(Corrects number of foreign countries in 15th paragraph)
By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK, Feb 11 (Reuters) - An athletic American foxhound, a little black affenpinscher, a fluffy white bichon frise and a shaggy old English sheepdog won best in group at the 137th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Monday, advancing to the best in show competition on Tuesday.
Judges picked the best in the hound, toy, non-sporting and herding groups on Monday. The best of the sporting, working and terrier groups will be picked on Tuesday evening, before the winner of each of the seven groups goes forward to compete for best in show.
The old English sheepdog Swagger, the youngest group winner at 20 months old, won some of the loudest cheers of the night at New York’s Madison Square Garden and took best of group for herding dogs. A happy-looking dog owned by Colton and Heather Johnson from Colorado Springs, Colorado, Swagger’s eyes were barely visible under his shaggy white and gray coat.
“He’s such a cool dog,” said Colton Johnson, also the dog’s handler. “He’s a natural.”
The 5-year-old affenpinscher Banana Joe defeated 22 other toy breeds, including an elaborately groomed toy poodle, a Pekingese and a shih tzu. Banana Joe lives with his handler Ernesto Lara in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and will return as a champion to the Netherlands, where he was bred, after the show.
“He’s a beautiful specimen of his breed,” Lara said. “They have to have a comic seriousness. They’re not supposed to be aware they’re so funny when they are.”
The French name for the affenpinscher - diabolotin moustachu - means “mustached little devil,” according to the Westminster Kennel Club.
The first winner of the night was a 3-year-old female American foxhound named Jewel, co-owned by handler Lisa Miller and Ellen Charles from the Baltimore area.
Jewel, a scenthound with a magnificent brown, black and white coat, won the best in breed competition for the foxhound last year as well. This year she advanced a step further, capturing the blue garland as the best among 30 breeds of hound.
The non-sporting winner, a bichon frise named Honor, 4, lives with his Australian-born handler Lisa Bettis in Goshen, Indiana.
“He has a great attitude and he’s a cute little show dog,” said Bettis, who has been going to the Westminster show for 22 years.
The buzz surrounding this year’s show has been about whether a Labrador retriever, America’s most popular breed, could finally win best in show with Westminster judges. Wire fox terriers, for example, have won best in show more than a dozen times.
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 on Tuesday.
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.
This year’s dogs come from all 50 U.S. states and more than 100 dogs come from foreign countries, organizers said.
The 2012 show was won by Palace garden Mal achy, a male Pekingese, who, as is traditional, has since retired. (Editing by Daniel Trotta, Eric Beech and Mohammad Zargham)