The idea is to let sleeping dogs lie.

Or go to the exercise pens. Or get groomed. Or whatever it is that dogs do backstage while waiting to perform in the judging rings.

Backstage at a dog show isn't so much for going to the dogs as it is for putting on the dog. Dog foods; dog books; dog jewelry; dog shampoos; dog clothes; dog art.

Backstage is for selling--even at the country's most prestigious show, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which ran Monday and Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, and where one or two lucky exhibitors, in the language of the trade, "dumped" as much as $20,000 worth of merchandise. Where for $16.50, Schenker Animal Reproductions would sell you a tie ($17.50 for a belt, $19.50 for a hat, $29.50 for an umbrella) with your favorite pure-bred dog emblem on it; where for $325, Carolyn Saberg ("There's a market for everything in this world, God bless it") would sell you an all-dog ceramic chess set; where for $800, Heather MacNiven of Paw Prints Inc. would sell you a pin representation of a Chow Chow's head in 14 karat gold; where for $4,200, Paula Ewles, a 33-year-old artist from Toronto ("at first I felt like I was prostituting my talent, making dog jewelry, but it makes money, and I never laugh at money") would sell you an emerald and diamond Afghan hound pendant, and where the good people of J.J. Bone, a company that by no means underestimates its public, sold such tasty items as Poochie Pizza (flavored with romano and parmesan cheeses), Poochie Egg Roll, Poochie Crepe, Poochie Bagel (flavored with cream cheese) and Poochie Taco.

Backstage is the show within the show, where, yes, they all take plastic.

"We feel there's a need for our products," J.J. Bone's Mimi Baker said without laughing.

"Gimme a break," said David Tagliatela, who was trying to sell Science Diet, one of those serious dog foods that undoubtedly appeals to chihuahuas going for their doctorates. "We have scientifically fixed this diet. I'm here talking nutrition, and they're talking Poochie Bagels."

Rock 'n' Roll dogs:

Elvis: "You ain't nothing but a hound dog, cryin' all the time . . . "

Everly Brothers: "He even had the teacher let him sit next to my baby, he's a bird dog . . . "

Simon and Garfunkel: "In a clearing stands a boxer . . . "

Of the 2,654 dogs shown at Westminster, only about 400 were shown by professional handlers--people whose business it is to train a dog, groom it, bring it into the ring and actually show it. Dogs are judged against a written, absolute standard defining the breed. Such are their skills in accentuating the virtues while disguising the faults that a professional handler often makes the difference between an official blue ribbon and a can of Pabst.

"Let's say your dog's legs aren't built the way they should be," says Roy Holloway, 43 years a handler. "A good handler will groom the dog by growing the hair long on one side of the leg and clipping it short on the other so the legs look better. Then, in the ring, he might stand the dog or move the dog in such a way that the judge can't see the flaws. It's angles and subtlety--all part of the game."

That skill, however, does not come cheap. It is dogma that usual fees are at least doubled for Westminster. Here a handler can get $150 from an owner for showing a dog. A top handler may show 30 dogs in two days. With bonuses, such as $175 for winning best in group, and $250 for capturing the pro bono--Best in Show--a hot handler can take home something like $4,000. Not to mention what a few big wins here can do for your reputation. Bob Forsyth calls handling a whippet all the way to best in show here in 1964 "probably the greatest thrill in my career." As a result more owners sought his services, giving him more and better dogs to show. Chester F. Collier, show chairman at Westminster, estimates "about 10 handlers make more than $50,000 a year and about 150 make more than $30,000 a year."

There are no cash prizes for winning owners at Westminster, not even enough to give the poor dog a bone.

Famous dogs: Herschel Walker; Rin Tin Tin; Lassie; Joe Cocker; Fala; Checkers; Benji; Asta; Cleo; Mike (Mad Dog) Curtis; The Lady and The Tramp; Fred (Mad Dog) Carter; UConn Huskies; Old Yeller; Yale Bulldogs; St. Francis Terriers; Greyhound; Dave Kingman.

Q: Does Madison Square Garden smell doggy during Westminster?

A: No. These dogs are shampooed and perfumed so often that this may be the one place where you can't lie down with dogs and wake up with fleas.

