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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]

[344] A Dog’s Purpose – W. Bruce Cameron

” I was seized with an inexplicable question, a question of purpose. This didn’t seem like the sort of thing a dog should think about, but I found myself returning to the issue often, usually as I was just dozing off for an irresistible nap. Why? Why was I a puppy again? Why did I harbor a nagging feeling that as a dog there was something I was supposed to do? ” [56, Bailey]

Sometimes I have a misgiving that as loyally and mindfully as my dog clings to me, I can never carry on a meaningful conversation with him like I do with humans. Dogs are extremely receptive to sounds and scent, which establish a basis of their acumen in memory. By separating nuances of scents and distinguishing sounds that take a long time to find our noses and ears, dogs commit into memory that help identify a threat or a treat. A Dog’s Purpose (aptly sub-titled A Novel for Humans) comes to relieve my angst in a timely manner. What’s more appropriate to investigate the purpose in a dog’s perspective?

Toby is a stray mutt adopted by an old lady who’s already had too many dogs in a crammed yard. With one leg severely injured, Toby is euthanized when animal patrol raids the woman’s house. A deep slumber has brought the dog to another time and a new place: the dog is reborn as a rambunctious, playful golden retriever who is heedless of house rules and falls victim to the cat’s instigation. During his life with 8-year-old Ethan, Bailey discovers his purpose in life to be a good dog. As the boy grows up, the dog senses all the tension and witnesses changes in family dynamics. Bailey saves his young master from being lost in the wood and then from a fire later. The dog reflects, his purpose is to love and protect.

Any reluctance I might have felt to attack a human being was overridden by the sense that whatever Todd was doing, it was causing harm to the boy and to the family I was there to protect. There was no stronger purpose than that. [148, Bailey]

Bailey has sworn loyalty to Ethan and his family. The form between dog and master transcends time and death. The last thought of the golden-haired canine, as he drifts away from life, is the boy. The memory passes on to his next incarnation, as if the dog has unfinished business. Reborn as a female German shepherd, Ellie is a search-and-rescue dog. If even dogs can earn karma, Ellie would be a top dog for all the victims she has saved. When Ellie’s time is up on earth, the dog is surprised to incarnate once again. What justifies another rebirth?

I knew they were talking about me, and wagged my tail in friendship. [215, Ellie]

A Dog’s Purpose is a remarkable story of one endearing dog’s search for purpose over the course of four lives. It touches on the universal, rhetorical question that has puzzled philosophers over time: Why are we here? As much as he was taught to avoid men at all costs, the dog’s fate is inextricably linked with theirs, feeling their pain, sharing their joy, and sensing their inner sadness. An ultimate purpose to be fulfilled once again brings the dog to another incarnation—one that truly demonstrates how dog is man’s best friend. The fulfillment of this novel is that dogs, although incapable of speech, do observe and size us up. They feel us and know exactly when we need comfort, even though their lives do revolve around getting a biscuit treat. This book is a must read for dog lovers. Who can resist the charm of a dog, which contemplates his purpose in a voice full of curiosity and humor?

319 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Dog, Valentine

I’ll be off to Las Vegas for the weekend after class tomorrow. Between now and tomorrow afternoon, I’ll have to squeeze in all the errands and finish marking the stack of reading quizzes. Thank goodness the paper on Toni Morrison is now due next week so I won’t have to get on the plane with a stack of papers in my hand-carry. I do have to stuff the chunky Anna Karenina into my Timbuk bag for some preparation work.

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 Pictures from The Chicago Tribune

Last night I watched the 132nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on TV. It is a two-day benched conformation show that takes place at Madison Square Garden in New York City every year. Dog owners from around the world come to show their dogs. Dogs are judged closely by eminent American Kennel Club (AKC) judges. It is considered by many to be America’s most prestigious dog show. I caught the competition of the sporting group, which consists of Weimaraner, Pointer, Spaniel, Retriever and Labrador Retriever (George’s cousin). Show fans were treated to the baying howl of a beagle victory Tuesday night when Uno became the first pooch in the breed’s history to win the coveted Best in Show title, reverting the century-long losing streak and Uno’s family-friendly demeanor. The nearly 3-year-old, 15-inch-tall beagle, was also the first of that breed to win the hound group since 1939. The little dog playfully bayed and barked at the judge and handler. In spite of the high-pitched yap, I find it very lovely and swift, and no less cute than George, my lab retriever. George might be smarter!

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I went by Joseph Schmidt Confectioneries, a local chocolatier, yesterday to pick up some Batik Sweet Heart, an assortment of truffles (All Milk, All Dark, Almond Supreme, Irish Cream, Champagne, Double Latte, Hazelnut, Grand Marnier, Peanut Butter, Sea Salt Caramel, Pecan Praline and English Toffee) for friends. Mini individual ones for friends and a heart-shaped box for a special chocolate lover. Hope he finds the indulgence pleasant!