Four-legged animals will be competing at Spruce Meadows over the Heritage Day long weekend — furry, slobbery, tail-wagging animals. The Alberta Kennel Club’s annual Summer Classic will feature 26 breed-specific shows on day one, and almost 2,000 dogs competing in all-breed events, including obedience, agility and conformation, over the remaining three days. Judges in this last category assess the competitors on factors such as gait and physical structure prior to awarding the coveted “Best in Show” titles (the AKC hands out three of these, since each day counts as a separate show).
The oddities of dog shows — and the people who compete in them — were famously captured in the 2000 mockumentary Best in Show. Calgary breeder and professional handler Tammy Sawatzky has seen the film — which includes a couple seeking therapy for their dog after it sees them having sex — and acknowledges it bears some uncanny similarities to real life.
“Everybody that I know that has ever seen that show knows somebody that reminds them of those characters,” says Sawatzky, who hasn’t needed to consult a therapist for the reason mentioned above. “It’s not that far off. Of course, it’s a little on the extreme side.”
Sawatzky will be showing about 10 dogs at the Classic, both her own and some for clients who just want to relax and watch their pets compete. But grooming other people’s dogs for success, she says, begins long before they enter the ring.
“The dogs live with me for a while. I get to know them, they all become my own pet. They’re not just show dogs. They live in the house, sleep on my bed, lay on the couch, kick me off the couch.”
Sounds typical for a doting dog owner, but most of those would probably balk at keeping their pets’ treats in their mouths. It’s common at dog shows, though, as it keeps the “bait” moist and smelling familiar, and makes it easy to bite off as needed. Asked whether this has ever seemed weird, Sawatzky replies simply: “No.”
Though Best in Show may be a little over-the-top, some aspects of dog shows hardly require parody. There’s no limit to the zaniness of show dogs’ names, such as an old English sheepdog named “We Will Rock Ewe,” but there are rules. The Canadian Kennel Club may reject a proposed name if the dog shares the moniker with a member of the Royal family or a national leader, or if it’s “considered unsuitable for a purebred dog.”
If dog owners have relative latitude when it comes to picking names, there’s an exacting series of breed standards competing dogs have to meet on everything from the shape of their facial features to their temperament. Standard poodles, for instance, can lose points for having a “Roman nose,” “large” eyes, or exhibiting shyness, and risk disqualification if they have an “unorthodox clip.” Approved poodle clips are often mocked, but AKC spokesperson Corrie Horne says they serve a serious purpose.
“They were retrieving dogs, and they would go into the water. The little pom poms on the butt would keep the hip joints warm, and the pom poms on the ankles would act as flippers, and the pom pom on the tail acts as a rudder, and the big amount of hair around the chest actually keeps the vital organs warm.”
Although Horne likens dog shows to beauty pageants in some aspects, she says they’re about substance as well as style. Prospective dog owners may not care if their poodle has a Roman nose, but they probably will expect it to be smart, active and friendly, and judges consider these factors as well. Visiting a dog show, Horne says, is just a glimpse into the work breeders engage in year-round.
“The reason why people breed dogs is to improve upon the breed. To improve upon health, to improve upon structure, to improve upon temperament. That’s what we’re always moving forward with, is just trying to improve upon the breed.”