Westminster," not to mention the co-host of the National Dog Show Presented by Purina (you can watch this year's telecast on NBC on Thanksgiving Day). He's shown champion Afghan Hounds, he's appeared on "Sex & the City," and he's written books about his work with dogs, including "Angel By My Side," the critically-acclaimed story of a heroic service dog.Frei's latest book, You know David Frei. He's "the Voice of "Angel on a Leash: Therapy Dogs and the Lives They Touch," takes readers behind the scenes in Frei's work with therapy dogs and the Angel on a Leash organization – and more. (A portion of the book's proceeds will go to the organization.) With the National Dog Show coming up this weekend, I jumped at the chance to chat with Frei about show judges, Brittanys, tongue-twisters, and staying "in the moment." The first part of our conversation appears below.
Sarah D. Bunting: I'm sure that you have a basquillion things to do in the lead-up to the show, so I won't take up too much of your time this morning – but actually, that's a good place to start. The National Dog Show's coming up this weekend; can you talk to me a little bit about what your prep is like, in the week or two weeks before the show?David Frei: Well, it's pretty much the same anymore. You know, it's difficult to prepare for individual dogs, because of the vagaries of live TV and the vagaries of the dog-show world. I know some of these dogs that are entered may not get here, they may end up going somewhere else at the last minute, so we've got to wait and see what dogs are there, but in terms of prep, I just kind of concentrate on the new breeds that we're going to see. This year, we're getting six new breeds.
Yeah, I saw that – including one major tongue-twister.
I have managed to spell it correctly so far, but we'll see how long that lasts.
Well, I remember I saw a great Xoloitzcuintli in Mexico at the World Dog Show in 1999, and I've been fascinated with the breed ever since, so I'm ready for that one. Bring it on!
And this is the Mexican national dog?
It is! The Xoloitzcuintli.So it's a little surprising that we haven't seen this dog before.
When we say "new breeds," it's a bit of misnomer, because they aren't really, like, all of a sudden a new breed that's here – some of these breeds have been around for thousands of years, before they ever show up at AKC dog shows. They have to be recognized by the AKC, to be eligible for the National Dog Show or for Westminster, and by the time they go through the AKC process – they've got to have a certain population in this country, a certain distribution of that population, they can't all be living on some farm down in Atlanta, and they have to have a parent club that advocates for them and that follows their stud book and things like that.
So, some of these dogs, they may have been around for thousands of years elsewhere in the world, but just in this country they don't have a following that advocates for them; they may not have been able to get recognized, so some of them are relatively new and some of them are thousands of years old.
I actually had a question about that process, in terms of getting breeds added to these shows.
The basic thing – and I know this from my days at the AKC – the basic thing is the things that I just said. There has to be a certain population; there have to be enough of them to justify it. They have to have a good geographic distribution. And they have to have a parent club, like the Xoloitzcuintli Club of America. They watch out for the breed in this country, and make sure that it's properly prepared and promoted, and that the stud book is followed properly so that they know they're doing things correctly, and in the best interests of the dog, so with those three things in place, then the process can begin. Often that means being recognized by the AKC for its miscellaneous class, which means at dog shows they can compete, but they don't advance beyond that. And then once they're recognized for regular status, and they can compete in conformation shows, they assign them to a group and give 'em a starting time and we're off and running.
So it's sort of like the Olympics, and exhibition events?
Well, not now, but previously, yes. But at Westminster, and at the National Dog Show, we don't have the miscellaneous class. And at the National Dog Show, while there is the miscellaneous class, it's not seen on television, so they'd just be on with the regular classes.
And from what I read, there's hundreds of hours of footage that's shot from the dog show, and then we get to see two hours on Thanksgiving Day. Does that ratio sound right to you?
Yes, it is. We've got two or three camera crews going around all day long, so you know they're gonna come back with hundreds of hours of stuff, and the concentration is on the group competition.
And are you involved or on-site for sort of this information-gathering and –
And working with them, and talking about what footage would be good or interesting to show, versus –
Yes. We actually sit at the table in the group rings, and we have our headsets on, and we're talking to the truck, but none of what we're saying at that point is being recorded. It's mainly for me to say, "Here's a nice shot of this dog," or "Hey, here's a nice story behind this dog." It might not necessarily be breed-related; it might just be that, "Hey, here's a dog that got bit by a copperhead snake three weeks ago and survived and is here today." You know, one of those kinds of stories. "This owner is a war hero just back from Afghanistan," or something like that, so we want to be able to alert the camera people, the director, so that he can get shots of this dog in hopes that we can get it included in our final lineup and be able to talk about it to America.
That was an interesting thing that I took away from your book – I guess I never really thought about it before, but when you mention that these show dogs are, you know, dogs: they're part of people's families and they're not just sort of sitting, like, on the mantel.
