In the beginning was the Wolf.
Improbable as it may seem, scientific research has now proven conclusively that every dog on this planet is derived from a wolf ancestor. But 3,000 years of selective breeding have combined and recombined those first strands of DNA in myriad ways to satisfy man’s needs and fancies. Today, the descendants of those original wolves include dogs that fit in your handbag and dogs that could tow your SUV; dogs idle and luxuriant (say, the Pekinese) and dogs vibrating with eagerness (say, the Springer Spaniel); dogs as hairy as a Maurice Sendak Wild Thing (say, the Bouvier Des Flandres) and dogs as sleek and fast as a Masarati (say, the Greyhound.)
I think about this infinite variety each year when the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show introduces the new breeds that will be competing in the show for the first time. These are breeds that have passed a rigorous review by the American Kennel Club — the oversight body for all recognized dog sports for purebred dogs — and have been admitted to its Registry. Breed clubs petitioning for inclusion must demonstrate a strong base of support, and most importantly, a sufficiently diverse gene pool to make the breed viable long term. Once the AKC has admitted a breed (in January of each year), those dogs are eligible to compete in shows. And of course, it is the ambition of most clubs to see their breeds represented at prestigious Westminster, the country’s oldest show, which was first held in 1877.
To celebrate these yearly breed debuts, the Kennel Club stages a meet-and-greet event, so that the press and the public can get to know the newest members of “the fancy,” as the show world is colloquially known.
“Traffic stopping” is an adjective usually applied to pulchritudinous movie stars, but on January 26th it was the dogs who had the day. The NYPD agreed to halt traffic between Madison Square Garden and the Affinia Hotel for a heart-stopping 40 seconds so that last year’s Best in Show winner, the Scottish Deerhound Hickory, could lead a parade of the new breeds across Seventh Avenue. The weather was glum, but that didn’t deter the waterproof participants, or the wave of paparazzi recording the moment.
Once the ritual had been completed, there was a chance to chat with the owners whose dogs were breed ambassadors for the day.
Here are some of the new dogs on the block:
Xoloitzuintli The most eye-catching newcomer has the oldest lineage. Alma Dulce (sounds like something you’d order at Starbucks) and owner Jose Barrera represented the Xoloitzuintli (SHOW-LO-ITZ-QUINT-LY) which is generally shortened to Xolo for obvious reasons. This ancient breed dates back to the time of the Aztecs, who used them as guardians of the dead, and as healers, and is now the national dog of Mexico. Formerly referred to as the “Mexican hairless” dog, Xolos actually come in a coated variety as well, but Alma, a toy hairless dog, seemed perfectly well dressed in only a turquoise necklace. Barrera described her as “other-worldly, mysterious, and regal,” but also as “sweet and docile.”
Norwegian Lundehund If there was a prize for “most nimble,” it would probably go to the fox-faced Norwegian Lundehund, which has a sixth toe and a flexible little body, like a kite — all part of the equipment for its original job, fetching Puffins from the rocky cliffs and fields of Norway for waiting farmers. Owner Harvey Sanderson introduced his dog Eowyn, who is named for a character from “Lord of the Rings.” Sanderson noted that Lundehunds almost became the stuff of legends themselves — they are mentioned in invaders’ logs as early as the 16th century, but were almost wiped out by a distemper epidemic just after World War II. The modern Lundehund descends from one of only three dogs, found on a remote island by two Norwegians determined to rescue the breed. And their original job is definitely extinct: Puffins are now a protected species. However, this lively dog seems settled in as a family companion, and will be great if you happen to lose your wallet while rappelling.
Finnish Lapphund The Finnish Lapphund is a reindeer-herding dog (no Santa jokes please) but owner Barbara Kennedy describes them as “a lovely breed, very family oriented,” and clearly versatile, as her companion Myles has a long string of agility titles. Their thick, dense coats mark them as “spitz” dogs, a type that includes a number of Artic and working breeds, and their alert expressions give them a winning air of devotion. “They love everybody,” says Kennedy.
Entlebucher Mountain Dog Paula Lacker, accompanied by Hoss, is equally enthusiastic about the dapper Entlebucher (ENT-LEE-BOO-KUR) Mountain Dog, which looks a little like a Corgi in a Bernese Mountain Dog suit. It is one of four Swiss breeds (the smallest), and is considered so trustworthy that at home in Switzerland they are permitted to deliver milk (in carts they pull themselves) on their own. Lacker describes the dogs as great all rounders: “They’re great family dogs, they want to be doing what you’re doing. They’ll do anything — agility, flyball, search-and- rescue, or they’ll just be couch potatoes.” However, you need to be committed in return, warns the Kennel Club, which describes the breed on its Web site as not for “the casual owner. The guardian traits of this breed require thorough socialization.”
Cesky Terrier The Cesky (CHESS-KEY) Terrier originated in the Czech Republic, and looks a little like a Miniature Schnauzer, with an elegant close-clipped grey/silver coat and natural poise. Owner/handler Loren Marino says, “they’re a shy terrier, which is unusual.” Nevertheless, the breed’s history defies its dainty looks: Ceskys were developed to hunt deer and wild boar. However, Marino’s bitch Katrina, cuddling up in the foyer of the Affinia, has chosen a different path: she is the first American Cesky champion.
American English Coonhound Coonhounds always seem to carry the countryside with them, and even crossing Seventh Avenue, you could see a hint of his native Virginia in Game Changer, a long, lean, 17-month old American English Coonhound. The breed evolved from Virginia-bred hounds that were descendants of English Foxhounds. (Hounds are a little like martinis — many regions have their own mixes.) Owner Richard Moore likes the fact that the American-English “trains easy”, and that they can be hunting dogs by day, and family dogs by night. Like other coonhounds, the American English as a great “voice” (used to good effect in the field, where it “trees” raccoons) and a beautiful mottled coat that comes in a variety of shades and patterns — red and white ticked, blue and white ticked, tri-colored with ticking, red and white, and white and black — rather like pots from a kiln.
The 136th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show takes place February 13 and 14, which is when the 167 other breeds get into town. Stop by Madison Square Garden, and marvel at what 78 chromosomes can amount to — with a little help from their friends.