Next week brings the 104th Westminster Kennel Club dog show. It is, according to one judge, "the great event in the world of dogs, the show of shows." There are bigger shows, certainly there are better-run shows, but none in America is older or more prestigious. None has Westminster's bloodline. To mark the occasion, 2,804 dogs representing 137 breeds and varieties, 48 states and five countries will gather in New York City's Madison Square Garden. They will be judged for two days, at the end of which a single dog will be selected by a single judge as best-in-show. There are a whole passel of people who can predict who will win best-in-show at Westminster, but you know who won't win? A hound dog.
This is how it was explained by a famous New York trainer: "If you saw two beautiful women come into this room, both equally gorgeous, physically perfect, and one was wearing a mink coat while the other was wearing a wool one, which would you want to take out?"
The question posed was: Why, at Westminster, the dog show of dog shows, have terriers and poodles won best-in-show 38 times and seven times, respectively, while a beagle and a basset hound have not won even once? Nor, for that matter, has a dachshund, which is generally among the top five breeds in numbers entered. Or a bloodhound, foxhound, coonhound or harrier. What is it about trailhounds that makes them such miserable show dogs in Westminster's eyes? Even the aggressively ugly bull terrier has won best-in-show, and the bulldog has won twice, so it is not simply a case of beautiful girls in mink coats. Westminster is just prejudiced against the hound dog.
So you'll know where I'm coming from, the two great canine loves in my life have been a basset hound and my college roommate's beagle. The beagle's name was Thurman; my roommate's name was Woof. Thurman used to bark at other, larger dogs until they turned to bark back. Then Thurman would scamper under the nearest car. This made Woof, who was hammer thrower on the track team, very angry. It was endearing to the rest of us. As for the basset hound, she is still the only four-legged creature I have seen fall down under her own steam. She was chasing a squirrel in a circle and spun out on a patch of ice. Those were funny dogs. And as long as I'm coming clean, I'll admit to being no friend of the yapping terrier and having once kicked our miniature poodle halfway up the kitchen door so that it nearly swung open. Further, I'm a big fan of wool, and beautiful women in mink scare me to death.
Before a dog can be judged for best-in-show, it must first be deemed best-in-group. The American Kennel Club has divided its 137 recognized breeds and varieties into six separate groups: the sporting group, the hound group, the working group, the phenomenally successful terrier group, the toy group, and a group I hesitate even to mention, the non-sporting group. There are 21 breeds within the hound group, only half of which are hounds, at least as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: hunters "characteristically having drooping ears, a short coat, and a deep resonant voice." Afghan hounds—one was best-in-show at Westminster in 1957—have long hair and high-pitched voices; the Borzoi has midget ears and a long, silky coat; and the Basenji is a silky, short-haired, pointy-eared beast with no voice at all. They call it the barkless hound, and the only noise it can make, as described by the AKC's The Complete Dog Book, is "somewhere between a chortle and a yodel," which it apparently makes when it is pleased, because upon hearing it one "can't help but share the happiness with him."
In the face of such competition, the trailhounds have been judged so unworthy by the Westminster Kennel Club that it has been 11 years since one of their number has even won best-in-group at the Garden, an event in which, numerically, they should have a 50-50 chance. As one dachshund breeder puts it, "Dachshunds are a very small and unadorned breed. Get them in with the Afghans and Borzois and they look like nothing. They look like little plodding things among all the great, hairy, beautiful hounds."
Nevertheless, in some parts of the country, bassets and the other trailhounds can overcome their dowdiness. A dog is supposed to be judged by how close it comes to "the standard"—a concept of the Venus and Adonis of the breed—and not by how attractive the dog is to the eye. Basset champions like Ch. Slow Poke Hubertus and Ch. Siefenjagenheim Lazy Bones were named best-in-show many times, best-in-group many more times, but never at Westminster. "You've got to remember," says one basset breeder in New England, "Westminster's not an ordinary dog show. It's a showplace. You go there to see and to be seen."
That is as true now as it ever has been. Westminster is a sort of debutante cotillion of dog shows. After the first Westminster in May of 1877, Forest and Stream asserted, "We question if on any previous occasion has there ever assembled in this city such a number of people at one time, and representing as much of the culture, wealth and fashion of the town."
One of the things that people of culture, wealth and fashion prefer not to be seen with is a hound dog. The landed gentry tend more toward terriers, who are notorious rat-catchers; while the city sophisticates prefer poodles, whose chief attribute is that they do not shed. "Give me your description of a hound owner," challenges Captain Arthur Haggerty, an authority on dogs and Westminster. "He's your good ol' country boy, right? I'm not saying you have to pay to win Westminster, but you need money to raise, train, breed and campaign these dogs. And a professional handler is a real craftsman. He can take a dog with a poor shoulder conformation and sculpt the coat to mask it. Your trailhounds are more or less pure dogs."
Unfortunately for hound breeders, the natural look has not yet hit the dog world. Blow dryers, curlers, combs and coat-whitening cornstarch are standard appurtenances of the glamorous breeds that beat them. Trailhounds need only a trim of the whiskers, a bath and a nail-clip. Out they plod, looking like Huck Finn loose in Tiffany's, and the Garden is suddenly atwitter in stifled giggling.