Don James says he knew he’d found his tribe the very first time he walked into a dog show.
“I had always had dogs, but mostly mixed breeds,” says James, a Washougal resident since 1995 and current president of the Greater Clark County Kennel Club. “Then I saw an article about the Rose City Classic in Portland and decided to go.”
This was nearly 17 years ago and the show changed James’ life.
“It was so weird,” he says, remembering that first dog show. “When I walked in, I just knew I belonged there.”
Soon after, while browsing a book at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, James found a dog breed that spoke to him. The Leonberger is a giant working dog described by the American Kennel Club (AKC) as a “calm, large, muscular working dog with proud head carriage … and balanced build.”
James had always loved large breed dogs and was gravitating toward St. Bernards, Great Pyrenees and Newfoundlands. The Leonberger, he says, is like a combination of all three.
James found his first Leonberger pup in 2001 and has been showing the breed at dog shows ever since. Today, he owns two Leonbergers: 10-year-old Whisky, who doesn’t show, and Mickey, a 22-month-old bear of a dog who already weighs in at 145 pounds and is not yet full-grown.
Mickey is the son of a champion show dog named Dario, who gained his own 15 minutes of fame at the 2016 Westminster Dog Kennel Club dog show when he decided he’d had enough of being a good, obedient boy and tried to get the freeze-dried chicken hearts out of his trainer’s pocket in the middle of the world’s most prestigious dog show. The move didn’t gain Dario any love from judges, but did win him fans across the country and a guest appearance on Good Morning America.
Mickey has already been winning competitions since he was just a young puppy, and James is having him tested for a variety of health issues. If he passes all of the eye, hip, elbow, heart and other tests, Mickey could go on to father other champion Leonbergers.
“They’re such good dogs,” James says of the unique dog breed. “If I got to a point where I couldn’t have Leonbergers, I wouldn’t have dogs. … And I suspect many of us here would say that about our breeds.”
On Monday, James was helping out at the last day of the Greater Clark County Kennel Club’s third annual Performance Weekend dog show. This weekend, Friday through Sunday, Dec. 8-10, the club will host its All Breed Dog Show. James says the All Breed show is perfect for members of the public who want to enjoy a dog show, or who maybe are looking at different breeds to find the perfect dog for their own family.
“It’s the best place to just have fun at a dog show,” James adds. “There will be vendors all over the place and people can talk to some of the breeders. It’s a fun experience.”
The show will have about 1,700 different AKC dogs competing at various levels to see which dog will take home best of breed, best of class and grand champion prizes.
Although the public cannot bring their own dogs, they can mingle with a few famous pups, including several Siberian huskies belonging to the Stenlund family of Woodland that have appeared in numerous print ads and commercials for companies like Ralph Lauren, Land’s End, Hannah Anderson, Eukanuba and Purina.
Although they mostly stick to showing their huskies at dog shows like the All Breed Dog Show coming up this weekend, Karen Hamm Stenlund and her father, Wayne Stenlund, say the dog modeling is just something extra that brings in a little revenue and gives them a chance to brag about their gorgeous AKC Siberian huskies.
The family, which includes Karen’s husband, Randy Hamm, and her mother, Mary, keeps 13 huskies, two German shepherds and three papillons on their acreage in north Clark County, and has been in the dog-showing business since 1975. They broke into modeling their dogs in the 1990s, after Paula Ratoza, the owner of the Feathers and Fur Talent Agency in Portland, found the Stenlunds at a local dog show.
“She called us and asked if we were interested in doing a dog food commercial,” Karen recalls. “That was our first commercial, and we’ve been doing it ever since. It’s a really fun experience.”
Wayne Stenlund, who has been raising and showing Siberian huskies since the mid-1970s, says he remembers a shoot on Mount Hood for Ralph Lauren that had extra security surrounding the dogs.
“They didn’t want them to run off,” Wayne says, pointing to the finished ad, which appeared in several magazines, including Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. “That’s because the dog is wearing a million-dollar diamond necklace!”
The family has even sold a couple of their show dogs to Disney, and they appeared in two movies featuring sled dogs: “Eight Below” and “Sled Dogs.”
On Monday, the Stenlunds were busy showing their current winning show dog, a lovely black-and-white, 5-year-old male husky named Woody, who waited patiently by Wayne’s side as his humans showed a reporter a collection of print ads featuring their dogs.
“He’s a good boy,” Wayne says, petting Woody. “He’s our grand champion.”
Want to see Woody, Mickey and all the other show dogs in action next weekend? The All Breed Dog Show will be held from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 9 and 10, with a more limited program on Friday, Dec. 8, at the Clark County Event Center, 17402 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield. The show is free, but parking costs $6. The public is welcome. No dogs except the AKC competitors will be allowed admittance. The show also features a variety of vendors, selling everything from dog-related items to holiday gifts. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/GreaterClarkCountyKennelClub. Interested in joining the Greater Clark County Kennel Club? The club welcomes all dog lovers, especially those who have an interest in showing their dogs at local and regional dog shows. To learn more about the club, email James, the club president, at firstname.lastname@example.org.