Big, barking dog takes early lead at Westminster Kennel Club dog show

Posted: Tuesday, February 10, 2004

NEW YORK His barks bouncing all around the arena, Josh looked eager to get going. And with a lick of a fan's face and guided by his lucky leash, the big, black Newfoundland bounded back onto the green carpet at Madison Square Garden.

Moments later, handler Michelle Ostermiller was kissing his slobbering muzzle, the crowd was cheering and it was official: an early win Monday at Westminster, then a victory at night marked him as a favorite at America's most prestigious dog show.

''People are drawn to him because he's a real dog,'' co-owner Peggy Helming said. ''He's got a heart as big as he is.''

With actresses Delta Burke and Glenn Close among the fanciers in attendance and a dog co-owned by Bill Cosby in the mix, there figured to plenty of competition among the 2,624 entries. And a lot of it will come from the nation's No. 1 show dog, a perky Norfolk terrier named Coco who enjoys jumping on her hind legs.

''It's insane, it's chaotic backstage,'' said Burke, currently in the Broadway show ''Thoroughly Modern Millie.''

Josh, a primped Pekingese called Les and a standard poodle named Mikimoto on Fifth all repeated in group competition, giving them spots in the final seven with Coco. The Newf gets this factor in his favor Tuesday night when the top dog is chosen: the judge who picked him to win the working group last year is the best in show official this time.

Coco, a 5-year-old from England, already won 54 best in show titles, including the widely televised AKC/Eukanuba event in Long Beach, Calif.

Exceptionally sprite with a fast gait, she breezed in best of breed. Show chairman Thomas Bradley congratulated handler Beth Sweigart with a kiss, and Coco later won the terrier group, celebrating by diving all over the floor looking for treats.

''She thinks she is an excellent dog. She is asking to win,'' Sweigart said.

Over the years, terriers have dominated this all-champion event for purebreds, with a Kerry blue terrier named Mick winning last February. Les won again in the toy group and Mikimoto took the non-sporting group.

The dogs at the 128th Westminster event came in 162 breeds and varieties, in all shapes and sizes.

There were 79 different kinds of Dachshunds but only one American water spaniel, there were canines that took part in recent sled dog races and others that visited hospital patients last weekend.

''They are show dogs, sure, but they are regular dogs, too,'' said David Frei, co-host of USA Network's coverage. ''They sleep on our couches and steal food off our counters.''

Josh clearly was the most popular last year after he turned around to watch himself on the video board. He sounded his presence this time, and even judge Ruth Zimmerman laughed in Westminster parlance, he's ''very vocal'' because show people frown on saying dogs bark a lot, fearing it makes them appear too unruly.

At 155 pounds, the 4-year-old Josh weighs a lot more than Ostermiller.

She kept telling him, ''slow, slow'' during the best in breed when he romped around the ring and, no surprise, she emerged with his black hair all over her ice blue suit.

''He's just letting you know he's there,'' Ostermiller said.

All in all, a fine performance from a dog that ended a two-month retirement to compete.

''That's hard to beat,'' praised rival handler Karen Mammano.

Like a lot of show people, Ostermiller and Helming have their own set of superstitions and lucky charms. They also have things to avoid no handler wears a No. 13 armband at Westminster.

Ostermiller took out her lead, commonly called the leash, from a plastic bag to use one more time. She also followed tradition by matching the color of her washcloth, used to tidy Josh's mouth, with her outfit.

Helming wanted No. 5 for the show ring, yet instead wound up with 17. No problem, because when Helming and her dog checked into her hotel across the Garden, guess what room she got? Yep, No. 555.

''So, we're OK,'' she said.

Mammano always uses three rubber bands to hold her armband and comb in place. She's also particular about what she wears.

''Never second-place red,'' she said.

Sweigart only grooms her aspiring best in show with a special ''Coco brush,'' featuring a picture of a Norfolk terrier on the back. Others use lucky pennies, pendants and play toys, while some rely on routines with a more personal touch.

Handler Hiram Stewart, guiding the top Pekingese, preferred a positive talk with his pooch before big events.

''I tell him he's the king,'' Stewart said.

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