On a recent Saturday, a Rottweiler was patiently waiting her turn in the ring at a championship dog show. The Rottweiler was a three and a half-year-old named Izzy—or more formally, Schonheit’s Que Bella Milagro CD RE. Her coat was black and shone in the light, like only hair in shampoo commercials does. She had a Rottweiler’s typical caramel spots around her muzzle, above her eyes, on her cheeks, chest, and legs.
Izzy, who has been competing in dog shows since 2008, had a serene air about her as she lounged beside her owner, D. Elisabeth Aymett, a Martinez resident who breeds and shows Rottweilers. Izzy was bred in Richmond by Linda Orr and Gwen Fresquez of Von Schonheit Rottweilers, and Orr had had joined them for today’s competition at the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show, which was held at Daly City’s Cow Palace.
Technically, the three of them were “backstage,” waiting their turn to compete while hanging out in a booth devoted to Orr’s Richmond kennel. At “benched shows,” like this one, each dog is provided an area away from the competition rings in which they are to be displayed, and spectators are allowed to visit with the dogs and their owners, breeders, and handlers. The dogs are only allowed to leave to be groomed or to show.
Each booth serves as a large advertisement for its assigned kennel. Izzy and eight other dogs were part of the Von Schonheit Rottweilers booth. Giant pieces of royal blue poster-board, splattered with white twinkling stars, were the backdrop for the dogs. Each dog’s name was written in silver or gold across handmade signs made of black construction paper. Each dog’s ribbons were tacked up under their name. Von Schonheit Rottweilers’ pendants also adorned the booth. About ten folding canvas chairs were set up in front of the dogs and little tables were erected, mostly covered in people’s half-eaten lunches.
Aymett and Orr took turns sitting with the Rottweilers, so when Orr wanted to shop the numerous booths that lined the halls of the Cow Palace, Aymett was left with the nine dogs, three of which were hers. She sat down on Izzy’s cushion, sharing the plush tan and gold pillow. “Make no mistake,” Aymett said affectionately. “Yes, they are show dogs, but they are my babies. I spend every moment that I possibly can with them. Until you have loved by a Rottie, you haven’t been loved by a dog.”
Aymett was sharing Izzy’s cushion because she had no choice. Baby Hughy, the second of Aymett’s three dogs, sat to Aymett’s right, and at 116 pounds, he took up considerable space. He is named after the cartoon character Baby Huey, a giant baby duck.
Baby Hughy is five and a half years old, and Izzy’s cousin. “When his litter was at home, you could see puppy, puppy, puppy,” Aymett said. Each time she said “puppy,” Aymett held her hands six inches apart, about the size of the dog. Suddenly, she opened her hands wide; extending the distance in between her palms to about a foot and shouted, “Hughy! He was twice as big as his siblings.”
Along with Izzy and Hughy, Aymett had brought her third dog, Schonheit’s All Roads Lead to Rome, to the show. Better known as Titus—or Ty-Ty—to his family, the two and a half year old was in his crate, next to his sister Izzy.
Titus had put in a busy morning, working hard in the show ring, and now the Rottweiler was due for a nap. But he couldn’t seem to settle down, especially when his older sister wasn’t nearby. He cried and scratched at his crate whenever Izzy left to greet a guest. “He doesn’t want to rest,” Aymett said. “He does not like to cooperate with the rest of the plan.”
Aymett looked at home, sitting between her dogs. She was wearing black pants and a V-necked lilac sweater. Her long brown hair reached down to her waist; a long simple braid swept across the front of her head and continued down her ride side, and was tied off at the bottom with a neon blue hair-tie. The braid kept the hair out of her face, crucial when dealing with big dogs all day. Her big brown eyes shone through her thin, silver-wire framed glasses.
Aymett had no need for a suit, which is what handlers traditionally wear when showing dogs. As is common at dog shows like this one, she had hired a professional handler, but at the moment that handler was out showing other dogs: a Standard Manchester Terrier, Toy Manchester Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. “Finding a good handler is a matter of being at the dog shows and observing,” Aymett said. “Obviously, reputation counts for a lot.”
So does the dog’s physical type. Even though he was lying down in his crate, it was easy to see that Titus looked different than his sister. He legs were clearly much longer than Izzy’s. “His father was a tall dog,” Aymett said. “The term we use for it the Rottie world is, ‘had a lot of leg under him.’ This boy has a lot of leg under him.”
