Westminster's Move Away From MSG Proves Challenging for Humans, Blissful for Dogs

The Westminster Dog Show was held outdoors this weekend in a concession to the pandemic. It made for a unique experience beloved by dogs, tolerated by humans.
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TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — Spectators were barred from the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show this weekend, but there were fans in abundance. Cooling devices, that is.

In a concession to the pandemic, this weekend the dog show left its home at Madison Square Garden for the first time in a century. The early rounds were contested outdoors on the grounds of the Lyndhurst Mansion some 25 miles north of Pennsylvania Station. (The semifinals and finals were held, also without fans, in a large tent.) The dogs loved the switch. Some of the humans were less thrilled.

A dog cools off in front of a fan at the 2021 Westminster Dog Show.

A dog’s dream—grass to run around (and pee) on, wildlife to chase, mud to roll in—can be a handler’s nightmare. Many dog shows are held outdoors, so the competitors were mostly familiar with the process, but at the Super Bowl of dog shows, the inconveniences seemed magnified.

First, there were no electrical outlets, so dogs that needed blow drying (just about all of them) relied on owners with generators, or owners with friends with generators. Clumps of dog hair littered the grass of the parking lots; humans had to groom amid the elements, contending with flyaways or sprinkles of rain. Any bridesmaid knows how challenging it can be to look your best while traipsing through a field. The hairspray most owners had on hand was not always enough. Then there’s the trek to the ring: In many cases, handlers carried their dogs or rolled them in their crates to keep their paws clean.

The ones who deigned to tolerate such treatment, that is. Stacy Zimmerman laughed and pointed at her rat terrier River Ridge’s Level of Intrigue (also known as Hunter), who was perched primly on his crate. “He can’t ride inside,” she said. “He has to ride on top, like in a parade.” (Hunter was chosen as the select dog for his breed.)

The down time before and during events offered obstacles. With both the temperature and the humidity hovering in the mid-70s—and hotter in the sun—the especially fluffy breeds needed a lot of care. Storm clouds hovered for most of the afternoon; the humidity frizzed the hair of dogs and humans alike. Some pups wore bibs to catch drool. Many dogs sported cooling vests (often sequined or bedazzled, for the divas), and some went for a lower-tech version: towels soaked in water and then draped over their backs.

A dog licks its owner at the Westminster Dog Show

Twenty-two greater Swiss mountain dogs competed on Sunday, a huge number. To give them a break from the heat and general chaos, the judge decided to split them into sections—two groups of eight boys each and one of the remaining six girls. Terri Galle, who stepped in to handle Grand Champion Pine Grove’s the Man You Need (also known as Collins) when his owner-handler, Tiffany Patten, got sick suddenly, did not come equipped with the battery-powered fans many other competitors had. So she became a human-powered fan, soaking a towel in ice water and then waving it at Collins, who was positioned on another ice-water-soaked towel and also had a gigantic container of cold water. Galle occasionally took breaks to spray water on Collins’s gums and paw pads.

“He’s from Colorado,” she explained, “So he’s not used to this at all.” He seemed to grin, and she did, too. “He’s not going anywhere,” she said. (Collins won an award of merit for his breed.)

Some dogs need divine assistance. The owners of the Samoyeds, which seem to be genetically closer to cotton balls than to rottweilers, pray for clear skies. Even if the handlers carry the pups into the ring, they still splatter themselves with grime when running around on display.

A couple of dogs sniff each other out at the Westminster Dog Show

Carol Montgomery said her Samoyed Grand Champion Alpine Glo’s Always a Lady (also known as Emily) much preferred a recent event in New Jersey when it was 48° out. But she said they would be OK even in bad conditions.

“The judges understand,” she said. Plus: “All the dogs are muddy.”

The rain held off until the outdoor rounds finished at 4:30. Then, at last, the finalists headed inside.