In the Crowd at Westminster

Walking into a childhood dream
By Sassafras Lowrey, February 2010, Updated February 2015

I dreamed about Westminster the way other children do Disneyland. As a dog-obsessed child, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was the ultimate fantasy somewhere glamorous and far away from the abusive place I called home. Although I watched Westminster on TV every February, I’m not sure I really connected it with a real event. It seemed too good to be true.

Growing up, dogs were my salvation. My first dog Peepers, a shy Lhasa Apso, was the only real friend I had for most of elementary school. Together we’d sit in the family room and watch the dog show long after I was supposed to be in bed. It’s been many years since my February has been defined by dog shows, and yet I jumped at the opportunity to attend Westminster.

As a teenager, I trained and competed in obedience, tracking and the sport I loved above all else agility. I dove into the dog world, spending weekends at trials and evenings training. At seventeen, the situation with my family deteriorated and I was forced to leave home. With no job and nowhere to live, I had no choice but to rehome my dogs—Snickers (a Miniature Schnauzer) and Flash (a Sheltie). Losing my dogs, and in turn loosing the dog world was more devastating than losing my parents. This week, walking into Madison Square Garden was the first time I’ve been able to bring myself to attend a dog show since.

After arriving, I stood in the middle of Westminster and looked at the hundreds of dogs in the bench area bored, and stressed and awaiting their turn in the ring. I was struck with the question of why I wanted to be there and contribute to an industry and event that goes against so many of my political and ethical beliefs. These are dogs who rarely, if ever, are given the chance to actually be dogs. Owners spend hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning dogs who barely know them since they spend years on the road with handlers. I saw dogs who look like they’ve never been given the chance to run and play in a muddy dog park, and even dogs with personal bodyguards.

Yet, despite my skepticism I couldn’t deny there was something magical about being surrounded by dogs, in arguably one of the most prestigious venues NYC has to offer. 


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I wanted to attend Westminster because it’s full of history, like a museum, a living and breathing monument to dogs. In that way, I was not disappointed. Westminster was a bit like a very grand museum, except that the “artifacts” were dogs, many with health problems, unable to do the jobs they were breed to do. But I can only criticize so much because it’s clear the organizers, handlers, judges and spectators love those dogs just as much as I love my own, and who am I to argue with love?  I can’t deny there was something deeply satisfying about being surrounded by thousands of other people as obsessed with dogs as I’ve been my entire life.

I stayed for a few hours, watched Dalmatians, Border Collies and Keeshonds in the ring. I made my rounds of the venders (alas all the freebies were things my highly allergic pup couldn’t have), swooned over my favorite breeds in the benched area, and celebrated the number of rescue and therapy organizations with booths.

Leaving Westminster, I thought about how Mercury, my funny little mutt, would never win best in breed because he doesn’t have one. He wouldn’t win Best in Show because he’d never make it through the door. Attending Westminster I was able to see both sides: the fun and glamour of being surrounded by such incredible creatures and the ethical implications of breeding. Being at Westminster meant saying goodbye to a childhood dream. The dream ended not simply because of a shift in politics, but because I don’t need it anymore. 

Sassafras Lowrey is a Certified Trick Dog Trainer, and assists with dog agility classes. Sassafras lives in Brooklyn.