Q: Do the dogs fight?

A. Hardly ever. Having an even temperament is crucial to a show dog. "This talk about high-strung show dogs is insane," says Collier. However, it is conceded that terriers are feisty, and Craig Osborne, a 23-year old handler from Houston, says, "Terriers will kill each other if you let them get too close. They're bred to be nasty. At a show in Florida a year ago a Staffordshire terrier grabbed a standard-sized poodle, bit her in the face and held on for dear life. Took 12 stitches to close it."

Q: Do dog owners really look like their dogs?

A: Yes. According to Patricia Knapp, who came all the way from Snohomish, Wash., "You don't buy a dog because you think the dog looks like you, but after a while you begin to look like your dog. I own Pomeranians because I want to look like them. They're so cute. When I hold one in my arms and walk down the street with him, I feel like a madame."

Q: Which breeds are chic now?

A: Golden retrievers; rotweilers; dobermans; akitas; bichon frise and, of course, poodles.

Q::Which aren't so chic?

A. Collies; sheepdogs; Scottish terriers.

Q: Which is more beautiful, a fully coiffed poodle or an Afghan hound?

A: Be serious. A poodle is all gimmick. A poodle is to an Afghan what Jayne Mansfield is to Veronica Hamel.

Q: What did Ogden Nash write about dogs?

A: "Dogs display reluctance and wrath/If you try to give them a bath."

Q: Is a dog's bark really worse than its bite?

A: That depends on the skill of the dog's orthodontist.

Q. Is a dog's mouth cleaner than a human's mouth?

A. Absolutamundo.

At Westminster the exercise pens--where the dogs relieve themselves--are labeled: DOG and BITCH.

Perhaps the most fascinating sight at Westminster is the grooming of the longhairs, especially such breeds as Maltese (they're white and don't look at all like falcons), Pekingese, shih tzus, Afghans and poodles. Joe Champagne, a 40-year-old from Connecticut, specializes in handling and grooming the toy breeds. "I've been doing this for 20 years," he says. "Everybody should do what they do best. I wouldn't be good at brain surgery." Champagne, who had 19 dogs at Westminster, will spend as much as two hours per dog. He will oil them and wrap their top knots in wax paper, then deoil and unwrap them, then bathe them with three different kinds of shampoos, blow dry them, comb them out and put on the finishing touches with ribbons, bows and perfumes.

But that kind of time is nothing compared to what goes into grooming a standard poodle. That can take as much as seven hours; three hours for the bathing and drying, and four more hours for the clipping and scissoring. (And that doesn't count the time for the dye job. Although the American Kennel Club specifically forbids dog-dyeing, groomers privately admit poodles--especially black poodles--are dyed routinely. Says one: "I'd say 80 percent of them are dyed. I know I haven't shown a black one in a year that wasn't dyed.")

At the end of the seven hours a poodle with, for example, The Continental Trim--the cut in which most of the rear and the legs are shaved, leaving rosettes of hair on the hips and bracelets of hair above the paws--that poodle looks like something out of "Phyllis Diller Meets The Mad Monk Rasputin."

The purpose of all this grooming, according to Fran Wasserman, who has been doing this for 24 years, and who, at this moment on a dog day afternoon, was putting white powder on the rear of a Norwegian elkhound "to enhance" the look, is to make the dog "so attractive that the people will give it a second look." Then again, with all the hiding of flaws that goes on in the grooming process--such as growing the hair long on a dog's haunches to disguise a short neck--another purpose is to keep the judges from taking too close a second look. "The point is," says Mark Threlfall, a 28-year old handler who was just then blow drying an Irish water spaniel, "you've got to sell a judge on something."

The bottom line on why anyone would spend their time blow drying an Irish water spaniel, or applying white powder to the rear of a Norwegian elkhound?

Wasserman looks at you like you are some kind of meatball and says, "Honey, dogs are a billion dollar a year business, that's why."

Dog Terminology:

"To put a dog down" refers to the way in which a dog is trained, groomed and eventually placed in the ring for judging. It is a compliment to say of a handler that he "puts a dog down well."

A "dog jockey" refers to those handlers who do not groom dogs at all, but simply take them into the ring for the judging. "Dog jockeys," says Threlfall, "don't last long."

