Dog People

Giddiness reigns at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
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"There's ice under here, you know," a small woman in a large-ish suit explains to a woman and her daughter. "They have hockey games here, this is where the Rangers play." I turn and look clear over the head of the speaker. I look down, then, to see a woman wearing a ribbon announcing her Westminster Kennel Club-certified status as a veterinarian, and who looks like what Penny Marshall would look like if she spent more time giving nutrition advice to Pekingese owners and less time courtside at Lakers games. Which is interesting, actually, because what I've turned away from—a series of flouncing, exquisitely blown-out bathmats describing a rough oval around Ring One on the floor of Madison Square Garden—has its own Lakers game parallel, at least insofar as all those dogs (a breed called Lowchen) look something like what Dyan Cannon's head would look like if it grew four impractically short legs, sat under a hair dryer for a few hours, and then stuck out a tiny pink tongue.

But these basketball parallels, which I made in my head throughout my day at the Dog Show, are stretches. They were just my brain taking the physical context—the floor of Madison Square Garden, where (and Penny is right, here) they do indeed play hockey and basketball—and trying to fit it to the actual contextual context, which was the Westminster Kennel Club's 136th Annual All Breeds Dog Show and thus pretty much every way the opposite of those aforementioned sports things that happen at the Garden. Not just because Jared Jeffries and Bill Walker have been swapped out for doleful Bloodhounds and the eager, fluffy bafflement of Cardigan Welsh Corgis, but also for a bunch of other vague and emotion-intensive reasons, all of which reflect very well on the dog show. The dog show which, it turns out, is goofily glorious and certainly the nicest—just in terms of ambient happiness and mutual goodwill and a vague but deeply felt positivity—thing that could possibly happen in Madison Square Garden.

Which is maybe not surprising because there are so many dogs and so many people who really just incredibly love dogs so much involved, but which is still sort of surprising because of how strange and un-doggish some of the dogs involved have been made up to look and also because of how strange and un-people-ish some of the people involved have been made up to look. The people are the breeders and handlers and owners, who are sometimes all the same person, and while many of them were simply dog owners wearing nice clothes, many others had wrapped themselves in fireproof fabrics and pulled on skirt suits seemingly inspired by Clinton-era prom couture—fake-fur cuffs and rhinestones and glitter-weave fabrics and blazers emblazoned with those odd reflective fishscale chips that look like disco ball dandruff. These were, more or less without exception, really nice people who had been hanging out in Madison Square Garden around their dogs and people who wanted to pet their dogs for hours and hours and hours—and, for those benching their (smaller) dogs on the downstairs theater level, doing all that in a small space richly redolent of dogfart. Because it's the way things get done at the Dog Show, they were groomed and costumed per the same strange standards as their wildly fluffed-up, blown-out, overgroomed dogs; in their lives, I'm fairly sure, these people would no sooner go to work or church or wherever dressed and made-up as they were than a figure skater would go to lunch dressed as a glitter-blasted maypole.

The broad and de rigeur inauthenticity of the Dog Show's aesthetics, though, made a weird contrast with the fact that dogs—the stars of the show in every possible way—are incapable of projecting inauthenticity, an incapacity shared by dog-lovers when actually interacting with dogs. For all the extravagant hair volume and lockstep training on display, these were blessedly and inarguably still dogs. The small Bichon Frisee dwarfed by its own wild nimbus of fuzz—"This fluff is ab-NAWMUL" a young woman with a whole-grain Long Island accent laughed while petting it—had a familiar face, and was just as happy to receive a scratch as my parents' infinitely more matted (and effectively feral) Poodle-Bichon mix. The crowd treated the dogs with the same deference that celebrities receive on the streets of Manhattan: little hustlings out of the way (no big deal, it's just Alec Baldwin or Kevin Kline or whoever) followed by nudges and subtle backward glances.

"That's GK," a woman whose girlfriend is showing a Flat-Coated Golden Retriever on Tuesday, told me, "Genghis Khan. He's Martha Stewart's dog." She whispered it to me as an aside, as if the dog—a Creamsicle lion of a Chow Chow with fuzzy furrowed brows—might overhear and react with the same disdain or displeasure that his owner surely would in a similar situation. But, of course, he didn't. Genghis Khan jumped up and doled out kisses like any other dog would. He did this because he's a dog.