A friend of mine always says, "These are just pets that happen to go to dog shows." They just happen to have something else going for them, a little bit of whatever, whether it's conditioning or care or their breed traits that make 'em something special – but they're not sitting around all week eating doggie bon-bons, sitting on doggie cushions. They're shedding on our clothes and stealing food off our counters and even drinking out of a toilet once in a while, just like a good old regular dog would do.
Can you review with me what breeds you've shown and worked with closely?
My main breed, my own main breed was Afghan Hounds. I bred and showed them for thirty years, and finished a lot of champions, and had the top Afghan in the country in 1989, which is what sort of brought me into the dog-show television world. Now I have Brittanys, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, that while we dabble in dog shows with them, they're young, and really just kind of getting started again; the main thing they do for me is therapy-dog work.
I want to get into that, but a quick side question while we're on the topic: what is the age range, generally, for show dogs?
Well, they can be shown at six months, in regular AKC shows.
But that's a puppy class.
That's the puppy class. But sometimes the puppy can win its breed and end up on television – maybe it might be the only entry, or maybe it's just an outstanding puppy. Probably isn't going to happen too often with a six-month-old dog, although some breeds, some of the Toy breeds, maybe. They have a greater chance of doing that than, like, a Working breed or a big Hound or something like that. Six months, and – you know, Stump won at Westminster, was Best in Show at Westminster, and he was ten years old.
In , he was ten years old. So, it depends on the dog. It depends on the dog, it depends a lot on the breed, it depends of course on their conditioning and their home life, as it were.
If they're kept up, they're not fed too many cookies, they're not out of shape, their coat's in good shape, things like that.
Not watching too much TV.
[laughter] That's right, that's right. They're out getting a little roadwork every now and then, still.
You know, once you win Best in Show at Westminster, because of the nature of the sport, that's so subjective; I think everybody who was involved understands that, tomorrow, the same dogs under a different set of judges, there are going to be different results.
And so the reality is, why – unless you know that the judges line up nicely for you – why come back. You've won the greatest dog show in the world. Why subject yourself to a possible chink in the armor, so to speak, that suddenly maybe that takes away from your win. The last time that somebody tried to do that was in 1993, the Best in Show winner from 1992 – now I’m talking Westminster – the Best in Show winner in '92 came back to try to win again in '93, and got third in the Group, so, you know, that really is not the greatest way to end a career. They should end their career at the top, and almost all these dogs retire on the spot.
A couple of them may have one or two more things that they wanna do, like win their national specialty or get their one-hundredth best in show, or things like that, they extend the career a little bit, but they're not gonna leave them out there for somebody to be some kind of a gunslinger judge to try to get them beat.
Right. Do people ever withdraw or skip shows because the judges aren't lining up like you mentioned?
Sure! These dogs that are campaigned to do a lot of dog shows, they're not going to go to a show where, you know, "I showed to this judge three months ago and he put up another dog over me, he told me that he didn't like this or that or whatever," and again, it's the subjective nature of the sport, really, that keeps it alive.
People know that we've always got a chance, because the way these dogs are judged is according to a standard that describes the ideal specimen of that breed, and the individual judge who is schooled for these breeds by these standards may read the standard and it might say, "The dog should have great length of neck." Well, what is "great length of neck"? It might be one thing to you and another thing to me. We're never gonna find a perfect dog. You've gotta do some give-and-take, and maybe something's more important to you than it is to somebody else.
Let's use Afghan Hounds as an example, because it's my breed. We talk about – and actually this works generally speaking, too. We talk about judges being engineers, and judges being artists – that engineers are the ones that want to make sure all the parts are in the right place and they're at exactly the right angles, and everything is put together properly. Then you have the judges who are artists, that want to look at the dog and see a beautiful picture, and maybe that beautiful picture doesn't have all those angles put together properly, or maybe they're giving and taking in some places, maybe [the dogs] have a beautiful head that they love, and the engineer looks at this dog and says, "Well, that is a beautiful head, but it's not moving the way I would like to see it move." So now you've got some give-and-take, you've got a dog with a beautiful head, who's maybe not as good a mover as this dog, who's a great mover and doesn't have as pretty a head. What do I do?
So we hope that judges are equal parts engineers and artists, but they aren't always. Some of them may be all artists, some of them may be 70 percent artists, some may be 70 percent engineers, so…but we all kind of keep a book.
I was going to say, that you're all familiar with either who's an engineer, who's an artist, and if you've got an engineering dog or an artistry dog, I'm assuming you act accordingly.
