By Ranny Green
Just about anyone who owns a dog or has been around the dog-show world has seen the quirky parody “Best in Show” (2000) and walked away roaring at the outrageous, neurotic and sometimes affectionate characters and scenarios.
“Show Dog,” by Josh Dean (It Books, $24.99), while much more serious and gritty, ushers you behind the scenes while tracking the exploits of Jack, a challenging Australian shepherd, on his first year in all-breed competition.
Dean, too, is a newcomer to the sport, but by the time you reach the end of this 394-page volume, you will feel well-acquainted with the extravagant characters, complex relationships, diva trainers and one-upsmanship associated with this sub culture that is both a sport and major business. For instance, did you know the American Kennel Club sanctions more than 11,000 shows, and an estimated 2 million of the 20 million purebred dogs in the U.S. participate in them?
Dean, a longtime contributor to dozens of national magazines, says in the Preface that for five years he has yearned to tell the story of a show dog team’s fortunes and frustrations on the circuit that puts serious points chasers on the road 40-plus weeks a year. “The real problem,” he says, “with embarking on such a project was that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to focus on one specific individual. . . . And that’s where I was when I wandered into the 2009 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show with no clear plan, without even the vaguest notion of how it all worked.” Two years later, “Show Dog” wraps up at Westminster, the second oldest continuous sporting event in the country.
A series of circumstances leads Dean to a husband-and-wife Pennsylvania handling team Heather Bremmer and Kevin Bednar, which in turn segues to Jack, one of their client dogs owned by Kimberly Smith, a single mother from Pennsylvania.
Jack is first and foremost a family dog and a sound representative of the typical show dog, challenging to present in the ring and with an owner on limited funds. Smith is new to the sport and lives it at a distance behind the lead of Jack and Bremmer one weekend after another. The owner-professional handler relationship, like most in the sport, is built around the dynamics of endless hope, frustrating reality and occasional near-combustible angst.
Smith’s world centers on Jack, but this hair-trigger herding pooch is one of 10-20 the couple might be presenting on any given weekend. Smith describes her Velcro-like relationship with Jack: “He was very quickly my shadow. Get an Aussie and never go to the bathroom alone again.”
If you’re looking for “Best in Show” in this clear, crisp narrative, forget it. “Show Dog” is the real thing with focus, frustration, commitment, passion, ambition and a bit of celebration at times. In the process, it is remarkably informative while delivering vivid, priceless, behind-the-scenes snapshots and a few bizarre characters from small-town America to Manhattan.
Dean carefully steers the reader through the dog-show world, taking care to explain the sport’s nuances while following Jack’s exploits, mostly in the Northeast. Outside the ring, he explores origins of the dog, Jack’s flings with mating, costs and commitments of advertising in show-dog magazines and the investment of campaigning a show dog.
The author’s choice of experts is terrific: David Frei, Westminster Kennel Club communications director and longtime voice of the famed show on USA Network; Billy Wheeler, author of the popular Dog Show Poop blog; highly respected AKC judge, author and lecturer Pat Hastings; noted Poodle handler Kaz Hosaka; former handler and Canine Chronicle magazine publisher Tom Grabe; and many others.
Dogless in Brooklyn, Dean says, “There are people who claim that dogs are our greatest invention. Having spent more than a year observing, reading about, and generally obsessing over them, I find it hard to argue this point.”
After Jack finishes his championship in four months, Smith becomes almost giddy with her first show dog’s potential, but the sharp-focused Bremmer, who Dean describes as a “small person with a large personality” isn’t quite so certain. Add that Jack is a semi-regular (because of Smith’s finances) on Bremmer and Bendar’s show train and you have all the ingredients for conflict between owner and handler because of the dog’s lack of focus and fitness.
Bremmer and Jack enjoy an immediate and special bond that Smith believes stems from a “certain mysticism that good handlers possess.” Hastings explains that special human-canine drama to Dean, “that the lead is a kind of wire that transmits that energy from one animal to the other. A dog can feel his handler’s tension going down the lead and can smell it in the form of adrenaline.”
Following a solid Award of Excellence performance with Jack at the 2010 AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Long Beach, Calif., late in the year, Bremmer says, “Of all the dogs I’ve ever showed – ever – he’s the hardest I’ve ever handled. One day he’s phenomenal – the next day he’s a mess. If he was like this every day, I could take him to the top five easily, maybe No. 1.” Later, she adds, “He’s always better in groups. I do think maybe he doesn’t take it seriously unless it’s big.”
While following Jack from adolescence to maturity, Dean discovers, for followers, dog shows can be addictive, from the standpoint of chasing points and fame to establishing friendships. But make no mistake about it, there is no shortage of conflict and politics, either.
From the challenging intricacies of Poodle styling to chiropractic manipulation on an Aussie shepherd, Dean’s lively narrative, detailed description and engaging scenarios connect the reader nicely to the eclectic landscape and dynamics of show dogdom.