John O’Hurley and David Frei – It’s a Dog Show Life
Updated: Aug 18, 2020
NATIONAL DOG SHOW PRESENTED BY PURINA — “The 12th Annual Nation Dog Show Presented by Purina” in Philadelphia, PA 2013 — Pictured: David Frei and John O’Hurley — (Photo by: Bill McCay/NBC)
John O’Hurley and David Frei
It’s a Dog Show Life
by Jay S. Jacobs
It has become a Thanksgiving tradition, just like turkey, cranberries and too many relatives. The National Dog Show presented by Purina airs annually on the holiday, right after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. After all, what is there to be more thankful for than man's best friend?
Our hosts and guides to the show, which is filmed annually at the Philadelphia Kennel Club's annual event, are a mix of Hollywood suave and dog-world smarts. The suave, silver-tongued John O'Hurley is a TV icon best known for playing Elaine Benes' eccentric boss on the legendary sitcom Seinfeld, as well as winning Dancing With the Stars in 2005.
His co-host David Frei is normally a more behind-the-scenes type, an American Kennel Club-licensed judge who also hosts The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show when not busy working with therapy dogs and as an ambassador to the canine breeding world. We were recently able to speak with O'Hurley and Frei on a conference call with a few other sites about the 12th annual airing of The National Dog Show.
W.C. Fields said to never work with children or animals because they always can steal the spotlight from you. Obviously these are trained dogs, but they are still dogs. What are some of the funniest or cutest unplanned things that have happened at the shows over the years?
John O’Hurley: Well, I’ll pipe in there because I remember several years in, David and I were seated there at the NBC booth. During the group competition, the Great Dane came in and just passed David at the NBC booth. Then [he] just stopped right in front of me and squatted down and left what I will refer to as a “critical donation on my performance.” Yes, that was probably the largest and most significant.
Did you have one, David?
David Frei: Well, I think mine is more of a general nature. I always talk about these dogs as being real dogs shown in dog shows by real people. So they’re just like your dogs at home. They’re not just show dogs that sit around on doggie cushions eating doggie bon-bons all week long. They do all those things at home that your dog does. They shed on our black clothes and steal food off the counters. They even drink out of the toilet once in a while.
When they come to a dog show they just continue to do those cute things; whether it’s going over to the edge of the ring and jumping up to say hello to the fans, or have some child pet them and interact with them, or if they’re interacting with another dog in the ring and playing. I think that’s something that we try to show people, that they’re just like your dogs at home. They just dress up on weekends and go to dog shows, but other than that they’re real dogs.
Now, John, I can’t talk to you without mentioning Mr. Peterman, which is such a beloved character. How did you get involved with Seinfeld, and what was it like to work on such an iconic series?
John O’Hurley: Well, Seinfeld literally was just an absolutely happenchance moment. The series that I had on ABC was cancelled on a Thursday morning. I was out, literally, crying in my beer that night trying to take the cancellation as personally as I possibly could. Then, David’s office called and just said they had this guest star on the next [episode]. They were starting the next day. They knew that my show was cancelled. So, they said, “Would you like to come over and do it? It’s this, kind of, wacky cataloguer named J. Peterman.” Originally I said no. My manager called me the following morning and said, “Oh, just get up and go have fun. Blow the series out of your system.” That’s what happened. (laughs) But originally I said no to it.
They hadn’t even completed the episode and by the end of the week they had written in that Elaine was then working for the J. Peterman catalogue. That began the last four seasons of my venue there on Seinfeld. As I look back over my shoulder at it, I remember it was kind of like playing with a championship team in the championship season. You always had a sense that what you’re doing was something that was going to be part of television history.
David Frei: I always have great fun with John. We’ll be sitting there, we’ll be talking, we’re looking into the ring, and John will say something. I’ll say: That wasn’t John. That was J. Peterman. Where’s Jerry? Where’s Elaine? Where will be Kramer? Where are these people? So that character is still evoked by a lot of the things that he says and does. I think that’s great fun for all of us.
John O’Hurley: I still add a few Peterman-isms in.
David Frei: Goes back to your W.C. Fields quote about working with children and animals and working with John O’Hurley.
John O’Hurley: Much tougher.
