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Newfoundland Glory: My Search for Drooly, Floofy Meaning at Duluth’s Nationals for Newfies 

Our reporter, his pooch, and his expert human buddy take a road trip into the heart of dog show culture.

Ian Power-Luetscher|

Pictured here: A Newfie owner and their companion at the NCA National Specialty Showcase.

It’s 10:30 a.m. on Friday, May 17, and Chris and I are barrelling northbound along I-35 in a rented Cadillac SRX. My five-year-old mutt Kiko—King of the Goodboys—is perched in the backseat panting nervously. We’re headed for Duluth, to catch the tail end of the Newfoundland Club of America’s National Specialty Showcase, a five-day breed specialty dog show just for Newfoundlands—the gigantic, shaggy breed of aquatic dogs loved by the likes of Shania Twain, Ben Franklin, Emily Dickinson, and Harrison Ford. If you can’t picture a Newfoundland, think Saint Bernard but bigger. Think Nana the maternal babysitter dog from Peter Pan. Actually, in J.M. Barrie’s original 1911 book, Nana is a Newfoundland, they only changed her to a Saint Bernard for the 1953 Disney animated feature, a fact that Newfoundland owners are lightning-quick to point out. 

The NCA National Specialty is the premier showcase for the Newfoundland dog in the United States. This year it’s being held in Duluth, Minnesota, at the 15,000-capacity Bayfront Festival Park alongside Lake Superior. Why are we going? Because it’s fun. Because we’re on a bro-trip journey to the heart of Man’s Best Friend. For Chris and I both, dogs are important; we love them. We’re collectively the polar opposite of Kristi Noem. And as we drive, we discuss the growing research which suggests that dogs and man evolved together, that our symbiotic friendship helped both our species’ evolution in tandem. Dogs helped man become man, man helped dogs become dogs. We love this theory. Chris loves dogs. I love dogs. 

I think I love dogs more than 98% of the world’s population, but I might not love dogs as much as dog-show people love dogs, which is why I’ve insisted on tagging along with my pal. I want to glimpse into the arena of people who love dogs professionally. Does it change the purity of our relationship with canine companions, when we make it a competition and a business? I’m fascinated by stuff like this, by subcultures where people are incredibly passionate about this one specific thing.

My curiosity stems from the fact that I have trouble eliciting sincerity and genuine passion in most things, and I don’t want that to be the case. I want to love stuff the way that these people do. I want to have hobbies and interests; they seem to make life much fuller. Maybe I can soak up their passion and learn vicariously. However, I’m also wary: In lots of subcultures, when people commodify the thing that they love and give it a rating system, when they make it competitive, it loses its heart and soul. When I confess this worry to Chris though, he quickly quells my fear. 

“The Newfoundland Specialty is not like that,” he explains. “This will have a very wholesome, people loving their dogs and loving each other vibe. It’s peace and love. It’s competitive but it’s also incredibly supportive as a community.”

“So it’s competitive in a good natured way, like The Great British Baking Show?” I ask. 

“Exactly, that’s the dog show world vibe,” Chris confirms. 

Reporting companion Christopher E. Bromson, seen here next to a giant Newfie beach towel and golf cart.

My pal and traveling companion, Christopher E. Bromson, is the CEO and executive director of the American Kennel Club’s Museum of the Dog in New York City, which boasts one of the largest collections of dog related art in the world. “Do you have Dogs Playing Poker in your gallery?” I ask, half-jokingly. “Not yet,” Chris replies sincerely, “But we have Bob by George Earl, which is the Victorian painting that may have inspired it.” Also, fun fact: New York artist Cassius Coolidge was commissioned to paint the series Dogs Playing Poker by the St. Paul-based promotional merchandising firm Brown & Bigelow. So, in a way, Dogs Playing Poker is a locally rooted masterpiece. 

 While he drives, Chris attempts to brief me on what I’m in for. I’ve never attended a dog show before. Like most red-blooded Americans, all of my dog show knowledge comes from the 2000 Christopher Guest film Best in Show, a movie which Chris assures me is viewed by “The Fancy” with a mix of appreciation and distance because of its accuracy. Not only that, but to my delight and surprise, Chris informs me that many of the Best in Show characters are based on real people. It’s an industry secret who they are, but it’s understood. And what is “The Fancy”? “The group of people who participate in dog sports, dog showing and purebred dogs is called ‘The Fancy,’” Chris explains, taking a sip of coffee. “And ‘The Fancy,’ they operate as a body. One might say, ‘The Fancy’ will react to this rule change, or ‘The Fancy’ would prefer this, etc.” That’s right, you refer to them in the singular, like “the media.”

