How to think like a winner (at the Westminster Dog Show)

Wasabi the Pekingese has the heart of a Westminster champion.
Wasabi the Pekingese has the heart of a Westminster champion.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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It can be scary to put yourself up for judgment—whether that means applying for a job or giving a public speech. The stars of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, however, have no such compunctions.

Partly this is because they are dogs, and thus blessedly free from the tendency to psych themselves out. At the 145th Westminster show in Tarrytown, New York, this weekend, I watched a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Chester trot cheerfully around a ring with his handler, one of several dozen wide-eyed, tail-wagging lookalikes.

Chester the Cavalier spaniel at Westminster
Chester the Cavalier at Westminster.
Image: Sarah Todd

“What do you think he’s thinking out there?” I asked a member of Chester’s family, a human named Zach Van Ysseldyk, as I imagined myself in Chester’s position, full of self-doubt. (“Everyone here has a pedigree just as good as mine!”)

Van Ysseldyk gazed out at the little dog. “Probably, Oh, this is fun.”

I wished then that my brain worked more like Chester’s, and realized there might be a lot for anxious humans to learn from the winning attitudes of the dogs of Westminster.

The importance of praise

Competing at Westminster is hardly a walk in the park. For one thing, it’s considered bad form to go lunging after a squirrel while the shape of your head is being inspected by a judge.

But good training was table stakes for the more than 2,500 canines who made it to the most prestigious dog show in the US this year. What really made them stand out was their unshakeable inner confidence—like Wasabi, this year’s winner, a fluffy Pekingese that a Westminster judge declared “feels like he’s 10 feet tall.”

Raising a dog with a Wasabi level of self-assuredness means lavishing praise on them from a young age. “You want them to think they’re the most incredible thing in the world,” says Gail Miller Bisher, director of communications at the Westminster Kennel Club, who has herself shown bearded collies, miniature dachshunds, and English cocker spaniels.

A Puli runs with its handler
A Pulik at Westminster.
Image: Sarah Todd

Susi Szeremy, who breeds dreadlocked herding dogs called Pulik, says that it’s crucial for handlers to praise their dogs, win or lose. “They need to know we love them,” she says. “Maybe they had an off day.”

Not everyone has people building them up from a young age. But we can make a point of giving ourselves plenty of positive feedback, congratulating ourselves on small wins and remembering that an off day doesn’t make us any less valuable.

What to do when you get nervous

Not every dog at Westminster has the happy-go-lucky air of a Chester or the boldness of a Wasabi. Breeder Lynn Partridge was competing with her Italian greyhound named Vee, so named for the little white V-shape at the top of the dog’s head.

“Greyhounds are very sensitive,” Partridge explained as Vee shivered with some combination of excitement and nervousness, occasionally turning around to place her paws beseechingly on Partridge’s shoulders. As such, Partridge knows that part of her job in the ring is encouraging Vee to come out of her shell.

What helps with that? I asked.

“String cheese,” she replied.

Vee the Italian greyhound
Vee the Italian Greyhound.
Image: Sarah Todd

Strong dog-show competitors, it turns out, tend to be quite food-motivated. But small rewards of any kind, from string cheese to a walk around the block or a TikTok break, go a long way toward urging all of us to keep striving toward our goals.

It’s also perfectly all right to get a bit jittery before (or even during) a big moment in the spotlight. “A little adrenaline is a good thing,” said Linda Pitts, a professional handler who was showing a Puli, a Tibetan spaniel, and a Cavalier spaniel at this year’s competition.

That’s true for humans, too: Research shows that a spike in adrenaline tends to improve performance. But if a pounding heart and stomach flips are making you more nervous, just tell yourself that you’re excited. Since anxiety and excitement are both “aroused” emotions, with similar physical symptoms, we can trick ourselves into interpreting a negative emotion for a positive one, as Olga Khazan writes for The Atlantic.

Cultivating a strong support network

One of the most important factors that goes into the making of a champion show dog is the bond between the dog and his or her human.

Zoe Anderson, competing in Westminster’s junior division, says that she motivates her English Springer Spaniel Brew with “lots of beef jerky.” But there’s one thing even more alluring to Brew than beef. “In the ring, his favorite thing to do is give me hugs,” she says, kneeling down to demonstrate.

Brew the English cocker spaniel
Brew the English cocker spaniel, with Zoe.
Image: Sarah Todd

Sarah Gilreath, who was competing with her pug Foster, observed that a dose of affection helps her handle the pressure as much as her dog. “If you’re feeling a little stressed, a pug kiss doesn’t hurt,” she said.

That’s perhaps the most important takeaway on winning from Westminster. The dogs don’t care if they lose; they just care about spending time with their humans. Losing, in the end, doesn’t reflect on the dog’s worth at all.

Of course, winning does feel good—for dogs as well as humans. “They know when they’ve won,” says Bisher. “They feel the human’s excitement.”