Bring Your Non-Doggy Friends to A Dog Show!

From the column "Becoming" by Jacquelyn Fogel. Originally appearing in our May 2016 Issue. Click to subscribe.

“He drew a circle that shut me out—heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took him in!” —Edwin Markham

I love going to the Westminster dog show for a lot of reasons, many not related to the dog show. I love New York—Manhattan in particular. It’s my favorite city because it is a live, working city—not just a Disney, Maui or Las Vegas type of place made up for vacationing tourists. Real people live and work in New York. They aren’t there just to please tourists. Most are there because they want to be, because of what the city has to offer them. The entertainment in New York is unparalleled, and the food is heavenly—if you stay away from the over-advertised, over-priced places. It’s a walking city, and one where public transportation is easily accessed if your feet finally give out. If you get bored in Manhattan, you’re just not doing it well.


Because I love New York, I often talk with friends about the city. One couple I know has owned 2 of my Bedlingtons. About 6 years ago they suggested they might like to come with us to New York for the Westminster dog show. I must say, my first reaction was, “Oh, no. That will never work!” This couple is Wisconsin home-grown, very family oriented, used to life in a small town, and in love with routine. We love them for all of those reasons—and mistakenly assumed they would not like anything about a big city like New York. Patti’s a nurse, and Jeff’s a plumber. They like the Wisconsin Dells and Branson, MO. What in the world would we do with them in New York? And what about the logistics of the dog show? Were they going to understand how complicated travel with a dog can be? Would they understand our need to get back to the hotel to feed and exercise the dog every day? Would they understand that some of my time was going to be devoted to pre-show preparation? Would they want to actually go to the dog show? I had visions of them whining about how crowded places were, and how dirty the city was compared to hometown, Slinger. I thought they’d hate the food and would not want to go to a Broadway show. I was sure they’d complain about aching feet and high expenses. Except for the aching feet (and back) I was entirely off-base with all of my concerns.


As it has turned out, they now look forward to coming with us every year, and the one year they had to miss because of Jeff’s father passing away is still talked about. Even this year Jeff wondered out loud why Dad had to choose THAT week out of all 52 to decide to die. I know how much Jeff loved his father, so I am amused by this whining. It speaks to how much Jeff and Patti have come to love this annual New York adventure. We’ve even pushed our departure date back a day to get in one more day of walking, shows and great food.


And I didn’t have to worry about logistics at all. Having two additional sets of hands to handle all of the extra gear is a wonderful side benefit. Because they are dog lovers (actually only Patti is a true dog lover, Jeff just likes to hang out with Darling Husband, Tom, who is my indentured servant for the week), they even like to watch the show. Patti and I will wander from ring to ring watching the breeds we like. Over the years she has gotten used to my dog-talk about profiles, fronts, rears, movement and type. She even asks questions about what separates good dogs from great ones, and she’s getting almost as good as me at picking Group placements. She’s actually developing a critical eye for structure and movement, if not always breed type. She loves to hear me talk about standards and some of the smaller things judges and breeders look for in particular breeds, and she mixes well with my other breeder and handler friends. Patti and I often watch the groups at the Garden while Jeff and Tom have dinner together and watch it on TV. I think they’d actually prefer to watch something else, but they know Patti and I are coming back with lots of conversation, and they want to be able to participate at least a little.


I think those of us in the dog-world sometimes forget that what we do is seen as exotic and interesting to non-doggy people. I think it’s become such an ingrained part of our existence that we don’t realize how different—and even interesting—it is to other people. We never dreamed that our friends, a nurse and a plumber, would find anything interesting about this part of our lives. Yet it’s not unusual for us to enjoy TV shows about hospitals, doctors, Tim-The-Tool-Man or Red Green. You don’t have to play football to enjoy watching it. We were also short-sighted about what experiences our friends might enjoy. Tom and I both grew up in small towns and we both love New York. Why did we assume that couldn’t be true of other people? We were sure Jeff wouldn’t like Broadway, but his favorite shows include Cabaret, Priscilla, Queen of The Dessert and Beauty. He’s expressed his concern several times that Tom and I went to see Kinky Boots the year he couldn’t go. Who knew? Our plumber has an appreciation for Broadway musicals. He’s never complained, even when he didn’t really understand the subtleties of some of the shows. He enjoys being with people who are having a good time.


