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Looking for Mr. Goodbark

Meditations on Best in Show

“To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.”—Aldous Huxley

 

An enormous inflated pooch, two stories high, black and googly-eyed, greeted visitors to the Montreal International Dog Show, held last November at Place Bonaventure. Kids bounced on the animal’s giant paws, oblivious that the dog was less blow-up toy than product placement for the event sponsor, Eukanuba Dog Foods.

In the shadow of the Eukanuba inflatable were a few dozen malamutes, sled-ready and wolfish in their cages; nearby, a cluster of retrievers up on “benches” (card tables equipped with noose-type apparatuses to secure the animals) were being blow-dried and preened by a team of stylists. There were poodles, bloodhounds, German shepherds, Great Danes and pugs, as well as huge, jowly Hound of the Baskervilles types, which prowled about like restless Highlanders before their turn at the caber toss.

Then, of course, there were the owners: registering, grooming, stroll-ing around attached by leashes to their pets. A giant mustachioed fellow lurked in the shadows with an immaculately styled poodle; some stoic matron stood by, oblivious, while her corgi pissed surreptitiously on another dog’s leg. And only at a dog show could a matching jacket and skirt adorned with sequined Dalmatians be worn with sincerity, glittering like a beacon of hope for all things earnest and true.

My only prior exposure to this facet of the dog business was the Christopher Guest mockumentary Best in Show, which I understood to be a tongue-in-cheek send-up of kennel culture. I asked Arthur Newman, the event organizer and president of Montreal’s United Kennel Club, about the film, expecting condemnation or, at the very least, curt dismissal. Without missing a beat, Newman responded, “That’s dog shows. That’s who we are. That’s what these things are like.”

I followed this up with professional handler Graeme Burdon, who agreed. Guest and his co-producers “went on the dog show circuit around the States for a year,” explained Burdon. “The movie is an exaggeration, but it’s an exaggeration of reality.”

Speaking with Burdon, he seems relaxed and jovial, a different creature altogether from the man who leads dogs past the judges with the bitchy efficiency of a Victorian schoolmarm. During the week, Burdon runs All Creatures Great and Small, an enterprise that collects deceased animals from veterinary clinics and personal residences all over Greater Montreal. On Fridays, Burdon loads up his
van with a week’s worth of frozen carcasses and heads to a specialized pet crematorium just outside Toronto; the ashes are later returned to their respective families in earthenware vases, complete with inscribed brass plates. The whole service costs $150, which seems well worth the money, considering the care that Burdon dedicates to this potentially grim task; his clients certainly appreciate the effort. “It’s the little things,” Burdon explains. “A lot of guys will keep the animals in garbage bags—I decided sky-blue bags just look a lot more respectful.”

Graeme Burdon’s take on what he refers to as “the show business” is that of a true insider. When he was growing up, his mother bred Irish setters; Burdon began showing them at age ten. “What you have to understand,” he says, “is that a lot of these [dog show] people are horribly insecure. They find security in their relationships with their dogs because the dogs will always trust them, always come back no matter what.” Burdon has also worked at the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and seen first-hand the abuse that pets are willing to take. “Dog shows give some people a chance to feel good about themselves, to feel like they’re doing something with their dogs—which is alltrue. It’s just that sometimes it becomes people’s lives, and has the same symptoms of any addiction. I’ve seen homes mortgaged three times over to pay for a show-dog’s campaign.”

The impetus for owners to show their animals, then, seems to rest on a sense of intimate partnership. Michel Beaulieu, whose dog Max performed well in the Obedience event, describes his relationship with the twenty-month-old German shepherd as if the dog were a child: “We are so close. I am in love with my dog.” Watching Michel and Max, that much was certainly clear; the two strode around the ring as one, stopping, starting, weaving between obstacles with a sort of functional fluidity, both of them steely-eyed and focused. In the Utility portion of the competition, the dog locates and retrieves objects infused with its owner’s scent. Here, Max excelled, trotting proudly back and forth between Beaulieu and a pile of wooden blocks, fetching the correct object every time. When the event was over, the staid, purposeful demeanour of the two retreated, and Max sprung up into a delighted Beaulieu’s arms, tongue-lolling and happy.

