Putting on the Dogs

his year the Westminister Kennel Club Dog Show celebrates its 125th anniversary. 2590 dogs representing 158 breeds and varieties, from dainty papillons to vast Bernese Mountain dogs converge on Madison Square Garden Monday, February 12th and Tuesday February 13th, for the country’s most celebrated canine event, which celebrates physical perfection and the intimate partnership between people and dogs.

SFX: Joe Garagiola introduces the show (from the USA Network coverage of Westminster): “It started and dawn, and what a sight it was. They come in all sizes…saying, “I’m the best, even if I am small…”

NARR: No, it’s not the Olympics, or the Miss Universe contest, but the opening day of Westminster. I have been to the show often, marvelling at the Dr. Seuss-like profusion of exotic breeds, but to explore the mysterious rites of the show ring, I needed some interpreters.

SFX: Pugs barking.

NARR: No, not them. No matter how much they bark and whine, my pugs Max, Truffle and Happy are not going to the Garden. For one thing, they don’t listen to a word I say, and for another, they are only “pet quality” dogs. Wendy Musgrove, who will be showing her champion bloodhound Springbuck Raindance Rhapsody, explains why this is not enough.

VOX 1: (Wendy Musgrove) ”Classically dog shows were to present breeding stock…I believe a lot of people who show today don’t necessarily focus on that so much, however, you only want to breed from the best, and it is really a presentation of the best dogs there are.”

SFX: Westminster show announcer Roger Caras announcing the Giant Schnauzer at Madison Square Garden and urging people to clap for dogs they like.

NARR: In human society, the pursuit of physical perfection makes us think queasily of eugenics, but in the dog world, it is a celebration of form developed over hundreds of years. In two days, the best of the 158 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club will advance to compete for the best in seven groups, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-sporting, Sporting, Hound, and Herding, representing the various tasks and circumstances for which dogs have been bred. The winners of these groups will compete for the coveted title “Best in Show.”

SFX: Best in Show soundbite: “It’s all about that “Best in Show.”

NARR: I don’t think we can entirely trust him. He’s a neurotic character from Christopher Guest’s good-natured comedy Best in Show. Even though showing dogs is expensive, and involves long hours, bad motel rooms, and lots of blow-drying, participants seem to get more out of it than just a single show title. Wendy Musgrove:

VOX 2: “I think the competition, in the showring, presenting your dog to the best of his ability, is just exhilarating”

NARR: Like Musgrove, Janet York doesn’t use a professional handler for her two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Corneel and Pippin:

VOX 3: (Janet York): “I do all my own showing and I’m proud of that , because I think that bond brings that extra something out in every dog’s performance.”

NARR: While hopeful competitors focus intently on their individual dogs, they do so in good company. Susan Conant, author of a droll series of mysteries featuring dog writer Holly Winter and her champion Alaskan Malamutes, acknowledges the dog world’s eccentric camaraderie.

VOX 4: (Susan ): “When I began to write about dogs, I understood clearly that I had spent a lifetime making a fool of myself over dogs, and that I was not alone in this happy nuttiness..and I thought that we’re all like members of some interesting and ludicrous religious sect.”

NARR: Dog professionals still refer to their pursuit as “The Fancy,” a 19th-century term that meant both the breeding of animals for their beauty, and a love of the sport that resulted.

VOX 5: (Conant): “I like the term, because it suggests the light-heartedness, the love, the whimsicality. I really don’t know where it came from.

NARR: It is this combination of obsession and sentiment that piqued Best in Show co-creators Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, and their fascinated cast:

VOX 6: Eugene Levy on dog shows: “It’s a strange world, this dog thing, because there’s an intensity in this world that’s ripe for the plucking, so to speak.”

VOX 7: Actor John Michael Higgins: “You look at this world, and its populated by types, which is great when you’re fictionalizing something, and then of course like the old cliché a lot of dogs look like their owners: you look at the dog, and then you look at the other end of the lead, and there is it again, on two legs.”

