The World Of Dog Shows53:17

This article is more than 9 years old.

With Anthony Brooks in for Tom Ashbrook.

With Westminster this week, we’ll look at the rarefied world of show dogs.

Veni Vidi Vici, a Doberman pinscher, competes in the working group, which she later won, during the 136th annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, in New York. (AP)
Veni Vidi Vici, a Doberman pinscher, competes in the working group, which she later won, during the 136th annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, in New York. (AP)

This week a pug-nosed Pekingese named Malachy won Best in Show at the Westminster dog Show. But who are these eccentric people who devote their lives to these over-pampered animals? Whacky weirdos, perhaps, but in his new book, Josh Dean offers a nuanced portrait of one of this country’s more colorful sub-cultures.

Two million dogs compete in more than 11-hundred sanctioned dog shows. It’s a story of breeders, handlers, promoters, judges, doggy hair-stylists, and a loveable Australian Shepherd named Jack.

This hour, On Point: Show Dog — and the story of a near perfect purebred.
-Anthony Brooks


Josh Dean, author of Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred.

David Fitzpatrick, co-owner and handler of Malachy, the Pekingese that won best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Tuesday.

From The Reading List

The New York Times "In triumph, Malachy relaxed, splaying himself on a table for his news conference. If you looked hard, or close enough, you could see his little eyes. His face was framed by a coat that gave him the look of a 1960’s guru — or perhaps Cousin Itt’s pet."

The Daily Beast "Among the many things you probably didn’t know about top show dogs—the ones that contend in competitions like Westminster, which begins Feb. 13—is that they are heavily advertised. Just as movie studios and nominated celebrities place "For Your Consideration" ads during Oscar season to sway Academy voters, show-dog owners buy ads glorifying their dogs to influence contest judges. These show-dog vanity ads appear in a range of magazines (and increasingly websites) created to serve mostly as vehicles for them."

Photos: Top Dog

Here you can find a gallery of photos submitted by On Point fans.

Malachy, a Pekingese, winner of the best in show title at the136th Annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show, takes a rest after eating a chicken and rice meal at Sardi's Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012 in New York. (AP)
Malachy, a Pekingese, winner of the best in show title at the136th Annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show, takes a rest after eating a chicken and rice meal at Sardi's Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012 in New York. (AP)
Show Dog Author Josh Dean. (Kate Lacey Photography)
Show Dog Author Josh Dean. (Kate Lacey Photography)

Excerpt: Show Dog

Chapter Seven
Fantastically Rich People
Do the Darnedest Things:
A Brief History of Dog Shows

So enthusiastic is the average fancier today over the beauty and the wonder of his own dog that he sees him for the most part as the exponent of a breed unique among all other breeds; to him, other breeds may not even exist.

—Josephine Z. Rine, mid-twentieth-century dog writer

Dog shows first appeared on the scene in England during the Victorian era, and you can still see that period’s patrician influence in the floppy hats and natty attire that the sport’s old guard love to trot out for big events like Westminster. The first dog show ever held seems to have occurred on June 28, 1859, when a group of hunters gathered in the town of Newcastle upon Tyne and picked over sixty dogs from just two classes: pointers and setters. It wasn’t that they were being choosy; these were just the only dogs anyone involved owned at the time. Winners were given guns in lieu of trophies.

A second show was held in November of that year in the town of Birmingham,
and its organizers expanded the field by a full one-third, tossing spaniels into the mix. A year later the Birmingham show welcomed hounds for the first time, and we were off and running. The National Dog Show Birmingham, as it was called, survives to this day, with far more company for those hounds and spaniels. It is considered to be the world’s oldest dog show and is held every year in May at the Staffordshire County show ground with a field that typically features more than ten thousand dogs. More than three times the size of Westminster.

In those early days, there weren’t really standards for the breeds; the dogs’ owners probably couldn’t have told you exactly what breed their animals were, because no one asked such questions. He was, for instance, probably just a red-colored foxhunting hound, and since the progenitors of shows were hunters, the real measure of that dog was how well he performed at his particular job.

Things began to formalize in 1874, upon publication of the first Kennel Club stud book, which included a code of rules that dictated how a dog show should be conducted, as well as a calendar of events that listed a full year’s worth of shows—all two of them.

