There will be plenty of traditions, puppies and circumstances at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show this weekend.
But for the first time in its 145-year history, the legendary canine competition is swapping the buzz of the Big Apple for the breezy grounds of a suburban waterfront estate, one of many changes brought on by pandemic precautions.
The show has been postponed to its usual February dates and does not allow in-person spectators. Human participants must be vaccinated or newly tested. The dogs will compete on a green carpet as usual for the televised portions of the competition, but other rounds will be played on an even more traditional green carpet – the lawn of the Lyndhurst Estate in Tarrytown, New York.
And the most coveted Best Show trophy will be awarded in a tent outside the Gothic castle-like mansion of Lyndhurst, not in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden sports arena.
“It’s heartbreaking because it’s definitely part of the prestige of going there, and the nostalgia,” said handler Renee Rosamilla of Ocala, Fla. “But I’m just, honestly, delighted that they were able to let us have Westminster this year.”
The show kicks off with an agility trial on Friday, followed by weekend events, including the traditional breed judging that leads to the show’s top title. It will be conferred Sunday evening during a live broadcast on Fox. (Previous rounds are also televised or streamed.)
Some off-the-beaten-track breeds are chasing the grand prize this year. Dog connoisseurs are keeping an eye out for high-ranking hopefuls, including a Lagotto Romagnolo – an Italian truffle-hunting breed that first appeared at Westminster just five years ago – and a Dandie Dinmont terrier, the 15th rarest American breed, by the American Kennel Club. to count. The Dandie, named after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s 1815 novel ‘Guy Mannering’, is considered at risk of extinction even in its home country of the UK.
The show is also due to feature four breeds eligible to compete for the first time – the barbet, mastiff argentino, Belgian Laekenois and Biewer terrier.
Despite the pandemic-related uncertainties and changes, Westminster filled its usual number of entry slots and even expanded the agility roster a bit, organizers said.
Yet with many dog shows canceled over the past 15 months, it was difficult, if not impossible, for some dogs to earn the points needed to qualify for Westminster. There were 545 AKC-sanctioned dog shows nationwide last year, down more than 60% from 2019.
Tracy and Peter Rousseau have made the trip to Westminster several times from their cattle ranch in Franktown, Colo., to ensure their breed – the Norwegian Lundehund, the rarest of them all in the AKC rankings – is represented. But none of their current dogs qualified, and the couple felt hesitant anyway due to virus concerns and other issues.
“We really love showing off our dogs, we love educating people about this quirky little breed,” said Peter Rousseau, a civilian military employee and retired Air Force sergeant. “With all the pandemic craziness and everything, it just didn’t work out this year. We can’t wait to get back to it. »
Westminster’s last show ended on February 11, 2020, when there were just 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus nationwide, although the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have since concluded that the virus was already more prevalent. In the space of about a month, organizing a public event was unthinkable.
Westminster spokeswoman Gail Miller Bisher said organizers had spit out various scenarios for 2021. A virtual show? An event with archive footage? Fans via video, like during NBA games last summer? Something outside of New York? And outside ?
“We felt we owe it to the canine community and the sporting community to put this in place,” said club president Charlton “Chat” Reynders III. “We just wanted to make sure we created a place where the person who might be most nervous about COVID, or their health, would feel safe.”
Last fall, the club moved in June to 67-acre (27-hectare) Lyndhurst, about 25 miles (40 km) north of Manhattan. The estate hosted a small dog show for decades, and the sons of former landlord and golden age railway tycoon/financier Jay Gould had dogs that won prizes at Westminster.
Paul Costabile stops by the Westminster Dog Show to see what it takes to be the top dog.
The show returns to the Garden in January 2022.
In the meantime, this year’s move requires some tweaking for trainers such as Rosamilla, who is to show a harrier named Joker, a flat-coated retriever named Tildy, and a dog Plott who goes by Fritz.
Unfamiliar with the area around Lyndhurst, Rosamilla initially booked into three different hotels before settling in one. Next, she had to plan how to prep the dogs without the usual “benches” area where handlers have cheek-by-jowl berths — and power — for grooming. This time there will be a grooming tent, but competitors who need hair dryers or other electrical equipment will need to wield them in their vehicles, homes or hotels.
“There are definitely going to be challenges, but I’m still looking forward to going to Westminster. We’re going to deal with whatever he throws at us,” Rosamilla said.
And, she says, “I’m sure the dogs will absolutely love it.”