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Keith Strudler: Best Of Show

I’ll fully admit that I do not watch the Westminster Dog Show, or any dog show for that matter. I have a dog – a puppy to be clear. He’s a poorly behaved mixed breed, as evidenced by the damage he’s done to a brand-new sectional sofa. So my dog has neither the pedigree nor persona to compete. I have a colleague at work who has covered Westminster for years and has taught me far more than I’d ever imagine I’d know about competitive k-9s. At least what I hadn’t already learned from a Christopher Guest movie.

That said, by now you may be aware that King, a Wire Fox Terrier, won best of show last night at the Garden. Apparently this wasn’t a huge surprise, although I’m not exactly sure why. It does seem that Wire Fox Terriers win a disproportionate number of titles, 15 of the 112 in history, which is far more than any other breed. On top of that, Terriers as an aggregate have won a remarkable 47 titles, perhaps the animal kingdom’s greatest dynasty. It also seems that the crowd wasn’t happy with the decision, as indicated by the boos that reigned down. The crowd wanted a more spirited, less traditional choice, including a Spaniel named Bean. Fortunately, none of this got too out of hand. And let’s be honest, they couldn’t have been any more disappointed than Knicks fans are in that building pretty much every night.

I don’t know if either King or Bean or any of the other six finalists were equally shaken by the results. And I say six because one of the finalists was disqualified. I’d try to explain why, but it would be kind of like Trump trying to explain global economic policy. So I’ll spare you the effort. I also am not a certified dog psychologist, so I don’t know what dogs are actually thinking, other than about how to steal food off a kitchen counter and the most inconvenient place to sleep in your owner’s bed. And yes, our dog sleeps in the bed. I’m owning it.

Dog shows like Westminster occupy a somewhat unique space in the overall sporting ecosphere – and I will use a broad understanding of sport to include this activity. I know there’s a whole lot that goes into getting your dog ready, and judging is a complicated venture. On the other hand, dog shows essentially judge animals based on how close they come to the perfect exemplar of their breed. So a beagle is judged based on how perfectly beagle he or she is. That’s why you see judges inspecting all over a dog and doing what feels like full body physical for the crowd. All of which runs contrary to the saying, “it’s not the size of dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” At dog shows, the size of the dog really does matter. Literally. They also judge the dog’s gait and even some soft skills – namely their attitude. So no matter how naturally gifted a dog may be, you still have to bring a winning spirit to the ring. That is a true life human lesson.

Perhaps beyond the controversy with this year’s Westminster and whether Bean was in fact a more deserving champion or whether Terrier’s are basically born on 3rd base is, at least for me, the greater question of why we have dog shows in the first place. I completely understand unusual and perhaps even uncomfortable doting over our animals. I regularly have conversations with my dog that I won’t with other sentient beings in my house. So I also fully understand the bizarre humanization of our pets, which I’m sure speaks to my own psychological issues more than anything else. At some point, I think it all ties back either to our parents or the Internet.

But what I don’t understand is a fascination with judging things based on an adherence to genetic perfection. Dog shows laud animals, and of course their breeders, for maintaining a particular purity. That’s what’s meant by Best of Show – the animal that remains truest to that criteria. It seems like an odd way to deal with what many of us consider human’s best friend. And perhaps it’s why I’ve always preferred a mixed breed dog. The only standard by which to judge is its own.

And maybe that’s why the crowd at Westminster was somewhat upset. It seems that Bean had a better personality, even if King may have looked the right way, for lack of a better term. Maybe the angst at the Garden is a subtle reminder of the growing angst in the US, where we find ourselves at yet another crossroad of bigotry and racism. This is in no way to conflate booing at a dog show with the very real struggles of racial and gender injustice. They are in no way the same. But maybe, for me at least, there’s something largely uncomfortable about judging living creatures based on superficial definitions of how they should look. And that is with all apologies to those who enjoy the spirit of dog competitions, Westminster and otherwise, who I’m sure simply enjoy the pageantry of the affair. And with the recognition that no matter who wins, I probably still won’t watch.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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