Only A Pretty Face? An Inside Look at Show Dogs
Is it only a beauty pageant? Do those gorgeous coifed, clipped, buffed and puffed pooches have any brains under the frou-frou? Did you ever wonder if they act like real dogs? Join Pet Peeves to hear the truth about show dogs from a real insider, David Frei, the longtime co-host of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. He’ll also tell us about Angel On A Leash, a charitable therapy dog program.
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Welcome to “Pet Peeves”, the show that let’s you dig through the dirt and unleash your passion for pets. [bark] Why let sleeping dogs lie when you can take the bull by the horns and let the fur fly? [cat squealing] So get your claws out and get ready to rattle some cages on Pet Peeves with your hosts pet expert and award winning author Amy Shojai.
Amy Shojai: Hey there, welcome to “Pet Peeves” on Pet Life Radio! I’m your host Amy Shojai and today we’re taking an inside look at show dogs. That brings me to my rant of the week.
Now I love dog shows. I love seeing the gorgeous dogs and I’ve got to tell you, you ain’t lived until you’ve shared an elevator with half a dozen gorgeous canines ready for the ring. But it really hisses me off to hear clueless folks say, “It’s only a beauty pageant! Those pampered show-poochers aren’t real dogs.”
Ok, sure the contestants are coifed, clipped, buffed and puffed and so are the dogs. But under all the glitz you’ll find true dogs that herd, hunt, howl, prowl, work play, beg for treats and even share their special human’s bed.
Dog shows celebrate the best about what makes dogs special. And today on “Pet Peeves” we’re going to get the real truth about show dogs. And I’m delighted to introduce you to David Frei, Dog Person Extraordinaire and a true insider able to clue us in on what’s up with dog shows.
Millions of television viewers know David as the long time co-host of USA Networks annual telecast of the popular Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which will be aired February 11, and 12 this month.
He’s not just an observer. He speaks from experience as a long time breeder, owner, handler, and judge in the world of purebred dogs. So park your furry tails and get comfy and we’ll be right back with David Frei after these messages.
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Amy Shojai: Welcome back to “Pet Peeves” on Pet Life Radio. And please, welcome my first guest David Frei the TV voice and face of the Westminster Dog Show. Welcome to the show, David!
David Frei: Thank you Amy, I’m so excited to be on it and congratulations on having your very first show.
Amy Shojai: Oh, it’s great and I could think of nobody better that I wanted to have and the timing couldn’t be better with the Westminster show just around the corner.
David Frei:This is my favorite time of year. You get the super bowl of dog shows and the Westminster of football all in the space of about ten days. And we’re excited to be a part of that.
Amy Shojai: [laughs] Well, first of all for our listeners, David tell us a little bit about yourself. What kinds of dogs do you have?
David Frei: Well, for 30 years I raised Afghan hounds and had a lot of nice show dogs with my former wife. We did a lot of great winning. We had a wonderful dog named Champion Stronghill’s Who’s Zooming Who. And Zooming retired at the top of lead female in the history of the breed.
Amy Shojai: Wow!
David Frei: And while we were out there showing her we made some friends and got some exposure to people that thought maybe I would be the guy to do Westminster on television. That was back in 1990 where I did an audition tape and did the show for the first time. I thought “Wow! This is fun! I could do this for a few years. I get a great kick out of it” And now here we are coming up on my 19th year.
You know, that sounds awesome to me. That’s sounds great but when you throw in the idea that Westminster has been around for 132 my little 19 years is really just a piece of that.
Amy Shojai: Right. Really, the first show that Westminster had was back in 1877?
David Frei: 1877 before the light bulb was even invented. So we’ve been around a long time. We’re the second longest continuously held sporting event in this country behind only the Kentucky Derby, so we’ve had a nice run and we’re a great part of the legacy. In the sport we’re the oldest organization in the country that’s dedicated to the sport of purebred dogs; older even then our governing body The American Kennel Club, so we’ve been around seven years longer than them as well; In fact, had a big part in creating the AKC.
