When Teacleopatra Biscay's Sapphire - a fluffy, chocolate-colored pooch better known as Cleo - gave birth to 11 puppies this past Thanksgiving in Indianapolis, the U.S. population of the Barbet breed spiked by 15%.

Then, a few months ago in Pennsylvania, Champion Niegenuveaux's Ermagarde, or just plain old Claire, had a litter of two girls, a 2%  jump that brought the total population to some 85 dogs.

A puppy boom is under way, as Barbet boosters have embarked on a mission to turn their shaggy pets into a bona fide breed for the canine big leagues. They want the Barbet, a variety of French water dog once unheard of in the U.S., to be included as a breed in the American Kennel Club and given a shot at a Westminster Kennel Club show title.

But building the breed has been dogged work.

Claire's owner, Judy Descutner of Hickory, PA, had thoughts of flying her prized two-year-old canine to Switzerland for a tryst with a potential paterfamilias. But she decided against doing so after sniffing out the logistics. 

"It seemed like a very difficult way to get a dog pregnant," Mrs. Descutner said. "So I decided to pursue frozen semen."

She said dogmatic European breeders are "very leery" of artificial insemination for dogs. While common to horse breeding, it is still unusual for canines. She finally convinced her Swiss counterparts to do it - at an estimated cost of $5,500 for the semen, transportation, a five-minute insemination procedure, veterinary care for mother and puppies and a fee per puppy for the stud's owner.

"Breeding dogs is not a moneymaking thing," Mrs. Descutner said.

Cleo's owner, Stacy Able, of Columbus, IN had a slightly easier time. She drove her dog 10 hours to Canada for a sire.

"And that's a relatively close one - not having to fly to Finland, which has been done," said Ms. Able, a wedding photographer and president of the Barbet Club of America.

The efforts are all part of a goal to reach the AKC's magic number: 150 dogs, each with a pedigree that goes back three generations. That would qualify Barbets (pronounced BAR-bay) for the club's "miscellaneous" category and allow it into competitions. But to earn championship titles and ultimately compete in Westminster - the Oscars for the four-legged - the breed would need at least another 150 or so dogs.

The Barbet is already a recognized big-time breed in some European kennel clubs, including major clubs in France and Finland, but not the Kennel Club of the United Kingdom. The purpose of seeking full recognition with the AKC is for the "continuation of the breed in America," said Ms. Able.

There are now 88 Barbets sprinkled across the U.S., from Brooklyn to Anchorage, Alaska, according to Ms. Able's rough count. But only 61 with pedigrees going back three generations. It could take five years to reach the miscellaneous category and then another few years to get into one of the club's seven groups - most likely as a "sporting dog," a variety that includes cocker spaniels and golden retrievers.

"It is a long haul," said Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the AKC. "You couldn't have just four dogs across the country showing. You'd need a good population's worth so that there's competition."

Two decades ago, there were maybe a dozen wooly, teddybear like Barbets in the U.S. The breed is better known in Europe, especially France, but isn't an especially common dog even there. Its origins are something of a mystery. But it traces back to an ancient line, and a famous Barbet once fought in Napoleon's infantry, say the breed's fanciers. The Briard, Bichon Frise, and Newfoundland are related, according to the AKC.

"Most dog breeds have really only been around since Victorian times," said Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute's Dog Genome Project. 

Barbet buffs believe the breed has all the characteristics to get American tongues wagging. It doesn't shed, is medium-size at 45-60 pounds, and has an adoring disposition. Hunters prize the dog for its retrieving prowess. The notable downside is that its coat requires regular grooming, but some owners feel the effort is worthwhile because a Barbet's coat better agrees with some people who suffer from allergies.

It resembles the Portuguese water dog breed popularized by the Obama family pet, Bo, and looks like any number of designer "doodle" dogs - a mix of a poodle and something else. The latter is a slam that gets Barbet owners like Doris Newkirk, a professor and retired psychologist in Greenbank, WA, absolutely growling.

"People come up to my dog and say, "Oh, is that a doodle?" And I just want to die," say Dr. Newkirk, the owner of two "wickedly smart" Barbets and president of the United Barbet Club.

The biggest challenge for Dr. Newkirk and other Barbet breeders is the lack of sires. Many American Barbets are too closely related to mate. Boosting genetic diversity means more and more breeding with mates drawn from other countries, with parents selected to ensure that potential pups will be born without genetic faults, like bad hips or eyes.

One new American sire should be ready this year, Toulouse Biscay's Sapphire, known as Tug to the familiar. The two-year-old brother to Cleo and nephew to Claire. He just passed his medical tests, said owner Tracey Schnabel of Hoboken, N.J.

Perhaps the brightest hope for the breed is a new male from Holland that Ms. Able imported this April at a cost of about $1,300, plus travel expenses. If all goes according to plan, Quaciendas Thunus Georgii - a three-month-old fuzzy black ball of curls with a tuxedo-like patch of white - will begin siring in two years, bringing another bloodline to the U.S. mix.

"Oh, he's so cute," says Ms. Able. "His father is from Finland, and his mother is Dutch."

Even without the new sires, the Barbet should hit the 100-dog mark by the end of 2012. Dr. Newkirk is planning a litter later this year. So is Mrs. Descutner, who said she would use the leftover frozen semen she imported last year to again breed Claire.

And Ms. Able reports that Cleo's sister, Treasures Biscay's Sapphire, aka Isis, is due in early June. If she is anything like her sister, Ms. Able is hoping for a big litter. She has a waiting list for puppies. The going price for a Barbet puppy is $2,000.

Barbet enthusiasts are eager to get the wider world panting for their favorite pooches. But that doesn't mean they want their breed to be America's next "it" dog.

"Oh my gosh no, no, no," said Mrs. Descutner. "Never."

Wall Street Journal - Mary 25, 2012

by Melanie Grace West

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