Dog shows in the age of dog show ridicule.
This was the Kennel Club of Philadelphia's annual two-day dog show. The show does not have the distinction of being the nation's most prestigious dog show. That would be the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City, which will be held in February and broadcast on the USA Network. Philadelphia's claim to fame is that several hours of its show are broadcast every Thanksgiving as the National Dog Show Presented by Purina on NBC.
NBC has presented the show immediately following its coverage of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade since 2002, two years after the release of Christopher Guest's Best in Show. The mockumentary skewered fanatic show dog owners and handlers competing in a fictional Philadelphia show and in the process exposed a whole new audience to the world of competitive dog breeding and handling. It also doomed the dog show participant to a life of mockery, and the dog show attendee to a life of "Oh, have you seen Best in Show?"
The National Dog Show takes places at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, just past iconic American sites including Valley Forge National Historic Park and the King of Prussia mall, which is the country's largest collection of retail square footage. Philadelphia's is one of only six benched dog shows in the country. This means that those who attend aren't confined to the blue-carpteted, flower-lined competition floor viewers at home will see. They're instead free to wander the rows and rows of dogs and their owners prepping and waiting and gossiping in tiny squares on a concrete floor.
This is where dog show sausage is made. Throughout the day, owners blow-dry and comb and snip and spray dogs. The small dogs stand on waist-high tables, their heads held up by loose straps that hang from poles. The show's organizers set up open pens with wood shavings at the end of some rows. This is where dogs can relieve themselves because, as a sign at every human bathroom said, no dogs are allowed inside. I heard several people complain that show organizers weren't cleaning these out often enough.
Show rules require that all dogs must be at their benches whenever they're not competing or exercising on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. These must be long days, because some of the owners looked like they were tailgaiting before a football game. They brought lawn chairs from home, and the larger groups arranged these in circles that extended past the yellow line demarcating their spaces. They set up small tables with plates of cheese and pepperoni and Ritz crackers, and opened jars of Tostitos salsa and boxes of Whoppers candy and brought trays of homemade cookies and bowls of potato salad.
To make it to the NBC portion of the show, dogs must first win the individual breed contests. This year's show included more than 1,400 dogs comprising from more than 160 breeds, including three new additions recently approved by the overseeing American Kennel Club: the Irish Red and White Setter, the Norwegian Buhund, and the Pyrenean Shepherd. The introduction of a new breed is a pretty big deal for the breeders of those dogs. I spoke to a woman who raises Black Russian Terriers, a big hairy Muppet of an animal that was created as a military working dog by Russia's state-run Red Star Kennel after World World II; it was accepted by the AKC in 2004. She was part of the application process and described it as grueling. You have to prove that the breed is distinct, that the population is large enough to support the breed, and that there are enough of them to compete. She told me she was frustrated for years at being included in the "miscellaneous" category.
To be "miscellaneous" at a dog show is to be almost invisible — breed distinction is the core of the show. In this contest, the animals aren't competing against one another, so much as they're each competing against an idealized version of the breed. The AKC provides very detailed breed standards on what this should be. Some of these are easily quantifiable. Take the Black Russian Terrier. Its ideal height falls somewhere between 27" and 29" for males and between 26" and 28" for females. The neck should be set at a 45-degree angle from the back. A perfect height to length ratio is 9.5 to 10.
Many of the dog's qualities being judged, however, are more intangible. The head should "give the appearance of power and strength." Females are "definitely to appear feminine but never lacking in substance." As for Black Russian Terrier's temperament:
He is alert and responsive, instinctively protective, determined, fearless, deeply loyal to family, is aloof and therefore does not relish intrusion by strangers into his personal space. Shyness or excessive excitability is a serious fault.
Other "serious faults" include light bone, poor musculature, light colored eyes, and one missing tooth. Outright disqualifying features include gray hair, a nose color other than black, and two or more missing teeth.
