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Going to the dogs

The Westminster Kennel Club Show is a breed apart

Going to the dogs

(Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK-New York City is a dog-friendly town, but never so completely as during the annual Westminster Kennel Club Show at Madison Square Garden, when beautiful dogs and their owners, handlers, junior handlers, media, and fans descend on the neighborhood around Penn Station.

The televised show has been a ratings success for the USA Network, but in person the event bears little resemblance to the finished product you see on Monday and Tuesday nights. Here are a few snapshots from last month's spectacle.

Thursday afternoon

Suitcase-rolling, crate-toting dog owners begin filling the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania across 7th Avenue from the Garden. Dog crates stuffed with blankets, bowls, toys, food, and grooming supplies stack up on luggage trolleys. Dogs sleep in crates or wander on leashes around the lobby, setting off an occasional chorus of barks.

Upstairs two Dogues de Bordeaux (think Hooch in the movie Turner and Hooch) and their handlers meet the press. Uno, the beagle who won last year's "Best in Show," takes over the press conference by barking at the other dogs. David Frei, the longtime Westminster communications director, says that Uno is "used to having the stage all to himself."

Sunday afternoon

Lydia Hutchinson, a dog show judge since 1964, grew up breeding and showing Cairn Terriers as her parents had before her. This year she's a steward, handling lists of dogs as well as armbands and awards, and calling the dogs in the order the judge wants.

She takes me backstage the afternoon before the show begins. The New York Knicks are playing in the arena. When the game ends a crew of workers begins converting the basketball court into a dog show venue, a process that must be finished by 8:00 a.m. Monday when the judging begins.

In the bowels of the Garden, exhibitors-Dog News, Pedigree, Pampered Paws Jewelry, Bunique, Petography-are setting up their booths. Lydia knows everyone, it seems, and so she is constantly catching up with other owners, breeders, judges, handlers, and officials. Dog shows go on all year long across the United States, but Westminster is the big one that everyone tries to come to, so for many it's an annual reunion.

Monday

Pugs, Yorkies, and Maltese are pretty common in Manhattan, but at 7 a.m. on Monday Wolfhounds and Collies are crossing 7th Avenue. The dogs and their handlers head to a Madison Square Garden freight elevator that takes them to level 5, where benches and grooming areas are set up. The dogs, organized by breed and size, stay in crates on the benches except when they're being groomed, shown, or exercised.

The official show kicks off at 8:00 a.m. with the National Anthem. The arena floor is divided into six rings, with different breeds or groups judged in each ring. Fans sit in the stands or stand between the rings. They can move from ring to ring to see particular breeds being judged.

Backstage, dogs stand, sit, and even sleep on grooming tables as people toil over them with combs, scissors, hair dryers, and fingers. Watching the dogs being groomed is a show highlight. Throughout the day, fans with cameras snap pictures of dogs getting their hair done. Potential dog buyers watch the judging within breeds, choose a favorite, and then locate the dog breeder in the benching areas. Strangers talk to each other, pointing out favorites and explaining why one dog is superior to another.

Dog fans, like dog breeds, come in all shapes and sizes. Golden Retriever fans fill the stands and floor area around the rings, whooping and cheering for their favorite dogs. Lydia Hutchinson describes the terrier crowd as "more conservative. We clap but don't make it obnoxious." Judging standards also differ by breed. Lydia points out a couple of Irish Terriers "giving each other the evil eye." What might be bad behavior in another breed is called "terrier spirit. You don't want them to back down. If the handler can't get them back under control-that would be detrimental."

Tuesday

I rode on an elevator containing a Mastiff, an Airedale, a Yellow Lab, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and a Weimaraner. Then I talked with owners and handlers:

Marilyn Title owns and breeds Border Terriers and Irish Setters. After breeding dogs for 40 years and professionally handling them for 25, she utters the dog equivalent of the baseball truism that the best hitters make an out seven out of 10 times. "The best dogs ever bred don't win all the time. If you don't learn that you don't last."

