Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Wacky and Wonderful World of the Westminster Dog Show

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Bernard de Menthon was born around the year 1000, near what is now the border of Switzerland and France. He was raised in a castle, given a first-class education, and, in time, affianced by his father to a noblewoman, as befit the scion of an ancient and wealthy family. By then, however, de Menthon had grown into a pious young man whose plans for the future did not include marriage. According to legend, the night before the wedding, he fled the castle by jumping out of a high window, whereupon a band of angels caught him and lowered him gently to the ground.

Ordained as a priest, de Menthon began preaching in villages throughout the region of Aosta, a territory that included a mountain pass already in use for at least a thousand years to cross the Western Alps. In de Menthon’s day, it was a popular route for Christians making the pilgrimage to Rome, but the journey was perilous. Bands of brigands routinely staked out the area to attack travellers, the pass itself was harrowing—eight thousand feet high, buried in snow, prone to avalanches—and de Menthon often found himself ministering to travellers who had been subjected to its terrors. And so, when he became the archdeacon of Aosta, he established a hospice in the pass, staffed by monks who offered aid to pilgrims venturing over the mountains.

At first, the hospice simply provided food, shelter, and a reminder to people inclined to make trouble that they did so under the watchful eye of God, or, anyway, of the godly. Over time, though, the monks began dispatching search parties to recover the missing. No one knows exactly when those search parties first began bringing along dogs, but by the early seventeen-hundreds the search parties were dogs—clever, indefatigable creatures capable of smelling a body under twenty feet of snow, who patrolled the area unaccompanied by humans. They generally travelled in pairs, so that, if they found someone too sick or hurt to move, one dog could return to the hospice to summon help while the other stayed behind, lying down atop the stricken person to offer warmth and hope. At some point, the hospice started keeping track of those rescues; by 1897, when one dog found a boy who had nearly frozen to death after falling into a crevasse, the dogs were known to have saved some two thousand people. Also by then, the long-dead Bernard de Menthon had been canonized, which is why the pass, the hospice, and the dogs themselves are all known today by the name St. Bernard.

There is still a hospice in Great St. Bernard Pass, and there are still dogs there as well, but they no longer perform rescue missions. That job was rendered obsolete toward the middle of the twentieth century, partly by a tunnel that routed people away from the pass and partly by inventions, such as the helicopter and the avalanche transceiver, that made it easier to save wayward travellers. Like the phenomenal views of Mont Blanc, the St. Bernards who remain at Great St. Bernard Hospice are now mostly just a tourist attraction.

That transformation, from working dog to pet, life-saving companion to pampered adornment, is, writ small, the story of dogs and humans. Some thirty thousand years ago, when wolves first crept near our campfires, eying the scraps and bones, we made a tacit bargain: food for them, protection for us. Today, the terms of that relationship are no longer quite as clear or, possibly, quite as sane. We are still giving food to the descendants of those wolves—thirty-pound bags of Eukanuba slung into the shopping cart, puppuccinos at the drive-through, human-grade meals flash-frozen and shipped on dry ice to our doorstep. We’ve also let those former wolves into our homes, where they bark in the middle of the night, whine to be let out at five in the morning, eat the new area rug and then vomit it up all over the living-room floor. And we share our wealth with them as well: studies estimate that Americans spend more than a hundred billion dollars each year on all that dog food, plus grooming, boarding, veterinary care, dog toys, dog training, dog walking, and doggy day care. Given all of this, one might reasonably ask what we are getting in return.

Some years ago, it occurred to the journalist and former mutt owner Tommy Tomlinson that one place to look for an answer was a dog show, a forum optimized to display the weirdness of the current human-canine relationship: our lavish expenditure on dogs, our equally outsized emotional investment in them, and the degree to which we have quite literally shaped them as a species. Tomlinson was not, at the time, a fan of such shows; he was just watching TV, hoping to catch some professional wrestling, when he landed on the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show instead. The questions that came to mind, as Shih Tzus paraded around the ring, were not very scientific, but they were very American: Are these dogs happy? Are any dogs happy? Why do dogs make me so happy? Those musings form the kernel of his new book, “Dogland: Passion, Glory, and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show” (Avid Reader Press).

The dog-show circuit has come in for long-form treatment before—most famously in Christopher Guest’s 2000 film, “Best in Show,” a mockumentary with an emphasis on the mockery. “Dogland” takes a different approach, presumably because, on the evidence of his writing, Tomlinson is too sincere a guy to pull off satire. His previous book, “The Elephant in the Room,” is a wry, tender, ultimately hopeful first-person account of being, as he put it, a fat guy trying to lose weight in America. This new book is thinner, so to speak, and occasionally suffers from a certain distractibility. Unnecessary listicles (“Dog Haters, Ranked”; “Traveling Dogs, Ranked”) interrupt a narrative in need of no additional comic fodder, and Tomlinson sometimes indulges in lengthy digressions on, for instance, the WeRateDogs social-media empire, or the series of bulldogs, all named Uga, that for generations have been the mascot of Tomlinson’s alma mater, the University of Georgia.

