BROOKSVILLE — A casual onlooker at the Florida Gulf Coast Clusters dog show last week might have wrinkled a nose around the word "scruffy" when a quintet of berger picard canines stepped into the ring.
"You want it to look natural," said Debbie Butt of Brooksville, co-owner of the top-winning dog in the United States of the native French breed. "We'd get penalized if it looked too groomed."
Other than among dog fanciers, the rough-coated herding breed, which dates to the 1700s, isn't well known or often seen. Only 3,000 picards, as they're nicknamed, are registered with the American Kennel Club, Butt said. It wasn't until July 2015 that the AKC recognized the breed, which previously competed in the "miscellaneous" category at AKC-sanctioned shows.
In obtaining sanction for the berger picard — translation, shepherd of Picardie — breeders wanted to ensure that conformation and character remained the most important attributes, with hair coat appearance a minimal consideration for a dog bred to work.
Handling Butt's bitch at the two-week clusters show, which ends this weekend, Daniel Martin conceded with a chuckle, "They are absolutely easier to groom than a poodle.
"It's a rustic look," he added.
It was that "look" that attracted Butt two years ago to the One and Only, the picard's registered name.
"Her name says it all. One look and it was over," Butt said with a blissful sigh.
"It was love at first sight. She has the 'it' factor, like when you watch a beauty pageant and one contestant just stands out. It's her attitude, her looks, her behavior."
Butt first eyed Only — the only female in her birth litter, hence her name — two years ago at the clusters show, then handled by her breeder, Donna Beadle of Minneapolis. Butt bought an interest in the bitch, including show responsibility.
Only has competed since age 2 from Minnesota to the East Coast, from Vermont to Florida, said Martin, who partners in the show ring with Butt's daughter, Amanda Butt. The couple has been presenting the 6-year-old Only for four years. Last week, Amanda was down with the flu, so Martin took the lead, with Only finishing in the middle of her class.
"The judge just preferred a different dog," Martin said with a shrug.
Only won the first AKC championship banner ever accorded the berger picard breed, in Indiana, and was the first picard to ever win a Best in Show over all breeds, in Vermont, both in 2016.
In canine competitions, beauty does go deeper than hair coat.
Butt explained: "When we wash her, (you see) her structure is just perfect — deep chest, long neck, beautiful top line, straight legs and really good show attitude."
The Butt-Martin duo has developed Only's attitude in the ring. Bred as a herding canine to keep predators away from livestock, picards are at first a wary dog.
"You have to build a connection with the dog," Martin said. "It's a lot of hands on, making them trust you. Every dog shows completely differently — the eye contact, ears (alert), good expression. You do that by making them happy. Use a niche. Her niche is food. Absolutely."
Martin carries a pocketful of freshly cooked chicken breast and liver nibbles. Only locks happy eyes and perked ears on him. Martin, 25, admits to a hefty dry cleaning bill for his gentlemanly sport coats worn in the ring.
While Only already reigns as the No. 1 winning dog of her breed, her daughter, Eclipse Being Fabulous, ranks No. 2. And Only's granddaughter, also campaigned by Butt, 54, won an award of merit and stood second in the herding group at the recent AKC National Championship show in Orlando. There, Only added another Best of Show title to her resume.
Butt also breeds whippets and border collies, with several from her kennel also showing at the clusters event.
Expanding her lifelong love of canines, Butt, too, raises Maine coon cats, the giant among domesticated felines.
"They're the cat that most resembles a dog," she said.
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]