back to the Black Table

Imagine a sporting event where you have no idea what the rules are, no concept of the judging criteria and no clue what's good or bad. Now take all that and add only the best of the best. Who are dogs, by the way. That's the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. It's the Super Bowl of dog shows. The Master's Tournament. And it took place at Madison Square Garden on Monday and Tuesday.

Before the primetime events (Best of Group, Best in Show) is the regular old Best of Breed. The floor of MSG is divided into four rings. In the one closest to us are more Rhodesian Ridgebacks than you can possibly imagine and tons of people inexplicably cheering. The judge feels up the dog and the handlers run around the ring. How to tell the difference between a bunch of Basset Hounds or Ridgebacks or Weimaraner? What does it all mean?

We have no idea, so it's time to follow the scent of dog shit and head down to the benching area. The Westminster is one of the few dog shows that is benched, meaning that the dogs are all in this giant


holding area, free to mingle with hardcore dog people and the regular folks whose dogs usually come from the SPCA.

There are dogs everywhere. A German Shorthaired Pointer is getting her photograph taken. (Dog shows are the easiest places to tell the bitches from the dogs. Nipples protrude. Scrotums bulge.) The Pointer looks as though she is constantly standing before bright lights on a yellow background being photographed all the time. She is so relaxed, she is drooling.

Though we missed the Working


Group showing on Monday, we do see an English Mastiff. It is huge and glorious. We spend much of the afternoon seeking out other giant dogs, but become convinced that most have gone home. This is depressing.

We pass the Borzoi aisle and notice a man fast asleep, stretched out next to his Borzoi on the bench, which is really more like a cubby. We are outraged that we followed MSG's rules and failed to bring a camera. Both human and dog are propped up with sequined pillows. The room is cavernous and loud, but they sleep right through it.

The din is comprised of human voices, not so much dogs. These dogs don't bark or growl or fuss. The crowd is such that people are forced to overtake spaces that should be reserved for the dogs. People are sitting on cages or tucked inside space on the bench.

We seek out the dogs we are in love with. The Terriers are boring (though frequent winners at the Westminster). A Bloodhound sniffs us discriminatingly, and he's a joy to pet. It must be hard to be a Bloodhound in New York. So many awful smells to process. A Basset Hound is lurking and we marvel at its ears and give it a pat on the back. A disapproving, dogless woman looks at us and says, "You should really ask the owner before you touch the dog." We thank her and move on, noticing that every owner we meet is perfectly happy to have us tactilely admire their dog. We love both the 13- and 15-


inch Beagles. We pass a Spinone Italiano; it looks like Tom Petty.

On the way out we pass a Belgian Sheepdog with the shiniest black coat ever. What does this dog eat? The owners are eating total crap. There are


cakes and cookies and snack mix and chips all over the place. Matt laments that he didn't bring photos of some Great Danes he knows to show to the Westminster dogs, just to see what they think. Back outside, over a beer, we determine they wouldn't think much. These show dogs are all about the zone. They could give a shit about the hundreds of dogs around them and the humans milling around, admiring. These dogs are trying to win a dog show, dammit.

Back in our seats (which are the cheap ones, for $40) and preparing for the big event and live broadcast on USA, we learn there are dog show hecklers. The junior handling competition is going on shortly before 8 p.m., for handlers between 10 and 17. The lone guy is jogging around the ring with his dog and from a little above us comes the taunt, "You run like a girl!" This poor guy isn't even safe at a dog show.

Westminster's Announcer tells the crowd that there are over 2,500 dogs in the show and that winning the Westminster is "dogdom's ultimate achievement in the Western Hemisphere," if not the world. Dogdom? We also learn that, at 129 years, the Westminster is the second-longest continuous sporting event in the country. The longest (by a year) is the Kentucky Derby, but Announcer gives the impression that horseracing is vulgar compared to Dogdom.