That’s important when choosing a handler. Titus, with his longer legs, requires a taller handler who can match his longer stride. Aymett pointed to a tall woman standing a few booths down. The woman was professional handler Erin Piercy. “She has long legs,” Aymett said. “Just an absolutely beautiful girl.”
But the most important consideration, Aymett said, is finding someone whose personality meshes well with the dog’s. “A handler can be an excellent handler,” Aymett said, “but your dog just doesn’t click with that handler.”
Aymett leaned in and pointed to a women standing a few feet away. Her name was Linda Kinoshita, and she was dressed in a perfectly tailored light-grey suit, her pencil skirt falling just below her knees.
“Linda!” Aymett screamed across the warehouse. Kinoshita turned around and quickly skipped over, bouncing a little along the way. She walked straight up to Hughy and started hugging and kissing the large dog’s head. “I will tell you right now,” Aymett said. “Linda is an excellent handler. She does a lovely job with a couple of my dogs. But Hughy will not work for her.”
Kinoshita turned her head towards Aymett and with a huge smile on her face, and vehemently nodded “yes.”
“Why?” Aymett shouted to the ceiling, as if asking God. “Who knows why?”
Hughy was now licking Kinoshita’s entire face as she continued to coo “I love you” at the Rottweiler while scratching behind his ears. “It’s obvious that he likes her,” Aymett said, while she watched Hughy give Kinoshita a tongue bath. “But he won’t show for her. He won’t give it that oomph that you need in the ring. And Linda was the first one to say, ‘You’d be better off showing him yourself, because he won’t work for me!’ Which is one of the things that makes her an excellent handler.”
Professional handlers are often hired to show dogs at the Golden Gate Dog Show, a conformation, or breed, show. At conformation shows, each American Kennel Club (AKC) registered dog is judged against their breed standard, a specific set of physical and personality characteristics that the ideal dog should possess. In these shows, dogs are not being judged against each other, but rather against how closely they meet the standard. All breeds are different, but a flawless topline—the outline of a dog from the back of its neck to its tail—is most important when judging a Rottweiler.
“It’s basically a doggy beauty contest,” said Bill Ward, the president of the Associated Rottweiler Fanciers of Northern California. “But Rotts will also do obedience. They do agility. They do tracking. They do carting. There are all kinds of other competitions. Our members tend to be very active with their dogs.”
Associated Rottweiler Fanciers—better known as “ARF”— is the main club servicing Rottweiler owners in the Bay Area. It was started in Oakland in 1992, when a bunch of Bay Area people decided that Northern California needed its own Rottweiler club, “a specific breed club for Rotts that concentrated on show dogs and showing dogs,” Ward said. The club is currently headquartered in Castro Valley.
Oakland and Richmond—both bigger cities—may seem like a difficult place to have a Rottweiler, a large breed requiring consistent exercise. “I confess to you right now, I live in a studio apartment and I own three Rottweilers,” Aymett said. “I take them out for walks, and I train, and I socialize. They don’t care if they are walking on a city street or if they are running through a big park. As long as they are getting exercise, that’s what counts.”
After a long backstage wait, on Saturday morning it was finally showtime for Izzy. Izzy has been competing since she was seven months old, but had only competed once since December 2009. The Rottweiler injured her knee in the bathtub and sat out most of 2010 to nurse her cruciate ligaments –ligaments that help stabilize the knee and permit a wide range of motion. Izzy’s first show back was last November’s “Turkey Circuit” show. Aymett said she entered Izzy to give her “at least one show, for a warm up for Cow Palace.”
Izzy’s handler, Jenell Zanotto, arrived to take her to the show ring. Zanotto was a small woman wearing her dark brown wavy hair up in a twist, pinned at the back of her head. Her choppy bangs just covered the top of her eyes.
When Izzy’s category was called, Zanotto entered the ring. She had Izzy’s lead wrapped around her hand and kept the dog’s head in position—up and straight—by holding the tether straight above Izzy’s head, leaving only about a foot of lead free between her and the dog.
Aymett, Orr and Fresquez stood on the sidelines, watching Izzy’s grand entrance. “While you’re watching your dog in the ring, concentration narrows down to what that dog is doing and what the judge is doing,” Aymett said.
