Reporting From the Doggie Prom

Welsh Terrier

1. A friend who owns a bulldog tells me it’s the perfect city dog. “It’s like having an ottoman that poops occasionally. And likes you. Very restful,” she says.

Certainly the bulldogs in Ring 7 looked even more torpid than the Knicks have lately, but their audience more than made up for the dogs’ lethargy. Each time one of them waddled back and forth or sat patiently while his/her handler adjusted jowls, stance, and in the case of males, genitals (why do the handlers keep doing that?), there were whoops and cheers. The same was true at each of the eight show areas into which the Garden floor was divided for Monday’s individual breed judging. Not only does each breed have its supporters, each dog seemed to have its own claque, like opera divas (who knew there were so many Chinese Crested fanatics?). But instead of going ape over, say, a high C, these devotees flip when their favorites walk back and forth. In the case of the bulldogs, you want to show all the support you can, given the effort it seems to take them to locomote.

Bulldogs are inclined to difficulties coupling, whelping, sleeping, breathing, and walking. Dachshunds are prone to back problems, Dalmatians to deafness, poodles to epilepsy. Plenty of random-bred dogs have the same problems, but in purebreds these defects come along with the standards that distinguish the breed. They are a function of intense selective breeding.

In this country, the American Kennel Club is the principal arbiter of breed standards. Each breed bristles with highly specific physical requirements: A shar-pei’s tongue must be blue-black. A Norfolk terrier’s dropped ears must not fall lower than the corners of the eyes. “Purebred dogs are true to type when mated,” states a AKC position statement. “The belief that mixed bred or mongrel are more vigorous, healthy, or well-adjusted than properly bred purebred dogs is a myth.” The key words are “properly bred,” and certainly the dogs you see at Westminster are about as pampered as dogs can be. But, although the AKC deplores puppy mills and “backyard breeders,” and threatens to fine those it finds or revoke its sanctions, it isn’t exactly falling over itself to expose them. As demonstration of the AKC’s vigilance, an NBC Dateline reporter once registered two cats as Golden Retrievers, no problem. The fact that the AKC makes a great deal of money selling registrations to breeders who are anything but responsible is not much mentioned around this, or any other, dog show.

At the same time, watching the incredible variety of these creatures is absolutely mesmerizing. So is the care their minders lavish on them. In the backstage “benching” area, where the dogs rest and primp and poo, a handler brushed the teeth of an Italian greyhound with a tenderness I wish my hygienist would acquire. An enormous Komondor clomped to a grooming station, abundant dreadlocks wrapped in tape and bunched with rubber bands as if getting ready for the prom. A woman held the head of her Bernese mountain dog and closed her eyes, like Mr. Spock trying to communicate with that creature everyone thought was a rock. A man in a snow-white duffle coat navigated the mob with a Löwchen tucked delicately in the crook of his arm like a crystal football. A security guard slumped slack-jawed, numb from the relentless cooing over the unbearably cute Affenpinschers next to him. A young woman asked me if I knew the breed of a long, beige terrier with big eyes and a largish head. “It’s a Dandie Dinmont,” I said. “A Dandie Dick-Mutt?” she said. I liked her name better.

2. Breed standards cover more than physical attributes. They include words like intelligent, alert, loyal, courageous. Do these words describe the dogs or the way we like to think about them? The rescue dogs at Ground Zero behaved courageously, of course. But as Anne Culver, director of Disaster Services at the Humane Society, told me, “To the dogs, the work is the game they’re playing. They’re pleasing their human. There’s no sense of a tragic dimension.” That doesn’t make them less admirable or their work less impressive; it makes them dogs.

This is much clearer during the daytime at the show than it is on television at night. For one thing, there’s the smell, and the unruliness of the dogs when the judge isn’t looking at them. While the dowdy judges look searchingly at each entrant, comparing the dog itself to the Platonic ideal of the breed, the dogs sniff each other’s behinds, fidget, nap, and try to leave while their handlers yank their short leashes and ply them with treats. In short, they behave like dogs, like the bulldog that squared off with a Chihuahua in the adjacent ring.

3. On television, you can get a great view, but you have to put up with Joe Garagiola and David Frei and their repeated, endless insistence that Westminster is a sporting event, a sporting event the whole family can enjoy (Hint: Buy a dog, folks). “It’s not a beauty pageant because there are definitions for what the dogs have to have,” said Frei mysteriously. This begs the question of where the athletes are and what sport they’re playing, but Joe Garagiola kept trying to explain it in terms we could understand. “Which dog is the Diamondbacks? Which one’s the Rams?” he asked. Meanwhile, David Frei’s effusions over Mick, the heavily favored Kerry blue terrier who won at Crufts in 2000, were so gaga I thought the man might hyperventilate. I don’t care what he says, a dog who walks on the end of a leash and then stands there is not a “great athlete.” Maybe dogs that compete in agility and obedience trials are great athletes. Westminster is a conformation show; while a little pizzazz can’t hurt in the ring, the object of the exercise is conforming, not performing. Later on, Frei saluted the efforts of therapy dogs who, he said, provided “counseling” to families of 9/11 victim. They do? Maybe Frei should switch to decaf.

Of course, like a pet owner, I too communicate on a higher plane with my dog. We often discuss affairs of the day during our walks, at least until I notice people are avoiding me. The other day I asked him what he thought of Enron and he lifted a leg and peed right on a pile of bundled Wall Street Journals. Is he a genius or what?