It's a February evening in Manhattan as thousands of people dressed in black tie pour into Madison Square Garden—a small fraction of the 2.8 million who will be watching this event on television. Backstage, two handlers hover over their starlet with feverish intensity. One is coaxing a swath of hair from a curler and lovingly blowing it dry. The other is fussing over a pedicure with a long silver file. They are slavishly attentive, while their charge sits silently, patiently, exuding a bemused condescension—her nose in the air, her thoughts evidently elsewhere. She's not a supermodel, but she might as well be. She is a standard poodle being primped for her turn in the spotlight at the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where she will compete with 150 other breeds for the title Best in Show.
For 127 years Westminster has been the splashiest public expression of America's longstanding love affair with dogs. (Among national sporting events, only the Kentucky Derby has a longer history—and just by, well, a nose.) Over the last century, the show has often been witness to surges in the popularity of certain pedigrees. Sometimes art or fashion leads the way. Consider the regal, willowy Borzois that graced Erté's drawings from the 1920s: What better symbol of the Art Deco movement's lithe beauty? And who could forget the poodle skirt of the 1950s? Dogs have always been a barometer of fashion.
The danger is when breeds become so coveted that people forget that dogs have very distinct personalities. After Disney's 101 Dalmatians became a smash hit in 1996, fans clamored for these sleek spotted dogs, completely oblivious to their high-maintenance habits. Because Dalmatians were originally bred to run alongside carriages and fire engines, they require serious exercise. Cooped up, they quickly become neurotic. Likewise, the sparky Jack Russell terrier is most at home on a horse farm, but got incorrectly branded a "good apartment dog" because one appears on the TV show Frasier. Quite the contrary: Jack Russells are mischievous and need to be kept busy or they will amuse themselves by destroying everything in your apartment. Moose, the dog who plays the well-behaved Eddie on Frasier, is no exception. He chewed through two homes before being rescued by Hollywood dog trainer Mathilde de Cagny. The unsurprising lesson: Never confuse television with reality.
Too often, people foolishly try to deprogram dogs, discouraging them from expressing the very behaviors they were bred and prized for—and cannot unlearn. Since dogs live anywhere from eight to 15 years, it is essential to look beyond surface beauty and focus instead on long-term compatibility. If you want a Border Collie, for instance, be prepared to run him several times a day or face the consequences. "Collies need a job to do or they go nuts," explains Jon Katz, author of A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs, and Me (Villard). "If you don't give them work, they will find work—but you won't like it."
Dogs require a lot of devotion and patience. I should know; I have five. I'm always meeting—and falling in love with—different breeds through my weekly Pets column in The New York Post. While researching and writing my book Animal House Style (Bulfinch), I spent quality time with dozens of purebreds, from the smallest Norwich terrier to the tallest Great Dane. All are delightful. But over the years I have also found that a few less-recognized breeds are especially well suited to certain lifestyles. So whether you live in the city or the country, are athletic or laid-back, want a dignified, fastidious dog or a big shaggy affectionate one, one of these eight may be tailored to your needs. Think of it as bespoke service of the canine variety. For each dog I've also listed a caring breeder who will follow through long after the point of sale, helping you with any questions or problems that arise over the dog's lifetime. Just remember: Looks may be tempting, but breeding is everything.
For sheer panache, it's hard to beat Chinese breeds; consider the resplendently wrinkled Shar-Pei or the blue-tongued Chow-Chow. But the biggest head-turner of them all is the hairless Chinese Crested, a miniature, otherworldly creature adorned with great tufts of silky platinum fur on his head, neck, tail, and legs. The Crested "looks hysterically nutty, like a Dr. Seuss character," says author Tama Janowitz, who has two.
Today they are prized for their sweet companionship, but centuries ago Cresteds weren't so lucky: Legend has it they were used to hunt and kill rats on Chinese merchant ships, after which they were cooked and eaten as a delicacy by the ships' officers. These are affectionate, sensitive little dogs. Just be prepared for relentless unsolicited comments from gawking passersby wondering, "What is that?" If you enjoy the spotlight, this is the dog for you.
