Labrador Retriever at Westminster Dog Show benching

Do you wonder every year why certain breeds never seem to win Best in Show at Westminster? Why can’t Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians and Chihuahuas catch a break?

Those are just a few of the many breeds that have never gone home with — or in — that big silver bowl presented to the winner of what is arguably the nation’s most prestigious dog show.

It’s quite possibly the main question that David Frei, the longtime co-host of USA Network’s annual telecast of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, hears: “How come a Lab hasn’t won Best in Show?”

A Numbers Game

Chalk it up to the numbers, Frei says, himself the owner of two breeds (Brittany and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) that have also never been named top dog.

For the first 31 years, the WKC didn’t have an award for Best in Show. Since 1907, the title has been awarded 107 times (every year but 1923), 46 of them to one or another of the Terrier breeds.

Do the math. With currently 192 different breeds and varieties all competing for the win, it’s a long shot for any dog.

“Even if all those 107 were different breeds, there’s still 85 of them out there that wouldn’t have gotten awards,” Frei says.

It’s not always the top-winning show dog who wins either. Sometimes the dog everyone expects to see in the Best in Show ring gets bumped out by a, err, dark horse in the breed ring or the group.

“In the 25 years I’ve done the show on TV, I think not many more than 10 of the No. 1 dogs in the country from the previous show year have gone Best in Show at Westminster,” Frei says.

Oh, So Close!

Some breeds seem to be eternal bridesmaids.

A Gordon Setter won the Sporting Group three years running in 1997, 1998 and 1999. A Pembroke Welsh Corgi won the Herding Group four out of five years between 2000 and 2004 but never claimed Best in Show. Irish Setters have been entered in the show every year since the beginning in 1877 and have had 10 Sporting Group wins without ever taking Best in Show. Dalmatians? Eight Non-Sporting Group wins but no Best in Show. Greyhounds and Norwegian Elkhounds have won the Hound Group 13 and 11 times, respectively. But neither breed has been able to close the deal.

Wire Fox Terriers, in contrast, have won the Terrier Group 22 times and gone Best in Show 14 times. That’s a pretty good percentage.

Sky the Wire Fox Terrier wins 2014 Westminster Dog Show

On the Tiptoe of Expectation

What is it with Terriers anyway? Why do they win so often?

Partly it’s because of their long history on the dog show scene. The WKC started as a club for “sporting gentlemen,” so Sporting dogs and Terriers were among the earliest and most common competitors. Even so, Terriers have more than twice as many Best in Show wins (46) as Sporting breeds, which have only 19.

Frei attributes that to the assertive nature of Terriers.

“I think Goldens, for instance, are so into doing things with their people that that’s where all their attention goes,” he says. “The Goldens and the Labs are looking at their people as if to say, ‘What are we going to do now?’ Terriers have a little bit more of an edge because they were originally bred to look for trouble. They’re always on their toes trying to find out what’s going on next, and they don’t care who’s behind them.”

What the judge is looking for is the dog who best meets his own breed standard (the written description of the ideal dog of that breed). In other words, dogs aren’t competing against each other — no apples versus oranges here. The dog who goes Best in Show is supposed to be the one who comes closest to perfection for his breed… at least on that particular day. Showmanship — the ability to grab the attention of everyone watching, including the judge — is the icing on the dog biscuit.

Showmanship isn’t everything, of course, but a dog with it can’t help but grab the judge’s attention. The challenge for many bridesmaid breeds is that it’s just not in their nature to be charismatic. Bloodhounds, for instance, would rather sniff along the ground than run around the ring, head up and tail wagging. Judges know that and take it into consideration when making their pick; however, it’s undoubtedly difficult to ignore a flashy dog who’s “asking” for the win.

But it’s always going to be a surprise. Probably nobody ever thought that a Scottish Deerhound or a Sussex Spaniel would take home the title of Best in Show at Westminster. So go ahead and root for your personal underdog. Who knows? This could be his year. 

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