As a kid growing up in a home full of purebreds, I always rooted for my favorites when the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was on television. My first dog — and first word — was Mac, a Scottish Terrier. Then came the Doberman Pinscher named Tallen. Then the West Highland White Terriers we called Corky and Brandy (actually, my parents named them Kavin’s Colonel Corker III and Brandywine Mist because they thought it made us sound like the rich people on TV). Another Dobie, Tanner, followed them into our family before I left home for the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Twenty years later, I’ve shared my own home with a slew of mutts. First came Floyd, the Beagle mix I bought for $35 from a farmer who was going to drown him in a river. Then there was Stella, the Pit Bull mix who ended up living with my ex-husband (whose furniture I hope, and believe, she continues to chew). Today, I share my king-size bed with two gorgeous 50-pound Heinz 57s, Blue and Ginger, and have fostered nearly 20 puppies and dogs who needed a way station between high-kill shelters and permanent homes.
The past few years, I’ve been connecting the dots between the dogs I loved as a girl and the ones whose stories I now understand as an adult — and I’ve exposed a lot of hidden truths that have helped countless dogs I’ll never meet. My 2012 book, Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth, helped lead to the dismantling of a gas chamber in a North Carolina animal-control facility where Blue was nearly killed. My new book, The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers, led me to places that many animal-welfare advocates never even think of going.
One of those places was the Westminster dog show. Being in the stands at Madison Square Garden in 2014 gave me a whole new understanding of what the show really is. In person, it was easy to see the giant marketing event filled with the buzzwords that get thousands of Scotties, Westies, Dobies, and other purebred dogs into homes each year. I listened to Westminster’s in-house announcer, Michael LaFave, and realized I was hearing references to ancestry, tradition, and royalty again and again and again. Without the distraction of the TV announcers that I’d always heard at home, the repetition of “history” buzzwords was unmistakable.
A few days later, I watched the televised version on DVR, and I paid attention to at-home announcer David Frei in a way I’d never even thought to listen. I heard similar “history” buzzwords even more frequently. I also was able to pinpoint two additional categories of buzzwords: “superstar” (pretty much anything you’d hear an announcer say at the Oscars or ESPYs) and “conformation,” which is what the dog show claims to be about.
Just to make sure this marketing mania wasn’t a 2014 one-off, I repeated the exercise with the 2015 show. I watched at home with a notebook and pen, adding a mark every time LaFave, Frei, or his TV co-host Mary Carillo made a history, superstar, or conformation reference.
It turns out that during the group events leading up to the “Best in Show” finale, TV audiences rarely go more than two minutes on average without hearing these references repeated in a six-hour buzzword blast during two nights of primetime programming.
That’s not just a marketing trick, I thought. That’s a drinking game!
Here are three versions of the game that the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has long been playing with us all: history, superstar, and conformation.
Set the rules on vocabulary. You have two choices: Drink only on specific words like “aristocracy,” “royal,” and “King Tut,” and “Phoenicians,” or drink every time an announcer references anything that happened before, say, 1950. Or 1850. Or even 1750. If you go that last route, then you get to drink when the announcer says something far-out like, “This breed was supposedly on Noah’s Ark.”
Use the Non-Sporting Group as your training round. References to history and tradition come, on average, once every three and a half minutes during this judging round, which includes Boston Terriers, Dalmatians, and Miniature Poodles. Pace yourself here, and consider eating something between sips while you still have the chance.
Prepare for the Herding, Sporting, and Terrier Groups to separate the big dogs from your pack of drinking buddies. The references to history and tradition fly faster in these rounds. Depending on your rules, you might be downing a shot every two minutes as you watch the Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, and Scottish Terriers.
Get the mattresses ready during the Working and Toy Groups. These are the biggest party, with references to history and tradition flying an average of one per minute when the announcers describe breeds like Great Danes, Siberian Huskies, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. My favorite from 2015 was Toy dogs being described as “holy messengers,” apparently having hung around with the apostles back in the day.
Take bonus shots for the most memorable phrases. The best one I heard during the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was Frei saying, of the Tibetan Mastiff, “a dog that used to hang out with Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.” Any dog who helped plunder the Balkans or take over central Asia certainly deserves a toast of her own.
Set the rules on vocabulary. If you don’t want to get hammered, then drink only when an announcer says the words “size,” “color,” and “coat.” If you’re looking to get happy fast, then be a little more liberal and also drink on “originally bred for,” “the standard says,” and “varieties.” If you want to end up facedown on the floor, drink any time there’s a reference to any physical characteristic. That way, you get to sip on the Shih Tzu, which apparently has “kind of an arrogant carriage.”
