Dog Willing, They'll Win It:
With an All-Consuming Drive, a Pennsylvania Family Is a Breed Apart
By Eli Saslow
HOMER CITY, Pa.
When the screeching of claws against metal fences becomes too much to bear, when they no longer can tolerate the cacophony of howling and whining that rumbles across this former coal-mining town, Bob Alexander's neighbors have been known to march up his gravel driveway, past 70 hound dogs and their luxury kennels, and bang on his door.
Alexander, very much an imposing family patriarch at 6 feet 4 and 350 pounds, rises from his leather chair and shuffles across the living room, slightly hunched from a bad back. He leans on the door frame and listens to his neighbors for about a minute, running calloused hands through his graying hair. Then he interrupts with the booming, gravelly baritone he often relies upon to holler above his dogs' barking.
"Well, how much do you want for your house?" says Bob, 62. "Because our dogs ain't leaving." Bob already has bought three houses from unhappy neighbors -- " 'Shut up' purchases," he calls them -- and he considers it some of the best money he ever has spent. Bob and his daughter, Amanda, refuse to let anything or anyone interfere with their effort to raise championship coonhounds, hunting dogs that have the pleading eyes and floppy ears of a beagle but the gangly legs of a greyhound.
Amanda, 27, spends all but two weekends each year driving to dog shows in places such as Brazil, Ind., and Saluda, N.C. Bob has spent more than $400,000 purchasing dogs and then lavishing them with accoutrements generally reserved for elite athletes: truckloads of performance-enhancing food; a heated indoor swimming pool for winter cross-training; personal drivers to shuttle dogs to distant appointments with nationally renowned veterinarians.
In return, the boisterous hounds have won 11 world dog show championships. The Alexanders are recognized by fans and featured on magazine covers in a coonhound community that's centered in backcountry America. When around their dogs at competitions, the Alexanders strut with a glow that makes peers wonder: Have they actually discovered fulfillment? Or are they simply addicted to the temporary high of success, chasing a competitive fix from one dog show to the next?
Late on a Thursday afternoon last month, Amanda collapsed into a desk chair at her pet grooming shop, the only business on her block of Rural Route 119 in Homer City, about an hour east of Pittsburgh. She wiped dog fur off her arms and wiped a blade of grass off her forehead. Her workday at the shop almost was over, but her day of work with dogs hardly had begun. Wearing jeans, tennis shoes and a purple zip-down shirt, Amanda sat in what once was her shop's waiting room. Now, it served only as a shrine.
More than 500 trophies were displayed on the floor, forming a sea of oak and metal that covered all but a four-foot-wide sliver of speckled tile in the middle of the room. The trophies ranged in height from six inches to six feet, and they all bore the names of dog shows held in the last eight years. More than 300 ribbons, plaques and certificates decorated the walls. A year earlier, Amanda had hired a cleaning crew to dust and shine each award.
Amanda cherished the prizes, but she also viewed them as relics of her own transformation. Each win had fortified Amanda's confidence. Once too shy to speak in front of her high school class, she now regularly sauntered into a dog show ring as 1,000 people watched. Because of her champion dogs, she had become a self-assured competitor and an assertive business owner.
"It's like I'm a different person now than I used to be," Amanda said. "I used to be shy, like afraid to tell anybody anything. Now I'm telling people what to do."
Amanda locked up her grooming shop just after 5 p.m. and drove a half-mile across town to her family's property. She toured through her three heated indoor-outdoor kennels and visited dozens of coonhounds. She checked the water temperature in the swimming pool. She took out one hound, Excalibur, and lifted him onto a show bench to practice his posing. She released Sissy, Faith, Babe and Storm into a fenced, four-acre field for 30 minutes of supervised exercise.
