Show Dogs Take Flight

Go behind the scenes at the 135th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.
By: Aimee Berg

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Photo by: Frank Murray

Frank Murray

Never, it seemed, have so many dogs wanted to check in at once.

On Friday, in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania in midtown Manhattan, luggage dollies were stacked eight feet high with dog crates. Others were overloaded with huge plastic bins crammed with blankets, dog beds, and plastic squeaky steaks.

One block west, at the New Yorker Hotel, an Irish setter named Hottie was dozing on a brown leather couch, having just arrived on the red-eye from San Francisco. His room wasn’t ready.

By Monday, 2,597 dogs will have set foot in New York City to compete in the 135th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.

The dogs in the show bring an array of travel tales to tell: Al, a thigh-high double-coated Bouvier des Flandres traveled eight hours from Windsor, Ontario, in a van with 10 other dogs, 11 crates, five people, and four grooming tables – plus luggage. Asked how it could all possibly fit, his owner Elaine Paquette said, “Make sure you don’t bring more than you need.”

Inge, a white Standard poodle from Houston, flew via private jet (along with her vet, stylist, handler, and personal photographer) and was chauffeured to a hotel in a private van.

Inge’s so accustomed to travel; she’s so much like a little human,” said her owner Holly Sundbeck.

Professional handlers make it look easy, but traveling with show dogs is highly complex. Most owners will avoid connecting flights – even if it means a 10-hour drive to an airport.

Then there is obtaining travel papers from the vet, finding a proper sized crate, preparing it with a plush non-slip bath mat and an absorbent top-layer, and freezing water in a bucket so it will melt in transit to keep grand champion Fido hydrated.

Schlepping Accoutrements

When Westminster veteran Janine Starink leaves Vancouver, B.C., with one of her Giant Schnauzers, she often packs a 25-lb. blow dryer, a hose, and a pink extension cord in her carry-on – which always looks suspicious in the scanners – but this time, she checked Gatsby’s gear in a bin full of brushes, scissors, clipper blades, whitening shampoo, and gel (to keep his eyebrows down on show day).

Runner the Beagle also totes an unusual beauty bag. His owner, Carol Herr, packs chalk to make Runner’s legs look whiter, and even though Herr clearly labels the baggie, she is convinced that “security thinks it’s cocaine because [when I unpack] there’s chalk all over my suitcase every time,” she said.

After the luggage is gone, the pros watch to make sure their prized dogs make it onto the plane. To that end, most will book window seats on the right-hand side of the aircraft where cargo is loaded.

If Starink hasn’t seen her dog when the last call for boarding is made, she will ask the staff to ask the pilot where he is, take her seat, and wait “with my finger on the flight attendant button.”

Hotel Living

In the hotel room, a mini-fridge comes in handy. Without one, a Westminster handler has been taking a bungee cord and dangling her dog’s 3-lb. bricks of frozen meat out the 21st-floor window into the wintry air every night.

Room service would be easier, but Hotel Pennsylvania has none, so if a show dog needs a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s and doesn’t feel like walking, the hotel’s “Doggie Concierge” of seven years, Jerry Grymek, willingly obliges.

Even show dogs get restless, and when Barney the Great Dane gets what his handler Linda Cain calls “the Zoomies,” Cain supervises as he sprints from one end of the hall to the other at the dog-friendly Eventi hotel at 851 Sixth Avenue.

In the past, Starink has let her Giant Schnauzers run up three flights of stairs to burn energy but this year, it might not be necessary. The New Yorker Hotel’s new doggie spa includes three pristine Jog a Dog treadmills (small, medium, and large).

Relief and Relaxation

After a good run, some dogs will only relieve themselves on a piece of sod, but grass is scarce in Manhattan. That’s why bales of sawdust fill special rooms at select hotels. On the fourth floor of the New Yorker Hotel the canine loo has a separate pen for toy dogs, while the Hotel Pennsylvania has divided its spacious subterranean outhouse by sex and planted plastic fire hydrants on the “boys” side.

Sawdust doesn’t always fool a purebred country dog, however, and some have been known to hold it. For days. “I’m not worried; said Remy Smith-Lewis, 21, of Nino, a 2-year-old Portuguese water dog from California. “He’s pretty versatile,” adding, “he’s chill. He’s my pal. He sleeps with me on the bed.”

Similarly, Barney the Great Dane enjoys a high thread count. “He cuddles well,” Cain explained, lest the next hotel guest wonder why the bed sags.

Howling, Gnawing

“On the whole, Westminster dogs are on their best behavior,” said Grymek the dog concierge.

The Redbone Coonhound is one of six new breeds among the 179 categories at Westminster this year and scientists have found it can bark 125 times per minute, “only when it’s doing what it’s supposed to, which is hunting,” a handler was quick to add at a news conference.

Kimberly Carey says her dog Gabe the Dalmatian “is sometimes quieter than the other guests.” Starink’s Giant Schnauzers have never had an accident in the room. Carey said her Dalmatian has never eaten hotel furniture.

With textbook good looks and model behavior, the only thing Westminster competitors don’t need in transit is a sign saying they’re show dogs. When Starink makes travel arrangements, she said, “I leave that detail out because it sounds snobby. All show dogs are pets, and just as valuable to us as pets.”

And when travel plans go awry, owners take pleasure in the pet. Cruiser, an Irish Wolfhound, was set to compete in his first (and last) Westminster this year. At 184 lbs. and standing seven feet tall on his hind legs, he was too large to fit the biggest (size 700) crate but he was eligible to fly in the cabin with his owner, Gail Hawksworth, as a registered therapy dog.

“I said I’d never fly because of his size,” Hawksworth said, and since they live in central California, “I never thought he’d compete at Westminster.” But this year, when his handler agreed to drive cross-country, Cruiser was in.

Less than halfway into their 2,837 mile cross-country traverse in a diesel Dodge Sprinter, a vehicle that resembles a UPS truck, treacherous winds and icy roads forced Cruiser & company to turn around just east of Salt Lake City.

"He’s happy, happy, happy to be back home,” Hawksworth said by phone on Thursday. “We’re heartbroken he won’t be there, but it just wasn’t meant to be. My dog’s safety comes first."

The show, which ends Tuesday, will leave a firm imprint on the city. The club has made arrangements to offer special rates with 30 hotels in Manhattan.


For a behind-the-scenes look at the Westminster Dog Show, check out our slideshow.

Want to take your pooch on the road? Get advice and Pet Travel Tips From the Champions.

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