Westminster Kennel Club was officially established in 1877, and they held their first dog show that same year. There were no Best in Show winners in the early years of the dog show. That prestigious award didn’t begin until 1907, and was won by Ch. Warren Remedy, a Smooth Fox Terrier bitch that won the following two years, as well. She continues to be the only dog to have ever won the coveted award three times. Six dogs have taken home Best in Show twice. Three were Wire Fox Terriers, an English Springer Spaniel, a Cocker Spaniel, and a Doberman Pinscher. Of the seven group wins at Westminster, 45 dogs from the Terrier group have taken home BIS wins, the Sporting group has 19, Working group 15, Non-sporting group 10, Toy group 9, the Hounds took home a total of 5, and the Herding group has one win since 1907. Despite the popularity of the Labrador Retriever, number one on AKC’s list of top dog breeds for the last 22 years, the closest the breed has come to having a chance to compete in BIS was in 2010 when a Lab named James came in fourth place in the Sporting group. But, the breed can’t seem to break into the top seven breeds at Westminster.
In 1994, the Labrador Retriever Club wrote a new amendment to their breed standard changing the required height of the Lab. It was approved and adopted by the American Kennel Club. A class action lawsuit was filed by six breeders contending that changing the height requirement of the breed standard that had been in effect since 1957 would disqualify many Labradors from the dog show ring. The original height at the withers was 22 – 22 ½ inches for males and 21 – 21 ½ inches for bitches. The 1994 amendment changed the ideal height at the withers to 22 ½ – 24 ½ inches for males and 21 ½ – 23 ½ inches for bitches. Six years after the lawsuit was filed, the court decision came down on the side of the Labrador Retriever Club and the AKC.
The parent club of each breed owns, maintains, and writes a breed standard to describe what the ideal dog should look like. It states what the dog was originally bred to do and details the general appearance of the breed, how he should move, and what his temperament should be. It gives specific physical traits that include: ideal height, weight, coat type and colors, shape of the eye and color, as well as other physical traits. Some standards are more specific than others, and those written with a general description gives a dog show judge more leeway in their interpretation of that standard.
No one really knows why Labradors haven’t been able to get into the main event at Westminster, but one theory suggests it could be their breed standard holding them back. The 1994 change in height requirement leaves only a ½ inch to play with. A dog that is under or over the recommended height by a ½ inch is considered to have a fault and disqualified.
Another theory is Labs aren’t as flashy as other breeds. The BIS judge’s decision is based on their best interpretation of a breeds’ standard. The judge looks at the dog’s appearance, gait, and other specific requirements, but they also look for the one dog overflowing with charisma or attitude. Other breeds are better at grabbing a judge’s attention than Labs are. They just don’t have that wow factor that says, “Hey, look at me.”
A third thought is it’s all about who can promote their dog the best. Going on the dog show circuit isn’t for everyone. It takes money to cover travel expenses, meals, lodging, dog show entry fees, grooming equipment and supplies, professional dog handlers, and motels. Dog owners who can afford it advertise their dog in trade publications hoping it will add to their dog’s credentials. Judges are keenly aware of dogs with a winning track record at other AKC dog shows over the course of the year and which ones have momentum coming into the Westminster Dog Show. Some BIS judges can be swayed by a dog’s record and if other judges gave a specific dog the nod, it’s hard to disagree with their assessment. Dogs competing for Westminster’s Best in Show, after all, are the best representatives of their breed.
The Labrador Retriever was recognized by The American Kennel Club in 1917. Whatever the reasons are for why the Lab continues to be snubbed at Westminster, they aren’t alone. Three other top dogs on AKC’s list of most popular dogs have also never won BIS. The Golden Retriever, Rottweiler, and Dachshund have found a place in the homes of families across the country, along with the Lab, but so far, not in the hearts of Westminster BIS judges.
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