The Super Bowl of dog shows is the place to see the elite compete. With its prestigious history, the 143rd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show keeps man’s best friend (and entourage) coming back year after year, especially for Oklahomans.
“It’s a long-standing tradition and has an amazing reputation in the dog show community, but it is also the one dog event that the whole country seems to be aware of,” says Fred C. Bassett, a Broken Arrow resident and three-time judge at Westminster.
Westminster, the highest level of competition in the dog show community, is second only to the Kentucky Derby as the longest-running sports competition in the United States. The first show, in 1877, was at New York’s Gilmore’s Garden, forerunner of Madison Square Garden. The Westminster is the only event to be held in all four versions of the Garden built since 1879.
Bassett says the best judges in the country are invited to Westminster in addition to the 2,800 champion show dogs across seven groups and about 200 breeds and varieties.
“It’s a high honor to get invited to judge the show, and all of us invited treat it as such,” says Bassett, who has shown dogs since the early 1960s and judged them since the mid-’70s. “I’ve judged high-profile shows all over the world, and you have to have that kind of reputation to get invited.”
Like many dog shows, Westminster is a process of elimination. The first step toward Best in Show is winning Best of Breed, with each slotted into one of the groups (sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting and herding) in the next round. The winners in each group advance to the final round.
Professional handler Perry Payson of Bixby says preparing a dog for the competition is a long-term commitment.
“Ideally, preparation starts with a young puppy,” he says. “When you see a happy dog in the ring, there’s a lifetime of positive experiences and preparation behind that ‘pick-me-I’m-the-one’ look and attitude.”
Payson, who has handled dogs since he was 11, says connecting with and showing affection to the dog is another important element to training for any dog show.
“I can look at the structure and know how to promote the dog’s strengths, but first I have to get its attention and trust,” he says. “What I do is give the dog love. Then, when I’m in the ring, it’s me and that dog, and that connection.”
Each breed has an official standard dictating the general appearance, movement, temperament and specific physical traits of the dog. Judges observe these attributes, in addition to other factors, when picking winners.
“While the breed standard provides a set of criteria for a judge, to be competitive a dog must have a spark and pizzazz that make the judge think, ‘That’s the winner,’” Payson says. “Showiness and rapport with the handler make the difference in a good dog and a winner.”
To learn more about the Feb. 11-12 show, visit westminsterkennelclub.org.