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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A romp through humanity’s greatest friendship (with dogs)

By Melissa Holbrook Pierson Special to The Washington Post

The spirit of Christopher Guest’s mockumentary “Best in Show” (2000) will forever haunt any work focused on the captivatingly odd phenomenon of the dog show. It looms especially large over “Dogland: Passion, Glory, and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show,” with its cover design that could be a still from the comedy: The bespangled figure of a handler appears from the torso down, faceless and paired with what you’d swear is an especially hirsute yeti – but is actually an Afghan hound. One might assume the contents will bear a strong affinity to Guest’s less-than-kind rendering of the sorts of people who inhabit the insular world of canine competition.

But one would be wrong. To author Tommy Tomlinson’s credit, and the reader’s gratification, “Dogland” is no sarcastic takedown of a subculture apparently ripe for belittling. Subverting expectation at every turn, it is a wholly sympathetic portrait of people who love showing dogs, and of dogs in general. No cheap shots at loopy humans and their similarly vapid canine beauty queens. Only poignant celebrations of a cross-species romance that has defied not only full understanding but the march of centuries.

Despite the book’s subtitle, the sections of the book devoted to explaining the world of the Westminster Dog Show are breezily brief. These segments, which pop up throughout the book and focus on a champion Samoyed named Striker (full name MBIS MBISS CAN GCH AM GR CHP Vanderbilt ’N Printemp’s Lucky Strike) and his intrepid handler, Laura King, would be the size of a respectful long essay if pieced together. In the rest of the book, Tomlinson romps through all of dogdom, frequently defaulting to humorous quick takes on the millennia-long history of human-canine partnership, as well as questions of biology and behavior. Summarizing the evolution of wolf to dog, he writes, “We domesticated dogs, and they domesticated us”; the ability of dogs to perform tasks ranging from providing companionship to assisting hunters to sniffing out disease, drugs, bombs and the missing makes them “the greatest multi-tool ever created.” This pliability – dogs’ apparently inborn desire to bond with humans, resulting in their current reliance on us to provide for all their needs (many of which go unfulfilled because of their owners’ ignorance) – is cheering and heartbreaking at once.

Despite its vast subject matter, “Dogland” still needed padding, apparently. The throwaway quality of the periodic entr’actes called “Pee Breaks” – the author’s rankings of Dog Haters, Cartoon Dogs, Advertising Dogs and the like – is mildly annoying in a generally serious, if pun-filled, book. In other places, Tomlinson’s observations are remarkably original. He notes, for example, that while the subjects of 19th century photographic portraiture rarely smile, when a dog is in the picture they are unable to suppress signs of joy.

Tomlinson appears equally unable to suppress a tendency to jokiness at times – indeed, it’s a little relentless – but the light tone helps achieve a secondary, and laudably consequential, goal: asking us to consider some tough questions concerning dogs’ welfare. The spoonful of stylistic sugar allows the medicine to go down; readers who wouldn’t go near a treatise on animal rights may find themselves easily led into thoughtful scrutiny of, say, the tradition of surgical alteration to make certain purebreds adhere to their official “breed standard,” such as ear cropping and tail docking. (Tomlinson reminds us that the tail is crucial to a dog’s expressive capability, so that removing it is “like stealing their voice.”) Similarly, an otherwise lighthearted discussion of dogs bred for companionship, especially the most popular breed in America, the French bulldog (or Frenchie), “the lappiest of lapdogs,” seamlessly merges into a discussion of the inherent cruelty of breeding brachycephalic animals: Those with cute “smooshed-in” faces, curled tails and skin folds are at risk of breathing difficulties, eye and spinal problems, skin afflictions, the probability of requiring C-sections to give birth, and shortened life spans. Tomlinson also touches on the fact that show dogs are astonishingly inbred – which subjects them to a host of genetic illnesses: “The thing about it, of course, is that the dogs don’t get to choose,” he writes. “They just have to live with the consequences.”

Readers will be relieved to discover that, in the book’s lengthier narratives, Tomlinson is something of a genius at injecting a more pleasurable kind of sadness. In 2022, Striker was about to appear at his last Westminster before retiring. His parting from King, his handler, would be just another aspect of dog-show business, but nothing is ever just business when it comes to sharing life with a dog. They’d been together on the circuit for years, traveling from show to show, experiencing triumph and the occasional disappointment. After the big pageant, the impossibly fluffy dog with the natural smile would go live with his owners in Canada. And King would handle other dogs. Yet Tomlinson movingly details how the mysteries of love insinuate themselves into even the most professional of dog-human relationships – as they did to ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, whose beloved Otis sometimes appeared on-screen when the anchor broadcast from home during the pandemic. Viewers later witnessed the raw grief Van Pelt could not hide when his companion died. The reader who doesn’t choke up at Tomlinson’s depiction of this episode has never had a dog, for which I am sorry. But it was the story of Tomlinson’s own dog – just a stray mutt, Fred, no purebred show material – that really broke me. It is impossible to read his recollections of Fred without being airlifted immediately back into the surpassing sorrow of losing one’s own pet.

“Dogland” only appears to be a book about dogs and the weird stuff people do with, for and to them, even if there’s plenty of that, both entertainingly and exasperatingly. In the end, it is about one difficult thing above all. It is about saying goodbye.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of “The Secret History of Kindness: Learning From How Dogs Learn.”