Going behind the curtain at dog shows

In her review of a book by Tommy Tomlinson titled Dogland: Passion, Glory, Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show, Kathryn Schulz begins with this story.

Bernard de Menthon was born around the year 1000, near what is now the border of Switzerland and France. He was raised in a castle, given a first-class education, and, in time, affianced by his father to a noblewoman, as befit the scion of an ancient and wealthy family. By then, however, de Menthon had grown into a pious young man whose plans for the future did not include marriage. According to legend, the night before the wedding, he fled the castle by jumping out of a high window, whereupon a band of angels caught him and lowered him gently to the ground.
Ordained as a priest, de Menthon began preaching in villages throughout the region of Aosta, a territory that included a mountain pass already in use for at least a thousand years to cross the Western Alps. In de Menthon’s day, it was a popular route for Christians making the pilgrimage to Rome, but the journey was perilous. Bands of brigands routinely staked out the area to attack travellers, the pass itself was harrowing—eight thousand feet high, buried in snow, prone to avalanches—and de Menthon often found himself ministering to travellers who had been subjected to its terrors. And so, when he became the archdeacon of Aosta, he established a hospice in the pass, staffed by monks who offered aid to pilgrims venturing over the mountains.

At first, the hospice simply provided food, shelter, and a reminder to people inclined to make trouble that they did so under the watchful eye of God, or, anyway, of the godly. Over time, though, the monks began dispatching search parties to recover the missing. No one knows exactly when those search parties first began bringing along dogs, but by the early seventeen-hundreds the search parties were dogs—clever, indefatigable creatures capable of smelling a body under twenty feet of snow, who patrolled the area unaccompanied by humans. They generally travelled in pairs, so that, if they found someone too sick or hurt to move, one dog could return to the hospice to summon help while the other stayed behind, lying down atop the stricken person to offer warmth and hope. At some point, the hospice started keeping track of those rescues; by 1897, when one dog found a boy who had nearly frozen to death after falling into a crevasse, the dogs were known to have saved some two thousand people. Also by then, the long-dead Bernard de Menthon had been canonized, which is why the pass, the hospice, and the dogs themselves are all known today by the name St. Bernard.

There is still a hospice in Great St. Bernard Pass, and there are still dogs there as well, but they no longer perform rescue missions. That job was rendered obsolete toward the middle of the twentieth century, partly by a tunnel that routed people away from the pass and partly by inventions, such as the helicopter and the avalanche transceiver, that made it easier to save wayward travellers. Like the phenomenal views of Mont Blanc, the St. Bernards who remain at Great St. Bernard Hospice are now mostly just a tourist attraction.

I did not know that this was how that breed got the name.

The review discusses the love that people have for their dogs and vice versa and how much they are willing to spend on these shows and getting nothing tangible in return.

What do these winners win? Almost nothing. At dog shows, as on “The Great British Bake Off,” the ratio between hoopla and reward is drastically and rather charmingly askew. If your horse takes top honors at the Kentucky Derby, you will bring home more than two million dollars and can anticipate many millions more in breeding fees. If your dog takes top honors at Westminster, you will go home with some trophies, a ribbon, and a picture frame. Your dog, meanwhile, might be invited to ring the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange, which is as close to serious money as it will ever bring you.

In fact, if a dog is at Westminster, you can bet that the serious money has flowed in the other direction. Every dog that has won the show in recent memory has been “campaigned,” meaning that a professional handler has taken it around the show circuit for anywhere from one to three years, at a cost that owners don’t like to discuss but that can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The handlers get some of that money, while the rest goes to food, fees, veterinary care, and glossy advertisements intended to impress judges, which may or may not work but do at least shield dog magazines, unlike the rest of print media, from a life-threatening drop in ad revenue.

I did not know that two of the most popular breeds in America, Labradors and golden retrievers, have never won Best in Show.

Dogs can be trained to do the most amazing things.