In their moments of affection, Michel and Max reminded me strongly of my relationship with my own dog, The Old Man, or at least of how we used to be. It was fourteen years ago that my mom rescued him from the pound as a collective Christmas gift to the family. Part collie, part hound, he cost just over forty bucks, but has proven far more resilient than the eighty-dollar jeans I received that same year. Compared to the prices of today’s top pedigrees—a trained, neutered Border collie can go for well over two thousand dollars—The Old Man was quite a steal. As a puppy he delighted us with the same sort of happy energy exhibited by the purebred Max. These days, though, there’ssomething slightly wearier about the way he carries himself, as if the weight of the years is piling up, pushing him down. He no longer jumps up or seems too taken with me at all; instead, he spends most of his time curled up on the couch in my mom’s basement.

What The Old Man gets up to down there is anyone’s guess. My sister claims to have caught him (in his younger, virile days) humping away at an afghan blanket given to us by some well-intentioned but clueless family acquaintance. This despite early castration. At a near-geriatric fifteen, one would assume that The Old Man’s sexual desires have waned, and that humping of any description remains a distant memory.

At dog shows, animals must be “intact” (i.e., not neutered) to be considered for Best in Show. As such, the recent advent of Neuticles implants, which boast “the texture and firmness of actual animal testicles,” could cause a problem. I asked Graeme Burdon about the possibility of an animal with fake tackle competing. He scoffed: “A good judge’ll know.” Later, observing the rigorous technique of an adjudicator between the hind legs of a Great Dane, I realized he was probably right.

Common logic used to have it that one human year equals seven dog years—as if for dogs the earth zips its way around the sun every two months, aging them at a strange and fantastic rate. By this rationale, The Old Man should be a hundred and five years old, a veritable antique of doggiedom. Recently, however, a new and more reasonable system has been introduced, with rules as follows: ten and a half dog years for each of the first two human years, then four dog years for each successive calendar year—making The Old Man a cool and nubile seventy-three.

We are perhaps so invested in the mortality of our proverbial best friends because of a lengthy history of co-existence and companionship. Human beings have been keeping dogs domestically for well over ten thousand years. Domestication likely evolved from the training of wolves by hunters in western Asia, a partnership in which both man and animal were afforded the spoils of their co-operative efforts. To this day, a dog’s role in society remains built on similar fundamentals of reciprocation—a sort of “you scratch my back, I’ll pee on the disagreeable neighbour’s begonias” arrangement that satisfies the needs of both owner and animal.

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If dog shows are ostensibly a means of expressing the connection between people and their pets, what of the other human-dog relationships in contemporary culture? Do people co-ordinate their outfits with their dogs for similar reasons? And, beyond the simple explanation of “I am in love with my dog,” what does this sort of relationship imply in a greater, societal sense? What does “Woof!” really mean?

Connie Wilson, editor-in-chief of Modern Dog magazine (dedicated to “urban dogs and their companions”), attributes the changing role of dogs in society to “increasingly alienated urban lifestyles.”

“People are turning to their dogs for companionship and to meet their emotional needs,” she says. Emotional needs run the gamut, but the fashion-oriented look of Modern Dog (women make up 70 percent of the magazine’s readership) seems to suggest that man’s best friend is becoming woman’s best fashion accessory. “Love of dogs, like all things, is partly motivated by a visual aesthetic,” concedes Wilson. “It can be undeniably chic and pleasing to see a well-dressed woman avec chien.”

The targeted audience of “urban dog companions” is made up of people who often treat their dogs as surrogate offspring. “Empty nesters and people choosing not to have children are often keeping dogs,” says Wilson. For independent twentysomethings whose natural nurturing instinct is battling against the restrictions of conventional family life, a dog seems the ideal solution, providing the same sense of parentage, but without the restrictions and responsibility associated with children. In Quebec especially, marriage and birth rates are on a steady decline, and the changing role of dogs is in keeping with the trend toward non-traditional interpretations of family. How do a few walks and some poop-scooping compare to eighteen years of child rearing for the stylish, autonomous young urbanite?

