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HEAD TO HEAD, TAIL TO TAIL AT WESTMINSTER

It seems loyalty is hard to come by these days. "That's unless you have a dog," says Lester Holt, news anchor on MSNBC and co-host of the weekend edition of the Today show. "Dogs will always be loyal, they will always give love. We've always had dogs. And when I was a kid, I used to tell my dog all my problems."

Holt will join David Frei on the USA Network and CNBC to broadcast the 132nd Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.

During an appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, O'Brien called Holt one of the nicest, most approachable people in the business. Is that because dog guys are nice guys? Holt laughs. "I don't know about that, but maybe there is something about people who have a pet."

For Frei, the answer isn't maybe. "People with dogs are generally more willing to be self-giving in their lives," he says. "And we do know that having a dog is actually healthy."

Frei is the president of an animal-assisted therapy organization called Angel on a Leash. Trained therapy dogs go into health care facilities and schools, as well as rehabilitation, hospice, extended care and correctional facilities. Wagging tails work miracles, changing lives and even saving lives. Last year's Westminster Best in Show winner was a therapy dog: Champion Felicity's Diamond Jim, an English springer spaniel.

Westminster will be at capacity at New York's Madison Square Garden, with 2,500 dogs registered. This year, American Kennel Club breeds will be seen at Westminster for the first time, including:

Beauceron: A versatile, independent, 70- to 100-pound breed. Working group.

Plott: A 40- to 60-pound hound of various colors that traditionally brings big game to bay or tree. Hound group.

Swedish Vallhund: Originally bred to herd cattle in Sweden. A 25- to 30-pound dog capable of jumping vertically, as cats can. Herding group.

Tibetan Mastiff: Their name in Tibetan translates to "tied to a stake dogs" because they often were tied down to guard properties during the day, then allowed to roam the property at night. Few in their right mind dared challenge these dogs, which often exceed 100 pounds. Working group.

Frei explains that dog shows are similar to a kind of advancing bracket in college basketball. First, dogs compete against all those within their breed. For example, at Westminster, there will 51 Labrador retrievers. A judge will select the best Lab from the bunch.

"For real dog show aficionados, this breed judging is sometimes the most interesting judging to watch," says Frei. "How do you compare all these Labs? To many, except color, they all look alike. Of course, the judges are looking at everything. Some are like artists who look at the total picture, the overall balance of conformation to what comes closest to the perfect dog described in the breed standard. Others are 'headhunters,' who are into the proportion and size of the head; others may focus the most on the movement."

The breed judging is held during the day. Highlights will be show on the Westminster Kennel Club Web site, www.westminsterkennelclub.org.

Each breed falls into one of seven groups. The Labrador, for example, is in the sporting group. The best Labrador (named Best in Breed by the judge) and the best of each breed in the sporting group then compete against one another in the group competition. One dog is chosen to represent each of the groups. It's those seven dogs who vie for the coveted Best in Show title.

Send questions to Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207 or e-mail petworld@aol.com.

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