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The weird and wonderful world of the Westminster Dog Show

Bernard de Menthon was born around the year 1000 near the present-day border of Switzerland and France. He was brought up in a castle, received a first-class education, and in time was connected by his father to a noble woman, as befits a scion of an ancient and wealthy family. At that time, however, de Menthon had grown into a pious young man whose plans for the future did not include marriage. According to legend, on the night before his wedding, he escaped from the castle by jumping from a high window, whereupon a group of angels caught him and gently lowered him to the ground.

Ordained a priest, De Menthon began preaching in villages throughout the Aosta region, an area that included a mountain pass that had been used to cross the Western Alps for at least a thousand years. In de Menthon’s time it was a popular route for Christians making pilgrimages to Rome, but the route was dangerous. Bandits routinely occupied the area to attack travelers, the pass itself was harrowing—eight thousand feet high, snow-covered, avalanche-prone—and de Menthon often found himself ministering to travelers exposed to its horrors. And so, when he became the archdeacon of Aosta, he founded a hospice in the pass, staffed by monks who offered help to pilgrims who set out over the mountains.

At first the hospice merely provided food, shelter, and reminded people who were prone to trouble that they were doing so under the watchful eye of God, or at any rate the pious. However, over time, the monks began sending out search parties to find the missing. No one knows exactly when these search parties first started carrying dogs, but in the early seventeen hundred search parties they were dogs—smart, tireless creatures capable of body-sensing under twenty feet of snow who patrolled the area without human escort. They usually traveled in pairs, so if they found someone too sick or injured to move, one dog could return to the hospice to call for help, while the other stayed behind and lay on top of the affected person to offer warmth and hope. At some point, the hospice began tracking these rescues; in 1897, when one dog found a boy who had nearly frozen to death after falling into a crevasse, dogs were known to have saved about two thousand people. At that time, the long-dead Bernard de Menthon was also canonized, which is why today the passport, the hospice and the dogs themselves are today named after St. Bernard.

In the pass of Great St. Bernard Pass is still a hospice and there are still dogs there, but they no longer perform rescue missions. This work was obsolete by the mid-twentieth century, partly because of the tunnel that took people away from the pass and partly because of inventions such as the helicopter and the avalanche transmitter that made it easier to rescue wayward travelers. As well as the phenomenal view of Mont Blanc, St. Bernards, who remain at Great St. Bernard Hospice, are now mostly just a tourist attraction.

This transformation, from working dog to pet, life-saving companion to pampered ornament, is, I would say, a story of dogs and people. About thirty thousand years ago, when wolves first crept up to our campfires and browsed scraps and bones, we made a silent pact: food for them, protection for us. Today, the terms of this relationship are no longer so clear or perhaps so completely reasonable. We’re still feeding these wolves’ offspring—thirty-kilogram bags of Eukanuba thrown into a shopping cart, puppuccinos at the drive-thru, human-grade meals flash-frozen and shipped on dry ice to our door. We also let those ex-wolves into our homes where they bark in the middle of the night, whine to be let out at five in the morning, eat the new carpet and then vomit it all over the living room floor. . And we share our wealth with them, too: studies estimate that Americans spend over a hundred billion dollars a year on all that dog food, plus grooming, feeding, veterinary care, dog toys, dog training, dog walking and dog day care. . Given all this, one might reasonably ask what we are getting in return.

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A few years ago, it occurred to journalist and former mutt owner Tommy Tomlinson that one place to look for an answer was at a dog show, a forum optimized for displaying the strangeness of the current human-dog relationship: our lavish spending on dogs, our equally large emotional investment in them and the degree to which we have literally shaped them as a species. Tomlinson was not a fan of such shows at the time; he was just watching TV, hoping to catch some professional wrestling, when he landed at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show instead. The questions that came to mind as the Shih Tzus marched around the ring weren’t very scientific, but they were very American: Are these dogs happy?? Are all the dogs happy?? Why do dogs make me so happy?? These considerations form the core of his new book, «Dogland: Passion, Glory, and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show» (Avid Reader Press).

The dog show circuit has received feature-length treatment before — most famously in Christopher Guest’s 2000 film «Best in Show,» a mockumentary with an emphasis on mockery. «Dogland» takes a different approach, probably because, on the evidence of his writing, Tomlinson is too honest a guy to pull off a satire. His previous book, The Elephant in the Room, is a wry, tender and ultimately hopeful first-person account of being, as he put it, a fat guy trying to lose weight in America. This new book is thinner, so to speak, and suffers from some distraction at times. Pointless lists («Dog Haters, Ranked»; «Traveling Dogs, Ranked») punctuate the narrative, which needs no more comic fodder, and Tomlinson sometimes indulges in long digressions, such as about the WeRateDogs social media empire or the series of bulldogs all named Uga. who have been the mascot of Tomlinson’s alma mater, the University of Georgia, for generations.

