Poodles Aren't Dogs

Don't try to paint a poodle's toenails

Jan Gelin with Willow, Jet, and Tutti. “I have dogs in La Jolla, Beverly Hills — very wealthy people buy my dogs."
  • Jan Gelin with Willow, Jet, and Tutti. “I have dogs in La Jolla, Beverly Hills — very wealthy people buy my dogs."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

If any poodle-grooming shop had a name to fit the popular perception, it would be Snooty’s in La Jolla. Snooty’s does not exclusively groom poodles, and the owner, Tiffany Johnson, isn’t who you’d expect to meet in a poodle groomer. “I’ve only seen a few white poodles in the five years I’ve been here, “Johnson says, “and no one has asked me to dye their hair. I don’t think anyone who comes in my shop would even consider something like that. That’s a whole different realm of dog ownership! Honestly, here in La Jolla, we do a lot of just puppy cuts — we keep their hair cut short for the summer. It’s a pretty typical standard haircut where the hair is cut short all around.

Tiffany Johnson: "I get a few owners that are ridiculous about their dogs, but not many — maybe two out of ten."

Tiffany Johnson: "I get a few owners that are ridiculous about their dogs, but not many — maybe two out of ten."

“There’s nothing different about poodle owners,” Johnson continues. “They love their dogs just like other dog owners love their dogs. Poodles are a bit different, though. They’re easier to groom, because they’re used to being groomed quite a bit, so they’re much more relaxed. Other than that, every individual dog is different.”

Karen Healy: "People who have the little tiny dogs are people who cuddle and like little babies."

Karen Healy: "People who have the little tiny dogs are people who cuddle and like little babies."

Johnson finds most poodles to be anything but fancy dogs for ego gratification. “Most of them are short-haired, athletic, beach-going dogs. I get a few owners that are ridiculous about their dogs, but not many — maybe two out of ten. It’s usually about the way their hair is cut or the way we treat the dog. People are a bit more likely to let poodles sleep in their beds because they don’t shed the way other dogs do. But for the most part, I’ve got mostly normal poodle owners down here.”

Lynette Brossard and Savannah (a.k.a. “Doodles"): "We were walking through Hillcrest, and it was so cute. I bugged my ex-husband until he got her.”

Lynette Brossard and Savannah (a.k.a. “Doodles"): "We were walking through Hillcrest, and it was so cute. I bugged my ex-husband until he got her.”

Karen Healy owns the Exotic Pooch, a Pacific Beach grooming shop. Healy has owned her shop for 22 years. She estimates that one-third of her customers bring in poodles. “I once calculated how many dogs I’ve serviced in my lifetime, and the number was something like 125,000.”

Sheila Fowler: "You have to have a certain type of head — a long muzzle with a nice chin but not protruding."

Sheila Fowler: "You have to have a certain type of head — a long muzzle with a nice chin but not protruding."

Healy got into the grooming business by accident. Her mother expressed interest in purchasing a dog-grooming shop as an investment. Between jobs at the time, Healy owned two Irish Setters and enjoyed training them. When her mother told her about the shop, Healy said she knew nothing about grooming dogs. Her mother told her about a dog-grooming class that was to begin the following week. She enrolled. “I never thought this was what I would do for the rest of my life. It really suited me because the hours are flexible. I got a job right away.”

Debbie Vachal and Nomad. “They’re more humanlike than other dogs."

Debbie Vachal and Nomad. “They’re more humanlike than other dogs."

Healy’s mother never purchased the shop for her daughter, as Karen’s dog grooming teacher advised her not to make such a commitment until she had worked in the industry for a few years. After five years at a pet shop and working as a mobile groomer, Healy bought the Exotic Pooch.

Unlike Johnson, Healy believes poodle owners are different from other dog owners. “It’s a wider spectrum of people. They’re not like the Labrador or the terrier or the Afghan owners — they’re all predictable types. If someone calls me up and says that they have a pit bull, I kind of know what type of person I can expect to come walking in. Labrador people and the sporting breeds tend to be more athletic people. I think poodle owners come in a broader walk of life.”

