STORY WRITTEN BY GARY PULEO
@MustangMan48 on Twitter
More than 1,500 purebred dogs are hoping to earn barking rights to the most distinguished canine title in the country when the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s National Dog Show takes over the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center at Oaks on Nov. 15 and 16.
Earning the stature of top dog — or Best In Show, in Dog Show terminology — is the culmination of a process that gradually moves a canine up through the ranks, landing the lucky pooch in the spotlight for millions of dog lovers well beyond the Expo Center crowd.
Saturday’s show, co-hosted by canine expert and author David Frei and actor John O’Hurley will be taped for what has become an annual Thanksgiving tradition — a two-hour NBC special, The National Dog Show presented by Purina, following the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
The televised event is the reason the first day of the show attracts more attendees, noted Frei, now in his 13th year of hosting the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s National Dog Show, during a phone interview.
“But people may like to also know that on Sunday we will have a man cave with TVs, so if dads want to step out watch the Eagles play the Packers they can do that,” said Frei, also a longtime host of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
On both days, the show will be embracing its position as one of only four remaining “benched” shows in the country, Frei allowed.
“A benched show means that the dogs and their handlers are required to be at the Expo Center all day long. And I know that as a spectator that I can walk by and see all the beagles sitting there and I can get up close, pet them, talk to the owners about the breed, about responsible breeders and experts, and get any questions answered that I might have. It really makes it a great show.”
In his or her dogged quest for a championship, a dog will have made an impression on judges well before the roughly two minutes that is spent in the ring vying for the ultimate acknowledgment as Best In Show, Frei pointed out.
“A dog show is like an advancing bracket in sports; it starts with the breed being all together at one location. If you have an Irish setter, he’s with all the other Irish setters, and there are prizes that are given for different things, but the main one is Best Of Breed, so if you win Best Of Breed in Irish setters you advance to the Sporting group, because an Irish setter is a sporting dog. And then you compete with cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers and the other sporting dogs. That happens all day long for several groups as they keep advancing, and then the winners come together at the very end for Best In Show.”
At that point dogs get one last chance to strut their stuff before the highly discerning judges.
“The best judges need to be equal parts artist and engineer,” said Frei, the founder of Angel on a Leash charity, which champions working with therapy dogs in a wide range of health care and institutional facilities, and a book of the same name.
“The judges need to see a big picture and all the pieces and things they’re supposed to see in the dogs. As a dog guy I might have some favorites going into the show, but it’s really supposed to be based on the day, like any athlete. Maybe a dog is having a bad day, or ate a pizza in the room that was left out the night before. You never know, It always depends on the judge because the standards are so subjective. They don’t say ‘do exactly this or exactly that.’ It’s all based on what you like and what’s important to you in judging when it comes down to that minute and a half or two minutes.”
The National Dog Show introduces two new American Kennel Club-recognized breeds this year — the Coton de Tulear (KO-Tone Dih TOO-Lay-ARE) and the Wirehaired Vizsla (VEESH-la.)
A total of 33 new breeds have thrown their collars in the ring since 2003, but none has ever won, Frei said.
“They may have won a Best In Show at another show around the country, but it’s tough for them to win in their early years because the judges don’t know enough about them. They don’t fully understand every piece and every part and the big picture of some of these new breeds so it takes time for them to build their confidence up and they know they’re looking at a great specimen.”
Frei’s own dogs, Angel, a Cavalier King Charles, and Grace, a Brittany who had accompanied Frei to a Veterans hospital in New York the day before, will be spending the day at home while their “dad” is working, said Frei, who added that the 2014 National Dog Show Therapy Dog Ambassador Team will be on hand to commune with the crowds.
“My dogs will be home but I’ll be happy to talk about what good dogs they are,” Frei said.