At Philadelphia's show, the breed contests were held in adjoining rings marked off with foot-high, accordion fences and surrounded by cheap convention center folding chairs. On the Saturday of the show weekend, winners of each of these contests were invited to the back of the Expo Center. There, floor-to-ceiling black curtains surrounded the formal show floor and lights and cameras of the NBC network. John O'Hurley — whose nebulous celebrity includes a long-running stint on Seinfeld, the hosting duties for the latest incarnation of Family Feud, a win on the first edition of Dancing with the Stars, and, according to press materials, the independently produced piano and cello CD Secrets from the Lake — was there to provide color commentary for the future at-home viewers. People physically at the dog show couldn't hear what he was saying, but many seemed happy nevertheless to see O'Hurley in person and point him out when he made his way across the Expo Center floor.
Show dogs are divided into seven groups, based largely on what the breeds were created to do. There are Sporting dogs and Working dogs and Herding dogs, Non-Sporting dogs, plus Hounds and Terriers and Toys. Dog shows may be serious business, but the DJ introduced the groups with a song that winked at each. Toys? "Bad to the Bone." Working? Green Day's "Working Class Hero." Sporting? Sports arena favorite "Y'all ready for this?" (which is really called "Get Ready for This" but who calls it that?).
For more than three hours, group judges evaluated the winner of each breed. They looked in the dogs' mouths, rubbed their necks and their hinds and their legs. They watched as the dogs' handlers ran them away and back.
After the judging of each group, "The Final Countdown" brought the seven winners back onto the floor for Best in Show (spoiler alert for those who plan to watch the telecast and want to be surprised). These included the Labrador Retriever (Sporting), Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen (Hound), Doberman Pinscher (Working), Miniature Pinscher (Toy), Bearded Collie (Herding), and Scottish Terrier (uh, Terrier). The handlers of the larger dogs ran a lap around the floor as they came out. Then came the Bulldog, the very Non-Sporting dog that ambled its way as fast as it could, which wasn't fast at all. The audience went berserk. For them, a dog show seemed to be a lot like high school — a popularity contest, in other words. Throughout the show, they'd cheer whenever a popular breed for pets or Disney movies came out: the Golden Retriever or Smooth Coat Chihuahua. There was decidedly less overt love for, say, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.
Of course the people involved in dog shows treat it a bit like high school as well. The dog show is predicated on the fact that for every breed there exists a single, idealized version of what a dog should be. No room for shyness or different color hair or wonky-angled necks. On the surface, this pursuit seems to reinforce nicely the narrative put forth by a film like Best in Show. Isn't it crazy, the judgment goes, to be sweating over height to length ratio and one vs. two missing teeth in dogs? To be manifesting your interest in the hobby with flashy jackets decorated with bejeweled images of your dog? To be spending your weekends at the kind of event that includes a booth from the International Canine Semen Bank?
If you're looking to mock, a dog show is an easy target. You could note how many of these people pursuing perfection in dogs are themselves fairly overweight, and eat too many funnel cakes, and dress in a way that would kill any chance of a social life were they actually in high school. Spending time at the dog show, however, the group came less to resemble some kind of wacky subculture, and more just the culture. A common trait of Americans — blue and red, gay and straight, X and Y, whatever — is that they largely want to be good at something, to be recognized for doing at least one thing well, and maybe that's at the expense of everything else. Poetry writing, bass fishing, cooking, competitive eating, you name it. So you spend months or even years in triathlon training. You juggle Family Feud and reality TV and dog show gigs. You learn about breeds and how to groom and how to rub your dog in just the right family unfriendly way to make its tail stand straight up for judging.
It feels good to win. And if you were the owner of the Scottish Terrier, that's how you found yourself suddenly standing alone in the middle of a bright blue carpet being handed a framed ribbon and a trophy with a bronze bull terrier statue and a bowl decorated with scenes of Colonial Philadelphia. Cameras rushed in and you were interviewed by a blond reporter in heels from NBCSports.com, knowing in the back of your mind that you're going to be seen as the winner by 20 million people on Thanksgiving, of all days.
Losing doesn't feel as good. If you were the owner of the Labrador Retriever or Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen or Doberman Pinscher or Miniature Pinscher or Bearded Collie or Bulldog, you found yourself watching from the sidelines — disappointed, yes, but also knowing you could be that Scottish Terrier owner next year. • 19 November 2009
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.
Photographs by Kara Kahn.