According to Healy, poodle owners also differ by the type of poodle they choose. “Usually people who have the little tiny dogs are people who cuddle and like little babies. Someone who owns a standard poodle might be more rugged or not quite so fussy.

“I do know that the poodle takes on the personality of its owner. If the owner is whiny, the dog will be that way. Some people will hand me their poodle real positively, like, ‘Okay! You’re here for grooming!’ and they’re not worried about their dogs, and the dogs are more relaxed and confident. I once saw a bumper sticker that read, ‘Poodles aren’t dogs, they’re poodles.’ They really are different than other dogs. They think more like humans. They’re very, very smart. Now, my German shepherd is very smart too, but she’s very doglike. She’s very protective. You have to understand the dog mentality to see that poodles are a separate breed entirely. They’re hardly like dogs. They’re nice and clean. They don’t shed because they have hair instead of fur.”

Unlike Johnson’s experience, Healy has encountered the more demanding poodle owners who make a great fuss over their dogs. “There’s a big group of people like that, but they don’t come to my shop. Sometimes they try to tell me to groom their dog in a certain way, where I know it wouldn’t look good. One person asked me to cut a Mohawk on his poodle’s head. One lady actually tried to make me put a poodle trim on her Yorkshire terrier. I refused, telling her it was a Yorkshire terrier. She just kept saying, ‘No! It’s a poodle! It’s a poodle!’ She showed me this fancy show clip that just wouldn’t work for her dog.

“There’s a trade show in Anaheim where they have a creative-styling contest for standard poodles, ”Healy explains. “A white standard poodle is like a blank canvas, and they’ll shave in and scissor out designs or dye it. They use washable coloring. I’ve only been asked to dye poodles a couple of times. Once someone wanted her dog green for St. Patrick’s Day, and I did it. We used to get a lot of people who asked for toenail painting, but lately the styles have changed away from that.

“If you know anything about the history of the poodle, you know they were sporting dogs or hunting dogs that went through the brush. That’s how that fancy clip originated; it was a way to keep them from snagging on the brush, but rings of fur were left around their joints and chest to keep them warm. They’re real rugged. I used to have a standard poodle mixed with an Airedale, and he was the smartest, best dog ever and really rugged.”

No matter how rugged a poodle may be, everyone that Healy grooms gets a shot of cologne. “That’s unless people ask me not to do it. There’s a lot of different scents to choose from. I get the most expensive scents. It costs me $10 for a four-ounce bottle. It comes in a glass bottle too. Other pet colognes just don’t smell as good. It’s called Le Pooch and La Pooch, for males and females. The male cologne smells a bit like men’s aftershave. People really love it and always comment how good their dog smells.”

Every poodle groomer I spoke to said that the ultimate poodle grooming shop in San Diego was the Dapper Dog in La Jolla. Noted for top-level grooming of show-quality poodles, the owners did not want to be interviewed, although they referred me to other poodle groomers.

Lynette Brossard’s Pacific Beach apartment doesn’t leave much room for a dog, but her white teacup — or toy — poodle, Savannah, doesn’t take up much space. “We also call her Doodles. We’ve had her for eight years.”

Teacup poodles are the tiniest of the poodle breed. Doodles weighs maybe four pounds and seems incapable of sitting still. Her tail is in a perpetual wag, and she investigates everything around her, especially strangers. Brossard says her size will help insure a longer life. (Teacup poodles have an average life span of 20 years.)

“Poodles are all really one breed,” says Brossard. “They just breed different sizes. They have teacup, toy, tiny, and standard. I saw a teacup one night when we were walking through Hillcrest, and it was so cute, and I wanted one really badly, so I bugged my ex-husband until he got her.”

Brossard’s public relations job keeps her away for long hours, but her son helps take care of Doodles. “They don’t have fur, but hair, which is another reason I got her. My son has asthma, and poodles are ideal for people with allergies. You can’t be allergic to them, because they don’t have dander like other animals. She was ideal for me because she was clean.”

