For some of us, this week isn't about the Olympics or Fashion Week or the All-Star break. It's about the 126th Westminster Dog Show, Super Bowl of the Fancy, as the dog show universe is called by its, um, fanciers. Between Monday morning and Tuesday night, 2,568 dogs representing 159 breeds in seven groups will be judged. Thousands of people will mill around Madison Square Garden. Millions more will watch in the evenings. Finally, a Best in Show will be proclaimed. Last year it was an adorable bichon frisé. This year, a Kerry blue terrier is favored. My money's on something bigger and less fussy, something like ... a rescue dog.
More than ever, everybody loves dogs now. The pictures and reports of search and rescue dogs at Ground Zero and therapy dogs working with victims and families created a great wave of canine appreciation even in New York, whose traditionally liberal opposition to the death penalty would change overnight if we thought poop-scoop violators could fry. Dogs featured heavily in Christmas ads (Coach's campaign and the L.L. Bean catalog, to name a couple). And of course 9/11 spread wider the already widespread desire for some of that unqualified devotion of which every dog—well, almost every dog—seems capable. According to anecdotal reports from several humane societies and shelters, there are a whole bunch of new dog owners since September.
(Full disclosure: I am one of that bunch, although the plan was in motion before the attacks and was contingent more on the outcome of my son's allergy tests than the national mood.)
I'm sorry to report that, again like the Super Bowl, Westminster CXXVI plans its own response to our national tragedy. In the Feb. 11 issue of The New Yorker is an eight-page portfolio of photographs "in the spirit of Westminster," gorgeous pictures of rescue dogs posing with James Gandolfini, Famke Janssen, and assorted other stars, hunks, and hotties. They're nice pictures, even if the dogs are just a tad eroticized. (The pic of a blissful Janeane Garofalo swathed in Old Glory, lying beneath Storm, a soulful NYPD German shepherd whose dark eyes have seen much, would've made Mr. Shawn blush.) But my hackles would have gone up, if I had hackles, when I read the small print: Westminster plans a "special tribute" to the SAR dogs for Monday night, also presumably in the spirit of Westminster.
Hold the swelling chords and paeans to the working dogs, please. The spirit of Westminster is show biz. It's a beauty pageant like, say, Miss America. There is a talent component to the competition, but who cares? We want to see the girls strut in their bathing suits, not sing "Moon River." Westminster dogs are the crème de la crème of the circuit; they're all champions appearing by invitation only, but whether or not the dogs do what they were ostensibly bred to do is moot—and highly unlikely, given the rigors of training for and competing in the show ring.
While breeding dogs for specific (working) purposes is ancient, dog shows are a relatively recent phenomenon. There were no recorded breed standards, no clear sense of how a specific type of dog should look, until the mid-19th century, when purebreds became fashionable. Victorians began the practice of highly selective breeding, sometimes mating members of the same family (line breeding) to heighten specific characteristics, whether they were functional or not. A doggie elite was created. My dog is better than your dog not because it's better at herding sheep or catching mice, but because it's got a longer neck or a tail that curls just so. If this sounds like the extension of the class system to another species, it is. Of course, there can be a genetic price to pay for that lustrous fur or well-shaped head. Irish setters have beautiful coats, but they are also, according to veterinarian Michael W. Fox, "so dumb they get lost on the end of their leash." It's not surprising, is it? After all, centuries of breeding between the best families in Britain and Europe and what do you get? The royals.
Yet, for an event so rooted in snobbery and class, Westminster has a wonderfully egalitarian feel to it. Milling around are dog lovers of every kind—blue-collar, white-collar, no collar at all. People come to watch their favorite breed or to check out a breed they're considering for a pet. Westminster is a "benched" show, which means that the dogs and their handlers and/or owners are available even when not in the ring, so you can get a closer look, ask questions, see about buying a puppy. You can also find here every conceivable dog accessory, toy, and doohickey. The spirit of Westminster is also the spirit of salesmanship.
I'm going because the Westminster dogs fill me with awe, genetic defects and all. Like many neophyte dog owners, I've gone a little nuts. When I walk down the street now, I notice only the dogs, not the people. I spend far more time than I should reading about obscure breeds (Dutch smoushond or toy munchkin, anyone?). And of course, I read books about how to train my dog. I was initially impressed by the Monks of New Skete, but I lost faith when I noticed that their other business, besides raising German shepherds, is selling their own "New York-style cheesecake." If they think New York-style cheesecake can have Kahlúa in it, what can they know about dogs? Paul Loeb's Smarter Than You Think espouses the "Magic Touch," which means you give your dog a command, and if the dog doesn't obey, you throw something at the beast. This convinces the dog of your power, and the next thing you know, your pooch is mixing daiquiris and organizing your CD collection. Didn't happen for me.
Not that I'm apologizing. My alpha male voice sounds more like James Earl Jones every day. And I'm as proud of my ability to make the dog sit (occasionally) as I am of my improving Flex-leash skills. On the housing of the Flex-leash is a warning that improper use can result in finger amputation. So far so good.