Fear and Roving at the Philadelphia Kennel Club’s National Dog Show
A dog show has a distinctive odor, naturally, but it doesn’t smell like dogs. More a sickly sweet combination of shampoo and liver treats. There is surprisingly little barking. Dog shows bring together a lot of dogs, but these pups are well-trained professionals—they mostly interact with one another with the polite indifference of travelers at an airport. Their human handlers are frenzied; the dogs are copacetic.
There are 189 breeds and varieties to meet when I arrive last November at the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s National Dog Show, which airs on NBC every year on Thanksgiving Day. The scene reminds me of the interplanetary bar in Star Wars: A mammoth Komondor drags the dreadlocks he’s been growing since he was nine months old like a lumbering Rastafarian while a pint-sized Pekingese scurries by with legs invisible under his extravagantly coifed universe of hair, a trotting mop.
Though the prize money is small ($1,500 goes to the Best in Show winner, the top dog that beats out nearly 2,000 others across all breeds), the competition is fierce. The world of purebred dogs is small, and pride and prestige are on the line—at least for the humans. As for the dogs, it’s hard to know for sure. No dog will go on the record for this story.
Jessy and Roxanne Sutton are hollering out orders like ER docs in triage. “Have them Listerine his face off, a little Vaseline on his nose,” Roxanne shouts down the line to one of their team of assistants. Jessy is hustling to return a bullmastiff and pick up a Rhodesian ridgeback due in the ring in five minutes.
The Suttons are showing 30 dogs here. Roxanne specializes in smaller dogs with pretty hair while Jessy handles the bigger breeds with no-fuss coats. Jessy himself, however, is sartorially high-maintenance; The New York Times has raved about his colorful suits at Westminster, and this weekend he wears a bow tie made from peacock feathers, making me a little nervous that one of the bird dogs on site might go for the kill.
Roxanne is preoccupied with prepping a Norfolk terrier, repositioning the hair to frame his (adorable) face just so and using a stripping knife to reshape the coat on the dog’s body, aiming for a particular geometry of topline and tail and hindquarters. “I see hair everywhere that needs to come out, and it’s making me crazy,” she says. I confess to being hung up on the adorable factor, but to a certain sort of connoisseur, there is nothing more beautiful than the perfect alignment of angles and curves.
“You want to trim them to whatever the breed standard is,” Roxanne explains. “Say one says long neck, one says short neck—then you grow a lot of hair on their neck or take some off. It’s the same with shorter legged or taller legged. There’s a lot you can do with hair.”
Most competitors at dog shows are owner-handlers—folks who have a purebred dog they show as a hobby. But the top tier of competition is dominated by professional handlers like the Suttons. The pros charge a day rate, plus expenses and bonuses for wins in the ring (for a champion dog, this can get expensive in a hurry). Some dogs are handed off the day of the show, while others live with handlers for training and grooming. The Suttons have a kennel on their property, where a rotating cast of canine clients get pampered and primed like world-class athletes: a carefully monitored high-end diet, a doggy treadmill to get their gait just so, long daily walks to build muscle and enjoy bonding time with the Suttons, practice runs in a mock ring, and elaborate coat care.
Roxanne has just finished the final brushing of the terrier’s topcoat when word comes in that judging is running an hour behind schedule in the ring where he’s due, ruining their effort to time the prep perfectly. “He won’t look as good as he did before, no matter what I do!” she laments. “It’s like re-curling your hair.” Next up is an affenpinscher that needs to be sprayed down. But first a pep talk, in the cooing baby talk that is the lingua franca for pet owners everywhere: “Gooood boooy! You ready to show for me?”
The National Dog Show is held in the nearby suburb of Oaks at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, a sprawling, one-floor show space—more than 200,000 square feet of gray concrete floor that plays host to gun shows, craft fairs, beer festivals, gymnastics competitions, and the like. The dogs are here for four separate shows—a full competition takes place each day, Thursday through Sunday—but the attention naturally falls to Saturday, when the NBC cameras start rolling.
The shows are a bustle of human activity and mostly stationary dogs, waiting their turn in crates or leashed on top of tables. There are 10 competition rings, but a lot of the best drama happens in row after row of prepping stations, where handlers, with the high-strung efficiency of show business professionals, are scissoring, blow-drying, powdering, coloring, flat-ironing, crimping, teasing, hair-spraying, clippering, hand-stripping, brushing, and combing.
