Of the many types of humans who might enjoy the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show—dog fanatics, statisticians, satirists—I am not one.
On the vast kelly green carpet at Madison Square Garden, dogs that looked like children or Gaultier clothes trotted for six hours of TV time on Monday and Tuesday (USA, 8-11 p.m. ET) while I counted the minutes. Early on, I realized that Best in Show,Christopher Guest’s and Eugene Levy’s movie sendup of this yearly folly, had wrung the readily available humor out of it. I was stuck. I couldn’t take the afternoons straight, nor could I derive new pleasure in thinking: This is lunacy.
On display were men in suits and women in sequins jogging dogs in circles for the stern appreciation of judges. In voice-over banter came a never-ending loop of inanity:
“Soft and silky coat.”
“Great little dog.”
“Walks all the way around.”
“I’m from Maryland.”
“How hard is your heart beating?”
Knowing very little about the process here, I was surprised to learn that dogs are judged according to Platonic standards, derived from a book of breeds; they are not compared to one another or evaluated by subjective criteria of beauty. A sage—one for each breed—is designated master of the form. He or she inspects each entrant for its resemblance to the drafted ideal. Finally, a super-sage (this year it was Mrs. Irene Bivin of Fort Worth, Texas), selects the Best in Show. This whole “sporting event,” as it’s deemed, is the second-oldest such spectacle in the United States (the first is the Kentucky Derby). Dating from 1877, the Westminster Kennel Club makes little effort to distance itself from tendentious ideology about the perfectibility of man and beast. But why get dour?
The finalists were super cute: Dallas, Jester, Josh, Miki, Bunny, Les, and Mick—well, maybe not Mick (a terrier whose V-shaped ears, unwedgy foreface, and discreet pasterns nonetheless won him the cup). Josh, the Newfoundland, was definitely cutest. I did admire the glossy coats and the strange faces of these creatures. But they were in such a straitened situation, circling unnaturally under a roving spotlight, boasting a genetic alchemy that scientists once dreamed up and breeders forced into conception, that I felt more pity for them than affection.
At one point, the show was interrupted for a slow-motion black-and-white sequence of owners and dogs playing together in winter; it was accompanied by a song by Coldplay. Viewers were instructed to learn from dogs, and slogans appeared on screen, among them: “Be loyal. Never pretend to be something you’re not.”
That did it. As the bred and brushed dogs—who looked more like Lucasfilm productions than mammals—made their grim rounds, my mind drifted to Stephen Budiansky’s incendiary thesis that dogs are always pretending; that they don’t love us at all. As wolves exploiting an ecological niche, they just know very, very well how to fake it. (“Dogs belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it,” he wrote in the July 1999 Atlantic Monthly. “Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all.”)
We are fools to let them, Bundiansky concludes. But we can’t resist them since they sham loyalty and love so persuasively. Is it possible, then, that the Westminster Kennel Club, for all its fawning, is on to the canine tricks? If so, once a year at the unkind dog show, it’s definitely payback time.