Wandering the Westminster Dog Show on Valentine’s Day.
A middle-aged show-dog handler in green cargo shorts and black Birkenstocks crouches in front of a gray kennel. “Wait until you see what Daddy brought you for dinner,” he says to the purebred Cesky terrier within. I watch as Daddy carefully unwraps a Burger King Whopper. “You’re a star,” he tells the dog, breaking off a piece of the meat patty and sliding it through the crate’s metal door. In just under an hour, Daddy will put on a Paisley shirt and an ivory suit; he’ll take the terrier, officially known as Bluefire Heart of a Warrior, for a walk on the pristine Astroturf at Madison Square Garden before the thousands of people gathered on Valentine’s Day for the 141st Westminster Dog Show.
Established in 1877, the Westminster Dog Show is the second longest continually held sporting event in the United States, after the Kentucky Derby. The Jumbotron at MSG offers a kind of potted history, with sepia photos of old New York fading in and out; the narrator’s refined, sonorous voice floats over a violin. A hundred and forty years ago, he explains, a group of “sporting gentlemen” gathered at the bar of the bygone Westminster Hotel on Sixteenth Street and Irving Place in Manhattan to drink and brag about their hunting feats. Looking for a venue superior to the sporting field for comparing hounds, they agreed that what Manhattan really needed was a dog show. They formed the Westminster Kennel Club, named after the hotel bar, and soon after the first annual New York Bench Show of Dogs was held at Gilmore’s Garden, the predecessor of Madison Square Garden. The Westminster Dog Show, the narrator informs us, is a “quintessential part of American culture,” having survived both world wars, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rise of the Internet.
This august history is less apparent backstage at the “benching area,” where owners, handlers, and assistants prepare the dogs for the show. There are pizza boxes everywhere—New York Pizza Suprema, Real New York Pizza, and Sbarro—red plastic soda cups, flat irons, curling irons, hairspray, and a tangle of iPhone chargers. The scene feels less like the backdrop of a prestigious dog show than it does backstage at a youth ballet recital. The air smells surprisingly earthy—like wet hair, grass, and hay.
The benching area, open to anyone with a general-admission ticket, is thronged by dog lovers five and six rows deep around the canines—a sea of people in puffy down jackets, boots, evening gowns, and suits, stretching their arms over and between each other’s heads to snap pictures. A man in full hunting greens pushes upstream against a man in a tuxedo. A night earlier, Patty Hearst—yes, that Patty Hearst—was somewhere in our midst. These days, Patricia Hearst Shaw, as she’s now known, is a mainstay of the purebred dog world. (Her French bulldog, Tuggy, competed in the Nonsporting Group Finals, but did not advance to Best in Show.)
I don’t see Hearst, but I do see a group of twenty people photographing a peeing Tibetan mastiff. Handlers in sparkly skirt-suits share a pizza around a table where a husky serves as the centerpiece. Three sleek, bitchy men in navy blazers and dark jeans blow-dry a mountainous white standard poodle perched on a leopard-print pillow. When the men grow tired of answering questions, they scribble the dog’s details—JASON, THREE YEARS OLD—on the back of a large white envelope and stick it in the crook of its curled up form. “Just look at that body!” one woman exclaims as she passes. “What a gorgeous dog,” another says. “I have never seen such a large poodle.” Jason looks like a cross between a fallen topiary and a piece of meat on a butcher’s block.
I’ve never seen such a large poodle, either, and I’ve certainly never seen so many adults wearing red and pink on Valentine’s Day. Red polka dots, red plaid, raspberry sweaters, ruby pants, a velour jumpsuit, mauve Swarovski-encrusted loafers, at least two red velvet blazers. The number of young and old couples in coordinated outfits is astonishing. Everywhere I look, people in red are kissing one another and kissing dogs. It occurs to me that of course Valentine’s Day Westminster attendees wear red on the holiday. They love dogs; they love tradition; they love love.
These affinities come together under the banner of “good breeding,” which is both the crux and the strangest aspect of Westminster: the constant, shameless admiration of purebreds. When I encounter Maggie and Tara, here from upstate New York, they’re arguing about whether the dog being blow-dried in front of us is a Pembroke Welsh corgi or a beagle. “We love purebreds!” Maggie tells me. Later I talk to the handler of a bichon frise, who says the dog is descended of a Best in Show winner from 2001, making it a great-great-great-grand-dog. I make a lame joke about keeping it in the family, and she replies, in earnest, “It’s very good, it means the genealogy is doing what it’s meant to do.” The Westminster Kennel Club defines the basic purpose of a dog show—known as “conformation”—as facilitating “the evaluation of breeding stock to be used in producing the next generations.” To this average dog lover, conformation has an eerie ring to it.
When I ask a few attendees why they think Westminster remains so popular, they all give the same answer: the dogs. I’m not quite buying it. The emphatically preppy getups—tartan bow ties, Nantucket red pants, Chanel chain necklaces—suggest otherwise. Like those at the U.S. Open or the Triple Crown horse races, Westminster attendees are largely white and dressed in a way that explicitly references the event’s moneyed history. They may come for the dogs, but for some, Westminster is a chance to celebrate and consume an elite tradition.
Just before eight, the backstage crowd thins out and everyone takes their seats in the stands. I make my way up to the nosebleed section, where the scene is refreshingly democratic. I drink a sixteen-ounce beer out of a plastic Knicks cup with a lid and a straw. To my left sits a couple in his-and-hers T-shirts: hers features a silhouette of a schnauzer filled in with an American flag, his is black and reads in blocky white font: I KISSED A DOG AND I LIKED IT. He eats M&M’s by the fistful. When a Bernese mountain dog is introduced, he cheers and claps his hands over his head.
Watching from the nosebleeds is like sitting by the window in a sixth-story apartment and watching a woman in a glittery outfit take her dog for a stroll on the sidewalk below. It’s also a bit like watching it on TV. As the judging for Best in Show begins, I’m surprised to find that I have chills. In the stands, spectators shout the loudest for the biggest and smallest dogs, the ones with the shortest legs and the ones who the Jumbotron catches drooling. It occurs to me that there is something very human about cheering loudly for a creature that loves you unconditionally.
A German shepherd named Rumor wins Best in Show. The judge tells the crowd that “The German shepherd dog standard talks about quality and nobility. Sometimes unrecognizable, but when you recognize it, it hits you home, and that’s what it really is.” This description strikes me as absurd and lovely. Maybe I’m exhausted after six hours of dogs and dog lovers, but the idea of a noble creature who is entirely good and virtuous is extremely appealing. Later, in the taxi home, I look at the skyline: the Empire State Building glows red for Valentine’s Day. The spire of One World Trade Center shines purple and gold for the Westminster dogs.
Hilary Reid is a writer based in Brooklyn and works for New York Review Books.