The thousands of people who attend the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden (both exhibitors and enthusiasts) and the even greater number who watch it on television, perceive a hectic, but efficient, event on the one hand, and a grand pageant of dogdom on the other. And Westminster isn’t just a show, it’s an entire roving subculture that redefines the city for a week each year.
None of this would be possible without the tireless efforts of hundreds of people, some concerned with the nuts-and-bolts, some with creating a vital milieu for humans and dogs alike. I checked in with some of Westminster’s stalwarts about their attitudes towards the show, their "To Do" lists, and what would change if their dogs had their jobs.
Karen LeFrak Google “Karen LeFrak” and you will find her designated by that old-fashioned term “socialite,” which in this case simply indicates a woman of means who puts them to very good ends. For many years a successful standard poodle breeder (with Ellen Charles and handler Wendell Sammet) and a tireless supporter of charities and arts organizations around the city, LeFrak has in recent years become a successful children’s book author. (“Jake the Philharmonic Dog” and “Jake the Ballet Dog” were her first two efforts.) LeFrak’s most recent book, “Best in Show,” is especially close to her heart—it is a canine roman a clef whose dog “star” Gem is a composite of her champion sire, Ch. Ale Kai Mikimoto on Fifth (Miki), and his accomplished daughter, Gem (pictured here with LeFrak). Wendell Sammet also has a cameo role in the book. Proceeds from the book benefit two of LeFrak’s favorite charities—the AKC Canine Health Foundation and Take the Lead. LeFrak spoke to me from her home, and it was easy to see how Gem could step from real life into the pages of a book—she all but melted in my lap during the interview. And the socialite part? LeFrak’s annual cocktail party for “close dog friends” is considered the unofficial start of Westminster week. Here are some clips from my conversation; click on the link above to hear more from Karen about her book and dogs.
What do you most look forward to about Westminster each year? All my friends coming from all over the country and talking about their dogs and what they’ve done all year—it’s a grand reunion.
What’s the biggest challenge? Keeping your energy up because there are so many events and you want to be at all of them. Sometimes you’re perfectly exhausted by the Monday and Tuesday of the show!
What are the top items on your "To Do" list the week before the show? The Westminster Kennel Club Press Conference; my friend Ellen Charles and I are hosting a cocktail party; Bonham’s Barkfest; a theatre party to Spider-Man to benefit the AKC Humane Fund.
Is there anything special about this year? The launch of “Best in Show,” and my husband and I are expecting our first grandchild.
If a dog had your job, how would he or she handle it differently? Gem would play the piano.
David Frei David Frei, the Westminster Kennel Club spokesperson, has been the affable and unflappable public face of the club for over twenty years. He is probably best known to the general public for his knowledgeable television commentary for USA Networks during the two days of the show, but his duties also include managing a variety of press events, directing a team that coordinates with media at the show, and—most arduous and important—acting as a squire for the winning Best in Show combination. (When Uno the beagle took this prize in 2008, Frei, rather like Miss America, spent the following year touring this appealing champion around the country.) In addition, with Westminster, Frei helped to create Angel On A Leash, a charitable activity supporting therapy dog programs at health care facilities around the country. Frei is an active volunteer as well, visiting each week with his cavalier King Charles spaniel Angel at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Ronald McDonald House of New York. (A Brittany puppy, Grace, is also being trained as a therapy dog.)
What do you most look forward to about Westminster each year? Getting to see all the new great dogs.
What’s the biggest challenge? Trying to keep up with the demand from people who want to be part of what we do.
What are the top items on your "To Do" list the week before the show? Check with the breed clubs for new breeds for tips on how to present their dogs on television; get enough sleep; make time for my regular life, especially my work with Angel on a Leash.
If a dog had your job, how would he or she handle it differently? Well, they’d probably gather up a lot of news using their nose instead of their eyes and ears, but I think it’s pretty much the same thing: sticking your face in a lot of places where it’s not always welcome because you’re searching for news and tidbits to share with people. I think the best thing is that we’re all spontaneous.
Lisa Peterson Lisa Peterson is the Director of Communications for the American Kennel Club (AKC), the oversight organization for all purebred dog events (among others). The AKC sanctions competitions and accredits the breeds that participate, so Westminster week is an ideal opportunity for the club to advance its various missions—to encourage best practices in dog ownership, breeding, and competitions. The Club organizes an annual auction of dog art with Bonham’s that benefits the AKC Humane Fund (supporters are also invited to the Barkfest at Bonham’s Charity Brunch, where they can mingle with real-life champions while admiring their counterparts in oils, pastel and bronze.)
What do you most look forward to about Westminster each year? I look forward to seeing the new AKC Breeds competing, that’s always fun and I try to watch my own breed, Norwegian elkhounds. I also enjoy working in the AKC booth seeing old friends and meeting new people!
What’s the biggest challenge? AKC has a charity event for the AKC Humane Fund each year called “Barkfest at Bonhams” which is held the Sunday before Westminster and is a preview for Bonhams’ annual fine dog art sale, so getting ready for that event always keeps us busy!
