By Allan Reznik
People get into a new breed for all kinds of reasons: the need to downsize, a desire for less grooming, a thirst for greater challenges, even the search for a cultural connection. Helping to establish a rare breed in this country brings with it even more ambitious goals, yet the initial introduction is often a matter of utter serendipity.
AKC judge Chris Levy began showing in 1972 with a German Shorthaired Pointer and a Miniature Schnauzer. Along the way, she and husband Tom also got involved with Cairn Terriers and Shiba Inu. She was a member of all four parent clubs, on the board or an officer in three, and had finished numerous dogs of all four breeds. In 1998 she attended the World Dog Show in Helsinki, Finland, to observe an entry of 300 Miniature Schnauzers. While there, Levy was exposed for the first time to a Pumi, a charming little curly-haired herding breed from Hungary. The Pumik were being shown later that day, so Levy skipped some of the Miniature Schnauzer judging to go watch.
"After getting home from Europe, I couldn’t stop talking about these dogs,” Levy recalls, and "my husband reminded me that we had been looking for the perfect herding dog for our eight Hereford cattle. The Pumi was exactly what we were looking for: the right size, non-shedding coat, not too much grooming (i.e., much less than the Schnauzers required), and it herded cattle.”
Liz Hansen, with more than 125 Standard Schnauzer champions to her credit, including top producers and owner-handled BIS winners, stumbled across a picture of a Berger Picard about six years ago. Hansen admits to enjoying "something a little out of the ordinary,” and the Picard offered her "the looks, natural balance, hardiness, temperament, hard coat, scruffy face and reasonable size” that she appreciated in her Standard Schnauzers. Both breeds afford her the opportunity to do more than conformation; Hansen participates in performance events and a host of outdoor activities, and the dogs "are willing and able to do most anything asked of them.”
Some Downsize, Some Don't
Jane Hodnett fell in love with Pharaoh Hounds in 1999 and campaigned one to No. 2 breed ranking in the country. She was active in showing and coursing, and served on the board of the Pharaoh Hound Club of America. After losing her last Pharaoh, she "wanted another dog immediately, but [her] husband decided they were getting too old for such a strong, independent dog. He wanted more of a lap dog.” A friend of Hodnett’s and fellow Pharaoh Hound owner had just acquired a Cirneco dell’Etna from Texas breeder Lucia Prieto. Prieto brought several Cirneci to Hodnett’s home so she could interact with them. ‘Palermo,’ a 21/2-year-old male, stole her heart. Here was a breed with the Pharaoh look and personality that Hodnett loved, but in a 24-pound package.
Alexia Rodriguez started out as a Junior Handler showing Japanese Chin and a Miniature Schnauzer but jokes that she "married into the Cane Corsos” when she met her future husband Gabe and his Corso, ‘Jack.’ "Gabe had wanted a strong, protective but elegant breed of dog that wasn’t as common as other guardian breeds.” Rodriguez says that when she met Jack, she was impressed with how great he was around her two Japanese Chin. "Gabe and I enjoy not just conformation but also training and competing in performance sports such as agility, French Ring Sport, obedience and Schutzhund. Cane Corsos are extremely trainable and they thrive when learning new things.” Eventually, a Lowchen joined their household. "I missed having a small dog to sit in my lap. However, we had to add a dog that was sturdy, trainable and didn’t need an excessive amount of grooming for the show ring. I wanted a small dog that could easily compete in performance one weekend and then do conformation the next without a lot of coat care.”
Richard Yenchesky recalls, "While all the other 16-year-olds in high school were getting cars and girlfriends, I got my first show dog, an Airedale Terrier.” However, the rare-breed bug bit him early. "There was no Internet then, so I checked out every dog book from the library. For some reason, dog breeds that existed in multiple varieties always intrigued me.”
After finishing graduate school, Yenchesky went to an ARBA (American Rare Breeds Association) show in Orlando, Fla., and met his first Xoloitzcuintli. He was smitten. A month after that encounter, he attended an AKC show and left with a Powderpuff Chinese Crested. Yenchesky bred and showed Cresteds for more than 15 years. Ten years into that journey, Yenchesky was given the opportunity to add a Standard Xolo to his household. He acquired ‘Mole’ from J. Frank Baylis of Bayshore Crested and Xolo fame to be his pet, although he had promised to finish him. Mole went on to become a multiple all-breed BIS winner, handled by Diane Baker. No downsizing for Yenchesky either!
Clubs: The Policies and the Politics
With fewer numbers of dogs and owners, rare-breed enthusiasts expect to put in many hours of volunteer work, organizing and maintaining a parent club, handling Judges’ Education seminars and participating in Meet the Breeds events. Typically the parent club memberships are a blend of experienced fanciers coming from other breeds and newbies who are full of enthusiasm but utterly unfamiliar with AKC’s demands for proper protocol and paperwork.
