This guest interview is a bit longer than usual and with good reason. The legendary voice of David Frei will once again grace our television screens on the USA network this Easter Sunday, April 16 at 8 p.m. EST/PST.
It’s the inaugural NBC Sports broadcast of the Beverly Hills Kennel Club Dog Show and his legions of dogdom fans, including this one, are happy he’s back. And, we are happy to report, we had Goodnewsforpets’ newest guest journalist, Kim Campbell Thornton catch up with David Frei to talk about the shows, dogs, and his legendary career – and what makes it all good. David is a great story-teller. Just like all the media folks who hold him dear, something tells us we’ll always find more room for his ‘tails. They’re always captivating, just like his voice, and good for dogs…thank you Kim! – @lgerminder Lea-Ann Germinder, Editor & Publisher
You loved your job with Westminster and you love what you’re doing now as a consultant for NBC Sports. Is there a common goal that you hope to accomplish in your work?
From the very first year I ever did Westminster I said I feel like my job is to show that we are real people in this sport and that these are real dogs. The phrase I use all the time is they’re not just show dogs that sit around on doggy cushions all week long eating doggy bon-bons. They are real dogs and do the same things in our family and in our lives that your own dog does with you at home.
That led me to the phrase that the real “Best in Show” dog is the dog that’s sitting next to you on the couch at home. Watch our show. Enjoy our show. Root for your favorites, but when it’s all over, reach over and hug your dog and tell them that they are your best in show dog. Those are things that I try to instill in people for the benefit of the sport and for the benefit of dogs.
One of the things I’m proudest of that I did with Westminster was I took it from being “just” the world’s greatest dog show to being the world’s greatest celebration of dogs. That it’s not just limited to purebred dogs, but the mentality has to be for responsible dog ownership and the unconditional love that you share with your dog and things like that. We want people to watch the dog show and make them feel better about their own dog and their own life with that dog.
What brought you into the world of dogs, and how did that change your career?
I never had a dog growing up. When I moved into my own house in college my girlfriend said, “Let’s get a dog.” I said, “Okay.” Guys will do anything for their girlfriends. I said, “Okay. What kind?” She said, “How about an Afghan Hound?” I said, “What… is that?”
We got the dog, a puppy, and three weeks later the girl left, the dog stayed and it was the best thing that could have happened to all of us. So, that’s how I got into Afghan Hounds.
When you have a particular breed you start to meet other people who have the same breed or tell you, “Hey, I have a friend who has one.” Pretty soon I met some Afghan Hound people and went East to go into the Army at Walter Reed for three years as a veterinary specialist.
While I was there I met Wally Pede who’s one of the great Afghan Hound breeders and a long time dog show judges. He’s I think 92 or 93 years old now and still going full speed! He got me involved in showing dogs and then I met Sandy, my previous wife, and she was pretty involved in Afghans already.
Together we went to the next level with one dog in particular. We finished probably 50 to 60 Afghan Hounds, but my best one was Champion Storm Hills Who’s Zoomin Who. She was the top Afghan in the country and retired as the top- winning female in the history of the breed in terms of All Breed Best in Shows, a record that’s been broken since, but when she retired it was her.
While we were out campaigning, running around the country with her putting a record on her, I really got to know the Westminster people. Chet Collier and a couple of other folks asked me if I would be interested in doing television. That was back in 1990.
So they flew me back for an audition. I did it and they liked it and I liked it. They said, “Let’s do it.” I thought, “Well this’ll be fun for a few years. Let’s see what happens.” That was 27 years ago. A lot of my life really has been being in the right place at the right time.
Afghan Hounds look up at you when you get home and drop their head back down and go back to sleep. My dogs now [a Brittany and a Cavalier]run to the door to greet me.
People say, “What’s your favorite breed?” I say, “All of them.” It’s fun to see the great dogs of any particular breed. I’m rooting for the Afghan. I’m rooting for the Brittany. I’m rooting for the Cavalier, but I love seeing a great show dog and it could be any breed. That’s what’s been fun about the process.
Your knowledge of the different breeds and the way you convey those little bits of information is phenomenal. How do you remember all of that?
I get a lot of help! Through the years I think when a new breed comes up you devote a lot of time to them, but some of the other breeds have been around for a long time. I always made it a point to enlist the help of the parent clubs. Basically I would say, “I’ve got 30 to 40 seconds to say something about your breed to the world, to the millions of people who are watching this. So tell me what you would like that to be.” That was a big help in getting hot topics for a particular breed. Sometimes it would be about a particular dog, but it worked.
Of all the dog shows you’ve seen, has there ever been a winner or a situation that made you think, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming”?
That’s the question I get most of the time from people, especially non-dog show people who say, “How come that dog won?” They say, “I liked the other one.” I say, “Ya’ know what? I’m just like you. I’ll stand outside the ring and we can all judge from outside the ring. That’s the beauty of the sport in my mind because I get to like a different dog if I want to and I’m not in the ring putting my hands on them, but I could say, “Gee, I really like this one instead.” I’m constantly surprised and through the years at Westminster I could be pretty good at figuring out who was going to win, but often not. I’ve been surprised in some way by them all.
You are a big advocate of pet therapy visits. How did that get started and how has it affected your life?
