Handjobs, Butt-To-Butt Action, And Other Sex Secrets Of The Champion Show Dog

For his new book, Show Dog: the Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred, Josh Dean spent more than a year following a champion show dog named Jack, a young Australian Shepherd. In the following excerpt, Jack—who is owned by a single mother from Pennsylvania named Kimberly Smith—tries to mate for the first time. Photos by Kate Lacey.

One Monday afternoon, Kimberly left Harrisburg, Pa., after a disappointing weekend of losses at the dog shows, and drove to Newark Airport to pick up a very special package: Jack's girlfriend, who was scheduled to arrive from California via Continental Airlines at 6:52 p.m.

Part of her purview as co-owner was that Kerry Kirtley, who bred Jack out in California, could dictate which bitches to pair with Jack. And she chose for his first mate a large black tri named Ch Wyndstars Agua Dulce Halebeari—sound that last word closely and you'll get it[1]—a.k.a. Halle B.

Halle B had last bred with Jack's father, Honor, and the result, Kerry proclaimed, "was a very nice litter." She was optimistic about a partnership with Jack. When I asked her what, specifically, she was hoping to get, she said she felt that Jack's "lineage" would further enhance the excellent quality she'd seen in mating Halle and Honor. "Jack's mother Gracie is the prettiest mover and has reproduced that numerous times."

As movement is something Jack is said to do well, you could expect that these puppies would share the trait. Breeding is far from an exact science but the basics of it are fairly simple:n you want to reinforce the good traits of particular animals while eliminating flaws. Responsible breeders of a particular breed work in concert to eliminate problematic traits—in the case of Aussies, for instance, the eye condition PRA (or progressive retinal atrophy). Before Kimberly and Kerry could breed Jack, they had to test that he wasn't prone to this trait, and the results said that he wasn't. He also had his hips and elbows certified to signify that his were not prone to failures. Beyond that, breeders will tend to pick mates that correct for minor flaws in the other dog.

Kimberly arrived alone and waited a good hour for Continental to deliver the crate to the PetSafe desk. Halle, she said, was "sweet, but scared to death." This was actually the first time, in all her years of breeding, that Kerry had ever shipped a bitch out to be bred and I got the sense that it was at least partly for my benefit, which I greatly appreciated. She was even considering the possibility of keeping Halle in Pennsylvania throughout her pregnancy, so that Kimberly could experience the whole process and maybe even keep a puppy. Provided Halle got pregnant, that is.

"Halle B is a great mother and it should be fairly easy for all involved," Kerry said. "Otherwise I wouldn't even consider the idea."

Once home, it wasn't an easy adjustment. Halle was a kennel dog, and like all kennel dogs was not accustomed to being polite in houses. So, combined with the rather traumatic experience of flying cross-country alone, in a crate, Kimberly reported that the dog seemed to be "scared stiff." Halle just couldn't seem to relax inside and was constantly agitating near the door, wanting to go out. So Kimberly put her on a chain, and walked her, and "finally after an hour, she relaxed enough to take a dump—in my living room."

Almost from the instant Halle arrived, Jack was courting her. "He actually mounted her twice the first day," Kimberly said. "He's just being fresh. And she's letting him be." Jack's handler, Heather, had warned Kimberly to be careful, that she might want to keep Halle muzzled during her interactions with Jack, because a bitch in heat can be very aggressive to an interested male.

Halle, though, was fine. She liked Jack, and he liked her. Seeing as she wasn't exactly trained in the customs of indoor living, Halle was left in a kennel during the day, and Jack would flirt through the bars.

Poor Jack. Surely his little balls must have been feeling mighty blue by the time he got some relief from a woman wearing rubber gloves.

The second day, Kimberly's friend Maggie took them to the reproductive vet so that Halle's progesterone could be tested. A dog is in heat—the proper term, by the way, is in estrous—for two to three weeks, but despite the fact that only a few days of the period are actually viable for insemination, there's no harm in hedging bets by letting the dogs hump as much as they want. (It's also good practice.)

