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Westminster dog show is a study in canine contrasts as top prize awaits

NEW YORK — If every dog must have its day, one champion canine is about to have its year.

By the end of Tuesday night, one of the more than 2,500 hounds, terriers, spaniels, setters and others that entered this year’s Westminster Kennel Club dog show will be crowned best in show.

Will Comet the shih tzu streak to new heights after winning the big American Kennel Club National Championship last year? Or would a wise bet be Sage the miniature poodle or Mercedes the German shepherd, both guided by handlers who have won the big prize before?

What about Louis, the Afghan hound whose handler and co-owner says he lives up to his breed’s nickname as “the king of dogs”?

And that’s not all: Three more finalists are still to be chosen Tuesday evening before all seven face off in the final round of the United States’ most illustrious dog show.

In an event where all competitors are champions in the sport’s point system, winning can depend on subtleties and a standout turn in the ring.

“You just have to hope that they put it all together” in front of the judge, said handler and co-breeder Robin Novack as her English springer spaniel, Freddie, headed for Tuesday’s semifinals after a first-round win.

Named for the late Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, the spaniel is currently the second-highest-ranked dog nationwide in The Canine Chronicle magazine’s statistics, and Novack was hopeful about his Westminster chances.

“He’s as good a dog as I can get my hands on, he’s in beautiful condition, and he loves to show,” Novack, of Milan, Illinois, reasoned as a sanguine-seeming Freddie awaited fresh grooming before it was game on again.

Dogs first compete against others of their breed. Then the winner of each breed goes up against others in its “group” — in Freddie’s case, “sporting” dogs, generally bird-hunters bred to work closely with people. The seven group winners meet in the final round.

Besides Freddie, other dogs in Tuesday’s semifinal group competitions include Monty, a giant schnauzer who is the nation’s top-ranked dog and was a Westminster finalist last year, and Stache, a Sealyham terrier. He won the National Dog Show that was televised on Thanksgiving and took top prize at a big terrier show in Pennsylvania last fall.

Monty is “a stallion” of a giant schnauzer, solid, powerful and “very spirited,” handler and co-owner Katie Bernardin of Chaplin, Connecticut, said after he won his breed Tuesday afternoon.

So “spirited” that while Bernardin was pregnant, she did obedience and other dog sports with Monty because he needed the stimulation.

While she loves giant schnauzers, “they’re not an easy breed,” she cautions would-be owners. But she adds that the driven dogs can be great to have “if you can put the time into it.”

A fraction of Monty’s size, Stache the Sealyham terrier showcases a rare breed that’s considered vulnerable to extinction even in its native Britain.

“They’re a little-known treasure,” said Stache’s co-owner, co-breeder and handler, Margery Good, who has bred “Sealys” for half a century. Originally developed in Wales to hunt badgers and other burrowing game, the terriers with a “fall” of hair over their eyes are courageous but comedic — Good dubs them “silly hams.”

“They’re very generous with their affection and their interest in pleasing you, rather than you being the one to please them,” said Good, of Cochranville, Pennsylvania.

Westminster can feel like a study in canine contrasts. Just walking around, a visitor could see a Chihuahua peering out of a carrying bag at a stocky Neapolitan mastiff, a ring full of honey-colored golden retrievers beside a lineup of stark-black giant schnauzers, and handlers with dogs far larger than themselves.

Shane Jichetti was one of them. Ralphie, the 175-pound (34-kg) great Dane she co-owns, outweighs her by a lot. It takes considerable experience to show so big an animal, but “if you have a bond with your dog, and you just go with it, it works out,” she said.

Plus Ralphie, for all his size, is “so chill,” said Jichetti. Playful at home on New York’s Staten Island, he’s spot-on — just like his harlequin-pattern coat — when it’s time to go in the ring.

“He’s just an honest dog,” Jichetti said.

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