The most gorgeous creature in the world ("She has ox ankles," somebody probably said of Cleopatra) must learn to expect a few hurled tomatoes among the roses, and this is true even of the world's beautiful dogs.
The first thing I heard of the sensational German shepherd winner of the unparalleled dog shows in Philadelphia (ending yesterday) was your typical anti-pinnacle comment:
"He has a bitchy head." You sort of wanted to defend his doghood.
His name is Hatter. He is not the biggest shepherd. He does not run the fastest. But when he entered the ring just before winning best of show at 11:15 Sunday night, you knew for a change what ultimate control and grace are all about. And in a shepherd, that breed so often graceless.
If you spoke to the stunning basset hound (or the guy briefly in charge of him before the final judging) and wished him well, you got the answer:
"Sure, it would be great to have a basset for best of show. But not tonight."
The competition was too much, even for a hound lovely as a basket of flowers.
The judge, William Kendrick of West Chester, Pa., is one of the few men qualified to judge the best from among all dogs (141 breeds were in Philadelphia). He said it was Hatter's motion that he kept coming back to.
Yesterday the large local Philadelphia show was held (and last Friday 27 breeds had shows limited to one breed exclusively), but the prime event of the four-day festival was the two-day American Kennel Club show with 8,075 dogs on Saturday and Sunday.
The great Westminster Show in New York every winter boasts about 3,000 dogs, by comparison. So far as known, there has never been a dog show in the history of the world with anything approaching the 8,000 entries here. Counting all the events of the four days, 14,000 dogs turned out, most of them champions, many of them famous.
But as you descended the stairs to the dog level early on the first day you saw no dogs, only the 30,000 people who visited the show each day. The breeds were judged one at a time in 30 rings. You didn't have to know a Basra hound from a Borzoi to be startled at the sight of such variety, such vigor, as you see on every side. Humans cannot be so bad, to have such sparkling friends. -- --
"Those California bassets," said a former breeder of that tender and somewhat knuckle-brained tribe, "have heads like table tops." This was meant only as constructive criticism, you understand, but owners of big bassets are very picky and easily take offense. Some fanciers prefer what they call "refinement" usually meaning their own hounds are small. Or, as the big-basset people say, "squirrely."
"Now I'd like to know why there is such variation of size in these Irish wolfhounds," demanded a fellow peering at assorted majesties. The hounds were plumb tuckered out, but raised languid heads if you spoke to them and even rose a little from the Persian carpets covering their benches. (That's right. Wolfhounds get Persian rugs just as Borzois get jeweled collars. The emperor Charlemagne was buried in a Persian shroud -- there's some connection).
The searcher after wolfhound truth was told the bitches have smaller heads than the dogs, and beyond that you're back in the "refinement" wrangle.
Nobody should imagine, however, that dog people are bitchier or meaner than, say, sopranos. They fire off little grenades perhaps, but just under the surface they understand there is something to be said for the other guy's point of view, or even for those hog-sized hounds with heads like table tops.
They understand judging, too, and sympathize with the judge, more or less.
Less, possibly, when a judge passes over one of the most famous of all American show dogs, a Scottie named Shannon, in favor of a relatively unknown Scottie named Perlor Playboy.
Shannon has not lost a breed competition in her last 200 shows, and has won more best-in-show awards than any other dog in American history, according to the knowledgeable Deborah Lawson of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
But the astounding upset (as if Ronald Reagan were told he was not qualified to run for sanitary commissioner) did not cause a riot, just a lot of screaming.
Of course if your dog doesn't win, you think the judge is perverse. Once a man made the mistake of going over to a magnificent dog that lost and saying "That is the most beautiful specimen of the breed I have ever seen," and the owner roared:
"He's the most beautiful specimen anybody has ever seen, except that judge." With adjectives that not even Screw would print. -- --
The big show celebrated the centennial of the American Kennel Club, which does not sponsor dog shows but merely supervises and licenses the roughly 2,000 dog shows a year that abide by kennel club rules.
Besides the dogs being judged in the rings, there were thousands temporarily at rest in the benching halls, except of course Bedlingtons and Irish terriers and Kerry Blues, who never rest. Any visitor can stroll up and down till his feet cry mercy, and then collapse in an auditorium for a slide show on Rhodesian ridgebacks:
"The absence of a ridge is a serious defect," the narrator stated, as you might say of the Irish setter, "The absence of fur is a fault."
