When I settled in to watch the Westminster Dog Show on Tuesday night, I thought that no outcome could possibly disappoint me. All dogs, of course, are good dogs, and the dog show displays every type of dog under the sun: big dogs, small dogs, fluffy dogs, smooth dogs, fat dogs, skinny dogs, proper dogs, doofy dogs. They all seem slightly confused but ultimately proud to be paraded in front of an adoring crowd. At the end of the event, one dog is selected to receive a hilariously garish array of trophies, cups, plates, and ribbons. Each of the dogs seems deserving.
However, I screamed in fury as Tuesday’s judge made his Best in Show decision. Instead of going with Bono, the flowing Havanese; Wilma, the handsome boxer; or Vinny, the proper wire fox terrier, the judge chose Siba, a sentient topiary.
I don’t think I was alone in rooting for Daniel, the smiley golden retriever. While the crowd appropriately went nuts for every dog to flop, prance, or trot across the Madison Square Garden floor, people were especially excited by the golden, who would have been the first of his breed to ever win at Westminster. I mean, LOOK AT THIS GUY.
Daniel the Golden Retriever runs off the floor with his 1st place ribbon after winning the Sporting Group at the 144th Annual @WKCDOGS Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in NYC on Feb. 11, 2020. Photo by @johnnyfoto for @UPI. pic.twitter.com/9lsLpBTqDo— UPI Photos (@UPIPhotos) February 12, 2020
Alas, the judge chose the standard poodle, yet another in a long line of wins for the bewilderingly groomed breed. While Siba herself seems like a delightful dog, I couldn’t help but feeling like the award was less about Siba and more about whichever canine hair specialist transformed Siba into an outrageous series of floofs and puffs. Is Best in Show for the best dog or the best haircut?
Presented with every wonderful type of dog the world has to offer, judges have a tendency to reward poodles. Siba is a standard poodle, the fifth to win Westminster in the 144-year history of the show, good for fourth in the all-time rankings. However, if we lump in three wins by miniature poodles and two by toy poodles—breeds that have the same exact specifications as the standard poodle, but are different sizes—poodles have won 10 times, more than any breed besides the wire fox terrier.
To win Best in Show, a dog must first win its group, and dogs are organized into hounds, terriers, herding dogs, working dogs, toy dogs, sporting dogs, and the nonsporting group. The standard and miniature poodle are in the nonsporting group, along with 19 other breeds, including the bulldogs (English and French), the Dalmatian, the Shiba Inu, and my personal favorite, the massive, blue-tongued chow chow. Since Westminster began organizing dogs into groups in 1924, the standard poodle has won the nonsporting group 30 times, while the miniature poodle has won 19 times. No other breed has won the group more than 10 times. (No wonder that bulldogs are so grumpy! They keep losing to these manicured doofuses!) The toy poodle is in the toy group, which it’s won 12 times—less than the Pekingese and Pomeranian, but still a quality haul.
Although I like to imagine that judges reward the friendliest dog, the dog that seems to be having the best time, or simply the dog they like the most, there is sadly a method to their madness. Westminster is a “conformation show,” meaning that it rewards dogs based on how closely they conform to the standard of what dogs of a certain breed should look like. If you see a beagle walking down the street, you know that it’s a beagle because it looks like a beagle. A judge at a conformation show, though, must run through this checklist, which describes the official standard for a beagle’s skull, ears, loin, muzzle, forelegs, tail, and more in meticulous detail. (My beagle, which I got from a shelter, would be disqualified for being too tall, even though she is a very, very good girl.) Some of the breed standards are highly specific—for example, the golden retriever must have a “length from breastbone to point of buttocks slightly greater than height at withers in ratio of 12:11.” Others are left to a judge’s discretion—the golden must have “a kindly expression” and “a personality that is eager, alert and self-confident.” (Daniel, it goes without saying, checked all the boxes.)
The absurd haircuts of show poodles are not a personal choice by owners. The poodle breed standard goes into extensive detail about the types of clips that are allowed. Some parts of the body must be shaven, some parts must have puffs, and others may have pompons. Stunningly, this has to do with poodles’ history as duck-hunting dogs. Early poodle owners shaved the hair on their dogs’ backsides because thick hair could get waterlogged and heavy, making swimming difficult. However, they preserved the dogs’ hair on the front to keep their vital organs warm. Over the centuries, this evolved into less of a practical choice and more of an artistic one. While most poodle owners keep their dogs with relatively reasonable-looking coats, show dogs have extravagant versions of the old-timey hunting cut. I like to pet regular-looking poodles. If Siba the Westminster-winning poodle approached me, I would have no clue where to begin. Do I pet the puffs? Do I touch its exposed butt skin? I think I’d try to shake its head like Michael Bloomberg did with that one dog.
Westminster judges decide year after year that poodles are simply better conformed to their breed standards than all the other dogs, and I think their over-the-top haircuts have a lot to do with it. This seems unfair! It makes the grand prize less about the dogs than the people who make dogs look a certain way—but then again, every dog show is inherently a celebration of dog breeding, and therefore of the people who make dogs look certain ways. The poodle haircut cheat code is just a reminder.
All the dogs, of course, are good dogs. I’m sure Daniel the golden retriever would have been happy to get a ridiculous hairdo if it meant people liked him more—he’s a golden retriever, he’d do anything if it meant people liked him more! But alas, his breed is not allowed to have silly haircuts, and only silly haircuts impress the judges, and so Daniel joined a long list of good goldens with normal haircuts that did not win at Westminster. Perhaps he can take solace in the knowledge that golden retrievers can sometimes win World Series MVP.