I went to the Westminster Dog Show for the first time ever and discovered backstage was heaven on earth02/15/2020
- On Tuesday, I went to the Westminster Dog Show in New York City's Madison Square Garden for the first time.
- The best part about the show is the benching area, where the public can check out all the dogs before they compete.
- I met countless beautiful pups as they were getting groomed and prepped before their big night, and learned about breeds I didn't even know existed.
- Watching the show from the stands, I found that the drunk spectators and long beer lines almost made it feel like a Rangers game — but with cuter players.
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When I went to England for the first time as a 20-year-old study-abroad student, I thought I'd discovered heaven. I was surrounded by men who sounded like Hugh Grant and never mentioned the NFL in conversation.
But real heaven, I learned this week, can be found once a year at the backstage area of the Westminster Dog Show in New York City's Madison Square Garden.
I went to the prestigious 144-year-old competition for the first time on Tuesday and have never met so many beautiful dogs in my life. And from the long beer lines to the drunk spectators, the show felt almost exactly like a Rangers game — but with cuter players.
This was my experience (dozens of adorable dog photos included).
I had no idea what to expect when I got off at the Herald Square subway station and began making my way towards Madison Square Garden.
Would the crowd be young or old? Would there be dog-themed food? Would I get to meet a dog? Two dogs!? These were the questions that ran through my mind as I navigated the tourist-packed streets of Manhattan.
I noticed that the Empire State Building was glowing purple and yellow — the same as the Westminster Dog Show's signature colors.
Madison Square Garden also had purple and yellow lights.
Although the venue was decked out in the Westminster Dog Show's colors, an ad promoting an upcoming hockey game reminded visitors that they were on the Rangers' home turf.
My first stop was the benching area, where all the show dogs are pampered and groomed before going out to compete. It's completely open to the public — and it's where I found heaven.
The very first pup I laid eyes on was an adorable golden retriever who was in the Juniors competition, which is for show dog handlers aged 10 to 18.
The real heavy hitters who would be competing for Westminster's top prize — known as Best in Show — were getting ready farther down the room. But it was this Goldie that was capturing everyone's hearts.
This Goldie happily soaked up the attention as children and adults alike fawned over him.
And he wasn't even the most popular Goldie of the night.
A golden retriever named Daniel who competed in the Best of Show finals captivated all of Madison Square Garden — along with viewers at home (but more on him later).
The benching area was packed with excited dog lovers who were happily taking pictures and selfies as the pups were primped.
This little guy was loving the spotlight.
At first I was surprised to see just how calm the dogs were as they had their hair blown and combed to perfection.
But as I talked to their handlers and breeders, I realized that the night was nothing new for these dogs. They had been competing in shows all year to try and get an invitation to Westminster.
A number of the dogs were snoozing, making sure to get a nap in before their turn in the ring.
This guy was a huge favorite in the benching area, but easily slept through all the people saying "Awww" and "Oh my god!" as they cooed over him.
Many of the dogs handlers and breeders were deep in concentration as they got their pooches ready for the big night.
Multiple people described Westminster to me as their Super Bowl. It was the most important night of their year, despite the fact that there's no cash prize.
"We compete all year to get ranked," Jessica, a 30-year-old handler from Miami with an adorable Nederlandse Kooikerhondje named Toby, told me. "To get entered into Westminster you either have to be the top five of your breed, or there's a lottery."
Once pups get to Westminster, they must first compete against dogs in their same breed. The winners are then broken up into seven groups — sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, non-sporting, and herding — and the top dog from each goes onto the finals.
"To even win the breed here is just so prestigious," Trina Taylor, a California breeder, told me.
Many of the dogs were already Westminster veterans. This Manchester terrier named Riot was competing for the third time.
Taylor, his breeder, told me that this was the first time Riot had won his breed and qualified for Best in Group at the show.
"It's just so special," she said. "I eat, breathe, sleep, dogs. I show dogs professionally, it's my passion."
But Taylor told me that winning at Westminster is about more than just the bragging rights. Breeders and handlers also want to show off the breeds that they're passionate about to the general public so that prospective dog owners can learn more about them.
"We're encouraging people to do their homework, find out what they want for their lifestyle, what their activity level is, and what kind of dog they want," Lori Pelletier, a Norfolk terrier breeder, told me. "There's everything from two-pound dogs to 200-pound dogs."
