WKC 101 - Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Showing At America's Dog Show But Didn't Know Whom To Ask

So, we asked Chuck Bessant, an Australian Terrier breeder/owner/handler from Colorado Springs, CO to give us a look through his exhibitor eyes

NEW YORK, NY -- Madison Square Garden. At 5:42 p.m. on the second Sunday in February, the Knicks have finished basketball practice. The hardwood court and backboards are still in place. The Garden is empty.

In 15 hours and 18 minutes, judging for the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will commence. The hardwood court will be removed, replaced by famous green carpet. Rings will be arranged and several thousand other details will be completed in a changeover best described as a human ant farm.

By 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, out of the initial 2,500 AKC Champions of Record entered, one dog will stand alone in the center of the Garden after being selected as Best In Show at America's Dog Show.

The next morning, as hundreds of exhibitors pack suitcases and dog crates and take along a packful of memories, they're already getting their hopes up for a repeat visit to America's premier dog show. And so it has been since 1877 when the "First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs" was held in New York City at Gilmore's Garden (the forerunner to Madison Square Garden) by a group of avid sporting dog owners.

Westminster is a very different experience from any other dog show, largely because of its renowned history, tradition and, of course, New York City. I believe that all serious exhibitors need to enter WKC's show at least once, simply for the experience.

Westminster: How Did I Get Here? Now, What Do I Do?

My first show dog was 18 months old when I exhibited him at WKC 2000. To say I was a novice owner/handler is an understatement. Other than finishing Tyler at a Specialty, and attending some large shows, I had no preparation, no mentor and no "Westminster 101." I just said, "I'm entering Westminster" and, totally clueless, off I went. Somehow, I was able to keep it together well enough to help Tyler receive an Award of Merit that first year, and found myself hooked on this great dog show.

That said, Westminster is daunting for even the most experienced dog-show enthusiast, but at the same time is exceedingly fun. So that you're not in the same "Clueless" category that I was in for my first Westminster, I'd like to offer a few tips.

This stuff doesn't just happen. But all that aside, there are transportation arrangements to be made, hotels to book and entries to be submitted. Plans need to be choreographed for getting to the areas for benching, grooming, and showing. And, of course, a schedule needs to be set for the non-show events leading up to the show itself.

Planes, Automobiles, Hotels, and Groupies

I like to arrive in New York Saturday, as Terriers exhibit Monday. This allows my dog time to adjust to NYC's concrete landscape, and gives me the chance to attend some of the pre-show events.

LaGuardia is the closest airport to Manhattan. While you may get a lower airfare to Kennedy or Newark, consider the time and cost to get to your hotel.

At the airports, cabs are available curbside, but many will not take dogs. The best thing to do is to make these arrangements in advance, or you might just find yourself standing around in the snow at the airport. Van services like Super Shuttle from LaGuardia into Manhattan are around $15 plus tip - get used to tipping in New York - and you share the ride with others. But ask around in your dog show circle -- you might find people arriving at the same time and looking to share the car and the expense into town. But no matter what service you book, inform the dispatcher when making arrangements that you have a dog.

Once you find your way to the city, if you are counting on public transportation, be aware dogs are allowed on the subway or buses only in a Sherpa bag-type carrier. As for taxis, it's up to the individual driver whether he will take you and your dog. If you have a Sherpa-bag dog, it shouldn't be an issue. Just don't stand on the curb with your dog in full view and expect to get a cab. A hotel doorman can help you with this. And remember the key New York word: tip.

For reduced transportation costs, frustration and precious time, a hotel near Madison Square Garden is preferable. Plus, many pre-show activities are within walking distance of The Garden.

The Hotel Pennsylvania, situated directly across the street from the Garden, is a magnet for exhibitors and spectators. A large lower-level conference room, an indoor bio-break facility for dogs is created out of heavy-duty plastic and woodchips, is particularly popular. The media like it too -- for a different reason, of course - they are looking to shoot photos and videos and there's usually a major in paparazzi down there. These accommodations for Westminster entries made the Hotel Pennsylvania The Travel Channel's "#1 Bathroom for 2005." There is also a dog-bathing facility that can be reserved for around $35 an hour.

The Affinia Manhattan (formerly the Southgate Hotel, two blocks south on 7th Avenue) is my favorite. The New Yorker and the Radisson Martinique (formerly the Broadway Holiday Inn) receive good reviews, too. There are a number of reasonably-priced hotels recommended by Westminster, with details on its Web site. However, none have the canine facilities offered at the Hotel Penn. But in any case, expect to pay $200 to $300 or more per night for a good hotel room.

It is common for New Yorkers to watch the dogs arrive at the Hotel Pennsylvania for Westminster. In 2001, I stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania. A mom and her 12-year-old daughter approached Tyler and me, and the girl announced, "That's an Australian Terrier!" Her mom explained, "She loves dogs and knows all about the different breeds." In 2002, I returned to the Hotel Pennsylvania and while outside exercising Tyler, the same mom and daughter came up and the now 13-year-old girl said "That's Tyler!" It was Tyler's first groupie experience.

Bench-Up, Set-Up, And This Way To The Egress

Westminster is a lot of fun, and the crowds - "human carwash" crowds - are part of the experience. As Linda, my Scottish Deerhound friend, aptly stated, "Westminster is a show where you just need to cowboy-up and deal with it." In other words, just enjoy and go with the flow.

Westminster is one of a handful of benched shows left in America. This means your dog is either at its bench assignment, being groomed, taking a bio-break at one of the luxury cedar-chip facilities, or being shown. The appeal to spectators is that they can see the entries up close and personal. In what other sport do the spectators get to come backstage and hang out with the competitors? Keep a brush handy for touch-ups for photo opps with spectators and their children, as well as with any media that appear.

