A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.
I enjoy most of the breeds that perform, especially the leggier, larger, and what I consider to be more elegant specimens in the hound, sporting, working, non-sporting, and herding groups. Many of the terriers also make me smile, but I like very few of the toy breeds. In my curiosity, however, it is hard to look away.
As much as I like watching these beautiful creatures, I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.
Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. Meanwhile, the smallest dogs live tortuously long, high-strung lives under the weight of so many owners’ anthropomorphizing neuroses.
Incidentally, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan has become my primary guide to wise practices with dogs, but my own dog’s health conditions tend to preclude full execution of Cesar’s Way. The main thing he always says is to project “calm, assertive energy” to establish and maintain a leadership role in your “pack.”
I do try, but I, too, treat my dog more like a fur baby than a dog at times. My husband’s even more guilty of that because the very sight of her usually turns him to absolute mush. She is his first dog and our first together. I had two growing up.
He and I both are more likely to laugh at poodle and Puli hairstyles than to appreciate the perfection of their fitness for outdated utilitarian or aesthetic functions. The Pomerian and Old English sheepdog are groomed to appear as if they each stuck a paw in an electrical outlet. The Shih Tzu and Maltese look as if they were, in fact, high-end antique mops or decorative dusters rather than living canine beings.
Worst of all, though, in my opinion, the Pekingese seems to be a combination of a terribly course, low-end mop and an elongated tribble, without discernible limbs, tail or neck. As I am writing this, the Shih Tzu takes top spot in the toy group. At least it wasn’t the Pekingese again. I don’t get the craze.
The tiny sizes of the toy breeds alone make them look like rats instead of rat terriers or Chihuahua dogs. The poor Chihuahua–target of so much misguided, everyday owner popularity that generations of them have lived in endless, rudderless anxiety due to excess coddling, lack of discipline, and the resulting inability just to be a dog.
The tugs on the wire-thin leashes, the prodding, poking, and positioning of limbs and tails, and the back-and-forth and circling trajectories dictated by the judges–all these televised rituals of their handling in the show, while employing these ideal examples of the purity of their breeds with a sense of purpose, nonetheless degrade, belittle, and add insult to the injuries of the often disabling special skills of their breeding.
Aside from the opportunity of learning and of viewing the sheer beauty of the canines, when it comes down to it, I’d rather re-visit the mockumentary film Best in Show starring director Christopher Guest and company, which parodies how seriously dog show people take these things. As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.
The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.
These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.
I think the aspect that most bothers me about dog show competitions is how they epitomize the pursuit of perfection. As a self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist,” I feel ironic (hypocritical?) pride at having learned the sacred truth that perfection is overrated and quite subjective.
Here is a Best in Show montage of the yuppy couple taking perfectionism and performance anxiety to counterproductive extremes with their Weimaraner’s “busy bee” toy. It also illustrates beautifully how these shows are more about the showers than the shown.
Nothing has taught me how overrated perfection is better than the love I have learned from owning and caring for a rescued “pure-breed” American Brittany. Our dog Elyse is hampered by multiple heart conditions, arthritis, blocked tear ducts, abnormally worn teeth, and excessively long toenails from too much time in a kennel which made the quicks very close to the tips and prone to bleeding during a trim.
She sports a shorter, more rounded face than the breed’s square-jaw standard, a sub-standard mini-model size, persistent hints of alopecia (hair loss) from heart worm treatment chemical reactions, and overused lady parts from being forced to produce litter after litter (we surmise, for her history is largely unknown). Together, she and I are saddled with her round-the-clock heart and pain pill popping, along with persistent, room-to-room separation anxiety.
Elyse is far, far from dog show or dock diving or agility competition material (the poor thing has no social life, in fact), yet she is sweet and beautiful and quirky and mine, so that makes her perfectly imperfect to me.
At the same time, clearly I have my own set of particular standards for how a dog should look and be, and for me, there is no better pet and companion than the puppy dog.
Still, next time, give me an under-appreciated mixed breed, a.k.a. mutt. They are in many ways better for society, in both the personal and public spheres. They suffer from fewer genetic diseases, and we are less likely to (mis)judge them by breed traits. In my case, I would mainly seek an animal that is healthier upon adoption than Elyse was, regardless of pedigree.
Despite my dog-show misgivings, I will continue to record the events so I can be sure to see the pooches in action. If it has to be in a perfection parade of sorts, so be it. The strange affair pulls me into a state of somewhat disturbed fascination with a spectacle at once too questionable to embrace fully and yet too magnetic to resist.
I suppose in this way it is like a domesticated, gentrified version of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Increasingly, I watch. I just prefer the view from the beach to the one from the water. Whether resisting the physical peril of nature or its elitist manipulation, I am compelled to keep my distance.