The most elaborate presentation prep is happening on poodle row, where I find Danielle Dennison doing last-minute scissor work to smooth out the edges on the poofed-out gray coat of her standard poodle, Chrome. Dennison, a forensic biochemist from Melbourne, Florida, is a rarity in the poodle world as an owner-handler. Every other standard poodle in competition this weekend is being handled by a professional specialist. No wonder: maintaining the proper style for a show poodle amounts to a lifestyle (a bath and blow-dry alone take three hours). The day before a show, the poodle gets shaved (about an hour and a half) into the psychedelically dainty style known as the continental trim, complete with poofballs at their ankles and their rear. This makes all show poodles look like wedding-cake ornaments or haughty queens lording over a decadent dystopia. But the style was originally functional, a hunting trim. Poodles were German water retrievers—the hair kept their joints and organs warm in the water, while the rest was shaved for buoyancy. The poof on the tail was used as a rudder to help them steer. “It was all actually useful back in the day,” Dennison says, though things have gotten significantly more ornate with the help of hair spray. I will not soon forget the sight of what could have been a stuffed-animal spa: a long row of rear-end poofs as the assembled poodles buried their heads in luxurious pillows, awaiting the blowing out of their topknots.
Dogs at a conformation show like this one are competing to conform to the platonic ideal of their breed. The breed specifications are elaborated in meticulous descriptions by the American Kennel Club (AKC), running around 1,000 words each, that are at once pedantic and fanciful. The Afghan hound, for example, should have “almond-shaped eyes (almost triangular), never full or bulgy, and dark in color … gazing into the distance as if in memory of ages past.” It should be “aloof and dignified, yet gay”—but don’t forget that the occipital bone should be very prominent. For Dalmatians, both “abnormal position of the eyelids or eyelashes” and “shyness” are listed as major faults.
Depending on the breed, the standards might include ideals for expression, head, skull, bite, muzzle, eyes, ears, neck, body, topline, forequarters, hindquarters, tail, coat, proportion, height, weight, color, gait, and temperament. Some are vague, others as hyper-specific as bureaucratese (“height at the withers equal to the distance from prosternum to buttocks”). A few breeds have specifications for tongue color.
In the ring, AKC-sanctioned judges evaluate by observing the dogs at rest and on the move and then inspecting up close, prodding over muscle and bone, and peeking in the mouth.
“It starts with knowing the standard, but it can be subjective,” says David Frei, a longtime judge, handler, and breeder who is in his 15th year as the expert analyst on the NBC broadcast of the National Dog Show and also spent 27 years as the cohost for the television broadcast of the Westminster show. “Some standards say, ‘great length of neck.’ Well, what does that mean?
“The best judges are equal parts artists and engineers,” Frei continues. “The engineer needs to know where all the parts are supposed to be and how the angles fall—how the dog is supposed to be built. The artist needs to be able to see a pleasing picture, and a picture that tells you about all those unique breed traits.”
Like umpires with different interpretations of the strike zone, judges develop reputations for their own preferences. Some judges are crazy for movement; others, known as “headhunters,” are suckers for a well-shaped head and a pretty face. Handlers strategize by trying to play up the features of a dog that the judge prefers or entering competitions with judges that are a good fit.
Then there’s the politics. While dogs are sniffing one another, people are doing what people do when they gather in a small, close-knit community: gossiping. Rumors fly about judges who favor certain handlers or hate others or who may be influenced by connections in this highly competitive niche world. The results vary widely—the same dog that dominates in front of one judge may be summarily dismissed by another. It’s easy to wonder about the human factors.
Brandon, a grand champion Bedlington terrier, is a fluffy, white mohawked rodent assassin that looks like a frontman for a New Wave band. Or maybe a sheep. His hipster hairdo, right down to the poofball tassles on his ears, are part of the breed standard, rooted in utilitarian purpose. “If their prey turns on them, they’re going to get hair instead of eyes, and the tassle is a decoy,” Karen Miller, Brandon’s owner-handler, tells me between a final round of snipping in preparation for the Breed competition. “They have a roach back, and they’re very agile. So they’ll turn on their prey while the prey is still trying to figure out where the hair ends and the dog starts.”
On Friday nights, Miller, a retired accounting controller, drives from her home in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania, to Manhattan, where Brandon joins a group of other terriers to kill rats. “We go downtown to Broome Street,” she says. “People know us now, and the residents tell us where the rats are. He loves it. That’s what he was born to do.”
Technically, the rules explicitly state that no foreign substances are allowed. A walk through the grooming area reveals that these rules are a polite fiction—chalk and hair spray abound, along with pet cosmetics for minor touch-ups and various goops and concoctions to improve a coat’s look. Pigments and dyes are common to achieve the right uniformity of color. Poodles even get hair extensions.
Professional handlers face a cosmetics arms race, like Olympic athletes who simply can’t compete if they forgo performance-enhancing drugs. “Everybody does it, and if you don’t do it, your dog looks like it’s not done and it won’t win,” one handler tells me as she rubs a brick-colored pigment into a dog’s fur.
The best handlers break the rules with subtlety. “If you do it cleverly, the judge might know it, but they won’t worry about it,” one longtime handler and judge tells me. Disqualifications are extremely rare, though occasionally a judge has no choice. Frei likes to tell the story of a judge at Westminster some years back who leaned over to inspect a poodle; the judge, wearing a beautiful black suit, ended up covered in an explosion of white powder.
