Dogs set to take a bow, try to wow at Westminster

BEN WALKER AP Sports Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Standing at attention, or "stacked," as they say in the dog show world, Eira is the picture of wire fox terrier perfection.

A dense, white coat falls off her jaws. She's got alert eyes, a very still tail and plenty of ribbons to prove her pedigree.

And she's primed for America's most prestigious pooch parade, the 136th Westminster Kennel Club event, starting Monday at Madison Square Garden.

Handler Gabriel Rangel hopes so, anyway.

"Oh, she can misbehave," he said last weekend. "She likes to run into my knee, having fun."

She did that and more at Westminster last February -- fine behavior when she's at home, playing on the California beaches, but not exactly what the judges want to see when picking a champion.

"It was a bit overwhelming for her. A lot of people around, a lot of things happening," Rangel said. "She'll be more used to it this time."

More than 2,000 of dogdom's finest will come in 185 breeds and varieties, coming from as far as Russia and China. The nearby Empire State Building will signal their arrival, changing its tower lighting from champion New York Giants blue to Westminster purple and gold.

There are prized terriers and poodles, plus an affenpinscher with a monkey face called Banana Joe. And there's a newcomer to the green carpet of the Garden, the xoloitzcuintli -- commonly known as a Mexican hairless, pronounce it as "show-low-eats-QUEEN-tlee" and sound like a pro.

On Tuesday night, with a crowd of elite fanciers such as Martha Stewart and everyday fans hollering for their favorites, judge Cindy Vogels will point to her pick as best in show.

Last year, a Scottish deerhound named Hickory earned the esteemed silver bowl. She also got to lead the pre-Westminster parade that recently attracted all that Manhattan attention.

"Oh, it changes your life," exclaimed her owner, Ceil Dove. "You never expect it. There's only one every year, and suddenly they choose you."

"Now, everywhere you go, someone asks, 'Is that her?'" she said.

Hickory's life is a little different these days, too. She took time off from chasing deer and rabbits on the Doves' farm in Flint Hill, Va., to have a litter of nine in October.

By show dog standards, her win was quite an upset. A true underdog, so to speak. This year, there are plenty of top contenders that may join the likes of previous popular winners such as Uno the beagle, Josh the Newfoundland and J.R. the bichon frise.

"Some really great dogs this year," offered David Frei, for more than two decades the expert TV host at Westminster.

Terriers have often ruled this show, with wire foxes winning a record 13 times. The top dog of 2012 could be decided by whether Eira or a smooth fox terrier that goes by Sneak's A Peek wins the group and reaches the best-of-seven final ring.

Eira, whose name sounds like "Ira" and means "snow" in Welsh, recently won the big National Dog Show -- the event televised on Thanksgiving. And Rangel's a pro, having guided Sadie the Scottish terrier to the win at Westminster in 2010.

Sneak's A Peek also is a veteran, having won the terrier group at the Garden last year. If he's among the last seven, he's got an excellent chance. Vogels comes from a terrier background and twice in the last two years at regional competitions she picked him for best in show honors.

Along with being familiar with a dog, "the more you know, the more you know what's wrong, too," she said Thursday. "Judging is judging is judging."

Among others in the mix: London, a standard poodle that won the AKC/Eukanuba event, a pert Pekingese that took the Westminster toy group last year and Casablanca's Thrilling Seduction, a black cocker spaniel that was the No. 1 show dog in America this year after making the final ring here last February.

A three-part renovation at the Garden that cut into the backstage benching area caused Westminster to trim this year's entries from the usual 2,500. That shouldn't affect the 3½ million TV viewers, not including some pets who like to watch along with their owners.

USA Network and CNBC will share Monday night's coverage when the hound, toy, nonsporting and herding winners will be chosen. USA will televise Tuesday night for the top sporting, working and terriers and best in show.

What fans at home will not see are those wrenching commercials by Pedigree that underlined animal neglect and abuse. Purina is now a Westminster sponsor and will feature more upbeat ads.

What viewers will see are six new breeds to Westminster -- the xoloitzcuintli, the Entlebucher mountain dog, the Norwegian lundehund, the American English coonhound, the Finnish lapphund and the Cesky terrier.

"I was looking for a new breed," said Loren Marino, of Manchester, N.J., showing off her Cesky called Katrina. "I'm looking forward to being at Westminster the first time they're eligible."