For dogs, Westminster show’s move is a breath of fresh air

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — The competitors could run, jump and weave — and, for the first time, relax by rolling in the grass.

Ripple the Boston terrier, for one, was taking advantage as she cooled off Friday from the agility course at the Westminster Kennel Club’s first outdoor dog show in over 140 years. The longtime Manhattan event, usually held indoors in February, instead is happening outdoors at a suburban estate because of pandemic precautions that also closed the show to the public.

While the move means forgoing the glitter of Madison Square Garden, it’s a breath of fresh air for some contestants and their human partners.

“I didn’t really want to have to subject her to New York winter in the city,” owner Dan Haddy said as Ripple basked in a 70-degree (21 degrees Celsius) afternoon, stretching out on softer grass than she generally finds at home in Anderson, South Carolina. “June, out here, on a day like this — yeah, this is beautiful.”

More than 300 canines, ranging from a Chihuahua to a Rottweiler to mixed-breed dogs, were running timed obstacle courses to vie for the agility championship. The winner will be crowned after a final round Friday night (it airs Saturday evening on Fox).

With no spectators and plenty of elbow room on the grounds of the Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York, the nation’s most prestigious dog show opened with a more relaxed feel than usual. Either way, competing there for the first time was a childhood dream come true for Dr. Whitney Heiken, a veterinarian with a Swedish vallhund named Valkyrie.

“I would go to Westminster, wherever it was,” said Heiken, of Norristown, Pennsylvania, “but this dog loves to be outside. … It’s a huge plus for us.”

Until now, the Westminster show had been in Manhattan since its 1877 founding and was held in an open-air venue only in its first few years. This year, it’s in tents at the historic Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York. Judging begins Saturday toward the coveted best in show prize, to be awarded Sunday night.

There’s relatively little crossover between the fast-paced agility ring and the traditional competition where dogs trot before a judge, but a cocker spaniel named Elvis was going for both. “He’s just a really remarkable dog,” says owner Sheryl Gadol of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

Westminster added the agility contest in 2014, reflecting the growing popularity of a dynamic sport open to both purebred and mixed-breed dogs. Some are mixes made especially for sports prowess, such as Crime, a 10-year-old border collie-Staffordshire bull terrier mix.

“He is a ‘go big or go home’ type of dog,” says owner Debbie Lazaro of Howell, New Jersey (an attorney, she names all her dogs after legal terms).

Certain breeds tend to excel in agility, hence the 59 border collies that entered Friday’s contest. But it also drew some lesser-seen breeds like a mudi, a Hungarian herding dog. Kim Seiter, an agility trainer from Oak Ridge, New Jersey, was at Westminster for the first time with her dog Komoly, hoping to showcase the “super-cool, really fun, smart, hard-working” breed.

Another contestant, Stella, is part of a breed better known for snoring than athleticism — she’s a bulldog. But owner Lucy Hayes realized early on that she had a “wild puppy” that loved to play, and now the 3-year-old competes in agility and dock diving.

“I thought I was doing something to keep my dog busy, but to me, now, the message that bulldogs can be active and healthy and is a big one,” said Hayes, of Dayton, Ohio. She does extra conditioning with Stella, consulted with vets to make sure she was physically OK for the sport and is careful to keep her from overheating.

Veterinarian Dr. Maria Badamo says all dogs can do agility, if they don’t have developmental problems that prevent it and are kept in peak condition.

“I think it helps to keep dogs mentally, physically, one step above just hanging out on the couch,” Badamo, of Midlothian, Texas, who was competing Friday with her border collie, Kenobi. “You develop that bond, that connection, so much more, doing these things with them, whether it be agility or any other dog sport.”