Westminster Dog Show Opens to Mutts: Setting a Positive Trend

A desire for purebred dogs fuels puppy mills and often leaves mixed-breed dogs to languish in shelters. 

NEW YORK — When the nation’s foremost dog show added an event open to mixed breeds, owners cheered that everydogs were finally having their day.

They see the Westminster Kennel Club’s new agility competition, which will allow mutts at the elite event next month for the first time since the 1800s, as a singular chance to showcase what unpedigreed dogs can do.

“It’s great that people see that, ‘Wow, this is a really talented mixed breed that didn’t come from a fancy breeder,'” said Stacey Campbell, a San Francisco dog trainer heading to Westminster with Roo!, a high-energy — see exclamation point — husky mix she adopted from an animal shelter.

“I see a lot of great dogs come through shelters, and they would be great candidates for a lot of sports. And sometimes they get overlooked because they’re not purebred dogs,” Campbell said.

Roo! will be one of about 225 agility dogs whizzing through tunnels, around poles and over jumps before the Westminster crowd. And, if she makes it to the championship, on national TV.

Animal-rights advocates call the development a good step, though it isn’t ending their long-standing criticism that the show champions a myopic view of man’s best friend.

Westminster’s focus is still on the nearly 190 breeds — three of them newly eligible — that get to compete toward the best-in-show trophy; more than 90 percent of the agility competitors are purebreds, too. But Westminster representatives have made a point of noting the new opening for mixed breeds, or “all-American dogs,” in showspeak.

“It allows us to really stand behind what we say about Westminster being the show for all the dogs in our lives” while enhancing the 138-year-old event with a growing, fun-to-watch sport, said David Frei, the show’s longtime TV host.

Over the years, mixed-breed enthusiasts have nosed around for recognition for their pets, be they carefully crossed goldendoodles or anyone’s-guess mutts. And they haven’t turned only to gag events like “Great American Mutt” shows with categories such as “longest tongue” and “looks most like owner.”

A 36-year-old group called the Mixed Breed Dog Clubs of America awards titles in various sports and has even had best-in-show-style competitions, where dogs were judged on their overall look, movement and demeanor, said President Kitty Norwood of Redwood, Calif.

Some dog organizations have allowed mixes to compete in obedience, agility and other sports for years, and the prominent American Kennel Club — the governing body for Westminster and many other events — followed suit in 2009. It has since enrolled some 208,000 mixes and dogs from non-recognized breeds as eligible competitors.

One of the nation’s oldest sporting events, the Westminster show had a few mixed breeds in its early days but soon became purebred territory. This year, more than 2,800 pedigreed, primped dogs are due to be judged on how well they fit breed standards that can specify everything from temperament to toe configuration.

That has long made Westminster a flashpoint for the purebred-versus-mixed-breed debate.

Proponents say breeds preserve historic traits and help predict whether a puppy will make a good police dog or hiking companion, for instance, facilitating happy pet-owner matches.

Animal-rights activists argue that the desire for purebreds fuels puppy mills, forsakes mixed-breed dogs that need homes and sometimes propagates unhealthy traits. (The American Veterinary Medical Association hasn’t taken a position on whether mixed breeds or purebreds are generally healthier.)

Westminster President Sean McCarthy says the club supports conscientious breeding and is “a big believer in dogs that are well cared for, loved and healthy,” purebred or not. But to critics, the show spotlights a skin-deep appreciation of dogs while downplaying darker sides of breeding, and adding some mixed breeds outside the main event goes only so far.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” says Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. But there are better ways to help dogs than “supporting this antiquated entertainment show,” she said.

PETA members have protested Westminster, once getting into the show’s center ring with signs in 2011. The group plans to demonstrate outside the show this year.

Matt Bershadker, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, hopes introducing mixed breeds at Westminster will lead emphasis “away from the aesthetics of dogs to what is special about dogs … the very, very special connection that people have with dogs.”

Irene Palmerini connected with Alfie, a poodle mix, when she spotted him seven years ago in a mall pet shop, seeming eager to get out of his crate. She wasn’t looking for a dog but couldn’t resist him.

Nor was she looking to take up canine agility, but he had energy that needed a focus.

Now, she’s gearing up to bring Alfie to Westminster, with excitement and a bit of incredulity.

“I’m representing everybody who just sits on their couch with their dog,” said Palmerini, of Toms River, N.J. “He’s just our pet.”

*Image of mixed-breed dog via Shutterstock

Category: US US News

  • EmpressL

    Face it. They’re all originally bread from wild dogs.

  • Denni A

    I’m no fan of Westminster but anything that helps mutts get national attention and helps showcase how wonderful they are I’m for it.

  • Lisa K. Kuehl

    Bet you anything that “Alfie” also came from a puppy mill. Almost every pet store puppy is a puppy mill puppy.

  • HeyJude

    I don’t believe there are sides to take here….there is room for both pure bred and mixed breed dogs. It is important to preserve and protect specific breeds, there have been many instances of breeders saving them from extinction. We can love and respect all dogs much better than we currently do, I think that is the real issue. Puppy mills need to be shut down completely, there is no benefit to dogs or people to have these abusive, cruel and disgusting enterprises.

    • FaunaAndFlora

      The voice of reason. :-)

    • takawalk

      I still haven’t been to a Starbucks, but I did watch a client of mine roasting coffee today. He recently bought a one of a kind coffee shop. My mind was on the process and machinery he was using to make one of the blends they sell, and the history he has with this shop that he now owns.

      We got a half inch of snow, which is so rare here he closed early and was going to spend the night at the shop. It is a old converted wood house on blocks. LOL He was wanting to make sure the water kept running and the pipes didn’t bust. I should have sent some of the aroma from the roasting coffee your way, but be glad I didn’t, for something that can taste so good out of the cup, the roasting part stinks.Hope the critters are treating you well.

      • HeyJude

        Hiya Tak! Right up until you got to the part where the roasting part stinks, I was lost in the thoughts of how warm and lovely it would be to have that as a business. But most of that was based on the coffee aroma I would be immersed in all day! LOL Yes, critters are all well, hope your Dane is as well. :-)

  • Winky Cat

    Fantastic and long overdue!

  • takawalk

    I do the rescue thing, It used to be strays, now it is breeds. Good dogs and bad ones come in many different forms. Since I prefer large dogs and full grown ones, four to five years has been the average time with them, aside from a little mix breed my daughter adopted, She was full grown when she ended up on our porch half froze about eight years ago. She still acts like a puppy.

    If it wasn’t for the mountain of hair they continuously shed, I would stick with the Akita.

    For now it is a Great Dane. I think this breeds reputation for being a gentle giant is because they are lazy. The one we have wasn’t abused like some I have had, he was well kept, just unloved. He graves attention and has to be in the center of everything. So being ignored aside from trips to the vet and grooming was abuse in his mind I am sure. If the next one is a mix I’ll be good with that as long as it is a good dog. But when wanting to rescue one from a bad situation the full bloods are easier to find.
    I like the fact that mixed breeds are being recognized by what they can do. One of the most interesting dogs I ever bonded with was a mix between a American Lab and a Warlock Doberman. She was a huge dog with lots of personality.