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Everybody Loves Labradors, So Why Are They Underdogs?

In 136 Years of Westminster Show, Popular Breed Has Never Won Grand Prize

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WSJ: For the past 22 years, the Labrador Retriever has been the most popular dog breed in the U.S., tying the Poodle’s record reign atop American Kennel Club registrations. "They’re the greatest dogs in the world," said David Frei, the Westminster Kennel Club’s communications director. "Who doesn’t love a Labrador Retriever?"

The Labrador Retriever is the most popular dog breed in the U.S. But no Lab has ever won Best in Show at the Westminster Dog Show, making Labs the Chicago Cubs of show dogs: the most lovable of four-legged losers. WSJ’s Ben Cohen reports. Photo: Getty.

As more than 3,000 dogs descend on the city for the 137th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, we take a look behind the scenes to find out how these four-legged champions prepare mentally and physically for the biggest stage.

The answer is judges at the Westminster Dog Show. In 136 years of the event, no Labrador has ever won Best in Show.

The Dogs That Haven’t Had Their Day at Westminster View Slideshow


Stan Honda/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Labrador Retriever Shayna Maydela attended an American Kennel Club news conference in New York, where the most popular dogs in the U.S. were announced on Jan. 30, 2013.

The Labrador hasn’t even made it out of the Sporting group to sniff at Westminster’s grand prize. In other words, Labradors are the Chicago Cubs of show dogs: the most lovable of four-legged losers.

Fifty-four Labradors will parade around Madison Square Garden’s ring Tuesday at this year’s Westminster show, which begins Monday. Only the Golden Retriever breed, another Best in Show shutout, has more entries. But the odds of a Labrador breaking the curse are 450-to-1, according to Johnny Avello of the Wynn Las Vegas casino’s sports book, making Labradors an underdog yet again.

"We all feel that we’ve been really ignored," said Mary Wiest, a Labrador breeder in Warren, N.J.

A black Labrador named Windy was given Best of Breed at last year’s Westminster show. Elizabeth Martin, her owner and breeder, only entered Windy because she thought Windy had a legitimate chance to win that award. But Ms. Martin harbored no such illusions about Best in Show or the Best of Group distinction placed on seven dogs. "I never even considered that," she said.


AFP/Getty Images

Only the Golden Retriever, shown at an American Kennel Club news conference in January, and another Best in Show shutout, has more entries than Labradors this year.

Barbara Gilchrist, the judge who rewarded Windy, was "amazed" the Labrador didn’t fare better in the Sporting group, which consists of 30 breeds. Labrador breeders and owners talk about the drought "all the time," Ms. Gilchrist said. "It’s very hard to sit by and be quiet."

The last Labrador to make a fuss in the Sporting group was James, a rare two-time Best of Breed winner. As a 55-to-1 long-shot for Westminster’s top honor, Ms. Wiest’s pooch was the Labradors’ best bet since Mr. Avello began setting odds in 2007. And in 2010, when James placed fourth in the Sporting group, Labrador loyalists reacted as if he had taken Best in Show.

"If one ever wins the group? Oh my gosh, it’ll be just fabulous," said Robin Anderson, the Labrador Retriever Club’s newsletter editor.

Labrador owners aren’t alone in yelping for their breed. Westminster officials do, too. Mr. Frei said he always pulls for Labrador and Golden Retrievers because of the splash they would make with a win. "We’d have to rent an apartment in Manhattan to cover all the media stuff," he said.

Why they can’t break through is a question that hounds Labrador lovers.



Their fans point to the bite of the Sporting group, which has produced 19 Best in Show winners, including the Sussex Spaniel in 2009, English Springer Spaniel in 2007 and German Shorthaired Pointer in 2005. Those dogs are what buffs call "flashy" breeds. "If I were to tell a Labrador person to have more flash and dash, they’d probably stone me," said James Reynolds, the 2011 Sporting judge at Westminster.

Unlike their peers, Labradors lack the extravagance of a long coat or the grace of a fast gait, making it trickier to catch a judge’s eye. "There are lots of Labradors that have given me goose bumps," said Cindy Vogels, last year’s Best in Show judge at Westminster, "but I think it’s an acquired taste."

Labradors also go home empty for the same reason they are such reliable companions: their good temperament. Some dogs are divas. Labradors like to share the spotlight with their handlers. "Labs aren’t selfish enough," Mr. Frei said.

Some say the problem is the Labrador’s breed standard. Show dogs don’t compete with each other so much as against the standard, or the guidelines for a dog’s appearance and movement. What judges examine in a Labrador are its head ("clean-cut" with "broad back skull"), coat (black, yellow or chocolate) and tail (like an otter’s). Also important: "powerful jaws" and "friendly eyes." The American Kennel Club’s breed standard calls for a "strongly built, medium-sized, short-coupled" dog to retrieve game, hunt in the water and, yes, melt hearts.

Dogs bred for field work tend to be longer and leaner than Labradors bred to prance around conformation shows. To conform to the Labrador breed standard, males should weigh between 65 to 80 pounds, and females 55 to 70 pounds. "A Labrador that’s over 100 pounds would be very difficult to deal with in a duck boat," Ms. Gilchrist said.

Labradors should stand between 22½ and 24½ inches as males and 21½ to 23½ inches as females, according to the standard. A half-inch deviation results in disqualification.

In 1994, when the Labrador Retriever Club developed the standard to be implemented by the AKC, it was so contentious that six breeders sued. The case lasted six years and ended when their attempts to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court were unsuccessful.

Diane Ammerman’s black Labrador, RJ, in 2008 won Best of Opposite Sex at Westminster—the prize for the top male when a female takes Best of Breed, and vice versa—and will have one last Westminster hurrah Tuesday. Her theory for the Labrador’s dry spell: other dogs have waged better campaigns. Show-dog owners can burn six-figure fortunes by advertising in trade publications and traveling to shows across the country. Along the way, Ms. Ammerman said, they hope their dogs gain a higher profile. "Pure, simple politics," she said.

Despite the breed’s popularity, Westminster judges don’t go out of their way to throw the Labrador a bone. "I don’t think anyone consciously goes in the ring saying, ‘Well, a Lab’s never won the group, but at the Garden, I’m going to change that,’ " Ms. Vogels said.

So every February, Labrador enthusiasts end up repeating a well-worn mantra of fans of the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908: there’s always next year.

"Never say never," Mr. Frei said.

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com – A version of this article appeared February 11, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Everybody Loves Labradors, So Why Are They Underdogs?.

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