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Original Issue


Beagles and bassets may bay their ears off, but no good ol' country dog is going to be best-in-show at next week's hiqhfalutin Westminster extravaganza

Next week brings the 104th Westminster Kennel Club dog show. It is, according to one judge, "the great event in the world of dogs, the show of shows." There are bigger shows, certainly there are better-run shows, but none in America is older or more prestigious. None has Westminster's bloodline. To mark the occasion, 2,804 dogs representing 137 breeds and varieties, 48 states and five countries will gather in New York City's Madison Square Garden. They will be judged for two days, at the end of which a single dog will be selected by a single judge as best-in-show. There are a whole passel of people who can predict who will win best-in-show at Westminster, but you know who won't win? A hound dog.

This is how it was explained by a famous New York trainer: "If you saw two beautiful women come into this room, both equally gorgeous, physically perfect, and one was wearing a mink coat while the other was wearing a wool one, which would you want to take out?"

The question posed was: Why, at Westminster, the dog show of dog shows, have terriers and poodles won best-in-show 38 times and seven times, respectively, while a beagle and a basset hound have not won even once? Nor, for that matter, has a dachshund, which is generally among the top five breeds in numbers entered. Or a bloodhound, foxhound, coonhound or harrier. What is it about trailhounds that makes them such miserable show dogs in Westminster's eyes? Even the aggressively ugly bull terrier has won best-in-show, and the bulldog has won twice, so it is not simply a case of beautiful girls in mink coats. Westminster is just prejudiced against the hound dog.

So you'll know where I'm coming from, the two great canine loves in my life have been a basset hound and my college roommate's beagle. The beagle's name was Thurman; my roommate's name was Woof. Thurman used to bark at other, larger dogs until they turned to bark back. Then Thurman would scamper under the nearest car. This made Woof, who was hammer thrower on the track team, very angry. It was endearing to the rest of us. As for the basset hound, she is still the only four-legged creature I have seen fall down under her own steam. She was chasing a squirrel in a circle and spun out on a patch of ice. Those were funny dogs. And as long as I'm coming clean, I'll admit to being no friend of the yapping terrier and having once kicked our miniature poodle halfway up the kitchen door so that it nearly swung open. Further, I'm a big fan of wool, and beautiful women in mink scare me to death.

Before a dog can be judged for best-in-show, it must first be deemed best-in-group. The American Kennel Club has divided its 137 recognized breeds and varieties into six separate groups: the sporting group, the hound group, the working group, the phenomenally successful terrier group, the toy group, and a group I hesitate even to mention, the non-sporting group. There are 21 breeds within the hound group, only half of which are hounds, at least as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: hunters "characteristically having drooping ears, a short coat, and a deep resonant voice." Afghan hounds—one was best-in-show at Westminster in 1957—have long hair and high-pitched voices; the Borzoi has midget ears and a long, silky coat; and the Basenji is a silky, short-haired, pointy-eared beast with no voice at all. They call it the barkless hound, and the only noise it can make, as described by the AKC's The Complete Dog Book, is "somewhere between a chortle and a yodel," which it apparently makes when it is pleased, because upon hearing it one "can't help but share the happiness with him."

In the face of such competition, the trailhounds have been judged so unworthy by the Westminster Kennel Club that it has been 11 years since one of their number has even won best-in-group at the Garden, an event in which, numerically, they should have a 50-50 chance. As one dachshund breeder puts it, "Dachshunds are a very small and unadorned breed. Get them in with the Afghans and Borzois and they look like nothing. They look like little plodding things among all the great, hairy, beautiful hounds."

Nevertheless, in some parts of the country, bassets and the other trailhounds can overcome their dowdiness. A dog is supposed to be judged by how close it comes to "the standard"—a concept of the Venus and Adonis of the breed—and not by how attractive the dog is to the eye. Basset champions like Ch. Slow Poke Hubertus and Ch. Siefenjagenheim Lazy Bones were named best-in-show many times, best-in-group many more times, but never at Westminster. "You've got to remember," says one basset breeder in New England, "Westminster's not an ordinary dog show. It's a showplace. You go there to see and to be seen."

That is as true now as it ever has been. Westminster is a sort of debutante cotillion of dog shows. After the first Westminster in May of 1877, Forest and Stream asserted, "We question if on any previous occasion has there ever assembled in this city such a number of people at one time, and representing as much of the culture, wealth and fashion of the town."

One of the things that people of culture, wealth and fashion prefer not to be seen with is a hound dog. The landed gentry tend more toward terriers, who are notorious rat-catchers; while the city sophisticates prefer poodles, whose chief attribute is that they do not shed. "Give me your description of a hound owner," challenges Captain Arthur Haggerty, an authority on dogs and Westminster. "He's your good ol' country boy, right? I'm not saying you have to pay to win Westminster, but you need money to raise, train, breed and campaign these dogs. And a professional handler is a real craftsman. He can take a dog with a poor shoulder conformation and sculpt the coat to mask it. Your trailhounds are more or less pure dogs."

