How the National Dog Show Won Thanksgiving

The holy-Shih-Tzu story of an intimate canine contest in the Philly ’burbs that grew into a holiday tradition viewed by millions.

Basset hound Jackson shows his stuff. Photograph courtesy of Steve Donahue/SeeSpotRun Photography

He was alone except for the man selling popcorn and Milk Duds in the movie-theater lobby. While everyone else was nestled in their seats, watching the previews roll across the screen, he was pacing back and forth intensely, waiting for the phone in his hand to ring.

The way Jon Miller remembers it now, he waited an eternity for that phone call. But in actuality, he’s embarrassed to admit, it was probably only five minutes.

Miller, 61, is the president of programming at NBC Sports. He’s been on plenty of conference calls and sat in on more business meetings than he’s able to count. Yet this single call 16

years ago stands out to him with such clarity. When his phone finally rang, he answered it and was greeted by a familiar voice on the other end: Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Entertainment at the time. The conversation went a little like this:

“Jon?” Zucker said. “Do you have any idea what your dog show did?”

Miller wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer to this question. “No, Jeff, I’m at the movie theater right now, and I don’t have access to any of the ratings,” he responded.

“Well, I do,” Zucker said. The next sentence was vital. It would change everything. “It’s going to be the number one show on NBC this week.”

Who would have thought that a bunch of dogs gathered at the Fort Washington Expo Center — all vying for that one “Best in Show” title — would reach an audience of 19 million total viewers?

That was back in 2002, the first year NBC aired what’s officially known as The National Dog Show Presented by Purina on Thanksgiving Day, smack-dab up against the annual NFL extravaganza. Sixteen years later, the program is even more successful — not only reaching 28 million people, but also, and even more important, redefining one of America’s favorite holidays.

It’s a hot day in August, and I’m watching as principals from the National Dog Show gather in New York for a promotional photo shoot — including hosts John O’Hurley and David Frei. With, of course, some dogs.

O’Hurley and Frei are behind a curtain, getting dressed, but their distinct voices seep through. It’s hard to make out exactly what they’re saying, but their laughter punctuates the conversation. It’s clear the duo have been working together for years.

“My father was a football coach,” Frei says as he straightens his bow tie. “So I guess I always thought my career would be on turf, not a wee-wee patch.” He laughs and glances around the room, his expression softening to a smile. “This is better, though.”

Frei is the National Dog Show’s expert analyst and the dog-show world’s most prominent face. He hosted the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, America’s oldest and most prestigious show, for 27 years. O’Hurley is best known for playing J. Peterman on Seinfeld. His involvement with the National Dog Show came about more serendipitously. “NBC put it together in three days,” O’Hurley says, scratching his head. “I didn’t really know why they wanted me. But they called me on the second day and said ‘Woof, woof,’ so I came running.”

Jon Miller laughs when people ask how he came up with the idea to put a dog show on the air on Thanksgiving. It was a cold January night in 2002, he remembers, and his wife had rented the movie Best in Show from Blockbuster (you know, that store where you used to rent videos before the days of Netflix-and-chill). They were having a movie night with neighbors, along with plenty of wine.

“When they left,” Miller says, “I watched it a second time and found it hysterically funny.”

The movie — directed by Christopher Guest and released 18 years ago — is a satirical look at the dog-show world, and after watching it, Miller was inspired to find out what that world was really like behind the scenes. The drama, the competition — surely it was the canine version of Toddlers & Tiaras. Since TV rights to Westminster were already taken, Miller called up the Kennel Club of Philadelphia and asked if NBC could buy one day of its long-running (if slightly less prestigious) dog show to broadcast on the network. He was confident in his idea at that point, excited about its potential and hopeful for its success.

But when he presented his proposal to Wayne Ferguson, now president of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, Ferguson didn’t share his enthusiasm, much to Miller’s dismay. Believing NBC wanted to do something similar in tone to the satirical Best in Show, Ferguson told Miller he wasn’t interested in being a part of the project at all. Sure, the club needed the TV money, but he wasn’t comfortable subjecting the show to ridicule.

Philadelphia has a long history with the purebred dog world, dating all the way back to 1876, when it first hosted an “Exposition of Dogs” at the U.S. Centennial Exposition. “Everything started in Philadelphia,” says Ferguson. The KCP hosted its first dog show in 1912 and, with the exception of a few years during the Depression, has held it annually ever since. (For many years, it took place at the Civic Center; after a decade of wandering around, it moved to the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks in 2009.) “Philadelphia is passionate,” says Ferguson, 77, a man who has a smile on his face and a dog at his hip in almost every photograph there is of him. “They’re passionate about football, they’re passionate about food, and they’re definitely passionate about dogs. Our show has always been timeless, and we knew that. We just needed NBC to see that, too. We were better than the movie.”

