Westminster Dog Show: Where Judging Is Dog-Beat-Dog

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Across the country leashes have been clipped, dog beds tossed into suitcases and man's best friend has prepared for his moment in the sun. Roll out the red carpet, New York City, the big Apple is going to the dogs. A lot of dogs.

This year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which kicks off Monday morning, will bring more than 2,000 dogs to Madison Square Garden. It is considered the dog show of the year. A who's who for the canine set.

There will be posh poodles, commanding coonhounds, dapper dachshunds and prancing Pomeranians, all sharing the stage and hoping to be the one standing at the end when Best in Show judge Michael J. Dougherty crowns the top dog Tuesday night.

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There are 2,721 dogs representing 187 breeds in the running for the coveted title this year, the largest entry pool in 15 years.

David Fitzpatrick knows what it's like to be in the Westminster spotlight. His dog, a Pekingese named Malachy, won Best in Show last year.

"I just wanted him to go out and have people remember him looking so well," Fitzpatrick told ABC News. "I was really pleased with his performance. I couldn't have asked for anything more for him to do."

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Now retired, Malachy spends his days at home in Pennsylvania chasing toys and ruling the roost over Fitzpatrick's other eight Pekingese.

"Everybody walks a wide berth around him. They just treat him like he's the king," Fitzpatrick said. "He sort of has a royal attitude.

"He comes by that naturally. It's not because he's a winner. He thinks highly of himself."

As he probably should.

Last year's Westminster was Malachy's 115th Best in Show win. And after that many wins, Fitzpatrick knows how to keep control in a tense ring.

Fitzpatrick and Malachy made to the final ring in 2011, an astonishing feat given that Fitzpatrick was showing his dog with a broken arm. They made it to the No. 2 spot, bested by a Scottish deerhound.

But getting one more chance, even that didn't make the pair nervous. Keeping calm, he said, is exactly what viewers will see from this year's finalists. If the handlers are calm, the dogs will be too.

"It's like any other sport really, you have to concentrate," he said. "Save your dog for the couple minutes performance you need in the ring. Don't wear him out. And you need a lot of good luck, too."

With seven very different breeds ending up in the running for the night's highest honor, judge Dougherty won't be comparing the dogs to each other, but rather how the dog measures up to the breed standard. Each breed has its own checklist for excellence, including coat, gait, size and temperament.

A golden retriever should have movement of ease and extension, with its back legs extending all the way back and its front legs extending all the way forward as it trots around the ring.

The coat of a soft-coated wheaton terrier should be a single, silky coat that's soft and lies down in gentle waves. And the temperament should be "steady" with less aggression than other dogs in the terrier family.

Cindy Vogels was last year's Best in Show judge. The Colorado dog enthusiast, who breeds greyhounds, said that in addition to each dog's conformity to the breed standard, there's also a little something extra that puts a dog over the top.

"It's a special je ne sais quoi," Vogels said. "I think that's doggy charisma. Plain and simple."

It's an often misunderstood set of events that leads to the Best in Show ring. People often question the judge's picks. Vogels said she got a lot of raised eyebrows last year from non-dog show people who thought Malachy maybe didn't perform as well as the other, larger dogs in the ring because he was slower and ambled rather than trotting with a long stride.

"They would say to me, 'I don't understand,'" she said. "Seven dogs in the ring, six of them could walk and one of them couldn't. And you gave Best in Show to the one that couldn't."

But in reality, she said, Malachy was a spectacular representation of the breed, awkward walking and all. "He has little short crooked legs," she said. "There's a roll to the gait."

Then there's also the absence of some of America's favorite dogs from the winner's circle. The Labrador retriever this year was once again named by the American Kennel Club as the most popular dog in America: its 22nd consecutive year at the top. But it has not once in Westminster's 137-year history won Best in Show.

Vogels said rarer breeds, and complicated breeds like the Pekingese, do well in the ring because the standards are so specific in what makes a good representation of the breed. The more complicated the breed, she said, the easier good dogs stand out.

Breed judging will start Monday and continue into Tuesday. The group judging will be televised Monday evening and Tuesday before Best in Show is crowned Tuesday night. There's also a new wrinkle in the show this year. Dougherty must now pick a No. 2 dog in addition to the Best in Show.

Golden retrievers lead the pack with 61 dogs entered, followed by Labrador retrievers with 54 dogs and Rhodesian ridgebacks with 50. Five breeds -- the Plott, the Anatolian shepherd dog, the Kuvasz, the Norwegian Lundehund and the Entlebucher mountain dog -- are represented by just one dog in the ring.

So which are the dogs to watch on Monday and Tuesday?

Fitzpatrick has his eye on Protocol's Veni Vidi Vici, the Doberman who was among the Best in Show contenders with Malachy last year.

"I think that dog has a really good chance," he said. "It's coming back to the Garden with a lot of experience and credentials."

Another to watch, Fitzpatrick said, is Kiarry's Pandora's Box, an American foxhound.

"She's an exquisite dog that in a rare breed that's done an extraordinary amount of winning," he said.

Fitzpatrick will himself be back in the ring with Malachy's 9-month-old grandson named Paddington.

"I have high hopes for him," he said. "He's a little superstar, but a little young to go all the way."

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