There was no parent club for the Pumi when Levy started in the breed, nor was the Pumi on the FSS register. Levy, who was involved in applying for FSS recognition, says, "I hoped to put off the formation of a parent club as long as possible because I knew how much work would be involved. The other Pumi owners convinced me in 2005 that we needed to have a parent club for educational purposes and for having a contact for AKC, and I was elected President at that time.” Levy continues to serve in that capacity in addition to Judges’ Education Chair. The club benefits from her 40 years in purebred dogs, dog clubs and judging dogs, which have helped her "shepherd the Pumi on a consistent, forward path toward full AKC recognition.”
Levy acknowledges that "one difficulty with a new breed and new club is that there are no ‘traditions’ — it all needs to be developed as we go along. This entails a lot more work on the part of the officers and board members, as everything is uncharted territory. In addition, people who come in from other breeds may have decided that things have to be done in a certain way, and others have decided from their background that it must be done another way, so there’s some negotiation and compromise involved.”
While Meet the Breeds functions are treated as pleasant recreation for many people in mainstream breeds, they are "incredibly important to a rare breed,” says Levy. "I’ve flown and driven a lot more with this breed than with any other just for the exposure. Even at regular all-breed shows, matches and other events, there are always impromptu Meet the Breeds, and we have to always be prepared to inform the dog fancy and the public about our breed. As Judges’ Education Chair, I am traveling more than with any other breed I’ve owned because we don’t have the expertise at this time to have presenters stationed all around the country.”
Are politics any less prevalent in the rare-breed community, or are there just fewer people creating more drama? Rodriguez says that "politics in Cane Corsos isn’t as prevalent as drama! As a reconstructed breed with a new-ish breed club, there were many cooks in the kitchen, and things got quite heated, especially during parent club elections. Thankfully, the drama has calmed down, and our parent club has been able to move forward with leaps and bounds.”
Yenchesky says, the "Xolo community in the United States was not the most welcoming group of people, therefore I went outside the US and my comfort zone to contact many other Xolo breeders in Mexico and Europe. Now I have wonderful friendships abroad, and this is one of the highlights of the breed.” In his view the AKC parent club is "held tightly by a small group of individuals, and if you are not part of the controlling camp, it is very difficult to get involved in the club. I hope over time this will change.”
Levy acknowledges there can be some inflated egos to deal with. "Some people get into Pumik so they can be a ‘big fish in a little pond.’ Many times these people know very little but want to appear experienced so they can influence new people in the breed and, in addition, sell lots of puppies. We had one or two of these types at the beginning, but they found out that it wasn’t so easy to sell puppies of a breed no one has ever heard of and, thankfully, they moved on to greener pastures.”
Receptive Judges and Generic Judges
Rodriguez says that "generic judging has been and still is a huge problem in Cane Corsos. With the breed being so new to AKC, I felt a lot of the early judges just put up dogs with clean movement and flat toplines while not even noticing the dog with exceptional breed type. Moreover, I felt that judges didn’t really care to even learn what correct breed type was and they just wanted to judge our breed as fast as possible so they could move on to a more high-profile breed with larger numbers.” After four years in AKC, she thinks the situation for Corsos is improving. "I do notice judges are getting better at finding and rewarding a typier dog. I’ve also spoken with a few judges who have seen our breed improve over such a short period and now they, too, are excited to see the breed progress.”
"Picards are currently in Miscellaneous but will move to full recognition and join the Herding Group as of July 1, 2015,” says Hansen. "From the first time I brought my first Picard along with me to a show, there has been a great deal of interest in the breed. Many judges and exhibitors have stated that they are excited to see the breed and have been very interested in learning about the breed — definitely welcoming!”
Hansen hopes judges are taking advantage of BPCA presentations to learn what makes the Picard special and unique. "They have a big stride (or should have), a very prominent pro-sternum and big, deep angulation giving a long, springy gait — but this can be challenging to see or appreciate in a small show ring. It would be unfortunate to encourage more upright angulation and a shorter upper arm to make the breed more ‘flashy’ in a show ring, as this is not correct and not functional for herding.” As for presentation of the breed, Hansen says "the coat is supposed to be crisp, and look a bit rough and tousled. Already there are some dogs being blown dry and overly groomed to make them ‘pretty’ for the ring. There’s nothing wrong with being clean and combed out, but buffed, puffed and sculpted is just completely incorrect for this breed. Hopefully judges will not reward dogs presented this way and inadvertently encourage others to overdo it.” She wishes all judges who evaluate Picards could see them out in a field with livestock so they can keep that image in mind when in the show ring. "It would be a shame for this unique French herding breed to become just another generic American show dog.”
Levy says that, competing in the Miscellaneous Class, she’d be surprised if "someone wasn’t a generic judge. We figure we’re teaching the judges.” She feels generic judging is the biggest problem Pumi exhibitors face in the show ring. "Our breed is meant to have moderate reach and drive. In generic judging, the tendency is to put up the dog with the most reach and drive, or the cutest head and ears, or, as we heard recently from the Best in Miscellaneous judge, ‘the one I’d want to take home with me.’ Until judges get their hands on a lot of Pumik and learn more about the breed, I think the dog that is best handled and/or groomed will win more often than not.”
