McCormick Place goes to the dogs

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All dressed up for the IKC Dog Show
"Why do we have dog shows?" asks Debbie Manichelli, a dachshund breeder from North Carolina with a very loud voice who is serving as an official tour guide at the International Kennel Club of Chicago Dog Show over the weekend at McCormick Place.

The two other people touring with me, an African-American couple from Chicago, look at one another and shrug. So far, based on observation, we have determined that the purpose of a serious dog show is not to find a cute puppy to adopt, and, based on the number of owners who have snapped at us for getting too close to their dogs, that it's not an opportunity for casual dog lovers like ourselves to make a few fleeting friendships founded on some petting and slobbering.

It's obvious we're clueless, so Manichelli answers her own question. "First," she says, "it's to make dogs into champions." The American Kennel Club operates on a baroque point system, which can be briefly summarized as, if the dog wins a show, he or she gets points. The more points the dogs get, the bigger champions they become. It's sort of like a video game.

"Second," Manichelli continues, "it's to improve the breed. All the breeds have standards. I have a bitch at home, and I'm looking for a male who has what she doesn't, so they'll have puppies to make the standard."

"So it's not really about the dogs at all," ventures my female cotourist.

"That's the third reason we have shows," Manichelli confirms. "We're all nuts."

Beauty is pain.
If, as scientists have recently proven, dogs really do love us and want nothing more than to make us happy, then there is no better evidence than a serious dog show. Instead of giving in to their natural urge to sniff each other's butts and squabble over toys, show dogs spend several days at a stretch inside enormous convention centers either confined to their crates or submitting to elaborate grooming regimens. They're reduced to peeing in little fenced-in areas strewn with wood chips. Their only exercise is a 30-second romp around the ring in front of a group of judges, after which they will be closely inspected and, if they are male, their balls will be squeezed. ("You have to make sure there are two," Manichelli explains.) Their only compensation is a steady supply of treats, given out for good behavior. You can't even pet a dog; you might mess up its fur.

Shows like the IKC Dog Show are definitely all about humans and their quest to build a more perfect dog.

There are 165 breeds and 1,500 dogs total at this particular show. Which is actually two shows, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, each with a separate set of judges and, consequently, its own Best in Show. They do it this way, AKC judge Bernard Schwartz tells me, because it's easier for the dog owners and handlers to schlep to McCormick Place once a year instead of twice. This is one of the biggest shows in the country, and the dogs and their humans come from all over. IKC, which has existed since 1899, is also notable for being a bench show. That means that the dogs and humans have to stay at the show all day, even when they're not competing, so breeders can walk around shopping for the traits they want. There are only six of these every year, out of a total of 3,000 AKC shows. By midafternoon most of the dogs are sleeping and the humans are restless.

It probably goes without saying, but mutts and mixed breeds are not welcome here. "I've done two years of research to find who to breed my bitch with," Manichelli tells us. "You know what it's going to look like, and what its temperament is going to be. With a shelter dog, you just don't know."

Manichelli stops us in front of Ring 11, where the Portuguese water dogs, one of the favored breeds to produce the Best in Show (the others are the old English sheepdog and the smooth wire terrier) are trotting around, and then stopping to get their teeth inspected and balls squeezed. One of them, Matisse, will indeed win Best in Show on Saturday, but I'll be damned if I know which one he is. All the dogs look pretty much the same from a distance, black and fluffy in front, shaved in back, except for one with a fetching white foreleg. (The haircut, Manichelli explains, goes back to the Portos' ancestral role assisting Portuguese fishermen. The long hair in front protected their heads and kept their heart and lungs warm. The shaved behind prevented the dogs from getting too heavy in the water. Poodles were also water dogs and are partially shaved for similar reasons, she adds, "but I think they took it too far.") But there is a standard, a mythological perfect Portuguese water dog, determined by the Portuguese Water Dog National Breed Club, and every dog in the ring is being judged on how it compares. Is it the right size? Are its ears well positioned? Is it muscular enough? Are its teeth straight? Does it submit to this judging cheerfully? The dog that most closely fits the standard—or the judge's interpretation of the standard—wins. And the judges will not be swayed by impressive tricks or a winning personality.

Poodles line up for inspection.

Because the Portuguese water dog is a very popular breed—thanks, Bo and Sunny Obama!—there are 38 animals in competition. Judging has been broken down by gender and by class, determined by a dog's age and where it was bred. At the end, the best of all the classes trot around again, and the judge picks the best in winners and a reserve, in case something bad happens to the winner. Then those two dogs trot around with the existing champions, and one gets picked Best in Breed. The only way you can tell which dog is which is if you invest $10 in the 400-page program, and then if you keep careful track of which group is which. Unlike when you watch Westminster on TV, there is no helpful commentary.

The humans come in four varieties: owners, breeders, handlers, and groomers. The owner is the one whose name is on the dog's papers. (This can become quite complicated in cases of death or divorce.) The breeder is the one who, to put it crudely, pimps and procures dogs in order to produce a winner. The handler is the one who escorts the dog to shows and runs with it in the ring. And the groomer is the one who makes the dog all pretty. It's entirely possible for one person to fulfill several, or even all, of these functions.

