Things I learned covering the Westminster dog show

Finley, a male golden retriever whose opponents were “dripping in coat” and therefore “showier.”  Washington Post photo by Karin Brulliard.

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)

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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 . . .

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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.”

On another related topic . . .

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The dogs – by which I mean male ones – aren’t neutered

In retrospect, this seems obvious. These are breeding dogs, after all. But because ordinary pet owners usually neuter their pets these days, I found myself feeling frequently surprised by the sight of that boy body part. The males’ genital wholeness is also half the reason the dog potty areas at the show are divided by gender and include a section for “bitches in season,” as seen in the accompanying photo. No unauthorized mating allowed.

– 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.

Also, some dogs drink out of spray bottles – the same ones their groomers use to spray their fur during styling sessions.

– 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.

– Westminster calls for bling

On the handlers’ outfits, that is. Most men wore pretty serious suits as they jogged their charges around the ring. Female handlers generally also wore suits – typically with conservative knee-length skirts and flat shoes, the better to run in. But there can be more to the choice, some women told me. Debra Metcalf, the handler of a bear of a dog called a Leonberger, said she thinks it’s best to coordinate and not clash with the dog, but also to not draw attention from it.

“You want to flatter the dog with your outfit,” said Metcalf, who added that pantsuits are becoming more popular for female handlers and that she advises other handlers that they should dress as if they’re going to court. “You want it still to be the dog’s show.”

Metcalf was wearing a long, black-and-silver jacket when she said this. It was shiny. Would she wear that to court?

“It’s Westminster,” she said – an event where sparkle is the norm. She was right: There was a lot of sparkle, including on a few men who definitely didn’t look like they were appearing in court.

– 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.

The meat-in-bra trick is common, said Metcalf, who talked about running afoul of her dry cleaner. First the cleaner complained about so much dog hair on Metcalf’s clothes. Then she complained about meat left in pockets. Then she complained about a “dead animal” in a pocket (which Metcalf said was a toy mouse). Finally, the cleaner complained that she had to take medicine to clean Metcalf’s clothes, because she was allergic to dogs.

Metcalf said she found a new dry cleaner.

– The dogs don’t compete against one another for best in show

When the seven finalists took to the ring Tuesday night, they weren’t really vying against each other. Sure, one would win and the others wouldn’t. But what the dogs are judged against is their own “breed standard,” or the detailed written descriptions of how an “ideal” member of the breed should look – the shape of its head, the angle of its hips, the lift of its tail. So judge Thomas H. Bradley was looking for the dog that best matched its own breed standard. That, as you can imagine, is completely different for a Pekingese and a German shepherd. When asked why he chose Rumor, Bradley said, “I just don’t know where I’d fault her if somebody asked me.”

– The whole scene is kind of like a tailgate party

Westminster is one of the few “benched” dog shows, where dogs that aren’t performing are on display for the public to admire and ask about. This is a requirement, and the dogs and their entourages needed to be at the show until 5 p.m. each day. So their stalls ended up looking sort of like tailgaters – while the dogs hang out in crates or grooming tables, the people sit in camping-style chairs, chat, snack from trays of food, and sip beverages including beer and wine. Many of the owners and handlers know each other from the dog-show circuit, so there’s a feeling of camaraderie (and, at moments, competition).

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.