That's it! Exactly. If you have enough dogs, and not everybody does these days, but when I was raising Afghan Hounds, and we had ten, twelve, fifteen dogs in a kennel and maybe five or six active show dogs, we may say, you know, "I've got the right dog to take to this judge. It may not be the dog that I showed last week, but this week now, I've got a judge that ought to like this dog." It could even be something like color. Judges sometimes get the reputation with some of these breeds that have different colors, saying, "You know, this judge doesn't really like dominoes [a reverse facial-mask pattern on some breeds]," or "I've never seen this judge put up a black dog." "I've never seen this judge put up anything other than a black and a silver dog," if you're talking about, again, Afghan Hounds, but again, it goes back to the subjective nature of the sport, and judging on the day.
Sometimes, a dog is just like any other athlete – Kobe Bryant doesn't score 46 points every time he goes out. A dog may not have a great day. They may not like living on the road. May not like the hotel. May not like the water, it may not like the grounds, it may not like the noise in the arena – there's different things that can affect a dog. And at a show like the National Dog Show, and at Westminster, if the noise level in the arena sets the dog off, they're gonna have trouble winning at these shows.
I think, as a civilian, that the subjective nature of the judging is good for the sport, in a way, because it gets people talking and discussing it, and – during Westminster, the whole country is an expert, all of a sudden.
[laughter] Well, that's what we talk about – we call it "judging from outside the ring," and anybody can do it, and you can do it for any reason. "I like this dog because I like the way it'll look up at the judge and wag its tail." Has nothing to do with its form and function, it just has a personality and an attitude that I like, so I'm gonna cheer for this dog. You know, "I'm gonna cheer for this dog because it looks great to me moving around the ring."
The only thing that happens when you're judging from outside the ring is you don't get to put your hands on the dog. You don't get to feel if it's in proper condition; you don't get to feel the bone structure underneath the big hairy coat. All you can do is look at it from outside the ring – and some of these groomers can create a very nice dog out of a pile of hair. They can create some illusions, perhaps, that make it look like maybe this dog has this great shoulder layback, when it really doesn't.
That's the other thing, is that at home, I personally do not care about the hip angles and the correct sort of nose proportions; I have certain breeds that I'm very attached to, which: here's a good segue! My grandmother, with whom I was very close, had a Brittany, Toby, with whom I was also very close, and I managed not to cry while reading your book until page 47. I was pretty proud of myself.
[laughter]I was kind of a mess in the middle part of this book.
But it was nice just to see Brittanys again, and I was surprised that I was having this visceral response, that paralleled what you were talking about in the book. Do you think that that this sort of visceral reaction to dogs is unique to dogs? Do you think that this happens with other animals, or is this a companion-canine thing?
I think dogs really have become members of our family nowadays. We've got this great spiritual and emotional connection to them that we may not have had ten years ago or twenty years ago or whatever. It's because we aren't really breeding dogs for functionality anymore; we aren't breeding them to pull a cart to market, or to herd the cattle, or kill rats in our home, or protect our estates and things like that. Even though they still have those traits, and that's why people want those breeds, even though they still have those traits, chances are -- it's not an automatic, but chances are they're not doin' those jobs anymore. They're members of the family. The AKC registers over a hundred thousand Labrador Retrievers every year, and I'll guarantee you that eighty percent of them have probably never jumped in a lake before.
So, I think that's what gives it that visceral response that you're talking about, and I call it, at dog shows I call it the alma-mater factor. If I'm sitting at home on the couch with my Brittany, I'm gonna root for the Brittany. I wanna see the Brittany, I wanna root for it, and when it appears on my screen, I'm gonna say to Grace, my Brittany sitting there with me, "You know, Grace, you and I could be out there too – if I just gave you a bath once a week instead of once a month, if I fed you a few less cookies, and if maybe together we did a little roadwork and got ready for something like this." So I think that's a big reason that people watch our shows, because they wanna see their breed, their dog's cousin or some ancestor or whatever, so they can say, you know what, we were rootin' for the Brittany.
Oh yeah, absolutely. We would sit on the couch with Toby.
There you go!
He could not have cared less and would just sleep through the whole thing –
Even though we're all, "Look, it's you!"
We call it the alma-mater factor. You'd be amazed at how many pictures I get every year, probably six or eight pictures every year, from somebody who's sending me a picture of their dog watching television – it's a shot where I can see them watching television, and they're looking at their own breed. Somebody sent me a picture, she said, "My dog didn't like the Standard Poodle, he was barking at the screen when the Standard Poodle was up." Well, a lot of people, too. That's a great breed, but that haircut fools people sometimes.
Apparently there's the three standard haircuts, each, in my opinion, less attractive than the last. I love those dogs, but the show cut is not…
They are wonderful dogs, and the show cut really is a disservice to them – they're originally bred to be a gentle, water-retrieving hunting dog, and they're great, athletic dogs, they're intelligent, they're wonderful personalities, and I would have a black Standard Poodle in a minute.
But with a nice close crop.
That's right. With a sporting cut.
Nice military crop.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my conversation with David Frei, and more National Dog Show information and pics!