Pretty well, it seems. The extreme animal-owner identification that has both inspired Modern Dog and sustained its success is no surprise, and can be traced to the changing role of dogs in Western households over the past twenty-five years. The rise in pet ownership in the 1980s inspired a number of studies, which revealed that owners were increasingly projecting positive human characteristics onto their dogs, describing them as “trusting,” “loyal,” “faithful” and “friendly.” Reinhold Bergler’s seminal Man and Dog explored how dogs are seen by their owners as everything from companions to protectors to surrogate caregivers, highlighting the tendency for people to make dogs into what they want or (perhaps more significantly) into what they need them to be. “Dogs are no longer relegated to the backyard,” says Connie Wilson, “but are considered members of the family.”

Wilson is quick to remind me, though, that her magazine is not meant to be taken too seriously. While it regularly features a wide array of dog products and accessories, she recognizes that many of those items are actually pretty amusing. “If someone wants to go out and purchase a particular item, great, but we’re also pleased if the reaction is ‘Check this out! I can’t believe they have this for dogs!’”

Such bemused wonderment must surely have been anticipated by Japanese toymaker Takara when it launched the Bow-Lingual. Featured in Time’s “Coolest Inventions of 2002” and rated Import of the Year by Reader’s Digest, the Bow-Lingual is a device that, the company claims, can translate a dog’s bark into human language. The gadget consists of a wireless microphone and a receiver that analyzes acoustic frequencies and displays the translated results on an LCD screen.

Obviously I was intrigued—who wouldn’t be?—by the prospect of playing Dr. Doolittle to The Old Man. So this past Christmas, I went ahead and bought one, joining the over half of all North American pet owners who give gifts to their animals over the winter holidays. I took it back to my childhood home, eager to try it out on our ailing family dog. Sadly, once wired for speech, The Old Man lacked the Zen mastery and oneness with all living things I was hoping for. All he did was sniffle a bit. After a while, frustrated, I leaned in and barked into the thing myself. A few seconds later, a message appeared on the screen: “I want to help.”

What devices such as the Bow-Lingual essentially amount to (beyond the opportunity to tap into a $31 billion industry) is yet another instance of owners trying to bridge the gap between themselves and their animal companions. However, it largely ignores the important realm of non-verbal communication: woofs and yelps and whines are only one of myriad forms of canine self-expression. The Bow-Lingual does feature a “body language” function, but most people are already well aware that tail wagging implies happiness. Beyond the range of our perception is dogs’ high olfactory sensitivity—a great deal of canine communication involves scent, from peeing in order to mark territory to releasing gas from the anal sacs when frightened or distraught.

Anything that can level the ground, that can further deepen the bond between master and pet, seems to be the order of the day. From dressing our dogs up like people to treating them to Christmas presents to competing alongside them at shows, we as a race have become obsessed with humanizing animals. Ten thousand years of coexistence and mutual reliance have resulted in a relationship that extends well beyond its roots in physical survival.

I don’t know which dog won Best in Show at the 2003 Montreal International Dog Show. To be quite honest, what interested me far more, surrounded by people and their dogs, was the pervasive sense that, regardless of how the affection manifests itself, the original basis for the domestication of dogs holds true to this day. There remains a mutually beneficial relationship between people and pups, one in which needs are met by both parties. For dog owners such as Michel Beaulieu, whose approach with Max seemed as much one of companionship as one of competition, the connection between man and beast occupies the same realm as the connection between a proud parent and child.

The vet has told us The Old Man could pass away any day now, and part of me hoped that it would happen while I was home for Christmas, sixty-two dog years after my family scooped him out of his cage at the pound. Since then, we have provided The Old Man with the food, shelter and stimulation—tennis balls to fetch, blankets to hump, Bow-Linguals— that we feel he needs. It is less easy to articulate what he has given us in return; we are not, I hope, horribly insecure and in want of an emotional crutch. But what is it about scratching him on the belly, getting him to do that thing where he pumps his leg like a bony, hairy piston, that I find so enjoyable? Is it my own satisfaction in his happiness? Or, perhaps, what it amounts to is really just another expression of something innate to humans and many other animals: the need to feel appreciated by another living being.