Ardmore’s Kelly Lange Furia with husband Tom and their therapy dog, Louis.
History and heritage pack a serious punch on the Main Line—and so, it seems, do prized canines. Dogs were first exhibited in the region at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The Kennel Club of Philadelphia was chartered three years later, not long after Westminster Kennel Club, which hosts the oldest continuously running dog show in the country.
An annual tradition since 1933, the Kennel Club’s National Dog Show is one of four such U.S. events left. It returns to the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center at Oaks Nov. 15-16.
“As society has changed, things have migrated to the suburbs. The dog-show business has changed, too,” says Steve Griffith, general manager of Berwyn’s Vizion Group, which represents the club and markets the show. “Owners began traveling in mobile homes, and campaigning and competing their dogs all over the country.”
With the migration, the Kennel Club of Philadelphia moved its two benched shows out of Center City to the Fort Washington Expo Center from 2000 to 2004. Though it initially appeared to be a long-term home, the venue was sold, forcing the event to Harrisburg and then Reading. There was even a return to Philadelphia in 2007. That year, Griffith confides, the show “lost its shirt.”
Firmly entrenched at the Oaks facility for the past four years, Vizion has been busy rebuilding the Kennel Club brand, strengthening the shows and generating excitement. Last year, national ratings for NBC’s Thanksgiving Day broadcast were up for the second consecutive year— and three of the past four. About 30 million people tuned in for some or all of the proceedings between Thanksgiving Day and a prime-time rebroadcast on Saturday night.
Also encouraging is the Saturday event’s 18-percent attendance increase and a 20-percent online sales bump—no doubt due, in part, to coupons distributed at 187 McDonald’s around the region.
Typically, the shows draw 12,000 spectators. This year, the goal is 15,000. “We think that we have the momentum to get there,” Griffith says.
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In 2013, Griffith’s company hired Temple University to conduct a demographic study to better gauge participants and spectators. “In the world of marketing, it was a step we had to take so we could go to our sponsors and say, ‘Here’s who’s coming. Now, expand your involvement.’”
Griffith estimates that upwards of 50 local dog owners will participate in this year’s shows. “As everyone knows, the Main Line is fertile dog territory,” he says.
Devon’s Lori Kelly was a first-time exhibitor at last year’s National Dog Show, where Blueberry’s Terra Nova—a young Scottish terrier they call Stella at home—earned her first few points toward an American Kennel Club Championship. “[The event is] a family tradition—and it’s a family tradition for many households on the Main Line,” says Kelly, who is vice president of the Scottish Terrier Club of America. “It’s even more popular because it’s here now.”
The Kellys first learned about their breed when they attended the Kennel Club shows in Fort Washington. They also own Glenecho Harry Houdini, a 12-year-old champion that’s now retired. As for the nearly 2-year-old Stella, she is working on achieving AKC Grand Championship status.
At this year’s National Dog Show events, more than 2,000 canines from over 175 AKC-sanctioned breeds and varieties will vie for the “Best in Show” title. “Showing dogs is a wonderful family hobby,” Kelly says.
The Kennel Club of Philadelphia has always been about well-trained, impeccably manicured canines. About five years ago, though, a different sort of dog began appearing at national shows. In 2013, Vizion Group assembled the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House, NBC and regional Allstate agents for a unique fundraising campaign: The Spotlight Therapy Dogs reception is now an annual red-carpet kickoff event held at the Chestnut Street Ronald McDonald House. This year, a therapy-dog walk was added at Valley Forge National Historical Park in late October.