When college students decorate the walls of their dorm rooms, the subjects of the posters they choose may vary. But when Kevin Mason decided to hang an image in his room during his final year at Florida State University in Tallahassee, he chose a Bulldog. However, Mason didn’t own one — at least, not yet.
Fast-forward a quarter-century later. Mason traveled with his wife Natalie and their daughters, 10-year-old Holly and 6-year-old Morgan, to Orlando, Florida, to attend the 2022 AKC National Championship Presented by Royal Canin.
The show is the largest in the nation, with 5,376 dogs competing in Conformation this year. The Masons had entered their 3½-year-old Bulldog named “Star” (GCHG CH Cherokee Legend Encore). They watched as Star won Best of Breed against about 30 Bulldogs, judged by Dr. Steven Keating. They clutched their seats as she won an intensely competitive Non-Sporting Group under Pamela Bruce of Canada.
And they could barely contain their whoops of joy when Star garnered the Best in Show ribbon from Desmond Murphy. The judge later called Star “the best Bulldog bitch I’ve ever had my hands on.” Owned by Alaina Moulton and the Masons, Star was bred by Cody T. Sickle, Sherry Hazelett, and Connie A. Chambers. Reserve Best in Show went to GCHG CH Crivitz Humphrey Bogart Von Diable, a Standard Schnauzer known as “Bogart,” owned by Amy Shaffer & J. Low & W. Matthews III & T. Skinner of Crivitz, WI and bred by Amy Shaffer.
A Rising Star
To be sure, this wasn’t Star’s first red-letter win in her nascent career. After earning her championship with handler Dennis O’Connor and then whelping a litter of puppies in April 2021, Star went back out with O’Connor. She has racked up impressive wins that read for all the world like a dog-show bucket list: Reserve Best in Show at the vaunted Morris & Essex Kennel Club, also adjudicated by Murphy, in October 2021, followed by Best of Breed at both Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and the Bulldog Club of America National Specialty in 2022.
Star’s win in Orlando marked her 18th Best in Show. “She is so beautiful, and just so correct as a Bulldog,” says Murphy. His devotion to, and expertise in, the Bully breeds is acknowledged around the globe. In fact, Murphy was instrumental in creating the unique “BullyGanza” competition held every year at the Santa Barbara Kennel Club. This year, Star won it: a first for a Bulldog.
Murphy ticks off Star’s many positive attributes. They range from her correct front—so difficult to perfect in any breed, much less the low-slung Bulldog—to her layback, created by her receding nose and undershot jaw. But like many top show dogs, Star also has that indefinable quality explicit in her name. “She showed exceptionally,” Murphy says. “She just stares at you with a look that says, ‘I’m a star.’”
Linking Up with “Mr. Bulldog”
To understand how the Masons ended up with such an accomplished and electrifying show dog, we have to go back to the dog on that long-ago dormitory wall. He wasn’t just any Bulldog: He was a show dog named CH. Prestwick Gawain. His owner was “Mr. Bulldog”: Cody Sickle of Cherokee Bulldogs in Oyster Bay Cove, New York. Sickle bred and owned Gawain’s sire, CH. Cherokee Lord Prestwick.
“I idolized Cody,” says Mason, who lives in Woodstock, Georgia. But being a total newcomer to Bulldogs, he had never met the Long Island-based Sickle. Sickle’s tenure in the breed spans more than 60 years and just as many all-breed Bests in Show, along with a whopping 578 specialty wins to date.
So a few years after graduation, in 1999, Mason connected with Bulldog breeder Ana Alvarez-Sootin, who was expecting a litter by Gawain. She let Mason purchase a male, even allowing him to attend the birth that brought “Primetime,” his first-ever Bulldog, into the world.
“I was just enthralled with him,” says Mason of the dog formally known as CH. Dunebrae Primetime. “And he turned out to be an unbelievable dog to begin with.” Despite being told that a complete novice would have no luck in the ultra-competitive Bulldog ring, Mason finished Primetime’s championship, earning every single point himself. And as he spent more time ringside, he joined the Bulldog Club of America and finally met Sickle.
But life went on, as it usually does. Primetime passed away. Mason took a break from dog shows to start his family and career in insurance — with stints in stand-up comedy on the side. But his infatuation with the breed that had stolen his heart as a youngster was as strong as ever.
In 2019, the Masons found themselves in Sickle’s kitchen. That’s where Sickle interviews all would-be buyers, waiting to see if they will plunk themselves down on the floor to play with their prospective puppy. The Masons passed that litmus test with flying colors, leaving with a brindle-and-white female.
At first, Kevin Mason thought it would be enough to earn Star’s championship. But after Star had her first litter — sired with 20-year-old frozen semen that Mason had collected and stored from his beloved Primetime — she bounced back quickly: and with a new, eye-catching sheen of maturity.
“When you look at her, that’s what a Bulldog should be,” Sickle says of Star. “The jaw is wide and turned up beautifully. The face is dead flat. Her ears look terrific whether she’s relaxed or animated. Her body is a beautiful pear shape. You can walk around her, and she doesn’t have a bad angle anywhere. And when she comes back to the judge, she’s charming, always looking at the judge.”
Bully for Bulldogs
A high-visibility win like the AKC National Championship is a boon for Star’s career. But it also benefits Bulldogs in general, including upending the misconception that established and successful breeders never part with their best puppies.
“The reality is, you can’t keep everybody,” says Sickle. “If the right people come along who are going to do right by the dog, Connie and I don’t have any difficulty at all giving them a top dog.”
The Masons know that firsthand, having purchased a promising Bulldog that has become so successful she now has her own trophy room. And hanging on one of the walls, amid Star’s ribbons and win photos, is that original Bulldog photo from Kevin Mason’s final year of college, signed by Sickle on the day Star went to her new home.
Did you miss the show? You can watch the 2022 AKC National Championship Presented by Royal Canin on demand on AKC.tv!