Jack's travel schedule was a potential problem—it was a busy time on the show circuit; in fact, one of the busiest weekends of the year, with 43 all-breed shows in 16 locations taking place across America, none bigger than the trio of shows in Timonium, a Baltimore suburb. And the math seemed to be indicating that Halle might be most fertile while he was to be away at a show that Kimberly wasn't planning to attend. "If I have to I guess I can take her," Kimberly said. "And get them a room." She laughed, mostly because that wasn't actually a joke.[2]

A few days into the courtship period, the ongoing saga was stressing Kimberly out. Despite repeated and eager attempts to mount his new girlfriend, Jack had been unable to breed Halle, and Kimberly's first trip to the vet verified what Maggie had suspected. The bitch just wasn't quite ready.

The vet had tested Halle's progesterone and it came back a 2—she wasn't quite ready. Truthfully, the vet didn't even need that result to tell. "How do I say this…Her vulva looks very small," Kimberly told me, sheepishly. Dogs don't exactly have genitalia as expressive as baboons, which have vulvas that swell to the size of hot pink baseball mitts, but they do tend to swell to give the males a bigger target. One reason Jack wasn't able to dock the ship was that the harbor wasn't open for business. As Kimberly put it, with a bit more subtlety: "It would be difficult for him to get in there."

Poor Jack. Surely his little balls must have been feeling mighty blue by the time he got some relief from a woman wearing rubber gloves.

* * *

On a Saturday morning, I rose about dawn, and cajoled my nearly nine months pregnant fiancée to accompany me, to bring fertility karma—as well as to hedge my bets should she go into labor and I miss key portions of this milestone event because I was two hours away watching a dog get a hand release. We splashed some cold water on our faces, brewed up some coffee and pointed the car toward Bucks County, Pa.

Jack was due at the Timonium show, but he had a late ring time and Kimberly had arranged to first take him to see the doctor for another collection. The vet would also be testing Halle's progesterone and, if it seemed possible, she'd do an artificial insemination (or A.I.). There was even a chance that if the circumstances worked out, and if Halle had advanced into a more fertile period, that we could try to get the dogs to mate in a less clinical fashion. That, I suppose, would be the rare trifecta.

A dog's sperm has a vital life of seven days, and can live in refrigeration for at least three or four more if a substance known as extender has been added to the sample. The vet had declared Jack's first sperm "good," but thought that the sample could still be better. It was his first time and maybe all parties, even the microscopic ones, had underperformed.

Whether or not he'd be willing to try an actual live cover was a different story. Kimberly said that he'd been mounting Halle "right and left" until Maggie came over to help. "Then nothing. The whole time she was here, he wouldn't try it." Young Jack had stage fright. Five minutes after she left, he was right back at it. It seemed that Jack didn't want to fool around in uncomfortable surroundings —and any married person who's stayed more than a few days with the in-laws can certainly relate.

If the morning's efforts were unsuccessful, Kimberly might have to take Halle along to Baltimore, and then find them some space to fool around. She'd discussed the matter with Heather and learned that the grounds were plenty large. "She said you'd definitely have to go away from the show, but that it's not a problem to walk far enough off the grounds to a quiet area." But this would be a last resort. Kimberly didn't want to go to the show. She had plans. Specifically, a date with a guy she'd been seeing. "He might not be happy if I cancel to go help Jack get laid again."

* * *

My fiancée and I were out in Pennsylvania by 7:45 a.m. and found Kimberly in the parking lot, idling in her Subaru, with the always eager Jack bouncing from seat to seat. Halle was in the rear, in her crate, and Kimberly had to coax her out and into the parking lot, where she assumed the slinky posture of a nervous animal.

As excitable as Jack is, Halle was that mellow. She was a fairly standard looking black tri with only a little red on her chest, and around her eyes, which were ringed in thin white circles and were, in Kimberly's estimation, a little too close together. "I think she looks like Beetlejuice," she said and chuckled.

Handjobs, Butt-To-Butt Action, And Other Sex Secrets Of The Champion Show Dog

Halle was quiet and affectionate and already very attached to Kimberly. She didn't resist a friendly pat, but she didn't reach for it either. And when Kimberly turned away, she would gently stand up on her rear legs and put those giant white paws on her hips, as if to say, "Help. I don't want to make small-talk with these strangers." Jack, meanwhile, was Jack—launching himself into my midsection and, when scolded to stay down, running around and thrusting himself between my legs from behind, where he'd sit between my knees in the ready position he'd learned in agility class.

The doctor was doing us a favor. She had come in on her off day and met us in the lobby, where a TV behind the desk played Animal Planet's dog show of the day, and asked us to reconvene in the large animal ward of the hospital—a concrete floored room through some metallic double-doors of the kind you'd see in a morgue. It contained a stall-like apparatus for hoisting horses and other large animals in distress and the room felt sterile and industrial. Fortunately, Jack doesn't require ambiance.

