Best in show
New York City, February 29, 2016 -- The Westminster Dog Show is hands down one of my favorite things to shoot each year. It’s a huge event. You have your Oscars, the Met Gala. Well, this is the red carpet of the dog world.
When I first started working for AFP in 1990, we weren’t doing the dog show. And I noticed that it was getting an incredible amount of attention all the time, so I asked to cover it. And from there it just turned into one of the big AFP events every year. I’ve covered it ever since.
I guess there are a few reasons why I like it. I used to have a dog, a West Highland Terrier, which is one of the breeds that always does well at the show.
And in New York, you don’t always get to have a dog, it’s complicated. So it’s my way of staying in touch with my dog-loving side.
Plus to be honest, the show and its whole history is really cool.
A start at a bar
Turns out that it’s the second-longest continuously-running sporting event in the US. Only the Kentucky Derby has run for longer, and only by a year. Neither one stopped for the two World Wars. As the club likes to point out, the dog show predates the invention of the light bulb, the automobile, basketball, the establishment of the World Series in baseball and the invention of the zipper.
And it’s also a very New York City thing. It got its start at a Manhattan bar in the 1870s. A group of guys would gather to swap stories about hunting accomplishments. They hunted with dogs. Eventually they decided to hold a show with their dogs.
They couldn’t agree on a name for the show, and ended up settling on naming it after the bar where they used to gather -- the bar at the Westminster Hotel, which is no longer there. The first show, under the auspices of the Westminster Kennel Club, was staged in 1877 at Gilmore’s Garden (the predecessor of today’s Madison Square Garden), with apparently 1,201 dogs participating.
So the show is a big deal. Today the Empire State Building lights up in purple and yellow, the show’s colors, every year in honor of the event. Past winners have rung the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (seriously), starred in Broadway shows, and have gotten plates full of hamburgers served up for them at Sardi’s, the iconic restaurant in the Theater District.
Doggone spa days
Today the show takes place over two days in February, with some 2,800 dogs participating in the competition. During the day, the breed judging is done at the Piers 92/94 in Midtown and at night, the Group judging takes place in Madison Square Garden, which is just packed both nights. And at the end of Tuesday they pick the Best in Show, the top award.
The mornings of both days are basically a huge salon. I’m not kidding. It’s a huge dog salon. They start with their ritual of bathing, followed by a haircut, a blowdry, and getting their nails done. The white dogs get powdered; the terriers get their hair put up in little bows and they’re kept like this pretty much until five minutes before they have to go out and be judged in their group. It’s a total spa day.
Because I’ve been covering it for so long, I’m one of a handful of photographers who get what’s called “priority credentials,” which allow me to pretty much go anywhere I want. So I spend the time just wandering around the salon area, shooting features.
The dog handlers are very much into what they do and they obviously take their job very seriously, so they’re very strict about what you can and cannot touch. You always have to be careful that you don’t step on a dog. You can usually pet them at the start, but once they’re all primped up, you’re not allowed to touch them at all because their handlers don’t want their hair messed up.
Usually I’m pretty good with the dogs and I don’t get in the way. But once there was this one dog on the table getting ready to be groomed, with this big tub of baby powder in front of him. The groomer turned her head and the dog knocked over the tub. Man, did she read me the riot act about not touching things. I kept trying to tell her that it wasn’t me, it was the dog that did it, but she would have none of it.
I never get bored at the show. There are usually four or five new breeds, so sometimes I look for them. I also have my favorites for shooting, a dog that I just know will make a good picture. And then there’s the whole element of the handler and their interactions with the dogs. The handlers are either owner handlers or just people who handle dogs and they basically live the whole day with the dog.
It’s actually quite touching to witness the connections between the dogs and the handlers at times. Especially during the show. They’re so in tune with one another. I’ve actually seen dogs leap into the air and into the arms of their trainer to celebrate a win. The same way a basketball player would leap into the arms of teammates.
Overheard at show
There’s also this whole dog subculture of people. There are the dog fans, there are the dog handlers, there are the dog photographers. They photograph nothing but dog shows. They know every dog, they know their name, they know their lineage. It’s the same as people who hang out at the horse tracks who know horses. Well, there are people who know dogs.
And then you have dog parlance, which always makes for some comic moments. You have to remember that in the dog world, there are dogs and there are bitches. Which makes for some amusing ‘overheard at the dog show’ material. You’ll have an announcement over the PA system “Dogs to the left, biches to the right.”
Or the other day, one woman was talking to another and said: “when you finishing shampooing your dog, you have to come over and take a look at my new bitch.” Now that’s not something you hear every day.
Timothy A. Clary is an AFP photographer based in New York City. Follow him on Instagram.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.