Finally, just before 8 p.m., Amanda walked into the home of her father and mother, Erma. Amanda lives next door with her boyfriend, Curt Willis, but spends much of her free time here. An oil pointing of Shoogs, a famous family coonhound, hung at the center of the living room wall. Four magazines, all with feature articles on Amanda, rested on a lamp stand. As Amanda leaned on the kitchen table, her mother's two small poodles sniffed her legs and clawed at her lap.
"You can't really get away from dogs around here," Amanda said. "But I guess we'd never really want to."
* * *
Bob never had allowed dogs in his house until the late 1990s, when Amanda graduated from high school and opened her shop. Amanda had kept spiders and rats as pets, and she told her father that she wanted dogs both at home and at work; Bob, who once gave her a Hummer for Christmas and then, a year later, a Cadillac DeVille for her birthday, relented.
In 1999, Bob bought four treeing walker coonhounds, choosing that breed because he wanted dogs that he could take raccoon hunting in the neighboring woods. A year later, on a whim, Amanda decided to show one of the hounds at a local dog show. She lost, badly. But watching from the wooden bleachers at a county fairground, Bob saw his youngest child and only daughter urge a dog into a stiff show pose -- its chin high, back flat and tail pointed skyward -- and decided Amanda had been blessed with a talent.
Since then, Bob has built a dog collection with the same limitless ambition he used to shape his trucking company, his equipment-leasing firm and his 40-employee garbage disposal business. Bob and Amanda wanted all of the best dogs in all six coonhound breeds. Bob, encumbered by his ailing back and a relentless work schedule, rarely traveled to competitions. He sent Amanda, Curt and occasionally Erma to dog shows with blank checks, and Amanda made offers for the hounds she liked as much or better than her own.
Amanda kept track of their purchases at first -- a 2-year-old black and tan that won a national title; a redbone; a couple of blueticks; three Plotts from the South -- but eventually lost track. They bought dogs, sometimes by the dozen, and never sold any. Amanda and Bob vowed to treat each hound the same as the next. Dogs with skin diseases, dogs without hair, old dogs, sick dogs, fat dogs -- all pampered like the world champion coonhound one cage over.
At the Alexanders', dogs became less like pets and more like accomplished family members, each with its personality. Shoogs couldn't sleep unless she was sprawled out on the couch. Storm drooled when anxious. Monday liked to sit in his crate when he traveled. Hawk only ate restaurant food -- McDonald's chicken sandwiches, preferably -- when on the road for competition.
Bob sometimes spoiled his dogs even more than Amanda or his two older boys, who live nearby. He boasted about the animals' latest successes at work and then left early, at 3 p.m., so he could get home and feed the dogs. In the 1980s, the Alexander children had begged Bob to build them a swimming pool, to no avail. In 2005, Amanda suggested the dogs would benefit from swimming. Within two weeks, Bob had hired a team of builders from New Jersey to construct a pool in the dead of winter.
"I don't care what it costs," Bob told Amanda. "Let's do it right now."
Financially, their investment in dogs has equated to almost a 100 percent loss. Dog shows reward negligible prize money, and the Alexanders almost never breed puppies and sell them. But both Bob and Amanda believe their reward is priceless. With each win, their dogs earn admiration, respect and envy.
And so do they.
One afternoon last month, Bob drove home from his office in nearby Indiana, Pa., and settled into the family living room. He unbuttoned his shirt and sank into his favorite leather chair. He had just turned on the news and heard the announcer start talking about Hillary Clinton -- God, that woman could ruin this country, Bob thought -- when a wolflike howl carried from the kennels and into the living room. At least 70 dogs roamed the yard that afternoon, and Bob couldn't see any of them from where he sat. But Bob knew that bark; he knew every bark. Thirty seconds into the howling, Bob turned to face the window.
"Quiet, Hank!" Bob shouted. "I can't hear the TV with all your yapping."
* * *
A little before 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, Amanda and Curt walked out to their truck looking like coal miners. Curt wore jeans, hiking boots and a red hard hat adorned with a headlamp. Amanda hung one flashlight around a belt and strapped another over her shoulder. The couple planned to spend the next three hours secluded, hiking and climbing the hills near their home in midnight darkness.
