Book Review: Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred

By Josh Dean (New York: It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2012)

Show Dog by Josh DeanIn the mid 1990s pop culture writers Jane and Michael Stern set out to investigate the world of dog shows. For a year, they accompanied Mimi Einstein of Allstar Bullmastiffs in Westchester County, N.Y., and her handler Jane Hobson as they immersed themselves in our sport. The result was the witty, incisive Dog Eat Dog: A Very Human Book About Dogs and Dog Shows (Fireside, 1997).

This year, journalist Josh Dean revisited that premise, much less successfully, with Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred. Dean, based in New York, located owner Kimberly Smith, who had purchased an Australian Shepherd puppy, ‘Jack,’ from breeder Kerry Kirtley of Wyndstar Aussies in California. Dean tagged along with Smith, Jack and Jack’s handler, Heather Bremmer, as they specialed the blue merle Aussie and took him all the way to Westminster.

While the book isn’t a hatchet job, it’s far from flattering. You’ll find all the clichés here that we giggled at in the movie Best in Show — neurotic owners having regular meltdowns, high-rolling backers, a few self-important judges — but I didn’t find myself laughing much as I read it, the way I still do watching Best in Show for the 10th time. Way too many distractions for me that took away much of the pleasure one should derive from such a book.

As an editor, I was horrified by all the typos. Did Harper Collins, a prestigious publisher, lay off all its proofreaders in the recession, or wasn’t this book considered important enough?

As a journalist and a dog man, I was offended by the author’s sloppy research: prominent names misspelled, inaccuracies in breed histories (a single example: it is the Tibetan Spaniel that worked in tandem with the Tibetan Mastiff to protect the monks in their ancient homeland, not the Tibetan Terrier as Dean states).

Josh Dean attended the same Best in Show judging at Westminster that I did in February 2011, but it appears we had very different experiences. You will recall it was the Scottish Deerhound ‘Hickory’ that emerged victorious on that night under Paolo Dondina of Italy. I thought she was a superb example of the breed and most deserving of her win. Josh Dean’s observation? “Still, the deerhound? It looked so… smelly.”

As the Best in Show judge visiting from another continent, Mr. Dondina being handed a microphone to say a few words was a gracious, respectful touch by the Westminster club, I thought. Most reporters, judges, handlers and exhibitors felt the same way. But Mr. Dondina evidently bored the author.

Dean reproduces the judge’s remarks in broken English — tacky! — and further comments: “He wasn’t ready to step out of the spotlight just yet, however. It reminded me, more than a little, of Roberto Benigni accepting his Oscar for Life Is Beautiful.” Really? It was probably 10:50 p.m. or later on a live broadcast ending at 11. So the well-respected Mr. Dondina is reduced to the stereotype of just another emotional, passionate Italian.

The point is: Josh Dean doesn’t have to admire Scottish Deerhounds or the judging expertise of Paolo Dondina. But what exactly is the purpose of his book? Any spectator can attend a dog show and will come away with subjective opinions. Put them in a diary, don’t publish them in a book and call it journalism.

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