“Best in Show,” the mocumentary lampooning dog shows, now showing in theaters nationwide, has no shortage of wacky characters.
Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock) are terrified that their Weimaraner has been traumatized because he saw them making love; Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara) sing horribly off-key songs about terriers to Winky their Norfolk terrier; a gay couple (Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins) pack for a weekend dog show in Philadelphia as if they’re going to Asia for a month; and siliconed Sherri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) and her decrepit husband, (Patrick Cranshaw) may not share a love of dogs, (“We like soup”), but they do have the bucks to hire the best handler (Jane Lynch). Plus, director, Christopher Guest, plays Harlan Pepper, a guy who is more or less married to his bloodhound.
Describing this fictitious Mayflower dog show in Philadelphia is commentator Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard), who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Laughlin speculates the bloodhound would have a better chance of winning if he wore a Sherlock Holmes cap and pipe in his mouth. He wonders aloud if the dog show judges are bribed. And he makes several wildly bizarre baseball analogies. There’s no doubt, Willard is parodying folksy Joe Garagiola, who has provided commentary for nine Westminster Kennel Club Dog Shows (broadcast each year on the USA Network).
As funny as this film is, I contend real life is funnier. Take these stories from veteran dog fanciers and judge for yourself:
Carmen Battaglia of Atlanta, Ga. remembers a time when one of his handlers didn’t show up. Desperate to find a handler for his second dog, he enlisted his maid to enter the ring. “She began by running in the wrong direction, which is like hitting a home run and starting at third base,” Battaglia says and laughs. Embarrassed and desperate for an excuse, she told the judge “I’m dyslexic.” Battaglia adds that the125-pound pooch literally dragged the woman around the ring at that New Hampshire show.
Battaglia, now on the American Kennel Club Board of Directors, showed German shepherd dogs and various other breeds for 35 years. But even the best still make mistakes. He admits that he actually stepped on a long-haired dachshund moments before they both entered the ring at a show in Stone Mountain, Ga. “That poor dog stayed as far from me as he possibly could,” Battaglia said. “The dog looked so confident that he won. The truth is that he wanted to get it over with as fast as possible.”
Chris Walkowicz of Sherrard, Ill. has been involved with dogs for 35 years, and was a well-respected breeder of bearded collies, and author of books about dogs. She recalled a time in the early 1990s when she was showing a German shorthaired pointer in Wheaton, Ill. Everything seemed to be falling into place for a win, when something else fell — her slip. “I haven’t worn a slip since,” she laughs. “I was expecting to see myself on one of those America’s Funniest Home Videos TV shows.”
Sharon Strempski notes how some handlers use their outfits to get attention in the ring. One memorable example was the sequined electric blue tuxedo an Afghan hound handler dared to wear on national TV at Westminster a few years back. But, in one case, it was the lack of an outfit that got the attention. “There was handler who, shall I say, left little to the imagination. No – she left nothing to the imagination,” says Strempski. “She bent over right in front of the judge. Well, this guy was a notorious letch. From the other side of the ring, you could see his eyes pop out of his head. Of course, she won.”
Strempski, of Danbury Conn., has been breeding and showing dogs (notably affenpinschers) for 32 years. She also recalls one woman’s attire at the Westminster show about 15 years ago. She wore a black leather dress, zippered up as far as possible up from the bottom — and zippered down through her cleavage– and could barely walk in her black stiletto heels. As if she needed it, she had on several layers of makeup. What’s more, she wore a white fox mink stole – the kind with the head still attached. A little boy walked up to her and, as he pointed at the fox, innocently asked, “Was that dog in the show?”
In the film, Best in Show, Willard – as announcer Laughlin – wonders out loud what would happen if a dog humped on an owner’s leg while being shown. Wally Pede, longtime Afghan breeder and a judge of more than 50 breeds, remembers when he witnessed a 100-pound woman handler slip and fall in the ring. Next, the dog she was showing, a 135-pound Rottweiler, “took advantage of her leg,” Pede of Springfield, Va., says.
The handler was in no danger, just embarrassed. Meanwhile, the crowd was cheering, and the dog was, well, intent on continuing non-stop. “The judge was either very brave or very stupid,” recalls Pede. “You don’t interrupt a Rottweiler that’s so intent on business – but the judge took the dog and pulled him off, and as he helped the handler up he said, ‘I want the pick of this dog’s litter.'”
Bob Forsythe of Pinehurst, N.C. has been showing dogs since he was 8 years old. He’s now 69, and a judge of more than 100 breeds. He’s participated in countless dog shows, but never did he receive more applause than he did one year in the early 1970s at the distinguished Westminster show. He was handling an Old English sheepdog who without warning decided to relieve herself. “It seemed like she hadn’t urinated in months,” he says.
Also in the early-70s, he was showing a Maltese a Staten Island, N.Y. show. The judge awarded him first place in the Toy Group, but even before Forsythe could bark ‘hooray,’ the judge said, “No you’re second.” All the dogs repositioned themselves, but before the new first place winner could celebrate, the judge said, “No, you’re in third place.” Yet, again and again and again, the judge repositioned the dogs. Forsythe and his Maltese wound up in fourth place, and that judge wound up never judging again.
As the real Garagiola told me last year, “Dog shows are like ball games–there’s a lot of strategy and thinking involved. I know about the strategy for baseball. About strategy for a dog show, I don’t have any idea. But I know there’s strategy and thinking too. And for the dog who’s the final winner. Wow! That’s like hitting a home run in game seven of the Series.”
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