Going To The Dogs

This story appeared in Daily News Sportsweek on Saturday. In case you missed it, here it is again:


I don’t know every single item on my wife’s bucket list. I know Jim Caviezel’s on there somewhere.

So is a train trip across Canada, a European river cruise (not on Carnival) and getting her MBA before our kids move us into an assisted-living facility.

She scratched a big one off her list last week when we attended the 137th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.

Shelley had been bugging me to go to Westminster for the last 20 years, and for 20 years, I had done a masterful job of coming up with excuses.

Most of them had to do with my job. Westminster is held in mid-February, after the Super Bowl, and right before or during the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

I’ve usually been able to use the combine as a convenient excuse for dodging Westminster.

(begin ital.)``Gee, dear. I’d love to go up to New York with you and watch dogs prance around a ring for two days. But darn it, I’ve got to fly to Indianapolis and watch humans prance around a ring for five days.’’(end ital.)

This year, though, my luck ran out. Westminster was held on February 11-12, a week after the Super Bowl and a week and change before the combine, which got underway on Thursday.

I bought the Westminster tickets for Shelley as a Christmas gift, and last week, off we went to the Big Apple.

Shelley and I both are dog-lovers. We’re particularly partial to beagles and currently have two – Charlie, a spoiled five-year-old with major separation-anxiety issues who still sucks on a blanket, and Lucy, a nine-year-old rescue dog whose two great passions in life are sleeping and eating.

Shelley’s one of those people who can’t walk past a dog on the street without stopping to pet it and quizzing its owner about the dog’s breed, age, gender and bathroom habits. It’s one of the reasons I will never move to the city. It would take us an hour to walk two damn blocks.

One of the big reasons Shelley always wanted to go to Westminster was not just to see the competition, but because she had heard you could go backstage and see the competing dogs up close and personal. I figured she probably was on some sort of dog-show watch list and would get flagged. But I didn’t think it was in my best interest to say anything.

She checked online before we left, but couldn’t find any information about backstage visits. I was a little fearful she was going to try and find out what hotel the dogs were staying at and hang out in the lobby like a sports groupie. But she grudgingly accepted the fact that the closest she was going to get to the Westminster pooches was her seat in Section 111.

The whole concept of dog shows always has confused me. I mean, if you’re a judge in the Miss USA contest or some other beauty pageant, you’re trying to pick the most smoking hot woman out of a group of really smoking hot women. Not easy, but certainly doable.

If you’re judging a single dog breed, like, say, beagles or Rhodesian ridgebacks or black and tan coonhounds, also doable. You pick the best looking one from a group that bear a similar resemblance to one another.

But Westminster had 187 different breeds split into seven different groups – hound, toy, non-sporting, herding, sporting, working and terrier.

The hound group includes 30 different breeds, ranging from beagles and basset hounds to Norwegian elkhounds and Irish wolfhounds. I don’t know how many of you ever have seen a Norwegian elkhound or Irish wolfhound, but they more closely resemble a horse than a beagle or basset hound. The only anatomical similarities they share are four legs and a tail.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into Madison Square Garden the first night. I’ve been to 27 Super Bowls, and nearly as many scouting combines.

But this was my first dog show. OK, there was one at the park near where I live about 20 years ago that the kids made me take the late Bagel the beagle to. But that wasn’t a real dog show. If your pet managed not to pee on anybody’s leg, it got a ribbon.

The first thing I noticed about Westminster was the crowd. It was whiter than my garage doors.

I thought we had taken a wrong turn and stumbled into a Republican fund-raiser. I once did a series for the Daily News on the low number of African-Americans and Hispanics that attend professional sporting events. But an NBA crowd looks like a rainbow coalition compared to Westminster.

When 10 members of the Harlem Gospel Choir sang the National Anthem on the second night of the event, the unofficial number of African-Americans in the building jumped to 12.

Dog show crowds make golf and tennis crowds look like the 700 level at the Vet back in the day. Wild and crazy they are not. I didn’t hear a single person holler ``you da dog’’ during the two nights of competition. Nobody threw a beer or D battery at any of the handlers or judges. Just a lot of polite clapping.