The vet arrived and assigned me a critical role. I was to hold Halle in place, she said, pointing to a spot in the corner. "And face her butt toward us."

I complied, feeling a little like a character in a lost chapter of the Kinsey files. To her credit, Halle cooperated gamely as the doctor prepared a large clear condom with a collector vial at the end. Once ready, she crouched back behind Jack with her hands near his midsection as Kimberly urged him forward.

It was awkward, and overly intimate—and very awkward (did I mention awkward?)—to be one of three humans assisting two dogs in getting in the mood but the dogs didn't seem to care much. I remembered a line I'd just read in a book about breeding written by a vet named Dan Rice. "Avoid a circus atmosphere," he'd written, but then qualified himself, saying that "if both are inexperienced, help may be necessary." Helped had arrived and was in position.

The more I read about breeding, the more I learned that Jack had nothing to be ashamed of. First-time breeders—dog virgins—are often pretty inept. Dr. Rice wrote that "younger males often begin by mounting the female's neck, and fumble their way back to the appropriate position." Jack, at least, knew which end to aim for.

If we may break temporarily to discuss the physiology of the situation, I think you can better sympathize with a young male's plight. A dog's penis is more different than the human variant than you might think. (Or certainly more than I thought.) It doesn't actually become erect until he's successfully penetrated the female, at which time it swells to lock things into place. How does a dog penetrate a female with a flaccid penis? Good question. And nature has an ingenious answer. The dog phallus has something known as the os penis, a thin bone that runs through the shaft and allows a male to aim at the target and achieve initial penetration. I can't think of a totally apt analog to help you picture this but I suppose it's a little like tying a rock to a rope that you need to throw over the high branch of a tree. Without the rock, you'd never get the rope high enough, let alone in the right spot, but once the rope is over the branch, the rock is no longer necessary. That's the os penis.

There in the lab, Jack was initially a little hesitant, but Kimberly nudged him forward until nature took over and the fragrance of dog pheromones overpowered the intrusion of all these humans all up in his business, and Jack's pelvis began to bounce—first just a little, in a series of test humps, then more enthusiastically, until young Jack had Halle by the hips and was air-humping like a jackhammer. From where I stood (fortunately), I couldn't really see much of what was going on underneath all this gyrating fur but my fiancée[3] later told me that from where she stood on the other side of the room she had a fully unvarnished view of the vet's handiwork. Her exact words, on the ride home, were: "And I might never get that image out of my head. Or the smell."

Whatever the specifics of the transaction, the mission was accomplished and the vet revealed a vial a quarter-filled with a few teaspoons of milky white liquid that she proclaimed "a good sample. That's all sperm."

The doctor left us momentarily to check the sample under her microscope and returned a few minutes later to report that it was good. She asked if anyone wanted to take a look and I certainly did. Seeing dog sperm at extreme magnification is a little like looking at TV static—there's light gray background with all these electric black particles whipping around. If you focus out the noise, and look closely, those particles are tiny black worms spazzing in their singular purpose: to swim like hell for the uterus.

The average dog ejaculation has 1 billion sperm, the vet told me. "And you need 250 million to get a breeding." Since she won't need all of this to do the artificial insemination, the vet could freeze the remainder, as well as future samples, to help insure Jack's legacy for many generations. She didn't yet know how well Jack's sperm will deal with this. "Some dogs don't freeze well."

Using frozen sperm, however, is a little trickier than a live cover or even an A.I. For one thing, it has to be inseminated directly into the uterus, which requires surgery.

Halle's artificial insemination turned out to be a breeze. A vet tech appeared and held Halle while the doctor inserted a sterile plastic plunger into her vagina. It's uncomfortable and many dogs hate it, she said, but Halle was a champ. "She didn't flinch," the tech said, and patted her on the head. To enlist gravity to the cause, the vet held Halle's rear section up in the air for another five minutes, but the whole thing was over in under 10.

