An Italian greyhound being "stacked" prior to a going-over by the judge.
The 136rd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is going on right now at Madison Square Garden. Purebred dogs of all shapes and sizes compete to be judged "Best in Show" and have their names engraved on the big trophy. It may seem confusing - how do you compare a chihuahua and a Great Dane? - but the dogs aren't really judged against each other. They are measured by their breed standard, compiled by the breed's parent club, which describes the ideal specimen of that dog. The closer a particular dog gets to perfection, the higher the chance of being chosen "Best in Show." But there are also those indefinable characteristics of personality and sparkle, that make the judging so exciting. It isn't always about the numbers.
2011 Best in Show Winner: Scottish Deerhound Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind. (Hickory to you and me.)
The annual WKC show also introduces new breeds to the American audience. Of course, most of these breeds aren't "new" at all; in fact, many have been around for thousands of years, but they may be unfamiliar here. To be a recognized breed in the US, the parent breed club must make an application to the American Kennel Club, proving a sustainable US population with responsible breeding practices. There are six new breeds this year: the American English Coonhound, the Cesky Terrier, the Entelbucher Mountain Dog, the Finnish Lapphund, the Norwegian Lundehund, and - take a deep breath before attempting to pronounce this one - the Xoloitzcuintli (left). The "Show-Lo," as its called for short, can be traced back to the ancient Aztecs and is the national dog of Mexico. You may know it as the "Mexican hairless."
All dogs begin in their breed competition. The winners of each breed go on to their group competition. Groups are made up of breeds with similar purposes or jobs. The AKC recognizes seven: the Terriers (self-explanatory), the Herding Group (German shepherds, border collies, corgis, etc.), the Working Group (mastiffs, Rottweilers, etc.), the Hounds (everything from dachshunds to Irish wolfhounds); the Sporting Group (setters, spaniels, and retrievers); the Toy Group (little guys bred solely for companionship); and the Non-Sporting Group (everyone else who doesn't fit into any of the other groups). The winners of each group go on to the Best in Show competition; the winner here is literally the top dog.
Toy poodles being judged in their breed competition.
One of the fun parts of watching the WKC show is hearing the dogs' registry names. Like the names of racehorses, these names reflect the ancestry of a particular dog. At Westminster, they are proceeded by the word "Champion;" to be a Champion, a dog must have earned at least 15 points (depending on placement) at AKC sanctioned dog shows. Only dogs with this distinction can be entered at the WKC show. But all of these dogs are also family pets. It's kind of impossible to holler, "Come back here, Champion Oreo Cookie of Royal Nabisco," so of course, all the dogs have "call names." Sometimes they are diminuitives of their registry names (like Cookie or Biscuit for above); sometimes not (like Sport or Butch). For example, growing up I had a registered German shepherd. His registry name was "Conrad Von Dornberg." We called him Atlas.
The registry names can be pretty pretentious. With this in mind, Slate has posted a little quiz. Can you identify which of these is the real name of a WKC group winner and which is a real line from Allen Ginsberg's Howl? I got 15 out of 15 (I teach Howl regularly, so I had an advantage). No cheating - and let me know how you did. Make your puppy proud.
Tune into the USA channel tonight at 8pm to watch the last three group competitions and root for Best in Show.