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After seeing a cartoon of a Bulldog in the funny pages, a kindergarten-age Cody Sickle saved up to buy one of those jut-jawed creatures. He did just that only two years later – at the tender age of 8. Today, after more than a half-century, Sickle and his Cherokee Bulldogs in Oyster Bay Cove, New York, have amassed some stratospheric statistics: Named the American Kennel Club’s Non-Sporting Breeder of the Year in 2004, Sickle has bred or owned 240 champions, including nine all-breed Best in Show winners accounting for 48 Bests and 42 specialty winners who boast a whopping 574 specialty wins among them. Sickle has breeder-owner-handled his dogs to breed wins at Westminster 13 times, has had the number-one Bulldog in the nation eight times, and is the breeder of the 2022 Best in Show winner at the AKC National Championship in Orlando.

Here, he talks about his kennel’s namesake, the perfect breeding formula and why he meets prospective puppy owners in the kitchen.

The search: “When I was about 7, I started looking in the want ads every Sunday for Bulldog puppies. I would call every single one, and ask, ‘Do you have Bulldog puppies, and how much are they?’ The response was usually about $85, but I would say, ‘Would you accept $37.42?’ I held nothing back – I offered them everything I had. They always said no. When I was up to $60, one lady said, ‘Let me speak to your mother.’ We went, and the lady brought out a white piebald puppy. She could have brought out a raccoon and I would have thought it was perfect.”

Model citizen: “When we brought Cherokee home, we went to obedience classes at the Ranch Park Dog Training Club in Des Plaines, Illinois. We went every week, trained every week, and the following year I got a CD on her. As a 8- or 9-year-old boy, I had total control of her, even off leash. She didn’t care for the Dalmatian that lived two doors from us. If she saw him, she’d go after him. All I had to do was say, ‘Cherokee, down’ or ‘Cherokee, sit,’ and she would, as much as she wanted to go get him. She wouldn’t come back, but she’d sit and wait for me to come get her.”

Father knows best: “My dad had no interest in dog shows – none. Maybe he went to five or six in his lifetime. We moved from Chicago to New York in 1960, and in 1961 or ’62, I decided that I wanted to show. He asked me, ‘Who are the top Bulldog breeders in the country?’ And I said, ‘Dr. Vardon in Detroit and Mrs. Glass in Chicago. They are the best.’ He said, ‘Talk to them. No one’s going to sell you their best dog, but if they sell you one who’s a little less than that, you’re still going to have a competitive dog.’”

Finding a foundation: “We were told that there was 6-month-old bitch at the Division I specialty that we should consider buying. She was basically Dr. Vardon’s breeding, and her grandsire was Snowman – Intl. Ch. Vardona Frosty Snowman – who did more winning in his time than any other dog. My mother and I didn’t know enough to pick a dog, so we asked five or six well-known breeders at the show to come over and evaluate her. Everybody said she’s good enough to finish, and she had a very good pedigree. So at the end of day, I bought her. And she was our first champion and mother of our first litter.”

Wish list: “After we finished Eva, I sent letters to a dozen breeders across the country that said – I remember the words precisely – ‘I want a dog that can consistently win the breed and place in the group in Eastern competition.’ On the way to Chicago International, my mom and I went to Mrs. Glass’ kennel. She put an 8-month-old dog on the table, and told me what she thought was good and bad. I said to her, ‘This dog just isn’t what I’m looking for.’ Everybody in Chicago would have been afraid to say that to her, but she never talked to me as if I was a kid. Then she brought out an impressive-looking 9-month-old, but he was so nervous she could barely get him to stand up on the table. She said, ‘I have to go in the house to feed puppies. Stay as long as you want.’ We had a lead on him, and I realized I could get him to walk while my mother described him to me; we learned everything together. After 30 to 45 minutes alone with the dog, finally, we decided, let’s buy him. It turned out, once he got comfortable, he was a natural show dog. His name was Cherokee Morgan, and he was our first Best in Show dog.”

Breeding philosophy: “Linebreeding with the best is a great idea. Anybody can turn around their breeding program in two or three generations. Take a super father and son; breed your bitch to the son, and then breed those puppies to the father. The idea of copying people who are doing it the best makes so much sense to me. If you look at my early pedigrees, they have the best that were around at the time. It didn’t take long for us to do well. But it’s a lot harder to do it consistently.”

Love me, love my dog: “Most breeding is social, to a friend’s dog. Or to the breeder who sold them their dog. Too many people don’t say, ‘Which dog will give me the best chance?’ If your friend is only going to be your friend if you breed to their dog, you’re not their friend. And there’s way too much of that.”

Heads up: “If you’re going to judge a Bulldog, and you can’t talk for 10 minutes about the head, you’re not seeing enough, because there’s so much detail to talk about.”

Past perfect: “It’s been fashionable forever to say, ‘Our breed is such a mess, it’s not what it used to be.’ But if you were to graph the quality of Bulldogs from 1960 until today, while there might be hiccups, it would be a generally upward slope. We have dogs now that are not good enough to be top specials that would be Best in Show winners in the 1960s – our breed has improved that dramatically.”

Kitchen cabinet: “I sell my puppies in the kitchen. If you want to buy a puppy from me, I ask almost no questions, or very few. I don’t care where you live, whether you are rich or poor, or if you have a fenced-in yard. I don’t even have to like you. I just care about two things: That you’re going to take good care of the dog, and that you’re going to love it. So when you come into my kitchen, how you react is a big deal to me. I want you to get down on the floor, unless you’re physically unable to.”

Best advice: “If a puppy doesn’t grab you, wait. Don’t settle. Don’t ever buy a puppy you feel sorry for, because in a couple of months, you will feel sorry for yourself.”

Final word: “My early introduction into the world of Bulldogs and dog shows has been a true blessing. The dogs have been so life enriching. There are not words to describe how the many terrific people I have had the opportunity to call friends have made all the work so worthwhile. Aspiring to breed excellence has been difficult, rewarding and challenging. Hopefully, the best is yet to come.”