The dogs are in town, and more will be arriving each day.
The annual Florida Classic Clusters, the largest dog show in Florida, is geared for up to 20,000 canines that will compete at Florida Classic Park through Jan. 24.
All breeds will step out before the eyes of discerning judges from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except for Tuesday, when owners and handlers will rest during the 10-day program, which began Thursday.
The show, which has been held in Hernando for the past decade, attracts a large number of entries because of its sponsorship by Purina; sanctioning by the American Kennel Club; staging by the Clearwater, Inverness, Manatee, Pasco and Tampa Bay kennel clubs; and parklike setting on 50 acres south of State Road 50 and west of Interstate 75.
The AKC-registered dogs range from pocket-sized to big enough to carry a saddle. Some are silky coated, others shaggy, and they come in all colors. There are barkers and yippers, and some as quiet as church mice.
All are primped and combed. Whiskers are trimmed, and some are fluffed and powdered; others have toenails polished.
While presentation is a plus, it's conformation, showmanship and obedience that determine the winners.
Daily behind-the-scenes guided tours will explain judging and demonstrate dog care, grooming and showmanship. Tours of about one hour each will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., starting from the superintendent's tent centered among the four show ring tents. Almost 1,500 visitors took advantage of the tours last year, said media specialist Diane Chiucchi of Brooksville.
On Kids Day, which is Monday, the first 100 youths up to age 15 who join the tours will receive free ball caps, coloring books and booklets of information. Also on the day's program is a demonstration by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and its K-9 unit bloodhound, Copper.
Young people will be showcased daily in junior showmanship contests in which their dog-handling abilities are evaluated.
"Junior showmanship is the big thing because that's the future of dog shows," Chiucchi said.
On Thursday, designated as Senior Day, there will be free parking for those 60 and older.
A yard sale scheduled for Tuesday will find dog owners and handlers selling used canine equipment to their peers.
Visitors of all ages can shop vendor stands daily, where they will find dog food, collars and leads, grooming supplies, attire for canines and people, jewelry, home decor and "everything you can think of for your dog and some things you would never imagine," Chiucchi said.
Food for sale includes barbecue, hot dogs, burgers, fries, deli sandwiches, desserts and snacks.
Proceeds from public parking and rental fees by on-site campers and vendors will benefit charities designated by each kennel club, Chiucchi said. Primary among them is the national AKC program Take the Lead, which provides services for competitive dogs and their owners and handlers who are seriously or terminally ill.
Other charities include programs for youths visiting Safetytown to learn about responsible dog ownership, a scholarship fund for veterinary students and various sheriff's offices, Chiucchi said.
Each kennel club may earn as much as $15,000 to $20,000 to donate to beneficiaries, she estimated.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.