Sidled up at the lunch counter at Whitney’s Country Cafe in Sandstone, Minnesota, waiting on club sandwiches and meatloaf on toast, Chris gives me the skinny on all this dog show business. He is kindly allowing me to tag along with him as he attends this Newfoundland breed specialty showcase, a trip that is half for work and half for fun. The Museum of the Dog is an affiliate of the AKC, but Chris is also a Newfoundland owner—a Newfie dad and a member of the steering committee of the NCA, so the trip is personal as well as professional. It falls to him to brief me on what we’re in for at the Newfoundland Club of America’s National Specialty. It should be noted that we’re coming hot off of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, held at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens just a few days ahead of this. Chris was at Westminster directly before coming to Minnesota. Westminster is like the Super Bowl, its presence looms large at all times. 

“The whole scene is run a little bit like a sports conference, like the NCAA or something,” Chris says, dunking a cheese curd into ranch dressing in a convincing imitation of a Midwestener. “The American Kennel Club is the governing body of all of the breed and specialty clubs in the U.S. and then it goes to the regional club level from there. He proceeds to give me a lengthy, dizzying, and informative explanation of the nuances of how dogs qualify for the different shows from regional to national, all the way up to the big time stuff like Westminster, before turning back to his lunch. I nod dumbly through his explanation; it’s a rather complicated system. But perhaps we don’t really need to understand the backend to enjoy the show. After all, we're not part of “The Fancy,” at least not yet. 

“Who are the people who come to these?” I ask. “Are they dog owners or breeders or what? Is this their full time job?”  

“It’s a mix,” Chris explains, eyeballing his meatloaf. “Some are Newfoundland owners, but many of the people at the show are breeders, and they breed champions. Some puppies won’t go on to become show dogs, but they breed dogs that have the potential to win.”

Newfies are a popular breed. Although only the 42nd most popular breed in America, according to the AKC, their devoted and affectionate disposition have gained them a fervent fanbase. Lord Byron famously wrote a poem about his Newfoundland companion Boatswain, called Epitaph to a Dog; such is the love that these 150-pound dogs elicit. Just like the docile and sweet tempered dogs themselves, Newfie people are loyal too. There are 22 regional Newfoundland clubs spread out around the country, and more around the world. Every year the Newfie people meet up at shows like this National Specialty to parade their pooches. That’s where we’re headed: This is nationals for Newfies.

A happy Newfie smiles from Bayfront Festival Park.

An hour and a half later, we check into Duluth’s trendy Pier B Resort. The elevator smells like a dog. The whole hotel smells like a dog, though in a charming, endearing way. For five days, this one property has been packed to the gills with hundreds of gigantic Newfoundland dogs and their owners. We’ve missed the draft test and the specialty carting events (Newfies are working dogs), but Chris informs me that we will be attending The Honors and Rescues Parade this afternoon, and then Junior Showmanship and Best of Breed in the morning. A dog parade sounds like exactly what I want, and I’m not disappointed. 

In case I haven’t made myself clear, Newfoundland dogs are huge. They conservatively range from 120 to 160 pounds, four times the weight of my Puerto-Rican beach dog mutt Kiko, who is medium sized, according to my vet. Chris tells me that his Newfie, Luca, weighs about the same as he does—they could (theoretically) wear each other's clothes! Watching a group of Newfoundlands waltz around the show ring in parade fashion is akin to watching a country bear jamboree. At The Rescue Parade, which is exactly what it sounds like, I don’t see much difference in the stance, posture, and temperament of the rescued Newfoundlands when compared with their show dog counterparts. To me they all seem like good boys and girls, and I suppose that’s more or less the point of the parade. 

Chris is correct, though: The National Specialty is a very positive and welcoming atmosphere. It has much more of a homespun state fair feeling than the pomp and purebred elitism I was envisioning. Walking around the grounds, I meet dozens of dog owners who happily let me photograph them with their dogs. The show-goers seem as kind and gracious as the Newfies themselves. Everyone wants to tell me about their dog, everyone claps for each other. Speaking with a Newfie owner from St. Paul, I’m asked about my dog with real curiosity. In fact, everyone does this. They all want to hear about my dog! They all want to see pictures. They all agree, more through tone than actual words, that Kiko is indeed King of The Goodboys. It’s peace and love. It’s Woodstock for large aquatic dogs. 

Just a sampling of the Newfie merch for sale.

