The First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs, given under the auspices of the Westminster Kennel Club, was staged in 1877 at Gilmore’s Garden in New York City, drawing an entry of 1,201 dogs. The show was such a hit that it was extended to four days from its originally-scheduled three. In 1878, the entry for per dog was $2 which included feed and care of the dog. In 1879, Westminster held its first show at the newly opened Madison Square Garden.
In 1884, Westminster held two shows, the first being its regular all-breed show on May 6,7,8, and 9. The second show, which was held on Oct. 21, 22, 23, and 24, was open only to Non-Sporting breeds, Deerhounds, Greyhounds, and Fox Terriers. It is the only show held by Westminster that was not open to all breeds. In 1888, Anna H. Whitney became the first woman to judge a dog show in America. She had an assignment to judge 117 St. Bernards.
In 1890, Westminster moved its show to the new Madison Square Garden II. By 1892, Westminster raised its entry fee from $3 to $5. Celebrities arrive for the first time at Westminster when Philanthropist J. P. Morgan made his inaugural appearance 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 balloon trip around the world in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes.
Handlers wear armbands for the first time in 1904. In 1905, Westminster becomes the largest dog show ever with 1,752 dogs. In 1907, Westminster offered Best in Show for the first time. The following year in 1908, entries topped 2,000. Ch. Warren Remedy, a Smooth Fox Terrier, is awarded Best in Show for the third consecutive year, a feat never duplicated.
A class is offered for Fire Department Dalmatians in 1910, won by Mike of Engine Company 8 of 51st Street. During World War I, in 1917, a German Shepherd named Filax of Lewanno which had brought 54 wounded soldiers to safety, was exhibited at Westminster. In 1918 and 1919, profits from the dog show were donated to the American Red Cross in support of the war effort.
In 1921, the show was shortened from four days to three. In 1923, no Best in Show competition was held. By 1924, the American Kennel Club rewrote its dog show rules and Best in Show judging was held once again. In 1926, Westminster moved its show to the new Madison Square Garden III. In 1928, Mrs. Reginald F. Mayhew of Forest Hills, New York, becomes the first woman to have a voice in deciding Best in Show, as one of a panel of five judges.
Mrs. M. Hartley (Geraldine Rockefeller) Dodge judges Best in Show in 1933, becoming the first woman to officiate as the sole judge of this award. Children’s Handling, later known as Junior Showmanship debuted at Westminster. In 1935, Mrs. Sherman Hoyt handles her Standard Poodle to Best in Show, the first such win ever by a female handler. By 1938, because of crowded conditions, the first numerical limit was set, entries closing with the mail that brought the 3,000th entry. In 1939, Blanche Saunders debuts the sport of Obedience at Westminster in an exhibition.
In 1941, the show was cut from three days to two, entries closing with the mail that brought the 2,500th entry. Entries were also restricted to dogs (puppies excepted) that had won a first, second or third prize at an American Kennel Club show. By 1942, the qualifying ribbon requirement was dropped because of World War II. A tugboat strike in 1946 shortened the dog show to one day. In 1948, Television coverage of Westminster began. A blue ribbon won at an AKC or Canadian Kennel Club show was needed to qualify, and the Novice class, by definition not open to dogs that had won a first place, was dropped.
In 1950, entries for Exhibition Only were excluded. From 1951-69, entries for Junior Showmanship Only were not accepted. Anne Hone Rogers, (later Mrs. James Edward Clark) became the first woman professional handler in 1956 to win Best in Show. In 1958, the 6 to 9- month Puppy Classes were omitted. Corn stalks, small evergreens, and piles of brush are brought into Madison Square Garden for a demonstration on how bird dogs work in a field.
In 1960 all Puppy Classes were omitted. In 1961, Team Competition was omitted. In 1962, AKC eliminated competition for Best American-Bred in Show. Hence forth, the trophies for Best American-Bred in Show were awarded to the winner of Best in Show, if American-Bred. If the winner was not American-Bred, the trophy was not awarded. In 1964, by direction of AKC, the Miscellaneous Class was dropped, and a CKC win no longer qualified a dog for entry. In 1967, a dog had to have won at least one championship point to qualify for entry. In 1969, a dog had to have at least one major win (three or more points at a single show) on its record to qualify for entry. Westminster moved its show to the new Madison Square Garden IV.
In 1970, one-day benching began, with three groups judged each day, the group order to be reversed yearly. The numerical limit was raised to 3,000. The English Springer Spaniel Ch. Chinoe’s Adamant James captured his second consecutive Best in Show, becoming the seventh dog with multiple Best in Show wins (six dogs with two, one dog with three). In 1972, the Brace Competition is dropped. William W. Brainard, Jr. becomes the first, and only, person to judge Best in Show three times.
In 1982, the numerical limit was lowered, entries closing with the mail that brought the 2,500th entry. In 1983, after AKC established the Herding Group, four groups were judged on the first day, and three on the second, the group order being reversed each year. The Doberman Pinscher, Ch. Royal Tudor’s Wild as the Wind CD, becomes the first dog with an obedience title to capture Best in Show in 1989.
In 1990, four groups were judged on the first day and three on the second, the group order not being reversed. In 1992, entries were restricted to champions only. The club also instituted Awards of Merit, the number of such awards that could be given in each breed or variety being based on the number of entries.
In 2000, for the first time, the top five dogs or bitches in each breed or variety were invited by Westminster to "pre-enter" the show, before entries were open to other dogs. In 2005, for the first time, streaming video with the same day coverage of breed judging highlights was made available on the Westminster website. A Reserve Best in Show award was adopted due to a new AKC rule. In 2008, Ch. K-Run's Park Me in First “Uno” became the first Beagle to win Best in Show at Westminster and be invited to the White House. In 2009, Ch. Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee “Stump” the Sussex Spaniel becomes the oldest dog, at 10 years old, to win Best in Show.
In 2011, due to Madison Square Garden renovations, all grooming took place at the dog's crate in the benching area. In 2012, entry limit was 2,000. In 2013, daytime breed judging moved to Piers 92/94. To enter the Bred by Exhibitor, American Bred and Open classes, dogs must have won at least one major. Show entry limit increased to 3,200 dogs. In 2014, entry limit was 3,000. In 2015, entry limit was 2,800. The Masters Obedience Championship was added in 2016. In 2017, new medallions for Grand Champions finishing their titles at Westminster and for Select Dog and Select Bitch in Best of Breed Competitions were awarded. In 2019, single-streamer gold rosettes were given for Awards of Merit.
In 2020, Westminster extended the dog show to three days at Pier 94 with an entry of 2,500 Champion-only dogs. Westminster retired the Luftnase Trophy in Obedience to Linda Brennan and her Labrador Retriever "Heart" after five consecutive Masters Obedience Champion wins.