Unfortunately for hound breeders, the natural look has not yet hit the dog world. Blow dryers, curlers, combs and coat-whitening cornstarch are standard appurtenances of the glamorous breeds that beat them. Trailhounds need only a trim of the whiskers, a bath and a nail-clip. Out they plod, looking like Huck Finn loose in Tiffany's, and the Garden is suddenly atwitter in stifled giggling.

"Movement is a test of quality," admits one beagle breeder. "After those stylish, showy Afghans that move so beautifully, it can really be a ridiculous sight when all these little beagles run out with their ears flopping up and down."

It is an example of trailhounds' ill fortune that big ears, for now, are out of vogue. In another society a hound dog's lobes might be the talk of every show. Shakespeare was moved to write that hounds had heads "hung with ears that sweep away the morning dew." They are practical, too. The standards for the basset and the bloodhound call for ears that extend comfortably beyond the end of the snout, so that scents are trapped and funneled noseward when the dogs are on the hunt. But it is not enough that they belong; a hound's ears must also have a certain way of hanging. "They can't be flat pancake ears that lie on top of their head," says Topohil Kennels' Jean Sheehy. "They have to be foldy." To demonstrate, Mrs. Sheehy proudly rolls the ear of one of her champions into a tight little crepe-like cone and lets it unfurl like a banner. Let's see an Afghan try that. But such subtleties are overlooked at Westminster, where a hound without a fancy coat is treated like a cur of low degree.

Which, when it comes to money, they are not. One Connecticut breeder claims to have been offered $10,000 for a best-in-breed basset she was showing at Westminster, but even that dog could not capture best hound. One thing about the lugubrious basset is that it certainly is photogenic, boasting two past television stars, Cleo and Morgan, and endorsements for products like Hush Puppies. Before going Madison Avenue, one basset's finest hour in a show ring came during an obedience trial when she was heeling beside her breeder and spotted a boy eating a hot dog in the first row. "She heeled right out of the ring, climbed into the crowd, heeled back and sat down next to me with half the hot dog in her mouth," said the owner. "Then the boy's mother came down to the ring to ask me if she wanted the other half. Bassets do things like that to you."

Did the owner turn livid: did she just die; did she flush perfectly crimson as a poodle owner might have done? No. "Basset-hound breeders are kind of placid," she says. "They don't like too-excitable dogs; they are friendly and they like a slow life and a slow dog."

It can be argued that people, like hounds, can be divided into two groups: the Trailhounds and the Coursers. Coursers—greyhounds, Afghans and the like—are bred to judge by sight. They are fast, flashy and tend to race about running over things with their noses in the air. The gentleman on page 72 might be an example of a Courser. Trailhounds, on the other hand, are beasts that have their noses near the ground. They judge by scent; they are plodding, often homely, methodical backtrackers that eventually get their man. Like the bloodhound. The woman who has stepped on the moplike dog of the gentleman Courser (a yapping Yorkshire terrier perhaps?) appears to be a Trailhound. Check that. I positively guarantee you she is a Trailhound.

All right. Now try this. If you are scared to death of beautiful women in mink coats, raise your hands. You are Trailhounds. If you wear a mink coat, have recently bought one, or own a sculpted poodle, raise your noses. You are Coursers. Don't get defensive; you are also responsible for pushing a civilization onward and upward. The very first Courser who ever lived was the hunched chap who took man's first evolutionary step by rising onto his two unstable feet from all fours to get his eyes into the air and give his world some breadth. But don't get superior, either—would that a Courser could—because by doing so he also lost his olfactory skills; so that today the only smell man's nose is still capable of identifying is burning toast. The point is this: Westminster is a Courser's show in a Courser's town. Coursers don't own hound dogs. Good ol' country boys do. That's why a hound dog will never win Westminster.

Westminster officials, of course, deny that they have it in for the hound dogs. The man they have appointed as best-in-show judge this year, E. Irving Eldredge, has raised bassets in his Middleburg, Va. home. Eldredge himself gamely clings to the party line. "A top dog of any breed can go up whether he's glamorous or not. In fact, a truly fine basset hound looks glamorous to me. A good dog of any breed does."

Hmm. How about a dachshund? A dachshund is at an even greater disadvantage than the other traildogs because it wears the additional yoke of being Germanic. (A German shepherd is another breed that has never won best-in-show at Westminster.) Because of its decidedly odd but not unpleasant appearance, the dachshund has attracted some of the most colorful descriptions in dogdom. LIFE once wrote: "Nobody can look more like Hamlet than a purebred dachshund..." then later said that "because he possesses a human philosophy of life, he is not easily trained to do tricks." If you are wondering just how dachshund philosophy became public, you have obviously forgotten All About Small Dogs in the Big City (1975), in which author Ann Seranne explains that dachshunds "can amuse themselves by the hour, rolling on sofa or chair and carrying on lengthy conversations with no one but themselves." But it was TIME that described the little hound most eloquently, 40 years ago. "Too low for dignity or speed, too long to serve as a lap dog, it appears to be recommended only by its melancholy face suggesting an appreciation of its drawbacks."

