When my partner Andrew Lemieux and I walked into Madison Square Garden (his first time ever) and flashed our press passes for the 2019 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, we were completely unprepared for what we saw. Beneath the floor level seats existed an organized gymnasium of platforms, extension cords, signage, humans with cameras, and dogs. Lots and LOTS of dogs.
Andrew and I primarily cover football and have debated heavily about what constitutes a sport on our weekly sports talk show, Under Further Review. When we were guests at a filming of the ESPN+ show Always Late with Katie Nolan, we even asked Katie if she would consider dog showing a sport, to which she replied with a resounding “YES,” much to Andrew’s dismay. We had come to the Westminster Dog Show to settle this once and for all.
What We Learned About Sports at the Westminster Dog Show
A Brief History of the Bow-Wow-Down Showoff
The oldest organized sporting event after the Kentucky Derby, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show of 2019 marks the 143rd year of the event. Each year, nearly 3,000 dogs enter, and judging takes place over the course of two days at Piers 92 and 94, with the group and Best in Show competitions occurring at MSG.
The first show, which took place on May 8th, 1877, was meant for “gun dogs,” such as setters and pointers, and the prizes were adorned pistols for the use of the hunters and canines in their fieldwork. Since then, the show has expanded to allow 199 different breeds and varieties, which are then broken down into categories where each dog is measured to “breed standards.” Junior showmanship competitions, for handlers between the ages of 9-18, have been held in addition since 1934, and the winners in these competitions receive scholarships for secondary and veterinary schooling.
Unlike many benched shows, the dogs at Westminster are required to be on display in assigned locations during the show’s entire duration, as opposed to just in attendance at assigned ring times. It’s a long day for the dogs and handlers alike, but it allows spectators such as Andrew and I the opportunity to see all of the dogs and interact with their handlers.
How to Talk to Dogs – A Sportswriter’s Dilemma
Entering the grooming area, we were overcome with a warmth that began in our souls and quickly consumed our entire bodies as we took in the majesty of the very good furbabies that were being primped and greeting their public. Once this heavenly fog began to disperse, we paused: how would we approach these handlers with our sports knowledge and questions in a way that would allow us to be taken seriously?
We could act like we’d done this before. The first interview we requested received a firm, “No, we’re not interested.” Okay. Plan B. Go in and tell them we had never once covered canine sports and charm them with our naivety. Bingo. We approached Anita and Gavin Pugh, the owners and breeders of Storm, or Sky Hi Hunt The Night King, the breed-winning greyhound, and told them our story.
“We’re from Last Word on Sports. We usually cover football and we have never been to a dog show before. Would you mind answering a few questions for us about you, your dog, and sports?”
They delightfully agreed. From Redding, Pennsylvania, Storm came from the family’s Game of Thrones liter. And yes, they believe that dog showing is a sport. Gavin’s favorite dog show moment was when he got to show on the mat at the National Dog Show a few years back. “But,” he added, “this could be a new favorite.” Gavin is a hockey fan, and when we asked what his dream for Storm would be when he’s retired from the show circuit, he said he hopes that Storm will go on to become a team mascot.
We were in. The laughter that we shared with Anita and her son Gavin must have set a tone for our presence at the show, and we proceeded to meet and interview several additional owners and their dogs as the breeds filtered in and out of the grooming area in preparation for their moment on the biggest stage in Manhattan.
Don’t Sit, Don’t Stay, Go Get ‘Em!
We met Zoom, a Finnish Spitz, and his handler Wendy Whiteley from north of Seattle. Like Gavin and Anita, Wendy believes dog showing is a sport, most definitely for the dog, but also added that she loses weight every time she shows a dog. Zoom’s favorite treat is Wendy’s Vietnamese Coffee. Her cup, “when left unattended,” she shared, “is often found empty.” Zoom is the youngest Gold Grand Champion in his breed, winning before his fifth birthday, and his grandfather Rocket was the first Finnish Spitz to win the honor at the age of eight. She hopes one day that he will be the first of his breed to win Platinum Grand Champion.
We met Dusky, a Finnish Lapphund, and his mom, junior handler Kiera Karlin, who is only 16 years old. There are only about 800 Finnish Lapphunds in the country, as their primary job is herding reindeer in Finland. Kiera and Dusky hail from Atlanta, and while it was their second time at Westminster as a pair, it was their first time showing in the Juniors competition. They’d been there since 7AM, and it was 8PM when we began our interview, but neither exhibited any shortage of enthusiasm or energy. Kiera also believes that dog showing is a sport, and is a sports fan herself, playing varsity soccer at her high school. Kiera got Dusky as a puppy (rare for non-breeders) with the intention of making history with a new breed. Dusky has remained the #2 Finnish Lapphund in All-Breed standings for two consecutive years now, and this was his last show.
We met so many sweet creatures that were just so happy to be there, surrounded by people who love dogs. We saw an additional slew of good boys and girls who were very busy being made even more beautiful than they are naturally. And then, we went into the stadium.
Digging in The Garden
Ahhh… there’s nothing quite like the metallic and overcrowded splendor of New York’s most famous playground, Madison Square Garden. Busting with dog lovers of both the local and tourist variety, it’s rare to see such a broad spectrum of fanatics as those we witnessed wandering through the maze of levels that make up MSG on the night of Best in Show.
That night, the place was so packed it was difficult to find seats, even in our reserved press section. And it was loud. These people were SUPER hype about dogs. There were certainly crowd favorites, who, when shown on the jumbotron, spurred warm choruses of gasps, awes, and cheers.
One of the crowd favorites was a Sussex Spaniel named Bean, who gleefully trotted around the ring knowing he was one of the best boys there. In true sports game form, when Bean crossed the floor, his fans would roar his name with approval. I’m not kidding. We’re talking a loud, lengthy refrain of “BEAN! BEAN! BEAN! BEAN!”
And… get this… when Bean didn’t win, the crowd booed.
The crowd booed the other dog.
Absolutely vicious. These people took their dog show seriously.
The disdain of the audience aside, it must be good to be King, the wire fox terrier who won the top dog prize that night. Outgoing, alert, and cocky, the breed now has 15 best in show titles. King would enjoy a series of prizes fit for royalty – a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, a steak lunch at Sardis, and a walk-on role in Pretty Woman on Broadway.
The Last Word on The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Needless to say, attending our first dog show was an experience unlike any other sporting event Andrew and I had ever attended. We had the pleasure of petting lots of good boys and girls and speaking with many very informative handlers (major thanks to each of them, who were GREAT sports despite our lack of experience in their world).
We also learned so much about the work it takes to participate in one of the world’s most elite dog shows. The agility, patience, knowledge, and control of the dogs and handlers alike is so beyond what the public sees on television. These events exhibit a truly elite class of professionals.
And yes, we can now both agree, dog showing is ABSOLUTELY a sport.