At Dog Show World, subtle and obvious details rule the day

NEW YORK (AP) — Doe-eyed dachshunds, stocky-faced French bulldogs and other non-sporting breeds roam the hallowed rings. An Italian bracco gets a double chin massage. Spaniels are blow-dried. Everyone is preparing, with love and meticulousness, for a long-awaited great moment.

With over 3,000 dogs competing this week in the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog showone of the most prestigious in the world, sometimes it’s a competitor’s confident gait or self-assured look that sets him apart from the rest.

“Like all things, beauty is subjective,” said Ann Ingram, who traveled from Cork, Ireland, to New York City to judge various events. “The attitude of a dog in the ring can help. If the dog loves himself, he shows. He has this attitude of, you know, ‘I’m a winner’.”

In short: there are the obvious characteristics, the quantifiable ones, and then there are the intangible ones.

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Each spring, the rarefied world of purebred breeding, a beloved yet idiosyncratic American subculture, is broadcast to viewers around the world for three days spanning over 16 hours. Things can get pretty arcane if you’re not immersed in the subject.

To hear Ingram and others say, the dog show is an arena where details matter a lot, details the rest of the world may have no idea about. Though with the show’s growing popularity as the years go by, that’s changing.


“With breeds like Frenchies and Bulldogs, where there are health issues with breathing, you want to see them able to move around without any signs of distress,” Ingram said. A brisk trot or excited tail flick may mean excellent performance for one breed but mediocre training for another.

For example, “any poodle that flies around the ring like a workhorse is not a poodle,” Ingram said. Some dogs were bred to hunt lions (Rhodesian ridgebacks), while others were bred to be affectionate puffins (Pekingese).

Others are arrogant or aloof. Ingram says that when you approach an Afghan hound, “they actually look right through you, rather than back at you,” because they’re bred to see far away. “It’s like, ‘You’re disturbing my vision, could you move? ‘”

Atop gold-skirted purple velvet tables, handlers position their dogs in preparation for Ingram’s scrutiny. “When you check the coat, you might find there’s no body or the elbows are hanging down a bit,” he said. When judging poodles, his scrupulous attention to detail goes beyond grooming. Some groomers, according to Ingram, straighten the poodles’ fluffy coat to make the round eyes appear almond-shaped, which is the breed standard.

Some details may be common, but the standards are not universal. In European competitions, for example, cream-colored French bulldogs and white-colored Italian greyhounds are not recognized. But in the United States, both dogs are competitive.


At nearly 150 years old, Westminster is the second-oldest continuous sports competition in the United States, behind only the The Kentucky Derby. But modern innovations have changed the game. Popular TikTok accounts, widespread use of QR codes and geotagged Instagram posts have raised the profiles of some competitors, who can score lucrative kibble sponsorships.

Before the dogs enter the ring, groomers dry the bellies of the Tibetan spaniels, brush the curls off the muzzles of the snow-white Maltese, and spray the cloud-like manes of the Bichon Frize. Some curly-coated and thick-coated breeds are brushed with baby powders, while fine-coated and silky-coated dogs are sprayed with various sprays.

Behind the scenes on Monday morning, handlers massaged the cheeks of sleepy-faced Italian bracco, who are eligible for the first time to race at Westminster this year.

Beth Sweigart of Bowmansville, Pennsylvania has the honor of judging Best in Show this year. So she’ll be locked up in her hotel room, staying out of the ring until the main competition. She is abiding by a longstanding policy.

“Some breeds are more glamorous than others and draw attention,” Sweigart said. But others, like Labradors, are what she called “a very utilitarian type of dog. They are not luxury engines. They are bred to be duck hunters. Although they were the most popular breed in the US for almost 30 years, Sweigart notes that at Westminster they have never won.


Although he doesn’t wear a uniform, experienced handlers and owners will probably recognize Sweigart from his more than 50 years in the dog world. In previous years, he has judged various terrier, toy, and sporting groups. At home, she has more than eight dogs, including Labradors, Affenpinschers and a pack of Norfolk terriers that she says are “named after patriots” like Eisenhower, Sam Adams and Patrick Henry.

Dress style is usually conservative and no-nonsense, with handlers and judges leaning over the dogs in every way. Most female handlers and judges wear formal blouses and skirts cut below the knees. But “you don’t want to be too precious in your outfit,” Ingram said, because “if you’re judging something like a St. Bernard, you’re making yourself slimy.”

Also abducted from a hotel on Monday was George Milutinovich of Fresno, California, who was judging 21 breeds and varieties in the non-sporting pool on Monday night. He said he’ll have a leisurely lunch and reread the standards, then watch some race videos and “get my head ready for the night.”

At home he has a Russell Terrier named Millie. For the past two decades, she has bred pugs and bichon frizees. But in the ring, the judges suspend her personal affinities and prejudices. “What worries you most,” Milutinovich said, is this: “Can this dog do the job he was originally bred to do?”

On Monday, the converging scents of cologne and wet dog were in the air. Bon Bon, a short-haired dachshund, devoured a chicken fillet torn from his handler’s breast pocket before circling the ring with a dignified strut to great applause.

“There are bigger shows out there numerically, but the fact that you’re actually getting the absolute cream of the cream…is very exciting,” Ingram said. “All the Westminster razzmatazz is very special.”

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