First up is the Sporting Group, with 28 dogs. Announcer explains the characteristics of every breed. The crowd cheers madly for the


Golden Retriever and almost as enthusiastically for the Irish Setter. These are dogs people have actually heard of, so they're easy to get behind. Matt also attributes the Golden's popularity to the success of the Air Bud franchise.

Announcer tells us that the English Setter is the "subject of some of the most beautiful canine art." Our dog art appreciation is limited to "Dogs Playing Poker," but we're so utterly ignorant we believe everything Announcer tells us.

Despite the Applausometer, the judge picks the German Shorthaired Pointer. We have no clue why, as all the dogs look pretty good. The Irish Setter starts jumping and twirling around on the way out of the


ring. It's the first time all day a dog has actually acted like a dog. The crowd loves it.

Time for a commercial! We're too far away, but we know that's Ron Reagan on the dais calling the competition for USA. We love Ron Reagan. He loves dogs. (We find out later that Ron Reagan wasn't working the show at all. Apparently, we had the wrong Reagan.)

During the commercial, the Westminster Kennel Club acknowledges some organization that provides therapy dogs. This would be boring, if not for a cameo by a Newfoundland named Josh, last year's Westminster winner. Josh resembles a bear. Matt sees him and screams "Yeah!" like he's at a Guided By Voices show. He compares the moment to when Sean Connery showed up at the end of Robin Hood, Prince of Theives.

Aileen misses the beginning of the Hound Group, but Matt is diligently taking notes. According to him, the crowd booed the Afghan Hound in support of our troops. We see our pal the Bloodhound, our crush the Basset Hound and our friends the 13- and 15-inch Beagles. The Black and Tan Coonhounds remind us simultaneously of beer and Where the Red Fern Grows.

The hounds can be kind of dull, so we concentrate on the handler. One is wearing a skirt apparently made of gold leaf. The women are all wearing sensible shoes, which look unfortunate when matched with pink suits. This is definitely all about the dogs. The Bloodhound wins. Matt's so thrilled he has to go to the bathroom.

Another commercial! We see some women in strapless dresses approaching the ring. Matt suggests they are fluffers, there to quell performance anxiety. They're actually winners of some sort of veterinary scholarship. Bor-ing. Fluffers it is.

The Herding Group is up. We don't like Collies very much, so this is pretty dull. Bearded Collies are all right, mostly because they resemble a fluffy blanket that ought to be smoking a pipe. But it's the


Old English Sheepdog who wins our hearts, here. We saw one close up in the benching area and wondered at its giant, round feet and blindingly long hair. A Border Collie wins the group. We are unimpressed. But we are eating chicken fingers, which sort of makes up for it.

Time for Best in Show. This is it. This is the one they named the movie after. The excitement level, for a bunch of people in an arena watching a dog show, is high. The Norfolk Terrier gets the biggest crowd response. Sure,


they're cute, but what of it? They're just little and pert. Eh. However, we'll take a ring full of Terriers if we don't have to look at the Pekingese anymore. The Pekingese, which won the Toy Group, is a dog that has two butts. Or looks like Renee Zellweger. Whichever.

So we've got Ass Dog, the boring Collie, the equally-boring Norfolk Terrier, the German Shorthaired Pointer, the Bloodhound, a Great Pyranees and a Tibetan Terrier. One of these dogs will be Best in Show.

Suddenly, this dog show begins to make a little sense. These dogs are standing up a little taller, walking a little jauntier. These dogs are performing. And the dog that absolutely kicks ass is the German Shorthaired Pointer. The Pointer looked a little run-of-the-mill in the Sporting Group, but put up against all those other Group Winners, she looks marvelous. She is definitely pointing. She is motionless and staring right at her handler, silently declaring to the crowd, "I am Dogdom." The judge, who looks mean, acts fast. She points at the Pointer, and that's that. Goodbye, Tedious Terrier. Farewell, Ass Dog. Sorry, Bloodhound. The Pointer is the Best.


Aileen Gallagher and Matt Dorfman were dismayed to learn it wasn't Free Dog Day at the Garden.