Izzy, and two other dogs—both female Rottweilers—showed for a single judge. Zanotto and the other handlers lined up the three Rottweilers in the ring. Once they had gotten their dogs in position, all three handlers bent down and “hand stacked” their dog, positioning the dog’s body as to be ideally shown. Some judges will not let a handler hand stack the dog, which allows them to hide a dog’s physical flaws, Aymett said. “Weaknesses in a dog’s topline are the thing that most people try to hide with hand stacking,” Aymett said. “Weakness in a topline and sometimes poor angulation,” or the angles bones make at the joints.
For those not entrenched in the world of dog shows, these subtle distinctions are hard to recognize, but they’re very important for breeders and dog show judges. Izzy’s judge, Angela Porpora, was an expert in Rottweilers, among other breeds. Porpora, a woman with hair halfway between blond and white, was dressed entirely in brown and was wearing a shiny jacket that looked as though it was made from snakeskin.
Porpora paid special attention to Izzy’s overall body proportion. A Rottweiler’s length should be slighting longer than his or her height, with an ideal proportion of 10:9. Judges usually want to see the dogs run, since Rottweilers must look the part of a working dog, with enough energy to pull a cart, herd cattle, and protect a family. Rottweilers are confident and courageous dogs; any shyness is seen as a fault in the breed. A Rottweiler cannot only be dismissed from the ring for being too aggressive toward her handler or judge, but can also be dismissed for being too shy.
“We all attempt to be something of a fortune teller when the judge is taking that last look; reading body language, counting that extra second the judge spent looking at your dog—or not!—and trying to decipher facial expression,” Aymett said. “Sometimes you get a clue. More often not.”
Porpora motioned to Zanotto, signaling her to bring Izzy to the front of the line, and lead the final lap around the ring. The judge wanted to watch Izzy’s gait so she could observe her in action and watch for breaks in the all-important topline.
The speed at which handlers run around the ring is dependent on which breed they are showing; faster for bigger dogs and slower for smaller breeds. As a larger breed of dog, the Rottweiler has a faster gait. Zanotto had to stay quick to keep up with Izzy.
After all three dogs in the category had shown, Porpora pointed to Izzy—that meant she had won the category. Zanotto lead Izzy to the first place position, directly in front of a small wooden A-frame with a giant number 1 painted in black on it. Zanotto and Izzy waited there for the dog’s first place ribbon, presented to them by Porpora.
As winner of her class, Izzy would compete again. She would face the other six female Rottweilers who had won their categories. The seven dogs would compete for the title of “Winner’s Bitch.” (In the dog show circuit, males are referred to as “dogs” and females as “bitches.”) The “winners” prize is awarded to two dogs, one male and one female, who have each won their individual categories and will then get a chance to compete in Best of Breed.
With more competitions to look forward too, Izzy and her handler once again returned to the sidelines to wait for their turn. But it was just the beginning of a great day for breeders Linda Orr and Gwen Fresquez and their Rottweilers.
Earlier, another Von Schonheit Rottweiler, Schonheit’s Morgan At The OK Corral, won his class and moved on to beat six other male category winners for “Winner’s Dog.”
GCH Schonheit’s Bailey’N Lots A Java, another Rottweiler bred by Orr and Fresquez, won “Best of Breed” on Saturday. He went on to compete, and represent the Rottweiler breed in the Working Group. The grand champion won the Group and competed for “Best in Show” with the other group winners. GCH CH Schonheit’s Hop On The Bus Gus, a Rottweiler also bred by Orr and Fresquez, won “Best of Breed” on Sunday.
Orr and Fresquez were on a roll. Soon, it was Izzy’s turn again.
Zanotto led her back into the ring, alongside her six competitors and their handlers. Just as before, all seven dogs stood in a line, hand-stacked in the perfect position.
Aymett, still stunned from Izzy’s category win, could barely contain her nerves as her dog competed for Winner’s Bitch. “I was holding Linda’s shoulder, alternating between watching the judge, watching Izzy, and putting out positive vibes to the universe,” Aymett said. “Come to think of it, I believe I may have been vibrating with the excitement myself!”
The dogs and their handlers then made the customary lap around the ring. After lining up again, Porpora examined the first of the seven dogs. During Izzy’s turn in the spotlight, the judge performed a more cursory examination than before, since she had already examined Izzy once that morning.
After she had examined all seven dogs, Porpora once again pointed to Izzy. She had won “Winner’s Bitch,” meaning Von Schonheit Rottweilers had swept the category competition.
