Take a walk backstage at the Westminster Dog Show and you’ll swear you were behind the scenes of a beauty pageant. Hair dryers, spritzers, flat irons, rollers—the works. Teams of stylists fluff and primp, massage and soothe frazzled canine nerves. Pooches pose and prep for their opportunity to strut the green carpet. Who do these bitches think they are? Well, they’re contenders for top dog or “Best In Show” at the most prestigious pageant—errr, dog show on the planet. Okay, so they may not be promoting “world peace,” but they’re certainly doing their parts to contribute to the betterment of man- (and dog-) kind in a number of ways beginning with important lessons on unconditional love and loyalty.
But first, some background. The Westminster Kennel Club, presenters of the Westminster Dog Show, made it their business from the very beginning—1877, to be exact—not only to produce an entertaining and competitive event but to create a socially responsible enterprise that could support multiple communities in varied ways. When you look at the overall impact of the event—not just on the considerable economic boost for the City of New York—it would be difficult to argue the benefits of the enterprise and its far-reaching achievements. Since there are so many causes to which Westminster contributes, let’s take a look at just a few (you can see a more comprehensive list on their website at www.westminsterkennelclub.org).
Let’s begin with the scholarship programs, starting with the newest addition in conjunction with the 2010 show: The Junior Showmanship Scholarships. These scholarships, distributed amongst eight finalists aged 9-18, range from $500 to $6,000. Each Junior Showman must win a qualifying number of first-place honors at American Kennel Club licensed and Member shows within a specified period and are intended for the recipients’ use during college or technical school. In addition, The Westminster Kennel Foundation (an independent organization established in 1971), since 1990, has awarded over 115 scholarships to worthy students for their attendance at qualified veterinary schools including Cornell University, Michigan State University, Tufts University, Tuskegee University, University of California at Davis and the University of Pennsylvania. The Westminster Kennel Foundation is funded through grants from The Westminster Kennel Club as well as gifts from members and individuals.
Now, although these dogs help make scholarships possible, the effect of their cuteness (somewhat enhanced by their pageant-like grooming efforts) should not be overlooked. Take, for example, the Angel on a Leash program, which pairs many of these well-coiffed doggies and their owners with seriously ill children and adults, the elderly and the hospital-bound. The interaction between a therapy dog and a sick child, for example, makes that child happier and better able to deal with the challenges they face while undergoing treatment for serious illness. So, if you think show dogs are coddled, think about this: it takes a lot more than cuteness to do a day’s work as a therapy dog.
Smarts and training are required. A dog that is at least a year old who is in training to become a certified therapy dog within the scope of the Angel on a Leash program is required to pass strict obedience tests. He or she must adequately perform tasks such as sitting or staying for at least three minutes with an unfamiliar person (with his or her handler out of sight). He or she must heal on lead. He or she must not interact with other dogs in the room, to loud, sudden noises or to being bumped or startled. He or she is trained to ignore food, medical equipment such as wheelchairs, canes, crutches, hospital beds and IV poles. He or she must tolerate moderate pulling of the ears, tail, hard petting or being picked up (for toy dogs). Even then, he or she must acquire a full-year’s experience in a healthcare facility and must pass extensive health certifications. Since Westminster began its Angel on a Leash program, hundreds of individuals have benefited from the therapeutic touch of certified therapy dogs. In other words, they have the goods to back up the cute.
But, it’s not only pure-bred dogs that fall within the concern of the Westminster Kennel Club. From the very first show, Westminster has been focused on the proper care and raising of dogs, the idea being that an educated owner can better meet the challenges of dog ownership which helps keep dogs out of shelters. A share of the proceeds from the very first show was given to the ASPCA to open a home for stray and disabled dogs. That donation has continued every year since.
And, how about a shout-out for rescue dogs, many of whom worked tirelessly during New York’s greatest tragedy on 9/11/01? This includes fire department dogs, search and rescue dogs, war dogs, rescue teams in the Gulf States and service dogs for the blind and disabled. Westminster’s charitable giving includes contributions to the Red Cross, Dogs for Defense, the National War Fund, Take The Lead, Search and Rescue Dogs, Greyhound Rescue and The Canine Health Foundation. It’s all so incredible but then, they are man’s best friend-something that hasn’t changed, or likely, ever will-since the very first Westminster Dog Show in 1877.
For more information on the Westminster Kennel Club, visit www.westminsterkennelclub.org.