Among the Pugs

by Drew Nelles

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Last Monday morning, outside the Piers 92/94 convention center in Hell’s Kitchen, a giant banner read WESTMINSTER KENNEL CLUB in purple and gold, while a trio of Irish wolfhounds — the largest dog breed in the world, regal, grey, long of limb — stood on a patch of grass and urinated gracefully. Nearby, a Bouvier des Flandres sniffed the ground; beyond the line of cabs at the entrance, a shiba inu and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel waited for an elevator to take them inside, where, in the two cavernous halls of the convention center, there were a whole lot more dogs. It was packed, a crush of fur and sweat. Many of the breeds were familiar — bloodhounds, border collies, Boston terriers — but others had names as exotic and beautiful as the animals themselves: keeshonden, cirnechi dell’Etna, löwchen, schipperkes, pulik, salukis, xoloitzcuintli.

More than three thousand dogs swarmed the hundred-and-fortieth annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show last week. The biggest and most important dog show in America, Westminster is what’s called a bench show, which means that, when they’re not competing in the rings, the animals are on display, in rows and rows of purple-and-gold aisles, for attendees to see and touch and marvel at: Bergamascos and their matted dreadlocks; Afghan hounds, with long silky ears held back by funny scrunchie-type things; Yorkshire terriers, tangled up in barrettes and bows; and tiny Pekingeses, lounging expansively, fur flowing in all directions. This is what makes Westminster fun — the sort of place where you can overhear a teenage girl say, “Can you tell I like spitz breeds?” or a grown man say, “Excellent tail posture on that one.”

It is easy to mock the dog fanciers of Westminster, but the truth is that they just represent a certain extreme manifestation of the vast human desire to feel close to something. The handlers, who are always touching the dogs, are also always finding new ways to touch the dogs: They furiously brush the coats of the collies and the Pomeranians as they await examination in the ring; they spray the hair of the Malteses and the shih tzus in the benching aisles, the dogs’ heads resting serenely on pillows or paper-towel rolls; they clip and shave the poodles into obscene topiaries. Especially strange is something called “stacking,” which refers to posing the dog’s legs and body for photography or a judge’s eye, and which the dogs, accustomed to this kind of treatment, suffer without protest, standing stock-still as their handlers rearrange their limbs and peel back their lips. With smaller dogs, the handlers sometimes cradle them by the throat and the bum and lift them horizontally off the ground, rocking the animals back and forth in the air.

Most affecting of all, however, is the bait: small pieces of meat — liver, chicken gizzard — that the handlers use to hold the animals’ attention. The handler might remove a bit from her pocket, feed a morsel to the dog, hold the rest in front of the animal’s face for a moment, then swiftly transfer it to her own mouth, storing it there for safekeeping before removing it again to repeat the process all over. (One handler, during the Chinese crested competition, appeared to produce the bait from her bra.) The movement of the meat from the dog’s jaws to the human’s lips, and back again, feels like a profoundly intimate exchange, a bird regurgitating a worm for its young.

In the mornings and afternoons at Westminster, the dogs face off within their breeds. The Best of Breed dogs then go on to compete, in the evenings, for Best of Group. There are seven of these groups: Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting, and Herding. Finally, the Best of Group animals vie for Best in Show, the highest honor in American dogland. The business in the ring is a complicated, inscrutable dance, with the handlers either beseeching the dogs to remain perfectly frozen or tugging them along at a brisk trot. On Monday, the humans struck rigid poses, their arms at stiff right angles, holding the leads taut, as they broke into awkward half-jogs. The women all had flat shoes; many favored sequined jackets. The men wore suits, some of them ill-fitted and others crisp and well-cut. There was a clear gender divide: women often handled smaller, effete dogs like Chihuahuas, men preferred larger, more intimidating ones like Beaucerons. Nearly everyone was white. In the obedience category — which is open to any kind of dog, including mutts, and rewards only fealty to a magical series of commands — most of the handlers were women.

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The best part of Westminster, though, is not the rings but the benching aisles, where you can wander around and look at dogs and talk to their handlers and owners. Near the back of Pier 92, Chrystal and Paul Clas, handlers from Hanover, Pennsylvania, were grooming a black miniature poodle, Champion Madans Driven By Style, whose call name is Shelby. “When this breed originated, they were not kept like this,” Chrystal said, gesturing at the dog’s baroque contours. “They had very short hair that was matted, and they worked in the field. Then the French got them.” She explained the workings of the cut. “This is the continental trim,” she said. “The little balls on the hips there, those are called hip rosettes; the balls on the legs are called bracelets. Usually, when they were worked in the field, they would take the hair on top of the head and tie it into a knot. So we do a modernized version of that — we band it with elastics, and we call that a topknot.” Shelby began to gnaw on the vetwrap around her ear.