Fleas begin to seem quite minor.
Because purebred dogs cost a lot you might think raising them is a road to riches. But the handler of the winning shepherd said the owner had spent a quarter-million dollars the past year in showing Hatter at dozens of competitions. A gold medal and some nice stud fees do not necessarily add up to a huge profit.
You have to sell a lot of pups for $250 or $350 or $450 to come out even on the expenses of a kennel, veterinarian, handler, travel to shows, food, hotels.
And you may not win, no matter how much you spend. The dog may have an off day, and be judged accordingly. Or, no matter how phenomenal your shepherd is, you have no guarantee some other dog is not even more phenomenal.
And there is such a thing as a dog "asking for it." This means simply that special radiance, and it can reach surprising psychological depths, by which the mutt seems to say, "I am the only one that bowls you over, so let me win."
There was a beautiful terrier, not the winning Irish, who seemed to be tugged towards the judge. The opposite of asking for it.
And you don't have to win, you know. More than 8,000 didn't. It's like a marathon, you like being part of it. A voice in the choir.
Like Cheers, a bloodhound beaming beside his owner, Randy Carter of Richmond, a young man with orange beard, tractor cap and something of the easy good looks of his hound.
"He's just a pet. Cheers, because he was born last New Year's."
Not far off were the tiny Brussels griffons, whose owners are always nervous they might fall through a crack, but who have the looks and the bravery of lions. Show people see nothing funny, really, in all these contrasts.
They take their shows seriously because they think the beauty of the dog is serious. Evelyn Shafer of New York, for years an official photographer at shows, learned early how serious the business is:
"Your mother may die and that's very sad, but you better be at the show to shoot the winning dogs."
"Those days," said Louise McMahon, who used to write about dogs in the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin. "The local fairs were the real start of dog shows, and you remember how it made no difference if there was a hurricane. And how the tents always fell down."
"And once in the South," went on Shafer, "when there were threatened riots and they called out the troops, and we were in the middle of a dog show in an armory, and the soldiers thought we were insane, judging Pomeranians and things, while they expected the town to blow up."
Evelyn Van Horne chuckled. She is famous in the world of springer spaniels.
"You said springers?" someone asked.
"Of course. She's practically Miss Springer," said McMahon. She had a bar mitzvah for her dog when he was 13."
Pat Dresser of Medina, Ohio, sported a jeweled pin from which silver charms hung, representing her three pooches that have won best in show.
"I remember the first one. My daughter phoned and said after 20 years we finally won a best in show. I tell you an even bigger thrill. Now that kid's in veterinary school. I'll have a free vet for life."
"No," a friend said, "not free. She says she's going to charge you double."
Across the street a parking lot held several hundred recreational vans that brought dogs from every state in the union except North Dakota. Nobody knew why not North Dakota. -- --
Near the show was a display of paintings of dogs lent by the Dog Museum of America in New York. Among them a Landseer, "Alexander and Diogenes." Alexander is a sober proud white dog, standing in front of Diogenes, a fuzzy beast in the shadows. In his barrel doghouse. People like Queen Victoria, a great admirer of the painter's, saw nothing ludicrous in the subject.
There is a famous brick, not easily found by the casual visitor, from the most ancient city of Ur. A large dog left his paw print on it when it was still unbaked.
Like the winner of the hound group, Baskerville's Sole Heir, his registered name, though he is commonly called Rocky the singer. He is from Williamstown, W.Va.
He may stand for those who contended and never won. He exploded into the ring, attired in natural short red fur luxuriantly arranged in folds.
"Should bloodhounds be that loose?" was a question.
"Sure. A good one has to have enough loose hide to make another dog."
Rocky bounded along, ears lifting, just short of airborne. The crowd whooped. This is always the signal for Rocky to begin his alleluias. Not a howl, as when others go for a walk and he does not. Not a bay, as when he salutes the moon. Not a yodel, either, but the music of which the French horn and the cello are human approximations. One big dog man said he thought he was going to beat out the shepherd, by God. Rocky turned and everybody thought the hound was looking straight at him, but he was just looking at the universe and sounding off. His song was Joy in the Morning. As at Ur or Eden when without him the world was waste.