Along with ballroom dancers and Civil War re-enactors, dog show aficionados constitute an interesting subculture in American life. Beyond that brief description, I am disinclined to go--except, perhaps, to recommend the exceedingly amusing Best in Show (2000), the Christopher Guest "mockumentary" that offers an affectionate glimpse into the rarefied world of purebred breeds, their owners, trainers, judges, and admirers.
Once a year, however, and only for an instant, dog shows are news in the larger culture, when New York's Westminster Kennel Club holds its competition at Madison Square Garden. It's a genuine tradition: The Westminster show has been held annually since 1877, and "Best in Show" has been awarded to one fortunate purebred each year since 1907. The scene, nationally televised, is now familiar: the Garden filled to the rafters with fans, in evening dress clutching high-priced tickets, while ladies and gentlemen parade their dogs, and judges squeeze testicles and fold back ears for close inspection (of the dogs).
It is, perhaps, a little unfair, but over the decades the Westminster show has tended to conform to stereo-type. There is a preponderance of well-bred, well-fed female owners and trainers, and exquisitely groomed male handlers, and the lucky dogs chosen for Best in Show have had a tendency to resemble the humans surrounding them. Needless to say, certain breeds--particularly of the delicate, long-haired, extravagantly barbered classes--have dominated the proceedings, and with wearisome regularity.
That is, until last week. On February 11, a fetching 15-inch male beagle from Columbia, S.C., named Uno won the competition within the hound class, and all hell broke loose, for this was the first time a beagle had won in its category since 1939. This is not to say that Uno's path to final victory was clear--the last year a hound won Best in Show was 1983--but it did suggest that, in the purebred world as in the Democratic party, change was in the air. And in the 24 hours between Uno's emergence and final judging, the story exploded on the wires and cable TV, clogged the web, and generated national interest in the West-minster show beyond all experience.
By now, of course, readers are aware that, on the evening of February 12, Uno prevailed. Against a final field of competitors that included not one, but two specimens of sculpted poodle, the beagle was awarded Best in Show to the evident delight of the audience. When the finalists were called upon to prance around the ring, the cheers for Uno were conspicuously louder; and when he won, the spectators roared and stood in ovation.
Considerably more TV viewers tuned in to Westminster this year, Uno has been making the rounds of the chat shows, the Internet is still pulsing with excitement, and hundreds of rapturous comments are posted on the YouTube.com video of Uno's triumph.
Why? There are two or three possibilities. The first, and most prosaic, may be that the judge for the final round was J. Donald Jones of Marietta, Ga., a retired Emory psychologist and dog fancier whose elderly demeanor and port-wine southern accent suggested someone who had grown up with hounds, and retained happy memories. From an anthropological standpoint, past (female) judges had visibly recoiled from hounds--beagles, bassets, harriers, and foxhounds especially--but Dr. Jones seemed quite taken with Uno.
"He's the most perfect beagle I've ever seen," he said at a news conference. "Look at his face, you melt right away." Uno bayed more than once as Jones looked him over--a swift disqualification in most instances, but endearing this time.
Another, more cynical, reason might be that the Westminster powers-that-be had calculated that yet another maltese or miniature schnauzer or shih tzu was not likely to awaken the slumbering masses, and that some sort of revolutionary gesture--a beagle!--might be necessary. It's an interesting theory, and if true, seems to have worked; but it would have required collusion and deception by Dr. Jones, which seems unthinkable.
No, the only plausible explanation is the obvious one: After 132 years, the venerable Westminster Kennel Club came to its senses, and recognized the beagle as the extraordinary creature that it is. Uno, who is nothing if not typical, is the lucky beneficiary of this great awakening.
This is not the first time that the virtues of what Uno's handler calls the "merry little hound" have been extolled in these pages. On May 30, 2005, describing my years of beagling in the northern Virginia countryside, this author wrote of the "ears flapping, tails wagging, and singing in the unmistakable baying voice of the hound that is music to a countryman's ears." It is no accident that Uno's recognition triggered a joyful response among his fellow citizens, arising from somewhere deep within the national consciousness. From Snoopy of Peanuts to LBJ's White House pack to last year's sleeper Underdog ($43.7 million box office revenue) beagles--in all their tri-colored, flop-eared, sad-eyed, short-haired, musically-voiced glory--are, for one year at least, America's dog.
Philip Terzian is literary editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.