To be "in season" refers to the time when a bitch is ready to conceive. If a bitch is "in season" during a show, her handler should show the courtesy of informing the judge so that she can kept somewhat separate from the dogs in the ring.

"An unbelievable dog" refers to a very bad date.

In the ring, the judge is king. One judge per breed. He tells the handlers where to put the dogs down and then has each one brought to him. He will inspect the head, the paws, the tail, the bite, the color of the eyes, the configuration, etc.--always judging against the absolute, written standard for the breed. These dogs are stroked and poked and cinched and pinched and felt and squeezed more than a binful of grapefruit. Then the judge will have the handlers jog the dog. (It's a formal, flouncy jog, and it makes the handlers seem prissy, especially when jogging small breeds.) The dogs will be jogged one at a time at first--always with their heads and necks up high, like they're rehearsing for their own hanging. The judge wants to see how the dog's legs work. Is the action true? Is the line level? Then more inspecting. More jogging. More stop and go than rush-hour traffic.

"You look for a dog that comes as close to perfect as possible," says Chester Collier, show chairman at Westminster. "Of course, personality and temperament have a lot to do with it also. The famous judge, Henry Strecker, used to say that 'show dogs were just like Las Vegas show girls--first they gotta have it, then they gotta show it.' "

Some dogs simply show better than others. Marleen Rickertsen, who came from Nebraska with Joe, her particolored cocker spaniel, believes that Joe's attitude had as much to do with him winning best in breed here as did his build. She says: "He's always willing to give more. I'm telling you, you get him in the ring and he hears the audience start clapping--there's just no stopping him."

Usually, at the very end of the judging, the judge will have the handlers jog their dogs around the ring in a wide, flowing circle. Knowing that of every dog out there one is about to have its day, the audience builds its applause until the judge--much like a ringmaster in a circus--appoints one best in breed, and the next sound you hear is the whoop from an owner who knows that stud and/or puppy fees have just escalated significantly.

Little known dogs: affenpinschers; bouvier des flanders; Brussels griffons; clumber spaniels; dandie dinmont terriers; keeshonden; kuvaszok; Rhodesian ridgebacks; pulik; schipperkes; the Detroit Lions on the road. (A Rhodesian ridgeback, by the way, is so named because of its place of origin and a long, narrow ridge along his back where his coat grows the opposite way from the rest of his coat. Jon Hollengreen of Sterling, Va., who brought some Rhodesian ridgebacks to Westminster was asked what purpose this ridge served and why the dog had it. After a 10-minute dissertation on the dog's qualities and colors Hollengreen finally said, "I haven't the slightest idea.")

So, how does it feel to own a best in breed?

Charlie and Carole Pallmeyer of Greenlawn, N.Y., own the No. 1 black and tan coonhound in the country. The top dog. They call him Loud. Carole describes her feeling of being awarded the blue ribbon as "super." Charlie listens to his wife and then, from behind his great Oak Ridge Boys beard there comes a low whistle. "I'm not coonhound crazy," Charlie says, putting aside his beer can just for the moment. "And I still gotta work--whether the dog wins or not--on account of, I gotta feed the dogs. I mean I'm driving a truck so I can break even on the dogs."

Marguerite Terrell came more than 3,000 miles, from Washington, with her Afhgan, Pepsi, who is known to prefer Kentucky Fried Chicken above all foods. Terrell says this dog is so good that two years ago someone offered $40,000 to buy the dog, and that last year someone offered $18,000 just to rent the dog for a year, to breed and to show. So seeing Pepsi cop the blue isn't such a big deal anymore, not even at Westminster. "And part of that is because I'm a horse person--and this is just dogs," Terrell says. "You can't even compare the two. There's so much more work in horses, so much more of an investment. A Secretariat comes along once in a lifetime--there's millions of dogs. It's just easier to get close to a good dog."

And she would know, of course, because as she spoke she was sitting on top of a cage that held a very good dog, which, after six hours of grooming and two hours of showing was sound asleep, his head wrapped in a bonnet to keep his ears clean.

Biggest Selling Food at Westminster: The $1.25 frankfurter.

It's a dog eat dog world.