Denver Goes to the Dogs

"Now tell me," begins the clueless commentator played by Fred Willard in Best in Show. "Which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?"

Though the question comes off as completely ridiculous in the film's setting at the fictional Mayflower Dog Show, it begs for an answer. Which dog would you choose?

Would you take a purebred German shepherd to plow through the opposing defense? Or draft a wily border collie to weave through the linemen? Maybe you'd opt for a Saint Bernard, with its ability to adapt to any situation should a play fall apart.

"I would definitely choose a greyhound," comments Rene Green of the Plum Creek Kennel Club, "because they're fast."

Dog fans will get a chance to ponder this and other canine concerns at the tenth annual Rocky Mountain Cluster Dog Show, opening Friday, February 18, at the National Western Stock Show Complex. Co-hosted by Plum Creek and the Colorado Kennel Club, the Cluster Show is billed as the largest event of its kind west of the Mississippi.

When you think dog shows, you think competitions -- and this puppy's got a kennel-full.

The confirmation competition is what most people see as the essence of such poochapaloozas. Dogs are judged against their own kind -- to ensure that no Great Danes are passed off as dachshunds, as is the case in so many Disney films. The strongest dog within a specific breed is then moved up to the group competition, where the animals are critiqued according to how well they represent their type. (Sporting dogs, for example, have to measure up as such.) Later, the remaining proud pups bring their A-games back to the ring to determine which one will receive the coveted Best in Show title.

The obedience portion of the competition is more precise and stylized. Dog and handler alike are watched to see how well they respond together to commands given by a judge (a difficult task for dogs prone to distraction or belligerent handlers with authority problems). The team that keeps its cool and performs best is given the High in Trial award.

Finally, the agility contest, as seen on TV, is a fast-paced smorgasbord of canines tearing through tunnels, leaping over jumps, snaking through weave poles and racing over dog walks like crazed whirling dervishes. It's like the Late Show With David Letterman come to life.

When all is said and done, nearly 3,500 dogs representing 156 different breeds will have participated in the four-legged fiesta. But Cluster Show events stretch beyond the confines of the competitive circle. Highlights include a Meet the Breeds segment, in which spectators can get up-close and personal with a different type of dog every hour, and the All- Breed Rescue Network Rescue Parade, a mutt strut featuring purebred and mixed dogs alike that have been rescued from dire conditions and nursed back to health. ABRN handlers will stick around afterward to discuss their experiences with their dogs and how to become involved.

And no confab of this size would be complete without its commercial side -- in this case, an enormous dog mall filled with more than a hundred vendors hawking (or dogging) everything from books to calendars to matching clothing for you and yours.

"It's four days of dogs and fun," says Green. "You can get to know all kinds of different breeds and then do some shopping for your pooch."

Who knows? You may even be able to find that miniature Ashley Lelie jersey to take home to your favorite little wide receiver.

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Adam Cayton-Holland

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