“Show Dog” by Josh Dean
It’s not a secret that I love dogs. Any dog. And I’ll read basically any book about dogs, even Inside of a Dog (denser than my typical nonfiction fare) and Dog On It, a delightful detective story written from the point of view of Chet, the detective’s canine. Travels with Charley, The Art of Racing in the Rain, even Clarence the TV Dog — I will devour anything about dogs.
All that is by way of saying that I enjoyed Show Dog by Josh Dean very much, but I don’t know how much others would enjoy it. You can keep me occupied for hours with stories about blow-drying dog fur, with discussions of toplines and chiropractic adjustments, with stories about dogs pooping in the show ring (just like yours would, no doubt). I’m an easy target.
The book’s main character is Jack, also known as ASCA/AKC GCH Wyndstar’s Honorable Mention NA NAJ, an Australian Shepherd who rockets to success during the 2010 dog show season. Dean makes the case that any dog could be a compelling story, but what makes Jack’s story marketable is that he’s a — har har — underdog, a puppy purchased by a single mom as a family pet. The breeder, however, sees the puppy’s potential and sells the puppy to the woman only under the condition that she retain half ownership and the right to show him.
And so this woman is thrust into the world of chalking white fur, of doggy braces and cosmetic surgery. Did you know that some poodles (illegally) have their eyelids tattooed black so they meet breed standard? I do, now.
Jack is a smart, adorable dog with a compelling story. He rockets from being a tiny, unknown puppy with great potential to winning “conformation” shows, which assess a dog’s form and the degree to which they conform to breed standard (head size and shape, “topline,” tail placement, color). After a year or two of this, Jack’s owner pulls him, turning him into an agility champion and stud dog. This switch, which occurs at the end of the book, is not unusual with Australian Shepherds. Since Aussies are working dogs, or bred to be, performance in the agility ring is desirable, and many show dogs hold dual titles. Jack’s full name means that he is a Grand Champion (determined by a set number of points won at conformation shows) for both the American Kennel Club and the Australian Shepherd Club of America, which have slightly different breed standards (the latter focuses more on performance than looks). The NA and NA means he has titles in Novice Agility and Novice Agility Jumping, both of which make him a more desirable stud dog, especially for the ASCA.
However, all of that being said, in this Best in Show meets Dance Moms story, the dogs are overshadowed by the people. This is definitely Dean’s intention, though — he’s not telling the story of a dog, he’s telling the story of this highly organized, political machine that ostensibly has to do with dogs, but is mostly about people and how they react to dogs. Dean obviously finds it fascinating how dogs can serve as a foil for the types of people who are attracted to dog shows, reflecting their hopes, fears and ambitions.
Also, I learned a lot about dog sex. Just a side note.
Overall, an enjoyable and easy read, but a good one. Dean explores the history of show dogs, explains the reasons for breed standards (and why dog braces are technically illegal) while occasionally bringing us back to Jack’s astounding story. If you like dogs, you’ll likely enjoy this non-taxing summer read.