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The Westminster Dog Show Is The Past And Future Of Obsessive Dog Ownership

Photo: Sarah Stier (Getty)

I really don’t know anything about dogs despite having owned one for the past six years.

That’s actually not true, but it’s easy to feel self-conscious about your own knowledge of dogs after spending a full day at the Westminster Dog and Kennel Show, which wrapped up last night in New York. There I met—or tried to at least glance at—the more than 200 show dogs who journeyed to New York with their owners and handlers. These people can speak knowledgeably about dog muscle tone and gait and characteristics of the breed and grooming techniques. After talking to them, and gazing upon their perfectly groomed dogs, I now know just how little I know.

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I have never gotten my dog, Lizzie, groomed. I give her a bath every few months and she resists mightily each time. She eats exclusively dry food that I buy every few months in 28-pound increments. Hell, I don’t even know exactly what mix of breeds she is, though I usually describe her as a beagle mix. Of course, I could get her genetically tested and settle the matter but I haven’t because I’m cheap—see: dry food only—and also because I don’t know how that information will be used. Will it be shared with the authorities? After all, they caught the Golden State Killer through commercial genetic testing companies.The last thing I need is for my dog to be tied to a series of squirrel slayings.

This dissonance between the sort of dog ownership I experience in my real life and the sort I saw at the WKC Dog Show left me wondering if there were any similarities to be found at all. Throughout the day, I kept searching for reassurance that these perfectly coiffed pure breeds, despite being show dogs, were still dogs as I understood them. I had read enough of the articles about the problems with dog shows and breeding and I wanted to feel like everything was okay, that these were dogs first and foremost, that they enjoyed all of the things their less illustrious counterparts liked. I wanted to know that they wanted to play and be pet. That they wanted attention. That they wanted to nap. That they wanted to lick your face.

(I do realize that I defined “dogginess” in terms of how they relate to humans. I guess you can argue that I don’t value dogs for their own sake but for how they make me feel. That’s fair.)

I watched the 13-inch beagles in Ring 5 during their Best of Breed competition, and was pleasantly surprised to see that even though they were beautifully groomed, they were also still beagles. They were quite jumpy and their handlers were constantly plying them with food in order to hold their attention. When this happened I could see a bit of Lizzie in their food zealousness.

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From watching the beagles, I went in search of the basset hounds. (Sorry, corgi fans—this blog will have a distinct hound bias.) These guys are my favorites because of their utterly ridiculous proportions. Short legs, long ears, all of the droop. The sad eyes. Basset hounds look like they were designed by a committee of five-year-olds who were asked to draw what they thought a “dog” looked like. There’s no other way to explain why they look the way they do. Other than breeding. It always comes back to that.

When I explained my theory on the origin of basset hounds to breeder Mimi Tysseling, she told me that her affection for the basset hound is actually rooted in her childhood experience. “As a child I always wanted a dog,” she said. Though her siblings had dogs, she wasn’t allowed to get one. “But my father one time brought me home this Fisher Price Snoopy toy so that was my dog.” Tysseling said she spent the rest of her childhood years looking for a dog that resembled this toy, specifically looking for one with long, droopy ears.

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That’s how she came to basset hounds. (Snoopy, it should be noted, was a beagle.) She’s been breeding and showing for over thirty years. At first, she worked solo; now she works with her husband who she met in the dog show world.

The pooch she entered this year was officially registered as “Gangster of Love,” but its call name is El Chapo. Call name aside, he demonstrated the sweetness of the other bassets I had encountered, and also the stubbornness. When I mentioned to Tysseling how I once came upon a woman with three of these hounds stopped on the sidewalk because the dogs simply refused to move on a hot summer day—she futilely pleaded with them that their home was just a block away— she laughed and said, “That happened to me in the ring about 8:00 this morning. He did not want to cooperate whatsoever.”

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The grooming area provided a far less relatable experience. I saw a bichon frise get a haircut from a stylist making careful, precise cuts. Little tufts of white fur fell to the grooming table and to the floor around it. I looked down at my own hair and saw that I had a ton of split ends. These dogs were better groomed and better cared for than I was.

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I met Melisa Tiffany of Spokane, Washington in the benching areas. She was there with her dog, Jemma, a mini American Shepherd, who was shown earlier in the day. Now she was just hanging out on her table; all of the dogs and their owners had to stick around until 4:30 p.m., no matter how early they were shown. People purchased tickets to not only watch the competitions in the 10 different rings, but to also see the breeds in the benching area. The dogs had to stick around and be gawked at and pet by spectators, no matter how over it they were.

Jemma, however, didn’t seem to be completely over it, at least not when I arrived in the mid-afternoon. She immediately gave me her paw and seemed keen for attention. I was more than happy to oblige. Now here was a dog, the type that I could imagine playing a game of fetch with or snuggling up with on the couch. Tiffany, a nurse in her other life, said that Jemma is registered as a therapy dog.

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But even Jemma managed to exist in a world beyond my comprehension. She and her owner were staying at the official hotel of the show—the Hotel Pennsylvania, which is right across the street Madison Square Garden, where the finals for Westminster Dog Show are held in primetime. Tiffany told me that the nearby hotels had all kinds of amenities for the dogs, including treadmills for them to use. She explained Jemma’s workout regimen to me in the same way a personal trainer would talk about interval training with a human client.