“When the judge pointed to Izzy for “Winner’s Bitch,” all the pent up tension and emotion came to a head, and I have to admit, I screamed,” Aymett said. “Then I started crying. I am not a big one for tears, but I was so, so, so happy at that moment. I lost Izzy’s father last year and he was very special to me. He had won “Best of Breed” at the Cow Palace several years ago, so her win brought back those memories and emotions; and a burst of pride in [Izzy’s father] as a stud dog, along with pride for her for how beautiful she looked that day.”
But, Aymett said, “there was little time to indulge the cauldron of emotions bubbling up.” Izzy had qualified to compete for “Best of Winners” — the face off between the “Winner’s Bitch” and “Winner’s Dog” — and “Best of Breed,” but her unexpected success caused some panic. Zanotto had committed to show another dog in the “Best of Breed” competition, which left Izzy without a handler. Aymett did what any good mom would do: She handled Izzy herself.
Izzy and Aymett were the last to line up of the 16 competitors. The judge selected eight dogs from the line to go on to the “Best of Breed” competition, but this time, Izzy wasn’t among them. Nevertheless, Aymett was proud of how Izzy handled herself in the ring. “These dogs and handlers were flying by Izzy, their feet coming down inches from her rear,” Aymett said. “Despite the noise, she never flinched and held her stack for several long minutes, which feels like a lifetime. That was when I felt the most proud of her. She had plenty of reason to misbehave if she wanted to, and in spite of a long absence from the ring, she acted like a professional.”
After Izzy‘s performance was finished, she returned to her booth, along with her owner, and breeder. Orr sat down next to Baby Hughy; the large dog immediately squished her against the crate on her other side. Orr has short ash blond hair, and was wearing a thick gold necklace around her neck with a large Rottweiler bust hanging from the center. She was wearing gold earrings to match. She also has a Rottweiler tattoo on the inside of her left wrist. About two inches long, it shows a Rottweiler head in full color.
Orr fell in love with Rottweilers over 20 years ago and has run her kennel in Richmond for just as long. She is an animal health technician, someone trained to assist veterinarians, and currently works at Berkeley Cat and Dog Hospital.
Orr worked at El Cerrito Pet Hospital for about 12 years, which is where she first discovered Rottweilers. A woman Orr worked with at the animal hospital had a Rottweiler, “and that was before anyone knew what Rottweilers were,” Orr said. “I fell madly in love with the breed. I went to the same breeder that she got her dog from and I bought my first female. I’ve had Rottweilers ever since.”
A longtime Richmond resident, Orr started Von Schonheit Rottweilers in 1983, less than a year after getting her first Rottie. Orr can’t remember exactly how many champions she has bred, there have been so many. Three of the six dogs Orr had brought to today’s competition were already Grand Champions. Another one of her dogs, still a puppy, beat Izzy for “Best of Winners.”
While Orr loves her show dogs, her goal in breeding is “to breed for temperament as well as show dogs,” she said. “Not all puppies are show dogs. Their home and environment is more important to me than showing dogs.” Orr sells some of her puppies as pets. She is extremely dedicated to finding good, happy homes for her Rottweilers, a goal she extends to rescue dogs as well.
Orr started rescuing Rottweilers 25 years ago and founded Paws and Tails Animal Rescue in 2009 with her Von Schonheit partner, Gwen Fresquez. The non-profit rescue center, run out of Richmond, not only helps Rottweilers, but all cats and dogs in need.
Like Orr, Aymett has had Rottweilers for over 20 years. She got her first dog in 1990, as a pet. “I did what everybody should do when they are thinking about getting a dog,” Aymett said. “I thought to myself, ‘What do I want this dog in my life to be?’ I knew I wanted a big dog. I knew I wanted a dog that didn’t have long hair. I knew I wanted a dog that was loyal and brave and youthful. The more I looked around, the more I felt that a Rottweiler was a good fit for me.”
But it took Aymett longer to start breeding her dogs. Her first litter was born in 2002. Her neighbor and mentor, Vickie Cochran, got her started on breeding and showing her dogs. The two bred Cochran’s male Rottweiler— a grand champion named Imaygo’s Don Juan De Lore—with Aymett’s own dog, Annabelle, formally called Peixoto’s Annabelle Lee. The resulting litter produced Rocket, formally Ch. Milagro’s Don Juan Imaygo CD CI RAE CGC TT HITs, who became Aymett’s top stud dog, siring Izzy and a number of other litters. Rocket was also not only a champion show dog, but also a great herder and carting dog.
Rottweilers are natural herding dogs, and are happiest when doing what they love. “These are working dogs and they want something to do,” Aymett said. “If you don’t give them a job they will make one up that is probably not to your liking.”
