Ritual and Devotion at Westminster

Observations from a few hours spent at the 136th Kennel Club Dog Show

By Ashley Baxstrom

We gathered, one week ago, like so many pilgrims flocking to a holy site.

Or rather, flocking to a site where the objects of our devotion gathered. Was it the idea of a place in which generations had come together for more than a century, first in 1877 at Gilmore’s Gardens (the Hippodrome), and now here? True, most of the time Madison Square Garden plays host to feats of athletic prowess or demonstrations of theatrical and musical creation. But for this weekend, it was ours. The bright screens overhead glowed with our insignia, our group’s name. Green felt track covered the arena, an ice rink no more (though betrayed by a distinct chill in the air). And everywhere you look, we, the worshippers, and they, the worshipped.

The downstairs theater, looking like a megachurch. Photo: Ashley Baxstrom

Because it’s not about the place. It’s about the puppies. We’re all here to admire them, gaze at them with love and devotion. Me, I’d like to pet them. I’m not a member of this congregation, just a brief visitor, and I came for puppies. I came because my friend’s boss had tickets and let us borrow them for the morning. It’s like borrowing a parishioner’s pew, sitting in their seat, but the parish is so big nobody knows you don’t belong. They smile and nod at you, because you’re one of them, we’re all in this devotion together.

But really I’m not. I want to see and be seen by the puppies, wiggle my fingers to get their attention, make sounds of adoration – cotton-tongued, mouth-full-of-marbles sounds, like the kind you make at babies to get them to smile but really they just cock their heads and stare at you, interpreting. I want to ruffle their ears and feel their coat and illicit a wag of the tail from the animal itself, in its own unique identity, the life behind those eyes.

But of course that’s not allowed. Objects of devotion are not meant to be idly touched; there is a time and place for such things (brushing, grooming, bestowing approval) and I am not included in that ritual. Because these people don’t worship the dog in front of them, the spirit inhabiting that body; they are followers of the DOG which this corporeal form represents, the embodiment of BREED and HERITAGE. This is not even a purely canine endeavor either. Really, it is a reflection back upon the people themselves. By trotting out their products – these dogs are products – they are congratulating themselves. Hooray us, we have such fine taste and adherence to standards. See the many different breeds, admire their fine gait and silky ears, pat yourself on the back, you have created gods.

Photo: Ashley Baxstrom

It’s a funny kind of polytheism. In the myths of Greece and tales of Hindu deities, the gods often interact and even compete with each other, but not at the explicit behest of the people on the sidelines. Here at Westminster, there are the people who own you; the people they pay to train and show you; the people who judge you; the people who take your picture; the people who hawk their wares, objects of adoration (like giant charcoal sketches) and useful objects (like little jackets to keep you warm) that still maintain the prestige of coming from this highest house of worship; and the people who come, from thousands of miles away, to see you and admire you and wish you were theirs to bring honor to their home. There is a hierarchy, a ranking of priesthood, those with certain levels of knowledge or class or wealth, and it is evident in the participants’ clothing, their hairstyle, the way they carry themselves. Much like the dogs themselves.

We become what we worship, but devotion is not enough. I’m sure frizz-haired-Westie-sweatervest loves those dogs every bit as much classy-suede-jacket-and-hunting-boots, but the former has neither the resources nor, undoubtedly, the time to devote to this worship that the latter does. I’m not obviously out of place, in a wool skirt, tights and turtleneck, but I’m conspicuously lacking any kind of dog-leaping-hedge brooch. Perhaps that is why I was chosen for the necessary sacrifice: my camera knocked out of hand by an elderly devotee, crashed to the floor and smashed unto death. Perhaps such a sacrifice is necessary to ensure a victory.

The winner this year, deity most high, was 4-year-old Ch.* Palacegarden Malachy (affectionately known as Malachy”), a Pekingese, the first of its breed to win since Ch. Wendessa Crown Prince in 1990. Congratulations, you adorable fuzzball; we throw ourselves at your feet and regard you highest of all – until next year. Now I return to the world outside, the world where dogs can be worshipped not just from the sidelines, but in your hands, up close and smelly, all fuzz and laughing eyes and individual connection and love.

Ashley Baxstrom is a master’s student in Religious Studies at New York University and an assistant editor to The Revealer.

*Ch. is an abbreviation of Champion, the title awarded a winning dog.  As explained here:

Not just a brag, not just a stepping stone to a higher title, not just an adjunct to competitive scores, a title is a tribute to the dog that bears it, a way to honor the dog, an ultimate memorial. It will remain in record and in memory for as long as anything in this world can remain. Few humans will do as well or better in that regard.

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