the all breeds Dog Show at the Cow Palace

By Lana Licata

I wear my dog
You’d think the president was in town with all the posing for photos and kissing babies, except he isn’t one to wear a leash; or if he does, those photos haven’t been leaked yet. Still, outside of the Folsom Street Fair, the only place you can find this many happily leashed “beings” is the Golden Gate Kennel Club All-Breeds Dog Show, which came to Daly City in all its furry glory and triumph. It’s not 50 Shades of Grey, but there are a lot of masters and they are inordinately proud of their subs and so I imagine that if he had the time, Obama and his boy Beau would have found a welcome community for their unequal but fruitful relationship. Me, I just love dogs and so I could not pass up opportunity to see man and his best friend turned into a lavish piece of performance art.

As soon as I stepped into the parking lot and was walking into the Cow Palace, I realized that like most art installations, this one was spilling out onto the streets. Every car was adorned with dog stickers of all kinds, each proclaiming an overwhelming love for these barking angels of earth. On the hood of one van was a heavenly depiction of four Great Danes looking skyward. Was this a message to God or a declaration that dogs are God? It was beautiful and wrong and right then I knew I had found my people.

And a dog shall lead them
Navigating my way through the arena, the cold cement floors were polka-dotted with puddles of urine. There was something charming about the varying pools of yellow liquid; the diversity of the bladders definitely announced that this was an “all-breeds” show. I ended up in the expo section, which was far more entertaining than I imagined. There were booths for dog outfits, ranging from LL Bean outdoor chic to Versace inspired glitz. There were booths of backpacks, purses, rugs, and blanket tapestries depicting heroic dog scenes. There were booths for live dog paintings, booths for dog photography, booths of dog jewelry and a booth of owner created dog art. If only the Oakland Art Murmur were this much fun.

Everywhere I looked there were dogs roaming around, strutting their stuff accompanied with their owners who strutted their stuff even harder. Dogs were being groomed and styled and I even spotted one owner applying cosmetic foundation to his dog’s cheeks. And the owners were as enchanting as their dogs. It would be hard to specify one type of person who attended this spectacle. There were enthusiastic children, old lady best friends and owners so hermetically connected to their dogs that it felt like they were from a different culture. And this being the Bay Area, there were, of course, the fedora wearing hipster couples who’s outfits were so bizarrely choreographed that you wondered how they breathed something as chaotic as air. But nothing topped the dog owners’ family members who sat at the edge of their seats and clenched their programs so tight that they took on the density of Billy clubs.

Let's where the same thing
I love dogs, but I was sometime shocked at how close these people, really my people, identified with them. Many owners were wearing pictures of their dogs on t-shirts. I’ve seen this style of canine idolatry before, but somehow here, at the All Breeds Show, it became a powerful statement of solidarity and the key to understanding why these events are so compelling. In essence, they are pageants for dogs and come across more like a fanatic’s notion of an art installation than a competition. As I sat in my front row seat, it became more and more apparent how much this was not about dogs, but about our ability to strive for perfection and love our failures.

You would think that the competitions would be riveting, but the most fascinating aspects of these shows are the sideshows. For instance, in between the competitive events, there are dog agility competitions—they run and play, jump and dive and dash. But what is emotionally surprising is that after the dog finishes, whether a winner or not, the dog and their owner would celebrate. It’s the good side of life. For all those who love dogs being dogs and not dogs being performers, there was something joyous about this. It’s not preordained and controlled, but an expression of why dog is man’s best friend and also woman’s best friend, too.

Our greatest joys will be sold
No aspect of the competition escaped dog metaphors. Concessions stands were stocked, almost exclusively, with hot dogs, the music was strategic to say the least, what with Elvis’s “Hound Dog” and Baha Men’s “Who let the Dogs Out?” I wonder if they know the true meaning behind that song? Maybe it’s better to think it’s a wild pack of dogs instead of a group of exceptionally, unattractive women. Although it was a little shocking to hear the conservatively dressed, super-serious, dog announcer, yelling “bitch” repeatedly, it was still all part of the carnival-esque atmosphere. It’s as if the whole competition was infected by all our unwitting cultural assumptions and fears, and yet what we got in the end was joy.

With my seat so close to the owners, I got a scoop on all the gossip, the vicious gossip. The show felt exactly like a fancy art opening—lots of name-dropping, fancy lingo and cliquey groupings. As the dogs became shadows to the event, the attention fell more on the owners and their absurdities. Yet, even with these pathetic displays of human behavior, dog shows like art shows are fantastic and finally, I would argue, ennobling.

What's not to love?
In both, people are sad and deformed and do silly things, but their love of art and dogs overcomes that. This is what saves all of us from our worst instincts and behavior, the ability to invest in the world. We become acceptable when we love, dedicate and place total devotion into something outside of ourselves. That’s the beauty of both of these bizarre worlds. As I sip my free wine and make art talk on the weekends, observing the crowd of art adorers and art makers, yes, I see how silly we are. We might have the veneer of “cool”, and dog owners might seem “lame”, but we’re doing the same thing, which is losing ourselves to something we love—a way of life that comes quite naturally to dogs and which we have to practice.

Let us roam together

©Lana Licata and the CCA Arts Review

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