NEW YORK - Could Swagger the old English sheepdog live up to his triumphant name? Would Matisse gain sentimental points for being the same breed as first dog Bo, the Portuguese water dog occupying the White House?
Or will judges at the Westminster Kennel Club’s Best in Show competition throw spectators a bone with a surprise finish Tuesday night, when the grand trophy is presented?
The prestigious dog show got underway Monday in Manhattan, bringing together more than 2,800 dogs from about 190 breeds, along with countless hair dryers, combs, brushes, dog toiletries, and the thousands of mere humans whose job is to turn canines into champions.
"It’s like running a company," Heather Johnson said as she sat with Swagger after he was named best in breed, putting him one giant paw step closer to the grand prize. Johnson and her husband, Colton, of Colorado Springs, Colo., own Swagger along with Ron Scott and Debbie Burke of Dillsburg, Pa.
While the Johnsons fielded questions about Swagger, the dog dozed in his huge carrier, oblivious to the fuss.
Swagger, who is 2 years old, proved a crowd favorite at the 2013 contest and was first runner-up behind the best in show, a tiny black affenpinscher named Banana Joe. After that finish, the Johnsons stepped up Swagger’s competitive schedule, showing him more frequently to prep him for contests and drive up his point total.
The buzz on the hairy floor of the event space was that Swagger and Matisse, fresh off a best in show win at another prestigious event, were the dogs to watch here.
It wasn’t hard to find people willing to weigh in with predictions as they stood at ringside cheering on the breeds or browsed the aisles of dogs resting, dogs eating and dogs being primped.
"I think I’ll go with Matisse," said Jim Van Elswyk of Tampa, Fla., who shows black cocker spaniels but who was watching the action as the sheepdogs took their lumbering turns around Ring 9 for the judge.
His brother, Kevin Van Elswyk, agreed, but wondered whether there might be some favoritism, given the curly-haired Portuguese water dog's fame as the presidential hound.
"I think there’s some pull there, because he's an Obama dog," he said of Matisse.
Sandy Woodard was leaning toward the sheepdog and noted that the famously shaggy species makes more than just a great pet. It also makes great scarves, jackets, hats and mittens, Woodard said in all seriousness, indicating the soft gray-and-white scarf around his neck.
It was woven, he said, from the fur of sheepdogs, which Woodard collects in a basket at home when he grooms his pets.
"You can put it in the washing machine," said Woodard, who makes the yarn by mixing his dog’s fur with sheep wool. He and his wife use a loom and wheel to fashion their own creations.
"It’s pretty sturdy, and it doesn't shrink," Woodard said.
This is the 138th Westminster show, and it featured three new breeds: the robust Chinook, the diminutive Portuguese podengo pequeno, and the rat terrier, which looks nothing like a rat but excels at chasing them down.
But it was the glamour dogs and the more common breeds that seemed to be drawing the most attention from the spectators who milled in the aisles where the dogs and their handlers waited to compete.
A crowd gathered to take pictures of Paris, a white standard poodle with pink plastic ties around the tips of her ears to keep them out of her face. Nearby, a silky-eared beagle also named Paris was drawing coos from passers-by.
The 1-year-old beagle hadn’t made it to the next round of competition. "Some days are like that," said her handler, Mary Cummings, a beagle trainer and agent whose dogs have appeared in TV and magazine ads. "She's OK. She got fed cookies and visited with people, so she's happy."
Carol Gefell, whose English sheepdog Delaney had competed against the winning Swagger, was nonetheless happy with the outcome.
"At this level, I think you really have to enhance their natural attributes," Gefell said, when asked how one huge, hairy dog can be made to stand out against other huge, hairy dogs. In Delaney's case, that means thinning the hair over her snout to better display her "beautiful eyes," Gefell said, as a pair of soulful, brown eyes peered out from beneath a few strands of hair.
Delaney has won plenty of prizes, but Gefell acknowledged that Swagger is hard to beat. "We're used to seeing Swagger's rear-end," she said good-naturedly.
But the Johnsons, and Swagger, weren't taking anything for granted.
"It's not like a football game," said Colton Johnson. "Anything can happen. That's what makes it so exciting."
As for Matisse, who was not due to show until Tuesday, Heather Johnson described him as "a beautiful dog."
"At a show like this, there are a lot of awesome dogs," she said. "May the best dog win."
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