They typically followed this routine at least four nights each week, because judges favored dogs that upheld the origins of the breed. Coonhounds traditionally chased raccoons up trees, essentially trapping them for an owner to shoot and kill. They developed strong hind muscles and sturdy backs from hunting, and Amanda and Curt wanted dogs that looked like raccoon hunters, even though the couple rarely shot the raccoons.
Curt lifted two dogs into the back of the truck. He drove past the Sheetz gas station, the town's teenage hangout on Friday nights, past a few abandoned shops and small ranch houses surrounded by acres of meadows. A few minutes later, they were gone from Homer City, a town yet to recover from the closing of the local mine more than a decade ago. Three miles down a rolling country road, Curt pulled over and attached a florescent light and tracking device to the collar of each dog. Then, against every natural instinct of a dog owner, he released them into the woods.
Curt, an agreeable, wisecracking type from Hickory, N.C., had met Amanda four years earlier. Back then, he had a few dogs competing on the hunting portion of the coonhound circuit, which consists of about 150 shows run by either the American Kennel Club or the United Kennel Club. The hunts and dog shows often took place at the same venues, and Curt had noticed Amanda. Curt eventually asked Amanda to dinner and, a few years later, moved to Homer City to live with her and help take care of the dogs. He still entered a few dozen hunting competitions each year with Amanda's hounds.
As the two dogs splashed through creeks and raced through cornfields on a humid night, Curt stood by his truck, waved away fireflies and listened for the dogs' progress. Now almost a mile away, they communicated back to Curt with a series of specific barks. They unleashed high-pitched screams when they located the scent of a raccoon, and they howled with increased frequency as they chased the animal and closed the gap. When the scared raccoon finally ran up a tree about an hour later, the dogs stood on their hind legs and clawed at the bark as they howled. They had been trained to circle the tree, barking, until Curt walked over and found them. Sometimes, that took several hours.
Curt shone his flashlight and walked toward the barking, unsure of what he might find. Adrenaline always compelled him to follow his dogs into the night -- despite the darkness, the deep forest and the animals that roamed through it.
The Alexander's hounds sometimes chased down possum, deer, bobcats or bears. Other times, like tired athletes, Curt said the dogs gave up and barked at the base of a random tree, just so the hunt would end and they could go home. On the worst nights, the hounds injured themselves while tearing through the woods at 15 mph. A dog once ran out of the woods with a porcupine quill poking into the center of his eyeball -- a wound fixed, by veterinarian recommendation, with Krazy Glue. Another dog tripped and slipped a disk in his back, necessitating 12 trips to a specialist in Columbus, Ohio.
"I think they got a [raccoon] treed tonight," Curt said. "Sounds like they're getting after it." "They're out of shape," Amanda said, a sweat line developing on her gray baseball cap. "They might be tricking us."
After 10 minutes of bushwhacking, Curt and Amanda found their dogs jumping three feet off the ground at the base of a 40-foot tree. The dogs wagged their tails and tilted their faces backward, as if searching the branches for their raccoon. Curt pulled the dogs away and pointed his spotlight at the tree, hoping to spot a raccoon just for confirmation. Dense leaves and darkness covered the branches, and Curt found nothing.
"I'm sure there's one there," Curt said. "We just can't see it."
Amanda leashed the dogs, and the couple walked back toward the truck. Raccoon or no raccoon, it hardly mattered tonight. It was just past midnight and starting to drizzle, and this hunt already registered as a success. The coonhounds walked out of the woods a few steps closer to dog show condition. Their hind muscles bulged. Their backs looked fortified. They probably had lost a pound of fat each, Amanda said. For the first time in a while, the exhausted dogs rode back to their kennel in silence.
