Westminster Show Thrills Dog Lovers

They're taking over legendary Madison Square Garden this week, looking their best, performing their routines and dazzling the crowd with a certain charisma that comes from knowing they own the stage.

They're not in a rock group, though there is a celebrity in their midst named Mick. But the 2,500 entrants that competed for top dog status in the 128th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show definitely knew how to work a room.

In the dog world, it's known as being "showy." And as any dog lover can tell you, the animals may be judged officially in the ring, but they're also competing for the hearts of those watching at home.

"I really start rooting for a dog," said Liz Miller, a public relations executive in San Jose, Calif., who has watched dog shows for at least eight years. "You get to root for one in the groups and hopefully on into best in show."

Miller has had dogs all of her life and currently lives with Kuma, an Akita who "is 8 but acts like a puppy." She will often come home with treats for Kuma because she's "always thinking about what she might like." And she TiVos all dog-related programs on the Animal Planet network.

Obsessed? Perhaps. Devoted? Without a doubt. Yet Miller is far from alone, and exactly the type of fan who has turned Westminster into a national hit. Last year, 9.9 million viewers tuned in during the two-night broadcast on USA Network, the highest audience in its 20 years of televising the event.

Competition Mixed With Humor

Much of the show's popularity can be credited to David Frei, whose analysis has guided viewers through Westminster since 1990. Formerly in public relations, Frei had never been in front of the camera prior to his Westminster gig. But his years showing champion Afghan hounds and knowledge of the dog show world impressed USA executives enough to hire him for the prominent post.

Westminster is the Super Bowl of the dog show world. All 2,500 competitors are previous champions in one contest or another, and about 800 have been judged to be in the top five of their breeds. Dogs who win Westminster retire rather than take a chance at entering again and losing. "The dog that wins at Westminster becomes America's dog for that year," Frei said. He remembers bringing one year's best-in-show winner to the studios of ABCNEWS' Good Morning America the day after the show. "People on the street [were] hollering out to us just like it's some sports team."

In his on-air commentary, Frei takes the event seriously, but not with such gravity that he misses the fun. His goal, he said, is to explain the proceedings as if he's talking to a friend "in the other world" who is unfamiliar with dog shows. Part entertainment and part education, his insights include such details as why dogs have different haircuts or why certain breeds can be lifted by their tails.

Frei said that while the show judges get to make the official calls, the public may have different opinions. "Our expression for it is 'judging from outside the ring,' " he said. "Everybody can judge and pick their own favorites for whatever reason — 'I like the dog's haircut,' 'I like how he's hanging back.' "

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