So we take our role very seriously in protecting and promoting purebred dogs especially but all dogs in general in celebrating dogs in our family lives.
Amy Shojai: I know that some of the notes that you sent me early on, and I appreciate that by the way, it says here the first telecast of Westminster was in 1948, years before “I Love Lucy” premiered.
David Frei: [laughs] That’s true.
Amy Shojai: [laughs] That’s incredible.
David Frei: Well, it is amazing. We’ve been on television a long time.
Amy Shojai: Well, what do you think? What about this dog show thing that people say, “Oh, dogs are only a pretty face”? When I attend Westminster, or this year sadly I won’t be able to be there which is why I’m so thrilled to have you on the show here. But I love listening to your commentary about all the individual dogs and what they do in real life away from the show.
Some of them are agility champions or they’re search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs, and all kinds of things.
David Frei: Well, the idea that I’ve always tried to tell people because I’m a part of this world is that these are real dogs and we are real people who are participating in this great family sport. You know, a lot of people that you see on television are people that have been involved in it for the second and third generations of their family. So they have a great dedication to the sport and to helping to create the next generation of healthy, sound, and happy dogs for the dog owning public. So we’re very proud of that. And that’s one of the messages we try to get out.
Amy Shojai: And I know also dog shows with the benched shows are very much an educational event where they encourage the exhibitors, the breeders, and the handlers to be available with their dogs to answer questions.
David Frei: We don’t just encourage them it’s a rule. And if they’re not there they get fined. So if you’re not there with your dog on the bench at the time you’re supposed to be there, which is anytime other than the time you’re in the ring, or the time you’re grooming, I think it’s about a $50 fine now.
Amy Shojai: Ouch.
David Frei: So we’re serious about making an educational opportunity for the general public and that’s what we do on site at Westminster. The last three years we’ve been sold out. So there’s over 20,000 people that come through there each day and have the opportunity to visit with breeders, and owners, and handlers and get up close and personal to the dogs.
If they’re looking for a dog get some ideas about what breeds might best fit their lifestyle and if they already have one, maybe they can get some help with some challenges that they might be having with a certain breed. And a breeder might say to you, “You know what, they always go through this at two years of age. Here’s how you solve it or here’s how you wait it out.”
Amy Shojai: That’s what I love about the ability to interface with the people you’re getting the dogs from because you can find out, “Hey, this is a gorgeous dog but it’s also a real dog and maybe you’re going to have some challenges as far as house training.” If it’s a little guy and it’s freezing weather out there or maybe if you have an apartment a Border Collie is not for you. [laughs]
So there’s some real instances…My husband really wanted a Border Collie and I had to tell him I’m sorry honey, I don’t want anyone in the house who’s smarter than me! So there are some real challenges there about educating the public and getting some good information out there.
David Frei: We do it in person for the people who are at the dog show but we also reach millions of people, as you know on live television on USA Network. We’re also reaching a lot of people on our online presentation of the breed judging highlights and a few others behind the scene things. Especially this year at WestminsterKennelClub.org you can see all of this stuff.
So we hope that we’re educating people about not just specific breeds but about responsible ownership and how to go about finding the right dog for you.
Amy Shojai: Well, and that’s really key I think. You know a purebred dog is not for everybody necessarily and I love the fact that you do promote shelter adoptions.
David Frei: Well, purebred dogs: really the best thing about purebred dogs is their predictability. I know this little two-pound ball of fluff is a Pomeranian and is going to grow up to be six pounds and it’s going to be this big. But that same little two-pound ball fluff is going to grow up to be an Akita, it’s going to be quite different. If I’m expecting a Pomeranian and it ends up being an Akita then it’s probably going to make for an unhappy relationship and an unhappy family relationship. So that’s what purebred dogs are all about.
Now if you can adopt from a shelter and you see a dog that’s pretty much what it’s going to be in terms of its growth and hair and conditioning and temperament, then by all means do that.
