PHILADELPHIA - Hit the doghouse, Snoopy.
After the floats, before the football, and right around the time the scent from the festive feast wafts out of the kitchen, Thanksgiving television viewing goes to the dogs. Real breeds, like a Treeing Walker Coon Hound, not helium-loaded cartoon mascots paraded around on sticks.
"It's that time of year again," actor John O'Hurley of "Seinfeld" fame said. "The woof-woof."
O'Hurley turns into the Al Michaels of the dog show circuit when he calls the paw-by-paw for the National Dog Show on NBC, now in its 11th year, and a tradition as much a holiday fixture as turkey and pumpkin pie. Plop down in front of the TV - and save room on the sofa for all your four-legged friends.
The dog show - sponsored by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia - is actually taped ahead of time. This year, it's being held over the weekend at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks. Mary Carillo is the sideline reporter and the show airs at noon following the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. O'Hurley is joined on the broadcast by David Frei, one of the most authoritative voices in the dog show world.
The show will feature 2,000 of the top American Kennel Club sanctioned dogs from across the country. More than 150 different breeds and varieties compete for best of breed, first in group and the coveted title of best in show. Saturday's competition is presented by Purina and taped for NBC, and has become the highest-rated dog show in America, with last year's telecast topping more than 18 million viewers.
"It's a great education for people that are looking for dogs," O'Hurley said.
O'Hurley has hosted the show since it started airing on NBC in 2002 and calls it the Kentucky Derby of dog shows. Perhaps best known for playing J. Peterman on "Seinfeld," O'Hurley has authored two books about his favorite domesticated animal. With $20,000 in prize money and enormous prestige at stake, the show is more than a fun showcase for dogs to strut their stuff, it's a way of life for the most devoted handlers in the sport.
"It's serious business for some people," O'Hurley said. "For others, it's a family sport. I'd say it probably tends toward the family end. You go out and see all the RVs in the parking lot, it's families that go from show to show, a lot like horse shows. It's a family affair."
Philadelphia Kennel Club President Wayne Ferguson said the National Dog Show has outdistanced the Westminster Kennel Club event at Madison Square Garden as the must-see dog programming of the season.
"The Westminster is a wonderful show, but they're on cable," Ferguson said. "It's at night. It ends at 11. It excludes a lot of elderly and young people. We're proud of it."
Last year, a Wire Fox Terrier took home best in show. The Irish Setter won in 2010 and a Scottish Terrier in 2009.
While the dogs are the pampered stars of the show - they always get top billing - Ferguson credits O'Hurley for boosting the event's profile.
"He got so involved," Ferguson said. "His heart is in it. He loves the dogs and you can hear the lift in his voice when he talks about the dogs on TV. I think it comes across to America on Thanksgiving."
O'Hurley recently completed a stint in the touring production of "Chicago," and still keeps in touch with many of his fellow "Seinfeld" castmates.
He's a dog show veteran now but still has fun calling the show. He recalls the time a Great Dane made an unexpected break in front of the NBC booth.
"He left a reminder of what they thought of my performance," he said.
When he was more of a novice, O'Hurley asked Frei for an explanation of an attentive judge's examination of a sheepdog. Frei told him the judge was trying to find the dog's eyes to make sure they were in perfect position with the jaw line.
"I said, 'If she picks through all that hair and finds only one eye, she's got the wrong end of the dog,'" O'Hurley said, laughing. "So I've grown in my knowledge of the dog."