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Rare Dogs Gain Acceptance, but Some Breeders Growl

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Beauceron puppies. (Courtesy of Susan Bass)

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Susan Bass breeds Beaucerons in Independence, MO. For a small but devoted number of owners, breeders and enthusiasts, the only dogs that count are, like a fine Bordeaux, imported and rare. (Courtesy of Susan Bass)

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Porter, a Dutch-born Stabyhoun, at his new home in Connecticut. (Courtesy of Rebecca Sherman)

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David Barber imported his Bouvier, Voltaire, from France to his home in Westchester. (Courtesy of David Barber)

Forty-four black-and-tan paws padded gingerly across the royal-blue carpet in a well-formed line. Waves of nervousness and excitement passed over Susan Bass, who stood toward the front of the line. Bass’ dog was one of the first 11 beaucerons ever to compete in the Eukanuba National Championship.

“This was a big honor--to go to Eukanuba,” Bass said. “It was the first time. And then to win awards. It was phenomenal.”

The beauceron, long considered a rare dog in the United States, was accepted into the American Kennel Club this year. For Bass, who has bred and trained these shepherd dogs (which are native to France) since 1984, the recognition was the payoff. After years of dedication to a breed that most Americans have never heard of, three of her dogs won awards at the December competition.

Because of the efforts by Bass and other beauceron breeders, her dogs will trot across the same carpet as golden retrievers, dachshunds and other favorites at the Westminster Dog Show in February.

Say goodbye to the labradoodle, the puggle and the cockapoo. For a small but devoted number of owners, breeders and enthusiasts, the only dogs that count are, like a fine Bordeaux, imported and rare.

Breeders are the primary importers of these big-ticket dogs, but then there are people like Rebecca Sherman and Bernie Orozco, who were simply charmed by the idea of owning a distinctive pet. Sherman and Orozco paid $2,000 to buy a stabyhoun puppy from a breeder in the Netherlands. That amount included the cost of a roundtrip plane ticket for the breeder’s 18-year-old daughter.

They described their excitement as they waited for the young woman to arrive at the airport in Hartford, Conn. with their imported puppy, Porter. “We took him out of the bag right away in the parking lot. He was so tiny, adorable and groggy!” Sherman wrote in an e-mail. “Bernie still talks about how jealous he was that I was able to hold Porter in the car. He threw up several times in my lap--I actually had a ‘puppy pad’ in my lap just in case.”

David Barber of Westchester County, N.Y., traveled to France to pick up his shaggy bouvier after falling in love with the breed. A family friend who owned five bouviers had encouraged him to “go to the source,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“People make such a big fuss about the ‘over the top’ lengths I went to,” he added. “I really never saw it that way. I find it odd that people think what I did was odd ... considering the average amount of time people spend researching new cars or coffee machines.”

For many potential dog owners, research begins with the American Kennel Club. The club began enrolling rare breeds in 1995 through its Foundation Stock Service. The FSS tracks these new breeds until their populations became large and uniform enough to be admitted into competition.

Beauceron breeder Bass, like many others, values the role of the FSS. “We want to get the name out into the show ranks,” she said. “FSS is critical.”

Others in the cloistered world of rare-dog breeding have questioned the American Kennel Club’s intentions and worry that its efforts are not always in the best interest of a breed.

“The AKC is new to the game,” said Robert Stack, director of the American Rare Breed Association, a registry that was founded four years before the Foundation Stock Service. The ARBA recognizes 187 breeds, most of which have not yet been accepted by the AKC.

Stack expresses concern that the kennel club has started admitting dogs at a greater rate since the creation of the Foundation Stock Service, as a way of keeping its revenue steady. “I’m not that naive to think that wasn’t a main ingredient,” he said. “But I do sincerely hope that they do it for the love of the dog.”

Some breeders are more blunt.

“The AKC wants more money, more money, more money,” said Susan Corrone, who breeds xoloitzcuintlis (pronounced sholo-EEKS-kwint-ly) on her nine acres in Bethany, Conn. “I refuse to show my dogs with them. I’ve protected this breed like you wouldn’t believe.”

A spokesperson for the American Kennel Club declined to comment on the accusations but said that the club is often criticized by breeders because it is “the rule-making organization for the sport.”

Corrone’s actually not much happier with the ARBA. She belonged to the group for many years, but she said she no longer trusts its judgment about her breed. She now shows her small, hairless, hypoallergenic dogs with the North American Kennel Club and sells puppies for $1,500 to $2,000 each.

No less pricey, but considerably more hairy, is the bergamasco, a rare breed of Italian shepherd dog with matted fur that looks a lot like gray dreadlocks--or possibly the end of a mop.

Stephen DeFalcis, 52, who breeds bergamascos with his wife, Donna, out of their Langhorn, Pa., home, feels a special responsibility toward his dogs, all of which came from an Italian woman outside Milan whom he calls “the world’s foremost bergamasco breeder.”

DeFalcis worries that as his dogs become better known, their quality will diminish. Like Corrone, he is suspicious of the American Kennel Club.

“In my world, they do nothing for anybody,” DeFalcis said of the AKC. “They only care about the money. They don’t care about the dogs. That’s the AKC.”

Donna is less critical. “I would love to see our dogs AKC recognized,” she wrote in an e-mail.

That’s been the position of Susan Bass all along. As she prepares her dogs for the barrage of upcoming American Kennel Club shows leading up to Westminster, the debate over the value of the AKC is far from her mind. She’s focused instead on her main competitor, Turbo, a fearsomely attractive beauceron that was named Best in Breed at Eukanuba.

“Why not show against the best?” Bass said. “It’s only an insecure breeder who wants to avoid competition.”

E-mail: jdg2130@columbia.edu