Exhibitors can (and should!) set up their bench position the night before their breed judging, if at all possible. Specific times are listed in the premium list. Setting up on show day is easier if wire crates, bottled water and other supplies are taken over the night before. Space is a luxury.

The assigned bench sizes given in the premium list are precise, so don't try to squeeze in a larger wire crate - it won't work. On the floor, directly under the benching platform, you'll have about 8" for items you don't mind getting a little dirty. Additionally, behind the crate you'll have about 8" for coats or other items you'd like to keep clean. Soft crates and ex-pens are not allowed. The bottom line: take only what you need - less is best.

Setting up the night before is also a good way to get the lay of the land. You'll know the location of your bench assignment and a good route to your ring. You'll walk into The Garden at the loading dock area from 33rd Street and up a fairly steep 40-foot ramp designed for fork lifts to reach the freight elevator. Benching and rings are on the fifth floor.

And this will be the first of several times that you will hear this reminder: Make sure you have your entry confirmation any time that you are going to The Garden.

Dogs need to be in the building by 11:30 a.m. on show day (exhibitors may leave during the day, but dogs may not leave the building for any reason until the 8 p.m. release time). Allow yourself plenty of time, it can take about one hour to get from the loading dock area to your bench and settled in. Make sure you have your entry confirmation and seat ticket.

Your dog can escape to its cozy crate and away from tightly-packed crowds, but for you, it's different. In the benching area, there is no room for a chair anyway, and to make it official, chairs in the aisles are banned by the Fire Marshall. Maybe you can squeeze into the space in front of your crate, but don't count on it. The place to sit is in the arena area watching breed judging, after all. I'm fortunate in my breed to always know someone that I trust to watch my dog if I need to walk around or take my own bio-break. And, I volunteer to help those who need a break, too. It's about the camaraderie, after all. I was bribed one year with a Blarney Stone corned-beef sandwich to watch a friend's Puli - this Terrier owner/handler will work for food.

Your dog can't leave until 8 p.m. If you won Best of Breed, you will obviously be staying beyond that time, and if you didn't, you may want to get your dogs back to the hotel and then return to watch the Groups. When you leave with your dog, you'll need your entry confirmation card as your exit pass. Prepare for exiting by having your entry confirmation ready to hand to the guard. If you have lost your confirmation, a Release Form is available at the Superintendent's office in the benching area. The exit line will be extremely hectic like someone has yelled "fire" in a crowded movie theater.

A Seat With A View

Each entry includes an exhibitor's seat to watch the show both nights, from seats typically in an upper section. Ordering box seats provides better viewing. To avoid ticket service charges, check the Westminster Web site or premium list for details on ordering tickets directly from the club. If you're in a bind (Westminster has been sold out for the past three years), you might find tickets on eBay, but like all other premium items, you might have to pay a premium. If you go through Westminster for your ticket, you'll be offered the opportunity to buy the same seat each year thereafter (but pay attention to their deadline for ticket sales).

What Not To Wear

In 2006, a record snowfall of 26 inches in 12 hours started Saturday night before the show. Airports and highways were closed, and it was cold. But no matter what it's like outside, the Garden can be warm and humid in the benching and ring areas. You'll be on concrete for 10-plus hours. Bring both show and informal clothes, comfortable shoes for benching and appropriate shoes for showing.

Outside it might be freezing, snowing, raining, or all of the above, or even (rarely, but sometimes) unseasonably warm. Plan for anything but if all else fails, in case of emergency, Macy's is just a block from the Garden.

Puttin' On The Ritz

There is a small, shared designated area for grooming as you enter the benching area. Your dog is permitted off the bench to groom 11/2 hours before you show. Your dog must be back on the bench within a half hour after you are judged. There is power and room for your table. No crates or unattended dogs are allowed.

Spectators (and media) can and do wander into the grooming area, too. Remember, this mixed blessing is the great thing about a benched show - exposure to the general public. So put on your PR hat and use this public contact as an opportunity to educate people about your breed, about the sport, and about purebred dogs. You may even make a contact that eventually might be a good home for one of your puppies.

It's Show Time!

Know beforehand how to access your ring. Plan on leaving the benching area at least 15 minutes before your ring time. The crowds are hard to part - even Moses would have his hands full - but that's just part of the Westminster drill. You can carry a small dog, but large dogs take some maneuvering. There is a ready ring at each ring designated for exhibitors. But don't arrive too early as other breeds will be queued up and waiting.

When watching breed judging, you can often sit anywhere you can find a seat. There are chairs on the floor outside the rings, but typically, observers are at least three deep around the rings and this area crowded with spectators and press. Ringside chairs are truly a luxury. Sitting on the floor is not permitted. No ringing cell phones ringside; no cell phone photos. You could be escorted out of the ring area.

You'll have better luck in the stands. Practically speaking, tickets are not always checked during the day. If someone holds a ticket to a seat, they are entitled to that seat at all times, but the practice is somewhat relaxed during the day, when people tend to move about the arena to watch different breeds in different rings. If you want to see a specific breed, plan to get to the ring at least 15 minutes early. As each breed finishes judging, there is shuffling of bodies, and with patience you can get a tad closer. At night, during the Groups, don't even try to get into one of those seats unless you have a ticket.

There you have it ... my tips for an efficient and fun Westminster experience. I hope these are helpful in making it fun and interesting for you. Attend with your eyes wide open -- add in your own experiences, write down phone numbers and addresses and information as you go your way at the greatest dog show in the world.

Chuck Bessant ( is an IT consultant, owner/handler and AKC Earthdog Judge who owns four Australian Terriers, and Amanda, who thinks she is an Aussie.

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