Little girl, big dog woo crowd at Westminster pooch parade

Raina McCloskey, from Delta, Pa., shows Briar, a borzoi, during the 141st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK (AP) — Watching little Raina McCloskey romp around the Westminster dog show ring with her borzoi buddy, it was hard to tell who was leading whom.

Because, really, Briar was so big Raina could’ve ridden him.

There were a lot of warm-and-fuzzy sights when America’s top pooch parade began Monday. But something cuter than a shy 7-year-old girl galloping with an 8-year-old dog nearly double her size?

Hard to imagine. Not with Raina wearing an aqua princess dress and a knit flower in her hair, and her canine companion getting a bit gray in the face.

“Makes me teary-eyed,” said her mom, Kari, of Delta, Pennsylvania.

While No. 1 contender Preston the puli got off to a quick start, Raina and Briar were early crowd favorites.

The handlers who take dogs into the ring at Westminster are almost always adults. There is a portion of the program for junior showmanship, yet even those participants are usually teenagers.

Raina had a question or two — “Mommy, where do I go into the ring?” — and then, with her mother leading a dog right behind her, boldly made her debut in the main draw. As fans noticed the unlikely pairing in the borzoi breed competition, the sweet sound of “awwwww” filled the ring.

When Raina presented Briar to judge Steven Herman, he leaned over and softly asked: “Is he your friend?” She nodded.

Moments later, Raina took a tumble when her pink sneakers caught on a seam of the green, uneven carpet. She bounced up in a hurry without a worry, drew a loud cheer and finished the run alongside Briar.

When her mother checked if she was OK, Raina said her elbow hurt. Her mom kissed the boo-boo.

And then, they both made the first cut of the 27 borzoi entries. Eventually, the best in breed ribbon went to Lucy, who finished second overall last year at Westminster. Kari’s dog, Duckie, won an award of merit.

All in all, a winning day.

“I’m so proud of her, she did a great job,” Kari said.

Asked if she had a fun time, Raina merely smiled. Instead, she kept her eyes on Briar, nuzzling him.

No words necessary.

PULL UPS

Already the winner of 95 best in show titles, 5-year-old Preston is aiming for the big prize.

Preston needed only 2 minutes in the ring to win his breed competition. Then again, he was only puli (pronounced POOL’-ee) among the nearly 2,800 dogs entered in the 141st Westminster event.

“He knows he’s good,” handler and co-owner Linda Pitts said.

Preston is a mop top, known for his thickly corded black coat that takes up to five hours to dry, helped by a couple of industrial carpet blowers that create a “swirly, tornado effect,” Pitts said.

Preston will be in the herding final Monday night at Madison Square Garden, along with the hound, toy and nonsporting groups.

The top of the sporting, working and terriers will be chosen Tuesday night, followed immediately by best in show.

Pitts said Preston is a natural for his group.

“They’re natural herding instinct dogs, so they will herd you to the bathroom, herd you to the refrigerator,” she said. “They nip your heels a little bit, get you moving if you’re not going to their speed, they’ll kind of help you a long a little bit.”

IN OR OUT?

Reigning champion CJ the German shorthaired pointer is entered in the show. But co-owner/hander Valerie Nunes-Atkinson might not have him compete.

Westminster winners rarely try for a repeat — it’s been more than 20 years since any champ stepped back into the Garden ring. The last dog to take two in a row at Westminster was an English springer spaniel in 1971-72.

There is no prize money for winning Westminster. Instead, the payoff can come in breeding rights, so owners often are eager to retire their champions.

German shorthaired pointers are scheduled for breed competition on Tuesday morning.

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