Dog Days at Westminster for a man and his best friend

When Hennepin County Sheriff's Detention Deputy Darryl Cooper arrived at the Minneapolis-St Paul airport on Sunday morning, he discovered that thanks to the sub-zero temperatures, his flight was canceled.

So Cooper did what any average person trying to get a flight out to New York City would do: he drove nine hours to Kansas City, where he proceeded to miss his flight, and then wait 14 hours for another one. He killed the time tending to some grooming matters, and then boarded a plane to Dallas, Texas, where he twiddled his thumbs for good portion of early Monday morning. Cooper eventually got on his flight, but Stella, a three-year-old pooch, beat him to punch.

"The dog flew out on the plane I missed," Cooper said Monday evening. "I was so worried, and it was the longest trip I ever had. But I got to the airport, and she was there. She was happy to see me."

When Cooper isn't in uniform, he devotes his downtime to his dog-training company, Big D's Dog Days. His pupil Stella, a Spinone Italiano, has risen to top of the doggie ranks, and will compete this evening at Westminster in Madison Square Garden.

"Stella came to me when she was about 9 months old," Cooper said, speaking above a cacophony of persistent woofs and ruffs at the Westminster site. "When I got her, I told her owner to start saving. She had all the pieces of the puzzle. All she needed was someone to pull the best out of her."

And so Cooper has: Stella recently trumped the Animal Planet's 2008 Eukanuba National Invitational, placing first in her breed's category. In March, the two will head to England for the Cruft's Dog Show, the world's largest dog competition.

Cooper described the 75-pound pup as a very "playful, jovial" kind of gal. Her hobbies include hunting, running, and getting into all things muddy. But when Stella takes the stage, she knows how to work a crowd.

"She knows extremely well what she is doing," said Cooper, who is also known by his canine friends as "Uncle Darryl." "When we are at a dog show, she is quiet. She is just waiting for the show to begin."

And how about Uncle Darryl himself? He said he tries to play it cool.

"If I get nervous, the dog gets nervous," he explained. "I've been doing it long enough that I know, it's just a dog show."

Really? I'd already forgotten. Prior to the show, Cooper said that he will primp and prod Stella for around six hours, despite the four-and-a-half hours he spent grooming her in the Kansas City airport. The checklist also includes a bit of exercise, and perhaps a bite to eat.

The Spinone Italiano, a hunting dog that sort of resembles a beefy spaniel with a mustache and beard, has appeared in the Westminster show since 2001, but has yet to garner any prizes in its sporting category. The English Springer Spaniel holds the most number of wins — 15 — in the group. But last night, a Beagle took first in the Hound category — a first in Westminster history. So, tonight, watch and see: perhaps Stella's charm, confidence and ravishing looks won't go unnoticed.

You can watch streaming video from the event tonight on the Westminster site and cheer ol' Stella on as she faces off against 20 others of her own kind.

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