STORY WRITTEN BY GARY PULEO
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For most of us, it would be a lot easier to just say “Mexican Hairless Dog.”
But as the host of one of the most anticipated dog shows in the world, John O’Hurley is known for his articulate, authoritative approach.
If you’ve ever marveled at O’Hurley’s flawless pronunciations of some of the challenging dog breed names when hosting TV’s “The National Dog Show presented by Purina” – which comes to the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, 100 Station Ave., Oaks, on Nov. 14 and 15 as the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s National Dog Show, and then to NBC on Thanksgiving Day, noon to 2 p.m. in the taped version — even this man of many talents will admit that his eloquence only comes from lots of practice.
“About four years ago they brought me the Xoloitzcuintli (so – low – eets – kweenT) and it took me about a week to learn that dog’s name, saying it every day while shaving and looking in the mirror, trying to get the correct pronunciation,” O’Hurley recalled during a phone interview. “Well this year we have seven new dogs and I think four of them are dogs I will have to spend some extra time with.”
An award-winning actor, Broadway and TV star, game show host, “Dancing with the Stars” champion and author of several New York Times bestsellers — including “The Perfect Dog,” which has now been made into a stage musical — O’Hurley has served as co-host with David Frei of “The National Dog Show” since the show started being televised in 2002.
An avid dog lover and pet parent, with wife Lisa, to a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Sadie and a Havanese named Lucy, O’Hurley will be spending time this year becoming fluent with the names of seven new breeds: Lagotto Romagnolo; Berger Picard; Miniature American Shepherd; Cirneco dell’ Etna; Boerboel; Bergamasco and the Spanish Water Dog.
Those breeds will be part of a whopping 2,000 purebreds from 150 breeds descending on the Expo Center, and it’s a safe bet that, unfortunately, all of them will walk away with their tails between their legs not having won Best in Show, since a newly recognized breed has never achieved the honor.
“It goes back to how large their representation is in the United States,” said O’Hurley. “They have a certain backing in order to be recognized by the American Kennel Club. The judges may not be that familiar with that breed so may have a tendency not to recognize its superlative quality. It takes the judges a while to be knowledgeable with some of these dogs. In some of these groups you’re talking 30-plus dogs. That’s an awful lot for a judge to remember.”
A “new” dog often has lineage that is centuries old, O’Hurley pointed out.
“These dogs can be centuries and centuries old. It just means that someone is now embracing the breeding of the dog as it was by its history. The whole purpose of the show is to recognize the rich history of breeding and that dogs were not pets but functioning members of our survival. Every breed had a specific quality and that’s what these shows do is to celebrate the history of the dogs and they keep the breed alive, along with the functions of the breed.”
While he’s come to appreciate all breeds, O’Hurley said he was especially pleased to see Nathan the Bloodhound take Best in Show last year.
“That was a big surprise to everybody. The dog had been showing very, very well. It was a fabulous dog and I was so glad that dog won because it has such a wonderful, rich American look to it that shows up a lot in that style of breed throughout the show. It’s just nice to see that dog come out of the thick of it and win. It doesn’t happen a lot,” O’Hurley added, “because many times what you’ll find is that the breeds that are well represented you’ll find a better confirmation of that breed, as opposed to some of the breeds who are not well represented. Sometimes the dogs who are competing against a stronger group end up with better showings. But most of the dogs, if not all of them, have been breed winners at some time during the year, so you’re really getting the best of the best, which makes it such an exciting show.”
“The National Dog Show” has become such a Thanksgiving Day tradition it’s hard to imagine the show was considered something of a trailblazing venture when it debuted 13 years ago.
“It’s a wonderful idea that NBC had,” O’Hurley said. “They had a gap between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the beginning of football, which starts at 2 o’clock. They used to run reruns of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ but they had this whole audience they couldn’t do anything with.”
Senior executive John Miller had become a fan of the movie “Best in Show,” a satirical behind-the-scenes look at dog shows, O’Hurley remembered.
“He came in Monday morning and said they were going to do a dog show in that two-hour slot and everyone just about laughed him out of the office. By the end of the day he had licensed the show from the Kennel Club of Philadelphia and Purina came on as the sponsor.”
So what started as a novelty has become as ingrained a tradition as turkey and pumpkin pie, with millions of viewers tuning in to watch not only the most graceful dogs in the world prance around in the spotlight, but also the insightful remarks of the two hosts.
“It is gratifying,” O’Hurley said. “It’s not like watching Westminster where you’re watching all three days moment by moment, which can be fun but can also be a little tedious. We take a seven hour show and turn it into two hours and keep it as informative and as uplifting and humorous as we possibly can. It’s a day when everybody is sitting around with a glass of wine on the great family day of the year and I think they want a little laugh, in addition to oohing and aahing over their favorite breeds. We’re expecting a real good show this year, which will be a lot of fun.”
“The National Dog Show,” which benefits a variety of canine-related causes, is not a “show and go” event, but one of the few remaining benched shows in the country, meaning that dogs and their handlers are on hand to receive visitors.
“That helps so much. We love to encourage people to come out and see it live and bring their families, because on Saturday it is the greatest thing to do with your children,” O’Hurley said. “Most kids grow up and they know four or five breeds of dogs they see in the neighborhood, and that’s it. But they’ll see 190 breeds and 2,000 dogs here. The benched aspect of the show gives them an opportunity to talk to all the owners and the handlers about dogs they might like for themselves. The breeders can answer all questions about the lifestyle so they can see if it’s an appropriate breed for them.”
For ticket information, visit phillyexpocenter.com.