The power went out in the New Jersey home of Rhodesian Ridgeback fancier Karen LaFleur for 10 days prior to her scheduled departure for the National Specialty in Orlando, Fla. Superstorm Sandy had just pummeled the Mid-Atlantic region, but the power outage and toppled trees were no match for this native New Yorker. The breeder/owner-handler had made plans to show her young dog ‘Mack,’ GCh. LaFleur’s Big Mack Attack to breeder-judge Barbara Rupert, and nothing was going to prevent her from competing.
Temperatures plummeted in the days that followed, so Karen and her husband, Jim, made arrangements to stay where they wouldn’t freeze to death. “I went to my parents’ home on Staten Island,” Karen says. Jim made plans to stay in the city, since commuting in and out of New York would become extremely difficult in the days and weeks following the storm.
As Karen hunkered down at her parents’ place with three of her dogs, Mack stayed with Karen’s brother, Jeffrey Ochmann, who co-owns the red wheaten dog. “After two and a half days, I went back home to get some clothes,” Karen recalls. She needed to get her things to take to the National, but after she pulled into her driveway to meet her husband, they discovered the house was still without heat. The power outage had also shut down local gas stations, so Jim had to siphon gas from the lawn mower so that Karen could make it back to Staten Island to get the dogs.
On Friday morning, Karen was ready to leave the devastation behind her and hit the road for Orlando. Unfortunately, both New York and New Jersey had begun to ration gasoline, so Karen had to wait two and a half hours in line to fill up her tank. “Are you still going, with all this going on, without power?” her family asked incredulously. Of course she was going. “I threw the dogs in the tub, packed up the van, and met my husband to drop off the dogs with different pet sitters.”
Finally, and with no time to lose, Karen and Mack got on the road for the long journey south, leaving Sandy, and the frigid temperature, in their wake.
The Lure of a Basic Dog
Karen grew up on Staten Island, where her family had a Labrador Retriever. “The dog ran away once after eating the siding off the house and was later rehomed,” recalls Karen. Like many young girls, she had a fondness for dogs and horses, and was “upset” without having an animal to call her own.
After high school, she attended the New York School of Dog Grooming and visited the Westminster Kennel Club dog show while a student there. “I saw Ch. Amberridge’s A Touch Of Class, at this show,” Karen remembers. “I liked Great Danes and Labs, and the Ridgeback was somewhere in between,” she says. “They’re a basic dog, handsome and athletic, but with a ridge.” She decided the Rhodesian Ridgeback was the breed for her.
While working as an intern at a Manhattan veterinary hospital, Karen received some hands-on experience with the breed. “Those dogs were tough, with ‘old school’ temperaments,” she recalls. “It took three people and a tranquilizer to handle them.”
At age 20, Karen bought her first Ridgeback, Rodney, from Amberridge Ridgebacks’ Mary Reynolds, whose daughter, Tammy Lynch, has Adili Ridgebacks. “I didn’t show him,” says Karen, “but I took him to work every day at the grooming shop where I worked. I used to exercise him on a bike.” One day when she walked into the vet hospital with her new Ridgeback, the staff couldn’t get over the dog’s sweet disposition.
Mentors Provide Strong Influence
Karen’s first interest in the dog sport was the obedience ring. She became a member of the Staten Island Kennel Club where she met Doberman Pinscher fancier Sandy Harris Cohen, and Dalmatian breeder and judge Dr. Michael Manning. “They taught me about beautiful angles, and they encouraged me,” says Karen fondly of her earliest mentors in dogs.
Ch. Kwetu’s My Sweet Whitney CDX, was Karen’s first show dog. Purchased sight unseen from Barbara Sawyer-Brown in Chicago, Whitney introduced Karen to the conformation arena. “I found her ad in the club magazine, and I read articles she’d written,” says Karen of her bitch’s breeder. “If it wasn’t for her being so nice and kind, I probably wouldn’t be in Ridgebacks,” she says matter of factly.
