The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show: Here Are the Basics

Before the dog show starts Feb. 10 at Madison Square Garden, learn what happens in the ring.


Every year since 1877, the eyes of the dog world turn toward New York City, where the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has become one of the longest continuously held sporting events in the United States, second only to the Kentucky Derby. A massive and immediate success, 1,201 dogs were entered in the very first Westminster dog show. Named for the hotel bar where late-19th-century sportsmen gathered to boast of their feats in the field, and those of their trusted hunting dogs, the Westminster dog show is one of the best-known and most elite dog shows in the world.

The main event is a conformation dog show that moves from breed judging to group judging to the crowning of a single dog as Best in Show. Broadcast on television for the first time in 1948, and streamed on the Internet first in 2005, the Westminster dog show continues to be a premier event for dog lovers worldwide.

What is a kennel club?

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is run by the Westminster Kennel Club, an affiliate of the American Kennel Club. To understand what happens at the Westminster dog show, you need to know a little about kennel clubs and breed clubs. A breed club sets and maintains the guidelines for a given breed. A kennel club concerns itself with the breeding standards, promotion, and exhibition of a wide range of dog breeds. The Westminster dog show is a conformation dog show, at which a dog is judged against the standards set forth by breed clubs and adopted by kennel clubs.

What is a conformation dog show?

While there are standards for each breed of dog, determined by breed clubs, adjudication of a conformation dog show is a highly subjective affair. At the Westminster dog show, there are judges specific to each group of dogs. Judges work from the breed standards, documents that set forth the platonic ideal of a given breed. From physical dimensions to grooming to temperament and behavior, the breed standard establishes the breed club’s guidelines for, say, the perfect Pug, a breed which first won Best In Show in 1981.

Dogs at the Westminster dog show do not compete against each other. Instead, each dog is judged by how well it conforms to the breed standard, to that mythical ideal. That is why it is called a conformation show. Sticking with the Pug, for example, Best of Breed is determined by which Pug best represents that breed standard. Best of Breed winners proceed to group judging.

Pugs are included in the Toy group at the Westminster dog show. The Toy group also includes breeds as diverse as the Chihuahua, Havanese, Pekingese, and Pomeranian. In group competition at a conformation dog show, judges again do not judge dogs against each other, but must select the dog from their specialty group that best exemplifies its breed standard. On the evening of the second day, the Best of Group winners are brought before the discerning eye of a single judge to determine which dog will be awarded the coveted title of Westminster’s Best In Show.

Changes in the Westminster dog show

Change is the one constant for the Westminster dog show throughout its history. The first show in 1877 was so popular, it lasted for four days, a practice that lasted until 1920. It was a three-day event from 1921 until 1940, after which it settled into its current two-day format. The Best In Show title was not awarded until the 30th Westminster dog show in 1907. Indeed, the Westminster dog show has survived and flourished in part because of its ability to change.

From a showcase of primarily hunting dogs, the Westminster dog show has had to change as new breed clubs formed, new breed standards have been established, and as groups shift and grow. The Junior Showmanship competition, in which children are adjudicated on their skills in showing and presenting dogs, began at the 1934 Westminster dog show.

2014 brings fresh changes for the Westminster dog show with the addition of the Masters Agility Championship, taking place a few days prior to the main event. Mixed breed dogs will participate for the first time since the event’s earliest iterations in the skills-based Agility Championship.

Westminster dog show groups and winners

Groups, like the Toy group mentioned above, contain far too many breeds of dogs to present a comprehensive list here. The Terrier group, you may divine, is comprised primarily of Terriers, though it also includes the Miniature Schnauzer. From the Airedale to the Wire Fox Terrier, the latter of which is the only breed with more than 10 Best In Show winners, the Terrier group has dominated at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, with over 40 Best In Show champions in its ranks. The Hound group is home to Beagles, Dachshunds, and Scottish Deerhounds, the latter breed taking home Best In Show for the first time in 2011.

The Working group is where you’ll find the Boxer, Komondor, and the Portuguese Water Dog. The Herding group, an offshoot of the Working group officially established in 1983, has the fewest Best In Show winners and includes Collies, Corgis, and German Shepherds. The Sporting group includes the English Springer Spaniel, one of three breeds, along with the Wire Fox and Scottish Terriers to have more than five Best In Show wins at Westminster. Finally, the Non-Sporting group includes the Bulldog (the first non-Terrier breed to win Best In Show in 1913), Dalmatian, and the Shiba Inu.

Have you ever been to Madison Square Garden for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show? Do you watch it with your dogs in the comfort of your home? Share your experiences and memories in the comments!

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