Doety Marks owns a 2-year-old Great Dane in California. She sells real estate in Laguna Beach but has been on "involuntary retirement" since the housing crash. For the past eight months she's been "campaigning" her dog, taking it to dog shows almost every weekend, where it has won a number of best in breed ribbons. "It's a very expensive hobby," she says, citing stud fees, entry fees, vet bills, and transportation. Her handler gets $100 "every time she walks in the ring" and earns bonuses for high finishes.

Rebecca Carner is a lawyer and a professional handler. She started handling when she was in law school 12 years ago and enjoyed developing her own business. Even at her law firm she noticed the partners preferred to talk about dog shows rather than law. She left the firm and worked full-time handling dogs, but now she's planning to cut back a bit and begin her own law practice: "You could do 200 shows a year."

Judging goes on all day: first "Best in Breed." The group competitions take place Monday and Tuesday, winnowing the dogs down to seven "Best in Group" dogs who then compete for "Best in Show." When a Samoyed barks, one fan says, "It's nice to hear a dog bark at Westminster. After all, they are dogs."

Tuesday evening

At five the crowd on the Garden floor begins to disperse and men in blue shirts start to take down the small rings and clear away the judging tables. Cleaning women with brooms and dustpans make their way onto the green carpet and sweep up debris. Other janitors sweep and mop around the seats in the stands, picking up popcorn boxes and beverage cups. Garden staffers set up floor-level seats, a press area, camera stands, and picture backdrops.

After two hours a one-ring, highly decorated, TV-ready arena is set up. The four hosts of NBC's Today appear and fans call down to them. "Hi, Meredith. Hi, Al. I watch you every day." The four of them handle dogs in a "Best in Today Show" competition, which is followed by a Junior Handler competition.

The televised show begins with three groups still to be judged: Sporting, Toy, and Working Group dogs. Sporting dogs, 28 "Best in Breed" winners in all, include the popular Golden Retriever and the uncommon Sussex Spaniel. The judge scrutinizes the dogs, feels their bone structure, and watches them move. The evening crowd is loud and enthusiastic, cheering for favorites, especially when a dog's face is caught on camera and projected on the big screens that make every expression visible.

The toy dogs are some of the goofiest looking, but the crowd seems to like them that way. A Chihuahua, an Affenpinscher (also known as the monkey dog), and 21 other "Best in Breed" toys compete. One oversized handler has a pencil-thin Italian greyhound at the end of a leash. The Working Group includes 25 dogs ranging from Giant Schnauzers to Newfoundlands, Great Danes, and Tibetan Mastiffs. Big and powerful though they are, these dogs respond to slight pressure from their handlers.

Finally it's time for seven dogs representing seven groups, the winners from among 2,500 dogs in 170 breeds, to compete for "Best in Show." The lights go down. Spotlights dance across the floor. The seven dogs-a Sussex Spaniel, a Scottish Deerhound, a Giant Schnauzer, a Scottish Terrier, a Brussels Griffons, a Pulik, and a Standard Poodle-enter the arena to the roar of the crowd.

It's quickly evident that the crowd loves the slow-moving Sussex Spaniel, winner of the Sporting Group competition. Every time it walks or wags its tail the crowd roars. The closest competitor in fan affection appears to be the bug-eyed Brussels Griffons, which benefits from the way the camera picks up his Gizmo-like expressions.

But "Best in Show" is not supposed to be a popularity contest. The decision is in the hands of one and only one judge. Sequestered from the earlier judging, she examines each dog in turn. She watches each run or waddle. She then turns solemnly to the judging table where the trophies sit. After signing the judging book she presents an enormous gold and purple rosette with ribbons to the Sussex Spaniel, named Stump. The crowd goes wild.

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is WORLD’s story coach and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband, Marvin, live in Austin, Texas. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.