Thanksgiving is all about traditions: the all-day food preparation, the arguments over which side dish reigns supreme, the 6,000-calorie food coma, and, for many American families, a viewing of a football game.
But in a world that seems to get more terrifyingly chaotic by the day, and where the health risks of football are increasingly well understood, I’d like to argue for an alternative tradition: an annual viewing of the utterly nonviolent, soothingly adorable National Dog Show.
Every year, pedigreed dogs of all shapes and sizes (and their dedicated handlers and groomers) gather outside Philadelphia to vie for fame and glory. The competition is broadcast on Thanksgiving Day at noon; here are four reasons it’s well worth a watch, even if you’re (gasp) a cat person.
The National Dog Show is part of a long tradition
The National Dog Show is always held in the Philadelphia area; it’s hosted by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia and sanctioned by the American Kennel Club. The city has a long history with purebred dog shows; the first dates back to 1876 at the Centennial Exposition, and a version of the National Dog Show has been held annually since the early 1900s (with a break from 1928 to 1932, during the Great Depression).
The National Dog Show is one of just six “benched” dog shows in the US, which means participating dogs must be present at the show and accessible to the public for the entire time, unless they are competing, exercising, or being groomed. (Unbenched shows, by contrast, only require the dogs to be present when their breed or other round is being judged.) So, yes, this means that if you snag tickets to the National Dog Show (which are pretty cheap!), you can actually go backstage to meet the dogs. And as Philly.com points out, “[A]s long as you ask first and they haven’t just gotten their fur done, many, if not most, dogs are pettable.”
But make sure you ask before you touch, because a show dog’s grooming process is often elaborate and very time-consuming. A standard poodle, for instance, could need three hours just for a shampoo and blow-dry, not to mention the traditional shave of fur into complicated geometric tufts to achieve what’s known as the “continental trim.”
(Fun fact: While that style now is purely decorative, it used to be functional, as David Ramsey explained for the National magazine. Poodles served as German water retrievers, and the poofs of hair kept their joints and organs warm in the water while the rest of their fur was shaved to help keep them afloat. Even the little puff on the tail was useful as a rudder.)
The National Dog Show is just one of countless canine competitions in the US. One of the best known is the Westminster Dog Show, held at Madison Square Garden, which has also been around since the late 19th century and, until recently, even shared a host with the National Dog Show: David Frei, who ended his gig with Westminster after the 2016 event due to a network agreement that saw the Westminster broadcast moving to Fox Sports (previously, both shows were broadcast by NBC networks).
The largest dog show in the world is Crufts, which is held in Birmingham, England, and is considered the pinnacle of doggy achievement. To enter, dogs must qualify by placing highly in another Kennel Club–licensed show, sort of like how people who want to run the New York Marathon have to qualify in a previous race first. Most delightfully and bizarrely of all, Crufts, unlike other dog shows, features a “heelwork” round, which involves dogs and their costumed handlers basically performing a dance routine to music.
You can learn a lot from watching
The National Dog Show divides its more than 2,000 participants into seven groups: terrier, toy (Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus), sporting (golden retrievers, pointers), working (boxers, Great Danes), hound, herding (English sheepdogs, Border collies), and non-sporting (everything else, including Dalmatians and French bulldogs). Each dog breed is judged individually; the winner from each breed participates in the group round, and the top dog from each group goes on to compete for the vaunted Best in Show award.
The judges look for the following:
Is this dog able to perform the job the breed was originally bred to do? Does this dog have all of the physical characteristics typical of their breed? How fit is the dog? Do they have the correct gait? Lastly, the judges study the expression on the dog’s face and general demeanor. Judges look for happy dogs that enjoy competing in the show.
The fascinating thing from a viewer’s perspective is the sheer variety of breeds these groups encompass. You’re probably familiar with several of the American Kennel Club–recognized breeds that compete at the National Dog Show: your Labradors and pugs, your mastiffs and fox terriers. You may even remember an odd breed or two from previous competitions; Westminster 2013, for instance, taught America how to pronounce “Affenpinscher” (which means “monkey-like terrier” in German) thanks to Best in Show winner Banana Joe. But it’s likely that even doggie die-hards won’t be familiar with every one of the 200-plus breeds recognized, and the National Dog Show adds new ones nearly every year.
It doesn’t help that several of them are very rare and sound like something out of a J.K. Rowling novel: wirehaired vizslas, Keeshonds, Portuguese Podengo Pequenos, Bouviers des Flandres. And part of the joy of watching the show is hearing Frei and John O’Hurley, longtime hosts of the television broadcast, read off the various breed names with obvious glee, letting every syllable roll off their tongues as each unfamiliar-looking beast takes the arena.
