NEW YORK (AP) — A bumper crop of seven new dog breeds will get a shot at being best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club competition next month, while a new obedience contest makes more room for mixed-breed dogs at the nation's premier canine competition.
Drawing over 3,000 dogs from all 50 U.S. states, the 139-year-old event still features primped pooches parading before a Madison Square Garden crowd. But it also is evolving to reflect both a growing roster of recognized breeds and rising interest in dog sports beyond the traditional breed judging.
This year's newcomer breeds are the most added in any one year since at least 2000, organizers say.
"To be in the first (Westminster) show that they're able to compete in — it's quite an honor," Eileen Weatherbee said as her dog Oblio, set to be one of the first Boerboels to compete, sprawled by her side after a news conference Thursday. Breeds join the pack as fanciers seek and then earn recognition from the American Kennel Club; criteria include having several hundred dogs of the breed nationwide.
Bred to guard farms in South Africa, the Boerboel (prounouced BUHR'-buhl) is powerful and imposing. But 150-pound Oblio also happens to be "a happy-go-lucky, loving-life dog" with a jokester streak and a hankering for banana pudding, said Weatherbee, of Chesapeake, Virginia.
Three Italian breeds also are making their debut. The Bergamasco is an outgoing Alpine sheepdog with a distinctive coat of long, matted "flocks." The lagotto Romagnolo (lah-GAHT'-toh roh-mahn-YOH'-loh ) is a truffle hunter and affectionate family dog; and the Cirneco dell'Etna (cheer-NAY'-koh dehl EHT'-nah), a sleek, keen rabbit-hunting hound believed to have been brought from Egypt to Sicily over 2,500 years ago.
The berger Picard (behr-ZHAY' PEEK'-ahr) hails from France, but Americans might recognize the shaggy, highly active breed from the 2005 movie "Because of Winn-Dixie."
The miniature American shepherd, developed in California in the 1960s, resembles an Australian shepherd and is known for versatility. The eager-to-please Spanish water dog also has played multiple roles, herding livestock and helping fishermen.
Dog breeding has drawn fire from animal-rights advocates who say it prioritizes looks over love of animals and fuels puppy mills; the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has protested the Westminster show. Purebred advocates counter that responsible breeding helps track dog health traits and helps owners predict their pets' characteristics and make a lasting match.
Meanwhile, Westminster has given entree to mixed breeds by adding an agility competition in 2014 and the obedience event this year; both are open to non-purebreds. (The traditional judging hasn't featured mixes since the 1800s.)
The obedience competition didn't draw any mixes, but 26 are entered in the agility contest, up from 17 last year. Among them is Dobby, a corgi-terrier-Australian Kelpie mix that comforts patients at the New Jersey dental office where his owner, Stefanie Freundlich, works.
"He's just an all-around great dog," she said. "It doesn't matter what breed he is."
After the Feb. 13 agility competition, the rest of the show unfolds Feb. 15-16, with high-level judging televised on CBNC Feb. 15 and on USA Feb. 16.
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