Westminster was a doggone bar

The famed New York dog show began when a group of sportsmen decided to show off their dogs. This year the beagle is top dog.

This year’s Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) Dog Show was a beagle named “Ch. Tashtins Lookin For Trouble,” affectionately known as “Miss P.” This is only the second time since 1907, when Westminster began awarding the Best in Show title, that a beagle has taken the trophy.

The show itself dates back to 1877, when a group of wealthy men who owned hunting dogs decided Manhattan needed a venue where their dogs could compete other than in the field. I always assumed the name was somehow connected to England. You know, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral — men with muttonchops and British accents dressed in hunt colors ready for the chase. But the truth is that the world’s most prestigious dog show was named after a hotel. The WKC web site cites Maxwell Riddle in a newspaper story by William Stifel titled “The Dog Show, 125 Years of Westminster”: “Westminster gets its name from a long-gone hotel in Manhattan. There, sporting gentlemen used to meet in the bar to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments. Eventually they formed a club and bought a training area and kennel. They kept their dogs there, and hired a trainer. They couldn’t agree on the name for their new club. But finally someone suggested that they name it after their favorite bar. The idea was unanimously selected, we imagine, with the hoisting of a dozen drinking arms.”

The first show was held in Gilmore’s Garden, an open-air arena used for everything from temperance meetings to illegal boxing matches, which was renamed Madison Square Garden in 1879. Madison Square Garden has had multiple incarnations at different sites since then, with the dog show following along to its current location.

The show has weathered everything from the Great Depression to two World Wars, and is reportedly the second longest continuously-held sporting event in the United States. (The Kentucky Derby is first, by one year.) The first show had 1,201 entries, including a “cross between a St. Bernard and a Russian Setter” and a dog named Nellie, “born with two legs only.”

It has always attracted the rich, famous, and powerful. Past entries have included deerhounds bred by the queen of England, a Siberian Wolfhound from the czar of Russia, J.P. Morgan’s collies, a Russian wolfhound belonging to the emperor of Germany, a Maltese belonging to famous American journalist Nellie Bly, and even two staghounds listed as originating from the late Gen. George Custer’s pack. Miss P has had some lofty historical company.

Which brings me to beagles. I’m a big fan. That said, having lived with several during my life, I’m aware it takes a special breed of human to share their home with a hound. Beagles are scenthounds, dogs who find their quarry with their nose, as opposed to sighthounds, who rely on vision. The American Kennel Club gives the following advice about these cheerful, doe-eyed dogs: “Outside in open, unconfined spaces, keep your beagle on a lead, as they are liable to run anywhere, because their instinct tells them to follow their nose, no matter where you’d rather have them go. Beagles will make you laugh, but they are a challenge to train … [they] are at best temporarily obedient, due to their independent nature.” That about sums it up. I love the circumspect phrasing “temporarily obedient.” Miss P’s owners were more forthright, putting “Lookin For Trouble” right in her official name.

The definitive origin of the breed is unknown, but packs of hounds have been used for hunting in England since before the Romans. By the era of Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500s, these were divided into large dogs for hunting deer called “buck hounds” and smaller ones for hunting hare called “beagles.” Some sources say the word “beagle” may be derived from the Old French beer or bayer, meaning “wide open,” and guele, meaning “mouth” or “throat.” Hence the word beeguele, or “open-mouthed.” That makes sense. No dog can top a hound for open-throated howling. Other sources suggest the word may come from the Gaelic beag, meaning “small,” but I prefer the first theory.

For show judging, beagles are divided into two varieties, those under 13 inches in height (measured at the shoulder), and those over 13 but not exceeding 15 inches. There are also several different kinds of field trials in which beagles may compete, either individually or as packs.

In the American Kennel Club’s 2014 list of most popular breeds in the United States, beagles came in fifth, outranked only by Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and bulldogs. Some of this popularity may be credited to “Ch. K-Run’s Park Me In First,” known by the call name “Uno,” who in 2008, became the first beagle to ever win Best in Show at Westminster. This led to a great deal of media exposure for the breed, as Uno attended events ranging from a visit to the White House to riding a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But Uno wasn’t the first beagle at the White House. President Lyndon Johnson had a pair named Him and Her while in office. According to the L.B.J. library staff, Her died after swallowing a stone, and Him was killed by a car while chasing a squirrel across the White House lawn, after which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover gave the President another beagle. L.B.J. named him Edgar, and the pup retired to the L.B.J. ranch along with his owner at the end of his term.

Here on the Vineyard many people still keep beagles for rabbit hunting, but even these are often as much pets as they are working dogs. Because they have been bred to function in packs, beagles tend to be good with other dogs, but they do like to have a job. So if you decide to own one, be prepared. They need plenty of exercise, tend to roam, and are a vocal and mischievous breed.