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Suzanne Tawes Smith knows it takes more than MapQuest or practice-practice-practice to get to Westminster. It takes a dog of special breeding and countenance. It takes money. It takes friends. From the sound of things, the Beltway bandits now handing out contracts to rebuild Iraq aren’t a whole lot more cliquish than the folks who decide who gets invited to the biggest doggie dance of them all.

But when the increasingly popular annual “olympics of conformation shows” (official title: Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show) kicked off on Feb. 9 at Madison Square Garden, Smith and her prized pooch, Dancer, were there. It was their first time at what organizers say is the second oldest continuous running sporting event in the country—only the Kentucky Derby is older, by just 20 months.

It’s a big deal.

“I can’t believe we made it to Westminster,” Smith says before she and her champion standard schnauzer leave their Potomac, Md., home for NYC and the show. “We’re just so excited! I never dreamed we’d get to this when we got Dancer. We’re not show people. We were just looking for a pet.”

Dog showing is still a prissy subculture. Smith’s 4-year-old, 40-pound pet’s full name is Windsong Irish Dancer; as with all show dogs, his moniker includes the name of the kennel where he was bred. But there are signs that the prissiness is breaking down. Among them: The dog’s New Jersey–based handler—almost all dogs at this level have professional handlers—refuses to call the schnauzer by his proper name.

“She says ‘Dancer’s too feminine,” says Smith. “So she calls him Dan.”

Exposure from 21 straight years of coverage of Westminster by the USA cable network has introduced the hoi polloi to a realm where the well-heeled drop “bitch” casually and often enough to offend Snoop Dogg.

“Within the dog community, Westminster has been the show for some time,” says Leslie Shriner, a schnauzer breeder, groomer, and trainer from Burtonsville, Md. “But within the last few years, that show has gotten much broader appeal, something that a lot more regular people know about, and a show that more pet owners turn on each year just to cheer for their breed of dog.”

The USA broadcasts have inspired parodies of the dog-show subculture that have kept the popularity snowball rolling.

First there was the running “Dog Show” gag on Saturday Night Live, in which cast members played an assortment of canine-obsessed wackos. Then came the dogumentary from 2000, Best in Show, a spoof of the Westminster scene put together by Christopher Guest and featuring many of his cohorts from This Is Spi¬nal Tap.

Guest’s film now has a place in the dog-show world similar to Caddyshack’s in golf.

“Everybody I know has seen it,” says Smith.

“If you feel like you’re one of the people caricatured in that movie, you don’t like it,” adds Shriner. “It’s not incredibly true to life, but it’s sure close enough. We’ve all probably seen the movie, and we’ve all been set up next to that person at a show.”

The growing public interest in dog shows has led to moneyed events. Eukanuba, a maker of premium pet foods, has started up an annual show in Long Beach, Calif., that offers six-figure payouts in prize money—a first for a pastime that long got by with just ribbons and bowls. In late fall, Smith shipped Dancer to California to compete in the Eukanuba show. And although he didn’t take Best in Show, judges heaped enough praise on Smith’s entry to convince her to make a play for Westminster.

Dancer had been showing for only a year. But through extensive travel, hard work, and a whole lot of his owner’s money, he had already accrued enough appearance and placement points on the national show circuit to qualify as a champion standard schnauzer, a base requirement for participating in the Madison Square Garden gig.

But as Smith has found out in the last couple of months, qualifying for competition and actually receiving one of the show’s 2,624 invites are two separate battles.

According to dog-show veterans, the politics of getting into Westminster are such that owners who want to make it to the big show must pay an agent, whose only job is to pull whatever strings are necessary to get their clients an invitation. Without an agent, there’s no invitation.

“The way the system is set up, you have to hire somebody just to hand-deliver your entry,” says Alan Friedlander, president of the Potomac Valley Samoyed Club and an experienced shower. “You need somebody who will actually show up at the Westminster entry office for you at the right time and get your entry in. It helps to know somebody.” Friedlander says that the difficulties of competing in Westminster helped him decide to go this year as just a spectator.

Westminster officials say that an owner’s connections won’t get a dog’s paws in the ring. But good timing and luck might.

“Everybody wants to be here, and that’s reflected in the invitational process,” says David Frei, Westminster spokesperson and the co-host of the show’s telecast. “It takes less than an hour to fill up. You have to have a delivery service right there with your application when we start taking them, or you won’t get in. You have to be lucky.”

Smith admits to hiring a dog agent but declines to go over all the steps she took to land Dancer a spot competing at Westminster.

“I had no idea what it would take to get in,” she says with a giggle when asked exactly what got her the invite. “I will say that it was worth it.”

Smith added that nailing Dancer’s invitation to Westminster took up so much time that she forgot to mail the Christmas cards she had made featuring a picture of the dog. She says she’ll send them out this year. —Dave McKenna