There’s a lot more to the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show than running dogs around a ring. The familiar, nationally televised event on February 12 and 13 culminated with the crowning of this year’s best-in-show winner, a bichon frise nicknamed Flynn. But in addition, audiences were treated to obedience and agility championships, junior handler competition (in which young people are judged on their dog-showing abilities), and the ever-popular Meet the Breeds Day — all part of what the famous New York City kennel club calls “Westminster Week.”
For dog owners in Saugerties and Kingston, the experiences that many people might see as run-ups to the big show are the main draw. Tom Delaney, with his wife Beverly a longtime breeder of Samoyed dogs, represented those fluffy white tail-waggers at Meet the Breeds and also helped staff the Associated Dog Clubs of New York State booth. Andi Turco-Levin of Kingston showed her West Highland white terrier in master’s agility, and Russell Thorpe of Kingston also took to the agility course with two standard poodles.
The fifth annual American Kennel Club (AKC) Westminster show took place at Manhattan’s Pier 94 on February 10, with 330 dogs entered. All were designated by height into five jump categories (ranging from eight inches to 24 inches). The top 50 dogs — ten from each height class — moved on to the championship round, based on their scores in two qualifying rounds.
Kirby, Turco-Levin’s six-year-old “Westie,” made the finals for the first time in his second year of showing at Westminster. “I had no expectation of ever, ever making the finals,” Turco-Levin marveled after the event, which was nationally televised. “He absolutely knew what he needed to do.”
Turco-Levin began competing after she attended the first Westminster agility championship in 2014 and was inspired to try the sport. “At first I never thought I could compete at that level,” she says. “I first went to an agility trial not knowing a damn thing. But I grew up with dogs, and when I lived in Manhattan I would always go to Westminster as a spectator.”
Kirby soon achieved his master’s status, and has since earned more than 30 agility titles. He was ranked as the nation’s top AKC agility Westie for his class in 2017. “It’s so athletic,” Turco-Levin said about the allure of agility. “It makes me think, and it creates a bond with my dog. It’s almost like dancing. It’s a total connection.”
Thorpe, competing in the Westminster agility trials for the fourth year, ran last week’s courses with Ganesha, who came in fifth in the finals, and Shambhu, who placed third (and has been in the finals all four years; Ganesha twice). “They did extraordinarily well,” Thorpe says. “I felt very lucky when both of them made the finals.”
While he travels far and wide for agility competitions — Shambhu is the top-ranked AKC poodle in agility in the country — Thorpe says the Westminster brand is a breed all its own. “It’s probably the highest-energy agility trial that I’ve been at, and I’ve been at a lot,” he said. “There’s more crowd excitement than any other top event. And you’re competing for a chance to be on television, which doesn’t show a lot of agility. It’s a great way to showcase the dogs.”
Showcasing dogs up close and personal is what the AKC Meet the Breeds day is all about. This year’s ninth annual event featured more than 100 dog breeds — and, wait for it, more than 30 breeds of cats. The many visitors who descend on the breed booths get treated to licks and affection from dogs, descriptions of breed characteristics by their proud human spokespersons, and tips on responsible dog ownership. The Delaneys, who have bred Samoyeds under the Ala-Kasam kennel name for more than 40 years, have helped out at the Samoyed booth at Meet the Breeds since the event’s inception. The interaction between dog owners and inquisitive guests, Tom Delaney said, helped people who may be unfamiliar with a breed “to decide what kind of dog they might be interested in.”
“Samoyeds are a 4H breed,” he says. “Sammies” were bred to hunt small game, herd reindeer, haul sleds, and be human companions in their native Siberia. At the Meet the Breeds setup a few years back, volunteers spun Samoyed hair into yarn, and then knitted hats and scarves that look and feel like angora.
The Associated Dog Clubs of New York State, consisting of AKC breed clubs and individual owners, trainers, groomers and others, was founded in 1971 to provide information on where people could find the right dog and responsible breeders. The group has branched out to alert the public, including lawmakers, to state and federal legislation concerning dogs. “We meet with various government officials who are the decisionmakers,” Tom Delaney said. He said that 40 New York State legislators were in attendance at the event “to see the good things we do with our animals.”