Is It the Year of the Chihuahua at the 2024 Westminster Dog Show?

147th annual westminster kennel club dog show presented by purina pro plan
Westminster Dog Show 2024 PreviewCindy Ord - Getty Images

The 2000 cult classic film Best in Show follows five dogs and their owners—played by comedy legends Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, among othersas they prepare to compete in the fictional Mayflower dog show. It's ridiculous and over-the-top, but according to Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show president Don Sturtz, it's not too far from the truth.

"When that movie came out, people in the sport, they were appalled!" Sturtz says with a smile. "Like, 'Oh, they're making fun of us.' And I'm like: People, have you looked in the mirror?! Because I totally own that when I go to a dog show, I am the Parker Posey character. I'm the woman with the Weimaraner with the Bumblebee toy. Everything has to be perfect. And if it's not perfect, Houston, we have a problem! I felt like they really captured characters from the dog show world."

a man and a woman standing next to a dog
Michael Hitchcock as Hamilton Swan and Parker Posey as Meg Swan with their dog, Beatrice, in Best in Show.Doane Gregory/Online USA/Getty Images

Yet, despite the larger-than-life characters, Sturtz emphasizes that everyone who participates in the show has a deep love and affection for dogs. "Anybody who loves a dog should be at Westminster. It's the biggest celebration of dogs in the world," he tells Town & Country. Watching the real Best in Show competition, he says, "you just feel this amazing connected energy that I think is really beautiful, especially in today's times when so many things are divisive—to know that dogs bring us together for that half an hour on Tuesday, May 14th."

Ahead of this year's show, which begins today at at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (the home of the U.S. Open) and will see 2,500 dogs and their handlers compete for the top title, T&C chatted with Sturtz all about his love for dogs, judging Best in Show, and why it may just be the year of the chihuahua.

How does one end up president of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show?

I grew up in this sport; I showed my first dog when I was eight years old. We had gotten a dog, a golden retriever named Sheriff, because my parents were concerned that my sister was afraid of dogs and they thought that getting a dog would help her get past that. We got invited to a puppy match by the breeder; they put a show lead on him, showed me how to hold it, and just said, follow the judge's instructions. I was bit by the bug. We didn't win, but I really enjoyed the experience, and I started going to training classes. We soon discovered that Sheriff was really not show quality—he was our best pet, but not really competitive. We got another dog purposely for a show and it became a family hobby.

It was really a great activity for me because unfortunately, I was one of those kids who got bullied in school. So going to the dog show world—where I was valued, respected, and acknowledged—was a great escape from the weekdays that were sometimes pretty challenging. I really credit my involvement with the sport as a child and an adolescent as having a great deal to do with who I became, as far as being confident and having a positive sense of self. I don't know what that would've been like had I not had an activity like that. I really lived and breathed dogs.

145th annual westminster kennel club dog show
Wasabi the Pekingese sits in the winners circle after winning Best in Show in 2021.Michael Loccisano - Getty Images

What's makes a dog a pet versus a show dog? I know my dog is not a show dog, I'll tell you that. What's your distinction?

Much like children, we all think our children are all stars and we love them for who they are. But for the conformation world [ed. note: The official term for dog shows is conformation], there are breed standards: certain expectations of size, shape, coat textures, color of eye, proportion of body, how they carry themselves, and so on. To be competitive in the conformation ring, the dogs have to have what's required by the standard, and that's what the judges are referring to when they're looking at the dogs. They're looking for the dogs that most closely resemble the standard, or possess the most virtues that are described in the standard. That's your show dog. Every show dog is a pet—that I can assure you. That's something that most people don't realize. They look all perfectly coiffed and well-behaved in the ring, but they all go home and are somebody's pet, they're somebody's family member. Even though I have show dogs at home, they spend much more time being my pets. Their physical health and their mental health are always paramount. For dogs who may not really have those conformation qualities, there's millions of activities out there in dog sports that are really fun for all dogs that people can pursue—like agility and dock diving, obedience, all those kinds of things.

I saw that chihuahuas are the most-entered dog this year, followed by Labrador retrievers and then Golden retrievers. Is this the year of the Chihuahua?

madison square garden hosts the 2010 westminster kennel club dog show
A Chihuahua is walked during competition at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, 2010.Chris Hondros - Getty Images

Apparently! It's so cool, right? The smallest breed of dog got the largest entry. That's a really cool dynamic. I don't think anybody saw that coming. They tend to be a breed that gets a decent sized entry, but not typically in that top ranking area. Goldens, Labradors, Dachshunds are always right up there for sure—those are the ones we typically see. Then some other breeds [are near the top], like French bulldogs or Australian shepherds. So yeah, it's the year of the Chihuahua!

