New Book Goes Deep Behind the Scenes of the Dog Show World

Show Dog book by Josh Dean

If you’re looking to get a glimpse at what really goes on behind the scenes on the dog show circuit, then a fascinating, often funny new book called Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred (It Books, 2012, $24.99) may be just the ticket. Think of the movie Best in Show and then dial it back just a hair.

Fiction this ain’t. Author Josh Dean, a former deputy editor of Men’s Journal (and a fellow Brooklynite), tagged along for all of 2010 as a rising-star Australian shepherd named Jack embarked on a specials career. Dean gets up-close and personal not only with an eccentric assortment of handlers, breeders and dog fanciers, but also with some of the biggest names in the biz: David Frei and Billy Wheeler, to name a couple.

The result is a spellbinding diary written by an outsider looking in, and it’s filled with intriguing observations and lessons learned. It’s also quite poignant at times.

I know what you may be wondering, now that the biggest dog show of them all is upon us — the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. You want to know what the book has to say about Westminster. The answer is: A lot.

Westminster, “The Big Time”

Dean wastes no time telling us just how important Westminster is, describing it alternately as “vast and overwhelming,” “a big deal,” “the big time,” “the most famous and important dog show in America” and “the one time each year that cabdrivers will talk about dog shows.” Then again, he also calls it “nuts.”

Many dogs enter. Only one wins. Actually, that’s pretty much the official slogan of the show. And it’s true. The owners realize this. They are flattered to be there, but most are realistic about the odds. One owner tells Dean, “I have to admit it’s pretty cool to say my dog is showing at Westminster…. but I don’t expect him to win. If he makes at least one cut, I’ll be happy.” Dean goes on to describe how the owners yearn for some time “under the lights at night” — in other words, on camera during the Best of Group events that air on TV.

At Westminster, he says, coming in second, third or even fourth in Best of Breed needn’t be a disappointment; a finish like that can be a career accomplishment. If your dog doesn’t poo on stage, that is.

You see, everyone is on edge about “BMs” — bowel movements — by the dogs during the show (on national TV, no less), and the owners are thus preoccupied with preventing them. Who wouldn’t be? Dean describes how they’ll put the dog on a treadmill to “get things going” before the big event. And, of course, despite all the best efforts, sometimes the big poo does, in fact, happen on stage. In which case, the crowd becomes fully aware, bringing a hearty round of applause when the cleaning crew swoops in to mop it up.

Josh Dean and Jack the show dog

Josh Dean and Jack the show dog

Even Westminster PR maestro David Frei tells a dog-poop story: “It’s happened to me. Once the judge moved around to the back of my dog and was feeling down the haunches when my dog scooted up and took a dump, almost right in his hands.”

Money, Money, Money

OK, enough about poo. Let’s talk money. This business takes a lot of it. To use just one example, the entry and handling fees alone at Westminster will set you back more than a thousand bucks. We’re just talking about one show. Imagine taking the dog on the full circuit, dozens of shows across the country to try to rack up wins.

Some owners take this even further, easily spending six figures running Oscar-style buzz campaigns to promote their dog, hoping to create an aura of inevitability. Do the ads work? Dean suspects they certainly can’t hurt when it’s time to choose one dog from so many: “I have to imagine that when it comes time to break a difficult tie, you might tend to choose the dog you know from the advertisements,” he writes.

More Nuggets About Dog Shows

A couple more trivial things I found interesting: Did you know that second place always goes to the opposite sex? This is known as “the Best of Opposite.” Also, even though you might expect the “top dogs” in the country to be dining on premium organic foods, the truth is, at least some of the owners feed their pooches regular brands like Purina.

Finally, Dean fills us in on what the body language of dog show judges means:

  • Stop: Both hands up and palms out
  • Go down and back: Sweep of the hands
  • Take another spin around the ring: Twirling finger
  • All right, we’re done here: A gentle pat on the dog’s butt or side

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