TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — Thousands of dogs started competing Monday toward the best in show prize at the illustrious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. To the casual viewer, the annual exhibition of dressed-up handlers leading well-mannered dogs around a ring might seem like a somewhat stilted walk in the park, but there's more than that to choosing a champion. So here's some show lowdown:
HOW MANY DOGS COMPETE?
More than 3,000 canines, as wee as Chihuahuas and as massive as mastiffs, signed up to vie for best in show. The contestants represent 209 breeds and varieties (a variety is a subset of a breed; think toy poodle vs. standard poodle).
Penny Allen and Bryson Allen each showed a mudi, a Hungarian herding breed appearing for the first time this year. The Hico, Texas, duo are mother and son, and he's only 11, but "when we get in the ring, it's gloves off – let the best mudi win," Penny Allen said.
Another newly added breed, the Russian toy, competes Tuesday. Separately, about 350 dogs competed in agility and obedience.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
First, dogs go up against others of their breed – sometimes dozens of others, sometimes far fewer. Buzz the Norwegian buhund bested just one opponent, his half-sister, to win their breed Monday while 43 Rhodesian ridgebacks faced off one ring away.
Buzz's breeder, owner and handler, Amie McLaughlin of Kent, Washington, was a little sad not to see more of the small, affectionate herders that she considers "the hidden gem of the dog world." But Buzz won't rest on his laurels -- "we have a lot of up-and-comers," she said.
The winner from each breed moves on to a semifinal round, where they're judged against others in their "group" – such as hounds, herding dogs, or terriers. In the final round, the group winners compete for best in show, which will be awarded Wednesday night.
WHAT ARE THE JUDGES LOOKING FOR?
Judges are tasked with determining which dog best matches the ideal, or "standard," for its breed.
"You see an Afghan and a beagle — they're not saying which one is better. They're saying which one more closely resembles its breed's written standard," Westminster spokesperson Gail Miller Bisher said. "It's what dog will pass on the key features of that breed."
The standard is derived from the breed's original function and can speak to everything from teeth to tail to temperament. For example, a hound that was developed to hunt in rough terrain might be required to have thick paw pads, or a herding dog to have proportions that allow for quick, tight turns.
So a borzoi's handler, for instance, needs to show the dog can "move like they can catch a wolf," said handler Ron Williams of Wantage, New Jersey. Someone showing a miniature pinscher wants to showcase the high-stepping hackney gait that is a hallmark of the breed. A saluki will be examined for certain angles in its legs and feet that underlie the running speed and athleticism of these lanky, elegant-looking desert hunters.
So elegant-looking that owner Jennifer Rimerman, who was at Westminster on Monday with her saluki Haney, has heard would-be owners gush the likes of "they would drape on my furniture so lovely."
Indeed, they would, but Rimerman's show dog can also snag a bird in midair.
"A saluki's form really needs to follow its function, and its function was not to look pretty on a couch," said Rimerman, of Cape May, New Jersey.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO PREPARE?
Westminster's canine competitors are well-trained to handle being handled in the ring. But getting ready can still take hours. Or longer.
Bergamasco sheepdogs Coco and Sapphire got their baths two days before their turn in the ring Monday — that's because their dense, flocked coats take a day or so to dry. "It's like a wet wool sweater that's very thick," explained breeder Yvonne Bunevich of Quaker Hill, Connecticut. "It's not a wash-and-go dog."
ARE THERE ANY MIXED-BREED DOGS AT WESTMINSTER?
Yes. They can compete in agility and obedience, but only purebreds are eligible for best in show.
WHAT ABOUT THAT FOCUS ON PUREBREDS?
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals regularly stages protests outside the Westminster show to decry what the animal rights group sees as an irresponsible purebred pageant. The kennel club says the show highlights the preservation of the wide range of dog breeds.
WHAT DOES THE BEST IN SHOW WINNER GET?
Bragging rights and a trophy. There's no cash prize.
SO WHAT'S THE POINT?
"Showcasing the dogs — letting people see a good dog," says Vickie Venzen of Jarretsville, Maryland, who handled Coco on Monday while daughter Tia Williams squired Sapphire.
Many participants also prize the sense of community that comes with spending weekend after weekend at shows together, sharing tips, grooming space and their love of dogs.
"You develop this rapport because we are more like a family," Robin Greenslade of Hudson, New Hampshire, said Monday as she helped look after her miniature pinscher, Adele, and a half-dozen other dogs under handler Kim Calvacca's care.
"It's truly a lifestyle," Greenslade said. "And it's a labor of love."