Because we care about dogs, we care about all dogs. And we want everybody to have a great relationship with a dog because we of all people know how important a relationship can be.
Amy Shojai: Well, how many breeds are being shown this year?
David Frei: Well, we have four new breeds this year so that brings the total to 169 breeds and varieties.
Amy Shojai: Wow! Well, what are those new breeds?
David Frei: We have a Plott, which is in the hound group, a beautiful hunting hound that is actually the state dog of North Carolina. We have the Tibetan Mastiff; a dog that’s been around thousands of years but just now finally got recognized by the AKC and is part of our dog show for the first time ever. But that is a massive dog that really people think is behind every single breed of dog out there, even the smallest of them.
Amy Shojai: Wow!
David Frei: We have two new breeds in the herding group: The Beauceron, which is an intimidating looking sort of dog that maybe could remind you a little bit of a German Shepherd and a Doberman only a little bigger package: And we have the Swedish Vallhund, which is of the same sort of proportion as Corgis, a three part length to two part height and has also been around for thousands of years but just finally got recognized here.
So four new breeds, 169 total breeds and varieties.
Amy Shojai: What kind of animals were the Plotts bred to hunt then?
David Frei: Well, they hunt big game, really. Bear I think is their preferred game.
Amy Shojai: Bear! Gosh.
David Frei: But they hunt raccoons and other larger game like that.
Amy Shojai: I need an Armadillo hound here in Texas.
David Frei: There you go. [laughs]
Amy Shojai: They can keep them out of my roses.
David Frei: Yeah, well, Plotts are beautiful. I saw my first one this fall in person and they are a beautiful kind of brindlely sort of hound. That beautiful athletic looking lean dog that hunts and they are a wonder animal as far as I can see and from what my exposure to them is.
The Tibetan Mastiff is a serious dog. And we always say a lot of dogs are not for the first time dog owner, a lot of breeds are not for the first time dog owner. I would say that’s probably true of a Tibetan Mastiff because you’ve got to be the alpha dog. If you’re not at least as bright or as tough as your dog, you’re going to have problems.
Amy Shojai: And if he sits on you, that could be a problem.
David Frei: [laughs] That’s right. He lets you know who’s in charge right now. The two herding dogs: The Beauceron is a very serious…has a very serious demeanor about them as well and they are a herding dog, an athletic dog that has a little more substance than like the Belgium Malinois and the Belgian Tervuren and the Briard; and the Briard-it’s actually very closely related to the Briard, another French herding breed. But it’s a dog that can go all day long and not ask for any relief at all.
So in the Swedish Vallhound is another athletic herding dog that goes all day long. And we think we’ve got four nice new dogs to share with the public this year.
Amy Shojai: Explain for the listening public here, what is the criterion to get your dog into Westminster and to be shown there. Do they have to be a certain age, certain championship status? What goes into becoming a Westminster show dog?
David Frei: Well, the basic requirement to enter our or to be eligible to enter our show is the dog must be an American Kennel Club Champion. Now that guarantees the quality that we have that all the top dogs are going to be here. It’s the only dog show all year long where all the top dogs are in the same place at the same time.
And we guarantee that by inviting the top five dogs in each breed to pre-enter. And then we have an open process. We have a limited entry of 2500 that’s dictated by the space that we have at the garden so then we have an open entry process to fill the remaining slots until we hit that 2500. So champion dogs: a good entry that fills up in a hurry, the first day the entry’s open they also close because people want to be here.
Amy Shojai: Wow. I wanted to ask you also David; a lot of these dogs are almost professional dogs. I mean they go on the air as much as you do. They’re out there campaigning throughout the year oftentimes. I know that people that aren’t in the show fancy probably would have some concerns about the amount of time that these dogs are maybe away from their families or the cost in terms of time and commitment that it takes to campaign a dog. Do the dogs suffer?
David Frei: Well, no the dogs don’t suffer as long as they are with the people that they love. I think, and the people who they love also love them and are always concerned about their well-being as well. But you know I think dogs are athletes. They go hard and they wear out and they wear down as well. So we have to be careful and we have to watch that. There are not many dogs that get to 150 dog shows a year for a very long time.