What's something that viewers who are watching at home don't see?

What you see on the television screen is a very clearly orchestrated, well-timed as any TV production is. The dogs are orderly and typically well behaved and everyone knows the routine. It looks like a choreographed performance. Behind the scenes in the Ready Ring, there's a vibe. People are excited, they're nervous. The dogs are probably the calmest creatures in the room. The humans are the ones who are frantic.

topshot us animal westminster show
A Standard Poodle gets groomed ahead of the competition.TIMOTHY A. CLARY - Getty Images

What do judges look for in Best of Show?

The pat answer that's typically given is judges are looking for the dog that most closely meets their breed standard. That's the package answer...

What's the real answer?

The real answer is at an event like this, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show, the seven group winners are going to meet their breed standards and then some. It's going to be splitting hairs. At the end of the day, it's about the dog. It's a great dog having a great evening. It's just their moment. There's something about how they carry themselves. There's something about how they connect with their handler, how they connect with the judge, how they handle the crowd and the lights. That piece comes into play to a much greater extent at an event like [Westminster], at that level of the competition because you're splitting hairs between excellence.

When someone's judging Best in Show at Westminster, you know that for this judge, this is the most important judging assignment of their entire career. You only get to do it once if you judge it, and that's it. You're going to put your heart and soul in this and be very present and give it your all.

When you judged Best in Show in 2022, how did you decide to award Best in Show to Trumpet the Bloodhound?

top canines compete at prestigious westminster dog show
Trumpet the Bloodhound won Best in Show in 2022, judged by Sturtz. Michael M. Santiago - Getty Images

That was the pinnacle of my judging career. Whenever I judge, I try to go in with a blank slate and just try to judge the dogs on the day in the moment with who's there competing. I really try to be as objective as I can in the moment. When I reflected on Best in Show, I ended up giving Best in Show to the bloodhound. I remember thinking to myself, 'I f someone had told me that I was going to give best in show to a bloodhound when I judged Best in Show at Westminster—no shade to the bloodhounds, I love 'em obviously!—but I just would've never have thought of a bloodhound as the Westminster Best in Show winner.

When the bloodhound, Trumpet, came in right out of the gate, his first lap around the ring, I remember going, 'Oh, it's a bloodhound. Oh, he's a contender!' He was just so athletic and so well constructed. He moved around the ring with this beautiful carriage and athleticism. I remember towards the end of the class, I had asked each dog to come out and stand on their own—I do that to see them unaided. I want to see how they hold themselves naturally, what their character and presence is on their own, without the handler poking, prodding, doing anything. In that moment, I'm like, 'Oh, poor bloodhound.' They don't really do that. They want their nose on the ground; they want to go trail something. And I actually [thought], should I do this? Is it fair? But, I always do this. This is what I'm expecting of my winner. The handler was so clever, she guided him out and then just let him walk into his stance. He planted his four feet perfectly and literally stared me in the eye. I'm getting goosebumps again! That was the moment. It was like, it's his night.

There were dogs coming up after him, and I thought, they're going to have to really blow it out of the water because he just claimed the crown. It was just that evident; it was evident to everyone. It was just one of those special moments where it's their night and you can't deny that.

Online, there's a lot of discourse every year around the golden retriever not winning. Is it finally their time? What is that all about?

I don't know what that is! I would have a bias; it's the breed I grew up with, it's what my family raised. I don't know that there's an answer for that. Golden retrievers have won the sporting group a number of times, but have not been able to get to that next step and win the Best in Show. Maybe this year... That's one of the wonderful things about Westminster: Anything can happen, as we have all of the top dogs from the country coming to compete. I think that's part of the excitement. As much as there'll be people in the sport who will be trying to figure it out and look at the judges and go, 'Well, I know this judge likes that.' More often than not, it never goes the way it's expected, which makes it more exciting.

The 148th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show begins today; the full viewing schedule can be found here. There will be live coverage on Fs1 and streaming on the Fox Sports app of Best in Show on Tuesday, May 14, beginning at 7 p.m. eastern.

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