NEW YORK – His barks bouncing all around the arena, Josh looked eager to get going. And with a lick of a fan’s face and guided by his lucky leash, the big, black Newfoundland bounded back onto the green carpet at Madison Square Garden.

Moments later, handler Michelle Ostermiller was kissing his slobbering muzzle, the crowd was cheering and it was official: an early win Monday at Westminster, then a victory at night marked him as a favorite at America’s most prestigious dog show.

“People are drawn to him because he’s a real dog,” co-owner Peggy Helming said. “He’s got a heart as big as he is.”

With actresses Delta Burke and Glenn Close among the fanciers in attendance, there figured to plenty of competition among the 2,624 entries. And a lot of it might come from the nation’s No. 1 show dog, a perky Norfolk terrier named Coco.

“It’s insane, it’s chaotic backstage,” said Burke, currently in the Broadway show “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Josh was a repeat winner in the working group, assuring him a spot in the final seven. Plus, he’ll have this factor in his favor Tuesday night when the top dog is chosen: the judge who picked him in the group last year is the best in show judge this time.

To win, though, he’ll have to beat out Coco, a 5-year-old from England. She’s already won 54 best in show titles, including the widely televised AKC/Eukanuba event in Long Beach, Calif.

Exceptionally sprite with a fast gait, Coco breezed in best of breed. Show chairman Thomas Bradley congratulated handler Beth Sweigart with a kiss, and Coco later won the terrier group.

“She thinks she is an excellent dog. She is asking to win,” Sweigart said.

Over the years, terriers have dominated this all-champion event for purebreds, with a Kerry blue terrier named Mick winning last February. Coco was aiming to do the same at this 128th Westminster show.

A primped Pekingese called Les and a standard poodle named Mikimoto on Fifth also repeated in best of breed, and advanced to group judging Monday night.

The dogs came in 162 breeds and varieties, in all shapes and sizes. There were 79 different kinds of Dachshunds but only one American water spaniel, there were canines that took part in recent sled dog races and others that visited hospital patients last weekend.

“They are show dogs, sure, but they are regular dogs, too,” said David Frei, co-host of USA Network’s coverage. “They sleep on our couches and steal food off our counters.”

Josh clearly was the most popular last year after he turned around to watch himself on the video board. He sounded his presence this time, and even judge Ruth Zimmerman laughed – in Westminster parlance, he’s “very vocal” because show people frown on saying a dog barks a lot, fearing it makes them appear too unruly.

At 155 pounds, the 4-year-old Josh weighs a lot more than Ostermiller. She kept telling him, “slow, slow” when he romped around the ring and, no surprise, she emerged with his black hair all over her ice blue suit. “He’s just letting you know he’s there,” Ostermiller said.

All in all, a fine performance that ended a two-month retirement to compete. “That’s hard to beat,” praised rival handler Karen Mammano.

Like a lot of show people, Ostermiller and Helming have their own set of superstitions and lucky charms. They also have things to avoid – no handler wears a No. 13 armband at Westminster.

Mammano always uses three rubber bands to hold her armband and comb in place. She’s also particular about what she wears. “Never second-place red,” she said.

Handler Hiram Stewart, guiding Les the Pekingese, preferred a positive talk with his pooch before big events. “I tell him he’s the king,” Stewart said.

AP-ES-02-09-04 2209EST

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