New York Magazine once called David Frei "probably the most famous human in the world of canines." NY1’s Budd Mishkin sat down with Frei, the face of the Westminster Kennel Club, and filed the following "One on 1" report.
In the world of dogs, especially around the time of the Westminster Dog Show, David Frei is like the mayor. And he doesn't have to ask, “How'm I doing?”
“It's a bit of a dream. Every once in a while I say ‘My God, how did all this happen?’" said Frei.
His official title for the Westminster Kennel Club is Director of Communications, but Frei is essentially the face of the organization.
New York Magazine once called Frei "probably the most famous human in the world of canines" because of his 25 year gig as co host of the Westminster Dog Show.
"I wanted to show the people in the real world as it were, what the dog show world was like. That we are also real people and that these are real dogs. You know people don't think of that, they think these are dogs that just go to dog shows and they sit around on doggie cushions all week long eating doggie bon bons and that’s not the case,” said Frei.
Best in Show is the most well known competition at Westminster, but there are many competitions throughout the two days. In 2014, almost 200 breeds and varieties competed.
The nighttime competitions take place at Madison Square Garden. The daytmie competitions take place at over 200,000 square feet at the West Side Piers, where handlers prepare their dogs in what is called "the benching area."
"Our show is about benching, it’s about spectators being able to come through and talk to the owners of different breeds,” Frei said. "I can walk down here and I know that all the golden retrievers with a few exceptions, all the golden retrievers are benched in the same place. So I can walk through and I can get up close and personal, hug and pet and talk to the dogs. You know, you don't get to do that with any other sport.”
Frei's own dogs were once show dogs.
Now they're part of the non-profit Frei created called Angels on a Leash, therapy dogs trained to go into health care facilities like the Ronald McDonald house and the VA Hospital.
“You walk into a room with a dog and the energy changes,” he said. "The science is now starting to back up why that's so, your blood pressure goes down, your heart rate goes down, the endorphins, the good hormones start flowing a little more freely."
You might think Frei has had a lifelong love for all things canine.
"Never had a dog growing up and my first dog came to me in college when I was moving in to my own house and my girlfriend said let’s get a dog,” Frei said. “Three weeks later the girl left and the dog stayed and it was the right decision for everybody involved, it really is. Changed my life obviously."
Frei grew up in Oregon, where his father coached football as the University of Oregon. Frei played high school football, worked on the local paper, in the process getting to know one of America's marquee track athletes of the 1970's, runner Steve Prefontaine.
“I was working there when Steve Prefontaine was killed in an auto accident and so I got to write one of the stories about his passing. He was a friend of mine, it was tough time. I mean they still talk about it in Eugene, Oregon. It's been 40 years now,” said Frei.
Frei served in the army from 1971 to 1974, primarily at Walter Reade Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
On the certificate that shows he completed his time, there's a slight problem.
"It was dated August 15, which was my official getting out day but it was signed by Richard Nixon who had resigned as president on August 9. So I'm a little concerned that I maybe still be in the Army. I'm not sure,” he said, laughing.
Frei moved around and had several jobs before he became the face of the nation's biggest dog show. He worked in public relations for ABC Sports and for two football teams, the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers, occasionally opposing his father who was coaching the other team.
"That was when he was at Tampa and I was at Denver and we played each other,” Frei said.
"I was the PR guy for the 49ers and my dad was coaching for the Bears, and there we are on the field,” he said.
He moved to Seattle and ran a public relations firm. A former wife got him interested in the world of show dogs and in 1990, his sports PR background helped him land the Westminster announcing gig.
At the time he owned a Seattle sports bar, and local basketball fans were none too pleased when the dog show replaced their games on the big screens.
"I’d come back and those people making the most noise about having to watch the dog show were the first people to ask me, ‘What's the deal on that poodle haircut?,’ ‘How come an Irish setter can't ever win?’ or ‘What's wrong with a dachshund? How come you can't find a dachshund?’
Frei followed his current wife Cheri when she got a job offer to come to New York in the early 2000s.
And it was Cheri, a chemist by profession, now an ordained chaplin and the director of family services at Ronald McDonald House, who is responsible for Frei's involvement in therapy dogs.
"I can't tell you how many times a parent at the Ronald McDonald House tells me that's the first time she's smiled all week. They'll talk, he never talks, she never talks. He's talking up a storm with us because of the dog,” Frei said.
Frei has to confront the outside world's perception that dog show participants are living in a bubble, spending too much time and money pampering and catering to dogs.
He says it’s like any other hobby.
"They can spend six figures. When you talk about some of these dogs going to 175 dog shows a year with handlers, that you can spend a lot of money. But it's just like owning the biggest baddest boat on a lake, or you can just tool around in your little Boston whaler. I think it's the same thing,” Frei said.
And it's very much a social scene.
“This is a great family hobby, sport for people, your social group becomes the people you see every weekend at dog shows,” Frei said.
No discussion with Frei, or anyone in the dog show world would be complete without mentioning the 2000 movie Best in Show.
"They didn't make fun of the dogs, we would've all gone to battle there, they didn't make fun of the sport, a lot of us would've battled that one too, but they did make fun of the people and we admit to being a kind of a target rich environment in that respect,” Frei said.
"We took it as a compliment, to be the object of satire by a group like that, people still, that's 14 years ago that movie came out and everybody still asks me about it,” he said.
It's that good natured approach that has endeared Frei to the dog show world and viewers for more than 20 years, not taking himself too seriously, but deadly serious about the joys of his best friend.
"We want to be a celebration of the dog in our lives and we want people to think about taking better care of them. What it takes to have the dog be part of your family and think about that spiritual and emotional connection that we talked about that we have with our pets and what they do for us every single day of our life."