What are the top items on your "To Do" list the week before the show? Answer calls from the media/give interviews regarding AKC; host media at the Barkfest at Bonhams; gather up awards AKC gives dog writers at the DWAA Banquet; brush up on AKC artwork collection for office tours I may give; look up judging time for Norwegian elkhounds!
Is there anything special about this year? This year has six new breeds competing, which I think is a recent record for new breed participation.
If a dog had your job, how would he or she handle it differently? If my Norwegian elkhound Jinx had my job, she would expect a biscuit at the end of the AKC office tour!
Alan Fausel How much is that doggie in the window? Probably a little more than you were planning to spend if it was painted by a 19th-century master such as John Emms, or Alfred Duke, or Edwin Landseer. Fausel curates the Bonham’s dog art auction each year, trying to find unique and exceptional examples of this expression of the human/animal bond.
What do you most look forward to about Westminster each year? Clearly the Barkfest.
What’s the biggest challenge? Putting the catalogue together before Christmas break when I have not seen half of the property, which is in England. Also, finding someone to wear the AKC's dog suit.
What are the top items on your "To Do" list the week before the show? Hang the paintings; call clients; send out condition reports; make goodie bags for attendees.
Is there anything special about this year? Labs. We are pleased to have some very early and important paintings of Labrador retrievers.
If a dog had your job, how would he or she handle it differently? Dogs tend to get a bit more sleep.
Lisa Croft-Elliott and Carrie Russell-Smith If the breed classes at dog shows put you in mind of those repetitive sequences by photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, or convoluted prints by E.M. Escher, or text book illustrations of gene sequencing patterns, you are not alone. Savvy owners and handlers combat the swarming effect of the dog show circuit by placing advertisements in breed and affinity publications, and constructing websites, that help to distinguish their champion/s from those other dogs. If the pictures are especially eye catching, hinting at de Kooning, or Miro, or Monet, chances are they may be the work of Lisa Croft-Elliott, who with her partner Carrie Russell-Smith represents a wide range of clients and institutions in “the fancy,” as dog showing is called. Westminster, with dozens of their clients showing, and demands from major press organs, is their busiest time of year.
Carrie Russell-Smith, what do you most look forward to about Westminster each year? Seeing beautiful dogs groomed to perfection and soaking in the atmosphere generated by the handlers and owners in high states of anticipation and excitement.
What’s the biggest challenge? Adhering to a plan of timings, covering all the rings and ensuring we are not missing any important shots by the temptation to stop and talk.
What are the top items on your "To Do" list the week before the show? Pack; deliver dogs to sitters; clear my desk; hair cut; and a manicure.
Is there anything special about this year? We are bringing an assistant.
If a dog had your job, how would he or she handle it differently? He or she would have volunteered for re-homing by now!
Lisa Croft-Elliott, what do you most look forward to about Westminster each year? Watching the green carpet start to go down and getting to tell the story through my eyes.
What’s the biggest challenge? Shooting the same breeds, the same people in the same rings in the same building with the same lighting and making it look different...that challenge is on an even par with trying to shoot around the benching area at midday.
What are the top items on your "To Do" list the week before the show? Make the wear/where list (what we wear to different functions and times of day so we do not have to think about it during the week); clear computers of any unneeded files so they run in top form; clean all camera equipment and check batteries and lenses; wonder why I did not take the time for a facelift and permanent makeup; make sure cars, studios, flights, parking are booked.
Is there anything special about this year? For me, every year is special, I feel so honored to have the position that I do (perhaps my feet do not share the same sentiment).
If a dog had your job, how would he or she handle it differently? A dog would not have my job because they have no opposable thumbs.
Jerry Grymek “Pack up the luggage, la la la” is a lyric from Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” but at this time of year, it’s more like “Pack up the Pug-age” (or Lab, or Tibetan terrier or bull mastiff, or what have you). All over the country, weary but excited exhibitors make their way to New York City, and many stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania. As “Doggie Concierge” (really—it says so on his lapel), Grymek is responsible for making both dogs and their humans happy, which involves everything from overseeing the installation of a doggie “spa” in the lower level of the hotel to coordinating press conferences and photo shoots to sending out for cheeseburgers (for the dog).
What do you most look forward to about Westminster each year? Seeing all of the participants check-in at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania and all of the guests’ excitement at seeing these best of breeds. And of course, we always look forward to having the guests and their dogs return year after year—it’s like a reunion of sorts.
What’s the biggest challenge? We aim to assist all guests with any requests and make sure their stay is enjoyable.
What are the top items on your "To Do" list the week before the show? Confirm the dog treats, commemorative postcards, and welcome letters that we give out to the Westminster guests are ready; confirm my list of media (or pup-arazzi) visits and tours; update my list of local dog services, like Pet Taxi; confirm that all of the dog spa services and events are confirmed and ready to go; make sure I have my suits and dog ties pressed and clean, and that my Doggie Concierge nametag is shining.
If a dog had your job, how would he handle it differently? At New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania, we strive to outdo ourselves for both our two-legged and four-legged guests. If a dog was the Doggie Concierge, he or she may be able to communicate better with the Westminster dogs to see how we can assist them better, but I believe we are doing a good job.