The Dogs Will Not Wear Masks, but the People Will at the National Dog Show This Year

How the Thanksgiving Day event is coping with the new reality. Bark bark.

The 2019 National Dog Show | Mark Makela/Getty Images
The 2019 National Dog Show | Mark Makela/Getty Images

When sporting events started to return over the summer, there were plenty of questions, among them: How would a lack of fans affect players on the court or field? Would they perform differently without cheers from the stands? Come this Thanksgiving, you could ask the same thing about show dogs. 

Yes, the National Dog Show, a favorite pre-football sporting event, is still moving forward, with COVID-friendly adjustments, including no audience. It turns out, according to host David Frei, that will likely make a difference for some pups. "A lot of dogs play off the crowd," he says. "They respond in a very positive way to noises and cheering and things. And there are dogs that just don't kind of like that racket either, so it will be good for them. But I think most of the dogs are athletes—they are showmen." 

In truth, the National Dog Show won't look that different to spectators watching from home, but we hopped on the phone with Frei, a longtime denizen of the dog show universe, to have him walk us through how the dog world is adapting to new safety protocols.

thor bulldog, national dog show 2019
Thor, the Bulldog that won Best in Show in 2019. | Mark Makela/Getty Images

It's just for the dogs and their people

Frei explains that, like most events, dog shows ground to a halt in March when the first round of COVID shutdowns happened, but they started to gradually return in June. "We could see how people were doing it, and doing it in a way that was right for all the right reasons," Frei says. 

Unlike Westminster, which is moving out of Madison Square Garden and into an outdoor venue for its annual 2021 show, the National Dog Show, hosted by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, is remaining in the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, minus any fans. (Westminster, FYI, is also hopping from its usually February date to June.) 

For what it's worth, the National Dog Show is always filmed ahead of time and then broadcast in abbreviated form on Thanksgiving. It actually took place November 14 and 15 this year. 

There is no "benching area" 

You know those behind-the-scenes shots of the doggies getting all spruced up for their big moment? That takes place in the benching area, which will not exist this year. "With no spectators, we don't have to worry about catering to spectators, which is what normally benching is there to do, to educate the public about purebred dogs," Frei says.

It puts the onus on Frei and his co-host Seinfeld alum John O'Hurley to make sure that information is projected. However, that doesn't mean there won't be human, or rather, doggie interest stories from correspondents like Mary Carillo. Frei says there is one in the works about Cynthia Otto from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine who is researching how dogs can potentially detect COVID. 

national dog show 2019
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Everyone, except the dogs, will be wearing masks

The canine competitors will, naturally, not be masked and will not have to adhere to social distancing rules, but the humans around them will. "The handlers are going to be wearing masks when they are running the dogs around the ring and the judges will be wearing masks," Frei says.

Only champions will compete

Obviously these pups are the best of the best, but there was an extra barrier to entry for this year's festivities. "Usually, we have 2,000 dogs, but [by] making it champions only, we said we're going to hold the entry numbers down," Frei explains. This year only about 600 dogs were entered. The champions regulation also means you're not going to see one of the newest breeds that has been recognized by the American Kennel Club, the Belgian Laekenois, which sort of looks like a wavy-haired German shepherd, competing since owners haven't had enough time to rack up wins since its admission to the organization in July.

There will be cardboard spectators and some will be pups

Yes, just like at baseball games this past summer, there will be cardboard cutouts of fans, both human and canine. "Some of them will be dogs, some of them will be people, some of them will be celebrities," Frei says.  

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.