After a couple of weeks of nonstop jocks-as-jerks news, I'd just about had it with athletes. Whether it was our own bong-inhaling Olympic swimmer, or the New York Yankees' 'roid-injecting A-Rod, I was ready to swear off following the fortunes of these physically gifted yet mentally suspect sportsmen.
But then, just in the nick of time, an unlikely champion came along to make me believe again. Waddling rather than striding to victory Tuesday night, on four short legs instead of two long and lithe ones, he was stumpy rather than studly.
Surely, Stump, the low-riding Sussex spaniel who won this year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, won't let me down. Surely we will never find out that Stump was juiced. Surely he will never be found with contraband PEDs - Performance Enhancing Drugs - in his paws.
Or might he, my oft-burned fan's heart wonders?
No worries, dog show insiders tell me.
"The closest you might come to that is the liver snaps," dog show blogger Billy Wheeler said, referring to the treats that handlers use to keep their animals' attention in the show ring. "One dog [at Westminster] was baited with jelly beans. And I had one once who loved cheese puffs. But mostly, it's boiled liver."
Wheeler, whose Dog Show Poop blog had a huge bump in traffic over the two days of Westminster, was among those surprised and delighted that the doleful-eyed, floppy-eared Stump emerged victorious in the televised pageant of purebreds. In a world of highly bred and often strangely coiffed beasts - that Puli looked like a dread-locked ottoman - Stump seemed like a regular dude, a dog show competitor that was more dog than show.
And I'm told it almost surely was a clean victory because dog shows aren't conducive to cheating.
"Maybe a handler, if a breed is supposed to have a stiff coat and the dog's coat is soft, may trim the hair in a certain way - scissoring or sculpting it to give the impression of a stiff coat," mused Allan Reznik, editor-at-large of Dog World and Dog Fancy magazines. "But those are cosmetic issues."
Reznik attended a post-Westminster judges luncheon yesterday that Stump attended, and termed him "happy and charming."
"He is in fabulous condition and having such a good time. How could you not love him?" said Reznik, a judge himself on the CBS reality show Greatest American Dog. "He's a wonderful dog. He was retired for a number of years and came out of retirement for this. The feeling was [that] he was very much on top of his game."
Reznik said Westminster has never had a drug scandal. (Except for the usual carping about "politics," that all-purpose excuse when a judge disses your particular favorite, the only whiff of a dog show scandal that I could find was a charge - ultimately dismissed - that a Pekinese's face had been surgically enhanced to help it win a British competition.) Chemical enhancements just wouldn't make sense in a competition of, as Westminster calls them, "canine athletes," Reznik said.
There just isn't much you can do to juice a dog whose natural state is, say, couch potato, he said, and turn it into one that has the charisma, discipline and inclination to shine on the rigorous show circuit. "It would be far too time-consuming," he said. "You might as well just get another dog."
Reznik and Wheeler, who shows dogs of his own at lower-level competitions, both hope the mellow Stump will prove to be a good ambassador for the much-mocked dog show world. Having spent much of the past several years lolling around as a pet rather than a competitor, he is the antithesis of the stereotypical, high-strung, overly cosseted, excessively groomed show dog. Instead, he is much more in line with the adorable Uno, the beagle who won last year's Westminster, than what Wheeler calls the dog show cliche, the standard poodle.
"I call Stump the Everyman dog," Wheeler said. "Actually, he is anything but - the Sussex is a connoisseur's dog, but they look the part of Everyman."
Maybe our elite human athletes can learn something from ol' Stump. In fact, I had to wonder what at least one high-profile Westminster attendee - Randy Levine, the New York Yankees president - was thinking watching Stump breeze to the big prize even as his own pampered poodle of a player was all over the news for confessing to and apologizing for past steroid use.
Maybe that's the best reason to cheer for Stump: Even if some heretofore secret scandal should emerge about him - perhaps that auburn colored mane comes out of a bottle - we'll be spared the usual post-revelation contrition tour. Is it just me, or are the belated chest-beating and carefully worded explanations turning into worse crimes than the original offenses?
Given that Stump is a relatively ancient 10 years old - almost 70 in people years, they say - he couldn't legitimately use the I-was-young-and-stupid excuse so beloved by busted athletes. He wouldn't be able to use any excuse, come to think of it, at least not in any language understandable by humans.
Being a dog means never having to say you're sorry.