The modern Rottweiler originated in Rottweil, Germany and the dogs were known as Rottweil butchers’ dogs, pulling butchers’ carts to and from market. But according to legend, Rottweilers served more than one purpose to their merchant owners, said Ward, president of the Northern California Rottweiler club. “The Rott would pull the car to market, and on the way home, the merchant would stop at a pub to have a few beers,” Ward said. “The merchant would put his sack of gold coins from the days work around the dogs’ neck while he went into the pub. That way, no one would try to steal the sack.”
Today, most people probably think of Rottweilers as guard dogs who are potentially aggressive. Rottweilers generally love their human families, but will go to great lengths to protect them if they perceive a serious threat. The breed has received bad press throughout the years. In 2000, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that Rottweilers ranked second in dog breeds named in fatal attacks—Pit Bulls ranked first. The CDC’s study covered a 20-year period, 1979-1998. During that time, there were about 238 dog-bite fatalities, involving 25 different breeds. Pit Bulls were responsible for 32 percent of fatalities. Rottweilers were responsible for 18 percent of fatalities, a distant second.
“They are strong,” Aymett said, “and 90-plus percent of the people out there should not have this dog. That’s the formula for disaster, when you have a dog with this strength, this size, this intelligence, and there’s a lack of proper socialization and training.”
Ward agreed. “We love to have people love our dogs,” he said. “But back in the early 90s the breed got really popular and we ended up with a lot of problems.”
Throughout the 80s and early 90s the number of American Kennel Club registered Rottweilers increased exponentially, with the breed’s popularity peaking in the mid-90s. But the number of registered Rottweilers is once again increasing with each year. According to the club, Rottweilers were the 16th most popular dog breed in 2005, the 13th most popular breed in 2009, and they were ranked the 11th most popular breed for 2010. “It looks to me like they are becoming more popular everywhere in the country,” Ward said. “I’ve noticed that the last year and a half that the numbers have increased.”
Members of the Rottweiler community are once again starting to worry that those unfamiliar with the breed, or not able to properly train the strong dogs, will end up raising them. This could possibly lead to more aggressive dogs.
Both Ward and Aymett say it is important for Rottweilers to know that you are boss. “My theory on these inexplicable [dog attacks] is that an owner has had this dog, failed to train it, and failed to socialize it,” Aymett said. “And one day the owner decides, ‘I’m the owner and you are going to do what I say.’ And with the relationship established, the dog is like ‘You are not my leader.’ The owner decides to push the issue, and the dog pushes back the only way it can, with growling and with his teeth.”
Aymett took a minute to calm down and then glanced at her dogs, situated on either side of her. “I’m going to stick up for my breed every time,” she said. “They are great dogs. You see these beauties sitting here next to me. They are sweet. They are well behaved.”
Aymett believes that happy dogs make for much better show dogs. By the end of two days of competition at the Golden Gate Dog Show, Aymett left Daly City with ribbons and a trophy, satisfied and excited over her dogs’ achievements.
Hughy finished second in his category, called “Open Dogs,” on both days of competition.
Titus finished second in his category, American-Bred Dogs, on Saturday, but won the category on Sunday.
But Izzy was the weekend’s big winner for Aymett. Sitting next to Izzy, and beaming with pride, Aymett slowly stroked the dog’s back. “My little one won today. She did.”
As the show day wound down, people continued to stop by Orr’s booth and coo over Aymett’s dogs. “She’s so pretty,” one woman cooed, leaning over to look at Izzy. “Can I say hi to her?”
As Izzy cuddled with her new admirer, Aymett pointed out Izzy’s ribbon and trophy. Both were prominently displayed: a blue ribbon for her first place category finish and a purple ribbon for receiving Winner’s Bitch. Her crystal trophy, for receiving Winner’s Bitch, was propped up on Titus’ cage.
As much as Aymett brags about her dogs, she never fails to give Orr—Izzy and Titus’s breeder— most of the credit for their success. “It’s wonderful when … your values about what you want to emphasize on the breed are so in-sync,” Aymett said with her arm around Orr’s shoulders. “We both have an emphasis on temperament and health.”
Aymett hopes that with a few more wins, Izzy will soon earn her champion title. “She has her dad’s beautiful topline and movement, and can free stack like, pardon my saying, a champ,” Aymett said. “So with all that going for her, it shouldn’t be long.”