The dog world’s biggest shindig, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, recently descended on New York City with much fanfare and flying fur. Parts of the show are broadcast live on TV, with the camera spending almost as much time panning to celebrity dog fanciers in the audience as it spends on the dogs. Commentators breathlessly call the action as if something exciting were happening instead of just primped dogs running in circles around Madison Square Garden accompanied by handlers in sensible shoes.
Westminster and other dog shows are simply overblown beauty pageants—nothing more, nothing less. So what if a dog wins. What does it mean? That she was having a really great hair day? How silly is that?
As trivial as dog shows are, they have repercussions that are dead serious. They create a culture of celebrity that has no business in the canine world. We can only guess how many families gathered around their TV sets will decide that they absolutely have to have a dog exactly like the one named Best in Show. How many will rush out to buy a puppy from a pet shop or breeder without stopping to think about how much time, money and effort puppies require? How many will then dump said puppy at the animal shelter six months later when that puppy cuteness has worn off but that puppy energy is still going full speed?
It is estimated that 6 to 8 million animals are abandoned at shelters every year and roughly half are euthanized. Most of these animals are young, healthy and friendly (and approximately a third of them are purebreds). There is nothing “wrong” with mixed-breed shelter dogs. They are not “inferior” to the dogs you see prancing around the ring at Westminster—in fact, studies show that mixed breeds are often healthier and even smarter than purebreds. They simply lack Westminster’s marketing muscle.
The Westminster Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the various other kennel clubs are as culpable in the deaths of shelter dogs as if they had administered the lethal injections themselves. Not only do they promote and breed purebred dogs—taking away homes from shelter animals with every litter they bring into the world—they also actively fight efforts to combat the overpopulation crisis with spay/neuter legislation. The AKC even brags on its Web site about the role it played in tabling a groundbreaking California bill that would have required most animals statewide to be spayed or neutered (breeders could have paid a modest fee to be exempted) and that had the potential to save 500,000 animals from being abandoned and consequently euthanized every year.
Westminster may seem like good, clean family fun, but in reality, its message is that dogs are status symbols to be dressed up and shown off. But dogs are more than just a pretty face—they are our companions, our best friends. Imagine if, instead of fawning over dogs lucky enough to have a really good hairdresser and important-sounding “papers,” we started appreciating dogs for who they are—or who they could be if let out of that shelter cage long enough to strut their stuff. What if Westminster were renamed West mutt ster, and instead of promoting inbred show dogs with complicated hairdos and amputated tails and ears, it showcased homeless dogs up for adoption at local animal shelters? Now that would be something worth setting the Tivo for.