The calming pleasures of watching the Westminster Dog Show on YouTube
The best TV shows are typically spoiler-proof, their pleasures unaffected by knowing about endings, surprise deaths, or most every plot development before watching. So my saying that Siba, a sleek, regal standard poodle with black hair poofs styled like boots, won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Dog Show on Tuesday should not dissuade you from marathoning every round of competition on YouTube after the fact. Its rewards are too undeniable and too detached from results to give up now.
Even if you think you may know a decent number of dog breeds, the distinction between being a dog person and being a dog person, the sort of weirdo portrayed in 2000 mockumentary Best in Show who gives their life to it, is clear after just a few minutes. There’s considerable repressed urgency on display here from everyone involved, from the handlers on down to announcer Michael LaFave’s imposing baritone. No handler to my knowledge really has two left feet, but just as strange zooted-out anthropology, this is the kind of thing you want to prolong over multiple nights or weeks.
As a millennial cord cutter with some hobbies outside of paying attention to dogs and weird pageantry, watching the entire show live wasn’t ever going to be feasible. Not counting the masters agility championship on Saturday — also worthy in its own right — Westminster programming typically hogs three consecutive full days on Fox Sports and its sister networks. But last night, I activated a Fox Sports preview pass for an hour — largely to have something other than refreshing the New Hampshire primary results to think about.
Just dropping into the middle of the sporting group last night for an hour was a beguiling experience. I can’t intuitively say that I’d known what a clumber spaniel was before last night, despite recognizing and falling in love with Howie’s thick, rubbery flaps of snout and drool careening around in slow-motion. That kind of thing is universal. Soon after, the broadcast also introduced us to the category of ASCOB cocker spaniels, or any solid color other than black.
The bizarre verbiage, of course, isn’t limited to just the breed names, but the registered kennel names. Functioning something like the Screen Actors Guild, in which Michael Douglas becomes Michael Keaton, these dogs go by common names — Siba, Howie, King — but register beneath the line with a nonsensical string of words, sometimes modeled after the kennel or particular litter in which they were born. Siba is Stone Run Afternoon Tea; Howie is GCHB CH Paradise Island Breeze. There can’t be any duplicates, and aside from character count and abbreviation guidelines, these can largely be whatever the owner chooses.
The Westminster Dog Show is also one of the only compelling “separate art from the artist” arguments that I’m willing to entertain. Peta and other activist groups have called attention to ethical concerns associated with dog shows, namely their handling and preparation, but further the dangers caused by pure breeding many of these dogs for a specific appearance. In a press release associated with this year’s dog show, Peta warned that the sort of specialized breeding sometimes “causes painful and life-threatening congenital defects, like hip dysplasia (in German shepherds), brachycephalic syndrome (in pugs), and glaucoma (in beagles).” Just during the short segment I watched last night, an Irish Spaniel named Simone was removed from the show for lunging at a judge. The commentators remarked that it really is surprising how some other less-seasoned dogs aren’t traumatized by the environment of thousands of onlookers at Madison Square Garden.
But ultimately, the show will go on, and these dogs will continue to have expressive, lovable faces and deeply alien shapes. You track where some of last year’s favorites like Bono the Havanese or Thor the Bulldog finish this year, or mournfully Google where the personified-looking longhaired dachshund and 2019 snub Burns ended up this year (working as a therapy dog!) It’s one of the only times where you may get to marvel at a dachshund, poodle, beagle, and french bulldog all in the same place and wonder how they’re the same species and what they make of all this.