Here in the United States, we were too busy spearing each other with bayonets to make time for something as frivolous as selecting the finest dogs, so it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War that things got moving. And we owe it all to Mr. P. H. Bryson, a furniture dealer from Memphis, Tennessee, 1 credited in a history of the Memphis Kennel Club as “the First Advocate of Dog Shows in America” (their caps, not mine). Like most able-bodied men of his day, Bryson served in the war, and he survived his service, but just barely. He was so badly wounded that when army doctors discharged him from a military hospital, it was to “go home to die so that he might have a decent burial.” Once home, Bryson went to see his family doctor, the honorable D. D. Saunders, and when the doctor got a look at the skeletal presence in his office, a 110-pound weakling who “could not walk a hundred yards without pausing to rest,” he told Bryson his only hope of carrying on was to try to rebuild his strength, and he prescribed exercise—in particular hunting, with the help and companionship of a bird dog.

Bryson went out and got himself a gun and a dog, a “bobbed-tail Pointer,” and commenced killing birds. The exercise, and the dog, saved his life. His vigor returned, and he put on a hundred pounds. Bryson and his brother would move on to setters, importing top specimens from England, and founded the Bryson Setter Kennels. But hunting and breeding weren’t enough for old P. H. Bryson. He wanted to show his dogs. Bryson began a campaign to get the sport off the ground, lobbying via a series of articles in the magazine Turf, Field & Farm, which despite its name was not a periodical about sod. Apparently people were reading, because before the Bryson brothers could even put together their own show, the Illinois State Sportsmen Association beat them to it, staging America’s first-ever dog show, in Chicago, on June 4, 1874. It featured just twenty-one dogs, all of them setters and pointers.

Lacking any template or rules, organizers were making things up as they went along. Instead of a winner, the three judges merely pronounced critiques of the dogs presented. All the dogs were complimented by the judging panel, but the best review seemed to go to Exhibit 5, J. H. Whitman’s Frank and Joe—a pair of three-year-old “black and steel mixed Setters, bred by Hilliard, from imported Gordon Setters.” The judges’ report proclaimed that “the committee, among so many well appearing dogs, find it hard to make an award, but incline to the opinion that this pair of animals are entitled to the highest marks of credit as the best pair of Setters exhibited.” It wasn’t pithy, but it was kindly received.

America’s second dog show was to be held a few weeks later, in Oswego, New York, but this one didn’t go off quite so well. “As there was no competition, there being but two dogs and one bitch entered, the committee deemed it advisable to return the entrance money to the exhibitors, Mr. A. L. Sherwood and N. W. Nutting,” said a report. (Though it should be noted that “the committee desires to express the highest commendation of Mr. Sherwood’s orange and white pair of Setters,” which I guess were the two dogs that entered.)

A third, better-attended show took place in October in Mineola, on Long Island, and that one at least aspired to be organized. It was carried out according to English Kennel Club rules, and dogs were judged according to four categories: Irish setters, Gordon setters, “Setters of Any Breed,”2 and pointers.

The Bryson brothers, then, would stand fourth in the historical record. On October 8, 1874, the two, along with old Dr. Saunders, staged a Field Trial and Bench Show in Memphis that would, for what is believed to be the first time in America, present a Best in Show award—pitting the Best Pointer against the Best Setter. And who should qualify to compete in the final two but Mr. P. H. Bryson, with his setter, Maud, and May, the pointer of Dr. Saunders, the physician who told him to get a dog in the first place. After much deliberation the judge made the difficult decision and let the record state that the first Best in Show in American history was awarded to P. H. Bryson, the man who’d started the whole dog-show conversation in the first place, by a hair over the doctor who’d saved his life by prescribing a dog.

America’s oldest surviving show happens to be its most famous: the Westminster Kennel Club show, so named because it was born at the bar of the Westminster Hotel in 1877. Originally called the “First Annual New York Bench Show3 of Dogs,” it was open only to sporting dogs but is now a juggernaut broadcast live over two nights on national TV (the only show to get such treatment) and is the second-oldest continuously held sporting event in America, after the Kentucky Derby, which predates it by a single year. Among the top attractions of that debut show were two staghounds from a pack owned by (the then-dead) General George Custer, two deerhounds bred by Queen Victoria of England (reported to be worth fifty thousand dollars each), and a two-legged dog said to be “a veritable biped, and withal possessing almost human intelligence.” It was the place to be for New Yorkers on the scene. A New York Times story reported that “the gentlemen who served as ticket sellers could not make change fast enough to suit the impatience of the throng that was continually clamoring for admittance.”

