Our Doggies, Our Selves

Dispatches From the Westminster Dog Show

Our Doggies, Our Selves

Dispatches From the Westminster Dog Show

Our Doggies, Our Selves
Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 13 2002 4:55 PM

Dispatches From the Westminster Dog Show

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"Ugh!," my son said when he saw the Times picture of Spice, the miniature poodle that won Best in Show. "How could that win, of all things?"

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I had a similar response on Tuesday night, while my wife recalled Victor Spinetti's wistful regret from A Hard Day's Night, "I could've done wonders in vivisection." Around our house, we call fussy little things like Spice "blender dogs." A neighbor of ours calls little dogs "footballs;" his family owns a pug, by the way, which he doesn't even consider a dog. "It's a cat," he says. "A black Lab, that's a dog."

There is a word for this attitude, of course: macho crap, even though it's not restricted to the male of (our) species. The prejudice against little dogs that aren't meant to do anything much except keep people company runs deep. My dog is small, and when we're in the park and I'm chatting with owners of big ones, it's clear that they don't consider me quite as serious a dog person as they, with their big, swinging ... dogs, are. Even David Frei, chief tummler of the Westminster telecast, reminded us all more than once that "Nobody ever has to apologize for being a fan of the little dogs."

Damn tootin'. Companion dogs have been around as least as long as dogs bred to hunt, track, herd, fight, etc. The idea that they are decadent, latter-day corruptions of animals that once fended for themselves in the wild is just bilge. Reading about dogs "in the wild," as one constantly does in training books, dog-food ads, etc. gives me the giggles. I picture great herds of dachshunds sweeping across the veldt like wildebeests, or squaring off against a pack of roistering Pomeranians. Yes, there are wild dogs today, but they are developed from domestic dogs, not the other way around. The wild ancestors of dogs were wolves, not dogs at all.

Of course, the appearance of a dog like Spice does induce a certain gut-churning distaste. (Note to poodle fans: Yes, I know those ghastly haircuts once had a practical reason, but on that little creature, those enormous bouffant extrusions look like some Texas trophy-wife's big hair.) Even queasier-making was the handler, who called the dog "a beautiful woman." Down, boy.

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The judge, at least, kept his pants on. For him, the contest is simply a matter of deciding which dog meets breed standards which, for poodles of any size, includes this: "The Poodle has about him an air of distinction and dignity peculiar to himself."

Illuminating, no? You could say the same thing about an earthworm. Once past the picayune physical arcana of breed standards (Did you know that a bearded collie's coat, nose, and eyes must all match? Talk about form following function!), the judge's choice is entirely subjective.

Which is perhaps as it should be, since what we say about dogs always seems to reveal more about the people than the pooch. We try to figure out what dogs are thinking about and end up with what we're thinking about. It's an honorable pursuit. Plato, Descartes, and Wittgenstein all wondered about dogs. My dog looks at me when I'm working, tilts his head to the side just so, and I am guilted into early walkies, extra treats, tummy rubs. If only he'd tell me what he wants! Frayster Anna Hoover pointed out that Monday night's tribute to SAR dogs lauded them for, among their many virtues, patriotism. I don't think so. On Tuesday, I chatted with a spectator who raved about her dog, the weird-looking puli. "It's like a child. They're so intelligent, they argue with you!" she said. I failed to see the connection, she started telling me about her divorce, and I moved on to the pharaoh hounds.

That's why Constance Depler's Bar Hounds is my favorite work of dog art, not some painterly portraits of the sort the William Secord Gallery specializes in. The latter may be more realistically rendered, but Depler's dogs have character and pizzazz. She understands that when we try to get inside our dogs' heads, we make them think like people. By the way, if the Bar Hounds look familiar, it's because you've spent too much time in cheesy bars, some of which still have the mural-sized version of the picture on the wall from when they were distributed in the 50's.

Bar Hounds
Bar Hounds 
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Sadly for the Westminsterites, the judges missed the best dog in town, namely mine. He couldn't compete, certainly not because of any imperfections in his appearance or temperament, because he had none. But he does lack the essential requirement for a show dog: gonads that rock.

I could equip him with a set of neuticles, though. These testicular implants are supposed to assuage feelings of "post-neutering syndrome," not that my guy's been looking depressed lately, except when I'm working. The judges are sharp, and goodness knows they spend enough time feeling around down there, but apparently the top of the line NeuticlesUltra are "marshmallow-soft," which should fool anyone.

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I think we'll go to the park instead, let him obey the call of the wild. (I wonder what he would do if he ever actually caught a squirrel or pigeon.) No need to search for a plastic bag, they're sticking out of the pockets of every garment I own. I'm tired, but he's staring at me.

Alfred Gingold has written eight books and owns one dog.