Good Dog

What I Learned at the Dog Show

After the loss of a beloved pup, one author fills a mutt-sized hole by following Westminster’s purebreds

An illustration of a woman leading a dog at a dog show

Illustration: john cuneo

People write books for many reasons: adventure, fulfillment, curiosity, passion, money. I wrote my new book, Dogland, for all those reasons. But also: I needed some dogs in my life.

My wife and I had fourteen years with a yellow Lab mutt named Fred. He was the best dog, even when he ate the drywall in our garage. Loyal and loving and goofy as hell. Alix and I adored him. It folded us in half when he died nine years ago. We talked about getting another dog, many times, but never could commit. Then Alix’s mom came to live with us, and her cat was part of the deal. We love Alix’s mom and have come to an understanding with the cat: not quite Fred-love but toleration mixed with the occasional snuggle. If I were subjected to a lie-detector test, I would reluctantly admit that I’d hate to see him go.

Still, he ain’t a dog.

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Our neighborhood in Charlotte hosts a constant dog parade—people walk by our house from dawn to dark with everything from massive Great Danes to teacup Chihuahuas. One guy street-skis on a skateboard as his dog pulls him along at a dead run. Another neighbor takes her old French bulldog around the block in a stroller. You can’t help but get dog on the brain.

One night, watching a dog show on TV, I wondered: Are those dogs happy? That got me thinking about the connection people and dogs have forged over thousands of years. It also got me thinking about what dog shows are really like—all I knew was based on the fictional comedy classic Best in Show. That marinated in my head for a long time. Eventually, I told a book editor about it. And then one day I looked around and I was in New York City at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. That was the start of a three-year journey all over America on the dog-show circuit. The people who make up the circuit—handlers, owners, judges, and such—are collectively called “the fancy.”

Show dogs live in a world your average mutt never glimpses. They’re constantly primped and groomed. They travel in luxury RVs to one of the handful of dog shows happening across the country on any given weekend. They get bestowed with names such as—I am not making any of this up, including the exclamation point—Sunkissed Super Soul Sundae with Sprinkles! (That particular name belongs to a Rhodesian ridgeback, a noble and powerful breed that was bred to track lions. My guess is, if this dog ever realizes what they named her, she will eat her owners.)

The best part about a dog show is that you can get really close to the contestants. You can even pet them, if the handler says it’s okay. (Don’t pet the top of the head, though, because it’s been carefully combed; go for a scritch under the chin, and expect to get drool on your fingers.) I scritched every dog I could. I let them sniff my sneakers and rub up against my jeans. I wandered through the sea of crates that held dogs as they waited for showtime. I opened my suitcase when I got home and breathed in the scent of dog, like a sailor come home from the sea.

I fell in love a thousand times. If I had brought home every dog I swooned over, we would’ve had to move to the Biltmore House.

illustration: john cuneo

One of the many things I wonder about dogs is whether they have a sense of their history. Most dogs these days are pets and companions—they don’t pull sleds or tree raccoons or whatever they were bred to do. Every once in a while, out of the blue, Fred would suddenly go on point. Our vet thought he had a little German shorthaired pointer in him. He never went on a hunt for anything beyond a tennis ball, so it fascinated me to think what vestiges of his ancestors might lie deep in his DNA.

It also made me wonder what might lie deep in mine. I’ve always been drawn to the retrievers and pointers and hounds. I’ve never hunted in my life, but my daddy had to hunt from the time he was a boy in South Georgia to keep the family fed. He had gotten rid of his guns by the time I came along, but his friends would tell stories about how they could count on him to come home with a sackful of rabbits or squirrels. He passed on his blue eyes to me. Maybe he also passed on something of a love for gundogs. Fred was a stray, but he turned out to be the perfect dog for me, and maybe that’s why.

My heart also tends to go to the dog with crooked teeth or sideswoggled hips. Show dogs are the opposite. They are purebreds, and the best of them are as close to physically perfect as a dog can be. But at their core, they are still dogs. They sniff one another’s butts and lick their own crotches without shame. They try to leap into their handlers’ arms at exactly the wrong moment. They poop in the ring, and the other dogs just have to walk around it until the cleaning crew gets there.

The truth is, I pretty much love ’em all. Little yappy dogs can get on my nerves, but while I traipsed around the dog-show world, my heart tumbled for even a spaniel or two. Dogs have spent more time with us than any other animal—roughly 30,000 years, depending on which theory you believe. We made them from scratch out of gray wolves. We created hundreds of purebred lines, not to mention crossbreeds like labradoodles and all the millions of mutts in the world. They might be humanity’s greatest invention.

And as we have shaped them, they have shaped us.

The sense I got from talking to dozens of dog-show people was that most weren’t in it for the money (there isn’t much) or the glory (most weeks on the circuit are a grind). They were in it because this is how they get to hang around dogs. The one essential truth about a dog show is that you can absolutely wallow in dogness—you can see more dogs in one day than you could in a month at the dog park. Every day at a dog show is like Bonnaroo for a music lover. It’s all your heart can handle.

I’d still like to have one or two (or five or six) dogs hanging around the house. But these past few years of dog shows have satisfied the craving a bit. I still daydream about Fred. But now I also daydream about a Scottish deerhound I met in Tennessee, and a Newfoundland I encountered in North Carolina, and, especially, a snow-white Samoyed I followed all over the country for the book. In a troubled world, dogs help me find an untroubled space in my mind. Maybe they do the same for you. Whatever bargain we made with them, all those thousands of years ago, they have held up their end of it.

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