The search for the perfect teacup poodle led Brossard to a breeder in Mission Valley. “You go in her house, and the whole place is dedicated to breeding these dogs. Most of the dogs she had at that time were gray, and they followed her around like a flock of little sheep. The person that wanted her changed her mind, and the lady wanted to place her in a home quickly, so we got a discount on her. It was close to a thousand dollars. But teacups are more expensive. She’s registered and has a stupid show name.”

The remark reveals Brossard’s contempt for the stereotyped show-dog culture. “They got mad at me, because [Doodles’] whole lineage all had names related to candy, and I refused to name her that way. Like, her dad’s name is Sugar something. They all have those long, obnoxious names — like in that movie Best of Show! It’s that bad.”

Brossard had owned other dogs before but never a poodle. “I always had mutts, never a purebred dog. I didn’t know it was a poodle the first time I saw one and wanted it. I was embarrassed. I don’t go for those real poodly haircuts.”

As much as Brossard loves her dog, there’s some embarrassment about Doodles. Brossard describes her dog’s idiosyncrasies sheepishly, as if the dog could hear her. “She’s kind of disproportionate. Her legs are too short for her body. Even though she’s a purebred dog with papers and everything, I think when they bred them down so tiny, they were more concerned with the overall size than the proportions. You’ll see that most other poodles have really long legs; she’s so tiny, I couldn’t even show her. They’d laugh her right out of there. Doodles was supposed to look just like the dog I saw in Hillcrest, but she looks nothing like it. When I went to get her, I wanted to get one in apricot, and the lady said, ‘We have one in dark cream,’ and when I got there, she was just white. But she was so cute. There were several poodles there, but I just had to take her.

“One of the reasons I wanted a female dog is because I don’t like that whole ‘lifting up the leg’ thing. Only [Doodles] never learned how to do it right, so she kind of lifts her leg but does it frontward and squats — it’s the weirdest thing. She just doesn’t know. They’re supposed to be the smartest dog there is, but I think that when they bred her down...”Brossard laughs nervously. I ask if Doodles seems more intelligent than her previous dogs, and Brossard shakes her head, giggling, afraid Doodles understands what she’s saying.

“I’ve worked and worked and worked with her, and the only tricks she ever learned are ‘sit’ and ‘stay. ‘I saw those poodles in the circus who leap through rings, and we thought it would be really cute if she would jump through, but no way. My son would even jump through my arms to try to show her, and she’d just sit therein her defense, though, I’ve never had her trained. But what’s to train? She doesn’t go outside. We walk to the beach sometimes, but about halfway there she stops and wants me to pick her up. It’s a long walk for her.”

While Brossard finds dog-show culture pretentious, those feelings don’t apply to poodle owners. “Poodles are so foo-foo looking and everything, but since I’ve had her, the other poodle owners that I’ve met haven’t been like that. I don’t know if it’s a misconception or what. I tried to paint Doodles’ fingernails once, and she wanted no part of it.”

Grooming is Brossard’s biggest maintenance task. “I never knew how much upkeep there was involved with poodles. You have to cut their hair. My friend has beagles. They’re nice, short-haired dogs, and you wash them once a week or maybe once a month. But with Doodles, if we go a couple of days without washing, she starts looking pretty nasty. It’s expensive to get them groomed all the time, but it’s worth it. I take her to the Exotic Pooch. They charge me $35, and that place is pretty reasonable. One time when the owner, Karen, was out of town, I really wanted to get her groomed. Her hair had gotten so long that it was matted, and I noticed one morning she was pulling on her hair and it was hurting her. I took her someplace else, and they dropped her. She’s limped ever since, and now I’ll never take her anywhere else. It was another poodle parlor around here. They had all kinds of pictures of professionally groomed show dogs, so I thought they must be good. And I shopped around. I didn’t want her going anywhere where there were lots of dogs barking, all excited, and I didn’t want her left in a cage, because she’s my baby. So I took her to this place, and about a half hour later, the lady there called me and told me that my dog’s hair was really matted — which I knew. She then told me that she had to cut it all off and was thinking about calling animal protection or something like that. I said, ‘What?’ Then she says, ‘And your dog is limping. II don’t know what you did to her.’ I told her I would be right over, and I took my husband with me. I was flipping out because she hadn’t been limping. I know that they left her unattended on a table and she fell. It just makes my blood boil to think about it. I always tell people, ‘Don’t bring your dog there.’ ”

Like other poodles, Doodles is very sociable. “She does not like to be left alone; she gets really pouty if you leave her alone. Maybe it’s because she came to us when she was so young, and she was raised by us and a cat. One of my criteria when I got her is that the dog had to be user-friendly, because I was doing day care. Doodles is really nice. She’s like a little person. That’s what’s different about poodles; she doesn’t have that attitude that some dogs have, like, ‘I’m going to do this, and I’m going to get away with it, and you’re just going to have to put up with it.’ She cares about what you think, and you can hurt her feelings if you’re not careful. I gave her a bad haircut one time. I used to be a hairdresser, so I thought, ‘How bad can this be?’ I gave her a total weird Neanderthal thing in the front, and somehow she knew. She walked around for days with her head hanging and glaring at me.”

Doodles has brought enough pleasure to Brossard’s life that she says she would probably choose another poodle if Doodles were to die. “She’s a great dog. I like her because she’s not all doggy. She doesn’t stink and she doesn’t lick you. She snorts, but that’s about it. I always thought that poodles were kind of snotty, but the ones that I’ve met haven’t been. I always thought the fancy haircuts were so pretentious and wondered why people would do that to their dogs. But I’ve read up on the history of poodles, and I’ve learned that a lot of it is practicality.

“She’s dumb in that you can’t teach her things, but I feel like she knows what we’re talking about. Since I’ve had her, I’ve realized that dogs have a much bigger personality than I thought they did before. She’s intuitive. I just wish she had learned more tricks, because all of my other dogs learned tricks.”

Sheila Fowler is one of the world’s foremost breeders of show poodles, with customers from as far away as Japan and Sweden. Fowler’s poodles have won so many awards that she has storage boxes filled with ribbons, trophies, and certificates. At Summermist Breeders in San Marcos, Fowler has been breeding award-winning standard poodles for 30 years. “In 1969, when we lived in Los Angeles, my husband brought me a newspaper ad for a kennel searching for a kennel girl. I loved animals and they hired me. That’s when I was first introduced to the standard poodle. I thought poodles were tiny little things and were yappy. But the original standard poodles were well-rounded, balanced, very intelligent, very devoted companions, almost with the intelligence of a five-year-old child. They are very devoted to people.

“I started out as a kennel girl, and they noticed that I was pretty talented with the dogs, and the dogs seemed to enjoy my company. I began interacting with the dogs when I was cleaning their stalls. The owners invited me to go to a show with them, and I said, ‘Sure!’ It was my first encounter with a dog show, and I took a puppy in for them and happened to win with the dog. I started grooming for them and going to shows and finally got my first standard poodle. And that’s how I started. Now I do the grooming, the showing, the handling, and the training of all my dogs.”

Fowler’s dogs are exquisite poodles but every bit as athletic as their breeders attest. “They have to be very athletic to show. For the competition, they have to show lots of stamina, and I take my dogs for a six mile run every morning — they can run six miles very easily. In fact, I have a nine-year-old that can go six miles, come back, and do another six. Poodles are just an active, intelligent, very athletic breed.”

The difference in show quality poodles is in the details. “Every dog has a fault, but the qualities of the dog are superior in its confirmation, temperament, and disposition. Confirmation is the dog’s bodily structure. These dogs were originally bred to be retrievers, and in showing them, you still have to have a dog that’s capable of swimming, running, and retrieving. You have to have a certain type of head — a long muzzle with a nice chin but not protruding. You want an almond eye [color].You want a nice, strong arched neck to carry himself proudly, so he could carry a duck or other fowl back. You’d want a nice confirmation of the shoulders of equal range. You want a nice, flat back and a deep girth so they can run. You don’t want to have a ‘herring gut’ but a deep chest with a big, wide girth through the waist. You don’t want it to come up very shallow, because you want them to be strong for running and working. Poodles need to be functional and not just for showing and hunting.”

