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WKC 201 - Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Showing At America's Dog Show But Didn't Know Whom To Ask

Now that Westminster has expanded their venue, and The Garden has been remodeled, it is time for an update to WKC 101.

For several years, breed judging has been held on Monday and Tuesday at Piers 92 and 94, with Groups and Best In Show returning to Madison Square Garden each evening. Looking for more than Breed judging? Along with the dog show and benching, The Westminster Kennel Club will proudly hold their inaugural Masters Obedience Championship at Pier 94 on Monday February 15, 2016. On Saturday February 13, 2016 at Pier 94, Westminster will hold their Third Annual Masters Agility Championship. Last, but certainly not least, on Saturday AKC Meet The Breeds will delight and educate visitors at Piers 92 and 94.

With three full days of agility trials, obedience testing, breed judging, and the ever-popular Group and Best In Show live televised broadcast from Madison Square Garden evening judging, be sure to bring good shoes, comfy clothes, your friends and family, and enjoy the best in dog show activities than you could ever possibly imagine, and as a bonus, we'll give you Sunday to explore all the riches, sightseeing, and wonderful restaurants that New York City has to offer.

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. You about to enter The Dog Show Zone.

On Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern Time Group judging for the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will commence. The hardwood court will have been replaced by the famous green carpet. The arena will be arranged for Group judging for two glorious nights, along with several thousand other details to be completed at The Garden and The Piers in a changeover best described as a human ant farm.

By 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, out of the initial 2,800 AKC Champions of Record and major-pointed dogs 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 wonderful memories, they're already planning 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, or at least attend.

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

My first show dog was 17 months old when I exhibited Tyler 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. My life had changed forever.

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 bench areas and show rings. 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

In previous years, arriving in NYC on Saturday was best for Monday breed judging. Now with the Masters Agility Championship and Meet the Breeds on Saturday, you'll need to arrive accordingly. If you are entered in the Masters Agility, I suggest arriving Thursday. This allows your dog time to adjust to NYC's concrete landscape, and gives you the chance to attend some of the pre-show events. You'll never be bored in NYC - a target-rich environment for just about anything you'd enjoy doing.

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. It is best to make arrangements in advance, or you might just find yourself standing around in the snow at the airport. Shared van services like Super Shuttle from LaGuardia into mid-town Manhattan are around $18 (plus tip - in 2007, the cost was $15; inflation has been kind) - get used to tipping in New York - and you share the ride with others. Ask around in your dog show circle, you might find people arriving at the same time and looking to share a private service and the expense into town. Other services like Carmel Limo are available at slightly more than curbside taxi service; when traveling with a dog, convenience is worth a bit extra. Calling in advance is always a must to ensure good transportation. 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; it will be challenging to stuff a Leonberger into a Sherpa 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 size 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. Free shuttle bus service is offered to and from the Piers on a regular schedule from Westminster's "Gold Star Hotels"; in 2016 these hotels include the Hotel Pennsylvania, Affinia and Wyndham New Yorker. Check in advance once the 2016 bus schedule is released.

The free shuttle is popular, and does get very crowded; think mobs with big dogs, especially when leaving The Piers at the bench release time. A long wait can be expected. My best advice: arrange for service at least a day in advance from Carmel Limo or other scheduled service to ensure efficient transportation, especially if the weather forecast looks dicey. In 2015, the Sunday evening temperature when I arrived was in the single-digits, wind-chill at -17F and snowing. More about weather in a bit.

I was uber-glad I had pre-arraigned transportation. Speaking of Uber, I have never used this car service and I don't know how they are with dogs and all your "show stuff". Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) applies.

Another advantage of a Madison Square Garden located hotel: many pre-show activities are within walking distance of The Garden. Hotels near the Piers are difficult to find, and no activities are in that area.

The Hotel Pennsylvania, situated directly across the street from the Garden, is a magnet for exhibitors and spectators. In a large lower-level conference room, the indoor "bio-break" facility for dogs, 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 made the Hotel Pennsylvania The Travel Channel's "#1 Bathroom for 2005." Some years, there is also a dog-bathing facility that can be reserved for around $35 an hour (check the service when you arrive for current pricing).

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 website. 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, 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 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." 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 showing. 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 ops 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 non-valuable supplies are taken over the night before. Space is a luxury.

