When I arrive at the National Dog Show the first thing I see is signs. Lots and lots of signs on the clear glass doors of the incredibly large Greater Philadelphia Expo Center. "No dogs allowed in the lobby" and "No dog washing in the restroom" are printed over and over again on bright pink and yellow paper. Even without seeing any dogs yet, the signs are enough to put a smile on my face. The signs mean that behind the second set of doors, 2,000 dogs await.
The National Dog Show Presented By Purina airs on Thanksgiving, right after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and right before turkey and stuffing. While you are at home throwing out the bad green beans (or sipping wine while someone else does), there aren't thousands of people enjoying a dog show in person instead — they watched it nearly a week earlier and kept the name and breed of the winner secret for five whole days.
But this isn't the only surprising thing about the Dog Show. Now that I've experienced it and had the allergens of 2,000 dogs fill my nose and throat, not only do viewers at home not realize that so many people already know whether the Pomeranian triumphed or not, but that they also don't understand the sheer breadth of the Dog Show. Some of the dog owners from this year's show filled me in on just how much us home viewers are missing when watching from our couches, and made it clear that this thing is bigger than a Great Dane standing next to a 10-year-old handler (more on that later).
Attending the event on Saturday, Nov. 18, I discover that the dog show doesn't just consist of the main stage we see on TV and a backstage area like the one in Best of Show. Instead, this is a full-on convention. There are vendors of dog treats and dog artwork and dog socks. There are funnel cakes and lemonade, like a state fair. And there are dogs. There are dogs everywhere. They're hanging out in cages and on tables. They're participating in preliminary competitions, getting their hair done, and smelling the butts of their peers. Their owners and handlers are camped out with folding chairs and coolers of wine and bags of chips.
It's just florescent lit hall after florescent lit hall of dogs and more dogs. You don't have to worry about looking at the people you walk past; you just smile down at the dogs.
The reason there are so many dogs at the Dog Show is because the competition consists of three stages: Best of Breed, Best of Group, and Best in Show. Best in Group and Show are what air on television, which is why you see 193 dogs total while watching because there are 193 breeds split into seven groups. What you don't see, is the Best of Breed competitions — all 193 of them — which take place in the rest of the convention center throughout the day.
Dennis Witzke, whose dog, Lucy, won Best of Breed for the Belgian Malinois was nearly in tears when I spoke to him right after Lucy was determined to be better than the 10 other dogs who looked just like her (to untrained eyes, at least).
"I'm soaking wet right now from doing nothing. From just working with the dog," Witzke says. "You have to concentrate. You have to read your dog’s mind so you know she’s going to make a mistake before she makes a mistake that way you can correct it or stop it from being made."
Witzke has shown dogs for years, some his own, like Lucy, and some where he worked as the handler for another owner. It's clear that showing his own dog makes him the proudest. "Just making my dog beautiful," he responds when I ask about the best part of the competition. "It's making me cry right now, I'm so happy."
But not all the handlers at the show are as experienced as Witzke and not all the dogs are one of the top ranking dogs in the country at only 10 months old like Lucy.
"She came in last," Danielle Di Bona tells me of her Pumi, Aldas, with a laugh. "And that's OK. I do this for fun."
Pumis were only added as a breed to compete in the National Dog Show last year and Aldas was part of the inaugural bunch. Pumis are also very soft and look like they should be in Labyrinth. Di Bona informs me that the dog show is a "benched show" meaning that dogs and handlers cannot leave until 5 p.m. regardless of how they place — hence the coolers of snacks.
Di Bona feeds Aldas a French fry to get her to look at the camera for their photo. As I walk away she yells after me, "I hope she doesn't puke in the car!" And with that, Di Bona solidly confirms that she has a more relaxed take on handling than some of the other people here.
In addition to Best of Breed, Group, and Show, there are other events taking place behind the scenes, the cutest of which is Junior Showmanship. There are several age groups that compete, and in the children's shows, the kids themselves are judged as handlers, rather than their dogs being judged. (It sounds weird at first, but I promise it's not.) This means that you end up with a Miniature Pinscher in the same competition as a Great Dane. It also means that you get to see a child the same height as a Great Dane adjust the giant dog's stance while looking like a true professional in a tiny holiday dress.
The winner of the youngest kids' group is 10-year-old Brayden. He won with a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Paisley, who is "fun" and "can go in the pool." I assume that winning the kids show must be really exciting and new, but I soon find out that Brayden's been doing dog shows for "a couple of years" and seems so chill about winning because he also won last year. What fuels these accomplishments? "It's just fun. I like being around dogs." Same, Brayden. Same.
It sounds like an entire day of hanging out with dogs would be heaven on Earth — and, OK, it is, but after a while you get tired and start sneezing a lot. The Dog Show is very long. Walking around the Expo Center, eventually you feel like you've seen it all, then a whole line-up of Afghans appear, giving the surreal feeling that this thing is an infinite maze of dogs upon dogs.
I'm just not used to the world of dog shows, though. I'm not like Jennifer Zucker, a Borzoi owner, who has to explain to me three times that her dog, Prim, won Select Bitch and that it doesn't mean she will be going to the Group round. "She didn't win best of breed," Zucker tells me, putting it in layman's terms. "She got the next best thing." The whole thing has a sort of tailgate vibe and it's clear that a lot of the owners know each other. In fact, Zucker says that her favorite part of the show is socializing with her friends that she met through doing dog shows.
Around 5 p.m. many of the losing dogs and owners (sorry!) start packing up shop. I check out the Hound Group, but all I can think about is how I'll be missing Best in Show since I have to leave at 6. I'm not going to see the big moment go down before everyone else.
That's OK, though. The thing about dogs is, if you love them, then you can't get enough. You can scroll through dog feeds on Instagram and Twitter and never get sick of it, and you can be surrounded by dogs for hours to the point where you realize you might have a real allergy to them and still not want to leave.
So, of course, I'm going to watch the Dog Show on Thanksgiving with everybody else. And I'd be shocked if the enthusiastic owners and handlers of the dog show world weren't watching, too.