For the fourth(!) year in a row, I'm honored to serve as an embedded photojournalist on the front lines of the dog show circuit. Here's my dispatch from day two.
Day two of Westminster is different in a few ways. There's less people, since the kiddies are back in school. It smells worse, since the aroma of dog piss, dog shit, and just general "dog" has had a full day to settle in. But most importantly, day two is big dog day.
No more toy dogs, no more hairless little things that look closer to squirrel than man's best friend. It's all about good, strong, working dogs today. Retrievers, Rottweilers, St. Bernards and the like. Dogs you can roughhouse with. Dogs who will chase down dead geese. The kind of dog that makes you think, "America." Excuse me, I must have some dander in my eye...
Let's get something out of the way. Dog people: crazy. If they're not at one of the many booths selling everything from doggy ties to doggy jewelry to doggy oil paintings, they're smothering their dogs with so much affection, you stop wondering why dogs run away so often.
The Weimaraner gives me a conspiratorial glance, since he knows what I'm talking about. But let me show you an example.
I take a few pics of this Cairn Terrier, and his owner is more than happy to pose him. If she thinks I'm from some legit media outlet that's going to help get her baby ahead in this dog-beat-dog world, I'm not going to disabuse her. I'm just happy she's got it standing still.
So, I get my shots, and turn to leave, but she won't let me go. Her dog apparently hasn't assumed her preferred pose for the dog magazine cover she's imagining I'm going to put him on.
"Put your tail up, honey."
"The man wants to see you put your tail up." (I really don't.)
Apparently, I'm not allowed to stop taking pictures until the damn dog puts its damn tail in the air. But I wasn't prepared for what happened next...
She grabbed its tail and yanked it up, as the dog let out a little yelp. Holy shit, lady, I really didn't need for you to pull your dog's tail. It was cute enough as is.
I guess she figures Dog Monthly or wherever it is she thinks I work will photoshop out her arm, and her Cairn will look as noble and majestic as god intended. I'm just left wondering if I was party to animal abuse.
Ironically, the dog show aspect is the one I enjoy least about the dog show. You've got to elbow your way to the front, and fight for your spot for at least a half-hour, for the mystifying, arcane judging process.
First, the dogs do a lap around the ring, and the crowd applauds based on how popular the breed is, and how many of them actually own one. Curly Coated Retrievers like this get moderate applause, since though no one actually has one, they look a lot like Chocolate Labs.
The judge goes through each one in turn, feeling it up and making it run around the ring a second time. To me, they're all identical. But apparently there's something that sets them apart, because the judge will eliminate three or four at a time, until four remain. She then points to the winner and runners-up in order, and the crowd goes nutso.
(By the way, at 2:30 in the afternoon, I'd peg the MSG crowd size and intensity somewhere between "Rangers" and "Liberty." Let's call it "Knicks.")
My favorite part of the judging: the official Westminster photo. Have you ever tried to get a dog to stand still for a picture? It's impossible. So Westminster employs a photo assistant with a squeaky carrot to hold the dog's attention for the crucial seconds required to snap a shot.
It's spectacular. These noble dogs, at the top of their sport...and they need to be distracted by a squeaky toy in order to accept their ribbon.
For the Curly Coated Retriever competition, the squeaky carrot was a little too captivating. The runner up was staring daggers at the carrot the whole time. A moment after I took this photo, it escaped its handler and made a run for the carrot. It's like if Peyton Manning, enthralled by the shiny Lombardi Trophy, tried to take it out of Goodell's hands as he presented it to Sean Payton.
This football-headed fellow is Ringo the Bull Terrier, fresh off his victory as best of breed. I warned his owner that "Ringo" might not be a great name for anyone hoping to be named best in group.
The dogs and their entourages wake up as early as 4 a.m. on show days, but no matter how early in the day their breed shows, they can't leave the building until 8 p.m, and must remain among the paying public. If they do, they're banned forever. Westminster is one of the shows like this left, where interaction with the public is as important as the competition, and while it's great for dog-lovers like me, it makes for some tired dogs.
As the afternoon goes on, the barks quiet, the playfulness subsides, and just about every pooch can be found passed out on its bench. It's enough to make this correspondent want to leave them to their dreams of finally catching and killing or making love to the mailman, or whatever it is dogs dream about.
Every year Westminster is an exhausting, baffling mess. But occasionally I'll snap a shot of a dog nuzzling a child, and it reminds me why my girlfriend and I will be getting our own in a couple of months. (The dog, not the child. Obviously.)