Floridians expect Northern guests this time of year. But not many host a four-footed, 180-pounder that consumes six cups of kibble and a can of meat for breakfast, then snacks on three chicken breasts throughout the day. Oh, and he takes a 6:30 a.m. bath from an outdoor hose on the porch.
That's what Sharon Sakson welcomed into her Hickory Hill Road home on Wednesday.
Her guest is Champion Jamelle's Aristocrat V Elba, the No. 1 St. Bernard show dog in the country, visiting from Hopewell, N.J., while he competes in the Florida Gulf Coast Clusters Winter Dog Shows at Florida Classic Park, east of Brooksville.
Sakson knows him well. A recent transplant to Hernando County from New Jersey, Sakson met the 7-year-old, affectionately called Cookie, as a pup. She touts his remarkable show record: five Best of Show wins across the country, meaning he has bested every other dog of all breeds in competitions in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland and twice in Florida.
Cookie attained his No. 1 ranking by accumulating points during his show career. His honors include last year's Best of Breed at the premier canine event in the United States, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and a total of 50 best of breeds. He handily picked up another one at the clusters on Thursday.
The seemingly beaming behemoth is aiming for the St. Bernard record, 58 breed bests, in time for his 2014 appearance at Westminster in February.
At his first clusters event Thursday, standing by for the call to the ring, handler Melody Salmi bowed close to Cookie's ear.
"Do you want a cookie?"
The canine lifted his muzzle and gently plucked from her hand his kind of "cookie" — half a chicken breast from the local KFC. With no more than a swallow, he stepped into the ring like a prince.
"There's a majesty about him," Sakson said. "He's the essence of a St. Bernard. You just know if you were in a snowstorm, he would rescue you."
And Cookie seems to know he stands at the top of his class. Indeed, on Thursday, he was No. 1 among the working group dogs, including the corgi, Samoyed and Great Dane.
As the day's Best of Show title was bestowed on a miniature dachshund, Sakson noted of St. Bernards: "It's rare for that breed to be best in show. The bests seem to go to the poodles, bichons, Dobermans, those with a lot more pizazz. The St. Bernard usually is not much of a showman."
Judges have praised Cookie's breed type, said Salmi, who's been at his lead since 2009. The St. Bernard, she explained, should wear "a noble expression, inviting, never stern or ill-tempered, as you'd want if you were being rescued."
The breed has been selected through the ages as a rescue dog.
Other judging points have to do with health: deep-set dark brown eyes to ward off snow blindness, a large mouth to facilitate big gulps of air for stamina, heavy bones for endurance.
As if traversing a fashion runway, Cookie wore his best coat.
"It wasn't just done this morning," Salmi said.
He stood for baths Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, each with five different shampoos and two hair conditioners. His outer and inner coats of hair appeared to be poufed like a powder puff. Before the show, Salmi gave a final trim to the hair around his feet and to his whiskers.
The champion came to compete in Florida because his owners, Linda and Ed Baker, winter in Alva, near Fort Myers, and Salmi, a Miami native, yearned for a visit home.
Sakson has provided Cookie with a nationwide audience. As a producer with the Westminster show, she has presented the dog on TV morning shows and in public service announcements promoting the Madison Square Garden extravaganza.
Right now, though, Sakson is pleased to have him as her Florida houseguest.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]