Arts and Entertainment

This reporter tried to pet all 200 breeds at the Westminster dog show

FLUSHING, N.Y. - If you play it right, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is not just a competition for the finest-bred dog. It is also a fancy petting zoo.

You can pet them all — from Airedale to Yorkie, silky terrier to wire-haired pointer, hairless Xoloitzcuintli to moppish Komondor. You can pet them even when their hair-care routine is an elaborate, six-hour process with mousses and gels more exquisite than most humans use on themselves. You can pet them even when they look like a sculpture, or a Victorian-era painting of royal dogs on a hunt. You just have to ask nicely.

“Pet him with the back of your hand,” instructs Lane Tarantino, the owner of AJ, a 3-year-old Tibetan terrier. Our palms secrete natural oils, and she can’t risk getting them in AJ’s sleek black and white hair.

“You might get chalk on you,” says Claire Tucker, handler of Skyman, a Westie. Sure enough, his fur feels a bit starchy and stiff. Groomers comb chalk through the coats of white dogs to make their fur appear brighter — kind of like how pageant queens apply Vaseline to their teeth.

Petting these beauties is instant serotonin, better than therapy, a form of joy only available to those who happen to be in a tent on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, where the world’s most precious dogs happen to be preparing for their own beauty pageant.

I am here to pet them all.

“This is her wool, and this is her silky,” says Jane Bass, holding one of the hair flocks of Basi, her 3-year-old black Bergamasco. The wool is the long, matted strand; the silky is a finer, shorter undercoat that’s closer to Basi’s skin.


She motions me over to pet. Basi’s flocks are soft but substantial, like a piece of felt, and have a slightly musty smell.

“See how it’s very loose against their skin?” says Bass. She takes a thicker cord and separates it into two smaller ones. “Their wool keeps continually growing. So it comes together. And you pull it apart just like that.”

I’ve always wanted to feel one of the mop-like dog breeds and admire their beauty, but as a tactile experience? I think I prefer a dog with fur I can scruff and ruffle and stroke.

Like Saana, the Lhasa apso. “It literally feels like human hair,” says Cydne Clark, grooming Saana with a sleek blowout that would make any human woman jealous. Judges “can feel if it’s an incorrect coat. This is a very correct coat, what you felt.”

I haven’t had many chances to pet a dog lately. A year and a half ago, I had three senior dogs. By November, I had zero.

My three Coton de Tulears all lived to be nearly 16, so their deaths were not premature, or even unexpected. But putting three dogs down in short succession doesn’t steel your nerves. It accelerates your dread, thinking about how you have two, then one, and soon none.

The losses were amplified by the fact that my daughter was born just as the dogs started to decline. They seemed to accept the baby into their little pack. But my hands were full all the time, which meant they had to settle for being petted less frequently. The guilt was immense.

Petting a dog, studies have proved, activates our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls cognitive and emotional activity. It also increases our oxytocin, the body’s feel-good chemical, and lowers our stress hormones. Researchers have observed this effect even in those who don’t own dogs, but who pet ones belonging to strangers.

So maybe this assignment — the best assignment in journalism, let’s be honest — was also a way to process that. By the end of the three days of Westminster, I will have petted more than 100 of the 200 registered breeds represented at the show, plus a few mixed breeds.

This includes some of the unusual dogs that most viewers might only ever see on the Fox broadcast of the dog show. Each has its own distinct feel.

Like the cottony puff of a Portuguese water dog’s front half, and the sleek shaved hair on its behind.

The velvety ears that seem incongruent with the intimidating appearance of Hammie, a Cane Corso.

The wiry snout hairs of an Airedale.

The bristled crest on a Rhodesian ridgeback’s back. (“It just grows in the opposite direction,” says the Rhodesian’s owner.)

The damp cords of Csoki the Puli, another mop-like dog, whose owner is midway through a nearly two-hour grooming process.

“They’ll mildew if you don’t get them dry,” says Valarie Cheimis of the dog’s cords, which feel like skeins of thick yarn. “They’ll start smelling.”

In the morning, the grooming tent smells like wet dog. In the afternoon, it smells like hair spray, because that’s when the standard poodles go on. Dozens of hair dryers are droning at any given moment, and they create little gusts of wind that may carry minuscule dog hair clippings into your mouth.


An owner asks: “Do you want to cuddle with him?”

Do we want to cuddle Tally, a massive Leonberger? The answer is yes, of course, we were born to cuddle this hefty, fluffy brown German breed whose paws are the size of my hands.

“Lay down,” instructs Pamela Isaacson, Tally’s owner — a command issued to both Tally and me. I lean my head into his soft neck fur. “He likes hugs,” adds Isaacson.

Tally, I soon learn, is short for Taliesin, like the Frank Lloyd Wright landmark in Wisconsin. (Tally’s breeder is also an architect.) Tally’s fur is so soft because he gets keratin treatments.

“That’s the only way I can keep him free of tangles,” says Isaacson.