This year, for the first time that I can recall, I ran into two separate groups of non-doggy people from out-of-town who said they were coming to New York specifically to see the Westminster Dog Show because it was on their Bucket List. One group from Tennessee included two elderly couples and a middle-aged daughter. They were staying at our hotel, and we struck up a conversation in the lobby when I came in from walking a dog. As we talked about the different breeds and the joys of owning and showing dogs, I mentioned how important it was for people like them to continue supporting pure-bred dog breeders. The daughter, Dana, said she understood completely why purpose-bred was important and why good breeders needed to be supported. She also was very clear about the new retail-rescue movement and how it ironically helped to support the very breeders they were supposed to be putting out of business. I thanked her profusely for her attendance and her understanding, and told her I really hoped she’d enjoy the show and plan to come again. I saw these people watching the Bedlingtons being judged, and I think I made some new friends for our breed! It was a very rewarding experience. While it’s nice for people to have Westminster on their Bucket List, I’d really like to encourage them to become annual admirers. I only wish the weather had been a little more cooperative this year. Trying to walk through Manhattan with sub-zero wind-chills was bad enough for Wisconsinites. I can only imagine how the Tennessee people felt.


As I have thought about this experience, I’ve thought that we dog people need to be a little more willing to invite non-doggy people into our world. Patti used to travel to local shows with me to occasionally show her Bedlington. She came to a couple of training classes and showed her own dog a few times, though I finished her championship. Once her dog finished, I assumed she was done with the dog-show world. That was a mistake. I used to be better at inviting people into my dog world, but somewhere along the line I forgot to keep asking. I get so wrapped up in my doggy world that I forget we need to keep making an effort to connect with the broader world, especially our friends who may not even know about all the nasty legislation we fight, but are willing to support us if we tell them why. We doggy people will never win the battle to preserve our way of life if we don’t recruit and educate to gain support from the non-doggy world. The animal activists have understood this for a long time, and they use it against us. Why is it so many animal lovers think breeders are bad? Don’t they know where puppies come from? Whose job is it to tell them?


This is going to sound ridiculous, but I would like to return to a time with more benched shows in our larger metropolitan areas. At least the public was guaranteed to see their favorite breeds even if they didn’t know how to read a show schedule, and showed up late for judging. Often, for them, the judging is less important than meeting the breeds and their owners. I know many handlers think these shows present working obstacles they don’t face in non-benched shows, but without the pure-bred buying public’s support, we will not be able to maintain this sport. The Pet Expos with their dozens of aisles of Rescues have taken the place of dog shows when it comes to attracting the public. There is still a significant public intrigued by what we do in spite of the efforts to make us seem disgusting. This is clear when you see the number of news stories generated by the Westminster dog show. I could not believe the number of people who commented about the German Shepherd bred by a Wisconsin guy—go Kent! Saying I know Kent was like saying I knew a Green Bay Packer in Wisconsin. Much of the public has not bought into the animal activist agendas, but they’re not getting enough of our healthier version of the story, either. We need to make this as much our mission as raising healthy, purpose-bred dogs. We need to invite the public in to meet us. Then we all need to be on our best behavior when they come to see us.


I think next year I will invite 2 more couples to join us in New York to see the Westminster dog show. Even if they say no to the first invitation, it will at least get them thinking about us, then maybe they’ll say yes the next time. I can’t think of anything better than combining a visit to a city I love, with a sport I love, and sharing it with people I love. I’m also going to try to think of ways to make smaller shows more fun for local spectators. Perhaps I should invite Kent, our local celebrity, to bring his German Shepherd to West Bend this year—then invite the press. I know there are some smaller shows out there who do some really creative things to get the public in. Maybe our clubs can even investigate ways to include some non-doggy members who can help us in our mission. There is a large dog-loving public out there waiting to hear from us. I think we need to draw a circle to bring them in. 

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