Dog Reporting Is Not a Fluffy Subject

From a Times Insider column by Sarah Lyall headlined “Dog Reporting Is No Fluffy Subject”:

As we watched the final round of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show last year, my New York Times colleagues and I were particularly taken by one contestant: Striker the Samoyed, a blindingly white cloud of canine fluff.

But while Striker was a crowd favorite for his luxurious coat and his goofy enthusiasm, he lost the Best in Show competition to a wrinkled bloodhound named Trumpet, who pulled off the neat trick of looking both dignified and lugubrious at the same time.

For Striker, who retired after the 2022 show, it was an anticlimactic ending to a glittering career. I was sitting next to the exit and saw up close how hastily he was hustled out of the ring after the winners had been announced. So as I prepared to contribute to The Times’s Westminster coverage again this year, I wondered: What happens to a dog that comes so close — for two years in a row, in Striker’s case — yet fails to take the top prize?

At The Times, the dog show is traditionally covered by the Sports desk, on the grounds that it is a competition. (“But it is not a sport,” you might protest. You would not be wrong.) For about four decades, the legendary Walter Fletcher served as our chief dog show correspondent. He was so skilled that he correctly predicted the Best in Show winner every year for seven years leading up to his retirement in 1995.

It now takes roughly a dozen people to do a job that Fletcher did virtually alone, in part because The Times’s Westminster package has expanded to include videos, photographic essays and live coverage of the show as it unfolds on a final frantic night. Among the important questions we tackled at this year’s show, which concluded Tuesday night: Why are there so many terriers? When a Dogue de Bordeaux meets a Dogo Argentino, do they argue about the correct spelling of the word “dog?” How long does it take for a Komondor to do its hair?

Who among us would not relish the opportunity to cover this event? This year, the Times Dog Reporting Team included dog experts from across the paper, including the Politics, Health and Science and International desks. (It also featured a cat enthusiast, the media reporter Michael Grynbaum, who among other things contributed a photograph of his cat, Pajama, wearing what appeared to be a rabbit costume.)

When I contacted two of Striker’s co-owners, Marc Ralsky and Correen Pacht, in April, they were eager to talk about the superiority of their dog, the emotional vicissitudes of life on the dog-show circuit and their method for dealing with the stress of last year’s Best in Show competition (it involved Aperol spritzes, and not for the dog). When I arrived at their house in north Toronto, I knew I was in the right place by the car with the “Samoyeds” license plate.

Like many dog lovers, they appeared to be living in a house run by their dog, rather than the other way around. Striker, 6, was clearly relishing his retirement, which is full of treats, walks, lavish beauty treatments, full access to his humans’ bed as well as his dog bed, and a busy schedule of napping, shedding and playing. (For some reason, Pacht said, he prefers “small little baby toys, like he’s a baby.”) He gets a snack at bedtime: two gummy bears.

It was easy to get quotes from the humans. But how do you interview a dog? Surely it is a violation of journalistic ethics to sit on the floor snuggled up to the subject of your article, rubbing his tummy and admiring his floofiness while he waves his paws in the air? (Surely floofiness is not a real word?) But these are the pitfalls of dog reporting.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve tried to get a dog to talk to me. Last year, I wrote a profile of another decorated show dog: Wasabi the Pekingese, who in 2021 succeeded where Striker did not, winning Best in Show at Westminster. (One of his relatives, Rummie, took second place this year.)

There are obvious differences between the two dogs. Striker romps and bounds like an athlete; Wasabi moves with haughty indifference, his tiny legs obscured by his cascading hair. And while Striker resembles a giant puffy cloud, Wasabi looks, from some angles, like a magnificent toupee.

But what the dogs have in common is the belief that they are, or should be, the center of attention at all times.

“He loves it when people visit; he thinks everybody’s here to see him,” David Fitzpatrick, Wasabi’s breeder and owner, told me last year.

As for Striker, “we couldn’t ask for more from him,” Ralsky said. “He is just perfect.”

Sarah Lyall is a writer at large, working for a variety of desks including Sports, Culture, Media and International. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the Culture and Metro desks.

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