More than a thousand dogs, accompanied by their humans, assembled at the Take It Easy campgrounds in St. Mary's County this weekend with a mission: to vie for the title of prettiest, most obedient canine in Southern Maryland.

Owners primped, preened, brushed and beautified their animals in hopes of capturing the coveted "Best in Show" title at the Southern Maryland Kennel Club's annual dog show. Little money is involved in this circuit--the winner takes home bragging rights and, perhaps, a color TV. But for die-hard dog lovers, the show was not about prizes.

"It's a game of vanity," said Mike Bruzzone, a professional dog handler who was resting in a lawn chair Friday next to his wife, Lisa, and granddaughter Demmie, 3. The family attends 160 to 180 similar events a year, mainly showing clients' dogs. "If you're a breeder, by having your dog as a champion makes the dog more valuable. It's the lineage of championship that makes a good dog."

The show also gave owners an opportunity to enjoy a golf tournament and go fishing when they weren't shopping from vendors for puppy presents: rawhide bones, tiny coats, quilts and computerized images of pets emblazoned on T-shirts or mugs. Inside the ring, the devotees were fierce competitors, but outside the ring they're just animal-loving folks who have carved out a peaceful niche in an otherwise dog-eat-dog world.

"It's the camaraderie," Bruzzone said, explaining what he loves about the shows. "We see the same people every weekend. We travel and see the country and get to do what others only dream about."