Massages, Coffee, Curlers: Secrets of the Dog Show

Hundreds of dogs compete in front of judges, but the real show is backstage.

New York, Feb. 13, 2008 — -- The Prestigious Westminster Dog Show is the center of the dog universe and has been for most of it's 132 year history.

And one trip backstage and you will see — and hear — what all the buzz is about. It's like no other backstage in the world.

At Madison Square Garden, home to the show, backstage passes are not required, affording visitors a unique glimpse of the behind-the-scene preparations.

It's a chaotic maze of dog crates, stacked three high; swarms of people; and of course dogs, hundreds of the most beautiful dogs in the world, who are being cleaned, groomed, massaged and generally pampered.

The Ultimate Dog Salon

As the handlers prepared to show their dogs, primping took top priority.

Some dogs sat still as their handlers painstakingly wove curlers into their fluffy fur while other hungrily eyed treats, like chicken and potato wedges purchased from vendors at Madison Square Garden.

Flash, a Shetland sheepdog, gets a plethora of treatments.

"I use a gazillion different beauty products," said his owner, Morgan MacDonald. She applies volumizer, mousse and hair spray to make the fur on Flash's neck stand up straight, something that the judges look for.

MacDonald said it is a challenge keeping Flash clean while he is out and about. Some handlers give last-minute sponge baths to their dogs just before show time.

MacDonald prefers privacy. "I sat in the hotel room with a cup and washed the white spots [of his fur]" because "they got gray walking around the city," the 17-year-old said.

For other dogs, bathing is not necessary. Brian, a cairn terrier from Vancouver, Wash., doesn't get bathed before a show. Instead, Stephanie Salas, 14, one of his handlers, uses a different technique.

Brian's fur, like other cairn terriers, is supposed to stand out and stay spiky.

"Before a show, you'll brush Listerine into their coat. It will brush out all the dirt, but it will keep it harsh," Salas said. Brian is used to getting a little dirty, living on a farm with several different animals, including an 800-pound pig.

Backstage visitors can do more than just watch; there are lots of doggie accessories for sale, including bedazzled sweaters and special charms in the shape of the various dog breeds.

The competition can be tense out on the floor, but the drama explodes backstage as winners and losers file in and out as each breed is judged. Consolatory tears, nervous laughter and celebratory shouting or — in some cases — howling fill the air.

Tricks of the Trade: Coffee and Calisthenics

A few rows down from the cairn terriers, Treasure, a golden retriever, patiently waits for his warm-up. Before each show, the golden retriever performs her signature trick, quickly hopping backward in a circle, around her owner, Jessica Hanson.

Hanson said the trick helps Treasure, nicknamed "Circus Dog," perform her best. "I find she shows better." But there's still more to the duo's routine.

Hanson gives Treasure an energy drink before entering the competition. "It's Red Bull for dogs," she said. "Treasure is nice and happy and hyper to go into the ring."

Treasure isn't the only dog getting a caffeine fix. Across the room, Domino, a long-haired dachshund, craves the more traditional delivery system. Domino "likes coffee every day," said his owner, Laura Potash, whose daughter, Brenna, shows the dog.

"If there's a coffee cup anywhere, he wants it," Potash said with a laugh. "We bought Dunkin' Donuts this morning."

Domino, whose kennel area is decorated like the brand of sugar he shares his name with, deserves a little extra care after the year he has had. Last year, Domino was paralyzed after he ruptured a disk jumping out of his crate.

Potash said, "We worked a whole year to bring him back." Wiping tears from her eyes, Potash watched her daughter — armed with a pink hair iron and Static Guard — take Domino for final preparations.

Amid the rows of dogs, vendors and grooming stations, doggie versions of portable potties are scattered. Most dog shows are held outdoors, but Madison Square Garden had to modify its indoor accommodations.

Little aisles of sawdust were gated off, with sheets of plastic guarding against splatter, so that dogs could take care of business.

Except some dogs turned their noses up at using the dusty stalls.

"She says 'this is disgusting!'" said Amelia Gredy of her dog, a whippet name Saltine. "She's used to grass and doesn't like walking in other dogs' waste."

Instead, Satine, walking with an arrogant swagger, troops up and down the concrete streets searching for a patch of grass.

"It's definitely not easy to find grass in New York City. She's still getting her exercise on vacation," said Gredy.

No matter how Satine places in the judging, she seems to be the people's choice.

Strutting down the street in her leopard-print coat, she is stopped "about every 10 steps," Gredy said with a laugh. "She thinks she's all that."

Back outside the judging was under way and Flash, the Shetland sheepdog, with more hair products than a tween, was showing his stuff.

Like a rock star, Flash strutted to the throngs of camera flashes, fans and other dogs. He was led around the green carpet by MacDonald, his handler, who had swapped her backstage apron for a business suit. She brushed his neck and spritzed him with water while rounding the perimeter.

While he ultimately failed to advance to the finals, Flash pranced like a pro and yes, the fur around his collar looked just fine.