For the most part, the people watching these dogs are people who like dogs—little girls so excited that they throw off little giddy glee-auras; middle-aged ladies in comfortable clothes; fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and fathers and daughters and husbands and wives and wives and wives and husbands and husbands of various ages; groups of middle-aged women embedded within which are one or two effeminate guys with huge laughs, earrings and jarringly low necklines; all ages and races and such.

During the early morning session on Monday, there was a contingent in the crowd that was clearly hitting the Dog Show before going to work. I gave directions to the benching area—a concrete expanse in the bowels of the Garden, cold in the morning and progressively warmer and more dander-dense as the day wore on—to a woman dressed in up-market midtown workplace casual who had stopped in to watch the Basset Hounds at 8:30 a.m. before heading off to the office. Another young woman, as attractive and stylish as anyone you might pass on Smith Street in Brooklyn, hunkered and giggled and clapped her hands during the Pembroke Welsh Corgi competition, muttered "they're going to have me arrested" and ducked out once the Best In Breed winner had been photographed. That bought her a few extra minutes, admittedly, since the post-victory photos generally took a while and involved a photographer spiking blaze-orange carrot-shaped squeeze toys off-screen left in order to coax a brief profile pose from the dogs.

Most of the guests, though, had come dressed and otherwise geared-up to spend an entire day with dogs: to watch them bounce dutifully through their paces, to applaud each competitor, to scratch and compliment and baby-talk various dogs in the benching area and ululate for their dogs of choice—this weirdly uniform lady-voiced "woo-wuh-WOO" could be heard around every ring; for a while I was fixated on one woman near Ring Five who managed an especially loud and consistent version of it without ever changing her facial expression. When the school day ended, the kids rolled in, these ones a little bit older and more studious in their giddiness than the little girls from the morning. "You know what makes these good," a boy of maybe ten told a French Bulldog breeder while scratching her dog's belly on the Garden's Astroturfed floor, "is they're not too big."

Everyone seemed relentlessly and impossibly happy, with the possible exception of the breeders and handlers, who were in Madison Square Garden from before sunrise until after sundown, answering questions and promoting their breeds and swabbing slobber off Bloodhound snouts and applying Vaseline to Pugs and blow-drying Keeshunden, and as such could sometimes seem tired or stressed-out. It was not universal, though: Kathryn and Dan DeBruin, whose dog Tater won Best Of Opposite Sex in the Affenpinscher competition, seemed both proud of their dog and delighted to spend still more time with it. Tater was the third of their six Affenpinschers to earn Grand Champion status, and they'd trained and handled them all. "A lot of times when you send a dog off to a handler, they go away for months at a time," Dan DeBruin said. "And when we're at home, you should see it, these dogs are all over us. We couldn't give that up."

The odd manifestations of up-before-dawn-brushing-an-uncooperative-Otterhound exhaustion were, in the end, as close to actual anxiety or annoyance as could be found in the Garden. This was a competition, of course, but the opacity and obscurity of the judging criteria—and the unjust oddness of rules that punished one Corgi for the quintessentially Corgish move of (futilely, of course) attempting to clamber up onto the three-foot-high inspection platform by itself—renders the competitive aspect reassuringly abstract. For dogs, to whom everything is kind of abstract—what concrete thing, after all, can be learned from sniffing a Springer Spaniel's ass, or can be expressed by yipping at a passing Dodge Neon?—this seems doubly so. These are all beautiful and impeccably trained dogs, of course, but because they are dogs they generally seemed to be 1) enjoying themselves and 2) blissfully unaware that they were competing against each other, or really doing much of anything besides earning treats for standing still, vamping and trotting as circumstances dictated. Business as usual for the dogs, then, but also the opposite of business as usual for the Garden, ruled as it ordinarily is by wins and losses and the attendant vexations and overreactions.

I asked Mike Burk, owner and handler of what a framed sign at his benching station introduced as Hank the Smiling Corgi, how he knew—besides Hank's smile—that his dog liked being there. "Well, we got into this together," Burk said. "And you can see that none of it fazes him, although by the end of a four-day show Hank will sometimes look at me like, 'dude.'" To Burk's right, Hank doled out licks to two women, one of whom was wearing a sweatshirt with a Corgi on it. "But this is what they were bred to do, you know? He puts on this collar and this lead and he turns into a different dog. And it's fun to watch your couch-potato, ice cream-eating dog turn into an animal doing what he was born to do." I asked, because it hadn't come up, how Hank and Burk had done in that morning's Pembroke Welsh Corgi competition. "Oh," Burk said, "we had fun."


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