Everything you need to know about the Westminster Dog Show

Meet Flynn, the bichon frise who took home last year’s “Best in Show” title
Meet Flynn, the bichon frise who took home last year’s “Best in Show” title
Image: Reuters/ Brendan McDermid
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This article originally appeared as a Quartz Obsession newsletter. You can find it here in our archive, and sign up for the email here.

The Westminster Dog Show returns to New York City for the 143rd time on Monday (Feb. 11), when 2,800 canines will compete for the coveted Best in Show title. This year’s show runs from 8am ET to 11pm ET on Feb. 11 and 12 and is available to stream online.

Two new dog breeds, the Nederlandse kooikerhondje and the grand basset griffon Vendéen, are making their Westminster debuts this year. Last year’s winner, Flynn the Bichon Frise, was male, and this year’s winner will probably be male too. In fact, male dogs have won Best in Show at Westminster 72 times, almost twice as many times as females (who’ve only won 39).

Who will take home the title this year? We don’t know. What we do know is that you will be fully prepared for the event by the end of this article.

Who invented dog shows?

Humans domesticated dogs as long as 30,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that we put them on a pedestal in the first official dog show. Originally a mere side attraction to English cattle shows, it didn’t take long for the events to grow their own enthusiastic following.

The US got on board in 1877 with the launch of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, now one of the longest continuously running American sporting events, second only to the Kentucky Derby. More recently, they’ve taken off in China with the rise of middle-class pet ownership.

Our enthusiasm seems to be aging well. Millions of people tune into major televised competitions—including the National Dog Show on the US holiday Thanksgiving, a newish annual tradition inspired by a classic of satirical cinema, if you can believe it.

Essential Westminster stats

12: Breeds added to the Westminster Dog Show since 2016

$250,000: High-end costs of grooming, handling and “campaigning” a dog for Westminster

$0: Prize money for winning Best in Show at Westminster

1: Dog who has ever won the Westminster Dog Show three times: Ch. Warren Remedy, a fox terrier who took home Best in Show in 1907, 1908, and 1909.

Dog shows 101

The dog shows that most of us think of are actually conformation shows, meaning the dogs are judged on how well they conform to the defined standard of their breed. The dog deemed to best exemplify that standard is declared the—wait for it—Best of Breed, and then goes on to compete in Group competitions. The American Kennel Club (AKC), which runs Westminster, recognizes seven groups:

  • Sporting dogs bred to hunt game birds: Pointer, Retriever, Setter, and Spaniel
  • Hound dogs bred for hunting other game: Beagle, Basset Hound, Dachshund, and Greyhound
  • Working dogs bred to perform services: Akita, Boxer, Doberman Pinscher, and St. Bernard
  • Terriers bred to kill vermin: Airedale, Cairn Terrier, and Scottish Terrier
  • Non-Sporting dogs, bred for other reasons, often companionship: Chow Chow, Bulldog, Dalmatian, and Poodle
  • Herding dogs, bred to herd livestock: Briard, Collie, German Shepherd Dog, and Old English Sheepdog
  • Toy dogs bred for household companionship: Chihuahua, Maltese, Pomeranian, and Pug

The winner of each Group competition goes on to compete for the Best in Show title. Those are the basics—but as you know if you’ve ever tuned in for a dog show or experienced one in person, it gets much, much more complicated. Each breed has a long list of physical attributes and behavioral traits they must “conform” to.

In order for a dog to receive an official “champion” (Ch) designation from the AKC, it must obtain a total of 15 points by winning categories such as Winners Class, Best of Winners, Best of Opposite Sex, and Best of Breed. The number of points depends on variables including show location and number of dogs entered. TL;DR: It’s complicated.

Quick Trump fact

From 2010 to 2015, the winner of the Westminster Dog Show was invited to meet Donald Trump at Trump Tower the day after the show. The tradition appears to have ended when he became president.

Westminster Dog Show timeline

1859: The first official dog show takes place in Newcastle, England.

1877: The first Westminster Kennel Club show is held in New York City.

1891: The Royal Family, including Queen Victoria, enters dogs at Crufts in England.

1948: The Westminster Dog Show is televised for the first time.

2000: Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Best in Show debuts to critical acclaim.

2014: Westminster allows “mutt” dogs to compete in the agility portion of the competition.

Dog show glossary

Before you tune in, train on these terms.

Bait: A tasty treat of liver or cheese used to get a dog’s attention

Dam: A dog’s mother

Sire: A dog’s father

Free stack: To get a dog to pose for a judge in a manner that shows off its strong points

Hand stack: To physically arrange a dog in a pose for a judge

Nobble: To sabotage a show dog (OK, you probably won’t need to know this one, but just in case…)

Not-so-perfect pedigrees

Dog shows are not without controversy—and we don’t just mean over who piddled on the floor. In 2008, BBC One aired the investigative documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which alleged that an alarming number of purebred dogs suffer from serious health problems.

Examples featured in the documentary included a King Charles spaniel with syringomyelia, which occurs when the skull is too small for the brain; pugs with severe breathing problems; and boxers with epilepsy. Many of the issues were attributed to inbreeding. “People are carrying out breeding which would be first of all entirely illegal in humans and secondly is absolutely insane from the point of view of the health of the animals,” said Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London.

After the documentary aired, the UK’s Kennel Club banned mating among first-degree canine relatives.

What’s in a dog’s name?

If you’ve watched a dog show, you’re familiar with the contestants’ elaborate names: the 2018 Westminster winner was GCH Belle’s Creek All I Care About Is Love; the 2009 winner was Ch. Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee. It’s not a new phenomenon: the 1921 and 1922 winners were Ch. Midkiff Seductive and Ch. Boxwood Barkentine, respectively. According to a 1962 Sports Illustrated piece, the tendency towards baroque names originates with the English.

Show dog names are a bit like internet passwords: they have rules for how long they can be, what they can contain, and how often they can be used. (The AKC allows 37 instances of the same name within a breed; sometimes it assigns Roman numerals to differentiate dogs, like popes.) As with easy-to-crack passwords, people usually rely on a pattern. The owners of Boulder, dba GCH Night n’ Barrett’s Pioneer Mountain Man, break it down: earned titles (like “Ch.” for “champion”) + kennel name + “litter theme” + something related to the dog’s “call” name (what its owners call it) + more titles.

Sign up for the Quartz Obsession here!