The hosts also bring their deep dog knowledge to the commentary, resulting in a mix that’s both informative and irreverent. After watching the National Dog Show, you’ll know not only that the weird mop-like creature on the cover of Beck’s Odelay is a Komondor but also that those fur cords require less maintenance than you’d expect. (Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski will also reprise their Olympics partnership for the show, interviewing competitors and providing backstage commentary.)
This year, the dog show has approved two new breeds for competition. The Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen (the name translates, approximately, as “large, low, shaggy dog of the Vendée”) is a scenthound from France whose “whose mustache, beard, and profuse eyebrows suggest the look of a worldly but amiable Frenchman,” per the American Kennel Club. And the Nederlandse Kooikerhondje (also known as the “Dutch decoy dog”) is a red-and-white spaniel-type dog once used to lure ducks.
There’s a high potential for drama
Don’t let the genteel air fool you: As with any competition, dog shows bring out rivalries, the potential for huge upsets, and occasional scandals. In 2015, for example, a prize-winning Irish setter named Jagger died after the Crufts show and the owners discovered poison in his stomach, leading to accusations of murder by a competitor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mainstream news outlets from Vanity Fair to Mashable picked up the story.
And the cutthroat competition isn’t just about owners’ love for their pets: Dog shows are a very expensive (and only occasionally profitable) endeavor. Buying a purebred dog can cost up to $5,000, Dr. Jerry Klein, the American Kennel Club’s chief veterinary officer, told the New York Times. Then there’s the price of training, grooming, and feeding, and the costs for entering and traveling to shows, along with handlers’ fees. For really big shows like Westminster, some owners even shell out big for a “campaign” — literally an advertising blitz touting a winning dog’s success at shows and in dog magazines. As the Times reported:
Ms. Wiest [a Labrador breeder] said she spent between $27,000 and $30,000 on a campaign for Baccara, who was the No. 1-ranked Labrador in 2014. Going into Westminster, the dog was a favorite to do well. But she didn’t even win her breed.
However, even winning Best in Show isn’t exactly akin to winning the lottery: At the National Dog Show, the top prize comes with a check for around $1,500; Westminster’s reward, says the Times, is merely a commemorative pewter bowl. But champion dogs can bring in money another way — as breeding stock. Puppies of major-show champs have reportedly sold for as much as $25,000, and a dog’s semen alone could go for $2,000.
Yet despite the high financial stakes, sometimes the drama simply stems from the fact that the competitors are still, well, animals. Though the dogs are highly trained, there’s always a chance something will go awry — with often amusing results. Accidents happen on the show floor, and occasionally a dog has other plans for how the day should go, like at Westminster 2015, when an impatient Leonberger named Dario decided he didn’t feel like waiting until after his round to snag a treat or two.
The ridiculous dog names alone may inspire you
What’s in a name? For show dogs, a lot. You won’t find any Fidos and Rovers on the show circuit; instead, you’ll hear names like CH Roundtown Mercedes of Maryscot (a Scottish terrier who won that National Dog Show’s Best in Show title in 2009) or Raydachs Playing With Fire V Gleishorbach (a fittingly long name for a long-bodied dachshund). The dogs also have nicknames, or “call names,” which is how the incredible “Lafford Fly Me Too Farleysbane,” a Papillon, becomes the more prosaic “Dave.”
While these monikers might seem overly complicated, even nonsensical, there is some rhyme and reason to them. The name of the kennel where the dog was born is usually included. Then there’s the part of the name that’s individual to the dog and can really be anything — an owner’s favorite song or movie character, the name of a beloved athlete, etc. Breeders will often theme litters’ names around a certain subject to help distinguish one litter from the next. And if a puppy happens to be born to prize-winning dogs, it may get a name that combines or references the names of its prestigious parents.
Once a dog achieves certain qualifications or wins certain prizes, its name gets amended with letters designating the specific title won: CH for champion, CWSG for world show champion, and so on; these can be a prefix or a suffix depending on the designation. (The American Kennel Club has a detailed — and long — list of all the designations.) So when you’re watching the dog show on Thanksgiving and GCH Kiarry's Pandora's Box appears on your screen, you can truly appreciate the thought process that brought about that particular string of words.
The National Dog Show airs Thursday, November 22, at noon (all time zones) on NBC. For some highly entertaining insight into the life of a show dog, I recommend reading this glorious 1995 profile of Biff the boxer by Susan Orlean.