10 controversies from the Westminster Dog Show

PETA protest Westminster Dog Show

  • There has been plenty of controversy in the Westminster Dog Show’s 143-year history. 
  • Two PETA members stormed the stage during the finals in 2010 with signs that read “Mutts Rule.”
  • Westminster dumped sponsor Pedigree in 2012 after its commercials featured sad shelter dogs.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Tragedy struck the competition when eight dogs were poisoned in 1895.

The eight toy dogs — Yorkshire Terriers, Japanese Chins, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels — were all poisoned the morning before the competition, according to The New York Times. 

All eight dogs died. 

Their deaths made the front-page of the Times, whose headline read: “Eight of Mrs. Senn’s Pets Killed by a Miscreant at the Dog Show. Jealousy believed the Motive.” 

The veterinarians who tried to save the dogs’ lives found that they had been given strychnine, a strong odorless poison.

When a prize-winning dog appeared to die of poison in 2013, his owner claimed there was foul play.

Cruz, a Samoyed, died days after competing at the Westminster Dog Show in 2013. Molly Comiskey, the veterinarian who treated him, told The New York Times that it appeared he had ingested rodent poison. 

“Dogs are dogs. It’s not anyone’s fault,” she said. “They eat stuff, they get into things, they make bad decisions.” 

Robert Chaffin, Cruz’s handler, said he had watched the fluffy pup like a hawk in the days before the competition, even flying him commercial to New York. Chaffin told the Times that he believed extreme animal-rights activists could have been behind his dog’s death. 

“Unfortunately, dog shows have been plagued by some of these people for years,” he said. “I’ve heard horror stories about other people’s dogs having their setups tampered with, being poisoned, but I never thought it would come to me.” 

Ingried Newkirk, the president and founder of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), denied that the organization had anything to do with Cruz’s death. 

“PETA does not sanction that,” she told the Times. “It’s so scurrilous, it’s so low to even suggest it.”

Two PETA members stormed the stage at Madison Square Garden during the Westminster Dog Show finals in 2010.

Dana Sylvester and Hope Round walked into the Best in Show ring shortly before the winner was crowned, holding signs that read “Mutts Rule” and “Breeders Kill Shelter Dogs’ Chances,” according to The Associated Press. 

They were quickly taken off the stage by multiple security guards. 

Police told AP that Sylvester and Round were charged with criminal trespass. PETA said the women had acted on their own, but that the organization supported their actions. 

PETA has held a number of protests outside Madison Square Garden during the Westminster Dog Show through the years. 

On its website, the organization states: “Dog pageants promote dog breeding and drive interest in ‘purebreds’ while animal shelters are overflowing with both mutts and purebred dogs whose lives literally depend on getting a second chance for a home.”

In 2012, Westminster dumped its longtime sponsor Pedigree, the popular dog food brand, after its commercials featured sad shelter dogs.

Westminster and Pedigree had worked together for two dozen years before the split, according to The New York Times.

“Show me an ad with a dog with a smile, don’t try to shame me,” Westminster’s veteran host David Frei told The Associated Press. “We told them that, and they ignored us.” 

“We want people to think of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show as a celebration of the dogs in our lives,” Frei also told the Times. 

The Pedigree ads, which showed abused and homeless pets, were replaced with Nestlé Purina PetCare commercials that featured joyful dogs jumping into the air. 

Pedigree told the Times that one year it had received $500,000 in donations after its advertisements aired during the Westminster Dog Show. 

A New York Times report in 2013 revealed numerous scandals within the American Kennel Club (AKC), the governing body for the Westminster Dog Show.

The AKC is a registry of purebred dog pedigrees in the US. But the Times report revealed that a number of kennel owners whose litters were registered to the AKC — and, in some cases, were inspected by the organization — had been arrested on charges of animal cruelty.

Mike Chilinksi, one of the owners cited in the Times report, was sentenced to five years in prison on 91 counts of animal cruelty and neglect in 2012. Police had found 161 “severely malnourished malamutes living off their own feces in small cages,” according to the Times. Police told the paper that they had seen dead dogs “stacked outside small kennels.” 

Lisa Peterson, who was the communications director for the AKC at the time, told the Times that inspectors with the organization had found Chilinski’s kennel “in compliance” with AKC guidelines in 2008 and 2009. She said Chilinski had about 60 dogs at the time. 