The events of the day end at five o'clock and so we retreat to the hotel. Back in the room, Kiko is watching the high-seas reality show Below Deck and I’m teaching Chris about the versatility of Michelob Golden Light while he gets ready.  Tonight is the formal banquet, auction, and raffle, to be held at the nearby Great Lakes Aquarium, and I don’t have a ticket. Once Chris leaves, I amble down to the hotel bar, hoping to find a few stray Newfie folks to chat with. I eat a steak sandwich and side Caesar salad, and me and the bartender cheer on the PWHL Minnesota pro women’s hockey team as they pummel Ontario. From the banquet, Chris texts me that he’s bidding on a Newfie statue. The amount of Newfoundland-related merchandise at this dog show is impressive to behold: Newfie sweatshirts, Newfie paintings, Newfie ornaments and figurines and towels and coasters. And that’s not even mentioning the original piece of Newfoundland swag, the 1894 stamp which helped herald the breed into public awareness. I’m delighted to report that the merchandise is devoid of crass capitalist commodification—everyone loves everyone else’s merch, everyone is excited to get their swag. Earlier in the day Chris buys me a Newfoundland coaster and himself a sweatshirt. I buy him a lapel pin. It all has a giddy “showing your friends your back to school clothes” vibe that’s charming in its sincerity. 

The banquet ends and the attendees begin filtering into the bar, buzzing with excitement to chat and socialize on this last night of The Specialty. I meet a Danish couple visiting to see the dogs. A woman from Ohio shows me pictures of the space where she trains her Newfies back home. Folks are eager to tell me about their pooches, to get me to promise I’ll come meet their dogs. There is a trend emerging in a lot of their stories: Newfoundlands are great with children. No wonder Nana from Peter Pan was a Newfie; apparently they’re preternatural caregivers.

Owners teach me how Newfoundlands volunteer at nursing homes and schools. I speak with two women from the New England regional club, the biggest of the regional Newfoundland chapters, and they tell me that their Newfoundlands are so docile and nurturing that one named Nemo used to go to the local library so that children could read to him and practice their literacy skills, since dogs aren’t judgmental. This anecdote hits me in the heart, and when I ask for more I’m affronted by a barrage of stories of Newfies saving babies from death. Newfies diving into pools to rescue toddlers. (Who rescued whom, indeed.) Kiko is scared of children, runs from them, and doesn't trust their unpredictable nature. My girlfriend has a three year old and we’re constantly on high alert. I think about dogs and kids a lot. But Newfies seem not only to love kids, but to have a natural predilection to protect and care for them. 

The following morning, at the Juniors Showmanship Competition, this once again proves true. Chris and I join Specialty Showcase attendees as they munch donuts and sip coffee, waiting out the rain and watching from under tents while children and adolescents compete and practice handling their Newfoundland show dogs. It’s interesting to watch, and gives a valuable glimpse, from a beginners perspective, into how the dogs are judged. The junior owners stack their dogs to get them into position before the judge checks their posture and stance, and then their gait as they run. Once again, I see no difference between the dog who wins and the ones that take second, third, fourth, and fifth, but perhaps it’s not for me to know. 

Dog and human competitors compete in a judged event.

When it comes to Best of Breed, the final competition, the most impressive part of the whole exercise comes when the handlers cart out their dogs into the ring at once—70-odd Newfoundland dogs and their people, all standing together in the drizzle patiently waiting. According to the AKC, “The Newfie breed standard says that a sweet temperament is the most important single characteristic of the breed,” that’s why they make such loyal and devoted companions. And watching all of these dogs together, all getting along, I’m not sure it really matters who wins. Maybe the lesson is something much cornier than that, like we’re all winners just for having dogs and being able to share our lives with them. The Best of Breed ribbon will go to a dog that’s as much of a good dog as all the others, and really we’re all winning for coming together like this. Speaking to Newfie owners, some of them have been coming to this National Specialty to see their friends and to see the dogs for over 30 years. 

When this is all over, Chris and I will part ways, me back to my teaching life, he rushing home to put on the Pet Gala (think canine Met Gala) for dog fashion at the Museum. But we’ll still have the memory of this, and perhaps that’s the point. I genuinely liked this National Specialty. Capitalism and competition didn’t ruin this fandom. These people’s love for their newfies is as pure as the driven Canadian snow (Newfies originate from Canada) And I’m happy to report that I have come away understanding it. I get the appeal of this thing; life is fulfilling because of stuff like this, our passions. A dull breed of life is one without community. The relationships we keep, with our canine companions and with each other, is what counts. In the end, most of us are bonafide good boys. Every dog has his day.

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