When Elmira’s Chris and Ula Pepper got their first dog six years ago, they went to a Mennonite farmer in Wellesley Township and picked out a puppy from the litter tumbling around the barn.
Their second dog involved making contact with a local breeder and asking a lot of questions. Their next three dogs involved flights to Poland, the Netherlands and Finland, reams of paperwork, microchips and vet inspections.
For the Peppers, it’s all been worth it. Four of their five dogs are barbet, or French water dogs. They’re very rare – there are only 1,000 of them worldwide – and the Peppers have dedicated themselves to promoting and increasing the breed.
The barbet is a common ancestor to the poodle, Newfoundland and Portuguese water dog. It’s a medium-sized dog that looks bigger than it is, thanks to a thick, curly coat. The dogs are energetic and playful, and webbed feet make them great swimmers and hunters.
With five dogs romping around the living room, a visitor might wonder what the Peppers have got themselves into. But barbet aren’t hyper; once playtime is over, they quickly settle down.
That energy level is what the Peppers were looking for when they started talking about getting a second dog. Qbert, their border collie/beagle cross, has a lot of energy and loves to swim, and they wanted a dog that could match him stroke for stroke across a lake.
They learned about Paula Ballak from a newspaper article. The first barbet breeder in Ontario, Ballak has become their mentor in all things to do with the breed. And when Ballak’s dog Alma had a litter, the Peppers got Madzia, their first barbet.
With a little curly-haired bundle of energy of their own, the Peppers decided they would do more than just raise a pet: they would start a breeding program of their own.
“We just realized that for how few there are, we might as well step up to the plate and help the breed out,” Chris said.
Other breeders in Europe have supported them, happy to see another breeding program on this side of the Atlantic. That was partly why Polish breeder Piotr Piotrowski saved the best male from one of his litters for them; the other reason is that he was delighted that a Polish girl in Canada (Ula was born in Krakow) wanted one of his dogs.
The next dog, Chmurnik, flew to Canada with Ula in March, and the Peppers had their first experience bringing a dog into this country. There’s considerable work involved in importing a dog for breeding: an import permit, a microchip, all shots up to date, an official stamp from the country of origin, figuring out what requirements the airline has, arranging for a vet inspector to meet the dog at the airport …
“If you miss one thing, they’ll send the dog back,” Chris said. “And it’s sent back at your expense.”
The flights and fees aren’t even the most expensive part; the pups themselves, because of their rarity, sell for about $2,000.
In July, Ula brought home Banditt from the Netherlands. Many barbet have a patch of white on their chests, but Banditt is a rare piebald, with a white collar, legs and tail.
Two weeks later, she flew home from Finland with Daphné, their second female. Banditt and Daphné are both fostered out; until they get a kennel licence, the township’s bylaws prevent them from keeping more than three adult dogs on their property.
When they get their licence, the Peppers are hoping to add two more females. Eventually they’d like to have two litters a year.
The breeding program will begin in earnest when Madzia has her first litter of puppies next year. The Peppers have already made contact with several prospective owners, including a family from Florida who flew to Canada to meet the dogs.
While they’d prefer to have the puppies stay close to home, Ula and Chris are willing to let them go to the U.S. to boost the status of the breed there. The barbet isn’t recognized by the American Kennel Club; they has to be 300 dogs for the breed to be recognized, and there are only 40 now.
Even though they’re starting a breeding program, the dogs are still pets. The Peppers moved from Waterloo to a house outside Elmira so they’d have a few acres for the dogs to run and a backyard pool for them to splash in.
“They’re really a different dog,” Chris said. “If you’re a dog person and you spent a day with them, you’d notice the difference.”