The Pumi, a Hungarian sheepdog, is one of three new breeds certified for competition this year by the AKC. In the Breed competition in Ring 7, Theresa Weber, a professional handler who has been showing dogs for nearly 20 years, is showing Bali, the first Pumi in history to win an AKC-sanctioned Herding group.
Weber leads Bali in a trot around the ring. Pumik (the plural of Pumi) were supposedly bred to herd, but my theory is that the real purpose was to make small children giggle in delight. I heard one handler remark that they look like Fozzie Bear; Frei’s line is “that they look like a koala bear broke into your breeding program somewhere.”
Weber and Bali are in deep communion in the ring, pacing perfectly together. When it’s their turn, handlers have the full attention of the judge for about two minutes, and they’re doing everything they can to show off the dog’s strengths and hide its weaknesses, via subtle tricks of positioning. Weber holds up a piece of steak; Bali is rapt in attention. A year of practice has built up a language between them of eye contact, noises, and gestures.
As the judge looks over the other Pumik, Weber keeps Bali in a perfect stance, his ears perked like he’s wearing a Mickey Mouse mask. When the judge has the competitors take one last lap, Bali seems to recognize a job well done and jumps in excitement as they trot, nearly knocking Weber over.
Then comes my favorite part of the competition: performative pondering. With the dogs lined up (and handlers doing everything they can to keep them in the proper stance for just a little longer), the judge very slowly ambles up and down, stopping to gaze one last time at each, as if some final out-of-place tuft of fur might have been missed on the table. A tense minute passes before he points to Bali to signal that he’s won the blue ribbon in Breed.
Out of the ring, Weber is thrilled. “He stood for me for so long!” she says. “He can feel that energy. He was a rock star—didn’t miss a beat.” I ask about him nearly toppling her. “I love it—shows how happy he is,” she says, and reminds me that the breed standard states that the Pumi should be whimsical.
“I’ve been in schnauzers for 67 years and I’m the world authority,” says Joan Huber, a professional handler who at 80 years old has shown more than 850 champion dogs and was awarded Breeder of the Year for terriers this year by the AKC. Huber, showing a miniature schnauzer named VF Mastermind this weekend, is my favorite handler to watch in the ring because merely keeping up with the dog’s trot borders on a daredevil routine for the octogenarian, who still competes despite a bad back and two hip replacements.
Huber, from Baltimore, has been showing dogs at the National Dog Show, Westminster, and other shows since she was a young girl. “We lived in a small home, and I wanted a small dog that had the big dog attributes,” she says. “The schnauzer is everything.” The young Huber sold cakes and cookies at the neighborhood market for 50 cents an hour to save up enough money to buy her first dog, which cost $75, plus $10 for the ear crop.
Despite winning Breed Thursday and Friday, Huber predicts (correctly as it turns out) that Mastermind has no chance on Saturday because of the judge they draw. Politics, I ask? “Very big time,” she says. “His lover hates me.”
The judges are unpredictable. One of my favorite dogs, Rudy, the top-ranked Yorkie in the nation, comes up short in the Breed competition on Saturday after winning Friday. Tracker, a highly ranked golden retriever, fails to make the first cut in Breed. “It’s disturbing,” says his co-owner, Nancy Lewine. “Tracker is showing phenomenally. But sometimes it just happens. A dog can win Best in Show one day and then not make it out of Breed the next. If you go around and you’re all ticked off, then the dog thinks it did something wrong. And he didn’t.”
Dogs that defeat all their competitors in Breed go on to compete in the seven Group competitions—Terrier, Herding, Working, Sporting, Non-Sporting, Hound, and Toy. The thrill of the Breed competitions is the visual multiplicity—a dozen bichon frises, say, lined up like a row of snowmen. Meanwhile, the joy of Group is the wild variety—bulldogs battle poodles in Non-Sporting; the Toy category looks like a cast of extras from Jim Henson’s studio. On Saturday, the Group competitions move from the gray concrete to the blue carpet of the main ring, which is about twice the size of the other rings. The seven winners from each group then face off in the main ring for the day’s grand finale, Best of Show.
The crowd for Best of Show is a mix of dog-show experts stage-whispering compliments and complaints to each other about hindquarters and newcomers out for the show, who hoot wildly for favorites. The idea is that the dogs aren’t competing against one another but against each dog’s own standard. So the judge is trying to determine whether the greyhound is more greyhoundish than the giant schnauzer is schnauzerish.
From my ringside seat, I try my hand at making my own judgments. Is the West Highland white terrier’s picturesque poofiness more true to form than the English springer spaniel’s floppy ears? Is the Pekingese’s unhurried, alien flow across the carpet more emblematic than the greyhound’s stately gait? The truth: I have no idea.
The judge selects the statuesque greyhound, a grand champion named Gia, the 44th time she has been tabbed for the top prize. Her handler immediately bursts into tears, and Gia leaps up to give her something close to a hug—maybe in celebration, or maybe just to make sure she’s okay.