This Fourth of July, hundreds of dog owners flocked to Dallas Market Hall to take part in the Lone Star Dog Show. It was the first of the four-day event, and a calm excitement buzzed through the air. Contrary to what one might think, dog shows are low-energy. Seldom was a bark or cry heard, and voices were often hushed as blow dryers hummed behind the show rings
The event was a peculiar display of patriotism, loyalty and strangely involved family teams. Although the crowd was small, those who attended were dedicated and ready to softly clap for the next Top Dog.
The day of the show was hot, sunny, with a chance of evening rain. This meant that the incoming dog crates — sometimes wheeled by multiple people into the building rather than carried — were covered with blankets to ensure the contenders were not affected by the elements. Sunshine is for the dogs who aren’t competing in the most elite dog show in the South. Said one of the dogs waiting at the check-in table. Dogs don’t sunburn easily, but why would anyone take a chance before such a big day?
Those competing in shows like The Lone Star are judged solely on their breed. “Every breed has a standard,” says Ted Eubank, a judge, breeder and dedicated owner. “The standard covers everything from how they move, their coats, their teeth. All of that has to go into consideration.” Essentially, these competitions are for both dog vanity and the humans who bred them.
Eubank has been a part of the dog world since 1992, and the dog of his heart is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel because, as he says, “They are absolutely the sweetest, most gentle, sporty little dogs.” What makes this so? What differentiates the sweetness of one dog from another besides personal bias?
Sisters Sonya Vaden and Carla Hilton would likely have a bone to pick with Eubanks' opinion. They are the owners of two Foxie Yorkshire terriers who’ve been participating in competitive events for years. Vaden was mentored on how to show a Foxie Terrier correctly before entering shows. Some of the preparation requirements for showing tip-top Yorkies include wrapping their hair so it stays soft and fluffy, and ensuring that the pups are getting lots of sleep. However, just because they’re show dogs doesn’t mean they miss out on having a normal dog life back at home.
“They get in trouble,” Vaden says of her pets, “and they have a pretty good time.” The sisters are not breeders but have been in the game since 2003. The choice to get a Yorkie was arbitrary but stuck for both of them and will likely never change, which is a recurring theme for show dog owners and breeders alike.
Nobody knows how long dog breeding has been around, however dog shows became popular in the Victorian Era and were in fact considered a sport. Although dogs have always been bred for utility, dogs were, this time, bred solely for their appearance. Dog shows became a popular pastime all over the world and attracted every type of person and dog. While most other sports were sectioned off by gender and class in the era, dog shows were open to everyone.
At the Lone Star Dog Festival, however, both audience and owners did not vary much in age, race or gender. Most were Caucasian and between the ages of 45 and 60, although there were a few underage contenders in the ring. In any case, like Vaden and Hilton, several owners seemed to call showing — and breeding — a family affair.
One common argument against dog breeding is based in ethics. When there are so many dogs to be rescued, why would one even think about buying a dog? Some dogs are additionally in danger of inbred-related illness if not bred correctly, or raised by those who just want to make a buck.
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“You have to do your research if you’re going to actually purchase a dog,” says Cheri Fults, a volunteer with Recycled Pomeranians, a rescue based in Dallas that requires all prospective owners go through an extensive application process. The group was volunteering that day as a thank you to The Lone Star Dog Show for donating to their nonprofit. Lots of their Pomeranians have been saved from irresponsible breeders working for puppy mills.
While there are lots of well-meaning breeders, Fults says that it doesn’t mean mistakes can’t happen. “You need to actually see the parents and the dogs,” she says. “If you’re not going to do your research, rescue is the way to go.”
While rescue dogs are not allowed to compete in the dog show, competitions for them do exist. Those are shows of agility and skill, while these — formally, “conformation shows” — are entirely about posterity and spectacle. The Lone Star Dog Show was a vehicle for escapism. Yes, it is about the dogs, who seem to be living good lives, pampered by their anthropomorphizing parents. But ultimately, the show is about the owners. The people behind the pups stepped out of the day and into the ring, ready to forget everything to try and prove their dog was the best.