A dog had to die before Laura could bring her Newfoundlands to Meet the Breeds.
The annual event, now in its 11th year, attracts hundreds of canines and their owners to a gargantuan conference center on the west side of Manhattan, but space at each breed’s booth is limited. Four or five is usually as many as they’ll take; any more than that and both the dogs and owners get overwhelmed. When Laura first asked, years ago, about bringing her Newfs to Meet the Breeds, an organizer associated with the local branch of the Newfoundland Club of America told her that they had too many dogs signed up already, and quipped that Laura would have to wait until somebody died. (A dog, not a person.)
“It was a running joke, like, ‘Is somebody dead, can I come now?’” Laura laughs. “I fought my way in, you know. I had to go on a waiting list.”
Anyway, life took its course, and a spot opened up. This year, Laura’s here with Solo, an eight-year-old, 110-pound black Newfoundland with a red slobber bib around his neck, who was recently certified as a therapy dog. It takes an especially patient animal to weather this kind of event, Laura says. “Bombproof.”
On this rainy Saturday afternoon in January, Solo and three other Newfs are working the crowd inside the Javits Center. At their nautical-themed booth, which is tucked between the Nederlandse Kooikerhondje booth on one side and the Norfolk terrier booth on the other, the dogs sit patiently while hundreds of visitors come by to pet, poke, and prod them, and put their arms around their gigantic furry heads for selfies.
In the decade since the American Kennel Club launched its first Meet the Breeds, the event has ballooned into a two-day affair. Its stated purpose is to celebrate and educate visitors about nearly 200 breeds of dogs and cats. It does that, but it also serves as a place for pet- and space-starved New Yorkers to come surround themselves for a little while with beautiful creatures they could probably never fit in their studio apartments. With all of its colorful booths and informational flyers, it has the vibe of an expansive, elaborate middle-school science fair, albeit one where you can sip cocktails and pose for a picture with a Rottweiler in a beer frau costume complete with drawn-on cleavage, or buy a knit scarf made of Leonberger fur.
At the circus-themed Pomeranian booth, four dogs bark angrily from the depths of a bright-yellow crate with signs that say “TAKING A BREAK” and “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH!” Nearby, two wrinkly faced pugs in frothy pink tutus patiently endure coos of delight from the crowd. At the safari-themed Rhodesian Ridgeback booth, a blonde woman in a leopard-print shirt sits on a throne in front of what appears to be an African shield, while visitors to the mastiff booth were warned that “Every Surface Must Be Wipeable,” and “Never Walk a Mastiff Any Farther Than You Want to Carry It Back.” The breeder at the Sussex Spaniel booth admits that their cardboard cutout of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has been less popular this year, but adds that, while they are dropping their HRH titles, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will remain the duke and duchess of Sussex for now.
On a stage down from the Newfoundland booth, past the empanada stand, the Savitsky Cats perform for a delighted crowd, though expectations are carefully managed: Before each trick, the audience is warned that the cat in question may or may not perform today. Still, under the guidance of Svitlana Savitsky and her daughter, Marina, an assortment of surly, longhaired cats jump through hoops, dance on their hind legs, roll a wheel along the floor, and climb up a thin pole before leaping down to a pillow below. When the cats are done, the crowd cheers and disperses, careful to avoid the enormous puddle of urine that has appeared nearby.
Wandering around the venue, I talk to one young couple on a date, who say they’re mostly here to see the cats. “I didn’t realize that we’d actually get to touch them,” he says happily. A family with three small children say they came to help decide what kind of dog they want to get; the youngest boy liked the golden retrievers. One woman said she’d been to Meet the Breeds years ago, and came back because, as she said, “I needed this in my life right now.”