Over the coming weekend 2,537 of the best show dogs in America—including most of those pictured in SI's color foldout opposite—will invade New York City with their owners and handlers in preparation for the nation's No. 1 canine event, the Westminster Kennel Club show in Madison Square Garden (Feb. 14, 15).
Every one of them a blue ribbon winner (except the puppies), the dogs will come from nearly every state in the Union, as well as Canada and Venezuela, to compete for the greatest single honor in the U.S. dog world—a win at Westminster. The Westminster event is the biggest indoor show of the winter, the climax of the canine year and the beginning of a new season. It is also the oldest consecutive show in the country, having been staged without a break since 1877.
This is a tribute not only to the Westminster but to the sport of showing dogs in general—one which large numbers of people pursue with considerable passion for a variety of reasons. To some it is a sport, to others a hobby; still others do it because they like dogs or simply because they like money, of which sizable amounts are involved. But whether it is a professional handler from the West Coast with 20 or 30 dogs, or an amateur owner with his pet on his lap, the goal of all exhibitors at the upcoming show will be the same—to win a Westminster ribbon.
But before the show is over and 1955's champions have been named, tempers will flare; angry accusations will be made and as hotly denied; there won't be enough room; there'll be a hundred complaints; the noise in the Garden's basement will be like bedlam, and upstairs in the judging rings it will be quiet enough to hear a pin drop. At the end of it all the top judge, Albert E. Van Court, of Los Angeles, will go before a crowd of 10,000 and with a flick of his finger pick the best dog in the show—the highest prestige award a dog can win in the U.S.
Few people realize that the sport of breeding and comparing purebred dogs is one of the oldest in the world. It was going strong long before Egypt's pyramids were built, and down through the ages it has managed to survive the rise and fall of many dynasties and empires. In the U.S. the sport had its beginning in the 1870s, primarily among the sporting gentry.
The first bench show was held in Hempstead, L.I., N.Y. in 1874. There was no authoritative pedigree stud book in those days and many of the dogs entered were anything but purebred. Records of these shows also indicate a propensity for chicanery among the exhibitors of the day and dishonesty on the part of the judges.
These conditions flourished to such a degree that in September of 1884 a group of gentlemen fanciers met in Philadelphia to create a national organization to rule the sport. The group they formed was the National Bench Show Association, later to be renamed the American Kennel Club. Its first act was to start a stud book in which pedigrees were registered and certified, and from that time on dog shows began to be honest—though there are still those of the fancy, as they call themselves, who stoutly maintain that complete honesty has never quite been achieved.
Today no dog show of any consequence can be held in this country without the blessing of the AKC, which is actually an association of 335 dues-paying regional and breed clubs. The AKC is the official arbiter of the whole dog show sport and watches closely to see that all of its 5,000 rules are strictly carried out. It licenses all the judges (about 2,300) and the professional handlers (about 1,000), and levies fines or suspends them for any proven infractions after a trial hearing. It is the AKC which publishes the standards of perfection for each breed, against which all dogs are judged. Each breed has its own standards and no two are the same. So far no dog has ever been found that met all the requirements of its breed.
Of the 22.5 million dogs in America about a third are purebred and it is these which make up the show-dog population. At present there are about 25,000 living dog champions in the U.S., 3,000 having been entered in the AKC. records during 1953. The AKC. divides purebred dogs into six major categories—sporting, nonsporting, hound, working, terrier and toy. It is under these same groupings that dogs are shown and judged.