But when you’re trying to build a record and trying to get your dog out for people to see because you’re so proud of it I think that dogs can take a certain amount…take a certain amount of pressure like that.
Amy Shojai: Well, I know that some of the breeders and exhibitors that I’ve spoken to before will tell you, “The dogs tell me if they like the show life or if they don’t like the show life and we listen to the dogs.”
David Frei: Well, if the dogs don’t like it, it’s not going to be very much fun for you. I mean spent 30 years with Afghan Hounds and we had more than our share of dogs that just didn’t like the show. They didn’t like the crowd, they didn’t like a bunch of strange people around them and that’s not unusual in that breed. But they did love to do things like lure coursing.
Amy Shojai: Wow.
David Frei: Now we’re seeing more and more Afghans in agility but lure coursing is where they really excel where they’re running after the lure going full speed and cutting and doing athletic moves on the course and it’s just…some dogs want a course, some dogs want to be around people and some dogs want to do agility and some dogs want to be herd dogs. So you know, sometimes they want to do it all but sometimes they don’t. And that’s ok too.
Amy Shojai: I enjoy hearing in the commentary in the past year dogs that are not only conformation champions but they’re champions hunting champions or lure coursing champions, all kinds of things.
David Frei: Sure.
Amy Shojai: So there are some that are multi-tasking.
David Frei: Well let’s face it. Dogs were bred to do a certain task for people. Most dogs have a very specific job that they are supposed to do for people. Nowadays they don’t get the chance to do that job. My Afghan hounds that were bred to hunt gazelle and snow leopards, well there weren’t too many of them around the Seattle area when I lived there and had my kennel there.
Amy Shojai: [laughs]
David Frei: But they still retained the ability to do that and we could see that by taking them lure coursing. They still have this innate ability to do those things and that’s what those dogs love and that’s what we love having them do. So anything that makes them happy will make me happy and I think other dog people will feel the same way.
Amy Shojai: Are there places that people could go for more information about lure coursing or go to ground activities or some of the agility fly ball, some of these types of things?
David Frei: I would tell people to try to find their local kennel club and maybe they can check with their veterinarian or check with their local grooming shops or some of their local boarding kennels and somebody could probably identify to you “here’s a contact for the Seattle Kennel Club that can help you find some activities for your dog or help you find people that have the same breed”.
And also every breed has a parent club whether it’s the American Brittany Club or whatever and you can go to their website and find contacts there whether it’s people for activities or just people… maybe there’s a local club for example of the Brittany Club or Seattle or something like that.
There are ways you can find those from our website WestminsterKennelClub.org. We can help you find the parent clubs and get you in with the people that you need to see. And of course, if you really want a list of all the activities you can go to the American Kennel Club website at AKC.org.
Amy Shojai: Well, I’m going to put you on the spot here for just a minute Dave. What is your favorite breed?
David Frei: [laughs] Well, you know since I started doing the dog show I can’t pick favorites anymore because they’re probably pretty…
Amy Shojai: [laughs] I know.
David Frei: …but I do love my Brittanies. I love my Afghan hounds and my heritage if you will in that breed. But I over the years have found a lot more…a lot of breeds that I really like and enjoy having. So if I were to have a working dog it would be this breed, or if I were to have a toy dog it would be this breed. Well, I just got my first toy dog I got a Cavalier now to go with my two Brittanies so…
Amy Shojai: They’re sweet.
David Frei: Well yeah and I wish lived…I live in a high rise in Manhattan I’m not going to get much beyond three dogs at this point [laughs]. Three’s probably over my max now too but…
Amy Shojai: Yeah, currently my cat is saying that my one German Shepherd is too much so that’s an interesting situation I have here. I have 13 acres with one German Shepherd and he thinks that’s just dandy. I don’t think he wants to share.
