S. Jersey dog to compete for top honors at Westminster dog show

South Jersey-raised Mister Baggins, usually called Roy, will be in the finals of the Westminster Dog Show on the USA Network on Feb. 15, 2011. (Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Mister Baggins, of South Jersey, is a contender for the most coveted award in canine competition: "best in show" at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show tonight.

Known at home as "Roy," he's the winningest bearded collie in the world. (You can watch the finals tonight on the USA Network beginning at 8 p.m.)

My Inquirer colleague Peter Mucha has the details on the hometown favorite:

Among herding dogs on Monday, Roy captured "best of group," which sent Sue Ross, the Salem County woman who raised him, into a round of celebratory screaming, jumping and down, crying, and accepting hugs from fellow dog lovers in the stands at New York's Madison Square Garden.

"I am just on top of the clouds," said Ross, supervisor of a branch of Gloucester County-based St. John of God Community Services. "I am just living on adrenaline right now. . . . There are not words to understand how thrilled I am."

Imagine how she and Roy's other owners - backer Ellen Charles and breeders Lesley Woodcock; her husband, Bob Lamm; and Larry and Angela Stein - will feel if Roy wins "best of show."

He'll be up against Hickory Wind, a Scottish deerhound, (hound group); Malachy, a Pekingese (toy); Miss Jayne Hathaway, a Chinese shar-Pei (non-sporting); and today's winners of the sporting, working and terrier groups. (TV coverage is from 8 to 11 p.m. on USA.)

The Pekingese is the "heavy, heavy favorite," said Woodcock, a Mercer County breeder who owned Roy's father and co-owned his mother.

She gave Roy to Ross to raise, and together they oversaw his development into a show dog.

As Ross would finish packing the Grand Caravan for many a trip, Roy would grab his "grunt toy," a yellow chicken, and climb happily inside, she said.

But the bearded collie - named after cowboy Roy Rogers - got so successful, he needed a professional handler. So it was off to Carmel, N.Y., to live with Clifford Steele, who travels the country with a contingent of top dogs, according to Woodcock, who lives in East Windsor, near Princeton.

"I'll never forget the day I took him to Cliff's house," Ross said. "Cried all the way home."

In all, Roy has won 52 "best of show" titles in the last few years - 51 under Steele, Woodcock said.

Steele also got Charles aboard as Roy's financial backer - a role of paramount importance, since dog shows are done for love, not profits, Woodcock said.

Tonight's "best of show" award fetches "a silverplated trophy," according to the kennel club's website (www.westminsterkennelclub.org).

Roy has already improved on last year, when he won best of breed, but not for a group of breeds.

"He certainly has a great deal more experience now, and that counts in terms of attitude," said Woodcock.

Ross will be happy no matter the result, because just getting this far has been so exciting, she said.

Monday, it took some time to wend her way backstage to Roy. "He just jumped on me and wagged his tail, giving me kisses. It was wonderful, just wonderful," she said.

"Winning the group at the Garden is something that all of us dream of doing," Woodcock said. ". . . You just think it's one of those pie-in-the-sky dreams. It's almost surreal that it's happened to us."

"I cannot say enough thanks to all the people who were part of making it possible," Ross said.

Ross is also looking forward to the day - probably within the next year - when her bearded collie's touring days are over, and he's back enjoying her 3-1/2 acres.

She might even take him for various lessons, including herding. A top herding dog might just enjoy tending sheep.