9 questions for "Show Dog" author Josh Dean

Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred is an account of a year in the life of Jack, a lovable Australian Shepherd who doesn't always cooperate in the ring. It's also a funny and informative look at the dog-show circuit and its people, and it's packed with facts about everything from how a dog achieves champion status to artificial canine insemination to dog-show terminology. Shine Pets spoke to author Josh Dean about the book, the Chinese Crested, and cocktail-party conversation.

Show Dog is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local bookseller; for more information and Easter eggs, visit Dean's website, www.joshdean.com.

Shine Pets: You mention in the preface that following a show dog was an idea you had for some years. Did this start out as an article idea and kind of metastasize? Or did you always have in mind to do a book-length treatment of it?

Josh Dean: I always saw it as a book; in fact, that was the original idea, that would be the book I would do when I finally got around to doing a book, and I just took a long time to get around to making it happen – you know, I was literally talking about it for like four or five years. And then finally, I think the thing that finally sparked the fire was probably the recession as much as anything, 'cause I had a lot of time on my hands and then I decided, all right, I'm never gonna have a better chance, or a better opportunity, time, to write a book proposal.

And then it was a daunting, "Okay, I'm committed to do this thing in theory and I've gotta find a dog." It sounds great, but it only works if you find the right dog. So I was kind of in a state of paralysis for a bit. I actually started by going to Westminster, just to see, you know, you can walk around there and see all the breeds in one place. That was awesome, but it was also crazy daunting, 'cause it was like, they're all kind of awesome, but how can I ever pick one that can actually be good. It just seemed impossible. Until I decided it didn't matter.

Right. So did you start out with a handful of dogs that were prospects, and then you narrowed it down, or was there kind of a lightning moment with Jack?

What I decided to do was to try and meet some of the handlers, and then I thought maybe I could sort of narrow the field a little bit, so I reached out to some and struck up a conversation with Heather Bremmer and her husband Kevin, mostly Heather, and she invited me out to a show. I guess what I liked about her, talking to her, one, she was – a lot of people sort of either ignored me or were skeptical about my motives, which I totally understand.

Right.

I mean, I'm sure Best In Show made people kinda sensitive. And also the kind of dog that she specializes in are like working dogs, sporting dogs, herding dogs; they're kinda big doggy-dogs like, as opposed to miniature poodles or toys. So I went out to a show and you know, it sounds like a cliché but Jack kinda chose me; he just had a lot of personality. So I just kinda knew, almost immediately, from that day. And then of course it was a matter of the owner agreeing to let me do this thing.

And I can't exactly remember if I immediately said, like, "this is what I want to do," but I think it was probably more like, "I'm gonna hang around for a while, with this whole group … with the dogs and the owners, and I like Jack a lot and I'm not sure it's gonna be him but I think it probably will be," and none of them had even been through [?] a magazine story before so I don't think they had any idea what to expect. But they were totally trusting and I couldn't have done it without people being ...

So it was a matter of access, then? And do you think – you mention a couple of times that the sort of breed community around this breed is pretty chill?

Yeah.

So if you'd gone with a different breed, do you think it might have been different in terms of the access that you got?

Yeah, I mean…there are certainly breeds that are way more…

"Intense," maybe is the word?

I would say intense – there's more money at stake, people tend to be more political and backstabby, you know, I mean, Cairn Terriers … Poodles especially, the money is so crazy that people are – it's hard enough they wouldn't give me access, but certainly that would have been a different kind of game. You know, the thing I did like … Jack, and most of [Heather's] other clients, they just seemed like regular people; now, that's not always the case. And if you're in, like, a breed that's really competitive, you tend to have money, and with money comes way more politics, and mean people. … One owner who's got a dog that Jack hangs out with, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, she had a really hard time in her breed, because at least the East Coast people hated each other, and so she almost couldn't talk to them, the politics were that intense. That definitely was not true of Aussies. All of that said, you know, Beyonce, the dog that won all the time? Everybody hates the dog that wins all the time.

Right.

Except for the owner.

