Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

April 30, 2012

Dog Days

Josh Dean tracked dog shows for his inside look at the sometimes wacky subculture, including an uncomfortably close look at the breeding game.

Andrew Golding

There are two kinds of people in this world—those who are dog people and those who aren't. That isn't to say the two groups are uniform; not every non-dog person is a heartless, unlovable creep incapable of feeling anything as he looks coldly into the playful eyes of an Australian shepherd puppy. And certainly most dog people don't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on primping and training and breeding their show dogs as they tour them around the country. But wouldn't it be interesting to find out about those who did?

Josh Dean. Photo by Kate Lacey.
"She came a long way, in large part because of that adorable puppy picture she couldn't get out of her head."

Josh Dean. Photo by Kate Lacey.

Josh Dean is definitely a dog person. He had a dog growing up, but has been dogless for the last 15 years. He's wanted another dog but due to a schedule that involved constant travel (he's a magazine writer), among other reasons, it just hasn't worked out. So instead, he wrote a book about dogs. The result is Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred.

Based on over two years of reporting, Dean gives readers an encompassing view of the show-dog world. It's a world, he's found, that is remarkably similar to the 2000 film Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest. Dean, in what is his first book, reports on the owners who are so happy with man's best friend they spend almost every weekend entering them in dog shows, as well as the professional trainers and handlers who play a key role in their success. And he talks a lot about dogs, especially an Australian shepherd named Jack who is the main character in the story—an unknown whose owner Kimberly Smith, has no dog-show experience. Yet Jack soon becomes known in the dog-show world.

In the following interview, conducted via email and edited for clarity, Dean discusses all things dog, with insight on the breeding process, the perfect dog, and how having a dog changes people.

Gelf Magazine: What is new in Jack's life since the book was completed?

Josh Dean: Jack's on hiatus, I guess you'd say. He's not retired from showing, but he's on a break, just enjoying being a dog—hanging out at home, chasing Frisbees, and being Kimberly's pet first and foremost. He did get a second title—his ASCA championship—in a single weekend of showing down in Virginia. He's also enjoyed one of the perks of being a champion in demand: He's sired a few litters.

Gelf Magazine: In reading the book, I was surprised to learn about the importance of a handler (valued by judges), the necessity of a testicle check (breeding is vital), as well as the widespread cheating that goes on at dog shows (hair spray! dye! powder!). Over the course of your reporting, what were the most surprising revelations to you?

Josh Dean: So many things—certainly the cost of truly competing for Bests in Show was shocking to me. Jack is an amazing dog, with a great record, but he's not in a position to compete with the dogs who win the biggest shows because his owner can't drop six figures a year on dog shows. I was pretty surprised at just how much of it is about breeding—picking out the right "bitch" for your dog is a regular topic of conversation, unless you're the owner of a bitch, in which case you're always on the hunt for the right stud.

Gelf Magazine: The description of the breeding process in chapter 18 is jarring as well as memorable and educational. Can you give your thoughts on what happened that day?

Josh Dean: That's one chapter that people always talk about. What you quickly find out if you hang around dog shows is that a huge portion of the rationale for the whole enterprise is breeding. People are trying to identify the best breeding stock for furthering each particular breed. And so a champion show dog will always find his semen in demand. I just hadn't really thought of this, but I knew that as soon as Jack's owner and breeder were ready to breed him, I needed to follow that part, too. And so I was there when a vet gave Jack a hand job in order to get a sample for an artificial insemination. Why? Because he was a young dog and like many young dogs he couldn't quite master the natural way. He did later, of course. But it took him some time. And in the meantime, they decided to do an artificial insemination because a female dog—a bitch, as anyone in shows will say—is only in heat twice a year and you can't miss the opportunity. By the way, I took my nine-months-pregnant wife along on this adventure. She's still recovering, I think. And probably hasn't forgiven me.

Gelf Magazine: Kimberly Smith's story intrigues me. She's a divorced mom with no dog-show experience, who is in a much different place in her own life when the book concludes. During the two years you spent researching the book, did anyone change more than her? How much of an impact did Jack have on her life?

Josh Dean: He had a tremendous impact on her life. It's the kind of thing we say over and over, but it's amazing how a small decision can change the course of your life. She was a lonely single mother recovering from a breakup and dealing with the imminent departure of her son, who was growing up and ready to become independent. To help assuage that difficult period, she went in search of a dog and happened to fall in love with a picture of a puppy in California that turned out to be Jack. Because the breeder required it, she entered him in dog shows, and he did really well. She got hooked, as so many people do. And she ended up spending a good chunk of her time and money on him and dog shows. She also found a community of Aussie owners, and through him met the man who will soon be her husband. They're going to buy a farm together and raise Aussies. I'd say she came a long way, in large part because of that adorable puppy picture she couldn't get out of her head.

