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T h e C h a r m e d L i f e a n d Tr y i n g T i m e s o f a N e a r-P e r f e c t P u r e b r e d

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josh de a n

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Pr eface
This is an expensive sport, and there is little financial  reward
—David Frei, director of communications for, and the face and voice of, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

Like everybody else in the world, I got started by buying a  dog and getting talked into going to a dog show and winning  a ribbon and getting hooked for life
—Pat Hastings, top dog-show judge, handler, expert

T

he American Kennel Club history books will know him as Grand Champion Wyndstar’s Honorable Mention, but you can call him Jack. That’s what his mom calls him. Not his biological mother, of course. That would be Champion Wyndstar’s Enough Said—or Gracie—and she’s a dog.* Nor his mom Kerry Kirtley, the California woman who bred and nurtured him in his earliest days, or Heather Bremmer, the professional handler who trains and cares for him when he’s making the rounds of America’s East Coast dog-show circuit. No, I mean his mom Kimberly Smith, who first glimpsed a brown-eyed ball of spotted fur on a Web site during a low moment in her life and decided, That’s it. That’s him. That’s my dog. She’s the one who named him Jack.
*Actually, she’s a bitch.

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Jack is a purebred Australian shepherd, America’s twenty-sixthmost-popular breed and neither a particularly new or old one in the grand scheme of things. He is a resident of Pennsylvania and, sometimes in spite of himself, an exemplar of a very special kind of dog: a purebred who participates in the sport of conformation, which you and I know more colloquially as a dog show. If you, like me, are an outsider to this world, it’s easy to laugh at people who meticulously groom their dogs and put them on display, and to dismiss their “sport,” as they call it, as a subculture that occupies only a tiny slice of America’s attention—something akin to Renaissance fairs or sci-fi conventions—but the numbers suggest otherwise. There are more than eleven thousand dog shows sanctioned by the American Kennel Club, and an estimated 2 million of the 20 million purebred dogs in the United States participate in them. So yes, dog showing may be a subculture, but it’s a mighty big one. For at least the last five years, the notion of telling a show dog’s story has nipped at my ankles. These most-doted-on specimens are so much like the dogs that amble around our lives—unconditionally lovable, irrepressibly mischievous—and yet at the same time so different—well traveled, hypertrained, pampered beyond imagination. They are, as I would find out, just regular old dogs with a lot of fancy trappings. The real problem with embarking on such a project was that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to focus on one specific individual. Out of 2 million dogs and 167 AKC-recognized breeds,* many of which I had never heard of, the thought of selecting one was daunting; it felt a little like singling out one flower in a field of thousands. Yes, it’s beautiful and smells great, but so do all the others. What makes this one so special? And that’s where I was when I wandered into the 2009 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, with no clear plan, without even the vaguest notion of how it all worked—the elaborate point systems, the cham-

*That was the total in 2010; three more joined in 2011, with another three to come in 2012.

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pions, the grand champions, the nuances of bone and structure that would give me night sweats over the months to come—and at an early press conference I met a Sussex spaniel named Frank. It was the first I’d ever heard of a Sussex spaniel, and this one just happened to be featured because his owners were New Yorkers and thus a good match for the local reporters in attendance.

SUSSEX SPANIEL

A Sussex is like a stocky cocker spaniel, with a thick head, long floppy ears, and a beautiful red coat. Members of this breed have the rare ability, Frank’s owner told me, to sit up on their haunches, with the top half of their torso upright, front limbs dangling, for as long as an hour at a time. I’m not sure why this is a useful skill for a dog, or how the hell it ever developed in the first place, but hers demonstrated. The trick was impressive, not to mention adorable, to witness. Two days later the Sussex spaniel was a famous breed, after an eleven-year-old named Stump emerged from retirement to become the oldest champion in Westminster history, winning the Best in Show title (BIS) in front of fifteen thousand spectators at Madison Square Garden and eventually landing on the cover of AARP magazine. He had droopy

