Jun. 12—NORTH STONINGTON — Reaching for a piece of hot dog with his drool-covered snout, Shadow the Dogue de Bordeaux walked on his treadmill Friday morning, getting in tip-top shape for his moment in the spotlight.
Shadow — whose full name is Big Dog Bordeaux's Debonnaire's Shadow — and his sister Big Dog Bordeaux's Grace O'Malley the Pirate Queen, nicknamed Pirate, will be competing Sunday afternoon in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
The world-renowned event was rescheduled to this weekend after being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved from its historic Madison Square Garden locale to the grounds of the Lyndhurst Mansion in upstate New York.
The brother and sister Bordeaux purebreds will be shown by their owners, husband and wife Billy and Amanda Vine, who bred the dogs and raised them from pups to the champions they are today. Billy Vine is a Montville native and member of the Mohegan Tribe.
The couple, who run the Big Dog Bordeaux kennel with 18 dogs on a spacious property in North Stonington, have turned a love of the breed into a full-time passion project in the last few years. Their 30-acre farm borders the woods with a vast yard, streams and a pond where the dogs enjoy summer swims.
With dogs from six different countries — Spain, Serbia, Hungary, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Italy — the couple are surrounded the large, muscular dogs and dedicate their lives to caring for them. On average, they go through 1,000 pounds of chicken and five big bags of Kibble a week, visit their veterinarian three times a week and spend dozens of hours training, playing with and caring for the animals.
"It's a process that takes diligence and commitment," Billy Vine said. "It's all about passion — we don't make any money, we don't sleep and we're covered in drool constantly. But we are just absolutely in love with this breed."
His dream of breeding and raising Bordeaux dogs began years ago, when he first saw the film "Turner & Hooch," starring Tom Hanks and a Dogue de Bordeaux.
"I thought, I've got to own one of those dogs one day. When I got older, I kept that dream but still couldn't afford one. Now I have a house full of them," he said.
He and his wife began breeding and training their dogs full time about a year and a half ago, and this year their hard work paid off with their dream opportunity.
"It was last month that we got our golden ticket in the mail," Amanda Vine said. A literal golden ticket arrived from the Westminster Kennel Club, informing the couple that their best dogs, Shadow and Pirate, had been selected to be shown in the working dogs category of this year's show.
The Vines and 145-pound Shadow and 140-pound Pirate — both nearly 2 years old — will make their way to Tarrytown, N.Y., on Saturday. To prepare, Shadow has been hitting the treadmill a few days a week and running stairs to get in his best shape, and Pirate has been eating some extra bowls of chicken, egg shells and oats to pack on a few pounds.
Their handlers are hoping their hard work pays off but are thrilled for the experience, no matter the outcome.
"We're so humbled and we're super grateful to be a part of such a historic show, we think it's so special that my wife and I were able to take a passion and turn it into what we have now," Billy Vine said. "And to be lucky enough to be chosen to participate."
Their team brings a family dynamic to the show.
"We're going to Westminster as married owner-handlers, bringing dogs we bred ourselves and they're brother and sister," he said. "We think that's really unique and we're just so grateful."
Shadow and Pirate were bred using a frozen semen sample from a dog named Heimers Debonnaire who has been dead for well over a decade. They received the rare sample from Paragon Bordeaux, a husband-and-wife-run kennel just outside of Louisville, Ky. They bred the sample with a female dog named Ginger's Icon from the same kennel.
Shadow is a big teddy bear who loves belly rubs, Amanda Vine said. Pirate is a bit more reserved and active, but still loves attention on her own terms. The couple hope that in the next few years they'll be invited back to Westminster as top dogs.
The couple is dedicated to breeding dogs that will live long, healthy lives to help create a healthier gene pool. The Dogue de Bordeaux is believed to have originated in France more than 600 years ago and may have the biggest head of any breed, according to the Westminster Kennel Club. The dogs are known for their balanced temperament, fearlessness, guarding and companionship.
But the breed nearly went extinct decades ago, so the dogs were crossbred with St. Bernards and bulldogs to increase their numbers.
"We believe a lot in the pedigrees behind our breeding and determining what complements each other. We do a lot of research to bring in longevity and dogs without medical issues," Billy Vine said. The couple has plans to bring home a new dog next month from overseas and is hoping to continue breeding their big dogs in a responsible, healthy way.
"There were so many unhealthy breeding habits developed and it takes so much diligence to turn that around," he said.
The couple has helped many of their dogs find loving forever homes and keeps in touch with nearly all of them via photos and updates from their families. Their youngest Bordeaux, 3 1/2 -month-old Juniper with big paws and a dark-colored face, will head to her forever home soon.
The Vines' kennel is open to visitors with visits scheduled in advance.