Behind the Scenes With the Voice of the National Dog Show

John O’Hurley with a Bergamasco, a muscular herding dog with a shaggy coat. Image courtesy of Simon Bruty.

By Nicole Pajer

John O’Hurley used to think his favorite gig was playing J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” but then he got a call that changed his life forever. Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports, reached out and asked if he’d like to be the voice of the National Dog Show presented by Purina.

An avid dog lover himself, O’Hurley knew that it was a gig that he could not turn down. And 17 years later, he still gets excited about hosting the annual competition, a job he considers an absolute dream.

PetMD chatted with O’Hurley to get the scoop on the annual National Dog Show, including what goes on behind the scenes, what we can expect from this year’s festivities, his favorite dog show blooper—which involved a Great Dane leaving him a “giant gift”—and what life is like with his own three pups.

How did you become the voice of the National Dog Show?

Back in 2002, John Miller took home the movie “Best in Show” and he watched it several times over the weekend, laughing hysterically. Then, by Sunday evening, he had an epiphany.

He said, "This is what we have to do for the space between Macy's Parade and football,” because we have this two-hour slice of time that we always ran reruns of “It's a Wonderful Life.” You have millions of people watching the parade. You get nobody watching the reruns of “It's a Wonderful Life.” They had this big lump in their ratings.

Miller said, "I know what we're gonna do. We're gonna do a dog show." And he went in with that idea to the Monday morning meeting at NBC, and they about laughed him out of the office. But he didn't give up, and, by the end of the day, he had licensed “The National Dog Show” from the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, their big show that was just shortly before Thanksgiving.

He called Purina to come on as a presenting sponsor, and by Monday evening, he had the Thanksgiving dog show put together. And Tuesday morning, Miller called me in LA, and I answered the phone. I said, "Hello." And he said, "Woof woof." And that was how it all started. Then they secured David [Frei] as my cohost, and the rest is history. This will be our 17th year now.

How many people tune in each year?

We get nearly 30 million people watching it, and we expect even more than that this year, which is amazing. Those are “Seinfeld” numbers! Nobody does those numbers anymore 'cause you can't find an audience for that anywhere, and it speaks to something about what our dogs mean to us.

It speaks to us about Thanksgiving being the family day of the year. And when you put the two of them together, it rounds off the edges of the best day together. And it speaks to a great piece of television programming.

And are you a big dog fan yourself?

I have three dogs. I've always had a dog in my life. I'm a better person with a dog in my lap. I have a Cavalier King Charles, Sadie May, and a Havanese named Lucy. And I have a little dog that I rescued about a year and a half ago at the opening of a large shelter in St. Louis.

John O'Hurley with his two dogs

John O’Hurley with two of his dogs, Sadie (left) and Lucy. Image courtesy of Simon Bruty.

I was doing the keynote address there to open it up for the Humane Society in St. Louis. And I said, “Really to be speaking, I should have a dog in my arms.” So I went and brought a small dog in the back in the small dog grouping. Our eyes met, and I go, "That's the dog I want."

So I held this little dog in my arms while I did the keynote address there for the opening of this $50 million facility. The dog kept burrowing into my jacket as I'm talking. When I finished my remarks, she had completely burrowed down and was just happy inside.

And so I just opened the lapel and said, "Would you like to come back to Beverly Hills?" So that's little Charlotte, and she has now changed the energy in our house because she now takes the other two dogs, and she rules their lives.

Take us behind the scenes of the dog show.

It's a benched show, which means that all of the dogs, the handlers, the owners—everybody—has to remain for the entire day. So, what happens is it becomes a total interactive event.

We'll have 25,000 people that come into the convention center at Oaks in Pennsylvania, where the Kennel Club of Pennsylvania hosts the show. And they get to walk up and down the aisles. They'll see 2,000 dogs representing approximately 200 different breeds. And the families are just in awe of what they're seeing. The kids have never seen so many dogs in their life.

Not only that; they don't know these different breeds. We have dogs that have no hair. We have dogs that have too much hair. We have dogs that you can hold in the palm of your hand. Every shape, size and configuration of canine is there in the building. And you've got 25,000 people and everybody is happy.

In the environment of dogs, we are always at our best. And that whole feeling just permeates the day. People just love watching the dogs get all poufed and coiffed. And the dogs don't care. They just like to be tended to and it's fun for them. And they love the stimulation of being around people.

I haven't found a single dog that really cares whether they win or not. Or aware of whether they win or not. But they seem to love the heightened energy rush of the day. There's an adrenaline rush for the dogs that are in the ring. And you can feel it because certain dogs are kind of preprogrammed to love those environments. Certain dogs have that little spark.

And are there any funny bloopers that you've had on the job?