Breeder Author of Hairless Dogs: The Naked Truth, Amy Fernandez (Queens, NY; 718-544-6092) has been breeding Chinese Cresteds for two decades, producing 130 champions over the years. "Cresteds are very popular right now," she says, "but they need someone who is prepared for a demanding pet. They get extremely emotionally attached and require a lot of attention." Price $500-$800.
Must-have accessory The Crested's delicate skin is quite vulnerable to sunburn, so don't venture out without protection, such as Fauna's Citronella & Eucalyptus SPF 15, an insect-repellent sunscreen for dogs and people to share (www.faunapet.com).
Web site www.crest-care.com.
In 1853, Commodore Perry presented Queen Victoria with a pair of Japanese Chins and a star was born. While bigger spaniels, such as Cockers and Springers, were bred for the hunt, tiny Chins, with their endearing pushed-in faces, have always been content to warm the laps of royalty—and the rest of us.
Because Chins are classified as a toy breed, they are often dismissed as so much frivolous fluff, but they are empathic and intuitive dogs. Weighing just six to nine pounds, the Chin's slender, catlike body was made to be cuddled. He prefers to be with you all the time, whether you live in the country or city. In fact, he makes a great apartment dog, since he is, mercifully, not a big barker—unlike a lot of yappy miniature breeds. Chins are hardier than they look and thrive in all climates. They do not, however, appreciate being left alone for long periods. Fortunately they're sized conveniently for travel.
Breeder Over the 21 years that they have been breeding Chins, Harold and Marie Langseth (near Seattle, WA; 425-337-6097) have won all-breed Best in Show nine times. "Chins are quiet, cheerful dogs," Marie says. "They like sitting up high on ottomans or sofas, so they don't get underfoot. And they're not demanding." Price $600.
Must-have accessories Travelers will love Louis Vuitton's chic carrier, the Sac Chien (866-884-8866). Or try an airline-approved, under-seat Sherpa dog carrier (www.sherpapet.com). Chins shed prodigiously, but their soft hairs are easily removed with high performance tape rollers such as the Helmac Pet Hair Pic-Up and Tacky Vac (www.evercare.com). Luckily those long hairs are easier to lift than the stubborn quill-like hairs of short-coated breeds.
Web site www.chinamerica.org.
This intelligent African beauty has an extraordinary quality: He doesn't bark. Instead, the Basenji emits a cross between a yodel and a laugh. Bred in the 16th century to hunt reed rats in Central Africa (his name means "bush thing"), the Basenji was virtually unknown outside Zaire until 1937, when he was introduced at England's highly regarded Crufts Dog Show. By 1956, the breed had gone Hollywood: Good-bye, My Lady is the story of a boy and an old man in the South brought together by their love of a Basenji.
Graceful and amusing to watch, Basenjis are athletes who groom themselves like cats. Their short, plush coats are easy to keep clean, and they have little or no odor. Although they are quieter than most breeds, don't assume they're good apartment dogs. "They do like to chew things," says breeder Damara Bolte, "and when they're miserable they scream bloody murder." Hunters by nature, Basenjis need space to run and stretch their muscular bodies, which range from 22 to 24 pounds. They make excellent jogging companions. Training them to obey, however, can be a challenge, and even a trained Basenji doesn't always come when called. "These are feisty little dogs," Bolte cautions. "You need to be committed to spending time with them and giving them plenty of exercise. A lab just wants to please you. A Basenji is not like that. He doesn't mind pleasing you, but only if he's in the mood."
Breeder Damara Bolte (near Leesburg, VA; 703-777-7296) has bred Basenjis for 46 years. "They're challenging and independent," she says, "but they have a great sense of humor." Price $600-$800.
Must-have accessory To keep their jaws and paws gainfully employed, give your Basenjis durable rubber chew toys such as the Kong (www.kongcompany.com). Call it furniture insurance.
