It seems like a long time ago, but in 1938 the Westminster Kennel Club was already holding its 62nd annual dog show in New York City. And to mark the occasion, Time magazine chose for its cover a gentleman named John G. Bates, who later that week would step into the ring at Madison Square Garden to select Westminster's Best In Show winner.
The caption, written all those years ago, still tells the story of this great event:
"His choice becomes the people's choice."
True then, true today: Westminster is, undisputedly, America's Dog Show.
In 2005, the 129th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will add to its legacy as the greatest dog show in the world. It persists as the second longest continuously held sporting event in this country, just one year behind the Kentucky Derby.
Established in 1877, The Westminster Kennel Club is America's oldest organization dedicated to the sport of purebred dogs. There is only one Westminster, and in its long and prestigious existence, just about every superlative imaginable has been used to describe the club, the show and its impact on the world of purebred dogs. The Westminster Kennel Club "has had great effect in improving the quality of the dogs owned for use or companionship. Of this there can be no doubt ..." wrote one reporter. True then, true today.
Simply put, Westminster has become the symbol of the purebred dog, in show rings as well as in millions of television homes across America.
The elegance, beauty and grace of the canine athletes combine with the excitement of the competition in the world's most famous sporting arena before a live national television audience. The result is an event that is the dog show world's version of the Super Bowl and Academy Awards. But even greater, The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is a celebration of the wonderful canine spirit, reflecting our emotional and spiritual attachment to our dogs.
It all began in 1877 when The Westminster Kennel Club was officially formed "...to increase the interest in dogs, and thus improve the breeds, and to hold an Annual Dog Show in the city of New York ..." (from Westminster By-Laws).
By all accounts, that objective was accomplished from the very beginning.
From Forest and Stream magazine in 1877: "To say that the dog show held in the city last week was a success would but poorly convey an idea of what the result really was. It was a magnificent triumph for the dogs and for the projectors of the show. We question if on any previous occasion has there ever assembled in this city such a number of people at one time, and representing as much of the culture, wealth and fashion of the town. That such a collection of dogs was ever gotten together before in any country we very much doubt ..."
It is still the greatest collection of dogs assembled each year in the same place at the same time. From the opening moments when the 2,500-plus champions begin to compete in 162 different breed and variety rings, to the final crowning of the Best In Show dog, it is the great sport of dogs at its very best.
The growth of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show paralleled New York's growth to prominence. To fully grasp the place in history of the Westminster Kennel Club and its famed annual event, consider that:
William Stifel, in his book, The Dog Show, 125 Years of Westminster, wrote of the following highlights for that first show.
The show was such a hit that it was extended to four days from its originally-scheduled three. The gate for the first day of the show was estimated as high as 8,000. On the second day, 20,000 spectators attended, a number matched on the third day and providing the impetus to add a fourth day.
A share of the proceeds from that first show was given to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to open a home for stray and disabled dogs.
In most breeds, a single class was offered, sometimes divided by sex or age, Native or Imported, or by other categories. Owners were asked to provide, but didn't always do so, data such as date of birth, sire, dam and show record for inclusion in the catalog. In this first show, there were entries in 35 different breeds and a Miscellaneous Class, which included a dog described as a "cross between a St. Bernard and a Russian Setter" and a dog named Nellie, "born with two legs only." (See the Records Section for a complete listing of all breeds.)
Most railroads provided free transport of the dogs to and from the city when they were accompanied by their owners.
Westminster even pre-dates the establishment of the governing body of the sport, the American Kennel Club, by seven years. In fact, in 1877, members of Westminster and members of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia together adopted a set of show rules and regulations and established a Board of Appeals to oversee these rules. This was the precursor of the American Kennel Club, which was finally created in 1884.
As one might imagine, the history of the club and its show is rich and colorful.
In the early Westminster years, some interesting names showed up in the catalogs. In the first show, there were two Staghounds listed as being from the late General George Custer's pack, and two Deerhounds that had been bred by the Queen of England. In 1889, the Czar of Russia is listed as the breeder of a Siberian Wolfhound entered, and the following year, one of the entries is a Russian Wolfhound whose listed owner was the Emperor of Germany.
Philanthropist J. P. Morgan made the first of his many appearances at Westminster with his Collies in 1893. Famous American journalist Nelly Bly entered her Maltese at Westminster in 1894, some four years after she made a record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, racing the record of Phineas Fogg in Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days.
In 1888, Anna Whitney became the first woman to judge a dog show in America with her assignment of 117 St. Bernards. She would judge every year for the next seven years, but it would be 1901 before another woman judged any dog show in the U.S. In 1933, Mrs. M. Hartley Dodge became the first woman to officiate as the sole judge for Best In Show. Mrs. Dodge (Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge) became legendary in the dog show world, as the force behind the Morris & Essex Kennel Club and the benefactor of St. Hubert Giralda Animal Shelter in New Jersey.
In 1910, a class was offered for Fire Department Dalmatians, and it was won by Mike of Engine Company 8 of 51st Street. In 1916, one of the breeds entered in the Miscellaneous Class is listed as a "Truffles Hunter" named Prinz Forino. And in 1917, a special hero of World War I, a German Shepherd named Filax of Lewanno who had brought 54 wounded soldiers to safety, was exhibited at Westminster.
The most-coveted award in the dog show, Best In Show, was given for the first time in 1907. That year, and for the next two years as well, it went to a Smooth Fox Terrier bitch named Ch. Warren Remedy. She remains the only dog ever to win three times.
Six other dogs have won Best In Show twice, the most recent being the English Springer Spaniel, Ch. Chinoe's Adamant James in 1971 and 1972.
Storied in its history, rich in its tradition, The Westminster Kennel Club's famed annual dog show is unique, prestigious, and elegant for all concerned.
Indeed, there is only one Westminster.