David Frei: He introduced me somewhere the other night and made some great speech introducing me. I said: Oh my God, how am I going to follow that? I thought – you know, it’s just like standing next to him on television. He’s 6’3”, great hair, lean and beautiful. Here I am, some little guy in a tux. (laughs) It’s great fun to be with him, but it’s a constant challenge to be on top of everything.
Clue us in on just some of the ones to watch this year.
John O’Hurley: Well, I’ll begin. Before David speaks, I’m going to cover it and say that this was the first time – and I remarked about this to David – this is the first time he’s not been able to point me towards a potential winner. Because we had so many great dogs this year. It’s an absolute, incredible line-up that we have this year. Even David, even someone that’s able to pierce the veil and see who’s good and who’s not, was not able to come up with even three or four that he could name, because there were so many.
David Frei: It’s always fun at the dog show because we don’t always know who’s entered as we get there. I think the top dog in the group entered in four different groups, so top ten dogs all over the place. But not really any one that you can look at and say, “This is the one that’s going to win; he’s winning everything.” All these dogs have been winning all year long in different places. This is one of the rare times where they’re all in the same place at the same time. So, yes, there are dogs to watch, eventually, as we got to it, but going in it was wide open. We had fun getting to that point at the end.
John O’Hurley: David, I think you’ll agree with me when I say that this was some of the most exciting group competitions we’ve had in the twelve years.
David Frei: It seems like every time that we sat there and looked at the final line-up – or even the beginning line-up in the group after our camera had done its walk-by of every single dog in the group – saying, “Oh my God. This is a tough group. You’re going to need to have more than four ribbons.” That’s exactly the way it was all day long.
John, you’ve been involved with The National Dog Show presented by Purina since it had started, and you’ve come out with a number of books – a fantastic one recently. Can you tell us a little bit about, not only that book, but what has your involvement in The National Dog Show meant to you? How has it grown within your family, and your feelings toward the dogs?
John O’Hurley: That’s a really wonderful question. Let me begin by talking about the books. I never write from the perspective being an expert, it’s just from a person who’s observing life as I have. I write from an observational standpoint and also an autobiographical standpoint. Just the way the dogs have affected me – the first book that I wrote was called It’s Okay to Miss the Bed on the First Jump and the Other Life Lessons I’ve Learned from My Dogs. Just essentially, I have grown in my sensitivity to what dogs really bring to our lives. A lot of that has been by education with David here. I just took as many observations on how dogs truly teach us extraordinary life lessons, if we’re quiet enough to observe them. There are great messages there for everybody to absorb.
I followed it up with another book that was really just a lesson. The second book is really a letter to my son and little lessons on manhood that were written by my oldest Maltese, who totally distrusted that I’d ever be able to teach my newborn son anything on the subject of manhood. So, he wanted the first shot across the bow.
This last book that came out last week, was really, once again, a poem for my young son. It was about the idea of the perfect dog. It’s been something that underscores what we have maintained as a philosophy in the show – that as much as we support the idea of excellence in breeding and support the rich history of breeding through the dog show, that we, by no means, ever mean to say that the best in show is the best dog. It is not the perfect dog. The perfect dog, really, is the one home sitting next to your on the couch. That’s really the idea of what the book was. I think it kind of embodies the nature of what we’re trying to show on The National Dog Show presented by Purina.
David, you’ve been involved with dogs in one way, shape, or form, pretty much your whole life. You are with the Westminster Dog Show, the National Dog Show presented by Purina, and those types of things. You’re a handler, a breeder, a judge for many years. Can you talk a little bit about how you started getting involved in therapy dogs, Angel on a Leash?
David Frei: Sure, I’m always happy to talk about our therapy dog involvement. Angel on a Leash was a charitable activity that I started for the Westminster Kennel Club in 2004, visiting at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City, and then at the Ronald McDonald House in New York City. It grew so quickly that we made it into its own 501C3. It’s an independent charity now, which I’m still president and founder of. We create and administer therapy dog programs in healthcare facilities all over the country. We’re very excited about the great work that our dogs do in all these places.
It was inspired, originally, about fifteen years ago when I met my wife Cheri. [She] had just gone back to school to get her Master’s Degree in Theology – to go with her Master’s Degree in Chemistry, by the way. She was interested in therapy dogs, She heard me mention it on the Westminster telecast one year. [Cheri] asked a mutual friend of ours in the dog show world and from my restaurant that I owned to introduce us so we could talk about therapy dogs. And, as they would say on Seinfeld, “Yadda, yadda yadda.”
