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Mark Baer

During the week, Billie the Newfoundland might be taste-testing dog-friendly goodies at Three Dog Bakery in Kansas City, Kansas. But on the weekend, the 110-pound dog’s focus points in an entirely different direction: dog sports Conformation and Rally to Fast CAT and Nose Work.

Testing Tasty Dog Treats

Billie has a pretty sweet job: she taste tests handmade dog treats at Three Dog Bakery. Billie’s owner Nicki Dobson, of Lenexa, Kansas, has been working at Three Dog Bakery in various roles for eight years, and is presently a project manager for new product innovation in the home office.

The engaging Billie started as a puppy in the retail bakery, where the staff makes cakes and has moved to the headquarters’ test kitchen, where she provides opinions on packaged treats.

The two work a hybrid schedule – in the office three days a week and the other two off-site for testing and marketing. Taste tests are on a needed basis. The firm usually conducts informal ones twice monthly at the office and major ones quarterly when they get closer to production.

Nicki Dobson

“Any time you visit our office you will find one to six dogs roaming around. Employees’ dogs are our co-workers,” Dobson says. “Every office dog can provide input, but the dogs on the innovation team get an early look and taste of potential new products.”

Initial treat testing involves many specifics, Dobson explains. “The first is aroma. Is the smell enticing to them. Can we even smell the aroma? Quite often many projects get reworked at the aroma phase. Other things we look at: Do they sniff it before biting it? Do they walk with the treat? If they walk off, did they hide it or eat it? Does it leave crumbles? Do the dogs clean up the crumbles?”

Another level of tasting follows where the dogs are given a choice of treats on two paper plates. One is a new offering and the other a treat from the company’s portfolio or a competitor’s line. When presented, what does the dog do? Does he/she sniff both or focus on one? If the latter, which one. Next Billie and the others are presented two treats again but flip-flopped. “This will let us know if the dog always looks first to one side or if it prefers the odor,” adds Dobson.

Billie’s Best Paw Forward for Conformation

It’s not easy task to have a job during the week, train for dog sports, and compete on the weekends, but the 4-year-old Newfie (GCH Pouch Cove’s Southwind Billow Maiden of Aegir) handles it well. “She bears a challenging workload,” says owner Nicki Dobson. “She never wavers and thrives off the Conformation crowds.”

Her professional handler, Paul Catterson, of Smithville, Missouri, who lives about an hour away from Dobson, agrees. “Billie’s totally a people pleaser.” Catterson, who handles multiple breeds, adds, “Large breeds can sometimes be more of a challenge in the ring, but Billie has that pick-me attitude in front of judges, which makes my job easier. “She is a quick learner yet has that stubborn streak at times.”

Billie is Dobson’s fourth Newfie that Catterson has shown to a championship, and the second he has campaigned — he believe that she’s still a year away from her full show potential.

Cissy Sullivan

Billie is considered a black Newfoundland with white markings, and completely within the breed standard. But she is known for her one white front paw. “Everyone and every judge has his/her preferences,” says Dobson. “Some are turned off by it. Since she is new to campaigning, we are just taking note of judges who share their preference.”

While Catterson was occupied with multiple entries at the iconic Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in May, Dobson guided the gentle giant to a coveted Best of Breed title at the Newfoundland Club of America National Specialty in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

“Everything Billie is tasked with,” says Dobson, “she gives it her all and sets the bar higher.” Her first time the in the Conformation ring, when she was 8 months old. She went from Best of Breed from the puppy class and got a pull in in groups. “She acted like, ‘This is what I do,'” Dobson said.”

‘Team Billie’ Gets Support Across Dogs Sports

Billie’s charisma isn’t limited to the Conformation ring. “She has an amazing talent for bringing people together wherever she goes, Dobson continues. “She just has an aura that attracts people. She can walk into a board room at work looking for samples and get total strangers to share photos of their dogs with each other. She goes to the Nationals and fanciers from social media who have never met her rally together to form her personal cheer squad, ‘Team Billie.”‘

When it comes to sports, Billie’s favorite is Conformation “because she loves the attention and the applause,” says Dobson. Next is Rally, as she is always eager to please. Fast CAT is another matter. “She may enjoy the first run of the day, but if there’s another one, it’s because “we ask her to do it,” laughs Dobson. “She has no prey drive. To her, it’s a 100-yard recall for which she is rewarded. Consequently, she knows she can simply stroll down that one lane instead of running or trotting.”

Training With the Family’s Newfies and Picards

Dobson places a high priority on conditioning the five dogs in her household between Billie’s job at the bakery. Her husband Michael Vanek’s two Berger Picards, “Sparky” and “Pixel,” and Billie’s two daughters, “Yola,” 22 months, and “Reyka,” 10 months, along with Billie.

Five mornings a week year around, they meet up with a friend and walk the adult dogs 1½ to two miles pending weather. Back home, each dog receives 15 minutes of one-on-one play time and training. Each evening it’s time for group play and more one-on-one workouts. Before bed, Dobson and Vanek do a short pack walk through the neighborhood al the dogs.

“In our house, there is nothing exclusive. The Berger Picards are Michael’s breed and the Newfoundlands are mine, but we both play a part in all their lives,” adds Dobson. On grooming days, he washes and dries the dogs. They both walk and train them, and on occasion, Vanek has shown a Newfoundland in the ring.

Teamwork is the essence of the couple’s involvement in dog sports. In September 2022, Vanek encountered a work conflict and could not attend the Berger Picard Club of America National Specialty in Des Moines, Iowa. Enter Dobson, who showed Sparky in Veteran Sweepstakes to Best in Sweeps.

Beth VanHorn

Billie’s Sweet Nature

But make no mistake about it, the affable Billie is top dog at home, with her tight, frisky camaraderie. It is rather strong, but not overtly dominant in any way, adds Dobson, “but the others respect she is No. 1.” This leadership extends into her friendly, nurturing nature.

After her first litter, a momma bunny had a litter under the dog walk in the couple’s backyard. The other dogs were interested in this litter, Dobson says, “but Billie decided it was hers and she laid on top of it anytime the others were outside. She was going to protect that litter no matter the challenge from her household brethren.

“She would lay out there all day by the hole and listen for the bunnies to make a noise,” Dobson recalls. “You could see her tilting her head and wanting to mother them. Twice a day I would uncover the hole, let her see them and she was satisfied that they were taken care of appropriately.”
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