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A few rows over, Michelle Soave was prepping a seventeen-month-old Chinese crested hairless. His call name was Koby, but she forgot his show name. “For Your Eyes Only…I can’t remember the other part,” she said. “It’s a client.” Grooming Chinese crested hairless dogs, which look as though they could shatter like glass at any moment, takes a lot of work. “His skin gets shaved, and then you put oil and different things on his skin to keep it in condition. This breed can get pimples,” Soave said. “He has beautiful skin. You work on it every day. And you tan, you make sure he gets a lot of sun.”

A man named Kevin Smith sat in an empty aisle while his Dalmatian, Spotted Bliss Oreo Delight, or O.D. (pronounced “Odie”), whined at the end of his lead. “I think he sees his daddy,” Smith said. He and his husband, Daniel Brumfield, who live in Florida, bred and own O.D., as well as a few of the dog’s siblings. In 2014, O.D. won Best in Breed and took fourth place in the Non-Sporting group, but he had already been eliminated that morning. “Two years ago, when O.D. took Best of Breed and got his group placement, Daniel and I got married while we were here,” Smith said. “On the 11th of February. We got married on the top of Rockefeller Center. It was a very small group — basically an officiant, Daniel and I, and a witness.” The dog was not involved in the ceremony. “It was probably about ten degrees on top of Rockefeller Center,” Smith went on. “We found out later there’s actually a place inside, on the upper floor of Rockefeller Center, that looks out over the city, too. We could have just done it in there.”

At night, the show moves to Madison Square Garden, where, as the press materials tell you, it is the longest-running resident. On Tuesday evening, a small clutch of animal-rights activists protested outside. They carried signs reading “THE AKC KILLS SHELTER DOGS’ CHANCES,” and seemed grateful when passersby stopped for pamphlets. Inside, in the catacombs beneath the arena’s seats, the Best in Breed winners were benched, waiting for their turn in the big ring. Between the cramped quarters and the fluorescent lighting and the subterranean ambiance and the fevered competitive pitch, it felt even more claustrophobic than the convention center. Three middle-aged women walked around in matching Cat in the Hat-style t-shirts: “Bitch 1,” “Bitch 2,” and “Bitch 3.” A security guard who instructed attendees not to photograph the dogs without the owners’ permission was roundly ignored. A young woman asked her friend, “Have you heard of the film Best in Show?”

The arena itself was not quite full. The events proceeded through the Sporting, Working, and Terrier groups; the four other categories had competed the previous night. Westminster’s announcer, David Frei, who is retiring after twenty-six years as lead commentator, offered gentle introductions to each breed: “Despite his name, he has no known connection to Denmark” (the Great Dane); “Sir Walter Scott chanced upon them and made them famous in his novel Guy Mannering in 1815” (the Glen of Imaal terrier). Certain animals, like the Clumber spaniel and the Dogue de Bordeaux, received, for reasons that remain mysterious, huge roars of approval from the crowd. Most attendees seemed to be dedicated dog people, but there were also groups of raucous twentysomethings, who sat in the nosebleeds with plastic beer cups and yelled things like “I like your gait!” and “You’re so attentive!” During lulls in the action, Purina commercials played, as did ads for WEN Pets (“it leaves them soft, it leaves them silky, it leaves them hydrated”), starring the company’s owner, the quasi-celebrity stylist Chaz Dean, who last year was the object of a lawsuit alleging that his products have caused hundreds of women to go bald.

Sometime after eleven o’clock, Madison Square Garden went dark, and the floor was pockmarked with spotlights. “It’s time for the portion of tonight’s program you’ve all been waiting for!” Frei boomed. One by one, the Best in Show finalists entered the ring: a German shepherd, a German shorthaired pointer, a Samoyed, a borzoi, a Skye terrier, a shih tzu, and a bulldog. The dogs walked in circles around the ring as the judge, a white-haired man in a bowtie, looked on. Sometimes he advanced, faux-menacingly, at them, with his hands raised, to see if they would startle, but none of them did. At one point, after being thoroughly groomed, the shih tzu shook himself, throwing his tresses into disarray, and the crowd laughed.

It was difficult to understand, from an outsider’s distant perspective (the Madison Square Garden press box), just how the judge would make his decision — by what arcane parameters he would choose one of these creatures, bred over centuries or millennia into the bizarre forms we find today, instead of another. The dogs were all interesting and, in this context, on the floor of the country’s most famous arena, pretty much pointless. A few minutes later, though, the Best in Show winner was announced: the German shorthaired pointer. Valerie Nunes-Atkinson, the dog’s owner and handler, looked shocked. She dropped to her knees, covered her mouth with her hand, and embraced Grand Champion Vjk-Myst Garbonita’s California Journey, who was utterly oblivious to it all.