Mary Anne Fowler, owner and handler, and Bauz, a wirehaired dachshund
  • Colleen Durkin
  • Mary Anne Fowler, owner and handler, and Bauz, wirehaired dachshund

Back in the benching area, you can see some of the dogs up close and personal. (Others are confined to crates that look like little vaults, which makes sense since these dogs are valuable commodities and worth, no question about it, more than I am.) Actually, it looks like an enormous doggie beauty salon. Dogs stand on tables, patiently enduring blow-drying and nail clipping.

An old English sheepdog named Swagger—destined to be Sunday's Best in Show—stands on a table getting a blowout. Swagger is large. Swagger is hirsute. It takes three hours to dry him. "He's done it since he was a puppy," his handler explains. "He's used to it."

Think of it as a spa day.

"I give them air-dryer training," says Chris Crone, who has finished grooming her two golden retrievers, Patience and Stevie. "It's become part of their life. They think of it as spa therapy: lots of attention and private time."

I suppose it could be worse. Manichelli says it takes eight hours to get a poodle properly poofed and groomed, and then another two hours of brushing after the show to get all the hairspray out. Some long-haired dogs have had hanks of fur wrapped in bandages to keep them from chewing on it. It does not look very fun or spalike.

Mostly the humans consort with other owners of the same breed. Disappointingly, there are no great interbreed rivalries, though the humans themselves can be quietly partisan. "English setters aren't popular, and that's the way we like it," says Mary Ann Rodgers, a breeder from New Lenox. "They don't get stolen because no one knows what they are. The top breeds, the Labs and golden retrievers, people tend to breed more. You get a lot of backyard breeders."

An English setter in action.

It's pretty much universally acknowledged in breeding circles that bad breeders are responsible for passing along congenital defects. Manichelli tells us about a beautiful Siberian husky puppy she once had, back when she was still breeding huskies. Huskies, unfortunately, are prone to cataracts, and this pup had them. Instead of becoming a mother to champions, the puppy stayed in Manichelli's backyard until someone adopted her.

"If the dog has cataracts, you don't breed it," Manichelli preaches. "If it has poor hips, you don't breed it."

I have read arguments that breeding to standard has been unhealthy for the dogs, for instance, that the folds of skin on the English bulldog's face make it hard for the poor animal to breathe and has drastically shortened its lifespan. I suspect my cotourists have, too. But none of us say anything. Just trying to process the whole judging system has made me too exhausted to argue, particularly with Manichelli, who has 30 years of breeding experience.

So instead I go back and hang out with the dogs some more. I meet Caliph, a saluki from Beverly Shores, Indiana, who subsists on a diet of salmon, liver, venison, kale, apples, spinach, and carrots, all lovingly prepared by his owner, Jim Petru, and approved by a vet at Tufts University. "Salukis are marathoners," explains Jim's wife Bobbi. "We have to keep him in a fenced yard. If he started running out on the street, he'd never come back. The major cause of death for salukis is getting hit by a car."

Cruze basking in the adoration of owners Edie and Tom Proios
  • Colleen Durkin
  • Cruze basking in the adoration of owners Edie and Tom Proios

I meet Cruze, a great Dane from Grayslake who won Best in Breed earlier in the day and was feeling sanguine enough to let children crawl all over him while he lay resting on the floor. Cruze travels to and from shows in a Taurus station wagon. He prefers this to an SUV. At three years old, he is already a father several times over; his latest litter is due to arrive on Wednesday. "Cruze makes beautiful babies," boasts his owner, Edie Proios. Alas, Cruze will not be there to see them arrive. Proios plans to attend the whelping solo.

As Proios continues to brag, Cruze casually leans over and starts to lick his own balls. Proios hastily drops a washcloth over them. "I'm waiting for a kid to say, 'What's that, Mommy?'"

I meet Bebe, a terrier who won a ribbon not for breeding but for her performance in the Barn Hunt, an informal demonstration event. Dogs sniff around bales of hay until they find a rat or, rather, a closed PVC pipe with a rat inside. Bebe sniffed out her rodent in 20 seconds flat, says her owner Stephen Davis. Now it's almost 3 PM, the end of benching hours, and both Bebe and Davis are ready to go home.

By now I'm tired too. I walk past the booths of dog toys and leashes and fancy food and grooming equipment and the special demonstration of the dog treadmill, photographers advertising doggie glamour shots, and the booths of crap for humans: images of dogs in gold charms and painted on T-shirts and pairs of socks, and flat shoes and Chanel-style suits suitable for trotting around a ring. (High fashion and dog shows do not appear to be compatible.) Out of a lingering sense of guilt over my own dog, a mixed breed who would not be allowed past the show's front door but who will definitely be able to smell all these other dogs on me when I get home, I get in line to buy a toy bat. (The animal, not the object used for hitting a ball.) Behind me, the border terriers are waiting for their turn in the ring. There must be about 20 of them, with their wiry brown coats and shiny black eyes, all virtually identical both to each other and also to the dog that belongs to my former editor. It's a kaleidoscope of Buckleys! This is no longer cute. It's surreal and vaguely terrifying. I raise my phone to take a picture anyway, but the dogs are so small I can't get a clear shot of them for all the humans, looming large in their sensible shoes.

And this is only the first day.

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