Web site www.basenji.org.
LOVE AND AFFECTION
The national dog of the Netherlands was bred for one purpose only: to provide human companionship. In the 16th through 18th centuries the Keeshond was kept as a barge dog on the Rhine. Shortly before the French Revolution, the dog was adopted as the symbol of the Patriots, a populist political faction led by Kees de Gyselaer, after whom the breed was named. To call her friendly would be an understatement. She is a serious affection hound—so if you'd rather not be smothered with delicate kisses, this is not the dog for you.
It was an American who discovered this Dutch breed's true calling: assisting people who have undergone emotional trauma. "Their natural love for people makes them ideal for this kind of therapy," said Cindy Ehlers, an applied animal behaviorist with the Oregon-based Hope Crisis Response. Her own Keeshond, Tikva, spent two weeks at Ground Zero in the days following the World Trade Center disaster, licking tears from the faces of firefighters, rescue workers, and the bereaved, and "doing her hug thing."
Be warned: The Keeshond's fluffy double coat needs to be brushed at least twice a week. The good news is that the dogs enjoy being combed, providing an excellent opportunity for bonding time.
Breeder "Keeshonds are upbeat, happy-go-lucky dogs," says Jan Corrington (Claremont, CA; 909-626-6962), who has been breeding them for two decades. Price $600-$800.
Must-have accessory The most effective brush for this breed is the DoggyMan Undercoat Rake (sold by Cherrybrook: 800-524-0820; www.cherrybrook.com).
Web site www.keeshond.org.
A soulful dog with long, rounded ears, the Vizsla is a rarer alternative to the ubiquitous Weimaraner popularized by photographer William Wegman. This sleek Hungarian hound exudes glamour, with a golden-rust coat, amber eyes the color of Tokaj wine, and an intelligent expression that gave rise to the Magyar saying olyan mint egy Vizsla ("alert as a Vizsla").
All hunting dogs are sporty, but the Vizsla is a triathlete, equally adept at pointing, tracking, and retrieving. Combining the skills of the beagle, Portuguese Water Dog, and Golden Retriever, he performs brilliantly whether in the field, woods, or water. His ideal companion enjoys a vigorous, active lifestyle as much as he does. Easygoing and adaptable, the Vizsla can thrive even in urban settings, provided he gets plenty of walks and long runs. City dwellers will appreciate the way the dog's short, low-maintenance coat comes clean with a quick wipe. This gentle breed also gets along well with other dogs.
Breeder "Vizslas don't need a lot of grooming," says Dr. Bernard E. McGivern Jr. (Staten Island, NY; 718-667-6334), who has been breeding them for 40 years. "You can go hunting with a Vizsla one day and show him the next." Price $1,000-$1,200.
Must-have accessory To ease his joints after a long workout, give your Vizsla a comfortable, chew-proof dog bed engineered for maximum support (www.kuranda.com).
Web site www.vizsla.org.
REGAL AND FASTIDIOUS
With his long, feathery ears and tail, the Saluki, a member of the greyhound family, is among the most beautiful of these fleet-footed creatures. Unlike breeds that suffer in hot zones (such as the St. Bernard or Husky), the Saluki grew accustomed to dry heat by accompanying nomadic desert tribes throughout the Middle East for millennia. (It is believed that any dogs mentioned in the Bible were probably Salukis.) A living, breathing work of art, the dog appears in important works by Tintoretto, Veronese, Cellini, and Giacometti.
According to The Complete Dog Book (Howell Book House), "the Moslems declared the Saluki sacred and called him 'the noble one.' " The dog has a regal, aloof bearing, even around loved ones, so those who crave constant displays of affection should seek out a more demonstrative breed. In fact, the Saluki's independent nature makes him more like a cat in temperament. He also keeps himself very clean, fastidiously licking his paws—a habit particularly endearing to those who keep a spotless home.
