Dog shows are supposed to be about, well, dogs. But because our breeds are also a reflection of our cultural attitudes, sometimes they become about much more.
Consider, for example, the recent Westminster Kennel Club show. In the booming confines of Madison Square Garden on Best in Show night as judge Robert Slay surveyed the seven group winners, the consensus among the assembled dog folk was that this lineup was as good as any in recent memory. With quality so deep, virtually any of those canine contenders could have gotten the nod.
In the end, the winner was the black Standard Poodle, “Siba” (GCh. Stone Run Afternoon Tea). And then the controversy – outside the dog world, that is – began.
Not a Popularity Contest
Perhaps the biggest uproar came from the commentary of CNN’s John Berman, who dismissed the Poodle as “elitist,” and bemoaned the passing over of the Golden Retriever, who, based on the whooping in the arena, was the crowd favorite.
— John Berman (@JohnBerman) February 12, 2020
But dog shows are not popularity contests, and dogs don’t win Best in Show based on how many of them are lolling on couches across America. Instead, the decision hangs on how closely an individual dog meets the criteria of its standard, the detailed document that is the blueprint of a given breed.
The backlash from knowledgeable dog folk was swift. “Maybe learn something about the breed before you talk smack,” chastised one Tweeter.
“Hey, John!” the AKC tweeted to Berman. “We’d be more than happy to educate you on the benefits of purpose-bred dogs — from heroic bomb-sniffing German Shepherd Dogs and Diabetic Alert Dachshunds to Poodles like Siba that represent dedication to responsible preservation breeding.”
After Wire Fox Terriers, which have been victorious at Westminster 15 times, Poodles are the winningest breed at the Garden, with its three varieties claiming a total of 10 Bests in Show (five of them by Standards), though Siba’s 2020 win broke an almost two-decade-long dry spell.
The Glamor of Show Dogs
Berman’s disparagement of Siba in particular (and Poodles in general) centered on her elaborately coiffed appearance, including the sculpted bracelets on her wrists and her gravity-defying topknot. As Poodle cognoscenti patiently explain to anyone who will listen, the breed originated as a water dog, and was traditionally shaved down to increase its speed in the water, except for a few vital areas – including the chest and joints – where hair was left to keep them warm.
“A lot of these people watching on TV don’t know much about dog shows, and don’t understand that almost every breed is glamorized,” Shoemaker notes. “Look at any breed that has a coat.”
Indeed, the scissoring and blow-drying that has become so prevalent in many coated breeds – including supposedly natural ones – can be considered just as over the top within the context of their breed.
But it is the Poodle that seems to draw a disproportionate amount of criticism from those outside the show world.
Patrick Guilfoyle of Monroe, North Carolina, publisher of Poodle Variety magazine, has mulled over the animosity. “Is it because they look so artificial?” he asks rhetorically.
While dogs shows seem an unlikely place to explore issues of class and privilege, Berman’s comments about elitism nonetheless raise them. In his daily “Eric Reads the News” humor column at www.elle.com, R. Eric Thomas compared Siba to an out-of-touch dowager who “owns a wine cave and … refuses to be shamed for it.”
“Siba has the regal countenance of a New York grand dame who owns a brownstone filled with art, statement necklaces, and ghosts,” he writes. “She holds long dinner parties where she talks about a road trip she took with Debbie Allen, Geoffrey Holder, and Chita Rivera one time and every time she tells it the destination of the road trip changes but you believe her anyway.”
Poodles: Happy and Versatile
This rather irrational sense of doggie entitlement surfaces in another component of Berman’s rant: the suggestion that somehow Siba was unhappy being required to glide around the ring – something Guilfoyle says is patently untrue to anyone fluent in canine body language.
“The way she showed – tailing wagging, literally smiling – reflected a dog that was very confident, very sure of herself, and very secure in what she was doing,” he says. “But for some, there was this perception that she belongs to very wealthy people and so she doesn’t have a life.”
Rather than being hot-house topiaries, “Poodles are so versatile that it’s disconcerting and gives them short shrift to make them the 1 percent dogs,” Guilfoyle says, adding that the breed excels not just hunt tests, but also in agility, obedience, and Rally. “There are a lot – a lot – of dual champions,” he notes, referring to Poodles that have succeeded both in the show ring and in the field.
Some Poodle exhibitors – especially those whose dogs compete in performance events – have begun to experiment with a less intensive trim called the Modified Continental. Not as elaborate as the traditional Continental clip seen on Siba and most other show Poodles, the Modified Continental basically shortens the length of coat.
Will this more restrained cut catch on? Poodle grooming has changed over the centuries, so its ongoing evolution is anyone’s guess. But in the end, whether sculpted into “the haircut to end all haircuts,” as one Siba watcher phrased it, or shaved into a basic puppy clip, the one thing all fanciers can agree on is that the most important thing about a Poodle is on the inside.
Poodle Pomp Throughout the Centuries
Paul Lepiane, founder of Poodle Variety magazine and an avid student of all things dog, put together this quick history lesson for a friend who asked: “Why the crazy haircut?”
In the earliest dogs – as in this baroque-style self-portrait of the painter Rembrandt and his Poodle – the rear half was shaved and the front half covered in longer hair.
As time goes on, the Poodle’s grooming pattern stays basically the same, but the hair gradually gets longer. The theory is that for a dog retrieving ducks in cold water, the hair left on the body keep the shoulders and internal organs warm while the shaved areas free the dog up to swim better. Gradually the hair left on the joints gets longer as well.
Big leap forward, with better grooming products and electric hair blowers and dryers. The shaved rear legs are still popular, but from the 1940s through the ’60s a version with wide cuffs covering most of the rear legs become increasingly popular.
Poodle popularity skyrockets, from “normal” in 1949 (2,165 registrations) to most popular among all breeds, with 58,000 registrations, in 1959. The breed continues to grow – one year there are 258,000 Poodles registered with AKC! – and remains number one until 1983, when Cocker Spaniels take over. During the 1950s and ’60s Poodles are thought of as “fashionable,” even though the grooming is every bit as extreme as today, albeit in different ways: much more length of body coat, but shorter topknots with less spray.
The height of the rage for long hair on the body, which almost totally covers the front legs, but with little on the top of the neck and head.
The style changes to much less hair under the dog and much more on the neck and head, which is considered much more elegant and athletic looking. This trim is still in vogue today, and is seen on most American show dogs.