Since the National Dog Show’s first broadcast in 2002 on Thanksgiving, the wildly popular competition has gained a loyal following of 25 million viewers. It’s easy to understand why. The show is the ideal thing to curl up on the couch and watch with the family after or before a big meal. Not only is it genuinely entertaining but the announcer’s voices rival golf broadcasters in terms of how well they conjure sleep. Plus: dogs! What’s not to enjoy?
More specifically, the show boasts a roster of 191 different dog breeds that all compete for the coveted title of “Best in Show. As such, a lot of the dogs you watch are breeds you would never see on the street — and that’s what makes the competition so fun and popular. At least, that’s the big appeal according to long-time National Dog Show host and former dog show circuit competitor David Frei.
Frei, who hosted the Westminster show for nearly three decades and has been hosting the American Kennel Club National Dog Show on Thanksgiving since its very first broadcast, is a bit of a breed aficionado himself. In fact, Frei was a breeder, owner, and handler of Afghan hounds for 20 years before he was approached to begin hosting televised and non-televised dog shows. That may be why, this year, he’s looking forwad to watch Anna, a Whippet who has been making waves on the circuit for the past year.
“She won the Hound group at our Beverly Hills show back in March. She’s won a lot of best in shows, she’s a great athlete and a beautiful dog. She’s handled by her breeder and owner, we call that a breeder-owner-handler. “[Anna’s] handler, Laurie Wilson, is one of the few breeder-owner-handlers with a dog that is doing that well. Those of us in the sport who are breeder-owner-handlers, like myself, tend to root for people like that.”
The other dog Frei is keeping his eyes peeled for is an English Springer Spaniel by the name of Timmy.
“Timmy was reserve Best in Show, First Runner-Up last year at the National Dog Show,” Frei says. “He’ll be a good dog to watch. He’s handled by a professional handler and owned and bred by one of the top English Springer people in the country.”
It’s evident in talking to Frei that he really likes his job. He’s very excited about the show — and even if he does have favorites, he also really enjoys the sport aspect of the dog show. Just because a dog has done well in the past, or even on the year’s circuit, doesn’t mean that they’ve got any more chance of winning than a total (no pun intended) underdog.
“The beauty of dog shows is that it doesn’t really matter where you are,” he says. “It’s how you perform on the day, and a judge doesn’t sit out there and say, ‘Well, let’s see what your record is.’ They don’t care about that. They care about how the dog performs on the day. That’s what makes the sport thrive.”
What’s also particularly fun about the National Dog Show is that it’s a “benched” show. Benched shows require that the dogs competing meet the public on the floor, which is exciting because audiences can meet the dogs they are rooting for, and also see dogs aren’t yet approved for competition, like the Nederlandse Kooikerhondje. (But you can call the breed “Kooiker” for short.)
“It’s the last step towards being recognized for full competition by the American Kennel Club,” Frei says.
Frei also sees his job as a sportscaster as an educational role, not just for entertainment. While he knows that only maybe a million of the people watching the dog show are actual “dog show people,” as he refers to them, there are a lot of people who may be keeping their eyes peeled for the next addition to their family.
“It’s my job to… tell you about the dog, tell you what it was bred to do, tell you things about its conditioning needs and its temperament, size and coat,” Frei says. “If [someone watching is] thinking about getting a dog for their family or themselves and they hear the things we are telling them about certain breeds, they may think a breed looks great on TV. And after they hear us talk about it, they say, ‘You know what, that doesn’t really work.’”
So, will the real star of the show be a newcomer or not? “In the end, the real Best In Show dog, for the people who are watching it, is the one that’s sitting at home on the couch next to them. We like this to be a celebration of all the great dogs in our lives.”