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Going to the dogs

Lifestyle/Technology | The Westminster Kennel Club Show is a breed apart

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

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.

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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."

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