Although Salukis are happy in the city or the country, make sure they have plenty of room to run (preferably with other dogs), since they love nothing more than sprinting at 30 mph. Salukis can be a challenge to train and need patience and dedication. Because of their powerful hunting instinct, they should never be walked off the leash—even the most obedient Saluki won't hesitate to take off after a squirrel, oblivious to oncoming traffic. If left in the yard, they require fencing at least five feet high; otherwise they can easily escape by jumping.
Breeder Catherine Diener Farrell (West Hampton, NY; 631-288-6383) and partner Eric Steel (New York, NY; 212-627-1122) have been breeding Salukis for 25 years. "They're stoic and calm," Farrell says. "But they're not especially obedient and they don't like doing tricks." Price $1,500.
Must-have accessory A plush sofa with plenty of cushions. After running, the Saluki's favorite sport is nesting—and he prefers the best seat in the house.
Web site www.salukiclub.org.
BEST FAMILY DOG
Bouvier des Flandres
A shaggy, gentle giant, the Bouvier was bred in the 1600s in Belgium to drive cattle. It was during World War I, however, that he really distinguished himself: His powerful legs and endurance made him a perfect messenger and ambulance dog. But the breed almost became extinct during World War II. After Adolf Hitler was bitten by a Bouvier in Flanders, he ordered all Bouviers destroyed when the Nazi blitzkrieg reached Belgium.
Rugged and alert, Bouviers make fine watchdogs and loving pets. Joel Gavriele-Gold, a New York psychoanalyst, frequently brings his to the office because "they are super listeners and incredibly sensitive to people's needs." Bouviers adapt to different environments with aplomb. Although they love to run in the country, in the city they are content with moderate exercise.
With profound eyes beneath bushy brows, the Bouvier is wonderfully at ease with children. But at 65-105 pounds, he often leaves chaos in his wake. Although he barely sheds, his coat and beard attract liquids and solids, which can quickly mess up your home. Keeping a Bouvier groomed and clean is no small task, but it's a must for his comfort.
Breeder The president of the American Bouviers des Flandres Club, Doug Johnson (Colorado Springs, CO; 719-598-8227), has been a breeder for 26 years. "Bouviers are protective and playful, but not needy like Golden Retrievers," he says. "And they don't mind when my grandkids lie on top of them." Price $800-$1,000.
Must-have accessories A television tuned to The Discovery Channel (Bouviers love to watch—seriously) and the Animal by Dyson, a high-tech upright vacuum cleaner designed especially for people with pets (www.dyson.com).
Web site www.bouvier.org.
ON THE WATERFRONT
This massive dog originated in Canada, but was bred in Germany and England in the early 1800s to help fishermen haul in nets. An excellent and enthusiastic swimmer with an oily, water-resistant double coat, the Newfoundland is happiest on or near the water. His love of children makes him a good choice for families who spend time at the beach or by the pool—and he makes a great lifeguard.
Despite his intimidating size (110-160 pounds), the Newfoundland has the exceptionally sweet temperament of a small spaniel. Lord Byron was so smitten by his Newfoundland, Boatswain, that he penned a loving epitaph that goes in part, "Here lies Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, And all the Virtues of Man without his Vices." Obviously, Byron didn't mind the copious drool this breed produces; people with Newfoundlands keep a stash of towels ready at all times.
Breeder Randy Van Syoc and Allen Ransome (near Cooperstown, NY; 607-547-5774) have bred Newfoundlands for 23 years."They're kind, thoughtful dogs," says Van Syoc, "and they'll do anything to protect you from danger, even if it means putting themselves in harm's way." Price $1,500.
Must-have accessory Preferably a boat or swimming pool. Or if you live in New York City, try Bonnie's K9 swim center (www.k9-swimtherapy.com).
Web site www.newfdogclub.org.
The pampered pet
The basic requirements of dog guardianship (food, water, shelter, exercise) haven't changed over the years. What has changed is our growing desire to provide so much more.
• We question VETERINARIANS as we would our own doctors, seek out specialists at state-of-the-art facilities (such as the 24-hour Bobst Hospital at New York City's Animal Medical Center), and research the alternatives offered by holistic vets and homeopaths (www.altvetmed.com).
