When hotels go to the (Westminster) dogs

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FLUSHING, N.Y. — A stranger falling asleep on your leg while sharing a couch in a hotel’s public space is not okay. Unless that guest is a French bulldog named Dozer, who was plum exhausted after racing through an agility course at the Westminster Dog Show. Also perfectly acceptable guest behavior during the three days of competition is a polar bear hug from a Great Pyrenees by the check-in desk and a face full of wet kisses from a Belgian Tervuren you just met in the lobby.

“Sorry, sorry,” Gillian Irving apologized, before turning to her dog named Handsome, who was not sorry. “You’re being very naughty.”

For the 148th annual dog show, which started Saturday, more than 2,500 dogs representing 2oo breeds and varieties invaded Queens. Many of the owners, handlers and canines come from outside the Tri-state area and rely on the same tourist infrastructure as more traditional visitors.

When the show dogs aren’t trotting around the ring, they are kicking back like house pets in hotels fully stocked with treats and chew toys purchased on their behalf. They are traveling by shuttle bus or private vehicle to the competition site at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, or catching a ride into Brooklyn or Times Square for a special adventure. Several times a day, they are sniffing out the local sights.

“I think the dogs are going to love Queens, and the people who are attending are going to find out how great Queens is,” said Rob MacKay, president of the Queens Tourism Council. “I’m really excited for the show, which is kind of crazy because I’m a big cat person.”

The neighborhood hotels definitely rose to the occasion. The Voco Fiorello-LaGuardia East, which opened last September, built a special dog run for its guests. It also set up a custom shuttle to transport the dogs and their people to the tennis center and loaded up on “pet relief items,” the couth term for poop bags, for the front desk.

“We have those available, and we always have our staff on-site,” said Stephanie McCabe, the hotel’s director of sales. “Our houseman or our lobby attendant would be able to take care of any accidents that happen on the fly.”

Since the brand’s inception in 2005, the Aloft, which is part of Marriott, has provided pet amenities to all guests through its program, Arf. On Monday, Lawrence Hou, the general manager of Aloft’s LaGuardia Airport location, took a seat on the same purple couch where Dozer had been snoring and snorting the day before. He said that last year, the hotel amped up its offerings for its Westminster patrons. The staff ripped out the bushes and built an L-shaped dog park with artificial turf and a tiny red fire hydrant. It also laid out bowls of dog treats like a consummate cocktail party host.

However, Hou said, they discovered that show dog owners are picky about dog snacks, and an employee ended up taking home the leftovers. This year, he scaled back on the biscuits — two full bowls by the front door — but not the hospitality. He set out chew toys that the pups snapped up.

The 148-room hotel, which sold out the 50 rooms blocked for Westminster, limits each guest to two pets per room. Hou had a sneaking suspicion that a visitor was flouting the rule. He had heard that a patron was keeping four dogs and possibly even more. But he wasn’t planning on intervening.

We don’t want to throw them out,” he said diplomatically. “He’s going to be leaving tomorrow, so there’s no point in bringing it up.”

There’s also no guarantee that the show dogs will be back in Queens next year.

For more than a century, the Westminster Kennel Club hosted the country’s second-longest continuously held sporting event in Manhattan. The winners from the seven groups (herding, toy, sporting, non-sporting, etc.) vied for “Best in Show” in the storied Madison Square Garden. Many of the dogs and their owners and/or handlers stayed in Midtown. So did many of the spectators and dog fanciers, who would book the same hotels so they could hobnob with the contestants.

The pandemic upended traditions. In 2021, the Westminster Kennel Club relocated the show to the stately Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, N.Y. It returned the following year. The event only landed at the National Tennis Center in Queens last year (the venue is also home of the U.S. Open), and rumor has it that the show may boomerang back to Manhattan in 2025. It may also resume its traditional time frame in February, a month that’s ideal for hearty Tibetan mastiffs but tough for the hairless Xoloitzcuintli.

For now, though, the Westminster’s shuttle route winds past a number of Queens hotels. In addition to the Aloft, the buses also pick up and drop off by the Hampton Inn New York-LaGuardia Airport, the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott and the LaGuardia Plaza, which waived its no-pets-allowed policy for the event.

About 80 percent of the Plaza’s guests are participating in the show, according to the hotel. The property designated four pet-relief stations and bulked up staff, including parking lot security to watch over the larger vehicles that are part mobile pet home, part pet store, part pet salon. During staff sensitivity training, the employees learned the proper etiquette for addressing the four-legged guests. They are not “the animal” or “that dog” but the more felicitous “your furry friends.” On Wednesday, the hotel will reinstate its pet ban.