* * *
On the first morning of a weekend dog show last month, Amanda and Curt woke up at 4 a.m. and used flashlights to load four Plott coonhounds into the back of a camper. They drove about two hours southwest of Homer City and exited the highway in Waynesburg, near the West Virginia border. At daybreak, Curt and Amanda parked their camper on the infield of a dusty harness-racing track at the Greene County Fairgrounds. More than 1,000 dogs and 100 recreational vehicles surrounded them.
To Amanda, it looked the same as any other all-breed American Kennel Club show in any other town on any other weekend. Vendors set up underneath a grandstand, and one sold fried apple dumplings and vanilla ice cream for breakfast. A woman at the next stand hocked breed-specific shower curtains, Rottweiler cutting boards and dog-shaped silverware. For hundreds of yards in every direction, dogs lounged in the sun or stretched out their muscles before the show. The animals strutted like superstars, and owners bustled around them like a supporting entourage.
In her grooming shop a few days earlier, Amanda spent 90 minutes readying the four Plott coonhounds. She trimmed and filed their nails, shaved surplus hair from their underbellies and rubbed the inside of their ears with Q-tips. But as she stepped out of her camper and looked around the infield, Amanda wondered if she'd prepared enough. All around her, groomers sprayed dogs with hair color, lined their eyes with mascara, whitened their toenails with chalk and smoothed their coats with flat irons.
Until recently, Amanda had competed almost exclusively in the United Kennel Club, a less formal, less prestigious organization popular among coonhound owners. At UKC events, she said dog feces blanketed the ground and hound owners spat chewing tobacco in the show ring. At AKC events, including the renowned Westminster Kennel Club dog show, professional handlers wear three-piece suits in the show ring.
Amanda had decided to become one of the first owners to show coonhounds in the AKC because she believed that organization better fit her competitive makeup. Once happy to win any ribbon, she now dismissed anything but first place. She recognized imperfections in her dogs that she never had before noticed: a droopy left eye, or dangling skin below the neck, or oversize feet.
"I kind of wish I could still just be happy with anything," Amanda said.
She was momentarily satisfied when Storm won the Plott competition in the morning. Twenty minutes before the all-hound show in the afternoon, Amanda stepped out of the camper in a green suit jacket, khaki pants and a purple blouse. She attached a leash to Storm and walked her to a barn on the corner of the fairgrounds. There, Amanda and Storm entered a small ring and stood next to 17 other hounds and their owners.
While other owners manipulated their hounds into position by offering a succession of treats, Amanda had practiced with Storm so often that the dog instinctually obeyed her. Amanda used only one word with her dogs, varying the decibel and pitch when necessary. As she lined up Storm's legs to match evenly with her hips and lifted her tail, Amanda whispered in the dog's ear.
"Whoa," Amanda said. "Whoa! Whooooaa. Whoa! That's it. Whoa. Good girl."
A judge came over to Storm and examined her. He checked her teeth, squeezed her thigh muscles and felt her legs. The dog remained motionless, like a sculpture, until the judge commanded Amanda and Storm to run around the ring in a circle. They took a brisk lap and returned to the judge, who looked over Storm again and then dismissed the dog. Ten minutes later, the judge picked four hounds as winners. Storm was not one of them.
Back at her camper five minutes later, Amanda called her dad to tell him the bad news and patted Storm's forehead with her right hand. Amanda's shoulders sagged, and she leaned up against the side of her camper, exhausted. She planned to drive two hours back to Homer City to take care of her other dogs that night. Then, after a few hours of sleep, she would wake up again at 4 a.m. to drive back to Waynesburg for another show the next morning. Curt walked up and put his hand on Amanda's shoulder.
"You okay?" he said.
"It's just a little disappointing," Amanda said. "We did great. Storm did great. I'm not sure why they didn't like us."
"Maybe they'll like us tomorrow," Curt said.
Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out two small ribbons that Storm had won during the morning competition.
"Hey," Curt said, holding the ribbons in front of his chest, "at least we're not leaving here totally empty-handed."
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