In her first three shows, Karen put both majors on Whitney from the Puppy class. “She had a lot of personality and I wanted it to show. Nothing bothered her,” recalls Karen. Encouraged by her first outings and with support from Sawyer-Brown, Karen bred Whitney to her grandfather Ch. Kwetu’s Pocket Full of Promise to produce her first homebred champion, Ch. Whitney’s Amazing Magnum.
Showing her Ridgebacks in the conformation ring put Karen in close proximity to a very accomplished local breeder. Alicia Hanna of Kimani Kennels was already reaping the rewards of her breeding savvy by the time Karen stepped into the ring. One day at a show, Karen gathered up enough courage to speak with the breed stalwart about purchasing a bitch puppy. “I was a peon,” says Karen of her first encounter with the woman who would influence her breeding direction, “but eventually I got a bitch from Alicia that was later adopted by my parents.”
Although her first show dogs were not destined for the “specials” ring, Karen was undeterred in her desire to do more with her dogs. “I went back to Alicia and got another bitch, DC Kimani’s Dream Maker, that I co-owned with her,” says Karen. Her first notable specialty win was with this bitch.“‘Lexus’ went Best of Winners at the 1994 National under Barbara Sawyer-Brown,” she says.
“Alicia let me handle some of her great dogs to get experience,” says Karen of those early days in the company of her mentor. “It was fun. Alicia knows correct structure, and if you listen to her you can learn something.”
Karen co-bred three litters with Hanna under the Kimani prefix before venturing into the whelping box on her own. Ch. LaFleur’s Top Gun and Ch. LaFleur’s Brown Eye Girl resulted from the breeding of Lexus to Ch. Sienna’s Lightening Strike.
Another local Ridgeback breeder to whom Karen gives credit for her dogs’ success is Frank DePaulo of Tahari Kennels, which has enjoyed considerable success in both Pointers as well as Ridgebacks. “Frank’s dogs hail from Alicia’s line,” Karen says. “They have a good foundation and good personalities.”
“If it wasn’t for Alicia and Frank, I wouldn’t have Mack,” says Karen. “He goes back to their dogs.”
Big Mack Attack
Karen’s current special combines both Kimani and Tahari in a package that seemed destined for success in the show ring right from the start. “Mack was born on May 9, 2010, and never went to a handling class before I showed him as a puppy,” says Karen. “He finished his championship in two months. He was a natural!” By the fall of 2012, she felt that Mack was ready to compete at the National.
The Ridgeback National is typically a big event, with very large classes judged over several days. It’s not unheard of for the total entry to exceed 500, so breeder/owner-handlers like Karen know they’re going to be competing with some of the country’s most successful professional handlers when they enter their dogs. “The 2012 entry was around 370,” Karen says.
Breeder-judges are often hired for the weeklong show. “Barbara judged the national 17 years ago and put up ‘Chip’ [Ch. Kimani’s Blue Chip Image],” Karen recalls. “She also liked ‘Mafu’[Ch. Kimani’s Aires Above The Ground JC, a National Specialty winner and CC winner at Crufts dog show, bred by Alicia Hanna and shown by Karen], and Mack is in between these two dogs in terms of type,” according to Karen.
“It’s an honor to win under Barbara. I thought she would like the dog, but he was young and without the winning record,” Karen says. “I was hoping he’d get an Award of Merit. I just wanted him to show well enough to get to the final.”
Karen and Mack enjoyed their time together as they waited to compete. “It was just me taking care of him, and he liked it,” Karen says. “He liked being in the crating room with other dogs, and was excited to finally get to show. He was really excited in the beginning, and Frank told me that we’d need that energy to make it to the end.” Mack settled down gradually and made it through each of judge Rupert’s cuts.
Karen’s experience as an owner-handler helped her remain cool under pressure when it appeared that an AOM was within reach. “I was hoping Mack would stay together,” Karen laughs.
