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[476] Show Dog – Josh Dean

” My point? Dogs are awesome. And that’s the real reason people enter them in dog shows. ” (Preface, xvi)

I have attended many a dog shows over the past five years with a friend who is a judge. Every weekend, for nearly 50 weeks a year, tens and thousands of Americans pack up their vehicles with crates and grooming supplies and change of clothes and fan out to the 2000 shows held across the country. Accompanying the pedigreed dogs are their handlers, the groomers—the entire entourage of humans who support them and take care of them. Like any dog show first-timer, the spectacle is almost impossible to imagine unless one has seen it in person. Once you have seen it and understand the nuts and bolts, you would pose the inevitable question: Why all the effort and money? Dog showing is an expensive sport, and there is little financial reward.

An honest judge knows he can’t be perfect—and, more than that, that no dog is either. Ed Bivins, a veteran Best in Show judge, described judging as ‘an articulation process,’ meaning that a judge should ‘elevate those things about which you feel most positive. You take the dog that possesses the greater number of positive characteristics to the higher degree and elevate him to the first position. (Ch.11, p.129)

Like me, Dean went to dog show with untrained eyes. The journalist followed a show dog for a year, attending various shows and meeting the people. He is able to take a close look at the eccentric and fascinating world of breeders and dog show fanciers. Dean’s experience mirrors mine. We share the initial belief about dog shows that they are beauty pageants—competition that sets out to judge some entirely subjective idea of beauty. But soon we realize that dog show is not just about the look, but rather which dog looks the most like the theoretical perfect dog defined by the breed standard. The emotional and the analytical factors among judges would even out.

Foremost among these, he must win. That part was going pretty well so far. But winning isn’t as simple as just being the best dog on a given day. A successful show-dog career is built on the smart decisions of his handler and to a large degree on the depth of his owner’s pockets. (Ch.14, p.153)

Show Dog follows Jack the Australian shepherd, a young male taking his very tentative first steps as a show dog. As he matures over the course of a year, despite the ups and downs, with entire months skipped for various reasons (health, conditioning…), he becomes a seasoned show dog with more impressive ribbons than any dog of his breed. While I’m sucked into Jack’s story, Dean, with his snarky style, along the way explains the history and science of purebred dog breeding and exposes the many facets of the culture.

‘They enjoy two things,’ he said. ‘The first is that they’re social animals, and they’re surrounded by dogs. Also, a dog gets lots of one-on-one attention—and lots of treats.’ Which is important, because ‘a dog’s mind is food-focused. The other thing is, they get extra care . . . Most dogs take that sort of thing as attention, as a form of affection. (Ch.24, p.231)

Show Dog is a delightful read, filled with heart and humor. It doesn’t get bogged down by the technical details of prepping a dog for the show nor the obsession with winning. It’s good for anyone who wants to know more about this sport, which nonetheless defines a slice of our society. It also changes my opinion about how the dogs are just unhappy participants in their owners’ variety project. Corroborating my own experience at dog shows, Dean shows us the affecting bond between humans and animals. What touches me the most is that competition and beauty aside, dogs have employed their instinctive social skills to provide us with affectionate and reliable companionship.

393 pp. Harper Collins. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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