Thursday, February 14, 2008

Westminster: It Ain't for Sissies

Congratulations to Uno the Beagle and everyone else who won at Westminster! I've recorded both nights of the show to my TiVo, and will enjoy them at my leisure soon. I came down with yet another nasty wintertime virus this week, and I've just been too slothful and stuffy-headed to enjoy much of anything aside from hot tea.

Dinah and I didn't attend the show this year. We didn't win anything big enough in the past year to merit an invitation, plus there's the pesky issue of those two crummy majors standing between us and getting Dinah finished. (Only champions of record are allowed to compete at Westminster.)

I know no one who reads this blog would ever think so, but there are folks who think that the show is nothing more than a bunch of overgroomed pooches and their equally overgroomed handlers prancing around a ring, pretending that they're doing something important. Those folks must have visions of these dogs and their handlers being whisked everywhere in gleaming black limousines tricked out with pink satin pillows. The truth is, though, that showing at Westminster is about as big a test of endurance for both dog and human as one can find in the dog-showing world.

Westminster is a benched show, one of the few such shows left in the entire country. Benched shows hearken back to the early days of dog showing, and to livestock shows before them. At a benched show, you and your dog are expected to remain in the benching area for a specified length of time. The public is able to come by to see the dogs up close and talk to their owners and handlers, and they can see a number of dogs of each breed all together in their various benching areas.

What they don't tell you -- at least, until you read all the rules in the premium list -- is that you're not allowed to leave the building with your dog between early in the morning and late in the evening -- as if there were someplace else you cold go anyway. The benching areas themselves are almost (but not quite) big enough if you're showing Chihuahuas, but if you have a large dog with a correspondingly large crate, you will have to stand for the whole time you're there. You're not allowed to have chairs. You can even hire security guards to watch over your dog, your crate, and your stuff while you answer nature's call. If that doesn't already sound like more fun than you can possibly stand, remember that the show is held in Madison Square Garden in February. The doors are closed, the heat's on, and there isn't a blade of grass for miles around. You can just imagine what the place smells like.

Oh, and did I mention the crowds? How many times can you repeat, "No, this is a Bearded Collie. The Old English Sheepdogs are over there. Yes I do know that it doesn't look at all like Lassie. Yes, my dog can see just fine. Yes, I do have to brush her a lot." I can see where throat lozenges and bottled water might be precious commodities after a few hours of that.

Let's face it, the benching area is a rough place to spend a day, or even two. Having to stay on display in the benching area for hours before and hours after you show is a real strain on both your dog and you, and you both deserve a ginormous amount of credit if you can get through all that and still find the energy to make a decent showing in the ring. They should give out survival awards to every entrant.

Why do it, then? Westminster is the Big One, the longest-running dog show in the country, the Great Kahuna of Shows. If you and your dog are tough enough to take the strain, you'll meet up with some of the winningest dogs in the country and some of the biggest names in dogdom, living legends and legends-in-the-making. A breed win there, or an Award of Merit, is a singular honor -- and a group placement guarantees you a place in Westminster history.

We've never had occasion to show in a benched show. As I said above, there aren't very many of them left in the country, and it's possible that Westminster is the closest benched show to where we live. Would we go if we could? I honestly don't know. I guess we have to finish first and then see what happens.

Just for fun, here are a couple of entertaining links to posts about the Westminster show:

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