* * *

"How's Jack doing?" she asked, and took a peek at his undercarriage. She was wondering if his penis had retracted back into its sheath, and it hadn't[4]. She noted that his erection "was a good one"—and said that not only had his full penis come out but also something known as the bulbis, a pink lump at the base that also appears when a dog is fully aroused. This is what swells inside the bitch and locks the dogs into a tie. Once tied, the dogs will shift positions until they are butt-to-butt for the completion of the act and cannot be separated until the male has ejaculated and the swelling goes away. I had a vague notion of the lesson that mating dogs should never be separated—it can really hurt them—but I managed to go 36 years without knowing that when they're fully engaged they will be standing butt to butt and will stay that way for up to 45 minutes.

I haven't spent much time observing the mechanics of procreation across different species but you'd have a hard time convincing me that animal lovemaking could be less romantic than it is for dogs. It begins simply enough—a willing female, an eager male—and accelerates quickly as the male grabs hold and commences frantic pumping (and in that way, isn't that different than human teenagers, I suppose) until he has connected, literally. That's where things get weird and impersonal. Once locked in place (again, literally), the dogs begin a bit of yoga. The male will bring one of his front legs over the bitch's back until they're standing side-by-side, still attached at the privates. Then one of the dogs turns itself so that their rears are facing each other and the male's penis is facing backward between his legs while still locked in place. This sounds painful but is apparently not. He then stands butt to butt with his mate for the duration of the session, which consists basically of two dogs staring wanly in the distance. If you were to walk by two dogs in a "tie," you would think, 'Those two dogs are really upset with one another.' When, of course, the complete opposite is true; the dogs are engaged in the most intimate act of all. The bang then ends with a whimper when, after a specific duration that could be five or 50 minutes, the male dog's equipment disengages and he simply walks away for a nap.

I tend to be one of those non-religious people who sees the holy/magic/mystical/what-have-you in nature. The natural architecture, nearly always, is perfect—everything carefully crafted and having a precise reason[5]—but I am fully confused by the process of dog mating, which is by extension wolf mating. It's tough to understand why it would make biological sense for two wolves to be connected to each other for up to half-hour so tightly that it would cause harm to one or both of them to break away suddenly. And not only that, but to be connected for up to a half-hour while facing in different directions, so that if danger does arrive the two animals are doomed.

Any mental image I have of wolves panicking and attempting to evade disaster while connected at the pelvis is gruesome.[6] Either the stronger one drags the weaker behind, backward, very slowly and awkwardly; or the two tear apart in a fashion so horrible and violent that it would chill Lorena Bobbit; or in the Wile E. Coyote-est of outcomes, they each attempt to bolt and so precisely counteract each other's energy that they are stuck in a kind of stasis, running in place as if on treadmills.

The only biological reason the tie makes any sense is that it ensures that babies will be made. And that means that, for wolves, the biological imperative of passing on one's genes overpowers the one I tended to regard as most potent in the animal kingdom: the will to survive. Mother Nature is saying, "Sure, some wolves might get picked off by rivals while making the love, but the vast majority will emerge unscathed—and they will almost certainly have puppies." The pack is more important than the individual. Or two individuals, as it were.

Within a few minutes, Jack had sheathed his sword and we returned to the cars, us to head home, Jack and Kimberly to go to Timonium for the shows—where he'd lose the first two days before ending the disappointing but eventful month on a high note with a breed win at the third and final show of the weekend.

There in the parking lot, Jack was as calm as I'd seen him. I could swear he was smiling. "Wouldn't you be?" Kimberly said, and drove off.

[1] Still need help? Here's a clue: She won an Oscar (and flashed her boobs) in Monster's Ball.
[2] It's a violation of AKC rules to allow dogs to mate on a show's premises; it's even a little uncouth to show up with a dog in full-blown heat, frankly.
[3] now wife
[4] "Likewise," reported the author Dr. Rice, "a male's penis will appear inflamed and swollen for a few hours following tie-breeding, but injury is unlikely."
[5] bats possessing sonar; the precise geometry of every snowflake; hummingbirds migrating thousands of miles and then returning to the exact same spot, etc. etc.
[6] Unless I imagine them as cartoon wolves, in which case it's kind of hilarious.

Handjobs, Butt-To-Butt Action, And Other Sex Secrets Of The Champion Show Dog

Excerpted with permission from Show Dog: the Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred. Josh Dean is a former deputy editor of Men's Journal as well as a contributor, and was one of the founding editors of PLAY, the New York Times sports magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Outside, GQ, Popular Science, Fast Company, Inc., Travel + Leisure, and many others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and imaginary pet dog.