Pampered pooches at the Havana Dog Show

Collectively, the Cuban people are crazy about dogs—literally, certifiably crazy. A clinical diagnosis might be mass bipolar disorder, with some Cubans abjectly irrationally terrified of the fluffiest little lapdog, while others display an unconditional, unthinking, reckless ardor for even the scariest, ugliest street critter that crosses their path. I’ve seen fully grown adult Cubans flee in fear from a gentle golden lab lounging lazily beside his owner at a sidewalk café, and I’ve seen doddering old ladies risk life and limb to offer leftovers scraps and a scratch behind the ear to truly frightening, the scariest, ugliest feral street critter pit bulls. Surely many Cubans balance somewhere in the median of this doggie dialectic, but like middle-of-the-roaders everywhere, they apparently keep their mouths shut and carry on. Of course, nowhere is fervent puppy love more evident than within the burgeoning show dog sub-culture taking root in Havana.

Even an Englishman out for a stroll in the mid-day Caribbean sunshine might be tempted to loosen his tie, perhaps even take off the jacket, as the temperature dial passes 300 Celsius. But not the proud owners of Havana’s finest canines who are put through their paces at Havana’s annual international dog show. Indeed, this is probably as impeccably groomed as you will find the human variety on this laid-back island nation. As for the Chow Chow, Dalmatian, Bichón Habanero, Siberian Husky and Rhodesian Ridgeback—they were all up before dawn talking with their hair stylists and getting over their last minute nerves…

Tents, awnings, boxes, crates, street vendors, photographers; this is a major production. The International Spring Dog Show brings together dog owners, breeders, handlers and dog lovers every single year. And every day, there is a selection of Best in Show, which become the contenders for Best of the Best in the categories of Baby, Puppy, Junior and Adult.

I am always amazed by the variety. The majestic and graceful Afghan hound with its long silky coat; the tiny Yorkshire terrier whose long straight glossy coat of bluish gray and tan make him a beautiful breed of toy dog; the intelligent German shepherd; the heavy-coated blocky dog of ancient Chinese origin known as Chow Chow; the slender, graceful Dalmatian with its sparkling eyes; and the funny little Bichón Habanero or Havanese. And let’s not forget the most beautiful, kindest and smartest dog of all: the Rhodesian Ridgeback.

The judges’ and handlers’ attire probably fare worse than the dogs baking under the radiant Havana sun. They wear jackets more appropriate for the first dog show held in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1859. The successive rounds of the competition allow the judges and audiences to appreciate the beauty and bearing of the dogs, which do not compete against each other but against something as difficult as the standard of perfection for their particular breed set by the International Dog Federation.

Following three days of trials, the event comes to an end with the announcement of the winners. The atmosphere is tense…let’s be clear: we like to compete but we want to win…we want to win a lot…and the winner is…

The Pan American Purebred Dog Tournament was held at Parque Ecológico de La Habana from February 21 to 24, 2014. The event awarded Attitude Certificates for Cuban, Young and Vet Champs, the Pan American Beauty Certificate and the Watch Dogs of the Island Certificate. International judges Álvaro Salazar (Costa Rica), Nelson Borroto (Cuba), Gerardo Heredia (Mexico) and José Raúl Nova (Dominican Republic) were in charge of judging the best representatives in each category.

Dog shows in Cuba are organized by the Federación Cinológica de Cuba, which operates under the international breed standards of the Belgium-based Fédération Cynalogique Internationale. There are 112 pedigreed dog breeds officially registered in Cuba, though at any given dog show in Havana, perhaps only 30 or so breeds will be shown, with some showing only a few dogs each. In Cuba, therefore, the title of “Best in Breed” coveted elsewhere in the world, might sometimes be won by default through lack of competition. And so here, perhaps more than in other countries, the ribbon that really counts above all is Best in “Cho” (that’s “Show” in Cuban accented English.)

The relatively low numbers of dogs competing in Havana’s dog shows, however, doesn’t mean that breed standards are relaxed. The show judges are invited from overseas, including at the last Dog Show in November, 2013, an international judge from Denmark who had previously in his career judged the Best in Show round at the famed Westminster Dog Show in London. The fact that Cuban dogs are judged according to international standards is a point of pride to the organizers and participants of Cuba’s dog shows.

Anthony Del Prado is an American married to a Cuban, living in Havana, Cuba. His website, provides 5-Star luxury tour services and planning for English-speaking travellers to Cuba from around the world.

Pan American Purebred Dog Tournament
February 21 to 24, 2014
Parque Ecológico de La Habana
Calle 70 y 7ma Ave. Miramar

By Victoria Alcalá & Anthony Del Prado

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