We know, of course, that the dog is man’s best friend. But how reciprocal is this friendship? Is man also the dog’s best friend? When I see Yorkies being carried about by women in their pocketbooks, or sundry dogs constricted by fancy habiliments, or owners sleeping with their dogs between shared sheets, I begin to wonder. Is this truly mutual friendship or some sort of ego trip or ostentation on the owners’ part? Isn’t the coat nature bestowed on canines enough to keep them warm? Or do spoiled, overindulged doggies feel underdressed in the street without bejeweled glad rags?
These and similar thoughts occurred to me the other day while watching the 135th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on television. This, as you may know, is the canine equivalent of the Miss America and other like shows, where a young woman is crowned the fairest in the country, or the world, or the universe. Is the winner in what is essentially a mere girlie show truly the most beautiful anywhere other than on television, and even there only on that particular show? And is the best-of-show dog at Westminster (the kennel club, not the cathedral) really the best dog of all? And what does “best” in this case actually mean?
I love all sorts of animals including dogs and, perhaps most of all, cats. An ex-girlfriend of mine and I once even co-owned a coatimundi we named Humbaba (because its cage was lined with cedar shavings and the monster guard of the cedar forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh is called that), but which we probably shouldn’t have acquired; a coati, however smart and lovable, is meant for the wild, not for a domestic pet. So I wonder whether all that grooming and fussing, pampering and photographing, really benefits a dog. Or only the owners and handlers, who may thrive on all the hoopla.
My first problem with the dog show is that the competing divas (for that’s what they are) come in seven categories: toy, herding, hunting, working, sporting, nonsporting and terrier. Now, I may be obtuse, but listening to the commentators’ descriptions of the numerous breeds (well over a hundred and counting) it seemed to me that the laudatory epithets that introduced them—such as child-friendly, rat-catching, rabbit-hunting, fox-unearthing, powerfully built and fiercely loyal—were verbosely and repetitiously applied to any number of them, and becoming monotonous. Would Miss America candidates be repeatedly styled bosomy, leggy, family-oriented, negligee-friendly, bedroom-eyed or whatnot?
Above all, the winners in the seven rather tautological categories were all splendid specimens as they were paraded about before the ultimate judge, Paolo Dondina of Italy, who was carefully kept from eyeballing them until the minute he stepped into the Madison Square Garden arena to pick the champion of champions. Incidentally, all the dogs have elaborate names beginning in, or at least comprising, a Ch., meaning some sort of champion, without which they wouldn’t have been qualified to compete. Thus the Scottish deerhound who won this year is named in full Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind, regularly abbreviated as Hickory, which is rather as if the Miss America contestants were referred to exclusively by their first names, Jeanie or Katie or Tiffany.
Here, though, is the rub. When one looked at the seven finalists, they seemed not just different breeds, but actually wholly different animals. How on earth could a tiny Pekingese run against a mighty Scottish deerhound? As soon have a contest pitting gorillas against hamsters. At least all Miss America contestants are young women, none of them dwarves or giantesses.
And another thing. I fully appreciate Hickory’s pulchritude, even though, like others of her breed, she displays somewhat spindly legs under a mighty body. Surely no Miss America would combine a C-cup bust with shoe size five feet. But there is something even more problematic: Judge Dondina. For Miss America, there is a whole panel of ten or twelve judges—male and female, young and old, straight and gay—to crown the winner. That winner, then, has amassed the highest point score from a number of ecumenical arbiters, making her an across-the-board laureate. (I am not even mentioning the intelligence test with questions like “If you were stranded in an African jungle, what would you ask for in your prayer?”)
Hickory was pronounced dog of dogs by just one ultimate, ungainsayable judge, old Paolo Dondina. I stress old, because Dondina looked like a dodderer even if he wasn’t, and because the Times quoted him declaring, “I am a hound person. I had Afghans. I had whippets. I had Irish wolfhounds. I never owned a deerhound. This is my dream.” Well, should a fellow who for many years owned big dogs and dreamt about deerhounds be the single, supreme judge, rather than one of at least nine? Who would have been the winner if Paolo had dreamt about Pekes? It’s as if a buxom blonde became Miss America merely because the sole judge did not dream about willowy brunettes.
Yet even this may be less important than what I read about Hickory and her likes. She is a five-year-old veteran of beauty contests, five dog years being the equivalent of thirty-five human ones. How many 35-year-olds would be allowed to, or even want to, compete for Miss America? If not disqualified for being over-the-hill, they would recuse themselves for having better things to do than spend the next year rattling around as poster girl for the title.
Think of what a neurotic mess poor Hickory must be. In shows for five years, dragged hither and yon, exposed to hordes of photographers crowding or dare I say hounding her, with spotlights and flashbulbs, cameras and hubbub? Moreover, I read that she is owned by Sally Sweatt of Minneapolis, but lives on a farm in Virginia with her breeders, Cecilia and Robert Dove, when not, frequently, on the show circuit with her handler, Angela Lloyd. This means that the poor creature is parceled out among four parents and hustled left and right. It is as if Miss America had parents in two separate, distant locations, and were dragged to any number of others by an Argus-eyed guardian who scrutinized her and slept with her (see below) during all these travels and travails.
Any compensation? Well, I read about all manner of absurd diets and cosmetics, routines and rituals, show dogs are heir to. Says the Times: “Hair is blown straight or teased into fanciful poufs. Snouts and paws are daubed with talcum powder. Wayward hairs and whiskers are trimmed with precision.” For Hickory, Ms. Lloyd concedes, this is quite an extreme experience, inflicted on a sensitive dog best suited to living on a farm and chasing deer and squirrels. No wonder Hickory will nudge Angela when the handler is watching television—“really nudge you”—enough to make you throw an arm up in the air. Indeed, she nudges the sleeping Angela even in the middle of the night.
Right now Hickory is already booked into several events, starting at 6:30 a.m. What good is the fluffy bed she sleeps on and the extra biscuits she gets? Unlike some other show dogs, at least she isn’t walking with towels on her back and her ears pinned down. Yet even the less hysterical owners are apt to feed their pets luxury dog food, chicken livers, raw bison, and steak on a restaurant platter. During the post-victory press conference, Ms. Lloyd would blow gently on Hickory’s snout to keep her cool. Still, “growing tired of the paparazzi glare, she walked off the stage.” Hickory that is, not Ms. Lloyd. What’s more, Hickory, the day after her triumph, refused even a diced and elegantly served filet mignon at Sardi’s.
It all goes to show that, however pampered a dog you are—and perhaps especially if pampered—it’s a dog’s life. Is that any way to treat your best friend?