NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hundreds of America's best-kept and well-behaved dogs paraded before judges and an adoring public on Monday in the 137th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where Labrador lovers longed for an upset victory for Best of Show.
Judges were picking the best in the hound, toy, non-sporting and herding groups on Monday. The best of the sporting, working and terrier groups were to be picked on Tuesday evening, before the winner of each of the seven groups goes forward to compete for Best in Show.
In all, more than 2,700 dogs were due to compete over two days, including at least 50 Labrador retrievers in the sporting group whose owners are hoping to make history and bring home the top prize.
Among the 100-plus breeds competing on Monday were papillons, dainty toy dogs known for their floppy butterfly-like ears.
Each dog was brought into the ring by a handler who periodically fed them nibbles of chicken meat or liver - known as 'bait' in dog show circles - and teased at their coats with combs and brushes.
One by one, they cantered about in a small circle before being lifted onto a table to be inspected and palpated by the judge.
"You judge against the standard," said Burton Yamada, who judged Westminster's Best in Show in 2004, as he watched from the crowded sidelines. "If it says it should have round eyes and they have almond eyes then that's a fault. The standard might say alert. Well, what's alert?"
The American Kennel Club sets the standard, and the process reminded Yamada of his work in missile engineering, which also requires following tight specifications, he said.
"The rest of it is how they move, expression, if they're up that day," Yamada said.
All 19 papillons had been called back to the ring for a final trot and appraisal by judge Peter Green, who called forward InVolo The King Of Pop, also known as Jackson, as the best in breed.
Jackson's owner, 22-year-old Gia Garofalo of Washington Township in New Jersey, chose to handle her dog herself, although many owners hire professional handlers who can command many thousands of dollars in fees and tips in the case of a victory.
She posed with the dog and the judge for a picture, which the photographer took with the help of a squeeze squawking carrot toy.
"It's awesome because we're owners and handlers. It's a thrill," Garofalo said before hurrying away, Jackson tucked under her arm.
The Labrador retriever has for years been America's most popular breed, just not with Westminster judges. Wire fox terriers, for example, have won Best in Show more than a dozen times.
This year, two newly recognized breeds have been approved to appear in the show: the treeing Walker coonhound, a tall, flappy-eared descendant of the foxhound; and the Russell terrier, the subject of some controversy stemming from the differing taxonomic habits of kennel clubs in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia.
For the first time, the show is being held in two venues. Judges were deciding the best in breeds at exhibition halls on piers on the Hudson River. The winners will then head to the show's regular venue at Madison Square Garden, where best in group judging will take place on Monday and Tuesday nights before culminating in the Best in Show event, to be judged by Michael Dougherty of Escondido, California.
This year's dogs come from all 50 states, organizers said, with the majority from New York and California. There are more than 100 foreign entries, including dogs from Brazil, Germany, Croatia and Japan.
The 2012 show was won by Palacegarden Malachy, a male Pekingese, who, as is traditional, has since retired.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta, Bernard Orr)