Putting on the Dog Big time: An Akita from Dundalk vies for top honors at the Westminster Kennel Club Show in Madison Square Garden.

February 17, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Tundra's favorite things are animal crackers, kissing, liver and her owners Ed, Jenna and Christopher Lipnickas, not necessarily in that order. If she suspects an animal cracker is nearby, a little frown of anxiety appears on her broad forehead, between her triangular velvet ears, and she gazes up with unblinking, warm, brown eyes and cocks her head.

She gets a lot of crackers this way.

Tundra is a show dog. Her formal name is American Canadian Champion Northstar's Polar Express, and she's dozing in the back of a van as it rolls through darkness from Dundalk to New York City. She snores; her owner drives. At 3:30 a.m., there's little traffic, so Mr. Lipnickas has time to go over his list of dog-show necessities: leather lead, water bucket, brush, spot fur cleaner, squeaky mouse, extra chain collar, wide-toothed comb, coat conditioner, liver. Crackers.

Who knows what might go wrong? What might go right? Like he has said over and over as though it's his mantra, "All you can do is do your best." But then he shakes his head: Who's he kidding? This is the Westminster Kennel Club Show, which was held last Monday and Tuesday. Only dogs that already have earned the title "champion" are allowed to enter.

This is the heavyweight championship of the American canine kingdom. The super bowl of dogdom.

For 120 years, 2,500 dogs -- from sleek-coated pointers to silky salukis -- have come to Madison Square Garden to compete for one of the most coveted titles in the dog world: Westminster's Best of Show. "I've watched Westminster on TV for years," Mr. Lipnickas says without taking his eyes from the highway. "Until last year, I never even thought I'd be watching it in person. Now this: I'll bestanding in the ring with a dog."

He flexes his shoulders and tries to relax.

* Inside the Garden, the eight show rings lie dark and silent, their green Astroturf spotless, ready for the lights to go on, the show to begin.

Backstage it already has. The humid air resonates with yips and woofs. A woman rushes by clutching to her chest a small Pekingese and a large hair dryer. Two French bulldogs strain against their leashes to greet each other, stubby nose pressed to stubby nose. A vendor yells "dogalog!" (Not catalog.) Above it all, poofs of hairspray form clouds as harried grooms fluff and tweak their charges' fur.

Deborah Riba-Terista of Danvers, Mass. wears her Basenji, a small, short-haired dog with a perpetually wrinkled brow, around her neck. "This is a great way to meet men," she says. The Basenji, which originated in Africa, are considered "barkless" dogs, but they like to chortle and yodel. They've been known to disrupt formal dog shows by yodeling when the national anthem is played.

The long hall where Ms. Riba-Terista stands is divided into rows of dogs separated by breed. Beautiful people stroll through -- some leading beautiful dogs, some ogling them. There's a lot of fur here. Not all of it is on the dogs.

Vending booths crammed with dogibilia line the walls. Dog lovers can purchase English setter soaps and bulldogs in bronze. There are dalmatian-print shorts for sale and aprons embroidered with black labs. There is a $250 antique Boston terrier hatpin.

A tall, thin woman in a full-length gray fur coat and furry boots strolls by with a Chinese crested, a slender dog, bald except for tufts of pale gray fur on his head and feet. In an area set aside for dogs to relieve themselves, a quaking 7-pound Italian greyhound eyes a 199-pound mastiff; both seem nervous. "Oh, Romeo," sighs the woman at the end of the greyhound's leash. "Please."

Mr. Lipnickas finds Tundra's row between the bullmastiffs and Bernese mountain dogs. Like the grouchy-face bullmastiffs and black-and-tan mountain dogs, Akitas are considered among the "working dogs," a group that also includes Alaskan Malamutes, boxers, Great Danes, Great Pyrenees, komondorok, kuvaszok, mastiffs, Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, Portuguese water dogs, Rottweilers, Samoyeds, Siberian huskies and standard Schnauzers.

Tundra will compete first against other Akitas. The winner of each breed contest will compete against other breed winners for the title "Best in Group." Finally, group winners vie for the most prestigious title: Best of Show.

Tundra doesn't look worried. She steps out of her kennel, sniffs the air, then stretches and yawns. She's seen dog shows before.

She is majestic and looks like a cross between a husky and a panda -- covered with lush red and white fur. When she's happy, her tail curls tightly above her back. Her feet are neat, like a cat's, and she moves with feline grace.

But at 96 pounds, Tundra is almost too big to be a great show Akita. Though male Akitas reach 110 pounds, females usually weigh 80 to 90. What Tundra has, though, is something breeders call "type," or a combination of qualities that screams "Akita."

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