But whatever the weaknesses of «Dogland,» Tomlinson is a very funny writer and has the right relationship with his subject: equal parts dubious and generous, with a nice mix of hospitality and comedic detachment. Christopher Guest accentuated the weirdness of dog shows by populating his fictional version with a bunch of freaks; Tomlinson makes the weirdness even more interesting by introducing us to real people who, despite devoting their lives to dog shows, don’t seem particularly unexcited. For most of the book, we follow a woman named Laura King who co-owns a show dog kennel with a long line of accolades to her name. A second-generation dog lover who learned to walk by holding on to a Belgian Shepherd’s tail, King projects the contentment of someone who can’t believe he’s doing what he does for a living. She’s so convincingly sane that it takes a while for readers to agree: the more we learn about the «fantasy,» as insiders call the world of dog shows, the more we can’t believe it. anyone that’s what they do for a living.

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To outsiders, the strangest thing about the Westminster Dog Show is that the dogs don’t actually do anything. It is not because they are not capable of remarkable feats – witness the hospice of St. Bernard from the Hospice of St. Bernard – or because these abilities could not be channeled into spectator-friendly competitions. As the internet will happily show you, dogs routinely compete for prizes in hunting, herding, sniffing, Frisbee, and dock diving—a kind of canine long jump into water whose world record is held by a bloodhound named Sounders, a thirty-six-inch dog capable of leaping nearly thirty-seven feet.

Nothing remotely entertaining happens at Westminster or the other «breed shows» held around the country. The dogs mostly stand around and are admired and occasionally go for a little trot around the circle. Imagine Nascar if the cars just sat on the track and the racers checked under the hood from time to time. In that sense, dog shows are less like, say, the Preakness, and more like a county fair, where rabbits and heifers who excel at being rabbits and heifers get blue ribbons.

As with these creatures, all dogs in the show, from the Tibetan Mastiff to the Toy Fox Terrier, are judged on the same single criterion: how well they meet the standard of their breed. Like written speech, record players, and robotic vacuum cleaners, these breeds are a product of human ingenuity. Without exception, every dog ​​breed in the world began its evolutionary journey as a wolf and then tinkered with us, bit by bit, until it could do some useful and specialized thing. Dachshunds were designed to wriggle into a badger den, grab the badger and pull it out – or be pulled out by their owner if necessary, which is why they have unusually strong tails. Boasting extra toes and a remarkably flexible neck, the Norwegian Lundehund was bred to hunt puffins on island cliffs in Norway. The bulldog, as you might guess, was created to control bulls by grabbing their faces and pulling them to the ground. An easier lot fell on many dogs bred to do nothing but entertain the rich and powerful, including the Maltese, who seems to have graced royal laps since the days of Julius Caesar.

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Today, the American Kennel Club officially recognizes more than two hundred dog breeds, and part of the fun of «Dogland» comes from Tomlinson’s reactions to them. The one shown by Laura King, a Samoyed – a dog from Siberia, bred to pull sleds and hunt polar bears – is so dazzlingly white that it resembles a «walking snowdrift». The Neapolitan Mastiff has «the build of a full-back and the face of a millennial.» A long, low-set breed called the Skye Terrier «looks like it ate a Slinky.» Tomlinson’s insightful assessments are in stark contrast to official breed descriptions, which can run to over two thousand words and sound like a cross between a love letter and a coroner’s report. For example, the American English Coonhound is specified that «the line from the occiput to the eyebrows is slightly above and parallel to the line from the eye to the nose» and also that its facial expression is «kind» and «hound.»

People obsessed with these standards form a subculture of impressive vitality. The American Kennel Club sanctions thousands of dog shows each year—enough that there are probably more than a hundred in any given week. «Every day,» Tomlinson quips, «my Google dog show unwraps like a CVS endorsement.» A few of these shows are famous—including the National Dog Show, which is sometimes confused with Westminster because it airs on NBC on Thanksgiving Day, making it the most-watched dog show in America—but the vast majority take place outside the public eye. eye, in hotels, convention centers and exhibition centers all over the country.

Regardless of their size or status, most of these shows operate in much the same way. In the first round, dogs of a certain breed compete against each other. The winners, declared Best of Breed, advance to the next round, where contestants are grouped into seven categories such as herding dogs, toy dogs and terriers. This means that dogs of different breeds now compete with each other, but the standard by which they are judged remains the same: the question is not whether this hound is better than the Pomeranian, but whether the pointer is more pointer than the Pomeranian. . If that sounds absurd to you, you’re right. However, winners are selected and continue to compete for the overall Best in Show award.

All of this is a bit of a simplification, partly because in the first rounds the dogs only compete against other dogs of the same sex. This gives a winning dog and – brace yourself – a winning bitch for each breed. Tomlinson is reasonably and comically uncomfortable with the word («All my interview transcripts have me stumbling and saying something like ‘um, you know, bitch'»), but he uses it anyway, claiming it accurately reflects canine.. .show culture. That much is certainly true. Here’s the AKC describing one of the awards presented at each show: «A selected female is similar to the Awards of Merit in that the female is the next best in terms of female quality in competition.»

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