NEW YORK - Score one for the mutts.
The Westminster Dog Show -- the nation's oldest and most important dog show -- is breaking with a 138-year tradition.
Saturday evening mixed-breed dogs were allowed to compete for the very first time.
Picture-perfect images of purebred show dogs are most closely associated with Westminster, but for the first time since its earliest years, the Westminster Kennel Club is making a place for mixed-breed dogs like seven-year-old Alfie.
Owner Irene Palmerini stumbled across the poodle-terrier mix in a pet store at the mall.
"And he was in his cage with a big sign and a big red $99 on clearance," she said. "I just couldn't resist him. He had a sad little face. And he looked like he needed a home and for $99 who could resist that bargain."
Alfie the clearance dog is now getting the chance to clear hurdles in Westminster's new agility competition.
David Frei has served as co-host of Westminster's purebred show for more than 20 years.
"It's the hottest growing canine sport out there, and you can see how excited the dogs are, how excited the handlers are," he said.
Agility competitions feature an obstacle course, where dogs are judged on speed and the preciseness of their movements through each obstacle.
"The difference between a show
dog and a non-show dog can be pretty subtle sometimes - maybe their tail's a
little off or maybe their eye color isn't right or whatever," Frei said.
"But with agility that doesn't matter. They're having fun. They're having
fun. It doesn't matter if you win or don't win, the dogs are having a great
Westminster received more than 600 entries of top-performing agility dogs; 225 spots were given out at random. Sixteen of them went to mixed-breed dogs, or as Westminster calls them, "All-Americans."
A successful run requires a close bond between dog and human. The pressure is intense. Handlers receive a map of the course ahead of time, but the dogs don't get to run it until the competition.
In suburban New Jersey, Palmerini takes Alfie to a trainer twice a week and runs her own drills in the backyard.
For her, being selected for Westminster is an honor.
"I'm representing everybody who sits at home with their dog on the couch and loves them just because they're their pet," she said.
In the end, Alfie did not advance to the final round, but that made no difference to Palmerini. She still sees her marked-down mutt as a winner.