When a dog can best Santa Claus in a popularity contest - well, there must be some truth to that old saying about "a boy's best friend."

Most children who braved the arctic air to catch the season's first glimpse of Santa on Saturday weren't content to warm their frozen fingers until the jolly old elf uttered his first "ho ho ho."But for the Turville boys - Tanner, 5, and Mason, 2 - the real stars of the annual downtown Christmas parade had pranced by on all fours, long before Mr. and Mrs. Claus brought up the rear of the hourlong procession Saturday morning.

When asked what their favorite part of the parade was, the two didn't even hesitate. Eyes wide and cheeks rosy, they seemed puzzled that one would even pose such a question. "The dogs!" Two different groups of dogs - the Salt Lake County Dog Trainers and a group of seeing-eye dogs - and their trainers took part in the parade.

The response didn't surprise the boys' mother, Lisa. She watched her sons' enthusiasm as the canines cavorted down Main Street, some collared with red and green tinsel, and all furiously wagging their tails.

But she was a bit dismayed when Tanner added that he wants Santa to bring him a dog of his own.

Take heart, St. Nick - you're still in the picture.

Yes, the dogs were there - some of them guiding blind masters along the parade route, adding a warmth all their own to the 30-degree temperatures.

Floats, drill teams, marching bands, beauty queens, horse-drawn carriages and cartoon characters composed the other 65 entries participating in the event, which traditionally starts the Christmas shopping season in downtown Salt Lake City.

As in years past, the parade began promptly at 9 a.m. at the corner of Main Street and South Temple. Store owners in both major malls arrived early to ensure a warm welcome for shivering shoppers as the procession ended an hour later.

Entries were judged in 10 different categories. Winners included: Governor's Award for best all-around entry to AT&T for "Child's Fantasy;" Mayor's Award for most creative, to Hogle Zoo for "Peace for All Creatures;" Children's Award for best depiction of theme, to Past Masters of Shrine Club for "Nativity;" and Best Novelty to the Dickens Christmas Festival.

Other winners: Kennedy Junior High, best junior band; South Sevier High, best high school band; Hunter Junior High, best junior drill team; Jordan High School, best high school drill team; Razz Matazz, best non-school drill team; and Ben Lomond High, best precision drill team.

The biggest crowds were gathered along the first block of the parade route, and looked anxiously beyond most of the other entries to Santa's sleigh. Tucked safely behind police barricades and the Brigham Young monument, Mr. and Mrs. Claus seemed to enjoy their float-top view, as all the other entries paraded past them and onto Main Street.

At precisely 10 a.m., Santa and wife began their first sleigh ride of the year, waving furiously to the crowd and satisfying the anticipation of most everyone.

Everyone, that is, except the Turville boys. Their fur-covered heros were wagging their tails several blocks down the street.