A few sporting gentlemen frequented the bar at the Westminster Hotel in New York. They had an idea to start an event to showcase their dogs after helping organize a show in Pennsylvania, and the Westminster Kennel Club was formed in 1877.
Choosing a name wasn’t easy, but they settled on Westminster because the hotel housed their favorite bar and meeting place.
The premiere, the First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs, took place in Gilmore’s Garden (later changed and moved a few times, this is known as Madison Square Garden today).
About 1,200 dogs were in attendance at this groundbreaking show that would much later be known as the “Super Bowl of the dog world.” The first 3-day show was so successful they added a fourth day to the schedule.
The show has continued since then (although now it’s down to just 2 days), and it is the second-longest-running sporting event in U.S. history behind the Kentucky Derby (and only by one year at that). Westminster also precedes the American Kennel Club, formed in 1884, and the invention of the light bulb and automobile!
Best in Show
Best in Show is a term widely recognized today, and the first honor of this title was bestowed in 1907. The lucky pup was a smooth fox terrier who won 3 years in a row, and this record stands unbeaten today.
Best in Show winners today are media sensations, going on “tour” visiting celebrities, opening the market at the Stock Exchange, riding in parade floats and traveling the country meeting fans. One dog even threw out the first pitch at a Major League baseball game.
The Best in Show accolades seem to miss some breeds, but there is always the possibility of history being made. There are 4 breeds that have never won a BIS designation: the Labrador Retriever (America’s favorite dog), Golden Retriever, Dachshund and Chihuahua.
The show grew with technology and was first televised in 1948. The rise of the internet also paved the way for the first online broadcast of breed judging in 2005, and the videos were viewed in 140 countries around the world.
As technology changes, so does the list of accepted breeds eligible for entry into the show. Regulations changed as the AKC went through revisions, and breeds continue to be added.
The show has been patronized by political figures and leaders from around the world. Westminster caught the fancy of the czar of Russia, the emperor of Germany, professional sports athletes, philanthropists and famous journalists. The love of the beautiful dogs and the show’s magnificence are hard to resist for any animal lover and continue to draw large crowds every year.
Westminster also attracts its share of protests, particularly in recent years by PETA. This group, which sometimes rallies outside the arena, maintains that dog shows like this advocate breeding over adoption of shelter animals. Westminster basically counters that PETA’s heart is in the right place but that the real focus should be on stopping puppy mills and backyard breeders. Every year, officials at the show make an announcement that no dog in attendance was purchased from a pet shop.