NARR: To emphasize this point, Guest’s character, Harlan Pepper, has hair the same color as his bloodhound, Harley, with whom he is shamelessly besotted:

SFX: Best in Show clip: Harlan Pepper on Harley the bloodhound “And bloodhounds can talk…”

NARR: This kind of unselfconscious intimacy is at the heart of our fascination with dogs, and it has propelled a record number of dog show entries (over 2 million in 1999). Dogs, our oldest companions, have become not simply a species, but a culture. They have featured roles in films, anchor commercial advertising campaigns, and inspire artists as disparate as William Wegman and Keith Haring. Dozens of books have explored their psychology, spirituality, and secret and social lives. Humorist Roy Blount Jr. is the author of two books, with photographer Valerie Shaff, celebrating the inner dog, If only you knew how much I smell you, and I am puppy, hear me yap.

VOX 8: I’ve always had dogs, and I’ve always been fascinated with how people and dogs communicate, and how well we understand one another.

NARR: Blount’s books tend to emphasize the private and spontaneous side of dogs, and perhaps for this reason he is suspicious of the more public and ritualized world of the dog show:

VOX 9: Blount: I’ve always wondered if dogs really like to be that-fluffy. I think on the contrary, what dogs like is to be chewing on something they shouldn’t, and to smell bad. If dogs ran dog shows, they wouldn’t be like they are now. It dogs were judges, they’d say, that dog stinks! Get that dog over here!

NARR: He is echoed by designer JC Suares, creator of nearly a dozen photography books on dogs and their milieu:

VOX 10: (JC Suares): If you tried to catalogue everything dogs do, in their spare time-how many ways they sit, or lie down, it would go on and on, because there’s always something new--dogs are just a very, very rich subject.”

NARR: He sees shows as evidence of constraint and commerce.

VOX 11( Suares): I think of it as a subculture. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t find companionship at dog shows. It’s all about how they look and behave, and how much they’re going to be worth when they win.”

SFX: BIS show sequence under, w/crowd applause.

NARR: Susan Conant thinks otherwise:

VOX 12: (Conant): “I think of that special world of breeders and handlers, as a kind of microcosm. It’s fun, but it isn’t empty fun…At the heart of it is this deep love of animals that we give to them and they give to us…one of the essentials of our relationship is that we evolved together. Their behaviors have been selected to mesh with ours and to some extent, ours have been selected to mesh with theirs.

NARR: A recent Scientific American article summarizes the research that supports Conant’s view. Dog fanciers would call this complicated give and take, love:

Roy Blount Jr.: “There’s something about dogs that makes them try to be the person we want them to be.” Wendy Musgrove: “I completely agree that dogs do give unconditional love. When you come home late, they are there with a wagging tail and a good lick on the face.” Janet York: “What I like about my dogs is that there always there when I need them… They are always saying, it’s all right, it’s all right. They just have a way of getting to the core of what is going on with you. I think that’s what makes them good companions, such good friends.”

NARR: So perhaps dog shows, at best, are celebrations of both form and friendship. Susan Conant observes that “that partnership is at the heart of our relationship with dogs.”

NARR: Whatever it is, you may be able to see it this year at Westminster:

SFX: Joe Garagiola and David Frei commenting on the 1999 Best in Show win by the papillon Loki (call name) “That’s a great moment …that’s one happy puppy.!”

NARR: For WNYC, this is Sarah Montague, Max, Truffle, and Happy.


1) Susan Conant’s latest Holly Winter mystery is Creature Discomforts.2) Best in Show will be available on home video this summer.3) JC Suares’ books include Funny Dogs, Sexy Dogs, and Dogs in Love.4) Janet York’s spaniel Corneel is the hero of his own series. His first two books are Corneel the Cavalier and My Life in the City. To order, email piccadiljy@aol.com5) Statistics for this piece were provided by Westminster and the American Kennel Club. If you are interested in any of the breeds exhibited at the show, contact the AKC at (919) 233-9767 or visit www.akc.org