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A lot of things have been canceled in 2020, but at least we can all still watch the National Dog Show.
The Thanksgiving tradition, which will air after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC, will, of course, be different this year because of the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic. But at least it’s not canceled. Instead, the National Dog Show—which occurs this Saturday and Sunday and is then broadcast on Thanksgiving Day—will be a smaller, more isolated version of itself. With no spectators or vendors allowed at the event, the attendance list is so restricted that even the show’s longtime NBC announcers, David Frei and John O’Hurley, won’t be there. They’ll be announcing from home.
The show’s host, The Kennel Club of Philadelphia, also announced last month that the two-day show won’t be benched. Meaning that the dogs won’t be displayed on “benches” for onlookers to see during the competition. (Not that there will be any in-person onlookers, anyhow.)
The show will also be more exclusive. Instead of the 2,000 or so dogs who usually participate, the National Dog Show this year will feature only 600 dogs, all of whom are already considered champions of their breeds, meaning they’ve already fared well in dog shows and have the points to prove it.
“They’ve already proven themselves as a quality show dog by winning a championship in other shows,” Frei says.
While there are some things that won’t happen at the show this year, it will include three new breeds. The Barbet will compete in the Sporting Group. The Belgian Laekenois joins the Herding Group. And the Working Group adds the Dogo Argentino to its lineup.
Ahead of the show this week, Daily Paws spoke with Frei and O’Hurley about announcing the one-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) revised show, what new viewers should expect, and which dogs they’ve hoped to see win.
(This interview has been edited for clarity, length.)
Daily Paws: Is the lack of crowd going to be the biggest adjustment for you two?
John O’Hurley: No, the biggest adjustment will be that David and I will be hosting the show from the comfort of our homes. So for the first time in 19 years, we’re actually enjoying turkey dinner with our families. But, we’ll be watching the show on the sofa with our dogs just as America will—and hosting at the same time. So it’s going to be, certainly, a different change this year. We’ll miss our NBC family that we see every year on premises, but unfortunately these are circumstances beyond anybody’s control, and we’re making the best of it we possibly can.
You will see the pandemic protocols of social distancing and masks worn by the handlers and the judges alike, but that aside you will still see the same quality show that we bring you.
DP: John, you’ve called the National Dog Show “the happiest day of the year.” Do you feel we need that happiness even more this year?
JO: Well, it does have special significance by the fact that we have been able to maintain the show. There was always some question even with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, whether they were going to be able to put together a presentation of any sort. And that of course spilled over into our show as to how we were going to be able to do it, given the number of people we are limited by, the regulations of the local municipal governments, all of these restrictions.
I’m grateful to NBC and our production team for being able to commit to the fact that we’re going to bring this show as part of this 19-year tradition for the holidays. I would’ve been very upset, I think, had we had to put it aside for a year. I think everybody would be, too. I think people really look forward to this every year. Whether you’re 4 or 94, there’s something in it for you. And I think this year, it’s going to be a nice Hallmark moment, if I can coin a phrase right there, that offers a much-needed sense of relaxation.
"I think people really look forward to this every year. Whether you’re 4 or 94, there’s something in it for you."
DP: What’s the one thing dog show newcomers should know before they flip on the TV on Thanksgiving?
JO: As David always says, you can’t help but be drawn to the cute factor of the show. But the dogs are not really competing in their cuteness, they are competing against the written standard for their breed. The judges, they’ve got to put their hands on the dog to actually see that the dog is corresponding to what the written specification of what the perfect example of what that breed should represent—rather than “Oh, I like that one, that’s cute” or “Isn’t that a beautiful color?” These things are the nice addendums to what we’re doing in the show but are not really the essence of what we’re making judgements on.
David Frei: I always want people to watch and realize that these are real dogs. They’re family dogs. Monday through Friday they’re at home doing the same things as your dog does at home. We dress them up a little bit, so to speak, and bring them to a dog show on the weekends, and they’re still dogs.
John and I walk around laughing and smiling and saying, “Look at that one.” We do the same thing as everybody else. “Isn’t that cute?” It’s a cute factor. And that always helps. They’ve got to be show dogs, they’ve got to show and they’ve got to be great specimens of their breed, so those are all things John and I will try to point out to people and talk about amongst ourselves. We try to find the dog that excites us most for the day.
DP: Do you two ever pick favorites and do they even win Best in Show?
JO: Every now and then (chuckles). David has a much better eye than I do for certain breeds. I would say there’s been a couple situations, over the 19 years, where I have been able to see something that I would say was exemplary and follow it through all the way to the Best-in-Show competition and, lo and behold, that dog is selected as Best in Show. But that has happened more often on David’s side than mine.
DF: John’s being a little modest. He’s developed a pretty good eye over the years of seeing the dog in the ring. I think we have fun following the dogs. In a normal year 2,000 dogs compete in 208 breeds and varieties, moving forward into seven groups, seven group winners coming together in the very end, and we have seven beautiful dogs standing out there as the finalists, one of whom is going to become Best in Show.
That’s when the heavy money comes out between John and I. (O’Hurley laughs.) We look at whatever dog we like for whatever reason. Maybe it’s a dog that just entertained us or maybe it’s a dog that looks great or maybe it’s a dog that we have an alliance to because of the alma mater factor. John and I both have Cavaliers, so you know if a Cavalier ever gets into that Best-in-Show ring, there’s going to be lots of money on the table then. We have fun with it but we’re like anybody else. We want to be entertained and we want to be entertaining ourselves, and we think we have accomplished that in 19 years.
JO: And true to form, we will be watching from the same sofas as you are.
DP: Is there a dog you’ve never forgotten—but who didn’t win Best in Show?
JO: There’s a breed that comes to mind. I have become kind of a cause célèbre right now for the golden retriever. It’s, first of all, a very popular dog, one of the most popular breeds registered with the American Kennel Club. But it has not in memory won a Best in Show. And I for the life of me can’t give you an honest reason why, because we have had some representatives of that breed that are absolutely stellar examples of perfection. And they still have not won, so I’m always kind of quietly rooting for that perfect moment when they finally say (O’Hurley slips into his announcer voice), “Best in Show goes to the golden retriever.”
"I’m always kind of quietly rooting for that perfect moment when they finally say (O’Hurley slips into his announcer voice), 'Best in Show goes to the golden retriever.'"
DF: I was really drawn to the Havanese named Bono last year, but Bono just happened to run up against a great bulldog named Thor in the final lineup. It’s decided by one person, and that one person doesn’t always pick the same dog that I pick. I would’ve loved to see Bono do more, but I think what Thor did to win was well-deserved and Bono had other days. He was the No. 1 dog in the country all year long, so it was just one time Bono didn’t get through.
But there’s always somebody in there that you say, “Jeez, I wish that dog had won” or “I wish that dog could have won.” But that’s what the dog show is all about. You find the dog you love and root for it. Call it the alma mater factor. You’ve got a Brittany at home, then you should root for the Brittany, and I think that’s part of the enjoyment.
"...that’s what the dog show is all about. You find the dog you love and root for it."