Amy: If you were speaking, and you will be speaking to all the most important dog lovers in the near future here when Westminster airs what is the most important thing you believe folks should know about dogs shows in general and Westminster in particular?
David Frei: Well, I think the thing about Westminster of course is the legacy and history of the premier event in the sport in the world and I think as such they know they’re going to see the best dogs and hear stories about them hear what they were bred to do and the history of the breed and the contact of the sport. I think the most important thing we can talk about is responsible dog ownership.
In this day and age where way too many jurisdictions around the country we’re hearing about legislation that’s aimed at restricting the work and the life’s work that people have done to make our dogs healthier and happier that are also the same people that work hard in purebred dog rescue that they’re taking care of their breed wherever ever they can. And I think it’s important that they hear that there’s a reason that these people are doing what they do and they are doing it responsibly. And that those are the people that when you go to find a puppy those are the people you should support and those are the people you should seek out.
Amy Shojai: Listen folks, we will continue our conversation with David Frei and all things dogs after messages from these sponsors.
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Amy Shojai: We’re back and again we’re speaking with David Frei the co-host of the upcoming Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. But that’s not all. With Westminster, David helped to create “Angel on A Leash” as a charitable therapy dog program. Now Westminster has been around since 1877 but it’s not just about the show. At that very first show I understand that Westminster donated funds to the ASPCA. The current Westminster dog show also has some special charities that they like to support.
David, I know that “Angel on A Leash” is very close to your own heart. I’d love to hear more about that and also “Take the Lead”. So could you tell us a little about what is “Angel on A Leash”?
David Frei: “Angel on A Leash”: We started “Angel on A Leash” here at Westminster as a charitable activity in support of a therapy dog program at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York Presbyterian and it’s a wonderful experience. We built a program there from two or three teams to over 30 teams that visit there on a regular basis. And not only that, we then expanded the program into other places.
The first place we went was around MacDonald House of New York City. We added them to what we do and then we’re at New Alternatives for Children, we’re at New Melford Hospital, we’re also at the St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis and in Portland, Providence Hospital. So we’re at a number of places. We’re not really trying to get large but because of the visibility that Westminster brings to the great activity up there in yard we’re able to help spread the word and indeed that’s what we want to do is to champion the use of therapy dogs in healthcare facilities and schools and rehabs and hospice and everywhere else we can.
Amy Shojai: What exactly does a therapy dog do?
David Frei: Well, a therapy dog can be part of a treatment process for people who are undergoing whatever kinds of procedures. They may be undergoing in a hospital or in rehab or school programs or things like that. It can be as simple as just walking into the room and getting somebody to smile or talk or think about something other than the challenges that they face.
My own two dogs, we visit every Tuesday night at the Ronald McDonald House of New York City and work with the kids there who are facing the challenges of cancer. We also work…a lot of that is working with their families as well, doing good things for their families, their siblings and their parents because I have a friend who says, “When a child is sick the parent’s sick too.” And part of our treatment, if you will, is to have time with all of them and give them a chance to smile about something. Maybe give them a chance to talk about something when they haven’t felt like talking much lately.
Or maybe even to get a child to get up out of a stroller that they’ve been wheeled around in because they haven’t felt good, get up out of that stroller and take a step over and hand the dog a treat and have that be the first time they’ve taken a step. I can’t tell you how many times a parent has said to me at the Ronald McDonald House when they’re interacting with my dogs, “That’s the first time that she has smiled since she’s been here.”
And these are kids that come into care here in New York City; the Ronald McDonald House is a wonderful place. My wife Sherlyn happens to be the director of spiritual care there. But these are kids that come in from all over the world with the challenges of cancer and they’re coming in for cancer treatment or cancer complications. The great hospitals here like Memorial [x] and NYU and the Morgan Stanley Hospital. And they are kids that are fighting battles every single day with a family that’s supportive of them But the Ronald McDonald House provides housing for these people so they don’t have to worry about spending thousands of dollars on a hotel bill while their child might be here for three or four or six months or a year even for treatment.
