Beagle business evokes doggone good memories

A pooch named Miss P is now America’s top dog. For the second time, a beagle has won the Westminster Dog Show. Tails and tongues are wagging. For me, this news is incredibly wonderful.

Here’s why: 25 years ago this month, before heading out to do my morning TV show, I found a stray beagle on my front doorstep. You might already know the story. Barney was sweet and loving, but he was destructive and disobedient.

“You can keep him,” my wife said, “but you’ll have to take him to work with you during the day.”

So, I did. Not just that day, but for the next 12 years, and almost 2,500 TV shows. When he died in 2004, I received 3,000 letters and emails. The front page of the Indianapolis Star headlined it this way: “WISH-TV’s Little Bandit Dies at 14.”

A few years later, a friend tried to persuade me to write a book about Barney’s exploits, but I was reluctant. It would be a lot of work — and a tough task for me emotionally. I received an offer from a New York publishing company, yet I wavered until the very last minute. Then something changed my mind.

Here’s how I wrote about that moment in my book “Mornings with Barney.”

“The week before I had to tell the publisher my decision, Uno, an adorable little beagle, won first prize in his class at the Westminster Dog Show, the Academy Awards for canines. But I was pretty sure a beagle wasn’t going to win best in show. The champion dogs were never from the working-class category.

“Shortly after, Uno was proclaimed the world’s number one canine. He also could have won noisiest in show (not to mention the nosiest) and the hungriest. Finally, beagle owners had something to howl about. Yes, this was the first time a beagle had won the coveted award. The story goes that a beagle had been a contender back in 2003, but he went outside to go to the bathroom and he didn’t come back for three months.

“Yes, whoever was in charge of the cosmic sign department had sent me a clear message when Uno was crowned. The next day I agreed to write the book. I knew there was more to tell about Barney; and I was sure that, after Uno’s victory, a whole new decade of beagles would be around every corner (and in every garbage can). People would be adopting beagles, so I had to write the book quickly — before they all ran away.”

Seven years after Uno’s win and 25 years after I found Barney on my doorstep, another beagle has claimed top prize at Westminster. These past 10 years I was blessed with another beagle — now gone — who was just as troublesome as Barney. “What a good dog,” people always told me about Toby. “No,” I said, “a GREAT dog. Not a good dog.”

When Uno won in 2008, Gary Varvel of the Indianapolis Star drew a cartoon of the beagle wearing sunglasses and standing on his hind legs alongside a newspaper declaring Uno “numero uno.” He was sporting a T-shirt that said “Joe Cool.” A huge copy of that drawing hangs above my desk, signed by Gary.

I don’t think a beagle will win again for a long time. Three top dogs from the same family seems unlikely. However, I’m not sure Barbara Bush would agree with that.