The co-host of this week's National Dog Show telecast believes sporting group pups are "built" to perform

Mary Carillo, a longtime sportscaster and a former professional tennis player, has covered her share of athletes. This week the versatile veteran will co-host the ninth annual National Dog Show broadcast. So how does she think the four-legged stars stack up? Are show dogs athletes?

“Just look at the animals in the sporting group,” says Carillo, who serves as a sideline reporter and interviewer for the telecast, which was taped last weekend and airs on NBC on Thanksgiving Day after the Macy’s Parade. “They’re not just puff balls. They’re built for power, for speed and for endurance. I absolutely think they’re athletes.”

Best known for her Olympics and tennis coverage – as well as for her on-air candor – Carillo calls herself “a preposterous, hopeless dog person.” She owned a French poodle named Freenie for 16 years while growing up on Long Island, and her Bichon Frise, Oley, died at age 17 a few years ago. Carillo is on the road too often for work these days to care for a dog of her own, but says she “shares custody” of a friend’s Westie back home in Florida.

Carillo, who had watched dog shows as a fan for years, was approached by a producer during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing about co-hosting the Westminster Kennel Club Show the following winter. “I was running, and all of the sudden he yelled, ‘Hey, do you have any interest in doing the Westminster Dog Show?’” she says. “I stopped so hard I left skid marks, then I barked yes and wagged my tail immediately.”

She flashed impressive canine-commentary chops while teaming with longtime host David Frei on the Westminster telecasts, which were broadcast live from New York’s Madison Square Garden. “I learned so much working with David,” she says. “I love all animals, but the fact that one particular mammal can come in so many different shapes and sizes – and can look and behave so differently and be bred so many different ways – absolutely astonishes me. It was such a remarkable and joyous learning experience. I have never smiled more than I did at Westminster.”

Carillo particularly appreciated the unfettered access to – and general lack of lack of pretense among – the event’s superstars. “I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms where all you want is a couple of minutes from an athlete who isn’t willing to cooperate,” she says. “You go backstage at the dog show and there’s all this great energy and primping and preening and blow dryers. It’s a whole different vibe from anything else I’ve covered.”

Carillo has noticed some similarities between human athletes and their canine counterparts – such as Uno, who in 2008 became the first beagle to become Westminster’s Best in Show.

“Uno had a big personality and seemed to have a very good sense of the camera. He’s definitely an [Andre] Agassi type,” says Carillo. And how about her former doubles partner and longtime broadcasting foil, John McEnroe? “I think he’d belong somewhere in the terrier group, because he’s a little yappy and alert to any sounds – especially from the judges,” she quips.

Frei has hosted The National Dog Show since its inception in 2002 and concurs that show pups are sports stars, but perhaps not “professional” ones. “They never hold out,” he says. “They never ask to renegotiate. But they are definitely athletes.”

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