Amy Shojai: And the dogs do it because I mean, that’s what dogs do, they enjoy it, they love it themselves?
David Frei: Absolutely. My dogs, they’re getting a little older now. They still do what they do and they figuratively smile about it but you know, they’re making kids happy and all the kids that are poking and prodding and pulling their tales and body slamming them and stuff, they enjoy that time with the dogs and the dogs enjoy just having that kind of attention on them.
It’s the kind of activity that does things for the people who are involved too. I can’t tell you how my involvement with Therapy Dog has changed my own life and gotten me to be more receptive and more understanding of people. You know, you walk down the street with your dog and you feel like you’re sort of having a ministry on the street because my dog will run right over to anybody.
Amy Shojai: Oh yeah.
David Frei: Or there’s the guy in the suit that getting ready to walk into an office building or the next person he runs into which might be a guy with an amputated leg sitting in a wheelchair and holding a paper cup and asking for a donation. My dogs are tripping to that. Now the next time I walk down that street maybe I don’t have my dog with me but I’ve got a relationship with these guys and I’m able to stop and talk to them. It changed my life I think it changes other peoples lives of course too.
But it’s the opportunity for me to do something with the dogs that I love in my community and do some good in my community and do some good specifically for people who are in need. And that…I can’t encourage people enough to look into that as a kind of activity that might be good for them and their dog as an activity to do together.
Because you know I hear people all the time say, “Gee, I’ve got to go home I need to spend time with my dog.” That’s the way we talk.
Amy Shojai: Right, right.
David Frei: “I need to spend time with my dog because I haven’t’ spent much time with him lately. But I’d like to do something good for people as well.” Well, here’s a chance to combine that. It sounds a little simple but it’s a great…
Amy Shojai: It’s a multi-task. Sure.
David Frei: That’s it.
Amy Shojai: Multi-task. Take the dog with you and you both get a great outing and something wonderful out of it and people benefit as well.
David Frei: Well, we’re very proud of our work that our “Angels on a Leash” dogs do everywhere and if people want to see some more about us in action they can go to AngelOnaLeash.org and see what we’re all about. But we really have not even. We’ve not been proactive in terms of fund raising or trying to expand because we’re just getting organized. We just got our 501c3 this summer and we’ve created a board that’s a star studded board I’m very proud of and they’re already doing great things and we have people involved from all over the world.
Amy Shojai: I know that Westminster also has a program “Take the Lead” that this year some of the funds are going to be going to that again as well?
David Frei: Well, “Take the Lead” is a program that began really with people through Westminster but it’s an independent organization that provides funding and support for people who have devastating and life threatening illnesses. I had the good fortune to be on their board for a long time but “Take the Lead” helps people in the sport who have problems. Whether it’s a health challenge, or some kind of tragedy in their life whether it’s a fire that’s wiped out their home or their kennel, or a flood or something like that. We have a disaster fund for those kinds of situations.
But most of the time we help people who have health crisis who either don’t have insurance or don’t have enough insurance so we’re there to help them when they’re in need.
Amy Shojai: Well, it sounds like that Westminster in particular and dog show people in general is a big family and they take care of each other. So I love talking about the topic and I’m sorry to say that we are out of time. But we would like to thank David Frei and the producers for making “Pet Peeves” possible.
I encourage you not to miss the opportunity to attend a dog show and see for yourself or listen, do the next best thing and tune in this coming February 11th and 12th to the Westminster Kennel Club 132nd Annual All Breed Dog Show. And again you can check out details at the web sit WestminsterKennelClub.org.
I dare you to join me next week for the “Pet Peeves” on Pet Life Radio. I have something special in store. A topic that puts everyone’s tail in a twist but you’ll have to tune in to find out more. So email me some suggestions or post a note on my blog by dialing up PetLifeRadio.com and clicking on the “Pet Peeves” logo. You can get transcripts that way too.
Woofs and purrs until next time and don’t forget to pet your critters for me I don’t want them to get peeved.
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