves, either placed on tables or below them, depending on size. With so many breeds competing for attention, novelty is a virtue. Any dog of Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry is liable to be dressed in a way that would make Edward Said turn in his grave. And true to stereotype, owners frequently resemble their pets. But should you desire something other than seeing a trio of middle-aged white women dressed as Turkish concubines fawning over Salukis, you can pose for a photo with a papillon and its owner done up as an 18th-century French aristocrat, watch a standard poodle get a blowout, or play with Newfoundland puppies in matching yellow raincoats.
If you attended “Meet the Breeds” this year, you would have noticed something even more surprising: for the first time, cats were officially—if unhappily—included in the Westminster Dog Show. The decision was made in light of a successful co-species exhibition at the Javits Center several years ago, which, an AKC spokeswoman told the Times, left people wondering why there weren’t cats at the dog show. I’m not sure why they took that to heart, but in any event, the execution—which included many large decorative cutouts of menacing purebred cats and an underutilized “cat agility” pen—also left much to be desired. The forty or so cat booths were placed between the two dog sections, meaning that visitors passing through were liable to rile up either dogs or cats by petting one and going on to greet the other. Furthermore, the standards of TICA—The International Cat Association—are clearly not as rigorous as those of the AKC. Whatever a “toyger” really is, I suspect it’s not a cross between a shorthaired tabby and a toy tiger.
Even if you skip the cats, it takes at least two hours to meet all the breeds. By the time you get to the xoloitzcuintlis, you’re in Pier 94, where the agility trials are in full swing. Organized by weight class and skill level, the agility competition is not unlike a soccer game played by 6-year-olds. The crowd is as inclined to cheer for dogs who do poorly—like Trace, the Alaskan malamute who leisurely completed the course in three times the standard time—as they are for dogs who race through. The handlers only see the course’s layout once before the competition begins, when they walk through it to memorize the order of jumps, hoops, and weaving poles, which are miniaturized versions of the obstacles in a slalom skiing race. The dogs get no trial run at all. Faults are awarded if a dog knocks over a jump or skips a pole—but the high drama results when they run the wrong way. When this happens to a dog that had been doing well, a collective gasp can be heard throughout the pier, followed by compensatory applause.
In addition to being the most exciting part of Westminster, agility is also the most democratic. Mixed breeds are allowed to compete as “all-American dogs,” and in order to avoid having too many of the same breed advance to the finals (border collies and Australian shepherds tend to place highest) judges prioritize less represented breeds. The crowd is typically a mix of novelty-seekers and those with personal connections to the event. On Saturday, I sat next to a woman whose sister was handling a Doberman named “Fire!” (as in, “ready, aim,” she explained) and in front of a woman who had been a handler years earlier. Both were happy to discuss the intricacies of the competition—how faults were awarded if paws failed to touch the yellow part of an obstacle, or how unprecedented it was that Ebbets, a black lab, relieved himself mid-competition. (That typically happens in obedience, not agility, when it happens at all.) The first round wrapped up at four, and at the end of the day the agility awards went to Trick, a border collie from Pascoag, Rhode Island, and Crush, an “all-American dog” from American Canyon, California.
Of course, there are problems with Westminster. The show is designed primarily for the benefit of breeders, who sell more puppies after having their dogs paraded around on TV. And it does encourage the kind of inbreeding that has left pugs and English bulldogs with faces so flat that they can scarcely breathe. It’s also aggressively corporatized, and even the purple-and-gold Westminster logo featuring a silhouette of a greyhound has something of a Soviet air to it. The year I went to “Best In Show,” I was struck by how the dogs were treated as specimens in a eugenics museum, forbidden to touch except by a groomer. Someone has yet to write a true exposé—The American Way of Dog Breeding—but a budding Mitford would do well to start at Westminster.
I’ve been to Westminster four times. The first time I tagged along with a friend who was reporting on it, and the years after, having discovered the show to be the equivalent of a serotonin punch in the face, I went to counteract the effects of February in New York. This year, I was especially looking forward to it. At one point it occurred to me, given the complex of personality traits that seem to accompany the decision to be a professional dog breeder, that I was probably surrounded by hundreds of Trump voters. Maybe dogs are the true opiate of the masses, because I didn’t care. Feel free to join me at future dog shows. I’ll be going every year for the rest of my life.