Dining options are slim by the airport, and the Plaza’s restaurant, Elements, became the default gathering place for many dog owners and handlers. On Sunday night, purple, a Westminster color, was the primary clothing hue.

Three friends from Washington state tucked into a cozy corner in the restaurant. The white tip of a tail curled out from under the table. Julia Rylander, a repeat Westminster competitor, was showing her Siberian husky, London Fog; Bailee Lewis was handling a Tibetan mastiff; and Kathi Ogle was making her debut with Henry, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel resting at her feet.

“It’s been my dream for 15 years. I’ve been here to support others and cheer on friends,” Ogle said, pressing her fingertips to her eyes to stem the tears. “It’s my Olympics.”

The trio said they make small adjustments to their rooms to be good dog parents as well as upstanding guests. Rylander turns the thermometer down low for her double-fur-coated pooch. “We’re bundled up,” she said of the less insulated travelers. Ogle brings her own towels, hair dryer and bathtub fur trap for Henry.

“We don’t want to lose the privilege of staying here,” Ogle said.

Dinner arrived and Henry’s head popped up like a gopher’s, his little black nose inches from the spread. He was a professional and knew how to play this moment. He fixed his round eyes on the plate of french fries and waited with poise and patience.

‘Do you want to take a picture with them?’

On Monday morning, the first day of the breed and group competition, the shuttle bus pulled out of the Aloft carrying a beagle (on his person’s lap), an Australian shepherd (riding in her seat like a proper commuter), an American Eskimo dog (on the floor, in those whites!) and a beauceron, who struggled to find a comfortable position for his beefy 90-pound frame.

In the back, a klatch of former judges couldn’t help themselves from judging. They critiqued the scheduling — it was a “little stretched” — and the ride to the stadium.

“It takes 70 different ways to go to the same place,” a former official named Phil said.

When a rider asked them for their Best in Show predictions, they agreed that the winner would not be a sporting dog. On the way out, Laura Reeves, host of the Pure Dog Talk podcast, offered some unsolicited advice.

“The number one rule of Westminster is: Don’t pet the dogs without asking,” she said sternly.

Of course, this courtesy and precaution applies to all dogs, including those who have a single name and not a string of seemingly nonsensical words. The owners are surprisingly generous with their animals, especially when they are offstage and at ease.

“Do you want to take a picture with them?” Kathy Wright asked me, as I eyed her pair of Scottish deerhounds in the Hampton Inn lobby.

With her permission, I scratched the knobby heads of Fiddish and Cooper, who had enjoyed a cheese-and-egg breakfast in bed that morning.

“I’m on the floor on the dog bed,” joked Gary Wright, their co-owner. “Just give me a pillow and a blanket.”

The owners of Sebastian, a Great Pyrenees who flew first-class from Northern California, invited me along on their field trip to the self-service Astoria Dog Wash. Last year, they showed up in the afternoon and had to wait in a long line for their turn. This year, they were determined to get ahead of the crowd. We arrived before opening and found a cafe with enough space for Sebastian to sprawl without snarling sidewalk traffic.

At the facility, Sebastian stood in the bath like a trapped bear while one of his owners, Christine Palmer-Persen, set to work. While she scrubbed, rinsed, brushed and dried, several dogs came, washed and left, including two Bernese mountain dogs, a golden retriever (a commoner, not a show dog), a flat-coated retriever and a 150-pound Leonberger who had just arrived after a 46-hour drive from Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Even after 45 minutes under the dryer, Sebastian was still damp. Palmer-Persen slipped a bib over his giant head, which was now floofier after the salon treatment, and covered him in a sparkly gold coat that would suit a heavyweight champ. She would finish him off with the hair dryer in the hotel room, which, unlike the dog wash, wouldn’t cost $5 for every five minutes over the free 15 minutes.

“It would cost a fortune to dry him,” said her husband, Steve Axelrod, as he paid the nearly $50 bill.

The benefit of staying in the Westminster hotel triangle is repeatedly bumping into the same dogs and owners. In addition to receiving more wags and face licks, the owners share their dogs’ results.

Fiddish and Cooper placed best of opposite sex (the male to the female winner) and select (similar to runner up), respectively. Henry made it to the finals round in his breed. Sebastian’s coat finally dried and he won best of breed, advancing to the working group competition.

On Monday night, I sat at the Marriott bar with two women from Georgia who showed their Australian shepherds. Neither dog had made the cut. Several TVs were tuned to the live event.

After the judge chose the winner of the toy group, a Shih Tzu named Comet, the competitors drained their beers and headed back to their rooms, to console their pets.

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