Its melancholy face might also suggest an appreciation of its history. Bred by the Germans to be able to slither down a badger hole and fight, the dachshund was officially called "badger dog" (the literal German translation) in America from 1918 until 1923 because of relentless persecution here on the home front during the First World War—stonings and poisonings and such. They fared even worse in Germany, where they were used as food and earned the nickname of Blockade Mutton. Dachshunds have, in fact, been found on the dinner table in every German crisis since Frederick the Great. Small wonder they can do a pretty good Hamlet. Being built like a poorly designed suspension bridge, they are known to suffer from backaches; they pick fights with other dogs, often with disastrous results; and they are sensitive to scolding. On the positive side, dachshunds are fastidious, porpoise-playful and smell nice. None of which helps them at Westminster.

Peggy Westphal, a Bedford, N.Y. breeder, has won best-in-breed with her dachshunds 11 times at Westminster, but has yet to capture a best-in-group. Last year her Pennies from Heaven showed particularly hound-like gumption by having the stitches from a bladder-stone operation removed the day before Westminster, then going on to win best-in-breed among the smooth-haired dachshunds. There are also wirehaired dachshunds, which have been crossed with the accursed terrier; and long-haired dachshunds, with a silky long coat like a setter's. Of all the trailhounds, a champion dachshund is the most attractive. "People think of dachshunds as fat, dumpy little frumps," says Mrs. Westphal, "but they should be long and low and elegant, with these strong muscles through the chest, an iron back, a beautiful head with a strong Germanic profile and a personality that all comes out in the tail."

While the basset has cornered the market on doleful expressions in front of a camera, the dachshund's personable tail has actually inspired verse:

There was a little dachshund once
So long he had no notion
How long it took to notify
His tail of his emotion
And thus it was that while his eyes
Were filled with woe and sadness
His little tail kept wagging on
Because of previous gladness.

So quoted Maynard C. Krueger, Vice-Presidential candidate in 1940, in his keynote address to the Socialist Party convention. Unfortunately for Mrs. Westphal, her dogs' personalities sometimes manifest themselves in places other than their tails. "I have one line of dachshunds that yodel at me in the ring...." She pauses here to make a fearsome little noise that sounds like a dachshund under 10 feet of water. "It's terribly embarrassing with all those glamorous, hairy Afghans around." It is also most definitely not the Westminster way. "Westminster is the least relaxed, most competitive show of the year," Mrs. Westphal says. "But as much as everyone moans about it, the Garden is the Garden."

Of all the breeds most slighted at Westminster, surely the beagle ranks first. Between 1940 and 1962 the beagle was first or second in AKC-registered purebreds, and in all those years it never won the hound group at Westminster. The beagle became a sort of Everydog among purebreds, and there is nothing that puts off a human Courser faster than acceptance by the hoi polloi. "Beagles are very high in registrations," says Pickadilly Kennels breeder Jean Dills. "But they're a minor show breed. Everyone knows what a beagle looks like."

Certainly everyone knows what a beagle looks like when it is being hoisted by its ears, which President Lyndon Johnson—one of our many Trailhound Presidents—did to his pets Him and Her so that they might practice their yelping. Yelping is one of the things overlooked at Westminster. Instead, there they look for straight legs, a short, compact body and pleading eyes. (Thurman, incidentally, was the most bowlegged beagle God could bring Himself to create; he could not have turned a rabbit in an alley.) But to judge a beagle without considering its yelp is simply incomplete. It is also more or less typical of a Courser's way of doing things, judging by sight alone and ignoring some finer points beneath the surface. A beagle can flat "give tongue," as beaglers say, but for all it helps them at Westminster they might just as well wander around chortling like a Basenji.

"Best-in-show at the Garden is just a canine beauty pageant," says Mrs. Dills, who has bred more than 30 champions and has had class winners, but never so much as a group placement at Westminster. "That's the glamorous side of a dog show. If you're a breeder, you're more impressed with winning best-in-breeds. You can't compete against those big, moving, flashy dogs with a prototype dog like a beagle. Not in Westminster, where everything is exaggerated in the first place with this huge ring and this dressy crowd and these great, hairy, eye-catching, classy, aristocratic dogs."

Aristocratic. That's the tone at Westminster. And hound dogs, for all their spunk and good nature, are not aristocratic dogs. There was a good ol' country boy from the trailhound country of Tennessee whose closest claim to aristocracy was as King of rock 'n' roll. He could not have gained membership in the Westminster Kennel Club if he had begged in his blue suede shoes, but he sang their song. Can't you just see him ring-center, 18,000 people packing the Garden, his hair slicked back, and kind of cranking that pelvis, saying out of the corner of his mouth, "I've got a little song for some of the contestants...." Then that little smile and a wink at the female handlers, and "...goes something like this..." turning away for a moment, then back, his face gone hard, toward the sad-sack, pleading eyes of the little basset on the bench: "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog...!" as the best-in-show judge, old Mrs. Penderghast, swoons.