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Photo courtesy of Nicole Sugai

Just like the beauty-pageant queen who is a member of Mensa, the Poodle sometimes gets swept away in an unfair stereotype: These perfectly coiffed show dogs are also amazingly smart and versatile. Nicole Sugai of Targa Poodles in Saline, Michigan, knows that firsthand: A second-generation Poodle breeder together with her mom Patti Jason and sister Danielle, and president of the Poodle Club of Southeast Michigan, Nicole tells anyone who’s willing to listen about how her glamorous breed can shine outside the ring in everything from therapy to fieldwork. And for her, Poodles were the gateway to a lifelong interest in dogs: Nicole is currently a veterinary student at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, set to graduate next year. Even there, as an American Kennel Club veterinary-scholarship recipient and student ambassador, she educates fellow aspiring veterinarians about the responsible breeding of purebred dogs, as well as the dedicated fanciers who are producing sound, healthy and typey examples of their chosen breed. Here, Nicole talks about Poodle versatility, the importance of health testing, and those derivative Doodles.

Nothing to sneeze at: My grandmother was allergic to dogs, so after my mother did some research and found that a Poodle would not affect allergies, she got Miniature Poodles as pets during her teens. After my parents married, they bought their first black Standard Poodle bitch in 1990, and Targa Poodles began.

Talking ’bout my generation: I may have been raised with my breed, but I fell in love with Poodles on my own, too. I find that black Standard Poodles are the most elegant show dogs, yet I also love their versatility: They are smart enough to succeed in many roles, and are one of the most athletic and agile breeds.

Stereotype central: Unfortunately, the general public and pet people still have the “fluffy pink Poodle” cartoon in their head. Many people incorrectly think Poodles are high maintenance and question what jobs Poodles actually have or are capable of. I try to educate people about how Poodles originally were water retrievers in Germany, and many are still working in the field today. Breeders and owners work with all varieties of Poodles in hunt trials, dock diving, agility, obedience, rally, field trials and as service dogs. Poodles are more than their haircut, and it just takes people willing to learn about their talents to change this perception.

No sugar-coating: Most people we see at the shows comment about how Poodle people often are working on our dogs most of the day. Our friends will always find us brushing dogs out in our setup at shows. With modern show grooming, learning to clipper, scissor and brush out Poodles is a process that takes years to master. I think a lot of all-breed handlers will ask to learn how to groom a Poodle and not realize all the steps involved with maintaining a proper show coat at home or at the shows.

Flood zone: Poodles are still water retrievers, so water doesn’t bother them. Rain mostly just makes added work for all of us who groom them, as we have to completely dry them to avoid matting and any hair damage from damp hair mixed with hairspray.

Don’t doodle: Unfortunately, the Labradoodle phenomenon has led to many variations of “Doodle” mixed breeds. Many pet people believe the hype that the mixes are hypoallergenic and don’t shed, but that’s not the case for many of them. I think some people have the erroneous perception that a Doodle is less of a “fifi” dog than a purebred Poodle, and that the mixes are more “diverse” and thus healthier than purebred dogs.

The doctor is in: When I wrote my personal-statement essay for my veterinary-school application, my major theme was our line of Standard Poodles. My work with whelping and raising healthy puppies, health-testing our adult dogs and planning breedings is ultimately what led me to apply for vet school. Some of my earliest memories are driving to the vet clinic and getting our dogs’ health testing completed.

Standard bearer: Being an AKC Breeder of Merit is a great standard to hold myself and our dogs to. I am proud that the AKC recognizes our work for our dogs and is holding us to a higher standard. It helps to gain confidence with our prospective puppy buyers for them to realize our dogs are fully health tested and from an AKC Breeder of Merit.

Health first: All of our dogs that we hope to use in our breeding program have their complete health testing after they turn two years old. This includes a thyroid panel, hip, elbow and eye certification, and DNA testing for neonatal encephalopathy. Our stud dogs still have a skin punch done to check for sebaceous adenitis. Many of our dogs, while still showing, will get preliminary radiographs for their hips to assess their structure before official OFA series are sent in after they turn two years old.

Paper trail: We send our puppy buyers home with a whole puppy packet that includes the AKC-registration and microchip-registration forms. Many new puppy owners like to have their dog registered so they can compete in obedience and agility competitions and have their Canine Good Citizenship title completed.

Last word: Our dogs are companions first. Many have gone on to become wonderful service dogs who visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes, or work as service dogs for their owners. I’m proud of our dogs’ conformation careers and AKC championships, but the fact that just as many of our puppies grow up to have other jobs and titles is just as impressive. And that is what a Poodle at its essence should be: a dog that is smart enough and structurally sound enough to handle a variety of jobs throughout its lifetime.