I have loved dogs all my life. My parents had collies when I was born; over the years, as the dogs' lives stretched and ended and we cried, we added a Lhasa Apso mix, a purebred Siberian Husky, and a ruddy mutt with stubby legs who followed me home from school one day -- we didn't intend to keep him, but we were kidding ourselves. (We had cats, too, but they were cats.) Now, I have an impossibly sweet Rottweiler mix, and the worst part of my day is the look she gives me when I walk out the door to go to work: Why are you leaving me?
Sometimes, "work" is attending the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Westminster is the second-oldest sporting event in America, after only the Kentucky Derby; this is the sort of fact that Westminster impresses upon dog show tyros like me, the sort of fact that bores me but gets retained anyway. I'm more interested in a pair of numbers: the 2,076 dogs of 185 different breeds that were entered in the 2012 show earlier this week.
That led to the goal for my first Westminster: I would try to pet each of the 185 breeds over the two-day course of the show.
This proved impossible, for me, for a variety of reasons:
- I may love dogs, but at the outset of the show I could only readily identify about a third of the breeds. I'm an expert at the big, friendly dogs of the working and herding groups, but I get confused by the endless variety of spaniels and setters, and I've never liked small dogs enough to learn the terrier or toy groups.
- The dogs were shown in six rings spread across two levels of Madison Square Garden. The first four rings were in the arena where the Knicks and Rangers play; the other two in the theater two floors down. So while I chased Rottweilers and Bernese Mountain Dogs in the arena, I missed out on the Norwich Terriers and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels below.
- The benching area, where the dogs were housed and groomed before showing, was a disorganized mess (and, like the rings, split between the arena and the theater). If you missed the two Kuvaszok in the ring -- as I did -- your only hope was to find them in the benching area, where (by the way) any fan with a ticket could walk through. So you meandered through a crush of humanity and a thousand dogs, trying to find a specific dog that was very likely sleeping in its crate.
- There's an etiquette to petting dogs at a show. You're generally OK petting anything with a short coat, but breeds with longer fur are off limits until after they're shown, as their grooming process is long and delicate. At one point I was surrounded by 32 Golden Retrievers but couldn't pet any of them: it was an outer circle of Hell.
So I adjusted on the fly: "try to pet every breed" became "pet as many as possible." And a funny thing happened as I flailed around the most storied arena in sports: in between the friendly licks and silly interviews, I gained an appreciation -- if not a complete understanding -- of the people who show their dogs. As the owner of a rescued mutt, part of me sees Westminster as a grand exploitation of people who dedicate too much time and money to proving, essentially, that their canine has the best bones and fur as specified by an organization's eugenics code.
But there's a simpler explanation than that: they just really love their dogs. Their love manifests in an oddly specific way, but the feeling itself -- the emotional connection, the faithful companionship, the devastation when they're gone -- is the same as mine. We're not so different. None of us are.