Now we’re married and doing wonderful things together with therapy dogs for people in need everywhere. Cheri’s a Catholic chaplain and Director of Family Support at the Ronald McDonald House, where our dogs visit every week. We get the ultimate comment with our dogs when a parent says to us, “That’s the first time that my child has smiled all week.” Those are the great things that our dogs do. We like our dog show – The National Dog Show presented by Purina – to be a celebration of the dogs in our lives.
As John says, the real best in show dog is the one that’s sitting on the couch next to you at home. We hope that the joy that John and I have from our own dogs and from being involved in the show comes across for everybody.
Do any of the breeds that we will be seeing on the show on Thanksgiving Day have the ability to be a service dog, or a therapy dog?
David Frei: Absolutely. I say that great therapy dogs are born, not made. Really, when we’re doing the training for therapy dogs, the training really is for the person more so than the dog. The dogs have to have the right personality and temperament. It doesn’t matter what breed they are and it doesn’t matter if they’re a mixed breed, as long as they have the right kind of temperament and personality. As for a service dog, any breed can be a service dog, There’s so many different things for service dogs to do that any breed can do those with good training.
David, I have something specific to ask about. Where are the dogs housed during the show? There are so many of them. What accommodations are made for them?
David Frei: Well, a lot of people drive in for the day. There are a number of them living in the area. There are a number of people who come in motorhomes, There’s accommodations for that in the parking lot. Also, a lot of the area hotels make special exceptions sometimes to their rules, or they just allow dogs to be there.
It really is a community event at that level that the community is fully behind. They’re excited to have the dog show. All those people and tourists and the people who spend money at restaurants and at the world-famous mall there at Valley Forge/King of Prussia. So, they’re happy to have us there. I know they’re happy to have me and my wife there, doing our show.
Well, do you know anything specific about what they do for the dogs? Do they have to bring in anything special as far as food goes? Or any other amenities?
David Frei: No, I think people who come to dog shows are always prepared to be the full supplier for being on the road with their dogs. They generally will crate them. They will always crate them when they’re in hotel rooms. They bring their own food. It’s just like taking your family on the road.
John O’Hurley: Also, just to put an addendum in there as well - because it’s a bench show, of course all the dogs remain backstage there within their crates and in their little areas. Their benched areas so that they’re primping and preening, of course. But it also gives the 15,000 or so people that show up to the expo center there a chance to walk up and down the aisles and ask questions of the breeders and owners, as well.
What are some of the tricks – behind the scenes or in front of the scenes – that handlers use to present their dog to the judges to the best of that dog’s ability?
David Frei: Well, the thing that everybody needs to remember is that these dogs – we see them for two minutes in front of the judges. It’s often a lifetime of training and conditioning and hard work to get them ready to be there for those two minutes. So, I think the trick is to make sure that your dog is always paying attention to you, the handler.
Then, at the same time, we say that the best handlers are invisible; so, they have to be able to present the dog in a way that draws attention to the dog, rather than the handler. I think, in terms of tricks, that’s the main thing. Make sure that they’re focused on you and that they’re having a good time. If the dog’s not enjoying it, and/or you’re not enjoying it, you’re not going to enjoy it as a team and you’re not going to be effective in the ring. You’re just not going to look right. John, you’ve seen those guys...
John O’Hurley: That’s a very good point. I would say that attention is probably the most [important thing]. I also think that not only attention, but tension. The relaxation factor. A handler brings a sense of ease to make the dog look their best. You see the dogs that just have a natural sense of flow. Yet, we do see handlers from time to time that are not comfortable in themselves and that communicates down the leash to the dog, as well. David, would you point that out? I think we’ve seen a couple of times down on the floor where you’re just looking at somebody that doesn’t look like they’re comfortable with the dog, and the dog doesn’t have that sense of spark, because they pick up everything unconsciously.
David Frei: Perfectly said, John. You’re absolutely right. It’s a team. That leash goes back and forth. If the dog’s having a tough time, the handler’s going to feel it, as well. But mostly, if the handler’s nervous and excitable, then the dog’s going to feel that down the leash and it’s just not going to work.