“When Barbara lined me up first and put the Winners Bitch behind, I thought I had it,” Karen recalls. Then she remembered, “It ain’t over ‘til she points to me.” Karen and Mack led the remaining dogs around the ring – twice – before judge Rupert pointed in her direction. “I was in a state of shock,” Karen says without false modesty.
Although the win was not Karen’s first National victory (she won with Mafu in 2007), it was her first top award as a breeder/owner-handler. For this accomplished amateur, the judge’s decision on the day acknowledged the work of her mentors as much as it did the merits of her dog and their performance together, Karen says. “Frank and Alicia are still my mentors,” she says respectfully. “After I won, I called Alicia to say, ‘It wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for you.’”
Once the adrenaline wore off, Karen felt the physical stress of the win. “People told me I didn’t look happy, but I was in shock,” she says. Throughout the day, the trouble with her heels that generally prevents her from showing too much had forced her to pace herself. “I was feeling some pain,” she says. “I only had one dog to show, and I saved my running for Mack.”
When the show ended, Karen and husband Jim got on the road for the long drive back to New Jersey. “We drove straight through, and I saw my chiropractor right away,” Karen says.
The Student Becomes a Teacher
“Mack doesn’t have everything down pat,” Karen confides about her young dog, with whom she’s made no plans for a heavy-duty campaign. “I did that once [with Ch. LaFleur’s Flashy Prospect] and don’t need to do it again,” she admits. “It was exciting, but toward the end my family was getting mad. I was on the road too much and glad for the year to end.”
Karen says the ratings race is not important to her. “It means too many weekends running, chasing numbers. It is tough,” she says.
For now, Mack is enjoying his time as king of his castle. Karen keeps him in shape on two and a half fenced acres where he can run with the rest of the Ridgebacks. “You can really see a dog’s balance this way,” she says. To keep him interested in the show ring, Karen works with him on his footwork, and says she would like to learn to get farther away from him in a free stack.
Karen does all the work with the dogs herself, from the grooming and training to the conditioning and showing. She teaches handling classes for the Schooley’s Mountain Kennel Club where she enjoys providing encouragement to her students. “Relax,” she tells the novice handlers who attend her classes. “You’re showing off the dog you love, so make the dog happy. Use your voice, and keep it fun,” she tells her students, who can be overly concerned with making fools of themselves. As for showing Rhodesian Ridgebacks specifically, Karen has a few words of advice. “Ridgebacks are a sack of potatoes without food for motivation,” she warns.
‘Enjoy What You Have’
As with many dog people, Ridgeback fanciers in particular, Karen has also had a lifelong passion for horses. She owns three, including her young Dutch Warmblood, Citenz. “I ride for about an hour each day,” she says. “I do all the grooming and cleaning. You get to know your animal that way.”
Karen has been retired from grooming professionally for six years and now spends most of her days with the animals she loves. “I take care of the dogs in the morning, go to the gym, go to the barn and take care of the dogs some more,” she says of her daily routine.
The mother of two grown children utilizes what she’s learned from her animals as she competes in the ring and teaches her handling classes. “You have to be calm showing dogs,” Karen says of the lesson she learned from her horses. “Set a goal, and do the work involved to get there,” she emphasizes.
The next goal for Karen is to get to a horse show and “compete in my first event without falling,” she laughs. After all, getting hurt could mean she’ll risk winning a third National Specialty someday.
Karen says she breeds a litter about every three years for herself, a family member or a friend, and generally doesn’t do co-ownerships. “It’s their dog once they drive away,” she says of her puppy buyers.
Although Karen says her family “doesn’t really understand” her commitment to competing with her animals, they do show their support. “They came to two dog shows, and that was enough,” she laughs.
Karen is quick, however, to acknowledge that nobody is successful in dogs without the support of mentors and family members. “We don’t do it on our own,” she says as she shares her personal motto in and out of the ring: “Enjoy what you have.” (And don’t let anything like a superstorm keep you from achieving your goals.)