The assigned bench sizes given in the Premium Listing 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" of vertical space the width of your bench assignment for items you don't mind getting 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.

Your entry packet will include times when you can set-up the day and night before. 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. For WKC veteran exhibitors, you'll find benching at The Piers to be easier yet still crowded.

Piers 92/94 are located at 711 12th Ave. (W. 55th St. & West Side Hwy) and can be a tad tricky. Pier 92's entrance is located ABOVE the street using a ramp from Pier 94's entrance area.

My first trip to Pier 92 was Sunday night, 8PM, -17F wind-chill, and the taxi driver was clueless - he asked me for directions, not a good start. You know when you are watching a horror movie and you yell at the screen "DON'T GO IN THERE!! (and they do anyway)", the cab driver was a bit lost, made a turn to on a side street to come back around on the West Side Highway, ran into road construction, went under a bridge/construction area were cars were blocked from entering, lots of big potholes to dodge, no lighting, dumpsters strewn about, trash and signs saying Do Not Enter (which he ignored) and I'm pretty sure Freddie Kruger was lurking somewhere; we did this a few times. He had no idea, nor did I, that you had to use the ramp from Pier 94 to reach the upper entrance to Pier 92 which is where the rings and benches are located, you can't use the lower level entrance to unload at Pier 92. Pier 94, you are blessed if you are benched there; ground level access to the building. Best to use Google Maps and put in the directions to see actual photos of where you are going before you arrive in NYC so you can help the cab driver if necessary. If you are driving, this will help too.

When leaving Pier 92 and are calling to arrange a ride, be SURE to tell the dispatcher that you need to be picked up on the upper level, and provide your cellphone number, otherwise they'll never find you. Cabs are far and few between at The Piers. Do yourself a big favor and pre-arrange a ride to and from for speed and comfort, and maybe rideshare with a fellow exhibitor to split the cost.

All free shuttles leave from and arrive at Pier 94 only. You can walk over to Pier 92, which is being made easier this year with an internal stairway.

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 release time per your entry packet). Allow yourself plenty of time, it can take about one hour to get to your bench and settled in, quicker if you set your bench the night before. Make sure you have your entry confirmation. And, once you arrive, be sure to take your entry confirmation to the Superintendents area to get a wrist band that allows you access to your ring's staging area reserved for exhibitors only.

Fortunately, 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 by the rings watching breed judging. 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 bribe

d one year with a Blarney Stone corned-beef sandwich to watch a friend's dog - this terrier owner/handler will work for food. Your dog can't leave until the bench release time in your entry packet, in 2015 it was 5 p.m.; dogs that win Best Of Breed are allowed an earlier release time to get to The Garden to set-up for Group. 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 entry confirmation, a Release Form is available at the Superintendent's office. 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 Groups both nights from seats typically in an upper section (as well as the Piers for both days). For The Garden, ordering box seats provides better viewing. To avoid ticket service charges, check the Westminster website for details on ordering tickets directly from the club. If you're in a bind, you'll find tickets on StubHub and 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 Piers and Garden will 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

Unlike legacy grooming at The Garden that veteran exhibitors have experienced, you'll be able to groom at your bench! Your dog must be back on the bench within a half hour after judging. There is power and room for your table, please be considerate of your fellow exhibitors. Crates or unattended dogs are not allowed near the rings.

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.

In 2015 I provided 2 of my box tickets to two women from Boston. One was taking her friend to WKC as a birthday surprise. I sent her the tickets and mentioned if they had time if they would stop by my bench to say hi. While I was walking Indy, my Australian Terrier entry, inside Pier 92, the two women spotted me and said hi. How on Earth they knew it was me is beyond comprehension. You just never know who you'll meet and be an ambassador for your breed and the show.

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, there are chairs on the floor outside the rings, but typically, observers are at least three deep and will be crowded with spectators and press. Scoring ringside chairs is truly a luxury. Sitting on the floor is not permitted. Be respectful and set your cell phone off or to vibrate ringside so as not to disturb judging. You could be escorted out of the ring area.

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.

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 addresses and information, and take lots of photos as you participate in the greatest dog show in the world.

Chuck Bessant is a cloud infrastructure consultant, owner/handler and AKC Earthdog Judge who owns Australian Terriers, and Amanda, who thought she was an Aussie.



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