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This author spent 3 years following dog shows to learn if the dogs are happy

Tommy Tomlinson, author of “Dogland”
Jeff Cravotta, Avid Reader Press
Tommy Tomlinson, author of “Dogland”

It’s time to dive deep into the world of dogs. Dog shows, to be more specific. If that makes you think of the classic cult film “Best In Show,” you’re not alone.

But Tommy Tomlinson says dog shows are about more than fussy handlers and blow dryers.

Tomlinson is an author, podcast host and Pulitzer Prize finalist. For his new book “Dogland,” he spent three years traveling to dog show after dog show, following a certain fluffy white champion and his handler.

The Show spoke with him more about it all — beginning with why he wanted to spend so much time learning about dogs.

Full conversation

TOMMY TOMLINSON: Always a dog lover. Never a dog show lover particularly, but one night I was watching one of the dog shows on TV and this question popped into my head: Are those dogs happy? Because show dogs live a very different life. I knew that — even with just the little bit of knowledge I had — they had a very different life than your normal household pet. And as I researched it, I learned it was a radically different life. They're often pulled out of the litter at maybe 6 or 8 weeks old, trained differently, they eat differently, they travel differently. They just live a very different life than a normal dog that you and I might have.

And it also led me to think about whether regular dogs are happy because they don't get to really choose their lives either. And so that whole notion about dogs’ happiness and how they obviously make us happy is something I thought was worth pursuing.

LAUREN GILGER: Right. OK, so we'll talk about the question of happiness in a moment here. But I want to first talk about dog shows because they're so interesting and they're such a kind of a weird world of dog lovers, dog trainers, dog breeders. And you dove very deep into this and went to many, many, many shows it sounds like for reporting this book and you followed a dog named Stryker and his trainer. Tell us about them.

TOMLINSON: Stryker is a Samoyed — although people in the dog show world call it “sam-uh-yehd” because it's closer to the original Russian. It's a Siberian Hound that was, years and years ago, meant to like pull sleds and herd reindeer and things like that. But now, like most dogs, is sort of a buddy and a therapy dog.

This dog was a champion on many levels — won more than 100 dog shows all over the country, all over North America — and got paired up eventually with a woman named Laura King, who lives in Illinois and is one of the top dog handlers in the country and probably the world.

And so “Dogland” is at least partly the story of their journey through the Westminster Dog Show to try to become a champion at the biggest dog show in the country.

GILGER: OK, so let's talk about dog breeding and breeds in particular and how they end up in dog shows. You wrote this great line, you wrote “picking a top show dog is like drafting an NFL quarterback when they're still in elementary school.” So talk about that. What does that mean in the breeding world?

TOMLINSON: Breeders, when these dogs are still puppies — 6 or 8 weeks old — take a look at them, and they're experienced in what dogs might have the physical profile to become champion show dogs. And so they separate the litters into what they call show quality and pet quality. And pet quality, in this world, is a bit of an insult actually.

So the pet quality dogs are sold to regular families and they become normal pets. The show dogs of the set are trained and fed and all very differently because they have the physical characteristics — and by that I mean they conform to what people think in the dog show world is the ideal version of that dog. There are written breed standards that list how high these dogs should be, how tall, what their eye color should be, what their fur should look like. It goes into minute detail, and the closer a dog gets to that template of perfection, the closer to being a champion it becomes.

GILGER: Talk a little bit about that process. I think we've all probably seen a bit of a dog show here and there, and you get the idea that they run, they walk, they sit, they jump. Right? There are things that they do, but it's not like agility challenges really.

TOMLINSON: No. It is closer to a beauty pageant, I would say. But part of that is knowing how to show the best parts of yourself. There's a thing called a stack that every show dog has to do, which is basically stand still on its own so the judge can inspect it, and they look at things like, how easily did this dog go into its stack? How comfortable is it in that position? When the dog trots around the ring, what is its gait like? Is it faltering, or does it have a smooth and steady gait?

All those little things that seem very simple and kind of mundane when you're watching a dog show but are actually the result of many, many years of training. It's like — not quite the same — but it’s like a gymnast learning how to do a particular flip or something. It takes a lot of time to make something look effortless.

GILGER: I think a lot of people think of dog shows and think they're sort of frivolous, right? Like, I wonder if you came away from this with an appreciation of what they are.

TOMLINSON: Well, they're totally frivolous. I mean, there's no — what dog shows are meant to do, the purpose of them is to identify the best dogs to be bred. So the closer a dog is to this breed standard — the closer it is to being a champion — the better it supposedly is to continuing the bloodline that breeds dogs. And so that is the purpose, in a sense, for what dog shows are about.

But in modern times — and especially in the kind of dog shows we have these days — they are sort of a beauty pageant, and they are sort of intended to entertain more than anything else. And so there is an element of usefulness to it. There is an element of continuing the bloodline of these purebred dogs, but often it's just as they say it. They don't say best in whatever. It's best in show. It's a show.

GILGER: OK. All right. And you go beyond this in the book. Beyond dog shows, you talk about — like you talked about at the beginning — this question of whether or not dogs are happy. The more existential layer here, you talk about their bonds with humans and new research around that. What did you find?

TOMLINSON: First of all, dogs and humans have been together in some form for about 30,000 years, and humans basically invented dogs. So, there were no dogs before early humans took gray wolves and mated them and basically domesticated them to become dogs. Every dog that's ever existed, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the biggest mastiff, they're all descended from gray wolves. And they're all, in one form or another, a human invention.

And so over those years, dogs have learned to adapt to our needs. They first did very blue collar, hard labor type of jobs — pulling sleds and chasing down big game and that sort of thing. And now, of course, most dogs are — the way I put it is every dog's basically a therapy dog now. They're all companions and best friends and sounding boards and roommates.

And so the dog, uniquely among creatures, has learned to adapt to our needs and to make us happy. And it turns out that over the years, we have figured out ways to make them happy, too. There's one study that I found along the way that said when dogs and people stare at each other, they both get a dose of oxytocin, which is sort of a pleasure enzyme. Along the way, by the way, they have changed us. I think in some ways they've domesticated us as much as we domesticated them.

GILGER: So did Stryker win?

TOMLINSON: Well, Lauren, you're going to have to read the book. I got to leave you with something here. You can obviously go look it up.

GILGER: More fun not to.

TOMLINSON: But I think the journey is important, and I want you to feel a little of the drama. And it's more than that. You go actually beyond the ending of the dog show to his life after the dog show, which in some ways I think is also very interesting. It talks a little bit about how the dog show affects their lives — not just the dogs, but the trainers and the people around them — after they're done.

GILGER: Yeah. All right. Well, a little bit of suspense to end it on, there’s nothing wrong there. All right. Tommy Tomlinson joining us to talk more about his new book, Dogland: Passion, Glory and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show. Tommy, thank you so much for coming on and congratulations on the book.

TOMLINSON: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thanks so much.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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