An Essential Guide to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Westminster Kennel Club spokesman (and longtime dog show co-host) David Frei opens up about the canine competition
Yes, it’s that time of year again.
“It’s the only place all year where all the great dogs are in the same place at the same time,” Westminster Kennel Club spokesman David Frei tells PEOPLE.
This year, 192 different breeds and varieties will be competing for the top title of Best in Show. Says Frei: “We surely have something in there for everyone.”
The longtime co-host of the show breaks down the ins and outs of the pooch pageant for PEOPLE:
What’s New This Year?
Frei admits not much changes year-to-year.
“We judge them, first at the breed level, then the group level, then the group winner stands in there, and one of them goes Best in Show,” he says.
Still, there is one switch up this year: Two new breeds will be available to compete.
First, there’s the Coton de Tulear: “They look a little bit like a cotton swab out there,” says Frei of the Madagascar-originating breed. “They’re kind of the royal dog of Madagascar – cute, little, long-white-haired dogs.”
The next new breed in the competition is the Wirehaired Vizsla, originally from Hungary. “It’s a beautiful sporting dog that looks like the Vizsla [They] have this wonderful temperament and personality.”
What Judges Are Looking For
Cuteness doesn’t cut it in the big leagues – judges have specific characteristics they look for in competition, from structure (neck length, snout length) to cosmetic features like eye and coat color.
“Every breed has a standard, which is the written description of the ideal specimen of that breed, and, subsequently, how the dog comes together,” says Frei, adding it’s also about relating form to function and a look at “what the dog was originally bred to do.”
For example, “You don’t get to see a Siberian Husky pulling a sled, but you’d have to, as a judge, imagine them as a great, athletic, strong and fast dog that can do that.”
Still, there’s some room for subjectivity.
“When it comes down to the end, we feel we’ve always had seven great dogs standing in there that are probably all great specimens of their breed,” says Frei. “So it comes down to other things, like showmanship, charisma and personality.”
Dog Handling is Serious Business
While they’re not exactly brawling backstage, dog handlers can be an aggressive and passionate bunch. “It’s very competitive,” Frei says.
But, “At the same time, the people you’re competing with are the same people you see every weekend, and they become your social circle, too,” Frei adds. “They become your best friends, and you have this great interest in common: You both love your dogs and want to have the next great beagle or whatever.”
That sense of community translates outside the ring, too. Handlers banded together to create Take the Lead, a charity that raises money for people in the sport who are struggling with life-threatening or terminal illness.
Winning Can Take a Dog Anywhere – Even the White House!
The furry friend named top dog gets more than bragging rights and rich breeding potential – it can launch a whole career for a pooch, too.
Frei’s personal favorite best in show winner was Uno, the first beagle to come away with top honors in 2008 and a fan-favorite because “he was sort of an everyman’s dog.”
Upon winning, Uno went everywhere from L.A. to D.C. once he started getting appearance requests across the country.
He threw out the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game (“Actually, I threw the pitch; he ran and got it and brought it back!” says Frei), walked the red carpet with A-listers at Hollywood premieres, appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and was the only winner to ever visit the White House.
The top dog was even famous enough to get his own seat on airplanes.
“The computer selected him for additional screening one time, so we took him over and TSA patted him down. You don’t see those TSA guys smiling all that often, but they saw the humor in it,” Frei says, joking: “It’s really great to know that the world is safe from terrorist beagles.”
It wasn’t just fun and games for Uno, though. He went on to do charity work, as well. “He became a registered therapy dog, and we would visit Ronald McDonald houses all over the country,” says Frei.
The dog show will begin broadcasting on CNBC from 8 to 11 p.m. ET Monday. On Tuesday, the sporting, working and terrier groups (and the final event, Best in Show) will be broadcast on the USA Network from 8 to 11 p.m ET.