“It’s very human what some of the longer haired dogs undergo,” says photographer Cait Oppermann, reflecting on the two days last year she spent at the Westminster Dog Show, where breeders and trainers show off their best dogs at New York’s Madison Square Garden every February. “There were dogs with a hair spray routine or getting a blow dry. You’d walk by a tiny little dog and they would have hair curlers, weighing them down.”
When Instagram asked Oppermann to shoot the show for its homepage, she jumped at the chance to go to the event upon which Christopher Guest’s 2000 comedy Best in Show was based. “My friends and I in high school were obsessed over that movie. I’ve always wanted to go,” she says. She arrived at 6 a.m. on the first day to shoot the dogs as they were preparing to be shown. Groomers and trainers stood in booths with their show dogs, making sure every hair was in place before sending them out onto the floor to parade around in front of judges. Sometimes obsessively so: “There’s a photo of a Pomeranian with her trainer, and this guy has his head right up in the dog’s hair, and he’s looking at each individual hair as he’s cutting it,” she says. “Not only do they want the dogs to look nice from afar, he was right up in there making sure that everything was perfect.”
The Westminster Dog Show prides itself on its long history and tradition. It’s the second oldest continuously held sporting event in the U.S. (the Kentucky Derby is No. 1). The first dog show was held in 1877 and it has hosted dog royalty–two Staghounds from General George Custer’s pack as well as Deerhounds bred by the Queen of England showed up the first year. The prestige remains today: the runner-up to 2015 Best In Show–the competition’s coveted top prize–was a cousin of President Obama’s second puppy Sunny. And there’s a ton of money riding on these dogs each year. In fact, wealthy patrons own shares of the show like it’s a corporation.
But what really struck Oppermann, she says, was that the trainers and the show officials weren’t the only ones who took themselves so seriously. The dogs did, too. In one photo, a fluffy white Bichon Frise stares straight into the camera. “It looks like the dog is posing for a very serious portrait,” says Oppermann. “Its eyes would follow me. For almost all of the dogs, there’s this hyper-awareness to human interaction, and that’s what makes them good show dogs.”
All Photos: Cait Oppermann