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Sunday, February 12, 2006

This date is a dog

So, who hasn’t had a Saturday night blind date that turned out to be a dog? I had one – hundreds, actually – last night, and it was love at first sight. Because these dogs are the most gorgeous canines on the planet, the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies of dogdom.

We met at the Hotel Pennsylvania, right across from Madison Square Garden, where the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show begins tomorrow. The Pennsylvania is a big, busy place, usually packed with tourists, airline crews, conventioneers, and business travelers. One week a year, it’s packed with dogs competing in the show.

Here's my report from The Miami Herald, with a lot more photos.

Picture this: A vast lobby with terrazzo floors, so crowded with dogs, people, and baggage trolleys stacked with dog cages that a toy poodle can barely squeeze through, much less a Saint Bernard or a bull mastiff.

It’s presided over by Jerry Grymek, in a dark suit, wearing a “Doggie Concierge’’ lapel pin.

“I’m here to greet the guests, and clean up the spills in Aisle 2,’’ he quipped. “I’m in charge of poochlic relations.” (If you ask me, puplic relations would have been a better line, but he’s the PR maven, so what do I know?)

Contestants had been arriving all day, just ahead of a huge storm that’s threatening to bury New York in 16 inches of snow by this evening. Near hurricane-force gusts up to 50 miles per hour are whipping the snow in all directions. I’m looking out at a balcony railing where it’s piled up six inches already, and it’s only 10:15 in the morning.

Herald photographer Jose Iglesias met me at the hotel. He’s as canine-obsessed as I am, the proud daddy of two Labs, Max and Lulu, and a Jack Russell terrier named, I’m honored to say, Ellie (because her photo turned up in a story I did last year about Miami-Dade Animal Services. Jose took one look and raced to the shelter to claim her).

First thing, Jose spots a Jack Russell: Tom (Ch. Edison’s TNT Aftershock), boinging up and down like a Jack Russell-in-the-box, as they do, and he’s down on the floor shooting from dog level. Turns out Tom’s owners are from Sarasota: Cathy Dahlberg and her daughter, Kelli, 14, who’ll be handling him in the ring. Her friends in eighth grade “don’t understand this,’’ she told me, meaning the dog-show thing.

From then on, it seemed like every other person we met was from Florida, probably not surprising since only seven other states send more dogs to the Westminster, California and New York being the top two.

We spotted Raiden, the magnificent Akita from Coconut Grove who was featured in my story yesterday in the Herald. His owner, lawyer Michael Arias, had just arrived at the hotel with his son Mikey, 2, and Giuseppe Renzulli, Raiden’s handler (who was busier handling a rambunctious Mikey than the impeccably-behaved Raiden). Michael’s wife, Michelle Beauchamp, was staying with relatives.

And there, just inches away, stood Thomas Woden of Key Largo, with Cadi, his adorable Havanese: a silky, gray-and-white little mop of a thing.

“She slept under the seat the whole way,” said Thomas, who’ll be competing against 13 Havanese bitches and 18 males.

Want to buy a champion Havanese puppy? It’ll set you back about $2,000. That’s about $500 a pound (and you thought sirloin was expensive?)

Others from Florida: Melissa Bausman, of North Port, with her Bull Mastiff, Savvy: Ch. Bo-Beck’s Linmor Just Peachy, and Kelly Mt. All American, aka Walker, an American Foxhound from Rockledge – Best of Breed last year – and Virago, a Borzoi from Alachua.

Virago, whose mom won Best of Breed in 2001, got hurt last month in a collision with a downed tree, so owner Chris Neale arranged for a therapeutic massage in the hotel’s basement. Yes, dog massage. Masseuse Debbi Zimmerman gives them, along with aromatherapy. She swears by a lavendar-based spray called Chill Out, for calming the nerves. Virago, zoned out on a fleecy pad, hardly seemed to need it.

A woman named Judy Davis has, for the past eight years, run a dog spa in the basement. It evolved from an indoor latrine into a spa/mall/gym/art gallery/canine snack bar, with bathing and grooming stations, treadmills in various sizes, and a plastic-lined pen filled with wood shaving: His and Hers dog bathrooms. The men’s room thoughtfully features poles wrapped in plastic for your leg-lifting pleasure.

“We go through 125 (8 cubic feet) bales of shavings in five days,” Davis told me. “There’s no more dogs peeing and pooping on the streets of New York. When you have 2,000 dogs, that’s a lot.’’

The most hilarious sight of the evening was Tucker, the national champion pug, looking – dare I say, pugnacious? – as he worked out on a treadmill, with all the focus and determination of a prizefighter. His handler, Esteban Farias, 33, from Argentina, turned out to be from Miami! He’s a 10-time Westminster veteran who has shown boxers, mastiffs, Dobermans, and working dogs. He said that Tucker – Ch. Frodun’s Friar Tuck – is co-owned by two people from Panama and a woman from Memphis.

Tucker is the top dog in America, according to Esteban, based on points earned in all-breed, toy, and pug categories in various shows. He exercises for 30 minutes a day to stay in top shape, and after 10 minutes on the treadmill, showed no signs of flagging.

We ran into yet another South Floridian in the basement: Omar Pitaluga, of Originals By Omar, a Kendall jewelry store. He specializes in hand-crafted gold animal jewelry (got $3,000 for a sapphine-and-diamond-encrusted “blue ribbon brooch?)

And who was kibitzing with him? Nancy Isakson of Fort Lauderdale, with Cali, her #1 bulldog, resplendent in a rhinestone collar and leash with a rhinestone-encrusted collar clip. We featured Cali’s spectacularly wrinkled countenance on the Herald front page yesterday.

Now I’m pretty nuts about my dogs, and dogs in general, but Nancy is simply over the top. There she was in a suede jacket with Cali painted on the back. On one lapel: a marcasite bulldog pin, on the other a pin reading: “Still young in dog years.’’ And around her neck: one of Omar’s hefty gold bulldog pendants.

We didn’t see Cliff Simones of the Redland, with his miniature dachshund Valerie, but no doubt will tonight, at socialite Iris Love’s party at Tavern on the Green – she of the 42 champion dachshunds, many of which will be dressed as Chinese empresses. Stay tuned for what promises to be an amusing (if not surreal) event.


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