"Are those dogs happy?": "Dogland" author tracks the answer from couch naps to kennel clubs

Shadowing a champion named Striker, author Tommy Tomlinson unlocks the mysteries of joy and "Bucket Bitches"

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published April 23, 2024 1:29PM (EDT)

Striker the Samoyed wins on Working Group is seen during Best in Show at the 146th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Tarrytown of New York, United States on June 22, 2022. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Striker the Samoyed wins on Working Group is seen during Best in Show at the 146th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Tarrytown of New York, United States on June 22, 2022. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

If you've ever spent any amount of time watching a dog show — Westminster Kennel Club or otherwise — you may have found yourself wondering, as the dogs competed in their individual rounds, led by their handlers . . . what's in it for them? 

Author Tommy Tomlinson focuses a whole book, "Dogland: Passion, Glory, and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show," on examining that question. He was inspired to do so after seeing such an event on TV one day, thinking, "Are those dogs happy?" 

"One of the reasons why people love dogs so much is that dogs know how to make us happy,” Tomlinson says. Casting a wide net to determine if, and how, we're able to return the favor, he spent an expanse of time shadowing a champion Samoyed named Striker and his handler Laura King at "the fancy," as Westminster is called by pros, as they went after one grand finale title prior to retirement, Best in Show. And during his time spent in the field, Tomlinson learned that although King and other professionals like her do view dogs as tools of the trade, there's love there as well. Witnessed in a tearful goodbye detailed in the book where King, after three years spent with Striker, sends him off to return to normal pet life with his owner after all his hard work as the goodest of good boys was done.

"Dogs figure out in a situation what they need to be happy and do their best to make that work."

As funny as it is poignant and, in many sections, educational, "Dogland" centers on Striker's last hurrah as a show dog, but also mixes in a heartbreaking tale of the author's own dog. These are interspersed with Pee Break sections offering an assortment of historical, breed specific and pop culture canine stories to paint a picture of the ways humans have literally and figuratively loved dogs to death since their earliest beginnings as wolves, coaxed out of the trees to sit with us by the fire, trusting in the promise of a warm meal and a soft hand. 

Speaking to Salon over Zoom, he also acknowledges that, for all its fancy seriousness, the dog show subculture can also be hilarious — introducing me to my new favorite professional title bestowed upon dog show assistants: Bucket Bitch.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

A friend of mine who lives in upstate New York keeps acquiring Belgian Malinois that she trains for editorial shoots and agility competitions. "Dogland" touches upon a question that often comes to mind when I think of these dogs, which is, wouldn’t they rather be home watching TV? If given the option, do you think Striker, the main dog in your book, would opt for a couch potato life if the option had presented itself early?

That’s sort of the thing that brought the book to life, for me. I was watching one of those dog shows one night and started wondering, "Are those dogs happy?" And then I started thinking about regular dogs. Like regular pets. Are they happy? And the book is about me sort of working through that question of what it means and, ultimately, what does happiness mean. I think we have an advantage over dogs and other animals in that, as far as we know, we can see alternate worlds that they can’t. Like if we’re in some dead-end job, or we’re in prison or something like that, we know that there are other people out there living better lives than us.

I’m not sure dogs know that. Maybe some dog who’s chained to a tree looks across the street and sees some happy dog running around and is wistful somehow. But I don’t know that dogs' brains or emotions really work that way. But, obviously, as with everything with dogs, we tend to anthropomorphize them and think that what we might think or feel in that situation, they might feel or think in that situation. What I know for sure or what I feel like I know for sure is that dogs figure out in a situation what they need to be happy and do their best to make that work. And so, yeah, I think your friend’s dogs are probably happy if they tend to be happy-natured dogs to begin with. They may just not know there may be a different life for them out there. 

Dogs are very funny, and your book is very funny, but dog shows seem like they call for a sort of seriousness that I would think also needs to be bred or trained for. When moments of chaos occur – like where you detail an Alaskan malamute named Tyce who had an existential crisis of howling that you describe as being like if Mickey Mouse took off his head at Disney World and the guy inside started talking – what sort of ripple effect does that cause in the room?