I had been involved with the Delta Society (now called Pet Partners) as a board member and also as a consultant many years ago. When I met Cheri, she was making visits with her Brittanys, Teigh and Belle. I got eventually got registered as a therapy dog team with Belle in 2000 and Teigh shortly after that.
The first place I visited regularly was an AIDS hospice in Seattle every week. I think that really touched me and really got me involved with going other places with the dogs as well.
Then when we came East, Karen Lefrak, who’s a Poodle breeder/owner, helped me get into Mt. Sinai Hospital. My dogs eventually were the first dogs allowed to visit bedside there. They used to make you go into the family room and they would bring the patients to see you, but one night they had a patient in her 70s who was paralyzed and couldn’t get out of bed.
The head of the program met me at the door that night as I was going in. She says, “Well I have something for you to do.”
She said, “We’re going to walk out this door here and you’re going to turn right and go down to Room 212. I’m going to turn left because I’m not supposed to know you’re doing this.” She said, “But the nurses are in on it. We want you to see this person because she’s a great animal person and is paralyzed and needs some encouragement.” So that’s what we did.
Shortly after that they started allowing inside visits, but Teigh and Belle were the first dogs ever allowed into the Ronald McDonald house in New York City. They were the first dogs ever allowed in Memorial Sloan Kettering, the big cancer center in New York City where we helped create a therapy dog pilot program. It was on one floor and it was going to be for six months.
The program was so successful and so enthusiastically endorsed by the medical professionals and the others in the hospital that had to do with it that it’s now throughout the hospital on just about every floor at Sloan Kettering.
It’s being in the right place at the right time and being able to talk to people. Cheri and all her connections in the charity world and the Ronald McDonald house and the medical community helped open a few doors there, too.
I had three or four Westminster Best in Show winners who were regular therapy dogs, like James, the English Springer Spaniel who won in 2007, and Rufus, the Bull Terrier who won in 2006. They both were great therapy dogs. James was probably the best therapy dog I’ve ever seen, the way he would engage people.
You’re really creative when it comes to publicity. Getting the Empire State Building lit up in purple for Westminster and the dogs ringing the starting bell at the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. What are some of your inspirations when it comes to promoting shows?
It’s really just – I’m a PR guy. There are two things that I do as a PR guy: I answer the phone whenever it rings because you never know who it’s going to be, whether it’s somebody with some crazy idea or a great idea. And, I get out socially and meet people that lead to great things happening.
That’s how the Empire State Building lighting up in purple started. I met the woman who was in charge of the program at a party at a Ronald McDonald House gathering. I talked to her and she said, “Yeah, we can do that.”
The same thing happened with ringing the bell to open the stock market. I saw all these groups that were doing this and I called and spoke to someone there about the possibility of bringing our Best in Show dog and that worked out.
A lot of those things happen because we’re in the right place at the right time or because somewhere I said something to someone or met somebody or was very involved with the charity world in New York City. I got to meet a lot of people who were big decision makers who could say, “Bring the dog by.” Or, “Let’s do this with the dog.”
Good News For Pets started a promotion this year called “Good Dogs in Film.” Do you have a favorite silver screen dog?
I don’t know if it’s a silver screen dog, but certainly Eddie on Frasier on TV because Frasier’s my favorite show.
From movies, I guess I’m like everybody else. I loved Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, the original movie dogs. I love Hooch from Turner & Hooch because he’s a fun dog. You’re laughing at him and admiring what he’s doing and then crying for him at the end. So I love that movie, too. There are some movies we won’t watch because we know they’re not gonna end well for the dog. If the dog goes down we don’t like that.
We loved Secret Life of Pets. Grace and Angel did a 30-second promo for it on what your dogs do when you go away. It was me leaving the house and looking down at Grace who’s looking up at me and I said, “Grace, you stay out of trouble.” I go out the door, close the door and she immediately jumps up on the couch and gets the remote control and turns it on. What’s she watching but Westminster and she’s seeing me on Westminster.Then you come back to a shot of Grace and Angel sitting on the couch with a couple of Champagne glasses in front of them.
What are some of the ways that you use social media, and how has it made a difference in the way you do your job or communicate with the public?
Social media, it’s just the immediacy of it all. Here’s how it applies to what we’re doing right now. We don’t try to make a big deal out of the fact that the National Dog Show and now the Kennel Club of Beverly Hills is a taped show, but we don’t run around the world and advertise it and we don’t say, “Hey, watch this dog.” We try to let it play out until the event.
You really have to shape your social media campaign especially right now because in our world, in the dog show world, anybody who wants to find out who won at that show can do that. We don’t advertise it. We don’t make a big deal out of it, but we have had to shape the social media approach leading up to this weekend when the show has its premier showing on Sunday night.
That was a special challenge because of the immediacy of social media making everything known and seen and heard right away.
I have a couple of thousand followers on Twitter and 8,000 or 9,000 friends or followers on Facebook. If I need to have a dog to be on The Today Show with me two days from now, I know I can have one by noon today. So I can get something in front of a lot of people very quickly. That’s what social media has done for us. It’s made everything happen right now instead of next week or next month.
I think social media helps us get to more people in a fast way. We don’t have to write a six-page release about everything. We can leave some things unsaid and undone and have people jump in there on their own and find out and be involved.
And speaking of social media,
The Beverly Hills Dog Show #BHDogShow
Airing April 16, 2017 8 PM EST/PST USA Network