Best in House Beats Best in Show

Author Photo of Muse in Writer’s Lair

The first email was cryptic: Is Sno’s head swollen? I mulled that one for hours. Why would my dog’s head be swollen? He’s a robust, cheerful guy, smarter than his people, but a stalwart, healthy, hearty family member. His head is just fine.

Other perplexing messages followed, the last one pointing to the just-concluded Westminster Dog Show. Ah, mystery solved: a bichon frise named Flynn had won Best in Show.

Reading further, I learned that Flynn was not necessarily a popular winner; many do not like the breed’s show cut, puffy cotton ball with jaunty tail and bright brown eyes beaming from the cloud. Bichons also fall within the nonsporting category, another strike against them.

Several articles later, I learned the magic behind Flynn’s perfect poof: meticulous trimming several times before he appears in the show ring. He is doused with fairy dust to dry any pesky drool, brushed, manicured, examined for loathsome tangles, streaks, mess.

A show dog’s life on the road is much like that of a human performer: on the road more than home, travelling in motor homes and large cars with professionals devoted to the showing, to making sure the dog performs and wins. A professional who shows dogs for a living confided that the dog always comes first: during an oppressively hot outdoor show, she sat outside in the blazing sun and humidity while the dog sat inside an air-conditioned vehicle so he’d been in perfect shape for his events.


My dog lives his life in a “pet cut” — as in hair cut close, so he can romp and explore. His breeder asked tough questions about my family’s intentions for the dog; clearly she did not want competition for her family’s internationally winning dogs. Satisfied that we wanted a pet to love, she confided that while he has beautiful lines and takes after his award-winning father, he has large splotchy birthmarks on his pink skin that would disqualify him from serious contention.


We had to look hard to see what she meant. He looked white and puffy to us. She showed us his fatal flaws, the flaws that meant he was ours to love, a full-time pet and family member.


Sno joined us just over thirteen years ago, by way of a young girl’s school essay. Picking her up from school, I read the essays mounted outside the classroom. For the topic of what they wanted most in the world and what would they do to get it, my kid wrote about wanting a dog and how she would do everything for it. It was heartbreaking to read and tough to swipe the tears away before she came flying out of the classroom.

My husband and I talked. A dog would join us. Casually, as if the idea just popped into my head, I asked what kind of dog she would like, suggesting breeds that were hypoallergenic, friendly, good with people.

She answered without hesitation, different from what we were thinking. Let’s do a family vote, we decided and she designed ballots, a box to slip them into. Each of us tucked our vote into the box and the super official count was conducted. The announcement came at dinner: Bichon frise was the family’s choice. My husband and I linked eyes and shook our heads. We looked at our son, malleable in the hands of a determined older sister. He blinked, as surprised as we were. His only question was: Can it be a boy?

The votes were cast.
The winner was Bichon Frise.
So let it be done.

We are fortunate to live close to a preeminent breeder of bichon frise dogs. After several telephone interviews that were more searching, more daunting than any I’d ever been subjected to in my career, we were finally allowed to come see her in person, so she could take our measure and decide if we could purchase one of her dogs.

Coaching the children to be respectful and follow our lead, we arrived at her house. Inside, after more questions and discussion, we were allowed to meet several dogs. Passing that test, she told us she’d call us with the particulars.

Months passed with a few updates on timing. Our puppy could come home with us in January. One more thing, come meet several puppies and let’s make sure there’s a good fit between you and the dog.

We went, met puppies. My son’s favorite was the master of the house, a magnificent dog retired from the show ring where he had ruled the world of bichons for many years. His name on the circuit is long and complex. At home, they call him Elvis. Elvis liked us just fine, but Elvis supports their household, so he couldn’t join ours. The puppies were cute, playful, grabbed our hearts.

Weeks later, we picked up Sno. In short order, we learned that he is very smart, playful, wide-eyed at magical squirrels that disappear from sight, loves to roll in anything rank and terrible, hates the resulting bath, loves salmon, will endure anything for mint chip ice cream.

At his first grooming appointment, the groomer asked how we would like him groomed: show cut poofy or pet cut short and practical. Short because then he can have fun, we said. And so it’s been his entire life, short for action, for roughhousing, for exploration of incredible smells, for being his rumpled, rambunctious, affectionate self.


Bichons are merry, outgoing dogs. They are always up for fun, sociable animals with wild imaginations and the heart to pursue whatever catches their eye. Hence, our dog has twice torn his ACL in adventures in leaping and bounding.

After an exciting jumping incident, Sno and I were at the vet for a quick exam to make sure he hadn’t done serious damage when a woman bustled in with a bichon frise wrapped in a worn bath towel. She sat beside me and we had time to talk since an emergency backed up all the appointments.

She was a member of the breeder’s family. One quick look at my dog and she named his mother and father, proclaiming he had a terrific head and beautiful line. We talked about the dog in her arms. He was a professional, perfectly poofed and wrapped in a towel scented to prepare him for stud duty.

The dogs eyed one another. If my dog could speak, I bet he would say that he couldn’t quite make out what the other animal was. It looks like a dog, but it doesn’t look natural — and the smell is wrong, terribly wrong. The other dog gave him a glance, stared around the room, bored and resigned.

I kept my opinions to myself as we chatted some more about the family, the dogs, movies we like. I would have said that my dog is better than your dog — because my dog is a dog. He’s a dog for himself, on his own dog terms as much as he can be when he’s living with his family in the suburbs. His schedule is his own. He looks as he looks, plays as he does, has beds all over the house, enforces rules and roles for the humans in his pack. He’s smart and he has his own opinions and moods and we understand one another.


Some years after Sno joined us, my daughter confessed that she had stuffed the ballot box. There were five slips in the little box and two of them were hers. No one else had voted for bichon, but her two votes won the election.

I appreciated her revelation, and got to confess that we knew something was up, but were never allowed to examine the ballots nor the box, so we went along with it because she wanted it so badly and it was fine with us.

The research that was shared with us never mentioned that some bichons grow much larger than the typical 15 or 16 pounds for a large male (our dog is 22 pounds buff and regularly confuses people trying to figure out his breed because he is so large and not poofy). It also did not mention that the male can be particularly challenging, that he will check on rules and authority his entire life, not inclined to go 100% with this house-training nonsense.

By then, none of the facts mattered. He was beloved, a daily surge of joy and warmth, a comforter and confessor when life is hard, a merry snoring partner to the writing life.


Flynn won Best in Show. He worked hard for it, suffers for his beauty, lives on the road, against perfectionism and harrowing standards.

My dog wins Best in Real Life. He works hard for it, gives us all he’s got, takes what he needs, chases rabbits and comes back with muddy snout, grinning from the chase.

Author Photo of Hunting Dog
One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.