One thing that was amazing to me was to see how well-trained these dogs are to not respond to chaos. So in that moment, when this dog started howling, I think the other dogs may have glanced over to see what was going on and to see if it was something they should be alarmed about. But by and large, the show just kept going, and the dogs just kept doing whatever they did. And I was at several smaller shows that are more chaotic where dogs are being walked by each other all the time. And just on a rare occasion two dogs would stop to sniff each other’s butts or maybe growl a little bit at each other, and there was a little kerfuffle, they’d be separated, and everybody would move on. And the other dogs would just act like nothing had happened. Whereas if that happened out in the street, every dog three blocks away would be wanting to know what was going on. So I think part of the training of those dogs is to drown out the noise and to be in the moment, which is actually a pretty good lesson for us in some ways because we’re all very distractible. And I was amazed at the discipline those dogs had not to be distracted in the moment. The other part of that is, these handlers are very experienced in how to center their dog’s attention. Often with treats. But as we saw with Tyce, sometimes that doesn’t work, and dogs revert to their essential dogness.

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I think there’s always a curiosity as to whether or not the handlers drug their dogs. It seems like it would be easy to just put a pill into a treat and then you don’t really have to worry about them acting up. But then that would, of course, take away from their ability to perform, but is that something that they watch for in competitions like this?

"For a retired show dog, there's no reunion tour. Show dogs aren't The Eagles."

That’s a good question. They’re not drug tested, as far as I know. My understanding of this is that dogs do get some medications, but generally for medical issues like sore hips or if they need certain vitamin supplements or something like that. If there is widespread dog drugging, I certainly didn’t find that or hear about it, and I asked some questions along those lines. So I don’t think that’s true. These dogs are products of generation after generation of breeding and then, even when they’re born as purebreds, all this filtering goes on to separate basically the very best dogs from the ones who aren’t quite good enough. And I think part of that filtering is to filter for temperament. And so, it’s not like you just pull a dog in from off the street asking him to be in a dog show. There’s a lot of both genetic nature and nurture that goes in to making sure these dogs are even tempered.

I didn’t realize that there were so many different kinds of bitches, and Bucket Bitch has been repeating in my head since reading it. Did you have a "Dogland" sensitivity reader make the suggestion to include a chapter explaining the use of these "bitch" terms? 

The sensitivity reader was me. Within the first 30 minutes of walking into my first dog show, I heard someone over the PA system say, "Will all the German Shepherd bitches report to Gate 4," or whatever. And I was like "What?" I mean, I knew in this world that female dogs are called bitches, and it’s kind of normal. I just didn’t expect it to be bandied about like it was. And there’s absolutely no shame or hesitation. They don’t think twice about it. It’s just the way that their world talks about it. And obviously they know that outside the fancy, this word has a whole different meaning. But it originated with the dog world. And so they kind of cling to it like, "This is ours. This word belongs to us. It has a specific meaning. It does not have a negative connotation in our world. We’re gonna use it." And so, once I saw and realized pretty quickly that I was gonna have to use the word bitch a lot to be true to this world, I thought I’d need to have something up front to let people know that this is how dog people talk. They’re not cursing in that sense. They’re not downgrading women. This is just the language they use. And so as I was structuring the book, that was one of the first things I put in because I thought we needed to have that up front.

It made me laugh, but it was also useful. I’ve never been to a dog show, but I’d imagine the tone factors in too. Because they’re not like, “Bitch!” 

Right. Right. They never do that. There are occasionally like little moments where they sort of acknowledge the kind of ironic or dual meaning. The American Kennel Club Museum, they had a quilt exhibit one time that was called “Bitches in Stitches.” And, you know, they knew what they were doing when they said that. So there is the occasional nod to the outside world on that. But, in general, it’s just everyday language to them. 

In 2012, when I worked at VICE, a writer attended the Westminster Dog Show on acid and wrote about the experience. Spending time there, did you get the sense that they screen for those kinds of things now?

I remember that. And even before that, Conan O'Brien had Triumph the Insult Comic Dog who went to Westminster and got thrown out. And he went back the next year and got thrown out again. Every year, somebody writes a sort of satirical piece about Westminster. It’s ripe for it. I mean, these are dogs that are outside of the natural way we think about dogs. Some people take this stuff way too seriously and kind of prance around the ring. There are aspects of beauty pageants in there. There’s like the super serious handlers and judges wearing tuxedos. And there’s this sort of overly formal way of doing it. It’s ripe for parody and satire, which is why the movie "Best in Show" did so well. It saw the humor and the way to poke fun at those things. Certainly, I went going in knowing that some of this would be ripe to poke fun at for me too. And I did, in several places.

But I also wanted to respect, in some ways, the people who took it seriously. And, at the very least, understand why they cared. I think part of the satirical aspect of anything like this, when you wander into a little subculture and make fun of it, is you can’t understand why somebody would care about this sort of thing. One of the things I love most as a writer is diving into one of these subcultures and trying to take it seriously. And trying to see why otherwise normal people are so obsessed and devoted and care so much about this one thing that, from the outside, looks odd and strange and silly. And so, I think that in the fancy, there’s some people who get that it’s looked at with a satirical eye from the outside, and they understand that. And there are other people who just have no sense of humor about it at all. And, of course, those are the ones that are the funniest. So I try to walk that line of, certainly, poking fun at and having a good laugh at the things I thought were especially funny about dog shows. But, also, trying to understand on an emotional level why people care about them so much.

