NEW YORK, N.Y. - Perched on his hind legs, peering over the top rail of his pen, Banana Joe was right in the middle of the backstage circus at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
A few feet away, a Havenese and Chinese crested competed for best vocal duo. To his side, another participant — a human, that is — kneeled to have her hair coiffed by a groomer. In front, a Norfolk terrier vied for his attention.
"You want to make affen-folks, don't you?" her handler teased.
Clearly, this was no average Joe. He's a prize affenpinscher, the kind with the monkey-like expression, and easily won his breed Monday at America's top dog show.
"He's beautiful," handler Ernesto Lara praised. "They're supposed to have a comic seriousness about them. He thinks he's all that. You can't help but laugh at him."
Also among the early winners: a chow chow co-owned by Martha Stewart, a Pekingese that made it to the final seven last year and a xoloitzcuintli called Giorgio Armani, a nice start for the alphabetically challenged contestant during Fashion Week in New York City.
Still to come: a wire fox terrier that won the National show and a standard poodle that took the Eukanuba event. There's also a black cocker spaniel that was the No. 1 show dog last year — he's named Beckham, maybe a good omen since a 12-story ad featuring soccer star David Beckham posing in his underwear is painted on a building that overlooks Madison Square Garden.
Oh, and a Valentine's Day treat on tap, too: A couple from Washington state that entered a Tibetan mastiff plans to hold their wedding among all the pooches.
More than 2,000 dogs in 185 breeds and varieties are at the Garden. The top hound, toy, nonsporting and herding champions were to be picked Monday night, and the best in show will be chosen Tuesday evening.
Banana Joe, by all accounts, could be standing in the coveted silver bowl at the end. With a pink tongue peeking out from his black, furry face and his tail wagging in a frenzy, he seemed eager to play.
Affens and Brussels griffons are related way back. They're similar in size and stature, but Lara draws a distinction.
"Griffons are wonderful dogs," he said. "Affenpinschers are wonderful people."
Celebrities are fairly common at Westminster — Glenn Close, Kristin Davis and Mary Tyler Moore have made appearances — and Stewart made her presence known with her dog called GK.
"Ghenghis Khan did it!" she tweeted. "Best of Breed at Westminster!!!! Big deal."
The xoloitzcuintli (shoh-loh-eets-KWEEN'-tlee), formerly known as the Mexican hairless, is among six new breeds at this year's show. They're called a "show low" (SHOH'-loh) for short and Giorgio Armani drew cheers from the fans crowded around the ring when he was picked as the best of his breed.
"They're wonderful, they're an ancient breed, it's like a best-kept secret," Lara said.
In a few years, there could be up to 240 breeds at Westminster. But there won't be a puggle, labradoodle or Maltipoo among them. A "designer dog" is more than OK for the White House — President Barack Obama and his family considered a labradoodle before getting a Portuguese water dog — but they're absent at the Garden.
To get to Westminster, a breed must meet American Kennel Club criteria — there has to be an ample population with a three-generation pedigree, a geographic spread of those dogs and a parent club to establish breed standards.
"All dogs are lovable," said the AKC's Lisa Peterson. "But a crossbreed is not a breed."