I grew up with dogs (and a cat), as well as a mother who loved dogs — especially Siberian huskies. We had an illustrated book of dog breeds on the living room bookshelf, and I pored over it so often that from a pretty young age I could tell you whether the burly pooch walking down the street was a Saint Bernard or a Bernese mountain dog or a Great Pyrenees.

But I’d never been to a dog show before a few days ago, when I went to New York to cover Westminster. Like many people, my main point of reference was the Christopher Guest satire “Best in Show.” So I learned a lot about the show-dog world, not least of which were the names of breeds that I’m sure weren’t in my family’s book, such as Xoloitzcuintli and Portuguese podengo pequeno.

Here are a few other things I learned:

• It’s a male’s world (but not entirely)

I noticed that most of the dogs I was meeting were male, so I asked the owners and handlers why. The most common explanation was that, as in much of the animal kingdom, male dogs are more impressive: They’re bigger, furrier and generally “showier,” as a few people put it. Brad Minges, the North Carolina-based owner of a gorgeous male golden retriever named Finley, told me that a mild winter this year had put the dog at a disadvantage: Finley had only about 60 percent of the hair he typically might, Minges estimated, while other male goldens from locations farther north were “dripping in coat.”

Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Westminster Kennel Club, didn’t have the breakdown of male-to-female competitors when I asked. But she acknowledged that lopsidedness isn’t uncommon, and she offered another reason: Females, she said, “have another job” beyond showing – they’re often having and raising puppies, the future show generations of show dogs. Yep, the parenting duties aren’t 50-50 in the dog world.


But despite this apparent male dominance at Westminster, females outnumbered males among the seven competitors for best in show. (Go, ladies!) Among them was the winner, a German shepherd named Rumor. Now, her owner said after the show, she’ll retire to have babies — presumably with no help from the dad.

On a related topic . . .

Dog owners use the word “bitch” with a totally straight face

I don’t usually get to write that word in The Washington Post, because this remains a pretty stuffy news outlet at heart and because the word is usually used in pretty misogynistic and mean ways. But not in the dog-show world! There, dog owners refer to their female dogs as “bitches” without blinking an eye.

What are male dogs called? “Dogs.”

• Show dogs have serious hair products


One owner uses Big Sexy Hair brand hair spray on her dogs. The groomer of Duffy, the Norwegian elkhound who made the final seven, swears by Tresemmé. Adrian, the Irish setter who was the runner-up to Rumor, keeps his auburn locks lush with Pantene shampoo and conditioner, which his humans buy in bulk at Costco.

• Show dogs drink bottled water

I don’t know that this is true of all the dogs at Westminster. But all the owners I asked said they give their dogs bottled water when they’re on the road, because you never know whether the local water might upset a dog’s stomach and cause messes in the ring.

• Some dogs’ whiskers are trimmed

I noticed quite a few dogs with trimmed whiskers, which owners and handlers told me is a matter of preference. One said judges don’t like feeling whiskers when they’re inspecting a dog’s snout. Another said some breeds, such as beagles, look “houndier” without whiskers, but big fluffy dogs look better with them. No one mentioned whether dogs prefer to keep their whiskers, which the American Kennel Club refers to as “sophisticated devices that help the dog feel its way through the world” and says should be left alone.

• There are treats in those suit pockets — or even in bras

Handlers are often popping treats to their dogs, sometimes to keep them focused on running around the ring. But no dog I met was given regular old mass-market dog snacks. Teresa LaBrie, Duesy’s owner, said that “he prefers cheese, but it melts,” so she uses hot dogs. Metcalf boils liver with garlic, then dries it out in the microwave and keeps it in her suit pockets. Some women were wearing dresses without pockets, and I saw one pull a hot dog out of her bra, break off a piece and give it to an Akita, then stick the rest back in.

Obviously, there are many ethically questionable things about breeding dogs to fit a standard of “perfection” and showing them off like commodities or trophies. Consider Chuckie the Pekingese’s near-inability to walk around the ring, the fact that Duesy was the only Great Dane in the competition whose ears weren’t cropped and the fact that genetic research indicates English bulldogs have been so overbred that they’re doomed to be unhealthy. There are also lots of homeless dogs who would love to snack on hot dogs.

Nevertheless, I will say the people I met seemed to love their dogs, and there was a real feeling of passion and community.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: