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Pampered pooch paws way to top dog

Jake, a purebred Havanese, is shown here at the Golden Gate Kennel Club show in February 2001 where he won Best of Breed.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

With apologies to the NFL champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Monday is Gene Wood’s Super Bowl.

There was a time when Wood’s Havanese purebred, Jake, had about as much chance of attending the Westminster Kennel Club’s venerable dog show this weekend as a certain last place, Ohio-based team did of reaching football’s biggest stage this past season.

But Gene Wood plans on being in Madison Square Garden Monday, cheering on his own, “Champion” Gunnar’s Criollo Negrito, the competitive name given to his nearly 4-year-old competing in the 127th annual show considered by many to be a canine’s Super Bowl.



“People wait 25 years to get their invitation to Westminster,” said Wood, a Grass Valley resident who purchased his dog out of the newspaper classifieds three years ago for $800. “Jake getting to Westminster would be like the Cincinnati Bengals going to next year’s Super Bowl.”

Lest you think Wood and his wife, Jody, mirror the antics of dog-show junkies portrayed in the 2000 film “Best In Show,” Gene Wood insists he simply wanted a pet to replace two dogs who died within weeks of each other in 1999.




“We did not start out by raising dogs to be show dogs,” he said. They’d never been to a dog show, and only got interested after Jake completed obedience school.

When his two dogs – a Chesapeake Bay retriever and a Pomeranian – passed on, Wood meticulously researched on the Internet the kind of dog he wanted: lap-sized, deferential to their master.

What he found in Jake fit the bill, perfectly.

“Our pets are more like our third, fourth and fifth daughter,” said Wood, who likes to take Jake and three other Havanese dogs the couple owns on trips in his recreational vehicle. “They take turns sleeping with us,” Jody Wood said.

When he’s not sleeping at the foot of the bed or skidding across the hardwood floors of his master’s home, Jake is busy piling up blue ribbons at dog shows across the country, parading in front of thousands of people while Gene and Jody rack up the miles and the pounds of freshly-frozen homemade dog food.

In rankings that resemble a football team’s won-loss standings, Gene Wood’s prized pup was ranked second in the latest American Kennel Club standings for the breed.

He has been in 90 shows in locales as far away as Florida and named best of breed 65 times.

He was the Havanese champion at the AKC Nationals in Orlando, Fla. Dog-show enthusiasts probably caught him prancing with his handler, Charlotte Ventura, on the Animal Planet channel that broadcast the competition on TV this past weekend.

To those who might not understand the dog-show culture, Jake’s life resembles that of a competitive gymnast or high-school basketball phenom, visiting four corners of the country to meets and Amateur Athletic Union contests. Jake has been “campaigned” by his owners and handlers at shows to prepare for the big day, with advertisements in “Dog News” and “Show Sight.”

Jake’s owners spend $50 a month on dog food. Gene Wood boils water every morning, stirring it into a mixture of dehydrated chicken and vegetables, frozen vegetable cubes and kibbles delivered monthly to his home.

Monday, Wood sported a sweater advertising Pedigree dog food, something he said has never touched his champion’s lips.

Comparing the specially-made food to the stuff in the store, Wood said “it’s like (comparing) a Chevrolet to a Cadillac.” The mass-produced canned food “is OK, but it’s nothing I would feed my dogs.”

So much for product endorsement.

The primping at each dog show could easily put Cher’s preparation to shame.

Before each show, Jake is bathed with a tear-free shampoo/conditioner mix.

“Sometimes he even gets in the shower with his handler,” Gene Wood said. Then, his coat is brushed with a comb fitted with 27 millimeter stainless-steel wires. On the way to New York, he will rest under Gene Wood’s seat on the plane. Once in the Big Apple, he will have a snack of the homemade food and bottled water.

“You wouldn’t want him to get diarrhea at his biggest moment,” Gene Wood said.

The dogs will sit on benches before handlers parade them around the felt-covered Garden floor.

Jake is currently relaxing in Fresno with his handler, Charlotte Ventura, because one of his master’s three other pets is in heat.

The distraction could make Jake lose focus.

Ventura has been a trainer for 20 years, winning best of breed with a Rottweiler at the Westminster show two years ago.

Asked about the atmosphere of Westminster, Ventura inquired: “You ever been to the SPCA?

“It’s a big ego trip, just like going to the horse races or anything else…. It’s just like any other hobby. We try to present our dog as best we can, and we want to win,” said Ventura, who earned $100,000 last year as a trainer and recently spent 15 consecutive days at 15 different dog shows.

Jake will most likely retire after Westminster, like John Elway at the end of the Super Bowl. After all, Westminster is the pinnacle.

For Gene Wood, who began showing Jake as a hobby, it is all a little too hard to believe.

“We never imagined this, never in a million years.”


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