LIFE With Dogs: Westminster Champs and Also-Rans, 1950s and 1960s

Maltese, 1955.
Nina Leen—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Maltese, 1955.

The well-known phrase “Man’s best friend” is, in fact, a rather anemic way to describe the utterly unique relationship that has evolved over thousands of years between dogs and humans. Whether as hunting companions, workmates, helpers or saviors (is there anything cooler than a rescue dog?), the multitude of domesticated canine varieties speaks to an interspecies bond that, for more than a few people, is closer than any connection they might have with their own kind.

And then there are show dogs. Primped, pampered and trained with the same dedication and diligence that world-class coaches bring to the prepping of elite athletes, show dogs are superstars. Granted, they’re superstars to a relatively small group of obsessed aficionados — but the same might be said, in relative terms, of professional tennis stars, or Formula 1 race car drivers. Within their respective sports, and to the fanatics who follow them, pro athletes are demigods; to the rest of us (even those of us who enjoy watching and following sports) they’re overpaid jocks.

But when the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show descends on New York’s Madison Square Garden, it seems that everybody — even cat people! — are, for a few days at least , dog devotees. We might not understand or appreciate why the television commentator is positively rhapsodic about what looks to us like a perfectly average Sealyham Terrier, or why a Swedish Vallhund has the audience of thousands at the Garden applauding like mad folk, but there is something both arcane and comforting about watching dogs run around and obey commands with a huge, prestigious prize on the line. Most dogs, after all, just want to please. And it’s hard not to root for that kind of heart.

Courtenay Fleetfoot of Pennyworth, Best in Show in 1964 at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City, poses with some of his trophies.

Nina Leen—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Best in Show in 1964 at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City, Ch. Courtenay Fleetfoot of Pennyworth (a.k.a. "Ricky") poses with some of his trophies.
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