Use the Hound and Terrier Groups as your training ground. These are the only groups where you get more than a two-minute break, on average, between conformation references. Yes, there are two types of Beagles, three types of Dachshunds, five types of Coonhounds, and a slew of Terriers, but the announcers don’t spend as much time here as in other groups explaining what characteristics make them different.
Consider also drinking on the “freak dog” references during the Non-Sporting Round. That way, you can toast when the announcers say the French Bulldog has “bat ears,” the Norwegian Lundehund has “at least six toes on each foot,” and the Lowchen is a particularly brush-worthy specimen because “the standard says no trimming, so all of that hair stays.”
Have 911 on speed dial in case you experience liver poisoning during the Toy Group. It’s easy to understand why the conformation references fly an average of every 1.3 minutes during this round: Many of the Toy dogs have been “bred down” to make them smaller. The Chihuahua is the smallest of all purebred dogs, and the Yorkshire Terrier “used to be a lot bigger” before the standard was rewritten.
In honor of the liquid in your glass, take an extra sip every time a Sporting Group dog is compared to a boat, duck, or other water animal. You’ll hear conformation buzzwords about every 1.7 minutes in this round, and if you drink on “paddle-shaped paws,” “webbed feet,” and “otter-like tail,” then by the time the group ends with the Weimaraners and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons, you’ll be needing a bath yourself.
Set the rules on vocabulary. The idea is to drink every time an announcer says something that you might also hear at the Oscars or the ESPY awards, but that can become problematic during the Herding Group, when you’ll hear references flying about once every minute and may go into alcohol-induced blackout. An alternative is to drink only on specific words associated with sports stars, like “athletic” and “strong,” but that would leave you out on athlete-inspired phrases, including my favorite from 2015 (which could have just as easily been about Super Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning as it was about the Cane Corso): “We see them out here for two minutes. We don’t see all the conditioning and training.”
Understand that this version of the game offers no chance to pace yourself, except during the Sporting Group. All the other groups have superstar references flying, on average, less than two minutes apart. The Sporting Group gives you an average of two minutes to recover between sips, but it also offers some of the best shot-worthy gems that you might hear on the Oscars red carpet. One of the funniest from 2015 was, “Right now he’s thinking, ‘Can you lay off my nose?’” (Irish Setter or Owen Wilson?)
Consider a group shot when the dog is described as doing what celebs do off-screen. There’s the Shih Tsu, perhaps also a philanthropist: “They’re not just hair and glitz.” And the Maltese, who needs a family like the Kardashians, “wealthy enough to buy the greatest hair-care products.” And the Belgian Malinois: “He likes watching the news on TV,” just like George Clooney. And don’t forget the Icelandic Sheepdog, “a model for a dog-products company.” Ellen DeGeneres and Halo, anyone?
Earn a five-minute break if you can apply a reference to a specific film or television show. These are rare gems, deserving of a few minutes’ rest if you can spot them. “I don’t know if he gets paid for it, but he loves to chase geese, deer, and groundhogs off a local golf course.” That could be the Giant Schnauzer or, of course, Bill Murray in Caddyshack. Another great one from 2015 was, “That black pigment is beautiful, but they’re supposed to be pure white.” Westminster’s announcers were talking about Samoyed, but they just as easily could have been looking at the nominees for the 2016 Academy Awards.
Do a group shot every time a celebrity’s name is stated outright — human or canine. In 2015, the human references included Madonna, Brad Pitt, Grace Kelly, and Roy Rogers. Among the dogs, listen for names like Matisse (a Portuguese Water Dog), Sky (a Wire Fox Terrier), Nathan (a Bloodhound), Miss P and Uno (both Beagles), Swagger (an Old English Sheepdog), and Banana Joe (an Affenpinscher). If you really want to hose your buddies, then assign a celebrity dog name to each player. Make sure you give away Swagger and Nathan to whomever you want out of the game first: announcer David Frei loves them both and seems to say their names more often than the word Westminster itself.
The Westminster Dog Show runs Feb. 15 to 16, and the “Meet and Compete” events take place Feb. 13.
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About the author: Kim Kavin is author of The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers, coming May 2 from Pegasus Books. A review to be published February 15 in Library Journal says: “Essential reading for all dog lovers, this balanced work will become the standard on this topic.” You can pre-order The Dog Merchants on Amazon.