A Siberian in Florida

Published Aug. 13, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

Judy McDougall settles into a worn metal folding chair in a barren concrete block room at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Her two Samoyed dogs survey the crowded room from a striped comforter at her feet and lap bottled water from a stainless steel bowl.

LaWayne Wyatt, a Riverview man with a bunch of Samoyed heads on his tie and white dog hair on his maroon jacket, calls the meeting to order. The door opens and a latecomer enters, pushing a Samoyed with a bad leg in a wheelchair.

The topic of discussion at this quarterly meeting of the Samoyed Fanciers of Central Florida is, of course, Samoyeds (pronounced SAMMY-eds), those good-natured dogs with the almond-shaped eyes lined in black and thick white coats that can be spun into yarn.

It may seem odd to be talking about dogs that were raised to herd reindeer in Russia, considering it's a hot Saturday afternoon in Florida and the outside temperature is in the 90s.

But Samoyeds actually have a unique place in Tampa Bay history. In 1906, the very first Samoyed registered with the American Kennel Club in New York was owned by a Belgian princess who lived and died in Tampa. That dog, Moustan, had a son who was the first Samoyed champion in the United States.

"It is so unusual for this person to want to have this dog down in Florida," said Mardee Ward-Fanning, an American Kennel Club judge from Wilsall, Mo., and co-author of a book called The New Samoyed published in 1998. "It's notable. But she was going against the grain, so to speak, at the time. It didn't meet their natural habitat for which they were used. But we have very interested people down there now."

Hundreds of people have followed in the princess' footsteps, bringing the seemingly unequipped Samoyed, once a favorite of North Pole explorers, to Florida. The number of Samoyeds in the state was not available, but there are 87 registered in Pinellas County (by comparison, there are 750 Siberian huskies and 3,627 poodles). And the 50-plus members of the Samoyed Fanciers Club of Central Florida have more than 100 dogs between them.

Local Samoyed owners hope to cultivate the princess connection in 2003 as the city of St. Petersburg celebrates its 100th anniversary of incorporation, and St. Petersburg, Russia, celebrates its 300th anniversary. The celebration is to be a coordinated effort between the two cities.

The Samoyed Club has put together a 20-page proposal on the Samoyed's participation, including a pitch to make the dog a symbol of the exchange.

"Inclusion of the dogs on promotional materials or events will guarantee notice," the proposal to the St. Petersburg City Council says. "To include these Russian "exports' in the activities will convey appreciation of things Russian."

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In 1902, Princess de Montyglyon was in St. Petersburg, Russia, at a dog show when a Samoyed dragging its chain started following her, according to a book called The Complete Samoyed. The princess, who had chows and cocker spaniels, was captivated by the beautiful white dog with the black-lined smile.

The dog, a Russian champion named Moustan, was owned by the Grand Duke Michael, brother of Czar Nicholas II. The princess remarked that she would give anything for the dog, but she heard it was impossible to obtain the Siberian breed. Days later, the Grand Duke gave the champion dog to the princess as a gift, delivering it to her railway coach in a basket of orchids and roses.

Many Samoyeds in the United States today, including several champions, are descendants of Moustan.

The princess died in 1925 in Tampa and a year later, a museum of her treasures opened to the public at a Pinellas Point home known as Argenteau Castle in St. Petersburg.

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Peggy Newton, a home health nurse, opens 5-year-old Noah's baby book in her St. Petersburg home on Fifth Avenue N. Next to cutouts of rockers and teddy bears, there are pictures of Noah's delivery (he arrived with his Missouri breeder at the airport), him at his job (he's a pet therapy dog for sick patients), him with one of Newton's other Samoyeds, 10-year-old Mary Louise's Snow Angel (or Angel).

Samoyed owners have a great affection for the dogs that is rooted in the dogs' great beauty and their people-oriented personalities, a quality bred into them by the ancestral tribes that roamed the tundra of Siberia and relied on the dogs for everything from warmth to clothing.

Newton is one of the few people in the Samoyed club who can spin the dog fur into a yarnlike string that is used to crochet berets, scarfs and little Christmas pins that are sold to raise money for abandoned Samoyed dogs in Florida. So all of the members bring her bags of their dogs' white tufts, which come off their thick double coats during brushing.

At the group's meeting during an American Kennel Club gathering in Tampa recently, Newton returned to McDougall a ball of dog fur yarn that she had spun with her wooden spinning wheel from Holland. It takes Newton about 10 hours to spin a small ball of yarn.

The Samoyed fur is a little like angora though it tends to be a little fuzzier. Newton spins the yarn so she can get the members to crochet candy cane pins, which the club sells to raise money for abandoned Samoyeds. The group paid $520 last month for the boarding and grooming of two rescued dogs, Boomer and Sasha.

The club's treasurer, Laura Segers, points out that money is tight and not a dime was raised for abandoned Samoyeds in the previous month, and there aren't enough homes for the dogs who need them.

But does anyone actually pay money for crocheted dog fur?

"Last year, we crocheted 500 Christmas wreaths (pins) and raised $1,500," Newton said. "We had them on the Internet and received orders from as far away as Hawaii and Italy. If you really like angora sweaters, you'll like this, and actually these dogs are a lot cleaner than sheep and a lot cleaner than the rabbits that are used for angora."

The Samoyed

Disposition: Samoyeds are perky, dependable playmates, often wearing "smiles" on their faces. They are active and alert, indoors and out. The Samoyed is a working dog.

Ancestry: The Samoyed takes its name from the Samoyed people (now known as the Nenetsky people) of the Siberian tundra. Pulling sleds, herding reindeer and alerting their masters to danger were just a few of the dog's functions.

Source: American Kennel Club