(Adds result of Labrador competition)
By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK, Feb 12 (Reuters) - A crowd-pleasing Old English sheepdog with just three previous shows to his name emerged as a surprise contender for Best in Show in the 137th Westminster Kennel Club dog show, which concludes Tuesday night.
Swagger, a 20-month-old, 90-pound (40-kg) cloud of white and gray fur, drew some of the loudest cheers of the night as he won Best in Group for herding dogs on Monday at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
He will be one of seven finalists in the Best of Show category. Three other Best of Group winners advanced on Monday, with three more - from the sporting, working and terrier groups - due to qualify on Tuesday.
Among those competing in the sporting group will be a 3-year-old Labrador retriever, Kiefer, on whom rest the hopes of long frustrated Lab lovers. Kiefer beat out 53 other Labradors on Tuesday to win Best of Breed. The Lab, a fan favorite, has yet to win Best of Show at Westminster.
More than 2,700 dogs were due to compete over two days. Contenders represent all 50 U.S. states, organizers said, and there are more than 100 foreign entries from countries such as Brazil, Croatia, France and Japan.
Swagger, the sweet-natured sheepdog, was a late entry this year, after Westminster expanded its rules to allow so-called class dogs, or dogs that have not won enough shows to be considered champions under American Kennel Club rules, for the first time since 1991.
“He’s such a cool dog,” owner-handler Colton Johnson said of the happy-looking dog whose eyes were barely visible through his shaggy coat. “He’s a natural.”
Swagger is so young he still has not shed all his puppy fur, said Johnson, of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Swagger joined an athletic American Foxhound called Jewel, a small black Affenpinscher named Banana Joe and a fluffy white Bichon Frise called Honor to vie for Best in Show after winning their respective herding, hound, toy and non-sporting groups on Monday.
The Labrador retriever has been the most popular purebred dog in the United States for the last 22 years, according to American Kennel Club registration statistics, in part because of its versatility. Besides being an ideal family pet, it is used in search-and-rescue operations by law enforcement, and as a guide dog for the blind.
One Labrador expert suspected that Labs suffer from being described as “goofy, sturdy, big working dogs” unlike some of the sleeker, flashier breeds.
“Look at that Pointer over there. You can tell it can run 100 miles per hour just by looking at its body,” said Robin Anderson, of Seekonk, Massachusetts, editor of the Labrador Retriever Club newsletter, and herself a breeder-owner with five Labradors at this year’s show.
“A Labrador goes in the ring and its tongue is hanging out on one side and its galumphing along. You love it, but you don’t think of it as a show dog,” she explained.
Among her Labs at the show was Shooter, a 7-year-old chocolate Labrador that seemed content to be constantly surrounded by children attending the show. (Editing by Daniel Trotta and Gunna Dickson)