By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - From tiny Chihuahuas to 100-pound (45-kg) Old English Sheepdogs, nearly 3,000 dogs and their handlers will hit the competition floor in New York on Monday for the opening of the two-day 138th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
This year's edition of the prestigious event, which features pure-breed dogs such as the feathery Cocker Spaniel and the playful Labrador Retriever, is expected to be the largest staging since 1990. It will stretch across two New York sites, with initial rounds of judging at a pier along the Hudson River and finals at Madison Square Garden, normally the site of basketball games and concerts.
There will be 190 different breeds and varieties represented in the show by 2,845 expected contestants this year, said Westminster spokesman David Frei.
Two dogs to watch will be a wire fox terrier named Sky and a Portuguese water dog called Matisse, both of whom performed well in shows earlier in the year, Frei said.
But Frei, who co-hosts the television broadcast of the competition, cautioned that no dog is ever a shoo-in.
"The thing about Westminster is it's the only time all the great dogs from the year are together at the same time," he said in a telephone interview. "It's very competitive."
A crowd-pleasing Old English sheepdog called Swagger who was a surprise contender for Best in Show last year before being declared a runner-up will return this year.
The competition focuses on the appearance of a dog as compared with a breed standard. It follows the organization's first dog agility contest, which was held on Saturday, and, in another first for the group, was open to mixed-breed entrants.
A 7-year-old border collie named Kelso from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, won that event, a timed run that required the dog to clear 18 obstacles, leaping hurdles, speeding through tunnels, and weaving through poles.
On Monday, attention will turn to the first of the three new breeds making their debut at this year's event: the Portuguese Podengo Pequeno, a fuzzy, pointy-eared hound.
Karen Oglesby, the 35-year-old handler of a 2-year-old Pequeno who will be competing, said she is looking forward to the experience.
"There's a lot of buildup to it, a lot of preparation," she said by phone. "Honestly, I just want to go and show and have fun, and if we get ribbons, we get ribbons."
Tuesday's highlights will be the debuts of the Chinook, a husky-like breed developed in New Hampshire, and the spotted Rat Terrier.
Dogs from all 50 U.S. states, including large numbers from New York and California, will compete in this year's event, with some 127 foreign entries, including dogs from Finland, Slovenia, Japan and Thailand, expected.
Monday's judging will feature the hound, toy, non-sporting and herding groups. Sporting, working and terrier breeds will be judged on Tuesday.
The winners of those seven categories, each of which includes more than a dozen breeds, will face off on Tuesday evening in the Best in Show event, to be judged by Betty Regina Leininger of Frisco, Texas.
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)