Vanity, Thy Name Is Dog

This is all rather embarrassing, if you must know. On Feb. 10, while the elite of the sporting press is enjoying the Winter Olympics in Albertville, covering the Mike Tyson rape trial in Indianapolis, or tapping out their last reflections on the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, I'm bumbling around Madison Square Garden gaping at dogs.

What's that? I don't have the background to mill around with the big shots in the Haut-Savoie? Well, if it's any consolation, I'm equally unqualified to cover the Westminster Kennel Club's 116th annual dog show. But, hey, I'm here to learn, so let's get started.

Westminster, the second-oldest continuous sporting event in the U. S., is the Super Bowl of canine competition. There's no money at stake--the only prizes are ribbons, plates, and trophies--but winning does have its financial rewards. Great Dane breeder Robert E. Layne says a Westminster championship can add $150 or so to the average $450 stud fee a quality male Great Dane can command. A winner's puppies might fetch (sorry) about $1,500, vs. $1,000 for an animal with a less exalted lineage.

SIT, MA'AM! Arriving at the Garden in the early evening of the two-day show's first night, I manage to latch onto the ideal person to give me a bit of basic information about the show and its terminology. She's Sarah Hodgson, an animal behaviorist who's remarkably cheery and helpful despite being on her feet for the past 11 hours. She tells me her job is to help pets and their owners get along. Does that mean she trains the pets? "Oh, no," she says firmly. "The owners. I train the owners."

With an hour to kill before the 8 p.m. start of group judging, she takes me to meet some of the 2,500 dogs in attendance. On the way, Sarah fills me in on what the judges are looking for, but her jargon trips me up. Now, let me see if I have this straight. Breeds are a subset of groups, right? She stops dead and stares at me, appalled. "You really don't know anything, do you?" she asks. Westminster, she explains, is a two-day exercise in winnowing. Any dog entered may be chosen the best in its breed. Each Best in Breed has a shot at being named Best in Group. Each Best in Group--and there are only seven in all--vies for the top honor: Best in Show.

O.K., time to get up close and personal with some of the athletes. We leave the Garden floor and plunge into a huge, hangar-like space that smells powerfully of dog. This is the display--or, in dog-speak, benching--area, where paying customers can meet the contestants. Unlike most other U. S. dog shows, Westminster still requires owners to bench their dogs from the morning of the first day until 8 that night, at which time the losers can pack up and go home.

It's like a big, furry supermarket in here. Overhead signs declare that this aisle contains Afghans, bassets, and salukis, while that one holds mastiffs, Newfoundlands, and Portuguese water dogs. I browse along, stopping finally at the bench of American and Canadian Champion Sylvanhurst Differnt Drummer, a shorthaired Saint Bernard who's larger than most items of household furniture. His owner, Lester R. McCracken of Hughsville, Md., is more than happy to tell me all about Drummer, as he's known around the house. "He's only 14 months old," he says proudly, "and he earned his American and Canadian championships before he was 10 months old."

I'd been wondering about this champion stuff. That "Ch." before every dog's name isn't just an honorary title? "Not at all," explains McCracken. "Every dog here has earned championship points at an American Kennel Club show. Depending on the number of other dogs competing, you can earn up to five points for every championship you win." In fact, every dog at Westminster is already a champion, with at least 15 points under its collar. Newly conscious of traveling in high, if hairy, circles, I move on in search of more champions.

And that's when I meet the strangest beast I have ever seen. Imagine if one of the "singers" in Milli Vanilli had four legs. Or picture a mobile string mop with no handle. That might give you some idea of what Clouseau, a Hungarian puli, looks like.

His owner, Ginette Babin of Ottawa, Ont., is used to the reaction Clouseau gets. She didn't give him 17-inch-long dreadlocks, she tells me--his hair grows that way naturally. And along with looking totally hip, it's quite useful. The puli was originally a herding dog, and any predators that tried to bite it would get nothing but a mouthful of hair for their trouble.

Ginette and her husband, Jacques, have entered Clouseau, whose stage name is Ch. Szeder's Shot in the Dark, in some 200 shows over the past four years. If you're thinking that means that she doesn't do much but work--she's an employee of the Canadian Parliament--and goes to dog shows, you're right. "It's a hobby for crazy people," she admits. "We spend thousands of dollars a year. We spend our weekends driving to dog shows. But I don't think of it as a sacrifice. I choose to do this."

BIG NO-NO. While we've been talking, Clouseau has been drawing a crowd. He sits unperturbed while people pet him, take his picture, ask his name. Don't the crowds bother him after a while? "Show dogs need show manners," Ginette shrugs. Need is right. If a dog bites or even menaces a judge, it's banned from competition for life.

All the same, I'm careful not to provoke the animals. So is a vendor walking by. "Hot dogs! Hot dogs!" he shouts. Then: "Oops. Shouldn't say that too loud. Hot franks! Hot franks!"

Chances are, something even weirder than the puli is waiting down one of these aisles, but there's no time to find out. The judges have spent the day picking the best of each breed. Now, it's

time to do some serious narrowing down. At the stroke of 8, the Working Group enters the ring to pass under the severe scrutiny of Alice Downey, judge.

Still not feeling like a real dog journalist, I skirt the press area and go up in the half-filled stands to watch the judging. Out comes the Working Group, comprising dogs that might actually help out a farmer, rancher, or police officer. There are 19 dogs in all, including a Saint Bernard, a Great Dane, and my favorite, a komondor, a herding dog that resembles an oversized puli.

From here, the judging looks like a bit of an ordeal. First, each dog, accompanied by a handler, stands before a little placard. One by one, dog and handler approach the judge, who inspects the dog's coat, teeth, eyes, legs, and general appearance.

Then, it's time to run. The animals themselves are usually a pleasure to watch--snappy, energetic, graceful--but it's hard not to snicker rudely at some of the handlers. Many look as if the 30-yard trot is the most exercise they've had in years. One poor gent in a tent-like tux is so done in by the exertion that he spends the rest of the judging time mopping his brow, his chest heaving.

URBAN MINE FIELD. Judge Downey, though, hardly notices her fellow humans--she's practically glaring at the dogs. With a brusque gesture, she commands all 19 handlers to lead their charges around her in a wide circle. Judging by the applause, the audience favorites are a Doberman pinscher and a bull mastiff. Downey stares fiercely, her mouth in a tight line. After the dogs run a couple of laps, she points at eight of them. They stay. The other 11, including my beloved komondor, leave. They trot off insouciantly, though some of their handlers look a bit slump-shouldered.

The circling begins again, like a high-stakes game of musical chairs. Suddenly, Downey orders the bull mastiff, Ch. Mr. U's Music Man, to stop in the center of the ring. We have a winner.

I'm surprised to find myself applauding along with the rest of the crowd. A few hours earlier I would have laughed at the notion, but now I'm convinced this really is a sport, with moments of genuine tension and drama. I even toy with the notion of owning a puli.

The next morning, though, en route to the subway station, I nearly put my foot into one of those pungent Manhattan sidewalk-bombs, planted by neighborhood mutts as a rebuke to the unwary. I'm reminded why having a dog in New York isn't such a good idea.