If you want to really understand dog shows, Jane & Michael Stern's Dog Eat Dog is perhaps the book to read. Make no mistake; this book does not present a romanticized, idealized vision of how dog shows are supposed to work. It does share a candid view of what conformation showing is really all about, with big business, bad sportsmanship, heady politics, skewed values, and questionable ethics being the hallmarks of the show world as they've seen it.
The Sterns spent a year following Bullmastiff breeder, Mimi Einstein, on the dog show trail. Along the way, they take detours to discuss such things as Poodles, Leonbergers, rare breed shows, and a dog grooming school, but the central thread follows Einstein's Bullmastiffs and culminates at the 1996 Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
Although the content may be of particular interest to Bullmastiff fanciers, one does not need to have a driving fascination with that breed to find this book compelling. This 184-page paperback never loses momentum and is easily read in one sitting.
Although the tone of the book is humorous and warm, the content serves as an eyebrow-raising indictment of the conformation-showing scene. Those who show are characterized as ego-driven, ultra-competitive types who draw a line between house pets and show stock the way a scientist might make a distinction between the family Beagle and the ones he experiments on at work. The authors assert,
"The world of dog shows is based on a love of dogs and a desire to produce beautiful examples of a breed, but it has little to do with the simple and time-honored emotional bond that defines the relationship of a pet and its master."
Upper echelon show dogs are characterized as enormously beautiful, half-tamed, kennel-dwelling animals of marginal soundness that exist only to be paraded around a ring and to produce more of their kind. Health, longevity, functionality, and temperament take a backseat to appearance for appearance sake. These dogs exist and are propagated for what they look like, and even that is subject to apparent whim.
The Sterns don't editorialize much, but they don't need to. A lame dog is injected with cortisone to make it appear sound in the ring. A bitch that is unable to reproduce normally is "anesthetized, then cut open and her uterus incised so the fresh sperm could be deposited directly," as her breeder wonders if the animal should undergo hormone therapy to prevent spontaneous abortion.
The irony is ugly. In order to acquire one of these marginally sound, fancy, purebred animals that comes with a dreadfully short lifespan, one must endure a waiting list and spend over a thousand dollars purchase price. Quietly understated is the fact that the central figure in the book runs an SPCA where healthy, affordable, unwanted dogs languish because they don't have the snob appeal of their AKC brethren. In her frustration, Einstein comments, "Purebred dogs are nothing but heartache. I just want nice mutts from the pound who live forever."
The Sterns don't head-on attack the moral implications of the subject matter. They never directly question the priorities of conformation devotees. They don't highlight why fanciers of Border Collies or other genuine working breeds fought so hard to resist AKC recognition. They don't suggest reforms. In fact, they don't really seem to have a problem with the dog show world as they describe it. They sincerely report that show people strive to create physical perfection in their chosen breeds and love and dote over their animals.
Not unlike the comedic movie Best in Show, the authors appear to have a fondness for the peccadillos of show folks. Yet the book's content is potent. A reader won't view a dog's "champion" title with the same admiration after digesting this book. This is a good gift book and would be wonderful for provoking lively conversation among dog people.
Kate Connick |
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