Reflecting on Westminster

Westminster winner, Banana Joe the affenpinscher.

Banana Joe the affenpinscher took the Westminster cup last night, and I’ve been thinking about dog shows again.

As a child, I always loved watching Westminster on TV, mainly to parade my knowledge of all the obscure dog breeds (I was a pretentious little kid, primarily about dogs). My goal was to name the breed before the announcer did. But, in truth, I found dog shows pretty boring. Because, let’s face it: They are. Watching well-coiffed dogs trot in a circle for a few hours? Not exactly my idea of a good time.

But I remain peripherally interested in dog shows, if only because they tend to be a good indicator of how dog breeding practices are trending right now. (And because it is still at least fun to look at all the pretty dogs.)

In general, the trends disappoint me.

The United States has so far to go still in terms of prioritizing health over looks—but then again, health has never been the point of dog shows. Look at the X-ray of a winning Pekingese. That is not a healthy animal. Look at the back legs of this year’s German shepherd who took best of breed; they touch the ground, warping the spine and hips, and for no other reason than “that’s how they’re supposed to look.” It breaks my heart. The winning bulldog and winning pug have such an extremely squashed faces; they both look like they’re laboring to breathe just for the photo shoot. Don’t even get me started on the Neapolitan mastiff.

I like to dream of a world in which competing dogs have to pass a health and fitness test before they can be allowed to show for confirmation. Can the bulldog run the length of the ring without collapsing? Can the German shepherd pass a hip exam? The United Kingdom is moving toward such protocols, with great controversy, and the UKC is contemplating such tests itself. There’s a reason why the breeds that still have a working function—many of the scent hounds, for example—are healthy and look like they did in the 1800s. Accordingly, it makes sense that dogs that do not “need” to be healthy—toy breeds, brachycephalic breeds—have seen their breed standards fall to extremes to support the whims of human vanity.

My complaining about this, obviously, isn’t going to change anything. But I still like to dream of a better world for purebred dogs. Breeding animals like this, purely to suit our tastes, is nothing short of animal cruelty.