[Tomlinson] admires how well dogs adapt to our requirements, not only over the evolutionary timescale but over our own human lifetimes as well: “Do you need someone to protect a junkyard? Learn a circus act? Comfort a dying child? Dogs can do that.” But most of all he marvels at their ability to take care of us. Dogs are remarkably attuned to our physical needs, able to assist disabled people and warn us of impending danger, not to mention detect and in some cases help patients manage a wide range of diseases, from epilepsy to lung cancer. In part through these acts of aid and attentiveness but also through their mere presence, they seem to demonstrate two qualities almost all of us crave—adoration and loyalty. Yet the crucial thing is not that they love us, or seem to, but the converse: they give us a way to love the world, our most important bulwark against despair. That makes all of them, not just the St. Bernards, rescue dogs—still showing up to save us, no matter how cold or dark or steep or scary it gets out there. 

No article about dog shows is complete without a mention of the Christopher Guest mockumentary Best in Show (2000) that satirized them. I know some people who who take part in these shows and they tend to not like the film because it portrays the owners and trainers as obsessed and somewhat weird, as can be seen in the trailer, when in reality they are ordinary but very earnest people who love their dogs.


  1. Katydid says

    You didn’t touch on the reason for the dog shows: the winners make oodles of money from people who want puppies from that dog--either via stud or whelp. As for campaigning: the way for a dog to get to a big dog show is to have won at any number of smaller dog shows.

    To make the math easy (and also because I have no idea what the actual number is): say a dog needs to earn 100 points to enter a show like Westminster. The dog can do that a number of ways: by placing first (say, 10 points a first place win) at a few smaller AKC show, or by placing at all (fewer points awarded, like maybe 5 or 1) at a whole lot of tiny AKC shows.

    It gets far more complicated than that, but that’s the easy explanation. Therefore, if you hear someone brag about their champion dog, know that either the dog was judged to fit the AKC criteria (which have absolutely nothing to do with a dog’s health or sanity or ability to do what it was bred to do) by a lot, or the people took the dog to endless shows where it was deemed barely adequate and won a few points at a time.*

    Remember, the payoff comes when the dog is bred and the puppies are sold. The ideal payoff for people is to show the dog is little as possible (because that costs big money) in order to get to the breeding.

    * From time to time idiots brag about their “champion” dog that was never, ever shown at all, but maybe some dog in the line was a champion.**

    ** An AKC lineage is worse than nothing--many “pure-” (in-) bred dog breeds are collapsing after generations of inbreeding. They are the equivalent of the Hapsburgs: see https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/inbreeding-and-the-downfall-of-the-spanish-hapsburgs

    “The Habsburg King Carlos II of Spain was sadly degenerated with an enormous misshapen head. His Habsburg jaw stood so much out that his two rows of teeth could not meet; he was unable to chew. His tongue was so large that he was barely able to speak. His intellect was similarly disabled. His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility. “

  2. moarscienceplz says

    “it portrays the owners and trainers as obsessed and somewhat weird”
    I won’t go into what I think is wrong about the world of dog breeding itself, I have some serious gripes about that. But obsession and weirdness need to be more accepted and celebrated. Yes, obsession can go too far. If you or the people around you are unhappy due to your obsession, it’s time to rein it in. But weirdness and obsession are what make progress. For example, nearly everything we eat from artichokes to zucchini are not natural. They were crossbred and manipulated over decades and centuries by weird people obsessed with making a better banana or head of cabbage. Maybe they were not that fun to talk with at cocktail parties, but we all are living better lives because of weirdly obsessed people like them.

  3. jenorafeuer says

    As a specific example, orange carrots are a fairly recent mutation (natural carrots are often light yellow or purple) that got bred specifically as a tribute the Dutch royal family.

    Though as @Katydid mentions, a lot of the more specific ‘show’ breeds of dogs are so inbred as to be prone to massive health problems. Hip dysplasia in Great Danes is an infamous example (I typed in ‘great dane hip’ and ‘dysplasia’ was literally the second suggestion from the search engine before I’d even started typing the word). Certain lines of collies have been bred for narrow heads for so long that there isn’t really enough brain space in there anymore; they look pretty, but they’re lousy and temperamental as working dogs.

