Maybe it’s just the slightly smooshed nose transitioning into his royally wrinkled jowls, but the bullmastiff seems to smile indulgently at me as he waits to enter the breed judging ring with his handler. He’s almost as big as I am — and between the two of us, he’s probably been shampooed more recently. So, when I crouch to take his picture, it’s natural that he feels like my equal.
With his handler’s permission, I reach out to stroke the enormous, silky, black-and-brown head. Impatient with such polite pleasantries, the bullmastiff barrels into my chest like a long-lost lover. I fling my arms around his bulk — both to return his affections and to keep from being knocked flat. I thump his powerful sides and his tail whips as he backs up to plow into me sideways like a bear scratching himself on a tree trunk.
His handler apologizes and tugs the giant back into line. My favorite green sweater has a hearty smear of drool in a place you can’t possibly miss. But no one who goes to the National Dog Show would complain about something like this.
A Philly tradition watched by millions
If you missed the show — a local tradition held this year at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center near Valley Forge on Nov. 15 — you can watch it on NBC right after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The Philadelphia Kennel Club, dating to 1879, hosts the show each year, and its Best In Show prize is one of the most prestigious in the world of conformation dog shows.
For some of the more popular breeds, like the golden retrievers, dogs jostle with dozens of competitors in breed judging. For rarer ones, like the komondor, a Hungarian guard dog that looks like a giant dancing mop with its coat of floor-length white cords, might have a single entry. From the breed judging to the group judging to Best In Show, about 1,500 dogs from over 175 breeds competed for the top trophy. The tiny Chihuahua and the deer-sized great dane are all judged on how closely they conform to their own American Kennel Club (AKC) breed standard.
The National Dog Show boasts a special draw for dog lovers: The champion dogs you see on TV are actually “benched” backstage throughout the day, so the public can meet them and talk to their breeders, owners and handlers. (It’s one of the only benched dog shows left in America.)
If you can really tell the difference between an Irish terrier, a Welsh terrier, and a lakeland terrier (be honest), good for you. The real fun for the rest of us is meeting all the dogs, and, of course, the people who love them.
Stephen Ware, a New Jersey-based professional trainer and handler who specializes in Australian cattle dogs, German shorthaired pointers, and Labrador retrievers, has spent decades around dog shows.
He says training and showing dogs is a team sport: “Half the team is a stupid animal, and the other half is a dog.”
Ware is also a contractor with the company managing the show’s event services, and for this year’s National Dog Show, he has a special job: cleaning up after the dogs that save more than a great pose for the show ring.
“As we say, sh-- happens,” he tells me, leaning his pooper scooper next to his seat as he takes a break in the VIP section. “As a general rule, we expect anything.”
As if to prove his point, a member of the Working Group, a group of the world’s biggest breeds,pauses right in front of the camera just as the competitors strut into the ring. Ware is ready.
When that many dogs and people get together under one roof, he says good-naturedly, “we get to the point where we can’t think of how many stupid things we’ve seen."
And make no mistake: “The humans are worse.”
An unfair advantage?
Ware, who is partial to Labradors, finds the American cocker spaniel’s triple shot at gold unfair: The AKC allows three varieties of American cocker in the Sporting Group — despite the fact that there’s really no distinction among them besides their color: all three can be born within the same litter. There’s the black, the parti-color, and the ASCOB (any solid color other than black), or, as Ware puts it, “any damn thing else.”
Talk to enough people behind the scenes, and many unfortunate slights come to light.
Handlers have several ways of ensuring their dogs’ most elegant poses, but Bonnie Bestoso, an Erie, Pennsylvania, resident watching her black-and-tan coonhound, says the worst is when a handler throws a treat to get a dog’s attention, and then leaves it on the floor, where it distracts the next dog. (One errant bit of liver almost pelts a ringside cameraman.)
Finding the beauty
Bucks County native Kay Sivel, with a pair of Chinese crested dogs named Thelma and Louise (3-year-old sisters), has her own problems.
The hairless variety of the Chinese crested, a tiny breed with mottled naked skin except for silky tufts on its head and feet and the tip of its tail, is perhaps best known for winning more World’s Ugliest Dog contests than any other breed.
After carefully grooming her affectionate girls for the ring, Sivel finds it rude when people say they’re “so ugly they’re cute.”
She adds that a lot of those Ugliest Dog winners aren’t purebred Chinese cresteds anyway — they’re mixes.
Sivel offers some interesting history on the breed. They didn’t actually originate in China, but they traveled the world with Chinese merchant sailors, who kept them onboard to hunt rats. The mostly naked dogs were uniquely suited for this in plague-ridden times, because they couldn't harbor fleas. Sources disagree on whether the breed originated in Africa or Central America, and Sivel adds one piece of information that breed websites don’t mention: Apparently, the Chinese crested dogs of old, once they had caught all the rats, themselves became dinner for the crew.
Life is easier nowadays. Sivel’s niece, 12-year-old Lexie, says Thelma and Louise know when they’re about to go onstage. On show days, “they’re always excited in the morning.”
What to watch for this year
In the show ring this year, film buffs can look out for Dorothy’s Toto and Hagrid’s Fang, a.k.a. the Cairn terrier and the Neapolitan mastiff. Check out the silver dog comb that the Bouvier des Flandres’ handler stashes in her own blond bun after a few last-minute doggie touch-ups. Don’t let the glamorous Afghan hound distract you from its handler’s own glorious hair (sort of a cross between a young Ron Howard and Robert Pattinson). And somebody in the Toy Group — we won’t tell you who — mounts an escape.
To find out the winner, and who kisses up to the judge (literally), you’ll have to watch on Thanksgiving.