Tally is one of the first dogs I meet on Day 1 of Westminster, which focuses on agility and obedience. But while dogs are scampering up steep ramps and jumping through hoops, two other tents are dedicated primarily to petting. There’s a “Meet the Breeds” showcase, with 45 different types of dogs to learn about — and pet.

Start with the wire-haired Vizsla named Laszlo, who has uncannily human eyes that make him seem wise, but his behavior is just big puppy energy. (“We’re hoping he’ll be wise someday,” says his owner, Corey Lewellyn.)

Move along to the border terrier named Valentina, who rests her mustachioed head in the palm of your hand, as if she’s exhausted by all the attention.


Measure the velvety ear of Dunkin’, a 6-month-old basset hound, and discover that it’s bigger than your hand.

Let a quintet of cocker spaniels pile into your lap.

Join the crowd gaping at a rare Xoloitzcuintli, a Mexican dog whose only hair is a little wispy mohawk. Her gray-black skin is slightly coarser than a human’s and has a few small bumps. “They’re just like people, with their skin differences,” says Jacob Ashley, Cheena’s owner. “Some have lots of acne, especially as they grow.”

There are also all-American dogs, which is Westminster politesse for a mixed breed, or mutt. These are only allowed to compete in agility events. The whole point of the rest of the show is to reward the good looks that come from selective breeding. Which is why it doesn’t matter that Liz Lemon — a Chihuahua and rat terrier mix named after the “30 Rock” character — has her lip caught on her tooth, giving her the appearance of a snaggletooth. She’s an agility finalist. She acquiesces to a petting, but she’s “not like a lap dog. She wants to do stuff and she’ll let you know,” says her owner, Eric Striepeck, demonstrating some of her tricks: “Stand. Twirl … Wave!”

As we’re walking down the center aisle of the grooming tent, I see a fluffy white dog resting in his owner’s arms. His shape is immediately recognizable as a Coton de Tulear. And he’s curled up with his head right at his owner’s armpit, just how one of mine used to sleep.

As Diesel recuperates from his turn in the ring, I end up telling his owner the story of our dogs’ little lives: How my husband adopted two of them when he was working in Madagascar, where the breed originated, and how we took in another during the first year of the pandemic. How we kept their hair short, unlike the breed standard, which is voluminous and fussy to maintain. How they came to the United States, and slept in our bed, and how, for the last year of their lives, I felt as if I was running a dog hospice. I don’t tell her how much I long to feel their fur — less conditioned than her own dog’s — and smell their stinky breath one more time. I don’t have to. She knows.

“Can I pet your dog?” I ask.

I can’t pet all the dogs. First of all, because there are too many, and second, because some of them are simply too precious.

Like Louis the Afghan hound. A small semicircle of people has formed around his grooming station, where his sleek black ear hairs are being held back with a snood that gives him the appearance of a little babushka. His handler, Alicia Morrison Jones, has the same haircut and color as Jane Lynch in the movie “Best in Show” (further proof that Christopher Guest is basically a documentarian). Jones is using a little handheld device that emits a red glow, and pressing it all over Louis’s body.

It’s not a grooming tool. “It’s a medical-grade laser” that encourages muscle relaxation, explains one of Louis’s co-owners.

“Until everything’s done and the breed’s done, it’s like, lots of tension,” says co-owner Jamie Souza Bartlett. These are not ideal circumstances for petting.

Several hours later, Louis was declared the top Afghan. And several hours after that, when Jones marched him around the AstroTurf of Arthur Ashe Stadium before the Fox Sports cameras, Louis was named the top hound — and a contender for best in show.


I can’t pet one of his top competitors, either. Sage, the top miniature poodle, was named the best in the non-sporting group. Maybe it’s the elaborate poodle cut — the fanciful look protects their joints — but Sage seems to have absorbed the intensity of her owners, who are longtime Westminster competitors. (Sage’s great-grandmother won best in show in 2002.) On Tuesday, the final night, as owner and handler Kaz Hosaka arranges her immaculate poufs, his wife, Roxanne Wolf, looks anxious whenever any interlopers get too close.

She was right to ward off the oily hands of strangers. Sage gets out in the ring for best in show and does a lap with her competitors: Louis the Afghan, Micha the cocker spaniel, Monty the giant Schnauzer, Mercedes the German shepherd, Comet the Shih Tzu, and Frankie the colored bull terrier. When the judge points to Sage as the winner, Hosaka, overcome with emotion, presses his face into the two poufs of fluff above her hind legs.

This is his 45th and final Westminster, he says in a news conference after receiving the giant purple and gold ribbon. He and Sage are going to retire.

Sage sat on the podium and blinked. Her life was about to change dramatically.

Once Sage is retired, “I don’t have to worry about hair,” Hosaka says. “She can scratch anything she wants. She can get wet, go outside in the rain. She’ll be like a normal dog.”

So are we allowed to pet Sage now? Is the top dog in the country softer, poofier than the other poodles I’ve petted this week?

Wolf eyes the hands of an eager reporter. “Not her top knot,” she says.