Right. No, you have a section about that, about Kimberly sort of trying to modify her pride in Jack's win, because she doesn't want to get off on the wrong foot with the other owners.

Yeah, that was kinda her biggest concern, actually, was that -- she very much wanted to be a part of the community and wanted to be liked, and I think a lot of people don't necessarily feel that way, but she was very careful not to be too boisterous with pride or boasting of wins; she was very careful to congratulate other people when they won, and even late in the book process [the] one thing she kept saying to me was "I don't want people to not like me" – because it very much becomes a big part of people's lives socially too, and if it's uncomfortable…part of the fun I think is hanging out with people and being happy for other people, and she definitely didn't want to be someone who was disliked.

I don't know how people do this every weekend and don't, like, lose their minds. Just the coverage of Heather and Kevin's schedule, I don't know how people do this every weekend, but I can imagine if this is your work, of course you want to get along with your colleagues.

Yeah, I mean, the people, I think they enjoy all of that. I don't know how they do it either, honestly, I mean the handlers, they work so hard and it's so time-intensive and it's never relaxing and there's always something … Heather and Kevin might be home one day a week maybe, and if they are, it's like, laundry, house chores, pay bills, go to the grocery store, unpack, clean the truck, re-pack the truck and then head back out again. Actually she told me in March they're gonna be home three days in the whole month, it's nuts. It's insane.

Yeah. Well, that must be why so many of them are married to each other – you kind of can't have one half of a couple who's in this world.

Yeah. I can't imagine being single, that would be – one, it would be, I think, incredibly lonely in the sense that every night you're going back to a truck full of dogs.

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[laughter] Right.

There's something very sad about that. Although I guess if you have to have one animal, dogs are very affectionate and they're good company, but still … I didn't get into this at all, because it wasn't really relevant in my characters' world, I'm sure there's some terrible adultery, there must be people cheating on other people, and I'm sure marriages, actually I know some marriages have been broken up, but I didn't get into any of that, as well as I only alluded to handler misbehavior -- you know, drinking, smoking weed and stuff -- because Heather and Kevin weren't into that stuff, but there's probably more behind-the-scenes stuff to be told about handlers.

Best In Show, at least at the National Dog Show I feel like it's sort of their…not a mascot, but I think they much more embrace those images and stereotypes as something that's positive and sort of brought that world to the attention of more people. Would you say that's true?

I think it was true enough, there was enough that was true that made them happy and proud that their world was being acknowledged, because I think one thing about obsessive communities is that you always feel a little bit like an outcast … dog shows are kinda gigantic as subcultures go, it's just big and there's a lot of very well-adjusted normal people involved, but – you kinda want to be acknowledged by the outside world, and told what you're doing is valid. And that movie, even though it kind of made fun of them, also validated them.

Right.

And what I'm finding with this book, so far … I was very nervous about how it would be received, 'cause it's generally pretty positive – there are definitely things that they probably aren't that psyched about, but no one's talking about them. I'm mostly hearing things that are actually, like, "taking the time to tell the story accurately."

Was it difficult to sort of going off on certain breeds or certain stereotypes, or were you just sort of –

Yeah, a little bit. Less so the dogs, probably, than the people, and also there's a "shooting fish in the barrel" aspect to it all.

Right, sure.

And there were moments where -- I can't write them all down and I probably wouldn't say them on the record anyway -- where I was probably more obviously making fun of people, and between my agent and publisher it was kind of like, "this is gonna be funny enough, you don't really need to make fun of people; outrageous things are gonna seem outrageous, people are gonna find it funny." The thing is that you're fair and accurate, and sometimes people kind of realize that they seem funny, that they think what they're doing is totally normal.

Right.

Less so the dogs, because even though I agree that a Chinese Crested is kind of hideous-looking, or -- like a Xolo also, I mean, I did say it frightens children probably, so that's as close as I came to making fun of a dog.

But I ended up liking all the -- even the dogs I didn't find necessarily aesthetically pleasing, the stories are always really interesting behind them, like the breed stories -- slash myths, considering sometimes they're not totally true. And they were fascinating to me, even if I thought they were a little ugly, and even in the case of terriers -- I don't think they're ugly but I find them kind of annoying -- you know, it's like they're still good subjects for stories.