• Because the ingredients of mass-market dog foods are suspect, we turn to raw diets such as Steve's Real Food (www.stevesrealfood.com) or additive-free PREMIUM PET FOODS made with high-quality meats, grains, and vitamins, such as Solid Gold (www.solidgoldhealth.com) or Wysong (www.wysong.net).
• We demand that TREATS be low-fat and healthy, but tasty enough to motivate high performance in training sessions. The blue ribbon goes to Liver Biscotti (www.liverbiscotti.com).
• Since plastic water bowls are not only unattractive but taste bad, sometimes leading to dehydration and kidney trouble in finicky animals, we use metal or CERAMIC DOG BOWLS, such as those designed by Nick Munro for Wedgwood (www.smallislandtrader.com).
• We shield short-coated or hairless breeds from rain and cold with DESIGNER DOG CLOTHING, such as trench coats by Burberry or cashmere sweaters by Los Angeles' Fifi & Romeo. (For hard-to-fit greyhounds or dachshunds, try made-to-measure fleece bodysuits from www.houndzinthehood.com.)
• When we TRAVEL, we drive cars with dog safety restraints and stay in hotels such as The Four Seasons and Loews, which make special accommodations for canine guests. The Peninsula Beverly Hills even provides a dog bed with turn-down service and sheets and towels monogrammed with paw prints. If we can't bring our dogs, we turn to sitters and walkers rather than subject them to the stress of a kennel (www.petsit.com).
• We collect canine art, commissioning OIL PAINTINGS and STUDIO PHOTOGRAPHS from artists who specialize in animal portraiture. Each February, the auction house Doyle New York (www.doylenewyork.com) teams up with London's Bonhams to present the "Dogs in Art" sale.
How to buy a dog
A dog should never be an impulse purchase. Resist the urge to buy from a pet shop, since many of these get their dogs from Dickensian puppy mills. Remember, the best breeders sell only to individuals, not stores, because they want to make sure each dog is well paired and well taken care of.
1) DO YOUR HOMEWORK Of the 151 recognized breeds, there is sure to be one that fits your lifestyle. Familiarize yourself with different options by talking to people, reading magazines such as Dog Fancy (www.dogfancy.com), and attending local dog shows. At New York's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (February 10th and 11th; www.westminsterkennelclub.org), you can wander around the backstage benching area, talk to breeders from all over America, and meet their magnificent dogs.
2) BE REALISTIC ABOUT THE DOG'S NEEDS Some dogs have to be run for several hours a day; others are content to lie around. Be sure you fully understand the breed's potential drawbacks, such as a tendency to chew, bark or shed, or a need for constant companionship. As your habits change, your breed preferences should, too. When he was younger, Bern Marcowitz, co-owner of the Dog Lovers Bookshop (www.dogbooks.com), was a devotee of athletic pointers. Today he has a dachshund. "I take one step, she takes twenty," Marcowitz explains. "It's the lazy man's way of exercising!"
3) FIND A RESPECTED BREEDER "Good breeders will tell you all the reasons you don't want a particular dog, as well as the reasons you do," says David Frei of the American Kennel Club, which sanctions purebred events around the country. Through its Web site (www.akc.org), you can find sites for different breed clubs. Keep in mind that many top breeders produce only one or two litters a year.
4) CONSIDER A RESCUE DOG Every breed has ardent supporters who network tirelessly to ensure that no purebred becomes an animal-shelter statistic. (Try typing the breed's name plus "rescue" into an Internet search engine.) Dogs that have been abandoned or mistreated may need a lot of patience and TLC, but many people insist the payoff in love and loyalty is well worth the extra effort. Animal advocate Mary Tyler Moore recommends doing a breed search on www.petfinder.org, a nationwide list of homeless pets. "That's how I found Shayna, my Miniature Schnauzer," she says.
Julia Szabo profiled Ralph Rucci in the September issue of Departures.