Some of us, to the amazement of friends, family and colleagues, look forward to this week all year. How will the crowd react? Will there be any surprises? It’s not the State of the Union address, of course, since that has become a boring affair in which there are no real surprises or lasting memories. (I can’t think of a single line from last year’s SOTU.) No, I’m talking about the big show — the Westminster Dog Show, held at Madison Square Garden today and Tuesday.
For those of us who love our dogs and love dog shows, there is nothing that compares to Westminster. Unlike the cheesy shows airing throughout the year that show snippets of whippets and only minutes of miniature poodles, Westminster shows every dog who is a group winner over two nights, culminating in the best of show. It is a total of six hours of sheer delight for the dog-obsessed.
“Best of Show” was the finest dog show parody movie ever made (it might be the only one but it is really, really good), capturing plenty of inside jokes for the dog-knowledgeable. Real dog lovers know the show routine by heart and the characters in it like eccentric family members.
For years, the sonorous voice of Roger Caras announced the introduction of each dog, his canned spiel never varying from year to year. (The story of the golden retriever breed tells us of the first litter of four puppies that “left their paw prints all over dog history.”) He would throw in gentle admonitions such as “This breed is not for the novice dog owner.” We were warned that a breed requires “an owner as stubborn as he.” We can recite them by heart, like words to our favorite songs.
For the TV coverage, the knowledgeable David Frei explains and expounds on the dogs and the judging, with a sidekick intended to provide color commentary but usually becoming the butt of ridicule from dog aficionados for his or her dog ignorance. Joe Garagiola was perhaps the worst in a long line of these, and dog fans suspect he was the model for the announcer in “Best of Show” played brilliantly by Fred Willard. Nevertheless Frei and his dull-witted sidekick are as familiar as old family friends for those of us who have watched year after year.
You might not remember a single State of the Union line, but dog fans still talk about Uno the beagle, Josh the Newfoundland, Manhattan the German shepherd, Robert the English springer spaniel and J.R. the bichon frisé. We know the breeds that never win and those that often do (many from the terrier group). And we wait for our own dog’s breed to appear, cheering him on, out of some sense of loyalty to our beloved pet’s greater family.
“It’s a beauty contest!” scoff some naysayers. Well, yes indeed — and these are beautiful dogs. (Frei does his “These are superb athletes” spiel each year.) But these are also just plain ol’ dogs. The least professional moments (a large dog rolling over on the carpeted floor for a belly scratch while waiting his turn), the occasional accident in the ring and even the shocking (well, for the dog world) near bite in the ring that almost got a terrier bounced one year remind us that, underneath the blow-dried hair and away from the fussy handlers (many of whom really do look like the dogs they are showing), these are the same sort of pets to which we have given our hearts.
How to explain dog lovers’ intoxication with dogs? This, written at the time President Obama acquired Bo, is the best explanation I’ve seen in print of how the dog mania strikes:
I was unmoved by the importuning of my three children, who loved dogs and, like Sasha and Malia Obama with their parents, took turns trying to talk me into one. I was impervious to the charms of my sister’s puppy and insisted that my kids wash their hands after playing with her. The thought of dog hairs near food killed my appetite.
Then one day I woke up and needed to have a puppy, and just like that, I became a wild, passionate, crazy lover of dogs. Not just my own dog, though she is my favorite dog (she’s a music lover and dancer — comes bounding as soon as Martha and the Vandellas start to sing, and jumps and jives with me until I stop), but all dogs: huge slobbering Newfoundlands, tiny neurotic Chihuahuas, hideous Chinese hairless dogs, Mastiffs, Cairns, Pointers, Boxers, Beagles, Bichons, Great Danes, Pit Bulls — I’m mad for them all.
I love the way they smell, the way they drool when food is nearby, the way they run in their sleep, the way you can feel their heartbeats just by touching their flanks, the way they lick your face, the way they never forget a scent, the way they suddenly come to alertness, and just as suddenly fall asleep, their jaunty gaits, their wagging tails.
In short, I love the utter dogness of them, and the sense of living in harmony with another of God’s creatures makes me happy.
And to watch them in all their splendor with your own precious creature curled up next to you — well, that is one of life’s great joys, at least for us dog-ophiles.