NEW YORK -- In the run-up to the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, which opens Monday, the buzz surrounding a 4-year-old Doberman Pinscher named Fifi was audible.
She's known as "The Fifinator" among her thousands of fans, who themselves are known as Fifians.
"She's my sentimental favorite," said David Frei, director of communications for Westminster, during an interview at a Manhattan hotel.
"I put money on that one," said David Fitzpatrick, the professional handler of the 2012 champion, a Pekingese named Malachy. "It's just an instinct."
Fifi ended 2012 ranked No. 3 by the American Kennel Club, a 128-year-old organization that promotes and oversees purebred dog competition. She was one of seven finalists last year at Madison Square Garden, besting Westminster's top Boxer, Akita, and other exemplars of breeds in the so-called Working Group.
About 2,700 dogs are expected at Westminster in 187 breeds and varieties. While she has her own Facebook page -- which has received more than 6,500 "likes" -- Fifi is neither shown by a professional nor subsidized by a multimillionaire in a field dominated by wealthy backers.
Josh Dean, author of "Show Dog," a 2012 book about the purebred circuit, said people invest in top dogs and professional handlers (who can earn six-figure pay) for the reflected glory.
"It's competition like anything else," he said. "You're going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to win some medals and ribbons. But that really is the motivation."
Jocelyn Mullins, a 44-year-old breeder and co-owner of Fifi, said her dog was outspent 10-to-1 by rivals on advertising in such publications as "Dog News" and "Dogs in Review."
"The other dogs have been in every single issue of every publication that's out there," she said last week from her home in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. "We've been able to accomplish an amazing amount with our resources."
According to the AKC, the Doberman Pinscher originated in Germany about a century ago, taking its name from a tax collector, Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann, who sought a guard dog as well as a companion. The AKC breed standard said the gait is to be "free, balanced and vigorous," its coat "smooth-haired, short, hard, thick" and permitted colors are "black, red, blue and fawn (Isabella)."
"This is not supposed to be a beauty pageant. It's supposed to be an evaluation of breeding stock," Mullins said, adding of Fifi, "And she has a stunning personality."
Fifi's official name is CH Protocol's Veni Vidi Vici. Mullins has incurred substantial debt -- she won't say how much -- traveling the country showing the dog. She said she's fighting the perception that a top contender needs a professional handler to excel.
"She walks in that ring as though she owns it," Mullins said. "I could've found someone to show her and pay the bills, but it wouldn't be the same."
Her top Westminster rivals include a German Wirehaired Pointer named Oakley and an English Springer Spaniel, Peyton.
The best-in-show judge is Michael Dougherty, a professional handler who works in public relations and co-owns, with his wife, the Windsong Resort for Pets in Escondido, California. Featuring a "pup pool" with a waterfall, it is the area's "finest boutique pet resort," according to its website.
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater, Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on movies.