Best Bitch

Is Pond Hollow Sylvia James the stuff of champions?

She almost spotted me. God, that would have infuriated my mother. All that preparation (the workout sessions in the pool, the treadmill, the baths) blown in one instant because Sylvia -- I'm sorry, Pond Hollow Sylvia James, as she is known in the circuit -- caught wind of me and positively lost it.

You see, some show dogs are stone-faced killers. They get near that competition ring and heroically trot in front of the judges, poised at the end, when their every detail is appraised. Go ahead, pull my gums back and look at my teeth, those dogs seem to think. Grab my junk, move my legs, I don't care. I'm purebred, fucker. Bring it. Dogs like that wouldn't be fazed by twenty feral, mewing, BBQ-sauce-marinated kittens dropped right into the center of the ring; certainly the presence of their owner wouldn't bother them. Sylvia not so much. My Chesapeake Bay Retriever catches a whiff of anyone she knows and her tail starts wagging, her head curiously darting around as she seeks out a familiar friend in this strange concrete and urine-smelling world of competitive dog shows. It's very unprofessional.

There have been incidents. Jumping up on the handler, barking uncontrollably, squatting and guiltily peeing. One time, Sylvia noticed a bowl of complimentary candy at a show check-in and promptly leapt onto the table, scattering ribbons and registration papers everywhere. She devoured greedy mouthfuls of sweets as the judges looked on in exaggerated horror. But that was a much lesser competition, not today's American Kennel Club-sponsored Rocky Mountain Cluster Dog Show at the National Western Complex, one of the largest purebred-dog showcases in the western United States. Besides, Sylvia was so much younger then.

I notice as she picks up my scent and her head starts to wander, but I dart out of sight before she spins completely out of control. I find my family huddled behind some support beams, and we watch with nervous anticipation as they bring the Chessies into the ring. In order to become what the AKC refers to as a "champion" (whereupon the dog shits only solid gold for the rest of its life), a dog must collect fifteen points from various shows and win two "majors." In our region, six Chesapeake Bay Retrievers must be competing in a show before it is deemed a major. So while Sylvia currently has sixteen points, she has never had the opportunity to compete for a major title.

Until now.

On Friday, the first day of battle, she waltzes through the Open Bitch competition, head and shoulders above the other three dogs, tail high in the air, wagging, her chin up; then Sylvia smokes a puppy and a bred-by-exhibitor bitch, total newbies, in a follow-up round. She quickly outclasses a Chessie that is already a champion to win Best Bitch. These quick, successive victories occur within a matter of minutes, a flurry of hand gestures and glances, strange judges in strange clothing, dogs and handlers exiting and entering the ring at seemingly random intervals. By the time the last tail has wagged, Pond Hollow Sylvia James has taken home her first major. One more win like this over the weekend and Sylvia becomes a champ.

After the round, I wander through the arena, taking in the sights and sounds of the Cluster. Even the smallest amount of time spent in a place like this proves that Best in Show was more documentary than mockumentary. There is an inexplicable grab bag of characters that outside of the bizarre microcosm of a dog show could never even be glimpsed in the same county. Women with impossibly gaudy diamond earrings bump shoulders with men in Elmer Fudd hats; awkward suburbanite sweaters brush fabric with the impeccably ironed clothing of eternally adolescent women in braids. At the Cattleman's Grill, an overpriced cafeteria with a menu more attuned to Stock Show clientele, a small, smartly clad woman studies the steaming grill with a mixture of awe and revulsion, a glass of white wine in her hand. A man working the grill starts to offer her a cheeseburger when a large, bearded man bursts out of the back kitchen.

"These people don't want a cheeseburger!" the bearded one booms.

"Why not?" the rookie queries.

"Because they're all vegetarians," he says, then pauses for a moment, thinks. "No, they're vegans!"

"What's a vegan?" asks the rook.

"A vegan's dangerous, that's what it is!"

At this the man explodes in laughter and looks to the small woman across the counter, as if for corroboration. She stares at him blankly.

Worlds are colliding.

I stumble across a ring where junior handlers ranging in age from seven to seventeen compete against one another with dogs of every make while a withered judge appraises them. They stand at attention, choke collars taut: young girls looking business-like, perfect little gentlemen in pinstriped suits, all exhibiting the blank, vacant stares of no siblings, lots of dogs and miles of open space.

Here everybody and nobody wins.

Saturday's foray into the ring feels a bit more sluggish. Same people, same dogs, same chaotic barking and howling in the background, but something is off. There are only five bitches competing, so there's no opportunity for a major. Sylvia wins Best Bitch again -- duh -- and then finds herself competing for Best of Breed, going head-to-head with the boys, one of whom is a Westminster Dog Show vet with a famous handler who, in the world of the Rocky Mountain Cluster, falls somewhere between Elvis and Jesus. Normally this would not merit attention -- it's extremely difficult for an upstart bitch to knock off an established male -- but today there's hope.

The judge this round is a woman from a dog show in New Mexico last year. Back then, she complimented Sylvia's beautiful, curly chestnut coat, called her "a lovely bitch" and then awarded her Best Bitch, Best of Winners and Best of Opposite Sex. Maybe today the judge will declare Sylvia Best in Breed, giving her a huge upset against the boys. Maybe this afternoon Sylvia will win her second major in two days.

After a brief respite, Sylvia waits by the ring with her handler until they are ready to bring in the Chessies, both males and females. They parade around the ring like a carousel, Sylvia surrounded by big, hulking dogs with enormous chests designed for breaking the thick winter ice of the Chesapeake Bay to retrieve felled fowl. You could cut the tension with a silver spoon. I want to hurl snap-pops at the feet of her competition, cover their coats in lice, but I am powerless to help. And before I even realize what's happening, it's over. The judge awards the Westminster vet the prize, denying Sylvia her second major.

On Sunday, not enough dogs enter to make the contest major-worthy, so we sit Sylvia out and let her rest for the Monday showdown, the last opportunity to score a major this weekend.

Monday is as abrupt as it is disappointing. We go through the same steps. Sylvia performs well, looks cool and professional out there, but for some strange reason, the judge awards Best Bitch to another dog. No one knows why, what Sylvia did wrong; it just happens. That's the thing about competitions like this: The judgment is totally arbitrary. If one likes a more Lab-looking Chessie, that's who wins. Our hopes at a second major this weekend are shattered; the Rocky Mountain Cluster is over.

Before leaving this bizarre alternate universe, I take a final cruise around the arena. There's assorted dog paraphernalia of every shape and size -- including that at the disturbingly titled Petoria's Secret kiosk -- but I pass through it, not paying attention. I go find Sylvia in her crate -- for some reason, an occupied crate nearby houses a makeshift shrine to Aerosmith, replete with ticket stubs, album covers and a signed glossy of Steven Tyler -- and decide to walk her around for a while, away from the watchful eye of the judges and the handlers, and let her smell the smells, enjoy the spectacle. Within no time she has managed to vacuum up a red Coke bottle cap off the filthy National Western Complex floor, and I have to wrestle her to the ground and pry the thing out of her throat. She coughs up some phlegm, chokes a bit and then looks at me angrily for denying her the treasure. A posse of proud giant-poodle parents look on disapprovingly at the two of us lying there. I can't help wondering which one of us looks more like a bitch.

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