Watching the National Dog Show on NBC is an excellent distraction on those maddening Thanksgiving afternoons when you can smell the food cooking but are still hours from being able to eat it.

But actually taking a day trip to the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, where the show is taped a week before it airs, is one of the greatest Philly-area experiences you may not know you’re missing.

The charm of attending in person is not just the live experience of the annual TV special, though that's part of it. Get a strategic seat Saturday, and you may be able to point yourself out to your little cousins come Thanksgiving.

Now, the scoring for dog shows is complicated and a bit intimidating. However, you absolutely do not have to be a pedigree enthusiast to enjoy yourself at the National Dog Show, because its massive backstage area is the single best place in America for petting dogs — there will be 187 breeds competing this year.

It’s sadly underknown that, in addition to a seat at the televised ring, your ticket gets you access to four massive halls that are the sites of preliminary rounds, a staging area, and a beauty shop for the thousands of competitors and their owners. And as long as you ask first and they haven’t just gotten their fur done, many, if not most, dogs are pettable. But, seriously, ask — the hairdos are no joke.

A Saint Bernard wears at bib at the National Dog Show, taping in Oaks this weekend. Steven Donahue/See Spot Run Photography

Another of the fascinating things about the backstage area is the up-close view of the struggle between humans trying to achieve styling perfection and dogs who are, well, dogs. Thus,  before the canines go onstage, there all sorts of desperate measures to keep them from messing up their meticulous grooming. You’ll see poodles getting complicated blowouts, including hairspray. Saint Bernards wear bibs to keep from slobbering all over themselves. Irish setters have their ears tied up in odd pigtails, and shih tzus get Fu Manchu mustaches and topknots. 

Something else fun to gawk at? Diving dogs are trained to dash down a 40-foot runway and jump into a 20,000-gallon pool of water. Pooches will practice Saturday (11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.) and compete Sunday (10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., Hall D).

Dog shows are one of the few places where the early rounds of competition are more fun to watch than the finals. While dogs of different breeds compete against one another for the Best in Show trophy, the preliminary rounds are among dogs of the same breed, which tend to gather together in groups waiting for their turn in the ring. You haven't lived until you've encountered 41 beautiful, goofy golden retrievers in a big, beautiful, goofy crowd.

And this year, you can — there really are 41 entrants in the golden retriever category Saturday. (11:45 a.m. Saturday, ring 6 ; 12:30 p.m. Sunday, ring 6.)

If you have ever had an ambition to pet every type of dog, this is the place to chase that dream. The backstage is swarming with canines of every possible shape and size -- there are two kinds of corgi and four types of dachshund. You can potentially pet them all, Pokemon-style — though, again, always ask first.

Here are some picks for the person attending the National Dog Show primarily to pet dogs:

Any preliminary rounds involving Samoyeds are a must-see, as encountering more than a dozen Samoyeds in the same place is like being knee-high in a bank of happy, puffy clouds (1:30 p.m. Saturday, ring 6; 9:30 a.m. Sunday, ring 9).

Great Danes are most notable for being enormous, and they really are (8 and 8:30 a.m. Saturday, ring 10; 10:30 a.m. Sunday, ring 9).

The tiny, baldish Chinese crested is a relatively new breed that looks like a rat crossed with a wizard (12:50 p.m. Saturday, ring 1; 9:15 a.m. Sunday, ring 3).

A standard poodle lounges at the National Dog Show. Steven Donahue/See Spot Run Photography

The border collie is generally regarded as the smartest of the dogs (8:45 a.m. Saturday, ring 12; 8 a.m. Sunday, ring 8).

Then there's the daftest, the Afghan hound, essentially a greyhound with a blond weave (12:15 p.m. Saturday, ring 12; 9:15 a.m. Sunday, ring 8).

The Neapolitan mastiff looks as if it had gastric bypass surgery and lost 400 pounds (2:30 p.m. Saturday, ring 6; 9:30 a.m. Sunday, ring 9).

Bergamascos could be called either walking mops or mobile dreadlocks. Either way, it is a mystery how they see (8 a.m. Saturday, ring 12; 8 a.m. Sunday, ring 7).

Watch the National Dog Show at noon Thanksgiving Day on NBC.

The National Dog Show, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, 100 Station Ave., Oaks. $16 (adults), $7 (kids), 484-362-2682,