If the dog does get too excited and maybe they jump at or even make contact with a judge – they’re not disqualified for that, it doesn’t appear.
David Frei: Well, they’re not disqualified, but, the dog needs to be under control so that they can be showing with the help of the handler their strong points to the judge. If they’re going to jump up on the judge or move too fast, the judge isn’t going to have the time to evaluate, good or bad, what they have to share with the judge.
John O’Hurley: It goes back to what David underscores each year. The written specifications for each breed are different and specific. The dog really needs to be judged against that specification. In many cases – in all cases – it really begins with control, so the dog can show itself off at the best of their ability.
Do you happen to know what is the youngest dog that may be competing in this particular event?
David Frei: Well, it’s probably around six months, because that’s the youngest they can be to be eligible. For a show like the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, where the entry deadline is two weeks-two and a half weeks before the show, there are probably some dogs that are six and a half months old and are being shown for the first time.
That’s a lot to contend with for a newbie.
David Frei: (chuckles) Well, they’ve got to start sometime.
John O’Hurley: Yes exactly, but it is apparent – and from my unschooled eyes now – you can see a dog that is operating from its youth rather than its experience.
Well said. That sounds like the underlying of a book.
David Frei: That’s my partner. That’s my partner saying those things. I’m so proud.
John O’Hurley: There you go. There’s another book. We’re starting a new book.
I had a follow-up question about the Therapy Dog Ambassador Program. I just wondered how long it has been part of the National Dog Show, and what reaction you saw from the audience as far as enriching the reputation of the National Dog Show.
David Frei: Well, [show spokesman] Steve Griffith started the program, really. Made the program happen. Steve, you’re on the line aren’t you?
Steve Griffith: Yes, I’m here, David.
David Frei: There you are. I want to say that we started - what? Three years ago, four years ago?
Steve Griffith: It started with Rufus, and that would have been four years ago, right.
David Frei: Four years ago...
Steve Griffith: Five years ago, actually; Rufus for two years, and then Eli.
David Frei: Yes, well it’s thanks to the hard work of Steve and the support of the great people at Purina we’re able to get therapy dogs involved in the telecasts and in the program at the show itself. Yes, we think people respond to that. People say, “You know what? I may not be able to go out and run around the show ring and show my dog, but I can sure go visit somebody in a hospital or in an extended-care facility, and make their day a little brighter.” The reason they find out about it is through us. We’re happy to be able to share that.
Great. You have all kinds of dogs in the Ambassador Program this year. I noticed that Vivian is a mixed breed dog, right?
David Frei: Vivian came to us because of her wonderful work at Penn Vet – the University of Pennsylvania Vet School – and as a therapy dog, visiting at the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia, where we had our opening press conference this year. Yes, she is a mixed breed dog. She’s got Bull Terrier and Boston Terrier, I think. But, Michelle Pich, who is a veterinarian at Penn Vet, actually wrote the Penn Vet program, I believe. They take dogs around the different healthcare facilities. We’re honored to have her be part of what we do.
There’s so many breeds in the show, and you guys are obviously both big dog guys. I was wondering what breeds do you two live with? I think that John had mentioned he had at least one Maltese.
John O’Hurley: I’ll answer first, David. The Maltese, sadly, has passed away.
John O’Hurley: No, that’s all right. She lived a full life. She was nearly 21 years old. That’s about as old as a dog can get. But, we have a Cavalier King Charles, a five year-old named Sadie. Then we have a five year-old Havanese. Lucy is our little Havanese. The Cavalier is a cousin to one of David’s dogs.
David Frei: We have the same breeder – Patty Cannon, in San Ysidro, California – who brought us our Cavaliers – my Cavalier, Angel. I have a Brittany named Grace, who are each the greatest dogs of their breed, of course. Before that I had two senior Brittanies that have each passed, but who did a lot of pioneering work as therapy dogs in New York City. Got us into a lot of places where dogs have never been before. But my original breed in the dog show world was Afghan Hound. I raised and bred and trained and showed Afghan Hounds for thirty-something years. I never had a dog growing up, so my Afghan Hound and the jump into the show world was my first real experience with dogs.
That’s terrific. As a native Philadelphian, we’re very proud of the dog show. How involved has the community been in the show and do you also get time to see any of our city?