The first Westminster show was held in 1877. No other continuously held sporting event in the United States is older except for the Kentucky Derby, which was first held in 1875. The show originated as a show for gun dogs, primarily setters and pointers, initiated by a group of hunting men who met regularly at the Westminster Hotel at Irving Place and Sixteenth Street in Manhattan. They decided to create a kennel club called the Westminster Kennel Club specifically for the purpose of holding a dog show. The prizes for these first shows included such items as pearl handled pistols, of use to the hunters and terriermen who worked these dogs in the field. Since that time dog shows have drifted away from a focus on working dogs to a focus on the appearance of the dog alone.
The first show took place in May 1877 at Gilmore's Gardens (the Hippodrome) on the site now occupied by the New York Life Building, which also contains the AKC headquarters. The first show drew over 1200 dogs and proved so popular that its originally scheduled three days became four. It remained 3 or 4 days until 1941, when it changed to its current two-day format. Gilmore's Gardens at the time was an old railroad depot, which two years later became the first Madison Square Garden.
Dog breeds listed for the first show include the Long-haired Saint Bernard, the Esquimaux Dog, and the Siberian Bloodhound; most dogs had simple names such as Duke, Rover, Mungo, Nellie, and Rex, compared to today's fancier and longer dog names (although among today's call names there still number many Dukes, Nellies, Rexes and the like).
The advent of Westminster predates the creation of the AKC, so breed standards were still rough and hard to find. The Westminster Kennel Club was the first club admitted to the AKC after AKC's founding in 1884.
In 1905, with an entry of over 1700 dogs, Westminster surpassed even Crufts to become the largest all-breed dog show in the world.
Television coverage of the event first occurred in 1948, and continues through the present time. Television condenses the showing of more than 2500 dogs in well over 150 breeds in multiple rings over two days into a usually two-hour show, primarily focusing on the General Specials (featuring winners from each breed competing for the title Best In Group) and the final Best In Show (chosen from among the winners of Best In Group).
Anne Rogers Clark was a fixture at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show since 1941. She was noticed first as a winning handler, then as a judge. Her 22 judging appearances from 1967 to 2005 at Westminster matched the record.
Because of the show's popularity and prestige, starting in 1992 the AKC limited entries by requiring that dogs must have already earned their breed Championship before appearing at Westminster. Still, in 2005, 2,581 dogs were entered.
Although not required, most dogs are handled at Westminster by professional dog handlers who earn good fees for being able to bring out a dogs' strengths in the show ring. Although few dogs have won more than once at Westminster, several skilled handlers have managed the feat with different dogs of different breeds.
As of the 132nd Westminster Show (February 2008), Best in Show has been won by the Terrier Group 44 out of the 100 times that the prize has been awarded since 1907, more than twice as many wins as any other group, even though only 27 of the 157 (or 17%) officially recognized AKC breeds are terriers. Only one Herding Group dog, a German Shepherd named Ch. Covy Tucker Hill's Manhattan has won best in show. The 2007 winner of Best in Show was Ch. Felicity's Diamond Jim, aka "James", an English Springer Spaniel (Sporting Group), and the 2008 Best In Show was a Beagle (Hound Group) named Ch. K-Run's Park Me In First, aka "Uno" - the first time a beagle has won best in show.
The oldest dog to win Best in Show was a Papillon named Ch. Loteki Supernatural Being (aka Kirby), at 8 years of age in 1999. The youngest dog to win was a Rough Collie named Ch. Land Loyalty of Bellhaven, at 9 months old in 1929. One dog, a Smooth Fox Terrier named Ch. Warren Remedy won best in show three times (1907-1909), and six other dogs have won twice. Dogs (males) have won best in show 65 times to 35 for bitches (females).
The prestige of Westminster is so high that breeds winning Best in Show can actually become too popular, resulting in overbreeding, often by puppy mills or simply inexperienced backyard breeders, in an attempt to meet the increased demand for the breed. A serious decline in the quality of American Cocker Spaniels in the 1940s was generally thought to be attributable to the rare double win of a single Cocker Spaniel in 1940 and 1941. The Irish Setter was another dog that became the darling of the show ring. Critics pointed to the degeneration of the hunting abilities and trainability of this dog as proof that too great a focus on appearance of the coat to the exclusion of other characteristics could be detrimental to the long term health of a breed.
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