Miller understood Ferguson’s position and promised him that NBC would do it right. From there, the partnership began. However, the path to getting on the air was riddled with hurdles.

When Miller pitched the idea to his boss, NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol, Ebersol practically threw him out of the office. The idea wasn’t legitimate enough for him. A dog show didn’t count as a sport.

Eventually, though, Miller proposed the idea to Zucker, who signed off, at least in part because ratings for NBC’s Thanksgiving Day broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life had been consistently low. He figured he’d push George Bailey to the curb and see how viewers reacted to a dog show instead.

While the response from Ebersol didn’t exactly qualify as supportive, Miller trusted his instincts and remained determined. Sure, it’s a dog-eat-dog world — pun intended — but he believed in the project. If he was willing to watch a movie about a dog show more than once — more than twice, even — there had to be some portion of that world that would tune in on Thanksgiving for something other than football or a parade. He also wanted to prove Ebersol wrong.

“Being underestimated is one of the biggest motivators, they say. And I just thought, ‘Damn, how great would that be,’” says Miller. “Sometimes, you just have to take a risk. And this time, we were lucky.”

While it’s broadcast on Thanksgiving Day, the National Dog Show actually takes place the weekend before the holiday. Some 2,000 purebred canines, representing more than 180 breeds, descend on Oaks and compete for “Best in Breed,” “Best in Group” and “Best in Show” honors. They do this while a live audience of about 15,000 people watches and cheers. Last year’s Best in Show winner, a Brussels Griffon named Newton, bore a strong resemblance to Chewbacca from the Star Wars franchise. One viewer speculated on Twitter that the result was arranged as part of a promotional campaign for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which hit theaters just three weeks later — a charge the show’s organizers naturally dismiss.

In fact, the judges know exactly what they’re looking for. They examine the dogs, comparing them to their Platonic ideal of the perfect dog as laid out in the breed’s official standard. They look at the dog’s overall appearance, temperament and structure — the qualities that allow the dog to perform the function for which it was bred.

The National Dog Show is an open, all-breed show, which means that technically, any purebred dog can enter to compete once it’s registered with the American Kennel Club. The dogs are “benched” during the day, allowing the public to visit them. (Philadelphia is now one of only three benched shows in America, along with Westminster and the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show in the Bay Area.) While there are more than 3,000 dog shows in America each year, the National Dog Show is by far the most widely viewed — thanks to its national audience on Thanksgiving Day.

Miller and Ferguson agree the show never would have done so well if NBC had aired it on any other day. It needed Thanksgiving to thrive. There’s something about a holiday that resonates with people. We like sticking to a routine, and tuning in to the National Dog Show at noon on Thanksgiving seems to fit right in.

Miller says people care about two things other than their children and their families: their cars and their dogs. Frankly, I have to agree. My shitty purple Scion and my white German shepherd — lovingly named after Pink Floyd — are, in fact, extremely important to me.

The point is, the National Dog Show has changed the nature of Thanksgiving. The holiday isn’t simply about stuffing our faces to excess or fighting with siblings over who gets the wishbone. It’s about family. I can tell Miller is trying to avoid getting sentimental, but he loosens his collar when I ask what the holiday means to him.

“It’s family. It’s about sitting around the TV or the dining room table and getting to be with them — really be with them. Yell at them, yell with them. And it’s easier to do it with a dog show on. I’ll deny that I said this — even though it’s going in print — but a football game doesn’t entertain everyone. But a dog is just fun. You cheer on the breed you like, and you snuggle up on the couch with your own dog by your side.”

Miller has me reaching for my own Thanksgiving memories. Usually, the smell of burnt butter wakes me up just in time to help mash the potatoes. The rest of the day mirrors that of most other families: We watch television, we cook, we watch television, we eat, and then we watch more television. My father controls the remote, which means football is on, even if a team he despises is playing … like the Dallas Cowboys.

But when he does change the channel, it’s to see what’s happening with the dog show. And in my house, that’s saying something. Because you don’t get my father to turn off football unless there’s something better going on.

“At our house, it’s a tradition,” Miller says. “We watch the parade, we get dinner ready, we go outside and throw around the football, and we make sure we’re inside by 12 o’clock to watch the dog show. We don’t do anything until the dog show is over. But we like it that way; we’re used to it now. It’s our tradition.”

Dogs really are man’s best friend. Wayne Ferguson says he can’t imagine having a better companion to spend his days with: “They’re a part of the family. You come home and they’re there to greet you with their tail wagging. They’ll always love you.” He speaks slowly, as if it’s important to him that the words come out just right.

“I think that’s why we’re so eager to cheer them on during the dog show,” he says. “Even though it may not be our dog competing, it’s sort of a way to return the favor and say ‘I love you’ back to them.”

If you’re a cat person, you’re going to have to figure out something else.

Published as “Dog Day Afternoon” in the November 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.