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Show Dogs And Real Dogs

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It's been more than a week since Banana Joe, a coiffed and plucked Affenpinscher, won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.

I am not usually a dog show follower, but I had a wet cold last week and spent evenings on the couch with a box of tissues and the remote control. I'd flipped through the channels until I stumbled upon a spectacle that stunned me dry: A large white animal was perched on a table with cotton-candy pink hair curlers embedded in its fur, enduring what appeared to be a smoke-out. My first thought was, this creature must have croup and they are steaming it out of him. I set aside my bowl of chicken soup and stared, mesmerized. A cluster of four humans fussed around the animal. "The pre-show preparation process takes upwards of four hours," the voice-over explained. "The dog's coat will be meticulously combed and flat-ironed for maximum movement and effect. The hair will be coated in oil, wrapped and coiffed into a full fur pompadour."

I was hooked.

I wadded tissues up my dripping nose and cranked up the volume. My dog Tiller, a Beagle-mix with mismatched ears, sat at my feet surrounded by his personal collection of antlers, balls and bones. As each competitor took to the ring, we scrutinized gaits, coats and demeanors; we exchanged expressions of appreciation and disdain, accordingly. Tiller's head wrinkled in consternation when certain dogs were introduced, and I found I did not disagree with his critique: A little terrier looked like the soot-stained possum retrieved from my chimney one winter. A spindly poodle was pruned to resemble a staggering topiary. A white raggedy dog reminded me of the mop used by custodians in elementary schools to clean up vomit.

One of the contestants looked very much like the faux-fur bedroom slippers I bought for my niece last year. The pink bow clipped near one end, I surmised, helped the judges determine which end was which.

A small creature floated like a wisp of lint above the tarp. "A Q-Tip of a dog," the voice-over cooed as if that was a good thing. Another beige critter, coiled in the arms of a handler, looked exactly like the boat chamois I use to buff water stains from my outboard engine.

Many of the dogs wore hair jewelry, clips and ribbons. I accessed the rules and regulations on my laptop. "Hair adornment is permitted," I read aloud, "but plastic and reconstructive surgery prior to the competition is prohibited." Tiller cocked his head with doubt as a tail-less dog scooted along the judging floor, gliding like a battery-operated Furbie. Either that dog was moving backwards or it had no tail at all. "I know," I said, tossing him an oyster cracker. "I can't explain that."

Occasional glimpses of the backstage area intrigued us the most. Dogs, dogs, everywhere! Tiller stood and barked at the television and I cheered him on. "This must be like the Match.com for you," I said to him. "See anyone you like?"

We watched one dog have its eyebrows waxed, one had its ears wrapped like a party favor, and another stood still while the groomers peered and prodded at its anus. "How humiliating." Tiller and I concurred.

I read to him from the Westminster website. "Hey, listen to this: A Beagle named Uno won Best in Show in 2008. He beat out two poodles for the title." Tiller pounded his tail once and, when he realized we were out of oyster crackers, promptly fell asleep. I advanced to the next topic: the Best in Show buying frenzy. As soon as the winner is announced, requests for the purebred pups skyrocket. From animal lovers to collectors of elite brands, people want to own the Best dog.

I know someone like that. He collects "the best" of everything. I was not surprised to hear from him over the weekend. "I want one of those 'Often-pinchers," he said. "Did you see that fussy little flat face? How adorable was that?

"You have never owned a dog," I said.

"True. But how hard can it be?"

I looked around the den. One arm of my reading glasses was missing (discovered later, in a pile of undigested debris deposited on the kitchen floor). The corner of the carpet had been gnawed off. The floor was scratched from toenails scrambling in pursuit of a ball. Tiller released an audible fart and my newly functioning nostrils began to burn.

My friend rambled on. "I love those Groucho Marx eyebrows. Plus," he continued, "the description sounded just like me. Independent. Feisty."

I interrupted. "Independent means difficult and stubborn. Feisty means gets into a lot of trouble." He made a little sound, like pish posh. "Plus, I don't think you should own a dog whose breed you can't pronounce."

He laughed. He'd never actually buy a dog. He was obsessed with fine carpets and designer shoes.

"You're forgetting that it will keep the home rodent-free," he ended the discussion.

I woke Tiller with a touch of my toe. He squinted up at me; one eye remained glued shut with sleep. He was never going to be in a dog show. With his odd ears pasted back, he looked a little like a rodent himself. "Come on, you cute little mongrel," I said as he stretched his wobbly legs. "Let's go to bed."

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