Westminster: Where the Dogs Are

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is kind of like the Oscars: plenty of glamour, lots of talk about who is going to win, celebrities galore in the audience, tension, tears, really nice trophies and endless debate about who won and why. Sure there are many other dog shows--just like there are many other awards shows -- but Westminster is the one everybody watches on TV.

If you're lucky enough to go, Westminster is also a great place to learn about dog breeds, especially if you're thinking about getting a dog. That's because it's one of the few benched shows left in the United States. (In benched shows, dogs and their owners must sit all day in designated benching areas near the show rings, so the public can see and ask about their dogs.) So you can see dogs of more than 150 breeds and ask the people who show them all about the breed. And at Westminster all the dogs must already be champions, so you see some great representatives of each breed.

When you're learning about a breed to decide if it's right for you, of course you want to know the good and the bad. But when you talk to the owner of a show dog, remember that they have made a huge commitment to the breed and are very proud of their dog. So start by asking about the good stuff. Later, when you've shown that you're really interested, you can ask about the negatives.

In my Westminster research, I started by asking a number of breeders, "What's the most wonderful thing about your breed?"

"They're clowns; they smile all the time," said Kathy Brosnan of her Miniature Bull Terrier, Ch. Hellion's Midsummer's Cobweb. "The more you laugh, the more outrageous they will be. They have to have an audience."

"Pugs are bred to be a companion, and they want to please you," said Candy Schlieper, who was at the show with Ch. Candyland's Baby Ruth and Ch. Candyland's Bustre Bar. "They want to be with people constantly. Plus, they're a nice size and have a wonderful temperament."

"They're tough as nails in the field but a couch potato at home," said Ron Sebastiani of his Border Terrier, Ch. Ruron's Flash Bobik. "They work hard and look pretty."

Roxanne Roach, who was busy plopping the very accommodating Ch. Romar-Englelong Chili Pepper MW into the arms of all who craved to hold the Miniature Dachshund, said, "Their personality is playful, mischievous and honorable. And they're a multipurpose dog."

"They like to bond with the whole family and they do like to snuggle," said Connie Steffens of Border Collie Ch. Brakenhill Star of Bonclyde (below). "But they are very intelligent, and that can make them a handful. Even when they're sleeping, they're thinking. And a bored dog can be destructive."

Which brings us to the drawbacks. It's not that some breeds are better and some worse, but rather that every breed has characteristics that make it right for some people and not right for others. So I asked the breeders, "What kind of person makes a good owner for this breed, and what kind of person doesn't?"

"The best person has a happy-go-lucky attitude about life and likes the unexpected," said Roach with the Dachshund. Said Brosnan with the Miniature Bull Terrier, "The worst are people who want 100 percent predictability from their dog." Good potential Border Terrier owners are people who understand what kind of work terriers were bred to do, while bad possible Pug owners are people who don't like a dog who sheds, snores and sneezes.

"This is a breed that's OK for someone with their first dog," said Roach -- another important question to ask. That's not true for the Border Collie or the Border Terrier, but is for the Pug.

Finally, I asked the breeders what kinds of questions they think are important when you're researching a breed. Here's what they told me:
  • Activity level. You need a dog whose desire for exercise (how much and what kind) matches your own.

  • Health issues, both within the breed and within that person's kennel lines. "If someone says there are no health problems in a breed, talk to someone else," said Schlieper. Every breed has some. It doesn't mean every dog is unhealthy, but it does mean every breeder should be working hard to breed dogs that are free of the problems that lurk in a breed's gene pool.

  • Temperament. That includes how good the dog is with families, kids, and other dogs. Will they tolerate some teasing or the clumsiness of a child? Will they let people in your home? Are they cuddly or more standoffish? Your circumstances will dictate how important each of these things is to you. You should also ask about temperament within a particular breeder's kennel: Are they breeding with temperament in mind?

  • How much maintenance does the dog need? That includes grooming, special food, and the time involved in daily care.

  • How much time will it take to train and socialize the dog? Do they have special training requirements?

  • Are they easy to housebreak?

  • What is the life expectancy of the breed?
"Go around and talk to many different breeders of the same breed to confirm what you've been told," Roach advised. "And this is not the time to talk business." Breeders do not sell dogs at dog shows. So if you meet someone from whom you might like to buy a dog, just take their card and find out when you can call them.

Any dog show, even one that isn't benched, is a great place to learn about the breeds you're interested in. Shows always have grooming areas where the exhibitors set up their equipment and get their dogs ready for the show ring. If you wander over there, you'll always find some dogs and breeders who are happy to talk about them. Just wait until after the breed has been shown in the ring, because before that they're busy getting their dogs ready for their big moment.

For complete results  of the Dog Show visit the Westminster Kennel Club website.

Photographs © copyright 2004 by Carol Lea Benjamin