Every weekend, for nearly fifty weeks each year, tens of thousands of Americans pack up their SUVs and minivans with crates and dryers and treats and shampoos and hairsprays and plush toys and fan out for some of the two-thousand-plus dog shows held annually across the United States. More than two million pedigreed dogs, and exponentially more humans who handle and care for them, will take part in these events—for the most part happily—and the world that has grown up to support them is massive and vibrant, and almost impossible to imagine unless you’ve seen it in person.
By spending a year alongside rising star Jack, a champion Australian shepherd, and his canine and human friends, magazine journalist Josh Dean yanks back the curtain on the dog show world, providing not just a hilarious and often touching portrait of a colorful subculture only slightly exaggerated in the film Best in Show, but also a revealing look at our love affair with the world’s most doted-upon and tinkered-with animal species, examining the colossal array of dog types and humans who love them.
The book follows Jack as he matures over the course of a year, from still-improving adolescent to seasoned adult show dog. We get to know him and the people around him—his owner, his handler, his breeder—to experience what it’s like to own a show dog and to train one. And we come to appreciate him for what he is, a lovable and intelligent house pet—albeit one with a highly unusual occupation.
Along the way, Dean takes a close look at the eccentric and fascinating world of breeders and dog show fanciers—exploring the history and science of purebred dog breeding and the evolution of canine perfection via dog show culture, with that pursuit’s many related peculiarities: judging, training, naming, promoting, hairstyling, kennel-owning, RV-driving, hotel-finding, treat-selecting, and more.
As the blurb says this is a true story following an Australian Shepherd from a newbie to a champion AKC (American Kennel Club) conformation show dog. Jack, as he’s known to his people, or Grand Champion Wyndstar’s Honorable Mention as the AKC knows him, is a stunning blue merle (look at the cover pic) with a lot of presence and personality. He was bred to be a show dog, but by a strange twist of fate, he was bought by a woman who wanted a pet first, and possibly a show dog second. The breeder took some convincing but finally decided to sell Jack to his human. The rest, as they say, is history.
Briefly, the American Kennel Club is a dog registry that recognizes purebred dog breeds and sets the standard for what they feel that breed is supposed to be, from appearance to temperament. AKC conformation shows are designed to judge and showcase the best of the best for breeding and prestige purposes. Many breeds also have their own specific registry along with American Kennel Club recognition. A quick note on Aussies, or Australian Shepard’s—they are actually a dog created for herding and working purposes in the American west.
Mr. Dean deftly tells the story of Jack as he goes from an untried puppy to a champion conformation dog. He followed this dog’s story for just over a year, attending shows, and getting to know the owner, Jack’s handler, and many other personalities in the show world. He also weaves in history of both the AKC, dog shows, the Aussie breed, and many other things in the story, to give a very vivid picture of the show world for both dogs and people. It’s very clear that Jack is first a pet and companion, and second a champion show dog, and that he loves every minute of it. Mr. Dean also gives a very candid look as a newbie outsider (him) turns into a newbie insider and learns the ropes of the very strange world of showing dogs. Not only do we get to follow Jack’s story in detail but we hear about many of the other top dogs in the circuit. We also learn about some of the controversies and find out that “Aussie people” are a lot saner than many other breeds as well as getting a good look at how professional handlers do their jobs. And really… poodles? LOL. He does touch on the hows and whys of poodle showing as well.
Over all I really enjoyed this book. It was well written and highly entertaining. Show Dog did a very good job of introducing me to a world that I only vaguely understood before. My only complaint was that I didn’t feel he did enough wrap up with Jack at the end. I would have liked to see a little more recap on all his accomplishments since the book was about him.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Aussies, the conformation world, or dogs in general.