A birthday with 3,233 dogs

What better than being under the big tent with thousands of purebred dogs?

A birthday with 3,233 dogs

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

One of the splendid aspects of proper dog shows is that almost all categories require the dogs to be “intact.” Which is to say, boys and girls must have all their bits and pieces. It’s very fashionable to support legislation for mandatory spaying and neutering (I personally think it preferable just to spay and neuter irresponsible or vicious owners and breeders) and in some cases it might be the best thing for your dog, although I can’t imagine why apart from health reasons. If you don’t want the seasonal inconvenience of a bitch in heat, buy a parakeet.

I’m not sure if dogs know when they are intact. It seems to me they walk more proudly, and certainly for the first couple of growth years having all their hormones allows proper development. The Brussels griffon that emerged recently from the elevator in the Hyatt Regency seemed to have a certain jauntiness sizing up a passing brace of female Salukis that his balls-off counterpart would not share. But who knows? The Brussels griffon with his beard and those wide black expressive eyes has always reminded me of a very randy professor I had at the University of Toronto, and that may cloud my judgment.

My scary birthday arrived and I gave myself a treat by escaping to the American Kennel Club/Eukanuba Championships in Long Beach, Calif., earlier this month. What better than being under the big tent with 3,233 purebred dogs? (And let me add a quick note to say that mixed breeds are a Very Good Thing, generally clever and engaging—and unlikely to be so plentiful if the surgical knives of the sterilization set get their way; see above. But AKC shows are about encouraging breed standards, so thoroughbreds only.)

I thought I had died and gone to heaven when on the way down from my room I went 12 floors with 12 paws: an Irish wolfhound, a dachshund and a Leonberger. We would have had a Doberman as well had its owner not looked rather snotty about all of us, as if long hair or short legs was a sign of degeneracy and a breed fault. The clientele of the Hyatt was split about 50/50, I reckon, between canines and humans, and doormen were politely waiting on four-legged guests bringing absolutely enormous amounts of luggage, including bed crates and favourite rugs—rather like Britney Spears bringing her own pillows.

Of course, dog shows are impossible as competitive events if you look at them logically. The AKC organizes dogs into seven groups according to their original purposes—hunting, herding, sporting etc., with a total of 167 recognized breeds and lots more to come when the AKC gets around to recognizing others on the waiting list, such as the xoloitzcuintli and my favorite outcast, the Caucasian ovcharka. I throw in the xoloitzcuintli as I had never heard of its existence until I got to Long Beach, and have utterly no idea how to pronounce it. The lady at the Meet the Breed booth says it is Mexican, hairless (thus no shedding), and considered primitive, but can, with socialization, become a wonderful companion and guard dog, though likely to climb or dig under any fence trying to contain it—which might obviate its guarding potential.

Still, how do you judge between first-rate examples of a beagle and a Tibetan mastiff or a Siberian husky and a Skye terrier? It cannot be done. This is as subjective as synchronized swimming or figure skating events at the Olympics. Nevertheless, at evening’s end on Dec. 5, a man in evening dress presented a large cup to the Best in Show. This year it was the Australian shepherd, a gorgeous dog, but come on, not superior to other herding dogs like the puli or old English sheepdog, never mind those masterpieces of loyalty and quick thinking—the border, rough and bearded collies. And, as if to demonstrate how arbitrary the choice, the same Australian shepherd was placed fourth in an earlier category at this event by a different judge.

I was naturally interested in my own dogs, the kuvaszok, a breed beyond comparison for humour, loyalty and affection. They have the singular beauty among livestock guardian dogs of a wonderful coat of curls and wavy crests with a mane around the neck—a coat in which their Best of Breed judge had utterly no interest. If only dogs could talk out loud:

“Here comes that bitch judge who freaks out if you’ve got curls. I suppose you’ve noticed how she only goes for straight hair blowouts—helmet hair with thickener. Watch me when she tries to look at my teeth.” I’ve never seen so many kuvaszok “excused” (which means dismissed for not letting the judge examine them). As expected, the single bouffant kuv won, though I must say he looked incredibly fab if not very kuvasz. Maybe he’s the American idea of a Hungarian dog.

Ah well. Beauty pageants are rarely fair, judges are only humans. This is, after all, a dog’s life.

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