I mentioned before that this book is very funny. But midway through, there’s a sentence that made my eyes tear up where you write, “In many ways, we have loved dogs to death.” In competitions like Westminster, there’s a lot of pride and general sportsmanship, but was there love there as well? I feel bad just making my American Bully walk to the post office down a busy street. 

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is, it depends on the moment. A lot of this dog show stuff is a job. The handlers have a job. And they’re often at big shows, like Laura King the handler I focus the book on. They’re working with like 15 dogs at the same time. So there’s a lot of transactional stuff they do with their dogs. 

Being familiar with the Westminster Dog Show the same way as most others, in that I know it exists, it didn’t immediately occur to me that the dogs’ handlers are often not their owners, and that they sometimes have as many as four owners in total. This, more than everything that goes into competing itself, paints a picture for me of the dogs being property and not pets.  

Sort of at the top level, the dogs are usually owned by somebody else. And then those owners pay the handlers to go on what they call campaigns. But even at Westminster, there are dogs there that they call "owner handler." But to the scenario you're talking about, it's complicated and something I sort of had a hard time understanding too, and still not sure if I have a full grasp of. The reason there are often several owners is that it's a way to share expenses. It's very expensive to put these dogs into campaigns and hire handlers that put them on the road and that sort of thing. So often when people breed purebreds, they go in together. But it does lead to that idea of dogs as property. There are a couple of things that people said to me that made sense in that regard. Striker's co-owners compared sending him off to sending a kid to college. Another thing is, dog shows are not a big profit venture. One handler told me that they consider it like owning a beautiful piece of art. It's something that nobody else has. It's unique. Something that you want to show other people. Maybe partly for ego. But also partly to just share something beautiful with the world.

You know the expression: “We don’t deserve dogs”? Do you think we deserve dogs?

"We domesticated each other."

We deserve them in this sense; we created them. Dogs are a human invention. I would argue, they're maybe the greatest human invention. Early man, somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, we took the wolves that had come close enough to make them pets and we bred them and re-bred them and re-re-bred them. All the dogs that exist in the world today are the product of wolves, and they would not exist if humans had not manipulated their genes to make them exist. To the larger, more emotional point, I think there are definitely some people who do not deserve dogs. There are a lot of people who mistreat dogs and take dogs for granted. A lot of people think of dogs as disposable items. But other people find the best parts of themselves through dogs. Because even when they feel misanthropic toward other people, somehow a dog will bring something out of them that puts something in their heart that makes them realize the world isn't all that bad.

Any updates from post-retirement Striker?

I hear from his owners every once and awhile. He lives in Toronto now. He seems to be living an awesome life. He's a pet, you know. He lays around on the couch. He goes out for walks. They have another dog, a Siberian Husky named Awesome, who's sort of his partner. And apparently, Striker's sort of the trailing dog in this relationship. So Awesome does stuff, and Striker sort of follows her around. For a retired show dog, there's no reunion tour. Show dogs aren't The Eagles. When he's done, he's done. Does he have some sense of the life he led and that it was meaningful to other people? Who knows? I think we'd like to think that's true. I do think, if we all suddenly had the ability to talk to him, he'd probably say he's had a pretty great life.    

If you had to sum up all the knowledge you gleaned about dogs while researching and writing this book, what would your main takeaway be?

I think the main thing that I would take away is that dogs help us survive in the same way that we help them survive. We domesticated each other. Dogs started out as basically power tools. We bred them to do hard physical labor for us. And because of their ability to do that, it enabled humans to sort of stay in one place, not be so nomadic, to build farms and homesteads. Dogs are a crucial step in early man becoming what we think of as human. And along the way, we have adapted them to our changing needs. And as that's happened, they have sort of adapted us. Dogs, mostly now, do white collar jobs. They're companions. They're friends. They're sort of unofficial therapists and counselors. And they have helped us cope with the changing emotional landscape. The idea that most of us now do most of our work in our head, and that's a crazy place to be sometimes. They have been, in some ways, a sherpa for us, to guide us through the evolution of humanity. It's a major co-existence.

"Dogland" is out now via Simon & Schuster and, while you're at it, pick up Tomlinson's first book, "The Elephant in the Room."

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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