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The basics of the big show

Westminster, which is the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the U.S., hosts a weekend’s worth of events every spring featuring around 2,500 dogs from 210 different breeds.

The first half of the competition is dedicated to skills (agility training, obedience, and a special dock-diving exhibition), and the second half is dedicated to breed judging.

In breed judging, the preliminary awards given out are the “Best Ofs”: Best of Breed, Best of Opposite Sex, Select Dog, Grand Championship Points, and Awards of Merit; within those categories, different groups are judged: hounds, working, sporting, non-sporting, herding, toy and terrier.

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What it costs to raise a winner

To state the obvious, owning a show dog isn’t cheap.

The cost of a purebred puppy can run anywhere from $1K to upwards of $14K, depending on the breed. They typically eat an elite diet of protein-rich kibble and are trained and groomed to be Super Dogs for their entire lives.

Weekly training classes can cost as low as $5 if you sign on at a breed club, but if you want to engage the services of a private trainer, the sky's the limit. And while the cost of grooming obviously varies based on breed, at the elite level, even the brushes used to detangle matted fur are worth hundreds of dollars.

Registering for the preliminary dog shows that will count towards qualifying for Westminster can cost anywhere from $10-50.

And once you’ve finally jumped through all the hoops to officially register your pooch for the big show, the registration itself starts at $100. If your dog is also entering the Masters Obedience Competition, you’ll pay an additional $80.

Don’t forget there are also the expenses of your travel, accommodations and food, as well as making sure your dog is always pawparazzi-worthy.

Additionally, some owners prefer to hire professional handlers for competitions. Heather Helmer, who was the handler of 2022 Best in Show winner Trumpet the Bloodhound, as well as a handler-for-hire, charges anywhere between $100-$400 for ringside handling in lesser shows. But Westminster is different, and she charges $1,000 for it, along with an $800 bonus if the dog wins.

There’s also the marketing. Wendy Harrison, who owns HareHill Hounds, says some owners have spent up to $100,000 on advertising alone. How much you spend is completely up to you, but if you have a fairly “risky” breed (like a standard poodle, which has only won once since 1991, or the recently-allowed hairless terrier or Sloughi), the more ads you take out in industry magazines, the better.

But just because you spent the money doesn’t mean it’ll net you a winner.

Championship pedigree

bichon frise getting groomed before a dog show
Ihar Halavach / Shutterstock

So, what exactly makes a champion a Westminster champion?

Each show dog at Westminster is an approved AKC breed, and each breed has standards that are maintained and updated by the AKC — the dog should be living up to the function the breed is supposed to perform, as well as having an ideal appearance, including: height, weight, temperament and personality.

Some standards can be specific and quantitative, others are more subjective and leave room for the judges’ interpretation.

Buddy Holly, the PBGV (Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen), won 2023 Best in Show. Buddy beat out the others because he “exudes breed type, moves effortlessly, and is everything you want a PBGV to be,” according to Beth Swiegert, the judge who crowned him.

Trumpet the bloodhound was the first of his breed to ever clinch the top spot. He seemed to have a certain charm that won over the judges, and was descended from other champions — the New York Times pointed out that his great-grandsire, Tigger, was once in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the dog who had the longest ears.

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The catch

Perhaps the most surprising fact about Westminster is that there is no prize money awarded to the Best in Show.

Winners do get bragging rights, a crystal bowl and purple ribbon, a celebratory meal at Tavern on the Green and a visit to the Empire State Building.

And winners of the agility and obedience competitions get to direct $5,000 towards either a kennel club or charity of their choice. They may also become an ambassador for a pet food brand and get some free food out of that arrangement, but most of the time, taking home Best in Show is an “all guts, only glory” proposition.

You may be wondering, “why would anybody engage in this hobby, even if they love dogs? It sounds really expensive, and there’s no reward!”

It’s important to remember the original purpose of dog shows: to showcase the best breeding stock for producing the next generation.

One way of recouping show costs is by selling purebred puppies.

Wasabi, a Pekingnese who won Best in Show in 2021, has sired several puppies, and puppies of Westminster winners can fetch (depending on the breed) between $10,000 and $25,000 at the Southwest Auction Service, the largest legal dog auction in the nation.

While it’s true showing dogs tends to be a hobby for the already-wealthy, it could also be seen as a capital-intensive investment strategy. You pay a lot of money upfront, with the idea that getting the trophy will eventually sweeten the puppy pot.

Things to watch for at this year’s show

One of the dark horses of 2024’s Westminster competition is Rowan, a 85-pound Bracco Italiano Pointer Hound who hails from Wyoming. Although the breed was only recognized by the AKC in 2022, Rowan is the descendant of other champions, and already competes in approximately 10-12 shows a year. According to Jennifer Nieft, his handler, he “keeps bringing home ribbons” and has already won three Best in Show competitions in Colorado.

But Rowan might be facing an uphill battle. Historically, Westminster show winners are usually breeds that have been recognized by the AKC for years, if not decades, and seem to have no connection to how popular a dog is outside of the ring. Family favorites such as Golden Retrievers, French Bulldogs, and Golden Labradors have never won the top prize.

The Wire Fox Terrier is Westminster’s most winningest-breed, having taken home Best in Show 15 times since the competition’s debut; a Scottish Terrier has won eight times, an English Springer Spaniel has won six and the Pekingnese and Standard Poodle have each won five.

Ultimately though, it comes down to the individual competition: How the dog competes the day of in their class, and how the judge, the one holding that all-important clipboard, adjudicates their performance.

But, no matter what happens, the real winners are the spectators, who get to watch all the adorable and talented competitors perform.

Westminster Dog Show begins Saturday, May 11 2024 in Queens NY and runs until May 14. Best in Show competition will be held at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, NY. General admission tickets per event are $32.50. If you can only make it virtually, it will be live broadcast on Fox and its affiliates.


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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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