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TV championship show seeks the fairest canine of them all

Only dogs that receive a special invitation will participate Saturday and Sunday in the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Tampa.

Dogs ranked in the top 25 of their breed were invited. Apparently, lots of dogs know how to read their mail because a record parade of nearly 2,500 will compete. Also, elite hounds from 17 foreign countries received a special invite, including dogs from Finland, Peru, Thailand and the United Kingdom.

The show will be broadcast live on both Animal Planet and Discovery, starting at 8 both nights. According to one recent survey conducted by both the American Kennel Club and IAMS pet food company, 88 percent of dog owners say they are more likely to watch a dog show on TV today than they were a decade ago.

"Oh my, I'd better look good, then," says Michele Billings, of Fort Lauderdale, who will be the Best in Show judge. "Of course, I've been on TV before and you don't want to look terminally ill, so I've learned TV makeup is a good idea."

Does that also go for the dogs?

"No," Billings said, laughing. That's not to say many dogs aren't primped backstage to look their best. While lucky Labs need only a quick once-over with a brush, poodles, malteses, Yorkshire terriers and assorted other breeds get an entire spa treatment. Groomers are clipping faster than you'd think fingers can move; the dogs are blow dried, fluffed and puffed. Every hair is in place before they enter the ring.

For all dogs, however, from primped poodles to come-as-you-are pugs, judges make their inspections to determine how close they come to matching the written breed standard.

Billings, a judge since 1972, who has worked hundreds of shows all over the world, says that so far, "I have yet to judge the perfect dog. If you look hard enough, there's always something that isn't there."

Billings says her job is to look, and that's exactly what the judges are doing at dog shows: a lot of looking. Small dogs are placed on a table so judges can get a closer look (and save wear and tear on their backs).

Judges open the dogs' mouths, not to check for minty fresh breath, but rather to make certain all the teeth are there.

They watch the way the dogs move. A Brittany is known for a kind of prancing gait. Those long legs (compared to their medium build) were developed for following a hunter's game birds into marshes. A lumbering Newfoundland just sort of plods along; the intent Border collie won't move the same as a greyhound, which appears to be walking on air. Individual breeds move differently; their form follows the function for which they were bred.

Aside from looking at the dogs, judges often feel them for muscle tone. Having muscle isn't on the breed standard list for a little Yorkie. Malamutes and Alaskan huskies, however, were originally bred to haul heavy loads over ice and snow. "To this day, general conditioning and muscle matter in the standard of those breeds," Billings says.

Judges also consider temperament, or at least they should, Billings says. "A winner should really have a temperament that's an ideal representative of that breed." Of course, in theory, a dog with a bad attitude won't make it as far as the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship.

Finally, there's showmanship, the one quality not mentioned in a single breed standard. Most judges maintain they stick exclusively to what's in writing, basing their judging on a standard, and don't consider an individual dog's enthusiasm or the resulting applause from the crowd. But not Billings.

"It's like judging a beauty contest," she says. "Two (dogs) can be equally beautiful, so what it comes down to is attitude and heart. Let's say you're judging a beauty contest, and two are equally beautiful, but only one smiles. Naturally, the judge _ being human _ will choose the one who smiles. Of course, a dog who wants to win might just have an edge. I don't know that I believe the dogs actually want to win, but I do believe some dogs can really turn on the personality. And I'm judging the seven dogs at that very moment, not from how they did last month, last week or even a few hours ago."

What you don't see on TV are the dogs shown in conformation within their respective breeds. One dog is named the best within each breed. Then, in prime time, the pooches participate in group competition. Each breed falls into one of seven groups: Herding, Hound, Non-Sporting, Sporting, Terrier, Toy and Working.

Herding dogs, for example, include German shepherds and Australian cattle dogs. For each group, a judge will name the best dog. In the Herding Group, the judge doesn't compare the German shepherd with the Australian cattle dog or other dogs in the group. Instead, the judge compares each individual dog against the breed standard.

Finally, seven dogs are left standing (one for each group); they then compete for coveted Best in Show honors. The Best in Show judge is sequestered off-site until the seven appear on live TV.

The AKC/Eukanuba Championship offers big bucks _ at least by dog show standards _ with prizes totaling more than $225,000. The Best in Show winner takes home $50,000.

In addition to the conformation (or beauty contest) for Best in Show, the AKC National Agility Championship and the AKC National Obedience Invitational will be held concurrently for a combined total of about 1,000 dog/handler teams.