Dog shows, I suppose, aren’t true sporting events, even though there are winners and losers and the competition looks ferocious, especially so when the TV camera zooms in on that total psycho stare of a German shepherd. Gives me the creeps.
Maybe I misunderstand the breed, but I know the German shepherd is the dog of choice when cops want to control crowds, catch robbers, and chase down drug dealers. So just how much am I misunderstanding about these sweet, adorable pets?
This is the 10th year that the National Dog Show, held just outside Philadelphia, will take a two-hour chomp out of NBC’s Thanksgiving Day entertainment block. For all the TV sports viewing I do, which is far beyond AMA safe practices, I actually look forward to what NBC and Purina serve up from noon-2 p.m. every Turkey Day.
It’s more than just the fact that the dogs, at least most of the dogs, are so adorable. Actually, the cuteness element is dangerous, and potentially a financial disaster. It’s impossible to watch a dog show for more than 15 minutes and not want to race out and buy at least three of the dogs you’ve just watched in competition. This is especially the case on Thanksgiving Day, if you’re fortunate enough to be full of good food, surrounded by loving family, and figuring, heck, what’s all this leftover turkey good for if I don’t own an adorable, born-to-love-me Bernese mountain dog like the one I just saw on TV?
Warning: If you don’t know the Bernese breed, I’ll put you in touch with my friend Al. He’s had at least one of these cuddly behemoths in his home for the better part of 25 years. He claims a Bernese’s monthly food bill is just north of the combined cost of his daughter’s college tuition and his therapy sessions. Nice dog, mellow, faithful, and fun. But huge, with a nonstop appetite. Al paid thousands for surgery after one of his Bernese ate two of his gym socks. That’s hunger, to say nothing of questionable taste.
The best thing I find about the Thanksgiving Day dog show is that it’s a peaceful, relaxing, easy-on-the-eyes experience. Is that news in TV sports? Well, yeah, today that’s news. Pleasant news. It’s the way we watched sports in the ’60s and ’70s, before the whole experience turned into a full sensorial battering and an insult to our intelligence. Watching sports on TV was once a leisurely, entertaining, even relaxing experience. Now it’s an exercise in survival, one that leaves me wrung out, strung out, anything but feeling good when the show is over.
Not true of the dog show. The on-air people don’t scream. That alone is worth hanging with the broadcast. I listen to the conversation, I learn, I get engaged rather than pummeled. There isn’t a constant barrage of stats or an incessant bottom-of-the-screen crawl giving “real time’’ updates of other dog shows. We don’t have to listen to players or coaches spouting tired clichés, making lame excuses, or stammering through awkward moments such as trying to explain their latest failed HGH test or last night’s DUI charge. Dogs behave. Especially show dogs.
Think about it, would a show-level dachshund, cocker spaniel or big ol’ English sheepdog ever duck out of competition en masse to gobble fried chicken and swill beer back in the canine clubhouse? Never. Not that I think any dog would be above that, because all dogs live to sniff and eat. But these dogs have respect for the game when it’s being played. Even if it’s not their turn on the floor, they are either at their owner’s side, under a groomer’s brush, or catching a few restorative winks in their crate. Oh, maybe a small snack here or there, but all dogs do that. Their being, even in the heat of competition, is shaped around treats.
A total of some 2,000 dogs, representing more than 170 breeds, reported to Philadelphia late last week for the National Dog Show. The winners, including the one Best In Show, were named yesterday, their identities to be kept under wraps these next few days so as not to shake any of the suspense out of Thursday’s broadcast. And there is no shortage of drama when the judge ponders away in his or her final viewing, assessing legs and gaits and noses and tails, and even personality.
Obedience counts, too. Best dogs, real pros, don’t bark, fuss, whine or whimper. Is there another sport, another group of athletes . . . never mind, let’s not even go there.
Quickly, and dramatically, but with no clash of cymbals or flashing of on-screen graphics or the least bit of gut-gushing hyperbole from the broadcast crew (“Why, Sir Godfrey, you . . . DIRTY DOG!’’), the judge sharply announces the best dog. That’s it, show over. Without a single rolled eye or harrumph from other dogs or handlers. I’ve yet to see a winning dog pound paw to chest, then point heavenward.
The tidy broadcast wrap usually includes a humble remark from the prideful owner, talking while incessantly pulling treats from a pocket for the champ. Mercifully, there is no fadeaway kennel scene that has the winning dog strapping on goggles in order to avoid getting eyes burned by spraying champagne.
Winning dogs are just the same as losing dogs, in that they say nothing. Another blessing. It was Andy Rooney, the CBS writer and on-air icon, who mused about their silence, “If dogs could talk, it would take a lot of fun out of owning one.’’
So if you want a bit of the old-world TV sports experience, tune in on Thursday. If you’ve ever enjoyed sitting in a place like, say, Harvard Square to engage in the sport of people watching, there are some elements of that in the dog show. It’s impossible to avoid projecting what the dogs are thinking. A big part of the fun is being in a family room that has adults and kids all mimicking, in their best doggy voices, what they think the dogs would say.
So, is a dog show really sport? Probably not. I doubt anyone, not even Purina, is going to come out with a line of trading cards or sportswear for these four-legged stars. But I do know, for one two-hour window each Thanksgiving afternoon, it’s great sporting fun, the kind of relaxing escapism that TV delivered many moons ago. In a TV sports industry that has totally gone to the dogs, these doggies are best in show.