Long the province of the purebred, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show is opening a doggie door this year to mixed-breed competitors.
While Labradoodles, puggles and who-knows-whats won't be able to vie for the prestigious Best in Show award, they'll be included in its new agility trial.
It's a notable embrace for the nation's premier canine event, which also is adding three breeds at next month's show: the Chinook, the Portuguese podengo pequeno and the rat terrier. No mixed-breed dogs have appeared anywhere at Westminster since the 138-year-old event's early days, organizers said at a news conference Wednesday.
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But this year, Alfie the apparently-part-poodle, part-terrier will be among the dogs weaving around poles, walking up a plank and springing over jumps on the agility course.
Alfie's background isn't rarefied. Owner Irene Palmerini spotted him in a mall pet store, marked down to $99. She wasn't planning to get a dog, but she felt for the curly-haired, black-and-white puppy and took him home to Toms River, N.J.
He proved to have more energy than even 4-mile daily walks could absorb, and agility training provided an outlet. About seven years later, Palmerini is thrilled that Alfie will be among the mixed breeds — or "all-American" dogs in Westminster parlance — going up against purebred competitors at the elite event.
"I didn't breed this dog to do agility. He's just my pet," Palmerini said. "(Agility) is just about performance. It doesn't matter what your dog looks like. It doesn't matter who their mother or father was."
The pros and cons of pedigreed and mixed-breed animals have long been a sensitive subject in dogdom; animal rights activists have protested Westminster itself. They see dog breeding as an unhealthy exercise in genetic engineering and say it's insensitive to breed dogs while others languish in shelters. Purebred enthusiasts, meanwhile, consider breeding a way to develop and preserve different traits and help people select a compatible pet.
Westminster leaders say the show is a celebration of all dogs, and they're pleased to make a place for mixed-breeds in a fast-growing canine pursuit.
"We're very excited about the fact that Westminster can play a leadership role in embracing, really, the sport of dogs," purebred or not, said Westminster President Sean McCarthy.
While mixed breeds may now have a nose under the tent, Westminster's main event will still be selecting the Best in Show dog Feb. 11 from more than 2,800 entrants in 187 American Kennel Club-recognized breeds and varieties. They include 76 Labrador retrievers, 58 golden retrievers and 52 French bulldogs, but also robust entries from some lesser-seen breeds — such as roughly 30 Tibetan mastiffs, show chairman Thomas Bradley III said.
As for the newcomers, the Portuguese podengo pequeno (pronounced poh-DEHN'-goh peh-KAYN'-yoh) is a compact rabbit hunter. The rat terrier is, well, just what it sounds like. Bred to rid farms of rodents, they're known as game, versatile and intelligent — "they can think for themselves," said breeder Robin Lutwinas of Enfield, Conn.
The Chinook, New Hampshire's official state dog, was developed there as a sled-puller with power, endurance and a companion-dog temperament, said breeder Perry Richards of West Haven, Vt.
"These guys work. And then lie on the couch and watch a football game," added his wife, Patti.