We did have one where one of the little dogs got away from her handler and decided that she was gonna run the ring herself. That never happens! I don't even remember what breed it was. But it was small, like a Papillion or something tiny like that. But this dog just ripped its way and just did a beeline around the ring. You couldn't contain this dog. Honestly everybody just screamed, "Swarm, swarm!"

But then my favorite was when, in the Best in Show class—maybe ten years ago—a Great Dane was part of the Best in Show. He won the group and was coming in as one of the seven dogs to progress in the show. And just as he passes the NBC booth where David and I are, the Great Dane, this huge behemoth of an animal, stops dead in its tracks, looks at me and David, and then proceeds to squat down and leave a deposit on the floor that looked like a HAZMAT accident.

They brought out equipment that looked like they were cleaning up after elephants because they had to stop the show, obviously. And they had to clean it up. And that dog looked me straight in the eyes. I always thought it was an editorial comment. And of all dogs, the Great Dane. It couldn't be a little something, just a little innuendo. But no. It was the whole outuendo!

What role does this annual Thanksgiving dog show play in American lives?

The beautiful thing about “The National Dog Show” is that … it is a little bit like “Dancing with the Stars;” there's something for everybody. There's nothing there not to like. And I guarantee that when people who have never seen the show before have the remote in their hand, and they're doing a search and they see the closeup of a dog's face, they're gonna stop. And I think that is the compelling part about it. It’s that dogs just attract us.

I believe this instinctively because I've seen it happen. If 10 people walk on an elevator, and one person walks in holding a dog, all 10 of those people will look at the dog. There's something about this universal good that they put out that I laugh about because they round off the edges of our lives. And that's what dogs do, and that's their magic.

And they don't know what they do. They just do it.

You’ve seen so many dog show champions in the ring; what, in your opinion, makes a dog show champion?

Certain breeds are more distinctive than others. But remember, the Best in Show judge knows what the breed is and knows this is the most excellent example of what that breed is supposed to be, according to the written standard.

Now, for every dog, it's a written standard. And because they have that, they're competing against the written standard, not against each other. So, he's trying to find absolutely the best of the best of the best, according to the written standard of what the dog should be.

One year, the Irish Setter won. I'm a big Irish Setter fan … They run in with that auburn hair just flying. It's a beautiful show dog. So, the year that that dog won, we had a beautiful demonstration of what a Best in Show—a champion dog—would be, because it's easy to pick it out.

Well, when you have a smaller dog that has a little bit more compact frame, it may not be as easy to see what makes them the best of the best. But it's still the best of what that breed should be. And I think the audience at home gets a little confused with, "Well that dog wasn't as cute as the other dog. I like this other one. It's much cuter." And you know, the cuteness factor, although it's certainly a valid way to watch the show, it doesn't really play into how the dogs will eventually compete.

There are just some dogs that just have it and you can't say why. They come from a breed line perhaps that may have it, and they just grew up with a sense of themselves. It's just interesting to see. Let me put it this way, I've got three dogs at home, and they're three different personalities. That little rescue dog—it's not a pure breed. So it's not a show dog. But you want to talk about confidence? I've never seen confidence in a dog like that.

Anything fun planned for this upcoming show?

Well, we'll be introducing a couple new breeds, which will be fun. And then we have our cohost, Mary Carillo, who we always send backstage to find some fun stories about individual dogs. So that always adds a lot into the show as well. So she always gives that little extra bump to it.

Do you know any of the new breeds that you guys are introducing this year?

The Nederlandse Kooikerhondje and the Grand Basset Griffon Vendeen. The names are so long! I haven't put them up on my mirror yet when I'm shaving to try and memorize them.

Is that the secret to memorizing the breed names? You put them on the mirror?

Yes, it is. Yes. Yep. I just put it up there when I'm shaving in the morning and I go, "Okay the Xoloitzcuintli, Xoloitzcuintli."

What do you love most about your job?

It's the best day of the year for me because for one day, I get to forget all about acting, and I let the dogs be the show. And I'm nothing more than somebody who sits there as an admirer. And all I do is just comment on the joy that David and I have as we're watching.

I also enjoy the education of the history of the breeds. Remember, these breeds are thousands and thousands of years old in many cases. So it's wonderful just to be able to talk about the history of the dogs and what they were bred for.

Historically, dogs were not bred to be pets. Nobody had the time for that. Survival was at the forefront of everybody's day-to-day activities. And dogs were a part of that, so they were bred to herd. They were bred to pull things. They were bred to be ratters. They were bred for warmth ... Lapdogs were meant to keep you warm. Put them at the bottom of your bed to keep your toes warm at night.

Dogs had a function that they served, and the breeds were generated from the need for them to serve a purpose in our lives. Well, today, we are a much more luxurious society, and we have the opportunity to enjoy dogs as pets. But we still keep alive the rich history of the breeding, and that's what the dog show supports.

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