Is Best in Show, Best for the Dogs?


The Westminster Dog Show. The most significant event in... who's life exactly? To understand the mystique and painstaking efforts behind the world of dog shows, Best In Show is recommended viewing. Because ultimately, when it comes to such types of dog shows, the joke is on us. Whether it's life or art's imitation, it is entertaining and fascinating to see how we can project our own 💩 onto our dogs. At the end of the day, does the dog care about winning? Don't we just want our dogs to be happy and healthy? But while some people think of dog shows as unnecessary, "beauty pageants for dogs," others believe they're essential for breeding so that future generations remain of the "highest quality."

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara in Best in Show

Dog shows are a "competitive sport involving the presentation of purebred dogs to be judged by the conformity to their respective breed standards." They're also known as breed shows or conformation trials. The goal is to show off purebred dogs with their respective breed's ideal characteristics. Each breed's official parent association determines the standards, and organizations like the American Kennel Club or the United Kennel Club uphold them. Judges select the best specimens of each breed.

During the show, the legal guardians or their hired handlers present the dogs in the ring. While in the ring, purebred dog experts assess the dogs, looking at their physical characteristics, movement/trot, and temperament. The judges then determine which dogs present the closest to their breed standards.

Historically people divided dogs into breeds based on their function, not appearance. For instance:

  • Dogs who chased hares = harrier
  • Any lapdog = spaniel
  • Any large, intimidating dog = mastiff

In The Genius Of Dogs, Brian Hare mentions that "in the nineteenth century, it was the aspiring new professional class who turned dog breeding into England's national obsession." Like the significance derived from owning the car or handbag of today, people wanted others to know that they spent 💰💰💰💰 on their dog. And the easiest way to communicate that you were a person of considerable means was through your dog's appearance.

The first formal dog show took place on June 28th, 1859. "Dog shows became the place where the nouveau riche came to throw their money around," Hare notes. In response to scammers lying about their dog's breeding origins, people established the first kennel club in 1873 to officially ascertain the descent of pedigree dogs. Therefore, most of the breeds we recognize today originated less than 150 years ago, a needle in our evolutionary haystack.

So is there a bone to pick with dog shows? We asked our resident pet expert Laisuna Yu and, like a dog's eyesight, the answers come in shades of gray. She says that "one thing to keep in mind is that the people who decide the criteria for what [the perfect breed looks like] (they also choose breed temperament) are neither vets nor researchers. They are mostly people who know people who have 'years of experience' or something along those lines." However, one goal of Kennel Clubs is to preserve pure breeds, which includes regulating temperament and working ability.

So for individuals who know what specific traits they want their dog to have, breeders can guarantee them. Kennel clubs also keep comprehensive records of their genealogy lines. Overall, Laisuna says that while kennel clubs have the capabilities to accommodate healthy dogs, "there is no incentive because they want to 'win.'" And to win, dogs are required to meet guidelines that are not in their best interests,  designed by people with no veterinary or research training.

This year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show wasn't without controversy. Wasabi, the Pekingese, who was titled Best in Show, is catching some heat, literally, for allegations of animal mistreatment. The internet called Wasabi's health into question because of how people breed Pekingese for specific physical characteristics. Underneath that caramel-colored mane, Wasabi could barely walk on his own, stand on his own, and needed to sit on a cooling pad so he wouldn't overheat. So as Laisuna mentioned, "a dog like this winning based on physical features would suggest that breeders and, more generally, people care more about how a dog looks than if the dog is indeed happy and healthy."

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