A year after Josh, more than 2,500 canines try to become America's top dog

Monday, February 14th 2005, 8:33 am

By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ In the dog show world, there are plenty of champions with long, pretentious names. And then there's Josh _ just Josh.

A year after becoming America's big dog, the barking, slobbering Newfoundland is more popular than ever. The letters pour in to him by the boxload, asking for a picture, a pet story or even a paw print.

Co-owner David Helming recalls one note from an admiring child.

``My name is Josh, too. I'm not as big as you, and I probably don't eat as much,'' it went.

Starting Monday, a total of 2,581 pooches were set to bound onto the green carpet at Madison Square Garden, trying to win the title that made Josh so famous: best in show at Westminster.

There's a spirited Pomeranian co-owned by Bill Cosby, a smooth fox terrier with a half-black, half-white face and long coat Chihuahua that goes by the sassy name of I Believe I Can Fly.

Throw in a few other early favorites _ a wobbling Pekingese, a perky Norfolk terrier and a prissy toy poodle _ and there's an excellent chance that a toy dog will be the top dog when the prize is handed out Tuesday night.

``After the winner celebrated by drinking out of the bowl last year, the winner this time might be able to jump into it,'' said David Frei, longtime host of USA Network's two-day telecast.

A total of 165 breeds and varieties are entered, including three new kinds: black Russian terriers, Glen of Imaal terriers and Neapolitan mastiffs. The mastiffs are giants, and judges might base their picks on the ``wham'' method _ wrinkles, head and mass.

The seats figure to be packed at this 129th Westminster Kennel Club show. More advance tickets have been sold than ever before, ensuring a solid mix of maybe 15,000 people in the stands.

Tuxedos, beaded gowns, champagne and polite applause are often found among the folks paying upward of $100 for boxes. Fans wearing New York Knicks hats, eating hot dogs and hollering for their choices sit up in general admission.

All of them will wait for the big moment, when judge Lynette Saltzman studies the seven group winners and points to her pick as No. 1. She's a veteran of herding dogs _ those include German shepherds, collies and Welsh corgis _ though terriers have won almost half of the previous 97 titles.

``Usually you can spot one or two dogs,'' Frei said. ``But this year's field is wide open.''

Big ol' Josh will be at the Garden, too, only not to compete. He'll take part Tuesday night during Westminster's tribute to its Angel on a Leash program, in which therapy dogs help the healing process for pediatric patients.

``He still likes going to shows, to see the other dogs,'' Helming said.

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