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Putting on the Dog Big time: An Akita from Dundalk vies for top honors at the Westminster Kennel Club Show in Madison Square Garden.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tundra's favorite things are animal crackers, kissing, liver and her owners Ed, Jenna and Christopher Lipnickas, not necessarily in that order. If she suspects an animal cracker is nearby, a little frown of anxiety appears on her broad forehead, between her triangular velvet ears, and she gazes up with unblinking, warm, brown eyes and cocks her head.

She gets a lot of crackers this way.

Tundra is a show dog. Her formal name is American Canadian Champion Northstar's Polar Express, and she's dozing in the back of a van as it rolls through darkness from Dundalk to New York City. She snores; her owner drives. At 3:30 a.m., there's little traffic, so Mr. Lipnickas has time to go over his list of dog-show necessities: leather lead, water bucket, brush, spot fur cleaner, squeaky mouse, extra chain collar, wide-toothed comb, coat conditioner, liver. Crackers.

Who knows what might go wrong? What might go right? Like he has said over and over as though it's his mantra, "All you can do is do your best." But then he shakes his head: Who's he kidding? This is the Westminster Kennel Club Show, which was held last Monday and Tuesday. Only dogs that already have earned the title "champion" are allowed to enter.

This is the heavyweight championship of the American canine kingdom. The super bowl of dogdom.

For 120 years, 2,500 dogs -- from sleek-coated pointers to silky salukis -- have come to Madison Square Garden to compete for one of the most coveted titles in the dog world: Westminster's Best of Show. "I've watched Westminster on TV for years," Mr. Lipnickas says without taking his eyes from the highway. "Until last year, I never even thought I'd be watching it in person. Now this: I'll bestanding in the ring with a dog."

He flexes his shoulders and tries to relax.

* Inside the Garden, the eight show rings lie dark and silent, their green Astroturf spotless, ready for the lights to go on, the show to begin.

Backstage it already has. The humid air resonates with yips and woofs. A woman rushes by clutching to her chest a small Pekingese and a large hair dryer. Two French bulldogs strain against their leashes to greet each other, stubby nose pressed to stubby nose. A vendor yells "dogalog!" (Not catalog.) Above it all, poofs of hairspray form clouds as harried grooms fluff and tweak their charges' fur.

Deborah Riba-Terista of Danvers, Mass. wears her Basenji, a small, short-haired dog with a perpetually wrinkled brow, around her neck. "This is a great way to meet men," she says. The Basenji, which originated in Africa, are considered "barkless" dogs, but they like to chortle and yodel. They've been known to disrupt formal dog shows by yodeling when the national anthem is played.

The long hall where Ms. Riba-Terista stands is divided into rows of dogs separated by breed. Beautiful people stroll through -- some leading beautiful dogs, some ogling them. There's a lot of fur here. Not all of it is on the dogs.

Vending booths crammed with dogibilia line the walls. Dog lovers can purchase English setter soaps and bulldogs in bronze. There are dalmatian-print shorts for sale and aprons embroidered with black labs. There is a $250 antique Boston terrier hatpin.

A tall, thin woman in a full-length gray fur coat and furry boots strolls by with a Chinese crested, a slender dog, bald except for tufts of pale gray fur on his head and feet. In an area set aside for dogs to relieve themselves, a quaking 7-pound Italian greyhound eyes a 199-pound mastiff; both seem nervous. "Oh, Romeo," sighs the woman at the end of the greyhound's leash. "Please."

Mr. Lipnickas finds Tundra's row between the bullmastiffs and Bernese mountain dogs. Like the grouchy-face bullmastiffs and black-and-tan mountain dogs, Akitas are considered among the "working dogs," a group that also includes Alaskan Malamutes, boxers, Great Danes, Great Pyrenees, komondorok, kuvaszok, mastiffs, Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, Portuguese water dogs, Rottweilers, Samoyeds, Siberian huskies and standard Schnauzers.

Tundra will compete first against other Akitas. The winner of each breed contest will compete against other breed winners for the title "Best in Group." Finally, group winners vie for the most prestigious title: Best of Show.

Tundra doesn't look worried. She steps out of her kennel, sniffs the air, then stretches and yawns. She's seen dog shows before.

She is majestic and looks like a cross between a husky and a panda -- covered with lush red and white fur. When she's happy, her tail curls tightly above her back. Her feet are neat, like a cat's, and she moves with feline grace.

But at 96 pounds, Tundra is almost too big to be a great show Akita. Though male Akitas reach 110 pounds, females usually weigh 80 to 90. What Tundra has, though, is something breeders call "type," or a combination of qualities that screams "Akita."

