Dubai's beloved best in show. At about 4:30pm last Friday, toward the end of this year's Dubai Pet Show, approximately 30 dogs were milling around in a small, stuffy tent beside the main exhibition ring. The venue was an outdoor arena at Dubai Festival City. The lead judge for the Happiest Dog category was late. Many of the dogs had been at the show since 8:30 that morning, and tempers were beginning to fray. Tetchy poodles and fidgety Pomeranians panted in the heat, while a muzzled black Alsatian snarled and scraped in the corner. One of the entrants decided that this might be a good time to have a bowel movement.
At around the same time, an Egyptian businessman named Galal Ghaly wandered the grounds in search of the judge who, a few hours earlier, had deemed his Rottweiler unworthy of a Working Class rosette. He wanted to know why. "She said my dog was too fat," Ghaly said later, having tracked down the judge. Ghaly went on to explain that Roy, his Rottweiler, is not fat at all. "He's big-boned." Roy is a little over a year old. He weighs in at 82 kilos and has a head like a Volkswagen Beetle. When the Working Class judge tried to ruffle his fur, Roy had tried to bite her. "She touched him the wrong way," Ghaly explained. "Rottweilers need to be respected."
The Dubai Pet Show, now in its 22nd year, is said to attract upwards of 25,000 visitors, many of whom bring their dogs along. During its one-day run, the show boasts the highest dogs-per-inch ratio in the Middle East, which poses challenges for organisers. These range from the mildly irritating to the potentially catastrophic. An American Bullmastiff, for example, could simply swallow a passing Pekinese, pausing only to spit out a pink, Pekinese-sized tutu. This hasn't happened yet. The most aggressive exchanges at this year's show, according to a participant named Elga Kassebaum, occurred in the venue's overcrowded car park. "People were fighting over spaces," Kassebaum said. "The doggies deserve better than that."
Kassebaum - who is originally from Germany and owns several beauty salons in Dubai - has long been one of the pet show's most, erm, dogged contestants: her animals have won everything from Best in Show to Fancy Dress. "One year we made our Chihuahuas into a wedding party," she recalled. "We had a bride, groom, bridesmaids. We got first prize for that." Kassebaum has also enjoyed success in the Most Like Owner category, each time with a standard poodle named Candy. This year, she entered eight-year-old Candy into the Pedigree Veteran class: the dog had been elaborately sculpted into a cluster of white bobbles. Her owner (also somewhat advanced in years) wore dazzling blond hair, a Dolce and Gabbana sweatshirt and high-heeled trainers. They tottered around the ring together looking like - if not twins, then at least cousins. After the contest, which she didn't win, Kassebaum allowed that the look-a-like competition might have been a better bet. "Maybe next year," she said.
Ghaly and Roy, too, might have fared better playing on their physical resemblance. A black muscle shirt, broad neck and steady gaze rendered the owner only slightly less intimidating than the dog. Ghaly runs a business supplying detergents to local hotels and hospitals, and Roy's job is to guard his warehouse. "Nobody's broken in," he said. "Nobody would do this to himself." Ghaly went on to recall a warning he'd received from Dubai Municipality a while back: if Roy was ever allowed out onto the street, they'd catch the dog and take him away. "I told them that if they can do that, I don't want him anymore."
As the 2010 Dubai Pet Show wound down, Kassebaum and her beloved poodle were long home. Unlike Roy, Candy is a delicate thing: the heat, excitement and sting of failure were too much for her. But Candy will have other moments to shine. "My poodle likes to be in the limelight," Kassebaum said. "She does modelling. Last year she did the first dog catwalk ever in the UAE. It was a fashion show for Swarovski crystal at the Royal Mirage. Candy very much enjoyed it."
It's hard to say what Candy would have made of the Happiest Dog competition. When the judge finally arrived, the dogs moved en masse out into the exhibition ring. Very quickly, the contest devolved into a chaotic swirl of legs and leads. Owners and dogs made frantic circles of the ring, the owners grinning and the dogs looking around in apparent alarm. The black Alsatian started trying to muzzle the other dogs to death. Another mistimed bathroom break introduced an element of hurdling into the proceedings. The sun blazed fiercely overhead. "Quiet!" the owner of the Alsatian kept shouting. "Quiet!" A few of the dogs made it clear that they'd had enough by straining to exit the ring or just stopping in their tracks. Kids in the audience squealed with delight. For them, anyway, this had been a great day out.
* Chris Wright