In his new book Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred, journalist Josh Dean details the year he spent following Jack, a champion Australian Shepherd, through the dog-show circuit. Dean — a contributor to Maxim, Rolling Stone, and other high-profile magazines — became intimately acquainted with the smell of wet paws and hairspray.
CONTEST ALERT! Josh has kindly given Dogster readers a chance to win a copy of Show Dogs. Read the interview below and find out how you can win at the end!
Dogster: So Jack’s husband-and-wife handlers, Heather Bremmer and Kevin Bednar, just let you follow them around?
Josh: Surprisingly, yes. When I first got the idea to write this book, I couldn’t figure out how to get started. Heather and Kevin had a good website and they looked very successful, so I e-mailed them. Heather sent me back an e-mail that was kind of cold and standoffish — but then she called me and we talked.
It turns out that a dog-show person used to come out to shows and send her weird e-mails about what she was wearing — so she was worried that I was some creep. But then she did some checking up, and realized that I was actually a journalist and not a stalker.
From that point onward, I totally credit her and Kevin for being so trusting of me. How many people out there would let someone follow them around with a notebook? Unflattering moments are bound to happen. And they didn’t know what kind of book I was going to write. But they were great.
The dog whose career you followed was an Australian Shepherd named Jack. Did you have any history with Australian Shepherds?
No, so I had no idea what to expect. Dog breeds are a very personal territory. I knew that if I focused on one dog and one breed in my book, there would be a very good chance that everyone who doesn’t like Australian Shepherds wouldn’t like the book. But that hasn’t been the case. I’ve been hearing good things from Poodle people and terrier people.
What characterizes a winner?
There’s a certain star quality. You see a little bit of theater in these dogs: They’re aware that what they’re doing is important, and they like it. You see this a lot in Poodles and a little bit in terriers. That’s not so surprising, because terriers are rodent hunters, so they’re very aggro and anxious. And Poodles are very smart and they look so outrageous.
Part of what I liked about Jack was that he had a little sparkle and the kind of personality that you see in dogs that win Best in Show. When Jack was “on,” there was an edge about him that judges really appreciated. The downside of Jack was that sometimes he just didn’t care.
Which parts of the movie Best in Show are accurate?
Some people in the dog-show world are sensitive about that film, but a lot strangely appreciate it, because even if it was backhanded attention, at least it was attention and validation. And Best in Show is not all that inaccurate. So some people figure: If it makes me aware enough to laugh at myself, then that’s a good thing.
It’s accurate in that, in the dog-show world, there’s a level of suspension of rational, logical thinking. There’s a fair amount of spending more money than you can afford, and caring to an irrational degree about the success of your dog. But there are worse things to do in this world than worry about your dog.
What do you think of activists who protest against dog shows?
Some people compare dog shows to Toddlers and Tiaras, but that’s not fair, because kids are being sexualized in that show, and that’s creepy. A child that young can’t make a choice. Okay, neither can dogs — but dogs really like having fun. Being in shows is a game they play, and dogs don’t really care if they lose.
There’s this really intense human-dog bond. Dogs recognize things in our faces, because we created them and they grew up alongside us for 10,000 or 15,000 or 40,000 years. Dogs just want to be fed and loved. They understand us the way no other species does, so they want to make us happy in ways that no other species do — so they really like challenges that they think will make us happy. They’re sharp. They like games that lead to rewards. They learn that if they do a series of things that a human has asked them to do, there’s a reward at the end.
That’s why there’s nothing inherently cruel about any of this. When I see people protesting, I think they just don’t get it. The protesters say, “You put dogs into crates.” Well, most dogs don’t mind their crates. Wolves are den animals, and a crate is like a dog’s den.
What about purebreds? Did meeting all those show dogs ever make you think that human folly has produced what are essentially freaks?
No. It’s hard to argue that we haven’t really messed up some breeds. Some can’t reproduce. Some can’t breathe. Some have hip displasia. These breeds were created by us, by humans.
Breeders are now very conscientious about trying to make breeds as healthy as they can. Genetic testing has helped a lot. If a certain dog shows a gene for a certain type of health problem, they don’t let that dog reproduce. That being said, French Bulldogs can’t mate. Everyone loves them, but left to their own devices they can’t reproduce. So should we let them die out? Is that any better? This is pretty fraught territory.
We know about rigged game shows and drug-popping athletes. What’s the dark underbelly of dog shows?
Besides the backbiting and politicking and people talking smack about others, there is some actual cheating. According to American Kennel Club rules, you’re not supposed to use things like hairspray and chalk on dogs, but nearly every white dog out there — his hair’s been chalked. And if you happen to meet a judge that day who feels like being a stickler about these rules, you’re done.
Look at the Poodles on the show circuit. There’s no way they’d look like that unless you hairsprayed the hell out of them. Then there’s the really bad cheating, which is dyeing dogs. It’s bad because if the whole idea of dog shows is to put out the best specimen of a particular breed, and certain color patterns are not preferable, and you’re dyeing a dog, then you’re misrepresenting what you really have. If in a certain breed the ears are supposed to prick up and they flop over, some people use prosthetics that actually prop up the ears. And surgeries have been done on tails to make them stand up. It’s not common, and it’s hard to detect — and that’s going too far.
When you cheat like that, you’re hurting the breeding stock. If you misrepresent a dog by dyeing it or altering its ears or tail and then that dog wins lots of ribbons, everyone will want the offspring of that dog. Soon it will be reproducing like mad, and the puppies will inherit its actual color patterns or floppy ears or saggy tail. That’s where cheating can be dangerous.
We have two copies of Show Dog to give away to two lucky Dogster readers. To enter, simply tell us which fantasy dog-show award your furry pal would win. Supreme Slobberer? Most Humanoid Grin? Most Vigorous Tail Wagger? Get creative!
Please make sure we can contact you by using your Disqus account to comment, leaving us your e-mail, or making sure your social account settings allow us to message you. We’ll pick our favorite answers on Monday, June 11, at noon PST.