The show, which features 2,000 purebred canines, gives the public an opportunity to interact with the dogs, learn about different breeds and talk with experts about owning a dog.
Actor, author, canine aficionado and TV personality John O’Hurley hosts the show along with David Frei, who is an American Kennel Club-licensed judge.
O’Hurley said the show made a splash on TV after NBC took a chance and started airing it.
“We’ve been doing it for 11 years now,” he said. “It was a fluke, actually. It turned out to be a successful story of programming. The head of NBC just took home ‘Best in Show’ about 12 years ago and decided they had the space between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and football. They had a two-hour slice of time and they had no idea what to do with it. So they used to throw on reruns of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and it was the biggest turn-off factor on television ratings. They scratched their heads about what to do with it. He took home ‘Best in Show’ one weekend, came in Monday and said, ‘We’re going to do a dog show.’ They almost laughed him out of the building. That’s how it all started.”
O’Hurley noted the participants take the competition seriously, and it is a painstaking process selecting the winner, although there is a fun atmosphere to the event.
“We have 2,000 of the best dogs in the country,” he said. “So it’s huge exposure for the breeders. By any means it’s the largest dog show in the world. I had to learn a lot about it. It celebrates the history of breeding. Some of these dogs, the breeds are 4,000 years old. Some of it is very serious. There’s always a sense of competition. It’s a slow reduction process to the final seven dogs so there’s an excitement to that. All of the dogs and handlers have to stay for the entire run of the show, so backstage there’s 2,000 dogs and 15,000 people walking up and down the aisle. There’s a bit of a carnival-midway feel to it. You can interact with the breeders and ask questions. It’s one of the things that promotes responsible dog ownership.”
“It’s dogs,” Frei added. “And even though there is competition in the ring, you can’t help but have fun with your dog. The show is pretty social. You have to be there for eight hours and you might only be in the ring for 15 minutes. It’s a good thing you’re among friends to do that.”
Frei also said, unlike a pageant focused on humans, people tend to be better behaved with dogs around.
“You put a dog in a room with seven people, all of those people will focus on the dog and everybody is happy,” he said. “They show a better side of themselves. You get 2,000 dogs in a room and people are just nicer. And what I’ve found out over 11 years is the dogs don’t care who wins. For them it’s a couple of really good smells and a chance to be with their owners. They pick up on the energy of the day. Dogs are always alert, which adds to the fun.”
Frei said a misconception people have about The National Dog Show is that these are pampered animals owned by rich socialites.
“I want people to hear that these are real dogs; they’re not dogs that get fluffed and primped up to go to dog shows. They don’t just sit around on cushions eating doggie bon-bons all week long. The rest of the week they are loving family pets that are stealing food off our counter and shedding on our dark clothes. Those are the stories that we try to gather up the day of the event. They are real members of the family. That’s the notion I try to get across in the telecast. The people involved are real people. They usually have other jobs during the week. They pack their cars on Friday night and head to the next dog show. It’s a great family sport. You get to do something with a dog that you love from your family. The people that are doing it really enjoy it.”
O’Hurley added another misconception that winning the dog show is all about looks.
“I think they think it’s the cute factor and it isn’t,” O’Hurley said. “‘Why didn’t that dog win? It’s the cutest dog out there.’ Every dog has a written specification of what that dog, according to its history of breeding, should look like. You can’t tell how good the dog is until you put your hands on it. That’s the purpose of the judges. The judges have to be extraordinarily knowledgeable on a whole database of dogs. Some grouping of dogs, like the herding group, will have 45 breeds and they have to know everything about that one group. Then when the judges become good enough to be Best in Show judges, there are 170 breeds that are recognized, so they have to be versatile. It’s a very interesting skill set that these judges have.”
Frei noted, however, that viewers and attendees don’t have to be dog-breed experts to enjoy the show.
“People watch our show for three reasons. First, they watch for the competition. Who’s the best of the best? Anyone can judge from the outside of the ring: ‘I like this dog and here’s why.’ That’s the fun part of watching at home. People are also watching for the entertainment. The third reason is what I call the alma-mater factor. If you are sitting at home with your Brittany, you want to see the Brittany and root for it. I think that’s the fun part of the show and how people watch it.”
Both O’Hurley and Frei pointed out that the show isn’t just a massive dog pageant: It also serves the purpose of raising awareness about dog ownership and how dogs enhance peoples’ lives.
“One of the big focuses is on therapy dogs,” O’Hurley said about this year’s show. “We spotlight an element of dog characteristics every year. David and I are both involved with therapy dogs. Dogs are used to an enormous benefit in medical care with kids with cancer, burn victims and even in psychiatric cases as part of therapeutic care.”
“We’re very involved with talking about breed rescue and responsible ownership,” Frei added. “We want to make sure people go about getting a dog for their family being fully educated for what awaits them after these dogs are done being cute 4-pound balls of fluff. They’re going to grow up to be different kinds of dogs. You want to make sure you’re equipped to handle it.”
“The National Dog Show Presented by Purina” takes place Nov. 17-18 at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center at Oaks, 100 Station Ave. in Oaks. The two-hour special airs Thanksgiving Day on NBC after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For more information or tickets, visit nds.nationaldogshow.com.