The 133rd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show continues today at Madison Square Garden and tonight on the USA Network. Even poodle fanciers and fans of Christopher Guest's mockumentary Best in Show may feel bewildered by this quirky sport, so over the years Slate has tried to shed some light on its many idiosyncrasies.
In 2002, Alfred Gingold sent "Dispatches" from Madison Square Garden and provided a little background on the event: "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."
In 2003, Brendan I. Koerner explained why competing pups get names like Ch. Set'R Ridge Wyndswept in Gold: "The names are also often intensely personal, referring to a dog's hygienic habits, a deceased loved one, or a favorite fictional character. … The prefix 'Ch.' is an abbreviation for 'Champion.' "
In 2004, Jill Hunter Pellettieri revealed the surprisingly pragmatic roots of poodles' high-maintenance coiffures. The haircuts date to 16th-century Europe, when poodles were used as water retrievers. "An unshorn poodle's thick coat could weigh it down in the water," Pellettieri wrote. "With the bottom half of its body shaved, the animal was more buoyant and could swim more freely. The long mane and hair around the chest were left intact to keep the poodle's vital organs warm in the cold water, and owners also kept the hair around the joints to protect them from cold and injury and to help prevent rheumatism."
Last year, Richard B. Woodward assessed the Plott hound, one of four breeds making its debut. Plott hounds are "unlikely to melt the hearts of television viewers," Woodward wrote, "but those who can appreciate a more rural, less homogenized America should be rooting for the Plotts whenever they step into the ring." Also in 2008, Michelle Tsai asked what it takes for a new breed to enter the competition. "[F]anciers must petition the American Kennel Club, the organization in charge of the show." Approval for a new breed can take "several years and depends on the total number of dogs in a given breed and the collaborative effort of its fanciers."