While many of the Westminster competitors show dogs professionally, others juggle the "very expensive hobby" with their full-time job.
Pelletier, pictured here with her pup Elton, is a teacher from Exeter, Rhode Island. She travels in an RV three or four weekends a month to take Elton to shows all across the US, which helped him earn the No. 1 spot among Norfolk terriers in the country.
It's a grueling travel schedule, and one that Pelletier said she tries to balance with as much fun as possible for her pooch.
"He loves to show, so that helps," she said. "But you balance the show time with the fun time. He comes to school with me during the week, so he gets to see kids and be around kids and that's his outlet, his outlet is people."
And before Elton competes, Pelletier said she always makes sure that he enjoys treats like sleeping on the hotel bed and eating plates of filet mignon and chicken piccata.
I also met Bodie, an adorable Boykin spaniel who "trains on hot dogs."
Bodie's handler Beth Crocker, who lives in Princeton, South Carolina, is a fellow "weekend warrior" who told me that she goes to shows "two to four weekends a month."
It was immediately apparent that one of the biggest stars of the night was Siba, a standard poodle who ended up taking home the top prize.
Siba had already been making headlines earlier this week after it was revealed that she ate McDonald's for dinner before winning best of her group on Monday.
A gaggle of people surrounded Siba's table, where she calmly sat as her handler Crystal Murray-Clas combed her incredible coat. I wondered if her fans were there to admire her beautiful hair or, like me, meet a fellow McDonald's lover.
Murray-Clas told me that Siba had McDonald's chicken sandwiches for dinner before competing on both nights at Westminster and was "addicted" to the chain.
From hot dogs to steak, I learned a lot about the diets of show dogs during my night at Westminster.
I spotted this man in a tuxedo diligently cutting slices of steak for his pooch, before letting the pup eat a few of his own sweet potato fries.
The show had begun and I knew I needed to pull myself away from the beautiful pups.
But not before I petted this adorable French bulldog.
The benching area is right next to a curtained space where handlers and their dogs line up and get a few more minutes to prep before they head into the ring.
I spotted this line of sweet terriers before their Best of Group round began.
The dogs then make their grand entrance between two planters that are illuminated with neon purple lights.
The planters were decorated with purple and yellow roses.
The press seating was full, so I was given a ticket to sit in the general admission stands.
I got lucky and found a single aisle seat next to a kind elderly woman who was dressed to the nines.
Within seconds of sitting down, I heard screams and hollers from a group seated a few rows behind me. They sounded a little drunk.
"Give us the dogs!" one of them yelled at the top of their lungs.
"That's a good boy!" another shouted as the competition began.
They were definitely drunk.
As I looked around Madison Square Garden, I couldn't believe how packed the arena was.
Tickets for reserved seating in the lower stands were $65 per night for the Monday or Tuesday show, while general admission was $40 per night or $75 for both nights.
The general admission seats were completely packed. I saw ushers turning away countless couples and friends in my area, telling them it was unlikely they'd be able to find any seats together.
And it was clear that Westminster wasn't just for families or kids. I spotted two groups of girlfriends sipping on wine together, along with the drunk 20-somethings behind me and more than a few couples out on dates.
One of the best parts of the show was seeing how everyone reacted to the dogs below.
As judging for the working group began, I noticed that the elderly woman next to me only clapped for the Doberman Pinscher. When we began talking later in the night, I found out why.
"I had a Dobie," she told me with a smile, as if she was remembering her sweet pup.
And when a boxer named Wilma won Best of Group, my seat companion made her feelings known.
"The boxer, really?" she said to me.
At some point my stomach reminded me that I hadn't eaten in eight hours, so I went in search of food.
The general admission floor only had one open vendor, and most people were waiting to get beer. This wasn't even the longest line of the night.
I went downstairs to the lower stands — where most of the food vendors were open — in search of something healthy, and settled on this $13 teriyaki chicken bowl.
The smell of Mighty Quinn's, one of my favorite NYC barbecue spots, was thick in the air. I gave it a wistful glance and cursed my New Year's resolutions.
After I finished dinner and watched some more of the show, I couldn't help but feel a little bored. So I made my way back down to the benching area, my new favorite place.