Just a year later, benched dog shows had become such a hit that Field & Stream wrote the following: “We doubt if even the ‘Bench Show of Intellect,’ suggested by The World, and in which it is proposed to exhibit all classes of poets and literary people in general, would call forth more interested, aristocratic, or cultured throngs than the dog show audiences.” And then, a year later, concern for dog shows’ spread prompted this in the same magazine: “We think there are too many Bench Shows. This opinion is not alone our own, but is pretty generally expressed by the public. We believe that during the year there should be held only two great shows in the country, and no more.” The proliferation of shows, the editors felt, could only diminish the luster of existing events.

Field & Stream’s plea fell on deaf ears, and the dog-show juggernaut rolled on. The American Kennel Club was formed in 1884, in Philadelphia, when the heads of twelve distinct clubs gathered with the goal of creating a “club of clubs” to rule them all. A month later they met again in New York City to write a constitution and bylaws and formally adopted a reliable “studbook” that set breed standards. It took a while for the AKC to inculcate the nation’s dog fanciers with formalized rules and standards for conformation, but by 1909 the organization had created the fifteen-point requirement for achieving a dog’s championship (and even then an exhibitor needed those points to come from at least three judges). By 1920 the AKC was officially sanctioning shows, and in 1924 the two existing groups—Sporting and Non-Sporting—were split into five: Sporting (which included hounds), Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting, and Working (which included herding). That same year 154 conformation shows were held across America, up from 11 in 1884, the year the AKC was founded.

Because of the close association with hunting, dog shows began as a high-society affair in America, too. All the wealthiest families had kennels on their estates, and the handlers who ran them worked tirelessly to improve the quality of their stock. The conformation record books are filled with titans of American business—the names Belmont, Morgan,4 Whitney, Gould, and Rockefeller were all commonly glimpsed in the show programs5—and shows were regularly featured in magazines and newspapers alongside news of other popular sports. “Everybody,” wrote a New York Times reporter of an early show’s attendees, “was fashionably dressed and wore an air of good breeding.” (I’m fairly certain no pun was intended.)

To give you an idea of just how prized a top dog was to society folk back then, consider that in 1908, a Ford Model T cost $825, while, according to Mark Derr, in his fascinating and fact-dense A Dog’s History of America, “the most desirable purebred dogs routinely started at $1,000 and ran to $5,000.”

The country’s top dogs were featured in Popular Dogs magazine, a weekly filled with profiles and new stories as well as promotional ads for champions, show listings, classifieds, and small boxed advertisements for products like Vermicide Capsules and the delouser Pulvex, which, according to its slogan, “Actually kills fleas instead of stupefying them!”

No show got more play, of course, than Westminster, which even then was world-famous. And the January 11, 1929, issue of Popular Dogs offered the following important news: “For the first time, perhaps, in the history of dog shows, canine reciprocity will be the order of the day, meaning that special precautions are to be taken lest the dogs endanger the people and the people annoy the dogs. There will be no biting of spectators at the Garden show this year, nor will there be any sticking of fingers in dogs’ eyes by a too interested public.” New wire cages, it reported, “will make accidents impossible, unless, of course, the spectator goes out of his way to make trouble for himself.”

1. And to the late Baptist minister and dog-show judge Dr. Braxton B. Sawyer for uncovering the very rare source materials that revealed this story

2. Excepting Irish and Gordon, one presumes.

3. A “bench” or “benched” show being a then-common type of show in which dogs were on display, in cages on benches, for the entirety of the show.

4. J. P. Morgan loved dogs—and once offered thirty-two thousand pounds for a top-winning Pekingese owned by the Englishwoman Clarice Ashton Cross, who politely turned him down.

5. In England the Prince of Wales, who became Edward VII, and his wife, Alexandra, were patrons of the Kennel Club—and showed borzois, gifts of the Czar Nicholas II of Russia.

From Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred By Josh Dean

This program aired on February 17, 2012.