    My understanding is that this has been getting better lately, mostly because a lot of people have pretty much walked away from the old AKC definitions and lineages due to the problems, putting the older power brokers of the dog show world into an ‘adjust or lose relevance’ situation.

  4. Katydid says

    @jenorafeuer: I really wish that dog breeds were getting better, but not the purebreds. American-line German Shepherds from show lines now have those bowed, sloping backs that put a lot of pressure on the back hips. Autoimmune issues that cause skin allergies are now rife in terriers of all kinds and also the little white dogs (Havanese, Bichon, Maltese). Bulldogs and pugs have been deformed to collapse. Bad hips and eyes are endemic in most of the large, active breeds from Poodles to Portuguese Water Dogs and Labs and Goldens. Just today I learned about the neighborhood buddy-to-all labrador who was put down yesterday at age 4 with an inoperable brain tumor--the Amish are making a fortune selling badly-inbred, AKC-registered dogs to people who think they’re getting “quality” with the AKC registry.

  5. Katydid says

    @2, moarscienceplz: I just recently learned that cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, and cauliflower all came from the same ancestor vegetable--different groups of people bred for different attributes and got very different results from the other groups.

  6. seachange says

    The dog people I have known who do those things are every bit as weird as the movie trailer folks. They are ‘ordinary’ in the same way that the Trump supporters were described as ‘ordinary’.

    It makes the trailer not-funny to me.

  7. Katydid says

    It’s not just dog people who are weird. The superhero movie people are just as weird. Or the NASCAR folks. Or the sportzballz fanatics who paint themselves in team colors and buy out the memorabilia and jerseys. Or the anime folks. Or…pretty much anyone who goes overboard into any hobby.

  8. Holms says

    #1 Katydid
    Exactly why I prefer mongrels. I’ve had one pure bred dog -- who luckily came from a healthy breed -- and the rest have been mongrels; they are all just as firm in friendship and character, but why not have the friend that will be there for longer and will be healthier that whole time?

  9. Katydid says

    @8, Holms; I agree! For example, Mano’s dearly departed dog was a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. They’re lovely dogs; friendly to all, calm, gentle…but by 5 years old, 50% of them have fatal heart disease, and by 10, virtually all of them have passed from it. Bulldogs are ticking time bombs, as are Pugs, Corgis and Doxies and so many more.

    My personal (not foster) dogs have all been mixed-breeds, but I know a lot of people whose dogs are purebreds. There are rescue groups that bring in street dogs from Puerto Rico and also from India, and I’ve fostered a number of them before they go on to their forever homes. Those dogs are extraordinarily healthy (if they survive puppyhood, they’re both healthy *and* smart) and absolutely appreciate people. Since most of them were raised in a pack, they’re great with other dogs as well as people.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Katydid @#9,

    Yes, we were aware of the danger of the congenital mitral valve problem that causes early death. The person we got Baxter from had been trying to eliminate that problem and we were lucky in that Baxter lived to be nearly 16 years.

  11. Katydid says

    @ Mano; so glad your breeder was responsible. Cavs are great family dogs and it’s tragic that the breed is in so much trouble. 16 years is extraordinary for a Cav.

    At my house, our family dog we got when the kids were small came to us when he was 5. We knew this because his first owner went to the pound and got a puppy for companionship shortly after her husband died. When she could no longer take care of him, her next-door neighbor who knew her well and had a rescue group took him and asked me to foster him while they tried to find him a home. He lived with us another 14 years (to 19) before old age claimed him and was healthy until his last year, when he became blind and deaf (an expected part of aging).

    My current dog (also from the pound) is clearly from someone’s breeding program. I got him as a very young adult and he had a docked tail and removed dewclaws (those ones that sit high on the leg and are vestigial). He’s had a host of physical issues including chronic skin allergies that have to be managed. These are in line with the breed.

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