The Westminster Club Dog Show smells bad. Around 2,500 dogs are showing at this 141st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and half of them are here today, which makes for a particularly pungent atmosphere. To advance to the prestigious Best in Group—and ultimately Best in Show—the dogs must first win their Best in Breed competitions. Those rounds are held here, at Piers 92 and 94 off of Manhattan's West Side Highway. This is a benched show, where all of the owners, breeders, handlers, and pups park in endless rows of crates and grooming tables. No matter if they win or lose, everyone must stick around until 5 PM so the ticketed public can meander the rows and take selfies with the dogs. It is hectic, it is crowded, and—did I mention?—it is smelly.
I'm here to see Fanny, a two-year-old Border Terrier, and her owner Georgia Waltzer, a sharply dressed red-headed former landscape architect turned dog show mom. This is Fanny's second year showing at Westminster, the Super Bowl of dog shows. Waltzer likens its prestige to horse racing. "There are three huge shows... but Westminster has the aura to it," she says. "It's like the Kentucky Derby. There's the Preakness, but there's the Kentucky."
When I arrive, Fanny snuggles in her crate with a Burberry scarf as a blanket. "It's a fake! I got it in Chinatown!" Waltzer admits. Despite the utter madness happening around us, Fanny is as chill as can be. Waltzer takes her out of the crate and places her on her grooming table to say hello, and Fanny instantly greets me with a loving lick to the face. She is a brown wire-haired Terrier with a slightly gray beard, dark ears, and huge brown eyes. I'm under her spell right away. Not only is she gorgeous, but she is friendly and has personality—a quality that Waltzer insists is the key to a successful show dog. I had been told ahead of time that show dogs have a certain j__e ne s__ais quois, but dismissed the proclamation as dog owner grandstanding. Silly of me to do so because, whatever it is, Fanny's got it. "They either have it, or they don't have it," Waltzer gloats. "You get one of these in your lifetime."
The grooming taking place around us is downright luxurious. I have never personally experienced such opulent primping and polishing. Some of the bigger long hair dogs receive manicures, hand baths, and blowouts. It's a doggy Drybar, but unfriendly to humans with allergies. Every time I blink, a new piece of dog hair lodges in my eyeball. The payoff, however, is superb. These dogs look much prettier and more put together than I ever have.
Compared to the bigger dogs, Fanny's show day prep is simpler: a little trim, a brush through, and some powder to make her snout look darker. It's the rest of the year that is hard work. She is professionally groomed twice a month leading up to the show, and to stay in tip-top shape, Waltzer explains, she works out. "It's crazy, but she does squats!" She even has a doggy Fitbit.
Waltzer is accompanied by her handler, Andrew Green, a prestigious second-generation Terrier handler. He will be in the ring with Fanny today. Of course, in the ring, Fanny does not go by Fanny but rather by her show dog name: Meadowlake Booty Call. Her breeder assigned her the name, and Waltzer felt she could not change by the time she purchased her at twelve weeks old. You'd be right to raise an eyebrow at a name like Meadowlake Booty Call except it only takes 20 seconds of flipping through the Westminster catalogue to see that all of these dogs have ridiculous names, like Winsome Home Run for Nirvana and Baghdad's Eleganza Extravaganza.
Meadowlake Booty Call is an ironic name, however, for a dog whose owner is rather candid about the apparent gender inequality in the dog showing world. "I do find that males win more than females. They're 'bigger.' They're 'prettier.' It's that whole male thing, like a peacock. A male peacock is a lot prettier than a female peacock," Waltzer explains. "Someone said to me, 'It ain't easy being a bitch,' and I had to laugh because it's so true!" And she's not wrong. The Westminster Kennel Club has awarded Best in Show to 71 male dogs compared to 38 bitches. The male dogs even get to show first.And if a bitch is "in season" (a.k.a. has her period), she must be benched far away from all the other dogs a la The Red Tent. There's even a sign in the doggy bathroom area that in big, bold, red letters reads: "BITCHES IN SEASON." I ask whether or not, should Fanny should win Best in Show, she will keep tradition and meet with Donald Trump. (The tradition is not that the Westminster winner meets with the president, but that the winning pups visits Trump Tower for a photo-op with the Donald). This riles Waltzer up: "She's a girl all the way! A woman all the way! No way in hell!"
Doggy gender politics aside, Fanny is a real hit with the fellas. One dog, Wallace, an Airedale Terrier, is particularly fond of her and she of him. Waltzer loves it. "She think's he's Cary Grant!" she says. Like Wallace, I have also fallen madly, truly, and deeply in love with Fanny, and I am certain that there can be no Border Terrier that holds a candle to her. That is until I arrive at Ring 3 where Fanny is being shown to find that, well, all 14 Border Terriers are exceptionally lovely since they all look the same. The judges, of course, see all the details that my untrained eye misses. They judge dogs based on the policies of the American Kennel Club. In other words, they decide winners based on which dog best possesses the attributes of its particular breed. The judging is subjective, unpredictable, and— sometimes—scandalous. "Sometimes you get a judge that has bred or has owned a particular breed... so it's hard not to favor, or not look at your breed a little bit differently if it happens to make the final," Waltzer says. When asked if there is drama between owners, breeders, handlers, and judges, Waltzer chuckles and retorts, "Is it life?" Enough said.
Fanny and the others take the ring and do their opening lap. It is painfully cute, but it is also straight up comedy. All of the lady handlers wear sparkly pencil skirt suits. The slight jog that the handlers perform around the ring has me giggling into my shirt sleeve. I notice that the handlers are not just feeding the dog treats, but are also nibbling the treats themselves. (When I ask about this later, I get no explanation.) During the lineup, one Border Terrier starts violently gagging. The handler rushes her to the sidelines. "Out of the ring!" I hear a woman behind me shriek. She runs over and unfolds a washcloth drenched in vomit. The dog barfs and immediately returns to her position in time for the judge to look at her. I whimper, "Poor girl." The lady with the puke-soaked rag barks back, "She's fine. She's fine."
The judge closely inspects each dog on a table before watching the dog move up and down the ring. Fanny is doing great (I think?). Waltzer is gone since Fanny will go crazy if she sees her on the sidelines. The vomiting dog covertly vomits again. The judge asks the handlers to run the dogs around the ring once more. And then another time. The tension is building! I'm suddenly on the edge of my seat. I've been sucked into it completely. Fanny is going to win, I think. She deserves to win. She is so much better than these other Borders! Look at her lines! Look at her head shape! Her perfect coat! This is her year! They run around the ring once more. Silence. The vomiting dog gags. Suspense! The judge makes his picks. Meadowlake Booty Call, my Fanny, does not advance. Her Westminster experience is over in under 30 minutes.
Waltzer had had very reasonable expectations going into the day. "One day you're up in the game, and the next day you're flat down," she says. "That's the fun part because you never know what happens. Basically, if you don't expect anything you'll be nicely surprised." But surely there is a sense of disappointment as Fanny had, at some point or another, beat each of the dogs she was shown against. Waltzer suspects some funny business with the judging, and throws some rather skillful shade. "I think it's disappointing when [the judges] put [their] mind on anything else other than what [they] see. Judge it by the book and what you see. And if you can do that, then I think you're a fabulous judge."
And as for gender bias? Well, this year the Best in Show was a bitch.