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Milk-Bone's top-dog contenders

The Baltimore Sun

Jacqueline Falke, a Baltimore veterinarian, has sent out kits to her patients for the past month - not about doggie care, but about voting for her dog to become a national spokespooch.

Wyatt, her boxer who lives with her in Cape St. Claire, was one of 100 dogs selected as finalists to become the "face" of Milk-Bone dog biscuits for 2009, to celebrate the doggie treat brand's 100th anniversary. Wyatt posed with a surgical hairnet and stethoscope to represent his lifesaving skills - he donates blood for dogs that need surgery.

"I thought he needed a platform," Falke said.

The contest is serious business. The prize isn't just free biscuits, the cover of the Milk-Bone box and television commercials. The winner receives $100,000. The 99 runners-up each get a digital camera. More than 6,500 dog owners submitted photos or videos by the Sept. 18 deadline.

But Wyatt has some stiff competition: Cody, a golden retriever from California who is trained to alert his owner when her blood sugar drops; and Shadey, a mixed breed also from California who has helped a 2-year-old autistic boy communicate nonverbally. Then there is Daboo, a mixed breed from Florida, who gamely plays along in his owner's music video. Picture mournful dog expressions flashed on the screen along to a blues song about an empty Milk-Bone box.

Then there's Ginger, a photogenic golden retriever who lives just a quarter-mile away from Wyatt in Cape St. Claire. On the last day to submit entries, Shannon O'Brien begged her mom to let her submit an entry for her No. 1 sidekick. Her mother, Colleen O'Brien, snapped the photo of Ginger sailing midair through a bright blue hula hoop. They uploaded the photo just before the midnight deadline.

O'Brien can't believe she lives so close to another finalist.

"It's really remarkable - our tiny little neighborhood," she said.

Three other dogs from Maryland also made the cut - Benson, a Shih Tzu owned by Kristina Converse from Frederick; Tashi, an Alaskan malamute owned by Patrick Griffin of Bel Air; and Prince, a Bichon frise owned by Yolanda Spencer of Waldorf.

Online voting for the 100 contestants ended Tuesday.

Now there is just the brutal waiting period. The winner will be announced in mid-January. The top vote-getter must pass a background check and be available to travel next year, according to contest rules.

California-based Del Monte Foods, which owns the Milk-Bone brand and several other popular pet foods, has not ruled out an annual contest, but no decision has been made, said Jason Wehner, senior brand manager for Milk-Bone for Del Monte Foods. He said the large list of entries was whittled down by following a certain criteria: whether the photo or video captured the bond between dog and "parent."

"We weren't looking for a certain breed or trick," Wehner said. "It's the day-to-day bonding with our pets, the snuggling with our pets by the television, the morning jogs."

Falke adopted Wyatt from a Boxer rescue group when he was 16 weeks old. She learned from the group that Wyatt was removed from a family after someone kicked the animal down the stairs. She plans to donate a portion of the top prize to Boxer rescue groups.

Wyatt loves to go hiking with Falke and sleeps next to her in bed. They also watch football together.

"He's a momma's boy," Falke said.

O'Brien and her family always wanted a dog, but she and her husband were in the Air Force and did not feel they could adopt a pet until they settled down. After the two retired as master sergeants in 2001, they waited until two years ago to get a dog. Their neighbor, a breeder, offered them twin golden retrievers, Ginger and Lucy. (The O'Briens also own three cats.)

Shannon, 14, chose Ginger because the two spend all of their time together. Ginger patiently listens to Shannon practice piano, watches her do homework and plays basketball out in the yard - Ginger nudges it with her snout.

"Ginger will just sit right on my feet or get up on her hind legs and put her head right here," Shannon said as she touched her chin.

Colleen O'Brien put up a flier in the grocery store about her dog and enlisted friends and family to vote. She home-schools her four daughters, ages 7 to 17, and plans to use the winnings "to keep our family running."

"It would be an enormous gift from God," O'Brien said.

Just to show that there are no hard feelings between the contestants, O'Brien brought a gift basket full of Milk-Bone dog treats when she met up with Falke Sunday at the Broadneck Branch Library. She wanted to thank Falke personally for championing canine blood donation. O'Brien's eldest daughter, Morgan, survived two bouts of leukemia.

"I really share her passion for what she's doing," said O'Brien who has promoted tissue typing for bone marrow registries and banking umbilical cord blood for transplants.

Falke opened up one of the boxes and offered a treat to Ginger. Wyatt caught the whiff of treats and repeatedly knocked the basket over with his nose. Both dogs stuck their snouts in the basket peacefully at first. Then there was a snarl.

"Ginger, it's a gift," O'Brien chided.

Even if Wyatt doesn't take the top prize, Falke will have achieved her goal of spreading the word about dogs donating their blood to veterinary blood banks.

"And we will have saved other dogs," she said.

states with the most finalists:

1. California 11

2. Pennsylvania 9

3. Texas 7

4. Florida, New York 6

5. Maryland 5

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