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4-legged stars try out for top dog

It may not have the pedigree of the venerable Westminster Kennel Club championships, but the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship will bring plenty of supermodels in fur coats to Tampa this weekend.

"The AKC show is a huge event," said Scott Sommer of Houston, who took the top prize in Westminster in 2001 with his bichon frise named J.R. "It's not as old as Westminster, but it's getting bigger and bigger every year. It's the start of a brand new tradition."

Sommer will have four dogs entered in Tampa, including Stump, the No. 1 spaniel in the country.

After just four years, the AKC/Eukanuba is the largest dog show in terms of prize money, with the national champion trotting home with $50,000. And it's invitation-only, meaning only the top 25 dogs in each breed were asked.

As evidence of the growing popularity of the show and the sport, this year it has a record number of entries and a live broadcast on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

By Saturday, 2,451 pooches _ 1,000 more than last year _ from the United States and 17 foreign countries will make their way to the St. Pete Times Forum.

Viewers can get in on the act, too, by going online to Animalplanet.com to vote in a viewers' choice award, with the winners earning donations for their AKC breed clubs.

For the owners, the show is the culmination of a year spent traveling and showing off their beauties. Longtime players in the dog show game say its easy to spend $10,000 a month on handlers, vet bills, traveling, show fees and advertising in glossy magazines to get judges' attention.

The advertising campaigns are like the Oscar race, said Mark Benson of St. Petersburg, co-owner of Perry, the No. 1 silky terrier in the country. He spends about $3,500 a month during the winter dog shows on Perry, including advertisements in Top Knotch Toys, Dog News and Canine Chronicle.

"There are some judges that are more respected than others," said Benson, an assisted living specialist for Area Agency on Aging, "so you want to make sure the judges know you have a top dog out there."

There are three distinct competitions: the crowd-pleasing agility championship, in which the dogs run an obstacle course; obedience, where dog and owner have to work as a team to win; and the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship, where the best dog is picked from the deep end of the gene pool.

The action starts Friday at the Tampa Convention Center with the athletes. The agility competition, with dogs running through tunnels, leaping hurtles and walking across the balance beam, is the fastest-growing dog sport in the country and several dogs from Tampa's K-9 Educational Training Center of Hillsborough (KETCH) are in the national championship. It runs through Sunday at the convention center.

The obedience competition and the championship start Saturday, with the live telecast from the St. Pete Times Forum beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel.

"I know that it's going to be a tough competition, and it's going to be beautiful competing with the best of the best," said Benson. "But, oh, I would love to take the breed."

Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at wynnesptimes.com.

SPECTATORS, MIND YOUR MANNERS

Here are some guidelines for the well-trained dog show spectator:

+ Ask permission before petting a dog. The dog may have just been groomed in preparation for being judged.

+ It's okay to clap and cheer for your favorites. It won't spook the dog, and the owners appreciate the support.

+ If you bring children, remember that strollers are allowed only in the Tampa Convention Center, not the St. Pete Times Forum. Be careful that you don't run over any dog's tail, and see that your child does not grab or poke the dogs he can reach.

+ Leave your own dog at home. Only participating pooches are allowed in the doors.

+ Most dog show participants are happy to answer questions or talk to spectators, but don't approach them as they are waiting their turn on the stage. The owner is more nervous than the dog most of the time.

+ Take your camera; photos are allowed. But during the evening, you can't use the flash.

_ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE

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