Dog treadmills at the hotel
Photo: Melissa Tiffany
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“We’ve been doing about an hour a day on the treadmill,” she said, saying that she tries to vary it so Jemma doesn’t get too bored. “We’ll take the incline up to 10-12 percent and cut the speed down to one so that you’re doing it, it’s really locking in those muscles in order to build better tone. And then we’ll drop it down to 1 percent and go at 3.5 miles per hour and then we’ll put it at a negative 3 percent and slow it back down again just in order to get those muscles structured.”

Tiffany said that because the American Shepherd is a herding breed, they’re judged based on the quality of their movement, how well they reach and drive.

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“When the judge put their hands on them on the table, if they’re a soft, sloppy dog, it’s not as impressive as putting your hands on a well-built specimen.”

At the other end of the pier, I discovered another way the dogs stay in shape: step aerobics. Actually, not quite that. One of the vendors at the show was selling multi-colored stackable platforms. A video running in the background showed the various ways that you could use them in order to strengthen your dog’s core, as well as tone and lengthen its muscles.

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“That really is the gold standard for the table training,” Tiffany later told me. “A lot of different muscle strengthening and body awareness training with the dogs with that [item].” She purchased one to help with Jemma’s training for the future. She’s a young dog, at just two years old. She’ll be showing for years to come.

Not only does Tiffany spend a lot of time working out with Jemma; she also spends a significant amount of time grooming her and uses upwards of 12 products on her coat. This information shouldn’t have surprised me given the grooming I had witnessed while looping through the benching areas, but unlike the poodles or the Afghan hounds with their flowing tresses, Jemma and her ilk seemed like they’d be a bit more wash n’ go. That is not the case.

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“About once a month, I make up a paste of hydrogen peroxide, milk of magnesia, and cornstarch, and you paint that into the white areas on a dog’s fur and you leave it there half an hour, an hour, whatever, and it helps to get their whites really bright,” she said.

Before the dog show, she shampooed Jemma with an enzyme dog shampoo that also makes the whites whiter. “After you get them out of the tub, that’s when you spray in the bodifying conditioner sprays and you can use hair mousse,” she explained. Then comes the blow drying and sculpting gel, which she showed me. Tiffany also showed me over $100 worth of hairbrushes. Finally, there is the chalk that’s applied to the paws, again to make the fur seem brighter.

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I also spent some time watching the master obedience competition. Unlike the breed judging competitions, I at least understood what the judge was looking for here. It was rather simple: either the dog followed the commands and executed them quickly or it didn’t. There wasn’t anything about optimal breed size and shape.

In the first portion of the competition, each dog did the same exact things: jumping to retrieve a toy, finding the scented toy from among a collection of unscented items; and following their owner’s commands—verbal and visual—to walk, run, lay down, jump over specific obstacles. The first few I watched seemed to respond automatically, as though this was repeatedly rehearsed routine, which it probably was.

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But finally a dog, a six-year-old golden retriever named Circus, screwed up. First, when sent to retrieve the toy dumbbell that had been tossed, he ran around the obstacle on the way back, instead of leaping over it as he had en route to go retrieve the toy. When sent to choose the scented toy from the group of otherwise unscented objects, he circled the pile several times before making his decision. Finally, he selected the correct item and returned it to his handler.

Despite the error, Circus seemed pleased with himself. He received treats and applause all the same. It was a nice reminder that outcomes at these competitions don’t truly matter for the dogs.

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At the end of the day, I really don’t know whether the dogs are alright. I just know that I talked to a bunch of people who truly seem to love their dogs and are quite proud of them. They lavish far more time and money on their pets than I do on mine.

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It’s easy to dismiss the Westminster Dog Show as a relic and as faintly ridiculous. The packaging—the fusty judges in suits, the handlers wearing their high tea finest, the talking of correct breeding and tradition—all of it feels like it hails from another, sillier era.

Then again, haven’t we all gotten a little bit more ridiculous about our pets, especially as we display—and in some cases, monetize them—on social media? More than half of the accounts that I follow on Instagram are dedicated to pets, dogs mostly. (I also follow several squirrels.) I check in on my favorites when I’m having a bad day. Furry Prozac, I call it.

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In the vendor area, I met Kent Stetson, a handbag designer, who will paint your dog onto a purse. (He said he made one such handbag for Johnny Weir. My figure skating and my dog worlds collided and it was Good.) This isn’t very different from what I did when I got a painting of Lizzie made last year for $300. I justified it to myself by noting museums are filled with paintings of dogs that are considered “high art.” How was what I was doing any different? I also rationalized it because Lizzie is so damn cute.

And of course, I took a photo of the painting and put it on my Instagram.

Lizzie is not a famous online dog, but some of these social media dogs and cats have become bona fide pet celebrities and have monetized that popularity. Now, their popularity has nothing to do with conforming to an “ideal” standard for a particular breed and many of the most famous pets are not pure breeds. These online animals are just enjoyed for the general cuteness and personality, which is also how I enjoyed the dogs at Westminster, despite all of the effort that was put into their breeding and grooming.

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But social media, in many ways, has normalized what Westminster has been doing for over a 100 years—obsessing way too much about man’s best friend. Or maybe we’re all finally obsessing at the right level.

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About the author

Dvora Meyers

Dvora Meyers is a staff writer at Deadspin.