NEW YORK » When Julia Haight leads her prize entry into the Westminster Kennel Club dog show ring Monday, she’ll see a shiba inu who’s athletic, alert and pert.
Oh, and this: Tomi helped save her life.
Haight can’t be certain what would’ve happened that day last October. How could she? Five people were in the house on Long Island, sound asleep when the fire started.
What she knows for sure is that Tomi smelled the smoke enveloping her second-floor bedroom. He jumped hard onto the bed, pounced on Haight from head to toe and then kept slamming his 25-pound body into her face.
“He’s normally catlike, very graceful. But he was violently shaking. It wasn’t like him at all,” Haight said.
Awakened by this real-life alarm, everyone escaped. The home, not so lucky.
“It could’ve been so, so different,” she said.
More than 2,700 dogs will be coming to America’s most prestigious pooch event, and all of them are special.
Charlie the Skye terrier was second to retired Miss P the beagle for best in show last year. Rumor the German shepherd is now ranked as the nation’s No. 1 show dog.
There’s a berger Picard who detects when the owner’s son has low blood-sugar levels. There’s a pharaoh hound who needed medical and emotional aid after neglect.
“These are real dogs and real people,” longtime Westminster television host David Frei said. “They’re not dogs that just sit around all day on doggie cushions eating doggie bonbons.”
Judging at the 140th annual show starts Monday morning in the exhibition space on two piers that jut into the Hudson River. Shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday on the green carpet at Madison Square Garden, Richard Meen of Canada will choose America’s top dog.
There are seven new types of dogs this year, boosting the total to 199 breeds and varieties. That includes 51 Labrador retrievers, one Neapolitan mastiff but not a single Norwegian lundehund.
All 50 states are represented, along with entries from Thailand, Brazil and Slovenia. There’s also an agility competition Saturday and a first-time obedience event Monday.
Dog fanciers watching Monday on CNBC and Tuesday on USA Network can play at home, too. Purina Pro Plan is offering a $1 million prize for correctly picking the winners of the hound, nonsporting, herding, sporting, toy, working and terrier groups, plus the overall champ.
Tomi is among the 14 shibas entered. Spirited and on the smallish side, they’re the pride of Japan, come in shades of red, white, sesame, black and tan, and are highly focused on keeping their coats clean.
Back for his third Westminster, Tomi’s greatest feat came at dawn on Oct. 19 in Hicksville, New York. That’s where Haight was asleep, along with her husband, her brother, his girlfriend and a family friend.
That is, until Tomi jumped on her.
“He was telling me something was wrong. Somehow, he knew,” Haight said.
At first, she thought she smelled the heating system coming on. She quickly realized it was much worse.
An electrical fire had broken out, and the smoke was starting to pour through the hallways.
Haight and everyone else scrambled outside to safety. Three other dogs in the house, three birds and some fish also were saved.
Minutes later, fire trucks and an ambulance rolled up. The blaze was extinguished, but because of the smoke, water and fire damage, the interior of the house was uninhabitable.
Over the past four months, the Haights have lived in a pet-friendly hotel and a rental home. She’s continued to work in retail management for PetSmart, a top company for pet supplies and services.
Tomi, for all he did, enjoyed some treats.
“Nothing but people food for a week,” she said.
Later this month, the whole family is set to move back into their rebuilt home.
“I know he misses his yard,” Haight said. “And thanks to him, we all get to go back and enjoy it.”