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Can NBC and USA make the Beverly Hills Dog Show an Easter viewing tradition?

Maria Menounos is rolling on the red carpet, curling around a beefy celebrity while onlookers eagerly snap photos.

“I love you so much,” the television host murmurs, running her fingers across Maverick’s immaculate coat and down his legs. “Look at those paws!”

Maverick, officially Grand Champion Bronze R Pyr Lone Star Gambler, a 5-year-old, 100-pound Great Pyrenees from Pismo Beach, is one of 1,251 irresistibly cuddly and impeccably groomed dogs representing 185 breeds at the Beverly Hills Dog Show. Now in its second year, the televised event aims to be the most star-studded and glamorous of its kind. It’s just not your usual Rodeo Drive kind of glamour.

When the cameras stop rolling, Menounos, the show’s host and red carpet interviewer, delicately plucks a stray dog hair from her lip gloss, a job hazard unique to this gig. Not to worry, she, like each of her four-footed interview subjects, is attended by a personal groomer — only she calls hers a makeup artist, he wears Gucci, and he doesn’t keep dog biscuits in his kit.

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In preparation for an Easter Sunday broadcast, the USA Network and NBC Sports in early March filmed highlights of the all-breed American Kennel Club competition hosted by the Kennel Club of Beverly Hills at the Fairplex in Pomona. It is the only dog show west of the Mississippi to be nationally televised, thanks to a multi-year agreement with the Beverly Hills kennel club and sponsor Purina.

“There are very few big media events left,” says Daniel Henke-Cilenti, a Purina brand director. “There’s the Oscars and the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the National Dog Show. For us, it’s about pets in general and the pleasure they bring to our lives.”

Jean Gauchat Hargis and her Keeshond, Skyline Summerwind Order in the Court, compete in the final seven for Best in Show during the 2018 Beverly Hills Dog Show.
(Taylor Arthur / Los Angeles Times )

The fervor in February over the 143rd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Fox and the 30 million viewers who watch the 16-year-old National Dog Show on Thanksgiving on NBC are evidence enough that Americans can agree on one thing — dogs. With a pet in nearly 70% of U.S. households, we’re clearly a nation that will freely lavish attention, affection and cash on our furry family members — nearly $70 billion according to the American Pet Products Assn. And though cat lovers will protest, dogs are the most popular.

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Like a puppy bred of a champion, the Beverly Hills Dog Show is learning how to take its best-in-show appeal to become an Easter viewing tradition. The show traces its lineage to John O’Hurley, a veteran host of the National Dog Show, and NBC Sports executive Jon Miller. Together, they built upon O’Hurley’s dog show and Hollywood bona fides (he was “Seinfeld’s” J. Peterman) and Miller’s programming expertise — plus, importantly, his love of the spoof documentary “Best in Show.”

Bo Derek with Ann Farley and her 5-month-old golden retriever Alibi during the 2018 Beverly Hills Dog Show at the Pomona Fairplex.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times )
Kristina Estlund and her Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Ezra, embrace each other after winning 4th place in the group competition.
(Taylor Arthur / Los Angeles Times )

“We put together a version of our own dog show,” says O’Hurley, who sketched the show’s look on a bar napkin for Miller at the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel and Conference Center. There are stately golden dog statues, reminiscent of the Oscar statuette, velvet ropes, spotlights, TV cameras and busy producers in headsets.

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Though miles from the 90210 ZIP Code, on show day the Fairplex is stuffed with acres of red carpet and pricey, dog-friendly motor homes. Celebrities who crowd the VIP room risk being entirely upstaged by anything that wags a tail. (Sorry about that, Marcc Rose, but your baby bulldog makes us forget that you star in “Unsolved: The Murder of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.” on USA.)

Bo Derek, who sells her signature pet grooming products at the show, brings sparkle to the front row. Thousand Oaks veterinarian and People magazine’s “Sexiest Beast Charmer Alive” Evan Antin adds heat to the step-and-repeat. And Brandy the Pug, the surfing, snowboarding Instagram sensation, snarfs crumbs from the VIP room floor.

Emma, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever jumps for a toy thrown by handler Bill Oesterlein in the diving dog exhibition.
(Taylor Arthur / Los Angeles Times )
Patti Avid examines Nelson, an American Cocker Spaniel during a grooming session.
(Taylor Arthur / Los Angeles Times )
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For dogs as (mostly) sophisticated as these, only designer accessories will do. In a booth at the show, the pet boutique and official apparel sponsor Only in Beverly Hills offers a Beverly Hills Hotel-inspired palm leaf-print dog bed, along with must-have $20 plush toys that riff on designer names — Chewnel purses and Hairmes orange boxes.

For the owners, there are $60 sweatshirts that read, “I’d rather be in Beverly Hills,” a sentiment that resonated with O’Hurley when planning the show.

“I wanted the idea of a fashion runway and red carpets,” says O’Hurley, who co-hosts the Beverly Hills show with analyst David Frei, long of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. “It’s strut your stuff. That’s what Beverly Hills is all about.”

And just as Beverly Hills lays claim to the most hair salons per capita, Hall 6 at the Fairplex boasts more dog groomers than anywhere on the planet this day. As blow dryers whir, groomers covered in water- and fur-proof aprons brush, comb and clean with a tool kit unique to their trade: cornstarch to prevent hair clumps; glittery capes to drape on just-groomed fur; tape to wind around floppy ears that could otherwise sweep the ground of dirt and dust.

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As the dogs make their way to Hall 4 for the competitions, groomers follow along, brushes and anti-fritz sprays tucked into carryalls. Until seconds before their clients head into the ring, the groomers carefully keep every lock of fur in place.

Inside the competition hall, it’s nothing short of amazing to witness the vast range of dog characteristics as handlers circle their charges around the show rings. There’s the loping gait of the hulking St. Bernard, the determined trot of the tiny terriers and the floating-on-air ease of the silky Pekingese. It’s a lesson in dog biodiversity and history, amplified by the running show commentary of Frei and O’Hurley.

Handler Robert D'Alterio and his Australian Terrier, Christhill General Dwight Davidcompete during the second annual Beverly Hills Dog Show.
(Taylor Arthur / Los Angeles Times )

Even ardent dog lovers might not know the difference between a Cardigan Welsh corgi and a Pembroke Welsh corgi; a Brittany and a Lagotto Romagnolo; or a German wirehaired pointer and the newly recognized breed, the Nederlandse kooikerhondje, a duck-hunting sporting dog with a feathery tail and an orange-red-parti-colored coat.

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The lights, camera and behind-the-scenes action are as highly choreographed and dramatic as any entertainment spectacle. Like the Olympics, physical perfection and performance are rewarded. Like the Oscars, handlers, breeders, owners and dog fans are abuzz with nerves and excitement as the field of winners narrows.

But unlike the Oscars, every four-legged participant is happy with the outcome. After their turn in the ring, tails wag, treats are bestowed and petting of their perfectly groomed bodies is encouraged.

“This is the happiest place to be,” Derek says as she surveyed the scene. “Sorry, Disneyland.”

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“Beverly Hills Dog Show”

Where: USA Network

When: 6 p.m., April 1 with rebroadcast set for at 10 a.m., April 8 on NBC.

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