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.