Scottish deerhound Hickory poses for photographers with his handler and...

Scottish deerhound Hickory poses for photographers with his handler and judge after winng best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Feb. 15 Credit: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Meghan Daum is author of the forthcoming "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House" and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.


Last week was one for over-the-top and slightly perplexing contests. First the Grammy Awards ceremony, with its requisite preening and prancing and bizarre outfits, then two evenings of the Westminster dog show, which offered more of the same.

Not that the Leonberger or Finnish spitz showed up in a giant egg, as Lady Gaga did. Nor did fans of the bearded collie, which was among the runners-up for best in show, take to defacing the Wikipedia page of the night's big winner, the Scottish deerhound, as Justin Bieber's fans did to the Esperanza Spalding page when she beat him for best new artist.

Still, the two events have always shared some key traits. There are, for starters, the exotic names. Consider the following (those under 25 not eligible for this challenge): Lady Antebellum, Kings of Leon, Lamb of God, Casablanca's Thrilling Seduction, Swizz Beatz, Fireside's Spontaneous Combustion. Which are humans and which canines?

Then there are the hairstyles. Red-haired singer Florence Welch sported her shaggy/wavy do, Lady Gaga wore a side ponytail that brought to mind a lopsided unicorn, and rapper Nicki Minaj had a leopard-print dye job under what seemed a massive white pouf of fiberglass insulation accented with a streak of black. As unique as these looks appear at first glance, they're merely knockoffs of the preferred coiffures of the Irish setter, the briard and the bichon frise.

The events part ways, however, when it comes to judging standards. As with most big pop culture competitions, the Grammy Awards tend to reflect some nebulous combination of big sales and artistic merit, though the fact that past winners have included the likes of Kenny G and Milli Vanilli suggests that artistry has always been a rather fluid concept.

The dog show, on the other hand, has standards that are almost crudely transparent. Sure, the judges bring their own biases, but their task would appear to be as much a science as an art. Dogs are evaluated on, among other things, the size of their heads, the width of their shoulders, their gait, the arch of their tails and overall body proportions. The standards can be specific down to fractions of an inch. And you thought being a beauty pageant contestant was hard.

Speaking of which, dog shows are often equated (disparagingly) with beauty pageants, the idea being that it's just as shallow to favor dogs that conform to standards as it is to glorify women who fall within a relatively narrow range of body types and facial features. It also bears mentioning that with millions of adoptable animals in shelters or on the street, there's something vulgar about celebrating dogs bred for head size and height at the withers.

But there's also something kind of great about it, no matter how arbitrary the standards sound to the layperson. Because standards are rare these days. We're obsessed with contests - survivors and competing bachelorettes and wannabe chefs - but we're a little fuzzy on what makes a winner. Is it raw talent? Originality? That intangible thing called star quality? Can any of these things really be accurately assessed anyway?

When you think about it, most of our opinions come down to the old "American Bandstand" school of criticism: "It has a good beat; I can dance to it." Beauty pageants, which are fundamentally about breast-to-waist-to-hip ratio, try to maintain the pretense that they're not as superficial as all that, hence the scholarship programs and the interview portion of the contest. The Grammys purport to represent the best of the recording industry, as judged by the recording industry.

But dogs don't vote each other on or off the island. They don't have to answer questions about world peace. They don't even have to wear swimsuits. All they have to do, quite literally, is measure up. And we really don't see enough of that these days.

DON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access