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Every Dog Has His Day... And a Cable Special

For those of you desperate to escape the agony of CBS Winter Olympic coverage last week, you could have flipped up the dial to USA, where the cable network synonymous with "High Class" was living up to its reputation.

Realizing that the CBS strategy of All Tape Delayed Figure Skating, All The Time was driving away men, actual sports fans, and humans who prefer syrup on their waffles, USA counter-programmed with a hard-sports staple guaranteed to galvanize the country unlike any event since the Super Bowl, or possibly the women's 4x5K cross country relay -- The 122nd Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Under the aegis of the same network department that produces actual athletic events such as Tuesday Night Fights, the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament and WWF Monday Night Raw, USA Sports rolled out the red carpet and pooper-scoopers for the canine competitors at the world's most prestigious dog show.

And all I can say about the coverage is: At least it's not cats.

For those of you unfamiliar with the intricacies of dog show coverage -- and I truly hope that's the vast majority of you -- the Westminster is the Tiffany's of dog shows. No mutts here; these are serious pooches with the kind of icy stare and fierce competitiveness we've come to expect from Michael Jordan in the deciding game of the NBA Finals. In fact, I'm pretty sure I heard one particular canine described as the "Joe Montana of dogs," for its penchant of coming up big in the shows.

Of course, "coming up big in the shows" for a dog means that it didn't try to hump the judge's leg. D'you think Joe Montana would have minded if, after his 92-yard drive to win Super Bowl XXIII with 3 minutes to play, the announcers had trumpeted him as "the Rover of quarterbacks?"

That's not to take anything away from the Westminster pups, who were -- in the best tradition of their owners -- definitely canine snobs. From the look in the eyes of some of these hounds, you get the feeling that a dog who couldn't recite the first act of "Hamlet" would be considered an untouchable... unless he was a pure-bred.

And of course, there were plenty of rodents mixed in with the actual dogs -- rodents being the other name for "toy poodles." You see these pathetic creatures all over the place, yipping and yapping that the mineral water in the dish isn't exactly three degrees below room temperature or that there are too many kibbles and not enough bits.

But at the Westminster Kennel Club, these freaks of nature are actually revered instead of kicked repeatedly as they should be. It's not enough that their only reason for existence is to annoy people, they are actually given haircuts that I'm sure cost more than the total amount of money I've spent on hair care in my entire life.

But the dogs aren't half as annoying as the TV announcers who mark all the activity with breathless accounts usually reserved for announcing moon landings.

The play-by-play man -- or at least the dog show equivalent of one -- was former "Today" show staple and baseball player/announcer Joe Garagiola. Joe must owe a lot of people a lot of money to be forced into doing the dog show circuit these days. Once the partner of broadcaster legend Vin Scully on NBC's Game of the Week, Joe was accompanied this time around by a couple of color commentators who, evidently, have been ingesting way too much caffeine.

The broadcast team marveled at the malamutes and was touched by the terriers. When a heavily favored poodle went for a quick jog, one of the color guys would gush, "Look at the beautiful gait on that dog." The others quickly agreed, for indeed it was a glorious gait. They showed two different angles of slow-motion replays. I was surprised there was no "Coach's Clicker," none of the commentators drawing on the screen to show us why this gait was such a thing of beauty, no Randy Cross offering a 3-D computer-generated animation explaining the technical details of the gait.

Then they quickly cut to a commercial. You've never seen so many dog food ads in your life -- but the ads were actually the reason I kept watching.

Yet I was ultimately disappointed. They never showed the Chuck Wagon ad with the dog and the little covered wagon. When I was little, I used to stay up nights worrying about that little wagon. What if the dog caught up to it? Would it eat the wagon whole, or just the driver? And what about the little horses? This was before I knew the true nature of dog food, and I couldn't stop wondering -- did dogs eat horse meat?

Poor horseys.

Anyway, the different classes of dogs compete separately until it's time for the big prize -- Best In Show. One thing that didn't strike me as very fair was the fact that the wiener dogs had to compete with all the others for this coveted honor. I mean, come on. Wiener dogs already have enough things to worry about -- ridiculous, sausage-shaped bodies, two-inch legs -- now they have to deal with this kind of scrutiny?

Who in their right mind is going to look at a wiener dog and a magnificent Great Dane side by side and pronounce the wiener dog a more profound example of canine superiority? Of course, a wiener dog could still kick a toy poodle's ass with two stubby little legs tied around its back.

At last, we were left with only a couple dogs, the elite of the elite, the creme de la creme, the Top Dog, if you will... all shooting for Best In Show. You could tell by the 1000-yard stares and ice-cold composure of most of the pooches that they were grizzled veterans of this sort of thing. You could almost hear their thoughts: "No matter how good it smells, I will not sniff that German Shepherd's butt. And no licking myself!"

So they stayed put while being felt up by the judge, and then skipped lightly down the promenade. The commentators were getting excited:

"This is the kind of moment dogs everywhere live for."

"Yes, Joe, you're right. Oh my God! Was that a crotch sniff? I don't believe it, Joe! Fluffy's blown it!"

"What a tragic turn of events. How will Fluffy ever recover? Let's take a look at the instant replay."

At the same time the actual judges were taking looking over the competitors, USA was letting viewers vote on its Web site. Cackling with glee, I signed on 27 times to vote for the Alaskan Malamute. Victory was ours!

But it was not to be. A Norwich Terrier named Rocky, though it could have just as easily been called Dusty Brown Overgrown Kitchen Mop, triumphed over my beloved Malamute. They interviewed the dog's handler, a man named Peter Green, who was overcome with joy.

"The pressure was intense," Green said. "We knew we were heavy favorites out there, but it wasn't easy. It was really close, when we were out there I just kept thinking 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to lose her.' But she pulled through and here we are."

How Green was going to lose Rocky was beyond me, since the dog was on a leash. But I'm pretty sure that was technical dog-handler-speak for "she's going to crap on the carpet."

Rocky's victory was not without controversy, however. The fans had voted the Alaskan Malamute the victor by a whopping 36% to 17% margin. I was outraged. The show had to be rigged. I don't know much about dog shows, but I am firmly convinced that if one dog could swallow the other one whole, that's serious points in favor of the swallower.

But the calm and reasoned voices of the Joe Garagiola and the rest of the crack USA broadcast team let me know what a fool I was. "There were no surprises here today," one intoned with an undeniable booming authority. "The winner was a terrier in a show dominated by terriers."

Of course. That makes sense. That guy is, without a doubt, the Edward R. Murrow of dog shows.

What's next for the winner, I have no idea. Perhaps Rocky will get her face on cans of Pedigree Little Champions dog food, just like Mary Lou Retton with Wheaties. And I'm sure the endorsements for chew toys are just around the corner.

We can only hope that Rocky can avoid the pitfalls of so many other pageant winners, and that Penthouse never uncovers those pictures of her nose sniffing some other terrier's butt.


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