The Westminster Dog Show would definitely be a fun night out with a group or partner. But my new friend had gone off to find her family, and it was hard to enjoy the show alone. There's a lot of waiting and watching as the dogs take their laps, and I had no conversation to fill in the gaps. Plus, the drunk group was getting louder.
"Hold me closer tiny puppy!" one of them yelled.
Thankfully, I knew just where I could find some company.
While the crowd at the benching area (which is open to the public all night) had noticeably died down since the show began, there were still some pooches getting primped.
The terrier group had yet to be judged, and their handlers were working up until the last second to get them ready for the crowd.
As I walked around the room, I couldn't believe how many breeds of dogs I had never seen before.
This Dandie Dimont terrier stole my heart.
As did this beautiful Irish setter.
One of the best things about going to Westminster was seeing how many different dogs are out there, and how beautiful they all are in their own way.
And just look at this Akita!
I could have stayed there all night just to hang out more with these adorable pups.
But as the terrier round was set to begin, the benching area turned into a ghost town.
With no more dogs to admire, it was time to go back to the stands.
Before the terrier group began, an ad for the Purple Leash Project revealed that only 10% of domestic violence shelters accept pets.
The clip touched on the fact that many women don't leave their abusive partners because they can't take their pets with them.
It was a sobering and educational moment during the show that I really appreciated, and there was huge applause for the Purple Leash Project — which is working to change that 10% figure.
Then it was time for the final Best of Group round.
All the terriers lined up and waited to be judged by a man in a tuxedo.
The judge closely examined each terrier dog on a podium.
He checked everything from the dog's ears to its teeth, before the handler took it for a lap so that the pup could show off its attitude and walk (which are also part of the judging criteria).
"I'd die for that dog!" a member of the drunk group yelled as a miniature bull terrier trotted by on the Jumbotron.
The judge then selected his top picks among the group and took one more look before selecting his winner.
He chose the wire fox terrier, which wouldn't surprise Westminster aficionados. The wire fox terrier has won Best in Show more times than any other breed in the show's history, taking home the crown 15 times (including in 2019).
The lights went down as it was announced that Best in Show was finally set to begin.
It was down to just seven dogs: Vinny the wire fox terrier, Wilma the boxer, Bourbon the whippet, Bono the Havanese, Siba the standard poodle (and McDonald's lover), Conrad the Shetland sheepdog, and Daniel the golden retriever.
The judge was revealed to be a Navy veteran named Robert H. Slay.
Before he began, it was announced that Slay had been sequestered during the competition. The winner would come down to his sole decision.
As Slay examined each pup, an announcer shared more information about their breed. The boxer is "great for children" they informed us, while a whippet is a "good city companion."
The fan favorite was obvious from the beginning as roaring applause followed Daniel the golden retriever wherever he went.
With his shining coat and smiling face, Daniel was a major crowd-pleaser. But he had history against him — a Goldie has never won Best in Show at Westminster. Daniel was only the second golden retriever to ever even win his group.
After the whippet was announced as the runner-up, Slay revealed with a simple point of his finger that Siba had taken home the grand prize.
The group of competitors immediately began hugging and congratulating Murray-Clas.
Ever the performer, Siba posed proudly with her big purple ribbon as Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" played in the background
As she stood by her champion pooch, Murray-Clas told reporters that the win was "overwhelming."
"This is the ultimate goal," she added. "I'm just beyond pleased."
The duo took a few more pictures on a special podium together during the press conference.
Murray-Clas said she had been "born into" the world of standard poodles — her mother was a handler as well — and revealed how much work went into that moment.
"There's a lot of hours involved," she said. "You have to love doing this."
Overall, I had a lot more fun at the Westminster Dog Show than I thought I would.
I had no idea that the public had so much access to seeing the dogs before the show, and I thought the benching area was a great way to learn about so many different breeds (and take plenty of cute photos).
It was also incredible talking to so many different competitors, many of whom have dedicated their whole life to the world of dog shows.
While I personally wish that Westminster would pay some tribute to shelter dogs and the benefits of adoption, I think the show can help prospective owners make an educated decision about what type of dog would best fit their lifestyle (which will also hopefully lead to less dogs in shelters).
My two biggest tips? If you're going to the show, definitely don't skip the benching area. And maybe don't go solo.
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