Lance Armstrong leaned forward in his seat, trying to get a better look at the competition. This was his first Westminster – a Tour de French bulldogs, fox terriers and all other canine champions – and he was focused at America’s No. 1 pooch pageant.
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Flanked by his twin 9-year-old daughters, Isabelle and Grace, the cycling champion sat virtually unnoticed in the stands, several rows off the floor.
"It’s a great treat for the three of us to be here," Armstrong said.
Moments later, a parade of long-haired dachshunds entered the show ring at Madison Square Garden.
"These are her dogs," he said, grinning and glancing at Isabelle. "We better pay attention."
Nearly 2,600 dogs are competing, and they all carry the abbreviation "Ch." before their names – it stands for champion, since every purebred dog at the Westminster Kennel Club event has already been a winner somewhere.
This year’s entries come in 179 breeds and varieties. They’re from 49 states – North Dakota is absent – and from several countries, including Thailand, Brazil, Slovenia and Australia.
Armstrong wasn’t the only rookie at Westminster. Six new breeds are making their debuts – Icelandic sheepdogs, redbone coonhounds, Leonbergers, Boykin spaniels, cane corsos and bluetick coonhounds.
Among the other celebrities in attendance: Jane Hammett-Bright, who nearly made the final episode on "Survivor: Nicaragua" last season. She came from Jackson Springs, N.C., with her shetland sheepdogs.
"You can always depend on your dog," she said. "On ‘Survivor,’ you can’t depend on anybody."
The winners in the hound, toy, nonsporting and herding groups were being picked Monday. The top sporting, working and terriers will be chosen Tuesday, and judge Paolo Dondina of Italy will point to the best in show that night shortly before 11 p.m.
That leaves another smooth fox terrier, a bulldog, a boxer, a bearded collie and toy poodle among the many favorites.
Something that’s not such a favorite in the dog show world: A piece in the most recent edition of the journal "Emerging Infectious Diseases" published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In it, a pair of experts in the field of diseases transmitted between animals and human say there are some but small risks for pet owners who let their dogs sleep in bed with them.
The risks, however, are not great when dealing with healthy pets, veterinarians Bruno Chomel and Ben Sun wrote.
Their conclusions were based on reports of such cases, going back to at least 1974, and the sample size was not a large one.
Yet anything that can even slightly rankle a dog lover, such as the suggestion that dogs shouldn’t lick their owners – on the kisser, on Valentine’s Day! – is bound to be barked down.
"I read it and I think that’s insane," said Scott Sommer, who guided a prize bichon frise named J.R. to best in show at Westminster in 2001. "He sleeps with me every night, his head on the pillow. For 13 years, and I’m fine."
"I thought it was a joke," he said.
Others inside the Garden took the same view.
"There’s risks sleeping with anyone," offered star handler Bill McFadden, who led a Kerry blue terrier named Mick to the top prize in 2003.
Aaron Wilkerson handled perhaps the most popular dog in recent Westminster history, a beagle called Uno that won in 2008. He let Uno sleep in his bed after he retired from competition.
"After he won, I figured he could have anything he wanted," Wilkerson said.
American Kennel Club spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said the piece reinforced good pet practices.
"They’re telling you to take your dog to the vet once a year, to wash your hands," she said. "With these dogs, the risk is so remote vs. the benefits people get from sleeping with their pets."
Chomel said he and Sun didn’t intend to alarm anyone, they merely wanted to raise awareness of what they thought was an increasing trend of owners sleeping with their pets.
"In the scientific community, it was very well received. In the dog and cat world, it was a little different," he said. "People went crazy, like if you let your dog sleep with you, you will die. That’s not what we are saying."
"Basically, we didn’t want to scare everybody. We just wanted to let people know that when you take that kind of risk, there are things that may happen," he said.
Chomel said he doesn’t have any pets now. As a kid, he did. And those pets slept on the floor.
"Same room is OK, but having a pet sleep in its own bed is best," he said.