I was taken aback on the second night when, out of the blue, just before the Best of Show judging, the crowd started doing the wave. That’s right, the wave. Not sure what that was about. I assumed somebody had spiked the wine.

There was a guy behind me who started whistling during the non-sporting group judging. I kept waiting for security to show up and take him away. But he eventually settled down.

We also had a couple of snooty women sitting next to us who were way too enthusiastic about the pomeranian entry in the toy group. They left right after he lost to the eventual Best in Show winner, an affenpinscher named Banana Joe. Sore losers.

I thought they were going to give the white bull terrier entry the heave-ho on the second night of the competition. He started barking because his handler wouldn’t give him the treats in her hand. The other dogs looked at the bull terrier like he had just passed gas.

By the way, if you don’t know what an affenpinscher is, picture the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. Cute in an ugly kind of way, but Best in Show at Wesminster? Seriously?

Out of the 187 competing breeds, I rated it ahead of only the Chinese crested, which may be the ugliest living creature on four legs, the poodles (miniature, standard, toy) and the 48 different kinds of spaniels that were entered.

Frankly, if I was in charge of Westminster, this thing would get a major makeover.

For starters, I’d make sure a beagle or a corgi won Best in Show every year, because, with apologies to Evan Mathis and his pet chihuahua, Thor the Wonder Dog, everyone knows beagles and corgis are the best looking dogs in the world. They’re the George Clooney/Sophia Vergara of canines.

OK, maybe I’d also give some consideration to a few other good-looking breeds, like the West Highland terrier and the dandy dinmont and some of the big sloppies like the St. Bernard, Bernese mountain dog, Pyrenees, Swiss mountain dog and Old English sheepdog.

I’d get rid of the non-sporting group for obvious reasons. I mean, having unathletic dogs compete for Best in Show is like putting chess in the Olympics. If you can’t swim or don’t like chasing rabbits, take a powder.

Westminster needs to let its hair down as well.

I’d get rid of those constipated, self-important tuxedo-wearing judges and use a noise-meter to let the crowd determine the winners.

I’d replace the handlers with Hooters girls.

I’d deep-six the event’s current boring format and take a page from the NFL scouting combine. Add a 40-yard dash. Time the pooches in the three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle. Check out their vertical leap.

Maybe even throw in a dog biscuit-eating contest or see who can hide the most bones in a five-minute period.

One thing I would definitely do is ban scissors and shavers. Westminster isn’t a dog show. It’s a canine cosmetology contest. Some of these dog owners should be charged with animal cruelty for the ugly haircuts they give their pets.

Did you happen to see Matisse, the Portugese water dog that won the working group? His handler shaved half his damn back and most of his tail. He looked like he had just come out of surgery.

And don’t get me started on the freaking poodles. My Westminster sources tell me even the other dogs make fun of them.

My friend Darin Gantt of profootballtalk.com had the best description of poodles. He said they are the wide receiver of dogs. Divas with a capital D. If DeSean Jackson was a dog, there is absolutely no doubt he’d be a poodle. Poodles don’t go over the middle. For who? For what?

For Shelley, the absolute highlight of Westminster came on the second night. As we were going up the steps to our seats about an hour before the start of the competition, our usher mentioned that we could go downstairs and visit the dogs.

Next to giving birth to our children and maybe – maybe – our wedding day, that might’ve been the happiest moment of my wife’s life. She broke Usain Bolt’s 100-meter record getting down to the dogs, and spent the next half-hour petting every animal in the competition and chatting up their owners and handlers. I needed help from MSG security to get her back to her seat.

She even got licked by the dandy dinmont, which, as personal thrills go, surpassed the time years ago when she was working on a congressional campaign in Texas and got kissed on the lips by the late actor, Gregory Peck.

That, of course, was before she had met me. Otherwise, she would have told Greg to take a hike. Yeah, right.

All in all, I ended up enjoying our trip to Westminster a lot more than I expected.

It provided me with a lot of twitter material. I got a chance to see a lot of cute dogs.

I earned some husband credits that I can use the next time I forget to put the toilet seat down or don’t want to go to a chick flick. And I enjoyed two romantic nights in Manhattan with my wife.

If only the damn beagle had won, it would have been a perfect trip.