Peterson said the organization was “proactive in ferreting out animal abuse.” 

“We are not a law enforcement agency and not responsible for all breeders,” she added.

In 2016, a Westminster legend was ejected from Madison Square Garden in a move that angered fans.

Uno, a beagle who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2008, became so beloved that he was memorialized in a New York Times obituary as the competition’s “most popular winner” after he died in 2018. He was also the first Westminster winner to be invited to the White House.

So fans were aghast when Uno was escorted out of Madison Square Garden during the show in 2016.

The network CNBC had planned to show Uno in an opening segment before the competition, according to The Associated Press. When Uno started barking, Westminster officials discovered he wasn’t registered to be in the stadium and had him removed. 

An NBC Sports spokesman later called the incident “a misunderstanding,” but viewers were appalled. The Associated Press compared it to “Derek Jeter being ejected from Yankee Stadium on Old-Timers’ Day.” 

In 2018, a Reuters report found that male dogs win almost twice as much as female dogs at Westminster.

The report, which asked if there was a “glass ceiling for dogs,” showed that male dogs had won the competition 71 times, while female dogs had only won it 39 times. 

Professional breeder Kimberly Calvacca told Reuters that the disparity could be due to the fact that a dog’s peak competition age (from three to five years old) is also a female dog’s prime breeding age. 

She also noted that when female dogs are in heat, they can become temperamental or shed their coat — putting them at a disadvantage on the competition circuit. 

“Some people say, ‘I don’t want to be bothered with that, I’ll go with a male,” Calvacca added. 

Betty-Anne Stenmark, who judged Westminster’s Best in Show in 2018, rejected the idea that female dogs had to face a glass ceiling at the prestigious competition and said they had a “50-50” chance of winning. She noted that judging is highly subjective, as the Best in Show winner is picked by just one judge every year. 

In 2018, a number of prominent dog breeders told the Washington Post that dogs whose ears and tails had not been cut off were at a disadvantage at Westminster.

Docking dogs’ tails and cutting their ears is banned in the United Kingdom and Australia. But US breeders who have spoken out against the practices said their dogs can’t win at Westminster with their natural long tails or floppy ears. 

“The problem with the naturals is that you don’t go to Westminster expecting to win,” champion New York breeder Teresa La Brie, who took a Great Dane with natural ears to Westminster in 2018, told The Washington Post. “The judge didn’t give me even a sideways glance. I go to show the audience, the public, to say, ‘Yes, you can have natural ears.'” 

Jeff Shaver, who is the vice president of the American Rottweiler Club and the husband of an American Kennel Club judge, agreed that there is a bias against natural dogs on the competition circuit. 

“It’s worse in some breeds than others,” he told the Post. “When the first Rottweiler with a tail showed in 2006 back in Florida, there was almost a riot. People were crazy — cursing, yelling, screaming, all kinds of threats. It was ridiculous. There were Facebook wars. Friendships ended over it.”

In 2019, a schipperke dog who had made the final seven for Westminster's Best in Show was booted from the competition.

It was revealed that there was a conflict of interest surrounding Colton the schipperke. The longtime partner of Paul Green, a top judge in 2019, had co-owned dogs with one of Colton’s co-owners, according to WUSA9. 

Green excused Colton from the competition a day after he became the first schipperke to take the top spot in the nonsporting group and move on to the finals. 

“This doesn’t negate all he’s done here,” Christa Cook, Colton’s handler, told WUSA9 after he was eliminated. “It’s been a great experience, his accomplishment is in the book forever.” 

“A schipperke may never, never win this group again. And we did it.”

But 2019's biggest controversy came when a beloved dachshund named Burns didn't take home the top prize.

Burns became a huge fan-favorite at the competition thanks to his adorable prance and proud smile. 

So many viewers were outraged when Burns lost out to King, the 15th wire fox terrier to win Best in Show in Westminster’s history. 

Dachshunds have actually won Best of Group at Westminster 11 times, but the breed has never taken home the top prize. 

Many believe that dachshunds have struggled to win the show because of their small size. 

“I think one of the reasons some breeds don’t make it to the end is that they just aren’t the glamour breeds who are so flashy in the group,” Walter Jones, a vice president of the Dachshund Club of America, told the Times last year. 

“Dachshunds compete against many larger breeds in the hound group that are simply more impressive,” he added. 

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