Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Dogs Shows As Human Failing

Why Televised Dog Shows Are a Sham
The New Republic, 12.14.06, by Sacha Zimmerman.

As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "The world was conquered through the understanding of dogs; the world exists through the understanding of dogs." And so it is that there is perhaps nothing more philosophical on television than the "American Kennel Club/Eukanuba National Championship" dog show on Animal Planet. For, despite its sports-competition-sounding title, the national championship is, at its heart, a theater of existentialism.

To truly understand a dog show means to shed all common notions about how an animal's greatness is measured, like speed or jumping ability. At Eukanuba, as at all purebred dog shows, the dogs are judged, not for their cuteness or prowess in catching a Frisbee, but against a transcendent idea of the perfect dog. In other words, the Belgian Tervuren is not competing against the Pembroke Welsh Corgi; the Belgian Tervuren is competing against the metaphysical ideal of a Belgian Tervuren. Whichever dog comes closest to personifying its breed's quintessence wins best in show--and becomes something like the philosopher king of the canine world. There is, underlying all of the pomp and ceremony of the competition, a kind of Platonic striving to find that dog which will epitomize the archetype so resoundingly that we humans will perhaps leave the cave for a moment and, as Nietzsche suggests, understand the world a bit better for understanding a dog. "Dog is my co-pilot," indeed!

Unfortunately, instead of conveying its philosophical nature, the dog-show world seems wedded to useless sports-world analogies. Let's start with the conundrum of the handler. Edd Bivin, who provides the color commentary for Eukanuba's TV audience beside the play-by-play of former "Entertainment Tonight" host Bob Goen, explains to us that the human handler should be invisible. The best handlers apparently allow the dog to be the main focus. There are even contests for the handlers--Goen was thrilled to announce the winner of the Junior Handler Competition. Meaning there was actually a contest to see which handler was least noticeable, a through-the-looking-glass moment where a handler was remembered, essentially, for her absence.

And yet, along with the ubiquitous sensible shoes, I saw a startling number of sequins, large-pattern prints, and gold-lamé sheaths adorning the figures of the handlers. Were it not for the tight camera shots of the dogs, I might have missed them completely, as I was staring agog at the garish trends in dog-show-handler couture. Shouldn't invisible handlers be wearing basic black to stop distracting viewers from the dogs?

Moreover, while praising the handlers who show dogs so skillfully, so invisibly, Bivin nevertheless informs us that a handler's performance is, in fact, irrelevant. This came up when a particularly inelegantly dressed woman nearly tripped over a leash (so much for not being noticed). Bivin reminds us that this is a dog show; the handler's gaffe will not affect the scoring of the dog. So, if any clod with two left feet covered head-to-toe in Swarovski crystals can march a dog around the arena without affecting the judging of the dog itself, then why all the talk of invisibility and skill, not to mention high-priced professional handlers? It's like the handlers are some kind of preternatural red herrings meant to keep us looking at the shadows instead of at the dog-gods among us, who are blithely padding to and fro with none of the angst or consternation of the humans by their sides.

Even worse, the dogs, too, are regarded as athletes in this competition, even though they are nothing of the sort. Bivin explains to the home viewers that winning is all about the dog's performance on a given day. But a dog is the same on any given day. Unless a dog's hip has shifted an inch or its color has changed from one competition to the next, the dog is either close to perfect or it isn't. The contest is about appearance, after all, not temperament. The standards are supposedly set. And what "performance" is the dog really giving? After one spirited dog, a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen (PBGV), gave a yelp and a growl to the judge, Bivin was quick to remind the audience that the judge would not hold it against the dog; indeed, the PBGV did well in its grouping. (Though, truthfully, understanding any of the standards for judging was near impossible with Bivin at the helm. He is prone to incredible fits of tautology. For example, when asked by Goen what the judge was looking for in a dog's gait, Bivin explained that the judge was watching how the dog moved. Illuminating.)

Actually, there is some rationale for all the sports talk. After all, the dogs are divided into groups based on what they were bred to do, like hunt, guard, or herd. But, for all we know, the Siberian Husky has never set a paw in the snow or even heard of the Iditarod; perhaps the Newfoundland is terrified of water rescues; and has the Border Collie ever rounded up sheep? By ignoring the teleological nature of the dogs, how can we possibly be sure that each one is anywhere close to the breed ideal? Then there is the constant banter between Goen and Bivin about the sweetness of one breed, the appropriateness of a breed for children, or the most loyal breed, which leaves the viewer pining for a demonstration of these traits. But no dogs are released into a gaggle of children to shower them with licks, and no dog is asked to bound to the door to exhibit its joy at its master's return home. The show is as devoid of personality as any Miss America pageant; perhaps more so, as talent is not even a consideration.

"All knowledge, the totality of all questions and answers, is contained in the dog," wrote Franz Kafka, and yet we foolishly examine teeth and coats whilst ignoring the soul. Which makes this entire dog-show extravaganza an exercise in eugenics, something we generally frown upon in the human world. Besides, inbreeding for dogs with pure bloodlines designed for outdated purposes, like guarding castles, is bad for dogs (many of which suffer from genetic diseases due to inbreeding) and bad for pet owners, who want a nice, playful dog, not a ratter or a racer. The competitive canine universe is festooned with all the trappings of a love of dogs. But that is a fallacy. Breeding to "perfection" has nothing to do with the true spirit of dogs, who care not that their beloved owners wear frumpy clothes, have less than perfect posture, lack good muscle tone, or don't have a smooth gait. I don't blame the genetically superior dogs; Eukanuba is a totally human failing.


Anonymous said...

I can't watch dog shows. When I watch the "Sporting [sic] group" I want to throw up. There are only a handful of Sporting [sic] breeds that can be shown according to their standards and the "fancy points" and still do their work efficiently. Yes, I really want a golden retriever with 8 inches of feathering and so much bone that it lumbers around just slightly better than another monstrosity of that group-- the Clumsy, er, Clumber spaniel.

I once told a high school teacher how much some professional handlers made showing dogs. He was totally taken aback.

The only show Irish setter that I ever read about that could point birds was a fictional one. I read about him when I was 9 years old in Jim Kjelgaard's "Big Red." (For juvenile fiction, I highly recommend his books. With the exception of the books on the setters, all of the rest of them are about working dogs of all sorts.)

Seahorse said...

I had two wonderful field-bred Irish Setters, both incredibly birdy. The second one we had was working on field and bench titles and was equally excellent in obedience. He did not look like the overly-angulated show stock we see on the tube, but he was a dog of nice bone, a beautiful animal that, at least as a young dog in small local shows, had done well. I wasn't that interested in showing him, concentrating more on field work though I'm in no way a hunter. But, even as a very young puppy before he learned to hold a point he had a soft mouth and never hurt a bird. I just liked doing what HE liked to do, and running gorgeous hunting patterns in gun dog fields was fun. Of course, living on a farm we did it by ourselves pretty much every day, but it was nice to see him appreciated by grizzled old-timers who didn't know the 20-something girl whispering, "Get a bird..." to her dog. Two great dogs I still miss a lot.