Two breeds make their Westminster Dog Show debut

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

NEW YORK—At certain moments it had the air of a red-carpet event, with camera shutters clicking in rapid fire and flashbulbs igniting the room in white light. But there were no famous celebrities here—only a pair of Russell terriers named Pepper and Madison, who grew sleepier and sleepier on their handler’s lap as photographers jostled back and forth to take their picture.

It was the dogs’ official debut as part of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which held a press conference Monday to show off the two new breeds competing in next month’s show. In addition to the Russell terrier, a breed called the treeing Walker coonhound—so named for its ability to run raccoons up trees—will also compete for the first time at Westminster, which kicks off Feb. 11 in New York.

Organizers announced Monday that 2,721 dogs will compete at the show—making it the largest in 15 years—with 187 breeds vying for the ultimate title of best in show. Also for the first time in its 137-year history, the event will be split up into two venues: Madison Square Garden, and New York’s Piers 92 and 94 along the Hudson River. The additional space means more people can see the dogs up close.

Westminster has long been considered the most famous dog show in the country—a fact that was evident on Monday as dozens of reporters and photographers crammed into a tiny conference room at the Affinia Hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden to eye the new breeds.

“Now, now, play nice,” David Frie, Westminster’s communication director and longtime announcer, declared at one point as the room descended into chaos. Frie wasn’t talking to the dogs, but to photographers and videographers who pushed and shoved each other trying to get close to the dogs while the canines surveyed the scene calmly.

At one point, Meg, a brown-and-white treeing Walker coonhound from Pennsylvania, delivered an impromptu kiss on the mouth to her owner Curt Willis as Friel spoke to reporters.

“DO THAT AGAIN!” a photographer yelled, and Meg whined and promptly licked her owner’s face—resulting in a deluge of shutter clicks.

Frie was careful to note that Russell terriers and treeing Walker coonhounds aren’t exactly “new” breeds, but rather had finally met the strict qualifications of the American Kennel Club, which determines which types of dogs are allowed to compete at Westminster. Among other things, AKC weighs inclusion on the breed’s popularity and its geographic distribution around the U.S.

Fifteen Russell terriers will compete this year along with 13 treeing Walker coonhounds. But that’s a small number compared to other breeds. The golden retriever, for instance, has 61 entries, and the Labrador retriever, 54.

Asked why it took so long for Westminster to include Russell terriers, Sue Sobel, owner of Pepper and Madison, looked down at her sleepy dogs and shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “Just look how cute they are.”