Judging starts at Westminster Kennel Club show

Basset hounds Gladiator, left, and his cousin Lola, touch noses in the lobby of the Pennsylvania Hotel, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010, in New York. The 134th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show will take place Feb. 15 and 16 at New York's Madison Square Garden. The dogs, both from Argentina, are scheduled to compete in the show. (Tina Fineberg)

February 15, 2010 6:47:33 PM PST
It's been quite a day for Razzle Dazzle. She'd already walked off with a repeat ribbon as the best bulldog at the Westminster Kennel Club show early Monday, and now it was time for a catnap. So she put her big, wrinkled head down in her crate and tried to take a snooze.

No luck. Minutes later, the backstage crowd at America's most prestigious dog show kept clamoring for a closer look. The 3-year-old bruiser woke, raised up and unleashed a throaty bark.

Co-owner Robert Speiser did his best to shield her from all the commotion, pressing his body against the front of her crate.

"Go back to bed, honey," he whispered.

Madison Square Garden was steamy for the opening session of the two-day event. More than half of the 2,500 dogs were housed right off the main floor, some of them comforted by ice packs and mini-fans, and thousands of spectators jammed inside on a holiday to see them.

"It's a madhouse," said Jane Bates, co-owner of a top golden retriever called Treasure.

A whippet called Chanel that can run 35 mph won the hound group and a white toy poodle named Walker took the toy bunch. The nonsporting and herding groups were to be judged later Monday night.

The sporting, working and terrier groups were set for Tuesday evening, with judge Elliott Weiss ready to make his best in show pick shortly before 11 p.m. Sadie the Scottish terrier loomed as the clear choice to win.

A black-and-brown greyhound emerged as the crowd favorite.

Waiting for her chance to show, she was far from the typical laid-back nature of her breed. Instead, Era gnawed on her water bottle, frolicked with a friendly harrier and soared through the air to catch treats.

"We were throwing snowballs to her in Central Park yesterday," handler Rindi Gaudet-Krickeberg said after finishing second among hounds. "She's a clown."

Dogs from 173 breeds and varieties competed, and they included three newcomers: the Irish red and white setter, the Norwegian buhund and the Pyrenean shepherd.

Clint Livingston hoped to make it to the final seven.

He handles Treasure, along with 16 other champions at Westminster. It's a family affair - brother Brian brought 12 dogs and sister Colette had four. Naturally, their mom and dad were in the business.

"She wouldn't let me show unless I made straight A's," Clint said.

Lesson learned well. The valedictorian of his high school class in Texas, he began coming to Westminster in 1984 and has done his share of winning in best of breed and best of group judging.

With so many dogs, the family got its own corner grooming area, away from the pack of people and pooches. They also employed five assistants, and the constant whirl of brushes, clippers and blow dryers made it look like Livingston Spa.

This year, Clint is handling a petits bassets griffons vendeen, a long-haired dachshund, a German shepherd, a Chinese shar-pei and an Australian cattle dog, among others. Inevitably, the siblings wind up competing against each other.

At one point Monday, the boys found themselves in the same Australian shepherd ring. Brian took the top prize. Clint, meanwhile, dutifully dashed off to show his brother's Finnish spitz.

Any gloating, bro?

"I might wink at him," Brian said, smiling.