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ears and droopier eyes, and I couldn’t help but imagine the voice of the cartoon character Deputy Dawg as Stump lumbered around the show ring, winning the biggest prize in the sport over more heavily favored, styled, and coddled dogs like a standard poodle, a giant schnauzer, and a Scottish terrier. To this point I’d been stressing over how to choose a dog. Stump answered that for me. It didn’t matter. Any one of them can be a good story. You just never know. As you’ll see with Jack. The truth is, I had no idea what to expect when a series of connections led me to Heather Bremmer and Kevin Bednar, a husband-wife handling team, who in turn led me to one of their client dogs, a noteven-two-year-old Australian shepherd owned by a single mother from Pennsylvania. Jack was, I thought, a good representative of what I’ll call the accessible show dog—undeniably beautiful and special even among other top dogs in his breed—but also a family dog first and foremost. My hope was that his story would be more representative of the experience of the average dog-show enthusiast, the person who loves the sport, and all that goes with it, but doesn’t have the bank account to run ads and jet around the country piling up points in pursuit of Best in Show ribbons at major events like Westminster. On the other hand, it also wasn’t impossible that Jack could develop into a star dog in his own right; even without a major financial backer behind him, he stood a very good chance of becoming one of America’s best Australian shepherds, and also just maybe a contender in the Herding Group, one of the seven groups into which show dogs are divided. Part of the fun in choosing an unknown dog was exactly that: the unknown. Over the many months I spent reporting this book, one question in particular seemed to arise whenever the subject came up: Will it be like Best in Show? That Christopher Guest film, released in 2000, had a profound effect on the way Americans view the dog-show world—people seem to think that, having seen it, they are intimately familiar with this

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world, which they will almost certainly call “crazy” or some variant of that adjective (“nuts,” “freaky,” etc.). The more surprising thing for me, though, was that so many dog-show people wondered the same thing. Some as a toe-in-the-water measure of what I was up to: Did I mean to make fun of them and expose them as a community of weirdos? Others merely to suggest that it was maybe a touch mean-spirited but that it was also spot-on. Doug Johnson, a breeder of rare spaniels who has twice won Westminster—he bred Stump—perhaps said it best. “It’s so close to the truth that it’s not even funny.” Earlier on the day of Stump’s surprise triumph, I met a handler who was about to show an American Staffordshire terrier that had been bred in Thailand but whose owners had dispatched him by air freight to the United States to achieve his AKC championship. Dog showing is a global phenomenon, and Asia is the fastest-growing region for the sport. But America, he said, was still the promised land; the only true measure of a purebred’s greatness is for him to succeed in America. This handler proceeded to tell me he had heard that owners of a few of the previous year’s top dogs had spent at least half a million dollars in expenses, and probably more. “This is crazy, the things people do for show dogs,” said the handler of a dog flown in from Thailand— alone—in pursuit of ribbons. When I told him about my book project, he laughed. “It’s probably going to be called Why Are We So Crazy?” Clearly there’s something about dogs that brings out the best and worst in us. Over and over I found myself explaining to outsiders the obsessive and occasionally psychotic behavior of dog-show participants by comparing it to the way we act in regard to our children. Go to a Little League game and watch the parents. Emotion makes us irrational—we suspend good sense—and the only thing besides a child that can make an otherwise normal adult human act this way is a dog. We created them, after all, and there are today more pet dogs in the world than there are babies—more than 500 million at last count. I may not have a dog at the moment, but I do have a son, born while I was working on this book, and although he’s still not coordinated enough to swing a

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bat or throw a ball in its intended direction, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes catch myself projecting great athletic ability upon his wild swats and tosses. There are people who claim that dogs are our greatest invention. Having spent more than a year observing, reading about, and generally obsessing over them, I find it hard to argue this point. Spaceships and mainframes make for awkward bedmates, and there is no other thing that so willingly—and happily— does what we ask, even when what we are asking is seemingly unpleasant. There’s a story that stands out in my mind because it says so much about dogs, and about us.* The story goes that a man decided for whatever reason that he needed to get rid of his dog. So, being a devious and deeply flawed human,† he urged the animal into a rowboat, paddled out into a lake, and cast the dog overboard in an attempt to drown it. In the process of perpetrating this atrocity, the man fell overboard, and because he couldn’t swim, he began to drown. If you have a dog or have spent much time around one, I probably don’t need to finish this story. You know exactly what happened. The dog saved the man’s life. My point? Dogs are awesome. And that’s the real reason people enter them in dog shows. I am a dog person without a dog. I grew up with a mutt named Heidi and had Percy, an English setter, in high school, but I haven’t lived with a dog since college, when I shared a run-down student apartment with an adorable and utterly untrained mutt named Whitney, who smelled like a compost bin, regularly crapped on our living-room carpet, ran around campus with a pack of other unruly mutts owned by drunken Hacky Sack enthusiasts, and then vanished into the Rocky Mountains when her owner, my former roommate, moved west. The fact that my intervening fifteen years have been dogless has nothing to do with
*It’s a fairly widely told story, and likely (unfortunately) apocryphal, but I saw it in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s Dogs Never Lie About Love. †Which I guess is a redundant way of saying “a human.”

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Whitney and everything to do with New York City. Small apartments, late nights, frequent travels— all these things conspired against adoption, but I’ve lingered around the fences of New York City’s dog parks for years, envious of the relationships inside. It’s very possible this book is a direct result of that.

— Josh Dean, September 2011