When you see Tundra, her owners explain, there's no confusing her with, say, a German shepherd. "She's the typiest bitch you'll ever see," Mr. Lipnickas says proudly. But, he adds anxiously, when Tundra is bored, she lets her tail droop.

A seemingly small thing like that could cost her a win.

* The world of dog shows is competitive and expensive. A show-quality (unproven) puppy might cost $1,500. A good professional handler can cost $200 to $400 a day. Show entry fees may be only about $30, but that doesn't include traveling to and from shows, staying in a hotel, food. Then there's care and feeding of a dog, vet bills, grooming products, treats and toys.

Breeding, training and handling a top show dog takes years of effort, years of following blood lines, years of experience.

By most standards, the Lipnickases are newcomers. "We're puppies!" Ms. Lipnickas exclaims. But her desire to own an Akita is years old: Ever since third grade, when she saw a picture of "this fawn colored, really different dog," Ms. Lipnickas has yearned for an Akita. Her mother told her to wait until she got married.

She did. In 1989, three months after they got married, the Lipnickases bought their first Akita: Shea, a female with fur that looks like German chocolate cake marbled with dark chocolate. Then they bought another Akita. And another. "Once you get one, you want more," explains Ms. Lipnickas.

Now they own 14. The Lipnickases, their 4 1/2 year-old son, three female Akitas and nine puppies live in their Dundalk rowhouse. ++ Two male dogs live with friends or relatives, and, the Lipnickases emphasize, the puppies will soon be sold to good owners. (Show-quality pups will cost $1,200, the pet-quality dogs, less.)

Mr. Lipnickas, who is allergic to dogs and has to use an asthma inhaler if there is too much fur, rises at 4:30 every morning to walk some of them. A computer operator, he is at work by 6 a.m. and home again around 3 p.m.

Ms. Lipnickas, who two years ago hurt her shoulder in a traffic accident so badly that she no longer works as an office manager, takes care of the business end of breeding and showing -- tracing blood lines, talking to other breeders, dealing with phone calls.

She bathes the dogs. He grooms and walks them. She organizes what will be needed at shows, deals with bills, gets up every hour to care for the puppies. He is learning to be a dog handler.

They seem to be getting the hang of it. Last year, one or both Lipnickases attended about 80 dog shows. In the past few years, two of their dogs have earned the right to call themselves champions in the U.S. and in Canada. Last year at the Westminster Show, one of them, American Canadian Champion Kabuki's Sittin' On A Gold Mine, ("Blaise" to her friends) was named "Best Opposite," a title given to the best Akita of the opposite sex from the breed winner. At the Garden!

But last year, they hired a professional to handle their dog at the Garden. This year, Ms. Lipnickas is at home caring for the new puppies, and Mr. Lipnickas is on his own.

*

It's time. Mr. Lipnickas opens the kennel door and Tundra slips out, her ears tilted forward, tail curled tightly. Mr. Lipnickas, wearing suit and tie like all the Garden handlers, is sweating. He breathes deeply from his inhaler. "Let's rock and roll, baby girl," he whispers.

Thirty-four Akitas trot into the ring.

There's Champion Kuhl's Tar Baby's Baby. Champion Aiken's Five Studd Aces Wild. Champion Mai Obsession. The dog to watch, though, is a huge brown and white Akita from California: Champion Chiheisen's Take It To The Maxx, aka, "Dude."

With a flick of his hand, the judge tells handlers and dogs to trot around the ring. Carefully, he examines each dog's teeth, fur, tail. He again commands them to prance around the ring. He motions: 15 dogs are asked to leave the ring; they have already lost. But not Tundra.

She does her best: She pricks up her ears, she prances on demand, she wears her most endearing expression. Her tail stays curled. For a minute as she stands in the ring, she is the queen of Akitas, queen of Dundalk, queen of the Garden.

The moment doesn't last. To the roar of the crowd, the judge makes his decisions. Dude, the favorite, wins. Another female dog earns the "Best of Opposite." The winners step to the center of the ring to have their portraits taken. The other dogs leave the ring, heading back to their kennels -- for naps and quite possibly treats.

"Good girl!" Mr. Lipnickas says to Tundra. "Did you see that? She was great. She was good the whole way through." Then he wipes his brow and looks at Dude. "That's a helluva dog! A helluva dog!" he says.

Tundra seems unimpressed. She waves her creamy white tail gently and does her cracker look.

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