The High Points and the Frustrations
For many in the rare-breed community, particularly those working toward full AKC recognition, the high points in their journey often take place outside the US and are more people-oriented. Breed-related international travel gives fanciers exposure to new ideas and different points of view denied their counterparts in mainstream breeds who typically don’t do as much globetrotting. Hansen attended the Berger National Show in France, meeting more than 100 Picards and their owners from all over Europe. She has also become involved in herding with both the Picards and her Standard Schnauzers in the past 18 months and says watching the dogs work livestock has made it crystal clear why they "need the structure, temperament, carriage and other points outlined in the breed standards.”
Last year, Levy won BOS (over specials) with a homebred Pumi at the National Specialty in Hungary, then went on to gain her FCI working (herding) certification. This year, she won BOB at the World Show with another Pumi over an entry of 48, at the same show location (Helsinki) where she saw her first Pumik 16 years previously. No less gratifying, says Levy, is "watching our homebreds win in multiple venues, including one who’s on the World Agility Team, another the No. 1 agility Pumi for the last two years and others titled in Nose Work, Dock Diving and obedience. The Pumi excels in all of them.”
Yenchesky has had extraordinary success with his Swedish and Mexican imports as well as his American-bred Xolos. In a relatively short time, the breed, particularly the statuesque Standard variety, has caught the eye of the judges. In fact, the late Michael Dachel said to Yenchesky that "those Standard Xolos will eventually give Standard Poodles a run for their money in the Non-Sporting Goup.” Yet the coated variety throws judges off even more than it did with the Chinese Cresteds in the earlier days of AKC showing, says Yenchesky. "We had a judge who was so perplexed about one of our coated Xolos that he asked the handler repeatedly if she was in the correct ring and if she had papers on the dog! This coated dog finished the following day under a different judge.” The Toy, Miniature and Standard varieties are all shown in the same classes except for Open, which is divided by size, and the judges seem to find sorting through them all a great challenge.
Health testing is an issue that faces the Xolo breed worldwide, says Yenchesky. Another huge frustration. "We have already dealt with sterility, hip dysplasia and temperament issues, and these dogs have been pulled from our breeding programs.” As the breed grows in popularity, eye problems, auto-immune and skin concerns have come to light. "Unfortunately, the phrase, ‘my dogs are healthy,’ is thrown around much too loosely,” says Yenchesky. "Dr. Cindi Bossart of the Animal Hospital of Fort Lauderdale has established stringent guidelines for health testing of our personal breeding stock, and I hope to see other breeders do the same in the near future,” says Yenchesky.
"If Standard Schnauzers have a small gene pool, the Picards have a tiny puddle, so some of the views I held as absolutes with my Standard Schnauzers have had to be revisited and reevaluated for the Picards,” says Hansen. "The Picards will be a work in progress for awhile, before I feel I understand what traits are there solidly, and what needs to be improved.”
For Rodriguez, the biggest frustration is people’s misconceptions about Cane Corso temperament and what they were bred for. "The Cane Corso was bred to be an all-purpose farm dog; they drove livestock, protected the home and went on hunts with their owners. They are not bred to be man-killers or combat dogs. They are not fighting dogs, and Corsos did not kill the lady in San Francisco.” In her other breed, the Lowchen, she says "it’s frustrating that there are so few people involved in the breed, especially on the West Coast.”
In Pumik, Levy says "it’s difficult to place puppies when the general public and the dog fancy don’t know what a great breed this is. As a consequence we’ve placed beautiful, show-quality puppies in pet homes because there are no show homes.” As far as growing the parent club, Levy says it’s frustrating trying to find capable people to commit the time needed.
But most frustrating, says Levy, is watching the breeds that came into Miscellaneous at the same time as the Pumi (2011), and those that came in after the Pumi, all move on to regular AKC status, "while the Pumi still sits in Miscellaneous for a lack of about 50 FSS-registered dogs.” (Levy explains that 300 registered dogs are needed to move out of Miscellaneous.) "The breed as of April 2014 had 243 registered dogs with 360 AKC titles! A full 30 percent of the Pumik in this country have at least one AKC title. The obedience and agility people can compete all the way to the top — only the conformation exhibitors are stuck in limbo. The message from AKC is to breed more dogs, but we don’t have show homes because they’re still in Miscellaneous — a classic Catch 22.”
At the End of the Day
Despite the frustrations, there is incredible satisfaction in guiding a breed, together with like-minded enthusiasts, through the Miscellaneous Class and on to full AKC recognition. Rodriguez says that "when Gabe and I take a Corso and a Lowchen for a walk, people take photos with the dogs, ask questions, and it’s extremely fulfilling to be able to share the love and enthusiasm we have for these breeds.”
Jane Hodnett is excited that, through her Cirneco, she’ll be able to "dip a toe back into the show world. I do miss the fun and excitement of that!” She has always preferred a breed that had a smaller group of exhibitors, saying, "I think it is much more conducive to mutual respect and harmony than with some of the more popular breeds.”
Levy, after 40 years in dogs, says, "I am totally surprised that we found such a fantastic breed and have completely dedicated ourselves to the Pumi. Involvement in all our other breeds has fallen by the wayside. It’s when you least expect it...”