RALEIGH — Like many of the dogs parading around the N.C. State Fairgrounds this weekend, 14-month-old Breeze could be classified as both a pet and an aspiring champion.
A yellow Labrador with an impossibly cute face, Breeze made her dog show debut at a five-day event that has come to be known as Raleigh's version of the legendary Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
"At this point, we think she's a good prospect," said Elizabeth Mayo, Breeze's owner and a breeder from Mocksville.
From Thursday through Monday, more than 1,000 dog owners paid $26 each day to have their pooch's temperament, body type and hygiene scrutinized by judges. Many owners hired professional handlers to trot their dogs around the ring.
Although the recession has reduced the number of dogs being entered in many dog shows around the country, organizers of the Raleigh event said this year's numbers were up slightly from last year.
"To the vast majority, it's about the love of the sport," said Steve Wallis, a member of the Raleigh Kennel Club. "It's not a business. It's a hobby."
An expensive hobby, to be sure, given all the travel, training and pampering required to develop a champion.
Most of the dogs competing in Raleigh over the weekend were trying to earn a portion of the 15 points necessary for a dog to be classified a champion.
Peter, a 19-month-old Afghan hound with long, feathered hair like a 1980s rock star, earned three points during the competition.
Peter's owner, Alane Shaefer of Salisbury, said Peter drew praise from a judge Friday and then was largely ignored Saturday -- a scenario that is not uncommon given that dog shows are essentially subjective beauty pageants.
"One day you can be on top, and the next day you're dumped," Shaefer said. "They always say if you win big, don't come back tomorrow."
Dogs who came away winners didn't earn their owners any money, just a ribbon and the satisfaction of watching a loved one succeed on a big stage.
Much of the appeal of visiting the dog show is taking in the 136 breeds and talking to owners about what makes each breed special.
There's the elegance and intelligence of longhaired dachshunds, the loyalty of Great Danes and the Irish wolfhound's amazing sense of family.
If there's one thing all these highly trained dogs have in common, it's their ability to be persuaded by the offer of a tasty treat.
"Chicken wieners, that's what we use for bait," said Carol Rice, a Florida handler who entered four Cavalier King Charles spaniels, a pug and a Shih Tzu in the competition. "That and liver."
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