Did you find yourself becoming That Guy who was like, "Aaaactually, the breed came to America in 1885," and then you're like, what's happening to me?

Oh yeah, without question. I'm sure my wife would tell you that.

[laughter]

I think depending on your perspective I became either the most or least interesting cocktail party guest. Like, if you were into dogs you could talk to me for hours; if you didn't give a s*** about dogs, then you probably wanted to just not talk to me at all. And in addition to learning about all those breeds and hanging out with people every weekend for a year, I was also reading, like, every f***ing dog book that had been written since like the beginning of the 20th century, like historic dog books, so I was just like bursting with ridiculous knowledge.

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And the one thing about this book, I didn't want it to just be the narrative of the story of one dog and that dog served as a model of a show dog; I was also really interested in history and genetics and psychology, so reading a lot of that stuff about dog behavior and evolution – 'cause I wanted it to be a book that you can read, even if you weren't interested in show dogs, and probably most people aren't, it would be interesting because it's a fun little look at a subculture. But it's also a story about dogs, and if you like dogs, you're gonna learn things about dogs.

I learned some stuff! I didn't know that "left gaze bias" thing.

Yeah, they're clever. That's, like, such an emerging field of research, too; there hasn't been a ton of really hardcore scientific study of dogs' psychology and behavior, you know; it's evolving fast … every couple months there's a new study that comes out, and we're always finding out that they're smarter than we think they were.

You got just an incredible amount of information into the narrative, and it seemed very fluid, but was there anything that didn't make it in? You had the indexes in the back that maybe got around that, but was there anything that didn't make in that you want the reading public to know? Any cool info to share?

The first draft was like 130,000 words, I think, so I actually cut it by 30 percent … Much of that was probably to make the book better, because there's probably way more about scenes taking place at dog shows than the world needed. A few of these stayed in, like the little breed snapshots where I would explain where a breed came from: the Komondor stayed in, and the Lundehund stayed in, but [there] was a lot more of that stuff, 'cause I just kinda geeked out on breed stories for a while. I still have them all somewhere, and I thought maybe it would be a fun web bonus to do at some point if I find some time.

The subject I probably excised the most was … I had a pretty big chapter about business and economics of the dog-show world, and parts of that remained, obviously, the backers and the advertisements. I had a whole thing about the whole just shops and kiosks. Part of that went into a feature I did for Inc. then about Chris Christensen systems, he's like the big shampoo mogul, the Paul Mitchell of poodles.

So probably business is the thing, I figured that was the thing that the average person would find least interesting. Other than that, you're right, I was able to cram a ton in there. Footnotes really helped; my editor agreed to let me keep the footnotes, but really, you can jam a lot into those things and people can kinda choose to ignore them, but I think some of the best moments are the footnotes.

You sort of joke a couple of times in the footnotes about a sequel. Have you thought about doing, like, Show Dog II: The Hopeless Case, and following a bitey dog or a little knock-kneed dog or something like that?

[laughter] Ask me again in six months. The thought of going to … that seems like more than my brain can take. I mean, I may have to, depending on how well things go. I will say that I've gotten certainly to like Jack, and I came to genuinely like the community of the whole thing, I became part of that kind of group, and it is, like -- you hang out with these people every weekend, I just happened to be the person who had a notebook instead of a dog, but it is a community, it's a giant community and there're small ones within it, so these handler teams have…there'll be owners [who] come and hang out together for the weekend and groom each other's dogs and travel together, and that's something I didn't know about either.

And that made it easier so it wasn't just me -- I had the notebook walking around and people are staring at me, like, nervous about what I'm up to, so I was kind of being adopted by that whole group, [which] made it much easier for me to get access to the whole world.

Right; you sort of had their protection.

Yeah – and Heather, she's not famous but she's respected; she's not an A-list handler, but she's a solid B-list, rising probably, and people really respect her, the professionalism and her perception. If she vouched for me, I must be okay.

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