Dog Getting Blowdried

A Day At Westminster Dog Show

Westminster Dog Show, one of the most prestigious breed competitions in the world, spans the course of four days every February. When PetPlace arrived on Day Three, a grey, rainy Monday in New York City, the Hound and Herding breeds were battling it out at Pier 94, hoping to advance to the Evening Group Judging at Madison Square Garden.

Prepping Pups for Competition

A patient pup gets groomed for competition.

Entering the daytime preliminary events on the west side of Manhattan is like stepping into another world, one inhabited exclusively by ardent canine lovers. The venue was fractured into three sections: vendors on the right, preparation stalls on the left, and the arena straight ahead.

In the prep area, dogs and their owners were lined up in farmer’s market style booths, each boasting enough room for pups to lie prone as they got show-ready. Handlers and owners were hard at work shampooing, trimming, and blow drying their stylish pups. Pet parents and handlers were as primped as their pets, sporting bedazzled skirt suits and silver dog combs forced into their taut ponytails, ever-ready to fix each stray hair and split end.

Training Tactics of Master Dog Handlers

A crafty handler persuades a dog with treats.

The actual contest is held on football-style astroturf and split into 6 distinct rings, each catering to a different breed with a unique skill set. Hindquarters point to the sky as competing dogs stand atop raised platforms like Greek gods, their handlers focused to the point of perspiration or tears. Curiously, many of the human competitors stored treats in their mouths for their canine athletes, strategically removing pieces of chicken or biscuit to entice their dog and enhance their performance.

We asked Stacey McWilliams, a 21-year veteran of dog shows, for background on this peculiar tactic, and discovered that this is not a method to feed pups like baby birds, but a professional trick called baiting.

“Baiting your dog correctly is an art,” said McWilliams. “There’s a lot of strategy behind it, if you want your dog to hold their head high, you have to keep your bait high up. Some people put it in their mouth. If you want them looking out forward, you can keep it on your hip or in your pocket or your hand. It all depends on where you want the dog’s head to be looking when the judge is coming around to look at your dog. It’s all about the strategy of how you want to present your dog.”

Judging to the Untrained Observer

A judge checks for poise and posture.

Following rigorous behavioral and physical judging, which amounts to nothing more than a groping to the uneducated viewer, dogs are encouraged to take a celebratory scamper across the artificial grass, displaying their gait and poise to critics and fans alike. After initial observations, the judge paces by the competing duos and points out the winners in a high stakes game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.”

Clearly, many of the handlers are visibly nervous before entering the ring, and many refused to speak to the press, citing that they were “in the zone” and unable to break concentration.

Of the 78 breeds that were judged during daytime competition on Monday, we had the pleasure of chatting with many prize-winning pups and their human counterparts. Although we weren’t able to connect with everyone, we got a general sense of the dedication, heart, and competitive spirit that is required to breed a purple-and-golden-ribbon dog.

Stay tuned to PetPlace for commentary on Evening Judging and interviews with top competitors!