Gelf Magazine: Conformation—model breed structure—is discussed at length in the book. I'm wondering, what is the most perfect dog you have seen, the one that you would judge to be No. 1 above all?

Josh Dean: Wow, that's a hard one to answer. No, it's impossible. The thing about conformation is that there is no such thing as a perfect dog. I chose the subtitle "a near-perfect purebred" in part to hint at Jack's eccentric and sometimes unruly character, but really it's also the truth of all show dogs. They have imperfections, just like humans. I also, after even 18 months of going to dog shows, still don't see what judges see. I walk around and tend to focus on the cutest specimens, or the ones with the most dynamic personalities. Terriers tend to stand out. Poodles, too. But I tend to be a guy who prefers doggier dogs. That's why I liked Jack so much.

Gelf Magazine: You write in the preface that you had been thinking about writing this book for the last five years. Why did you feel that way? Is this the book you imagined writing?

Josh Dean: I can't remember when the idea came to me, but it popped into my head one day and just sat there. I thought, for years, I should write that book. I just didn't—in part because I was busy with magazine work, but also because I felt a little paralyzed by the idea of finding one dog to focus on. That seemed impossible. Once I found Jack, though, it all came together. I think the book is much richer and more far-reaching than I anticipated it would be. It's the story of one dog, who stands for all show dogs, but it's really much more than that—I sort of geeked out on dogs for two years. Honestly, it could easily have been twice as long.

Gelf Magazine: I'm wondering, is there a personality difference between people with dogs, and those without dogs?

Josh Dean: For sure—at least between what I'd call "dog people" and everyone else. I think not everyone with a dog becomes a "dog person," but many of them do. Dog people tend to obsess about dogs and be drawn to anything that involves them. But I also think that non-dog owners are missing out on a special bond and an emotional connection in the way that people without kids probably are. It's not that everyone should own a dog—or have a child—but once you do have either of them, your life nearly always changes for the better.

Gelf Magazine: I'm interested in your process for writing the book. Did you cull together all your notes and then write the book? Write chapters along the way? And where do you like to write—a coffee shop, an office, your bedroom?

Josh Dean: I wish I had a method. Some of the specifics are lost to time, or post-traumatic stress, or whatever. And you have to keep in mind that during this 18 months, I got married, had a child, and lost my mother; 2010 was one hell of a year. But generally what I did is to try and treat most chapters like magazines stories. My method for those, as much as I have one, is to come home from a trip, transcribe tape, and type up my notes—and that refreshes my mind with all the material that I have. Parts of it start to stand out. Then I organize and build a structure. Because of the way I did most chapters—they centered on one particular show, in a particular location—that was relatively easy. But I also have many chapters that are more general—about history, or genetics, or psychology—and those required more research and interviews. And in those cases, I basically went through all my material, culled the best, and built files of material that I shaped into things resembling chapters. It worked out. I think. Until my son was born, this was all done in our guest room, which doubled as my office. Once he arrived, I rented an office space a short subway- or bike-ride away. I have a lovely view of the polluted Gowanus Canal and the BQE. Also lots of piles of junk, and some bus parking yards. I am certainly not distracted by the scenery.

Gelf Magazine: You've written for a number of publications. Of your portfolio, which are your favorite pieces, the ones you are most proud of?

Josh Dean: The best experience was my Iran trip for Outside. I didn't love the version that ran in the magazine, because it was so short, but I don't fault them. I've been an editor and magazines have limited pages, especially now. Recently I released an author's cut of that, which Byliner posted in full. Here's a link. Warning: it's 10,000 words. I guess as much as I've specialized in anything, it's been in profiling people. I really like characters and making people come to life. Some of my favorites (all of which are on my website) would be Bob Burnquist for Outside, Santino Ferrucci for GQ, and Mike Kobold for Inc. I'm also pretty proud of the piece I wrote about running the NYC Marathon with my Dad for Runner's World, because that was personal. And it meant a lot to him.

Gelf Magazine: I've enjoyed perusing My First 100 Days, your website that chronicles your son Charles's life (Charles is nearly 750 days old as this is written). Have you shown the site to Charlie?

Josh Dean: He's seen it already, though of course he has no idea what it's about. He's a little vain and loves to look at pictures of himself, and to watch videos of himself. He's not yet two but he's been able to unlock my wife's iPhone, scroll through the apps, find the pictures, and flip through them since he was like 16 months. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but it's probably not all that unusual in today's world, either. The idea behind the blog was to share him and his development with our families who can't see him often, and also to have a record of his life for myself and my wife. And I think I will print and turn it into a book someday to have around the house. It will be ongoing for a while, at least, because no one in my family will let me stop doing it. When I miss more than a couple days, I get emails.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding







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Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding

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