NEW YORK — Whatever got a piece of gentle Titus in the North Carolina brush, it was trouble.
Co-owner Cassandra Carpenter reckons it was a pygmy rattlesnake. Veterinarian Jess Hunter figures it could’ve been a copperhead.
No matter, when Titus’ back left leg turned red, purple and black and suddenly blew up like a tennis ball last March, nobody was dwelling on whether this 3-year-old bullmastiff would someday walk in the Westminster Kennel Club dog ring.
“I thought he was going to lose a leg, or maybe even worse,” Carpenter said. “His show career didn’t mean anything at that point.”
Thanks to some fast, fine care on and off the vet’s table, the future for Titus wasn’t totally snakebit.
Nearly each of the 2,630 entries at America’s most prestigious pooch pageant is in flawless condition. There’s self-assured Thor the bulldog and fluffy Bono the Havanese, plus a bevy of fancy-cut poodles, perfectly primped Pekingnese and elegant borzoi.
They’ll come from 204 breeds and varieties, aiming to succeed King the wire fox terrier as the nation’s top dog when the winner is picked Tuesday night at packed Madison Square Garden.
Competition begins Saturday with the agility event that’s open to mutts and everyone else. Breed judging for beagles, whippets and the newly welcomed Azawakh in the purebred portion of the show starts Sunday.
Among the rows and rings will be Titus – he’s the one with the large, dark scar on his ankle.
Just making it this far, considering his episode less than a year ago, was quite a step.
“It could’ve been really bad,” said Carpenter, a longtime vet tech.
She is Titus’ co-owner, breeder and handler from Stuart, Florida, and was visiting one of her mentors in the canine world when something went terribly wrong. Only a few months after he’d started his show career, too.
Titus had gone out toward some trees for a bit and came back fine, or so it appeared. But over the next couple of days, there were problems with the 120-pound, fawn-colored steed with the wrinkly face and happy disposition.
“He had a high fever, he wasn’t his usual bright, cheery, happy-go-lucky self. And his thigh started swelling up,” Carpenter said.
As the symptoms quickly got worse, and away from her regular vet, she scrambled to find help. That’s when she connected with “a country vet who I liked and trusted.”
That was Hunter, in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Her initial thought?
“His leg looked terrible,” she said. “His leg was pretty gross.”
As for what exactly caused the trauma, no telling.
“Sometimes, a dog’s not talkin’,” Hunter said.
Over the next several hours, Hunter and vet tech Tonya Waters lanced the wound, cleaned it and put Titus on the road to recovery.
“He started looking better before he left the clinic,” Hunter said. “It was pretty dramatic.”
Said Carpenter: “I thought we’d have to do skin grafts. It looked like someone had come with an ice cream scooper and scooped out some of the skin.”
That wasn’t necessary, though other measures were. He needed a drain and bandages to keep the healing process in motion, and wore a lampshade-style collar to ensure he wouldn’t cause any setbacks.
Despite the injury, Titus never lost his stride. By late last June, he slowly made his way back into the ring. Last November, he posted his biggest victory yet, winning best of breed in the National Dog Show televised by NBC on Thanksgiving Day.
Next up, tail-wagging Titus is among 16 bullmastiffs entered Tuesday morning at Westminster. Carpenter will guide him into the ring.
Hunter expects to be working with other animals and pets at that time. She might, however, break away for a few minutes to tune in.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a dog show all the way through. But I might keep an eye on Titus. My eyeballs will go to that back left leg,” she said. “Yep, I’d say that leg is looking pretty good now.”
Elsewhere around the rings:
WHY DOES MY POOCH NEVER, EVER WIN?
It’s doggone not fair, is it? You faithfully watch Westminster every year with the best, sweetest, most loyal golden retriever of all time in your lap, and yet the judge always points to someone else.
Same for Labs, dachsies, Chihuahuas and Dalmatians. They’re also in the Garden doghouse. Between all of those popular breeds, their combined total of top prizes here is zero. Not a single best in show win.
Meanwhile, wire fox terriers have won 15 times, with Scottish terriers next at eight.
One theory among retriever rooters: They’re too common. It’s tough for them to stand out among a snazzy bichon frise or a pert Yorkie.
But how ’bout letting them take a bow wow, right?
Loosely called African greyhounds, the Azawakh breed makes its Westminster debut. They’re sleek and slender – with their ribs showing and hip bones protruding, they often draw concerned looks from passers-by who worry the dogs are hungry. But that’s the proper configuration for this breed.
“I’ve had people call animal control on me. I’ve become friends with animal control in Philadelphia,” said Azawakh owner Aliya Taylor, a veteran of the city’s police force. “They know me. They’re like, ‘you’re fine.”‘
Manchester terriers, miniature pinschers and Maltese will split attention with another big event in town – while the dogs hit the green carpet at the Garden, models strut the catwalk at Fashion Week.
To someone like Michelle Scott, it’s imperative to have a handle on what to wear. She’s won two best in show ribbons at Westminster, guiding a German shorthaired pointer and a Newfoundland to victory.
Scott picks outfits that don’t distract from her dogs. She likes the style of supermodels, but flouncy, bouncy couture – think Heidi Klum on the runway, with an Afghan hound – is a no-no.
“Oh, they’re all so beautiful,” Scott once said. “But those high heels and short, little outfits, I don’t think that would work.”