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New event is mutts' best friend

| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 6:54 p.m.

NEW YORK — When the nation's foremost dog show added an event open to mixed breeds, owners cheered that everydogs were finally having their day.

They see the Westminster Kennel Club's agility competition, which will allow mutts at the elite event next month for the first time since the 1800s, as a singular chance to showcase what unpedigreed dogs can do.

“It's great that people see that, ‘Wow, this is a really talented mixed breed that didn't come from a fancy breeder,' ” said Stacey Campbell, a San Francisco dog trainer heading to Westminster with Roo!, a high-energy — see exclamation point — husky mix she adopted from an animal shelter.

“I see a lot of great dogs come through shelters, and they would be great candidates for a lot of sports. And sometimes they get overlooked because they're not purebred dogs,” Campbell said.

Roo! will be one of about 225 agility dogs whizzing through tunnels, around poles and over jumps before the Westminster crowd. And, if she makes it to the championship, on national TV.

Animal-rights advocates call the development a good step, though it isn't ending their long-standing criticism that the show champions a myopic view of man's best friend.

Westminster's focus is still on the nearly 190 breeds — three of them newly eligible — that get to compete toward the best-in-show trophy; more than 90 percent of the agility competitors are purebreds, too. But Westminster representatives have made a point of noting the new opening for mixed breeds, or “all-American dogs,” in show speak.

“It allows us to really stand behind what we say about Westminster being the show for all the dogs in our lives” while enhancing the 138-year-old event with a growing, fun-to-watch sport, said David Frei, the show's longtime TV host.

Matt Bershadker, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, hopes introducing mixed breeds at Westminster will lead emphasis “away from the aesthetics of dogs to what is special about dogs ... the very, very special connection that people have with dogs.”

Irene Palmerini connected with Alfie, a poodle mix, when she spotted him seven years ago in a mall pet shop, seeming eager to get out of his crate. She wasn't looking for a dog but couldn't resist him.

Nor was she looking to take up canine agility, but he had energy that needed a focus.

Now, she's gearing up to bring Alfie to Westminster, with excitement and a bit of incredulity.

“I'm representing everybody who just sits on their couch with their dog,” said Palmerini, of Toms River, N.J. “He's just our pet.”

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