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.' "

Then, of course, there's "the alma mater factor." "You're sitting at home with your border terrier and you say, 'You know, Max, here's the border terrier. We're going to root for the border terrier," he explained. "And I know, Max, if I fed you a few less cookies and maybe bathed you a little more often and did some road work, then we could be out there, too."

Miller agreed that is part of the appeal. "It gives bragging rights if you own a breed that wins their group or best in show," she said. "These dogs are the examples of their breed, and it is fun to see the more exotic breeds — and the dogs with the freaked-out fur are always great for a laugh."

Similarly, Stephanie Finetti, a homemaker from Bloomfield, N.J., enjoys watching the shih tzus because they remind her of her own, brothers Gizmo, 10, and Cozmo, 7. She particularly likes "the way the dogs are so well trained and maintained — and, to my surprise, very well behaved."

Gaining Widespread Support

You know Westminster has arrived when the stylish ladies of HBO's Sex and the City make an appearance.

Frei had a guest spot on last week's episode as a judge who awards Charlotte's Cavalier King Charles spaniel — which is named Elizabeth Taylor — best in show honors. (Never mind that, having never been a champion, there's no way little Lizzie would have been allowed to compete at Westminster. Minor detail.)

And there's the 2000 movie Best in Show, a "mockumentary" by director Christopher Guest that sends up the dog show world by following the owners and handlers in the fictitious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. One of them is Stefan Vanderhoof, a hair salon owner played by Michael McKean, who enters his prize-winning shih tzu.

In real life, McKean is proud to share a home with Jimmy, a former stray jindo, which is a Korean dog similar to the spitz.

Though he encountered some quirky dog show regulars during the filming of Best in Show, McKean said the movie's goal was to poke gentle fun at that world. "People who take themselves very seriously can be very funny if you portray them," he said, "but it doesn't have to be with venom."

Even Frei said he thought the film's take on dog show people was apt. "I thought it was great fun because it did not make fun of the dogs. It did not make fun of our sport. It made fun of our people and our characters," he said. "Like any other activity, we have people who are satire-able … I see them every weekend."

Is It Really a Sport?

Even as dog shows gain in popularity, there's still debate among the masses about the legitimacy of dog shows as a competitive sport.

"It's a subjective sport," Frei acknowledges. "The whole basis of our sport is the subjectivity of the judging — one judge's interpretation of the standard that describes the ideal breed. What does great length of neck mean? What does refinement of muzzle mean? How much is too much? There's no perfect dog."

Maybe not, but he does have two favorite wins from the 15 times he has covered Westminster — 2003's Mick, a Kerry blue terrier, who won out of a field that was "pretty widely agreed to be the best final lineup we have ever had both in terms of the dogs and their abilities and their records, and in terms of the show that they each put on." The other was a papillon named Kirby, who won in 1999 and "showed its heart out."

Still, Finetti and Miller remain skeptical. "I don't know if I would consider it a real sport," Finetti said.

"It is physical, as the trainers run around. And it is competition that required preparation, training and a 'zone' in which to perform," Miller added. "Is it a sport in the traditional sense of basketball or football? No. But it certainly is not a hobby. This is serious for these people."

The bottom line, they all agreed, is that the shows are a diversion from regular life.

"We all love our dogs — you can't watch this show and not smile," Frei said.

"I get a real kick out of watching those dogs perform, strutting around like they own the place," Miller added. "It is happy, for lack of anything else to call it. There is no violence to it, no hidden political statement, no latent sexual undertone. And you get to hear the word 'bitch' over and over again. It is just fun."