When people hear that I spent more than a year wandering the aisles of America’s dog shows while working on a book about the culture, the first question they inevitably ask is: Why? Why do otherwise normal humans with decent jobs and sound minds spend all of their free time and much of their disposable income on what seems like such a frivolous pursuit—primping and preparing their dogs to be judged in the show ring?
It’s really quite simple: because people really, really love dogs—almost as much as they love their children. Sometimes, even more.
That said, there are probably plenty of you who own dogs who still don’t see how that explains the motivation to put them in dog shows. So let me put it to you this way: Do you adore your dog to the degree that you sometimes call yourself “Mommy” or “Daddy”? Do think he or she is the most beautiful and special creature there is and ever has been? Do you often brag about him or her to friends and family? Do you post adorable photos on Facebook? Well, this is exactly what we do with our children.
And it’s why people show dogs. Because while dog showing is ostensibly about breeding — it’s the way the best and healthiest stock is identified — it’s also about validation.
Just as parents want teachers to tell them their kid is the smartest and politest in class, dog owners want to hear people lauding their dog’s beauty and obedience, and there’s no better place to hear that than in the show ring. Which isn’t to say that dog show participants need a ribbon to prove what they already know. If there are 3,000 dogs entered in a particular event, you’ll find 3,000 humans who’d argue for hours about why their dog is best.
It’s almost impossible not to feel that way. Because the bond between humans and dogs is more intense than our bond with any other species, and there’s not even a close second.
Dogs were the first domesticated animals, the ones that made domestication of all others possible. Scientists can’t seem to agree whether it was 10,000 or 15,000 or 100,000 years ago, but it’s inarguable that dogs evolved from wolves because of us. They were selected and honed to be our companions — to help us hunt, to guard our homes, to look after our livestock and even our children and, over time, to do so many useful and wonderful things that it boggles the mind.
For all the talk about wheels and metal and gunpowder, we often overlook one very important tool that helped lead us out of the caves and into societies: our dogs.
We have dogs that serve in combat (famously assisting in the capture of Usama Bin Laden); dogs that detect bed bugs; dogs that defend sheep from wolves (and cattle from cheetahs), in the process protecting the wild animals too by keeping ranchers from shooting them; dog lifeguards; dogs that guide the blind and allow the disabled to live better lives; dogs that sniff out cancer and drugs and invasive species. And dogs that simply provide companionship, making millions of lives around the globe much, much happier.
There seems to be no job dogs were asked to do that they didn’t figure out how to do capably, and if only they had thumbs we’d probably have taught them to drive us around by now.
Every day our scientific knowledge about these amazing animals increases, enabling us to better understand the very special voodoo that dogs have over us. What exactly makes canines so malleable is not yet fully understood but the fact that the species was literally born at our side explains why they seem to understand us at a level that’s sometimes spooky (but always nice).
Recent research shows they can read our facial expressions and pick up subtle cues that even toddlers can’t, and any dog owner has experienced moments where it seems like there’s an almost extrasensory frequency by which our two species communicate. What owner hasn’t come home on a bad day to find his dog immediately understanding, and offering a little extra love as a result?
And the best part of this relationship is how simple it is. While we often ask so much of them, they require almost nothing in return. You can ask your dog to chase a Frisbee, take a nap on the couch, herd some sheep, or run around a show ring and he’ll do it, happily, for hours on end. He only wants to be fed, and told he’s good, and most of all loved. If a dog has love, he really needs nothing else.
Unlike your kids, who will bug you for money until the day you die.
Josh Dean is the author of "Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred," out now from It Books/HarperCollins Publishers.