NEW YORK — NEW YORK-- --Champion mastiff George Bailee rests his massive head in a pool of jowls. His brow is furrowed. His eyes, in their deep pink pockets, stare straight ahead. He appears unimpressed by the yappy pomp of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, ignoring the schnauzer braced against the gale-force winds of his groomer's blow dryer, and the toy fox terrier whose thighs have recently been polished with a toothbrush.
Only when a piece of hot dog pokes through the bars of his cage does the Cockeysville mastiff stir.
"Good George," says Larry Wolfe to the 215-pound dog, who, after the snack, gazes at his master with an expression of supreme satisfaction. His tongue streams out of the side of his mouth. Tusks of drool hang from both corners.
"How beautiful!" a bystander gasps.
George, naturally, doesn't react, but Wolfe grins at the thrill of it all. In the days before Monday afternoon's competition, George was an ordinary dog romping in his backyard. Now, in a matter of minutes, he'll be competing in the velvet-roped show rings of Madison Square Garden against nearly two dozen of the finest mastiffs in the country.
Wolfe tries not to think about what happened at last year's Westminster, when George nearly knocked over his handler. The whole performance looked so unpolished, so unprofessional, that if Wolfe dwells on it he might start to wonder whether they even deserve to be here. After all, he's a packaging salesman, not some big-time breeder or dot-com millionaire with a private jet to zip dogs across the country. And George is just a family pet.
Even now, with another season of competition under his belt, George sometimes seems out of his element at the country's most prestigious show. Upon arriving at the Hotel Pennsylvania, where many of the dogs stay, George barely sniffed his mixing bowl of dinner and was too frazzled to relieve himself in the sawdust paddock that had been set up in the hotel basement, complete with goofy plastic fire hydrants.
So Wolfe drove him to Central Park instead. It seemed a little more like home.
George Bailee was not intended to be a champion. The long hours of research that Wolfe put into purchasing a dog had nothing to do with the angle of his hindquarters or the beauty of his top line and everything to do with his health. The Wolfe family's first pet mastiff, the sweet but chronically sick Gus, spiked a fever one day and died in the back seat on the way to the vet. Wolfe wanted to protect his wife and two sons from further heartbreak, so he set out to buy the most robust puppy he could find.
George was born in rural Illinois, and Wolfe flew halfway across the country to retrieve him. On that plane ride back four years ago, even the pilot stopped by to see the 25-pound whopper, whose head flopped out of the carrying case he had already outgrown. He settled in merrily at Wolfe Ridge, which is what Larry Wolfe calls his family's sprawling, mammoth-dog-equipped colonial, and proceeded to grow bigger, and bigger.
In a sense George, whose full name is Systo's George Bailee Wolfe, has always been special because of his size. He is huge even for a mastiff, playing fetch with four-by-fours and depositing stalactites of slobber on vaulted ceilings. On a snowy lawn he leaves footprints of almost prehistoric proportions. Still, no one ever guessed that there could be more glory in store for him than his post as the unofficial mascot of the Dulaney Valley High School cross country team, or that one day his sperm would be cryogenically frozen for safekeeping.
Certainly George seemed to lack a typical show dog's outgoing temperament -- he is intensely gentle, almost shy. When frightened, he plunges his head between the knees of loved ones, and he cowers at the sound of a raised voice. He likes to sleep beside Wolfe, his favorite human, both of them snoring away like chainsaws.
"His life is just going from loveseat to sofa, and sofa to loveseat," says Kit Wolfe, Larry's wife -- and George's de facto mom.
"He's just a big goofball," Larry Wolfe says.
Which is why neither one of them believed it when George's breeder first implored them to show the dog. The breeder had seen pictures of the majestic 10-month-old and thought he could be a real contender for champion status.
Larry Wolfe was curious, so he took George to a show at the Howard County Fairgrounds just for kicks. They were novices in a ring with more experienced dogs, and the presentation was an all-around disaster, but Wolfe was hooked. He started working with professional handlers at smaller shows, encouraging George by slipping him bits of fried kosher hot dog. Before long the dog was winning.
A dog's life