I always feel sorry for the poodles, especially the big ones, the standards. Such wonderful animals, strong and clever, with as good a sense of humor as any dog you'll ever meet.
Yet here they are, at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York, with their bare fannies catching the drafts on the floor of Madison Square Garden. The butt, if you'll excuse me, of jokes erupting in living rooms and newspaper columns from coast to coast.
Moments before the Best In Show finale, I stood not more than two yards away from the show's top poodle, Ch. La Marka Nina Oscura, and looked closely not at that shaved rump, or at the waves of black furcascading over her shoulders, or even at the puffs of fur on her legs and tail, but at her eyes, clear and intelligent, looking up at her handler with love.
It would surely not be the life she would have chosen for herself, this silly show world, but she'll do it as well as she can for the people she loves. You could see it in her eyes.
You can't fake emotion like that. Dogs can't, anyway. They always do the silly things we ask of them, because they love us.
This is the lesson I took away from the nation's top show, held last week, a two-day ordeal for both man and beast.
The weather was horrible, the show crowded beyond the limits of human and canine endurance.
Outside the Garden and in front of the two "dog hotels" across the busy avenue, handlers shivered in front of snowdrifts, trying to keep their footing amid black ice and Penn Station commuters as dogs who'd never seen a city so big and had never been asked to go where the grass doesn't grow struggled to understand what was expected of them.
In the benching areas backstage at the Garden, where the show dogs are required to remain on public view for hours, the climate approached the heat and humidity levels of New Orleans in July. The added factors of human perspiration, canine elimination and gallons of the noxious sprays used to prepare the dogs was enough to put all but the strongest spectator close to keeling over after a few minute's exposure.
And yet you'd walk through, for as long as you could stand it, and find yourself drawn to the eyes of a dog. And suddenly, there aren't a few thousand people and hundreds of dogs there. There's just you, and that dog. And you smile, and he wags his tail.
The moment's soon over, but you find yourself still smiling. And you realize again there's something special about a dog, about being able to have a moment of clear, voiceless communication with another species.
You find yourself thinking: This is one heck of a show, shaved butts notwithstanding. And later that night you're guessing that poodle probably thinks so, too.