This hot dog's in it strictly for the sausage

Chihuahua's race-day goal: the plate

August 31, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Do not be fooled by his diminutive size, slobbering devotion to smoked sausage or the dainty sweaters he wears in winter. Papageorgio "Poppy" Bidle-Booth is a serious athlete.

Today, with two regional victories under his, uh, collar, the 2-year-old Bay Ridge canine will attempt to blow away the competition today at the Petco Unleashed National Chihuahua Races in San Diego.

But for Poppy, it's not about winning. "He doesn't even know he races," said Rob Booth, 33, who owns the dog with his girlfriend, Brande Bidle, 30.

Rather what speeds the sand-colored pup along the 35-foot course is the sight of Bidle by the finish line and the tempting aroma wafting from the plate of smoked sausage she carries.

Poppy, a Florida native, was adopted at the age of four months after his owners saw an online photo of the dog sitting inside a sombrero. They were instantly smitten by what they describe as his good looks.

"We picked him because he doesn't have an apple head or bug eyes," said Bidle, beaming as the dog licks a reporter's ears. "He has a deer head."

About a year ago, she spotted a flier in a Petco store for a regional Chihuahua race in Southern Maryland. Bidle, a personal trainer and physical education teacher, and Booth started to train Poppy.

"We teach him like he's not a Chihuahua," said Booth. "We didn't want him to be a lap dog that doesn't do anything."

Booth and Bidle recalled how Poppy burst ahead of the pack in his first regional race and ran the 15-foot distance in about 1.5 seconds. The couple added a photo of Poppy with his first-place medal to the pictures of him sheepishly slouching in a hot dog costume or dressed as a bat for Halloween.

The victory secured a free trip for the pooch and his owners to last year's finals in San Diego. But the little dog was confounded by his first trip to the West Coast and the longer length of the race. With so many unfamiliar smells, and an unfortunate accident with a spilled bag of dog chow just before the race, Poppy came in third place.

Booth and Bidle continued training him with long walks around Quiet Waters Park. Booth, who builds custom cars for a living, constructed a racing gate in the front yard of their home.

The couples' other pets help too. Dexter the Siamese cat is a de facto wrestling coach, helping Poppy hone his reflexes with daily bouts on the living room rug. Naboo, the cat with the tortoise-shell coat, appears to help Poppy with the psychological aspects of his sport, helping him improve his concentration by demonstrating long, silent stares.

In the spring, Poppy scored another easy victory in the regional race and won his owners another free trip to California for the national competition. Like last year's event, the race will be held between innings at a San Diego Padres baseball game at Petco Park. If he wins, he'll be granted every dog's dream - a year's supply of food - as well as gift certificates and a trophy.

On an afternoon last week, Booth held Poppy by the racing gate while Bidle walked 35 feet away with a stop watch and a plate of sausage. Booth yanked the gate open and Poppy flew, tiny ears flapping in the wind. He leaped into Bidle's arms and scarfed down a mouthful of sausage.

Bidle held the dog under one arm and the plate in the other. Poppy furiously tried to reach another mouthful, unfurling his long tongue in the direction of the plate.

"He could eat smoked sausage all day, but you give him some to race, and it's like he's never seen it before," Bidle said.

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