It's A Dog's Life

For a guy, Frankie isn't exactly macho. He's used to having his nails done to perfection, his teeth cleaned to a brilliant sparkle. But that's nothing compared with his hair. Ever since he was young, he's had his splendid locks rolled carefully in imported rice papers, like so many curlers--except that the purpose isn't to curl, but to protect his silky tresses from workaday damage. When the papers come off, his hair flows elegantly to the floor. His hairdresser sweeps part of it neatly into a stunning topknot, secured with a gold-beaded red bow. His bodyguard just loves it.

I should add that Frankie is not some kinky movie star. He's the prize-winning Yorkshire terrier of novelist Amy Tan. And from the pampered precincts of Tan's Manhattan loft, he will soon emerge to compete at one of the greatest shows on earth--the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, held annually at New York's Madison Square Garden the second week of February. Don't laugh. Westminster is the Olympics of U.S. dog shows. And winning its coveted title of best in show (or even a lesser best of breed) guarantees a dog a long postcompetition stud career.

But first, a dog has to win. And it can take big bucks to compete. Owners of the top dogs often sink $30,000 a year into full-page ads in The Canine Chronicle or Dogs in Review. (There's no underestimating the importance of name recognition with judges.) And I won't even tell you how much it takes to maintain a champion pooch. (Hint: forget Alpo and other humdrum dog foods. These champs chow down on steak, salmon and fresh vegetables.) Flying them around, grooming them, hiring pricey handlers and catering to their movie-star-like whims can set an owner back $250,000 a year, according to Annemarie Silverton, a well-groomed brunette whose top-ranked border collie, Jack, is lodging at New York's ritzy Plaza Hotel.

O, if only this dog's life were mine! My hair grows plenty long--halfway to the floor, anyway--and I, for one, consider it resplendent in its wavy, auburn way. I'm also sure I'd look darn fine in bows and diamonds. But unlike Frankie or Jack, I'm just a tourist in the land of dogdom. Fortunately, I have a guide to this wacky world: Deborah Wood, author of the new book "Top Dogs: Making It to Westminster." Frankly, I need some help here. I am not what is generally called a "dog person." I am an allergic person, and I come armed with so many medicines that my husband says I should be sponsored by a drug company. But Wood is a true aficionado and expert guide.

As we wander through the crowds toward eight green AstroTurf rings, where competitions are underway, she tells me about the importance of hiring a good handler. Every dog here starts with a pedigree, she says, his parents having been mated to assure the optimal mingling of bloodlines. (The sire's sperm may well have been flown cross-country on ice, courtesy of the International Canine Semen Bank--"First in Frozen Assets.") But it's the handlers who make a great dog spectacular. Wood points to Taffe McFadden, one of the best in the business. McFadden is trotting her smooth fox terrier around the ring. Thanks to her deft use of garlic-flavored liver treats (which she often keeps in her own mouth to hold the dog's attention), McFadden controls terriers with the same precision as I wield my TV remote. But for me, The Man is the handler who makes his Doberman pinscher stand frozen in place as a judge makes his inspection. The judge counts the beast's teeth, runs his hands from head to tail--and then, as Wood puts it, "gently cups the dog's testicles, making sure a male dog is properly endowed with two normally developed, healthy jewels."

As far as I'm concerned, this is why God invented body armor. But then I'm no handler, nor are these the scruffy, nonheeling mutts of my childhood. They are purebreds with perfect grooming and impeccable manners--far too well behaved to sniff, much less snarl at, the 2,500 other dogs in the show. And no dog proves the point better than a miniature poodle named Surrey Spice Girl, or Spice for short. If dogs truly do resemble their owners, I can only imagine that Spice's mistress is a femme fatale with a glossy mink coat, stiletto heels and bright red lipstick. Spice has a thick fur mantle around her shoulders and perfectly shaped pompoms on her tail and ankles. She easily wins the silver cup for best in show. And even I, no poodle fancier, can see why. Through two days of competition, every delicate step she takes is just right. Not even a tiny faux paw.