When he was a boy, Hiram Stewart took a bus to Virginia, put a puppy in a paper bag and cradled it all the way home to New Orleans.

For more than three decades, he's cared for dogs in the Big Easy. Usually champion dogs, the kind that will reach the Best in Show ring this week at Westminster.

Still, nothing prepared him for what he saw happening to pets around town after Hurricane Katrina hit. Like that pair of little beagles with the pleading eyes, chained inside a garage.

"Every time a car would drive by, they'd come out, hoping it was their owner," Stewart said. "I knew the situation better than those two poor dogs did. It wasn't going to be just a few days."

Stewart believes those beagles came out OK. But thousands of their companions didn't, and America's most prestigious dog show planned to remember them -- and those who helped -- with a tribute Monday night at Madison Square Garden.

Hours earlier, the Westminster Kennel Club show started a day after the biggest snowstorm in city history blanketed New York. A total of 2,622 dogs in 165 breeds and varieties were entered -- some didn't make it because of the bad weather, though there was no exact count.

Coco was on hand, however.

Coming off two near misses at Westminster, the prize Norfolk terrier retired last spring after winning Best in Show at Crufts, beating 20,000-plus competitors at the world's largest show.

But when James Reynolds was chosen to be the Best in Show judge at the Garden-- and dog people know he really likes Coco -- she came back at 7 1/2 years old.

Coco easily won the best of breed competition Monday afternoon, wagging her tongue and paying rapt attention to handler Beth Sweigart's squeeze toy and coaxing of "Where's your mouse?"

"She didn't forget anything. She showed her little heart out," Sweigart said. "This is the only major competition she hasn't won. Maybe three's a charm."

"The judges on this panel are known to like her," she said. "But you never know what the competition is going to be."

Coco's next challenge was Fineus Fogg. He's a prime Dandie Dinmont terrier co-owned by Bill Cosby, and was set to face Coco in terrier group judging Monday night. Winners in the toy, working and nonsporting groups also were to be chosen.

The hound, herding and sporting groups were to be judged Tuesday night, with Best in Show chosen shortly before 11 p.m.

While some paint this as the Miss America of dog shows -- in fact, Miss America 1990, Debbye Turner, is hosting the USA Network telecast this year -- Westminster is known for reaching out into the canine community.

There was hardly a dry eye in the building in 2002 when 20 German shepherds and retrievers came onto the Garden's green carpet to honor search and rescue dogs for their tireless work at the World Trade Center and Pentagon after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Katrina tribute, featuring dogs and those that saved them, figured to bring the same response.

"I won't be able to watch it," said Sandra Bethea, who brought her champion Bedlington terrier from Gulfport, Miss. "It would be too emotional. I'll have my husband tape it, and I'll watch it on my own time."

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are not prime areas for purebred champions, producing a total of only 30 entries at Westminster this year. Yet veterinarians and volunteers poured into the Gulf Coast after the storm blew in, joining those already in place to offer time, services and donations.

As Katrina approached in late August, Lisa Myers packed 13 dogs -- and a gun, just in case -- into her mobile trailer and left Covington, La. Her husband stayed behind with a horse and two Basenjis; one of the dogs ran away when the winds blew and was killed.

"I saw some terrible things along the drive. People just letting their pets out on the side of the road. I don't see how anyone could do that," she said. "The things people did to their animals during Katrina are inexcusable."

Lashes, a champion Chinese Shar-Pei, is now with Myers at Westminster.

"I thought about not coming this year, but this continuity, it's a rite of passage," she said. "If I didn't do this, I've given in to the adversity."

Stewart, one of the most highly regarded handlers in the business, was set to attend Westminster again. His mother died last week, and he stayed home in Kenner, La.

He planned to watch the show on TV, and the tribute to those he knew so well.

"Once people could get in, the rescue effort with the dogs and cats and birds was quite something, sheltering the abandoned animals. You're talking about massive numbers of animals," he said.

"Every time I would go out, I'd take cans of food and fresh water," he said. "Just to try to help them make it through one more day."