But, whatever the weaknesses of “Dogland,” Tomlinson is a very funny writer, and he has the right relationship to his subject: equal parts dubious and generous, with a pleasing mixture of conviviality and comedic distance. Christopher Guest made the strangeness of dog shows more pronounced by populating his fictional version with a bunch of oddballs; Tomlinson makes the strangeness more interesting by introducing us to real people who, despite dedicating their lives to dog shows, do not seem particularly unhinged. For much of the book, we follow a woman named Laura King, who co-owns a show-dog kennel with a long string of accolades to its name. King, a second-generation dog aficionado who learned to walk by holding on to the tail of a Belgian sheepdog, projects the contentment of someone who can’t believe she gets to do what she does for a living. She is so convincingly sane that it takes a while for readers to agree: the more we learn about “the fancy,” as insiders call the dog-show world, the more we can’t believe anyone does this for a living.

To outsiders, the weirdest thing about the Westminster Dog Show is that the dogs don’t actually do anything. This is not because they aren’t capable of remarkable feats—witness the St. Bernards of St. Bernard Hospice—or because those capabilities can’t be channelled into audience-friendly competitions. As the Internet will be happy to show you, dogs routinely vie for prizes in hunting, herding, scenting, Frisbee, and dock diving—a kind of canine long jump into water, the world record for which is held by a whippet named Sounders, a thirty-six-inch dog able to leap nearly thirty-seven feet.

Nothing even remotely that entertaining happens at Westminster, or at any of the other “breed shows” held across the country. The dogs mostly stand around being admired, and occasionally go for a little trot around a ring. Imagine Nascar, if the cars just sat there on the track, and from time to time the race officials checked under the hood. In this sense, dog shows are less like, say, the Preakness and more like a county fair, where rabbits and heifers who excel at being rabbits and heifers are given blue ribbons.

As with those creatures, all the dogs at a dog show, from the Tibetan mastiff to the toy fox terrier, are judged by the same single criterion: how well they conform to the standard of their breed. Like written language, record players, and robot vacuum cleaners, those breeds are a product of human ingenuity. Without exception, every dog breed in the world started out its evolutionary journey as a wolf and then got tinkered with by us, bit by bit, until it could do some useful and specialized thing. Dachshunds were designed to wriggle into a badger den, seize the badger, and drag it out—or, if necessary, be dragged out by their owner, which is why they have unusually strong tails. The Norwegian lundehund, which boasts extra toes and a notably flexible neck, was bred to hunt puffins on the island cliffs of Norway. The bulldog, as you might guess, was built to control bulls, by latching on to their faces and dragging them to the ground. An easier lot fell to the many dogs bred to do nothing but amuse the wealthy and powerful, including the Maltese, which seems to have been luxuriating in royal laps since the time of Julius Caesar.

Today, the American Kennel Club officially recognizes more than two hundred dog breeds, and some of the fun of “Dogland” comes from Tomlinson’s reactions to them. The one shown by Laura King, a Samoyed—a dog from Siberia, bred to pull sledges and help hunt polar bears—is so dazzlingly white as to resemble “a walking snowbank.” A Neapolitan mastiff possesses “the build of a fullback and the face of a thousand-year-old man.” A long, low-slung breed called a Skye terrier “looks like it ate a Slinky.” Tomlinson’s pithy assessments stand in sharp contrast to the breeds’ official descriptions, which can exceed two thousand words and read like a cross between a love letter and a coroner’s report. Of the American English coonhound, for instance, it is specified that “a line from occiput to brow is a little above, and parallel to, a line from eye to nose,” and also that its facial expression is both “kind” and “houndy.”

The people who obsess over these standards form a subculture of impressive vitality. The American Kennel Club sanctions thousands of dog shows each year—enough that more than a hundred are likely taking place during any given week. “Every day,” Tomlinson jokes, “my dog-show Google alerts unroll like a CVS receipt.” A few of these shows are famous—including the National Dog Show, which is sometimes confused with Westminster, because it airs on NBC on Thanksgiving Day, making it the most watched dog show in America—but the vast majority take place out of the public eye, at hotels, convention centers, and fairgrounds around the country.

Regardless of their size or standing, most of these shows work basically the same way. In the first round, dogs of a particular breed compete against one another. The winners, declared Best of Breed, advance to the next round, where competitors are grouped into seven categories, such as herding dogs, toy dogs, and terriers. That means dogs of different breeds are now competing against one another, yet the standard by which they are judged remains the same: the question is not whether this pointer is superior to that Pomeranian, but whether the pointer is more pointery than the Pomeranian is Pomeraniany. If that strikes you as absurd, you’re right. Nonetheless, winners are chosen, and go on to compete for the over-all prize, Best in Show.

All of this is something of a simplification, partly because, in the early rounds, dogs compete only against other dogs of the same sex. This yields, for each breed, a Winners Dog and—brace yourself—a Winners Bitch. Tomlinson is appropriately and comically uncomfortable with that word (“My interview transcripts all have me stumbling around and saying something like ‘uh, you know, female dog’ ”), but he uses it all the same, arguing that it accurately reflects dog-show culture. That much is certainly true. Here is the A.K.C., describing one of the awards given out at every show: “The Select Bitch is similar to Awards of Merit in that this bitch is the next best as far as the quality of the Bitches in competition.”

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