Examples of some of Fowler’s poodles can be found at Summermist’s website, www.standardpoodle.net.One of her recent champions, Picasso, is shown from puppyhood to adulthood, detailing his growth and development. His haircut supports the prissy-looking poodle stereotype, but an explanation from Fowler clears up any misinterpretation.

“There are several regulation show clips. For the puppy under one year, it’s the puppy trim. That’s the only trim for a puppy, from the face to the tail. Once they’re over a year old, you put them into either the continental, which is a trim where most of their body has no hair, with rosettes on their hip joints and pompoms on their four paws. There was a function for that many years ago: the hair kept them warm; however, some of the hair would drag them down and get in the way, so it was removed, and that’s how it started. There is also another trim called the English saddle, where the hair is grown more on the sides of the dog, but I don’t have any dogs with that trim right now.”

When Fowler praises her dogs, she is obviously proud, but without any arrogance. “When people around the country see these dogs, they know they are Summermist dogs. I’m known for very athletic and outgoing dogs. That’s Summermist. I don’t have kennels. My home is their home, and they are my family. My whole life, my passion is these dogs.”

If Fowler’s mission in life is to breed the ultimate show poodle, Jan Gelin’s mission is to make standard poodles available to the average person and their families. Gelin has owned a breeding business, Meringue Poodles in Oceanside, for five years. “My dogs are show quality, but that isn’t our specialty. We breed for size and temperament for the common public to get to know this animal. They’re not a real common dog, and you don’t see very many on the street. When we walk our four poodles, we stop traffic.”

Like Fowler at Summermist, Gelin is meticulous about finding the proper pedigree lines to breed and about testing her poodles for common diseases. Her approach to distribution differs, however, from the standards of most show-poodle breeders. “A lot of people who breed show dogs have contracts for neutering and spaying of their dogs, which prevents more poodles from being on the market. That’s probably a good thing for them, but there are so many people who are into poodles now that want to have dogs, and they’re just out priced. “Gelin’s poodles fall at the low end of pedigreed pricing and sell for $850. “It’s the same dog that the show breeders have. It’s a lot of work to show dogs, and I commend those who do it. But the [poodles’] temperament is somewhat different. The showdogs aren’t allowed to be dogs, because they have to keep their show hair during show season — all summer and spring — and they have to be oiled, braided, and knotted. And if you’re really showing, you pack up the RV and travel. Some people have one dog that they pay $5000 for, and they show it, and they let that dog run when it’s not show season, but most people who show dogs have a kennel with three or four dogs, and those dogs are crated a lot of the time.

Another test that is run on pedigreed poodles is having their hips “OFA’d.” “That stands for the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals — they’re in Missouri. You have their hips x-rayed by your veterinarian. There are some who do exclusively poodles — you know, show dogs — and they send the X rays off to the foundation, and they are looked at by a veterinary radiologist and classified as ‘excellent, ‘very good,’‘good,’and ‘poor.’ You don’t want to breed a dog if they can have hip problems later. It’s very significant.”

Dogs have long been a part of Gelin’s life. Besides her four poodles, Gelin has two new litters that are already sold: a group of red standard poodles and the other black. She also has a dachshund and an overweight Chihuahua. “I used to breed Norwegian elkhounds in the beginning. The last two I had were getting very old and were dysplastic — their hips were not very good. I went to Dog Beach in Del Mar, a great place to see every variety of dog, and saw a lady come over the hill with one white and one black standard poodle. There were Labradors and other dogs retrieving in the water — the waves were really high that day. Well, the black male poodle would charge into the waves to retrieve. We must have counted 20 retrieves that he made in the waves. I thought, ‘What an athletic dog! There’s one of those in my future.’ I became friends with the lady, and when my elkhounds died, I went to see her, and I got one of the puppies from that black male. I bought my first poodle from her, Willow. She’s my white one, the mother of this litter. I put Willow into agility right away.” (Agility is a training class for dogs where they jump through hoops, walk narrow planks, climb ropes, and learn other behaviors.)

Gelin’s kitchen table has stacks of snapshots, all of them poodles. She shows me several photos of poodles carrying fowl retrieved in a hunt. “They do beautifully in the field for duck hunters, just like a lot of retrievers. I had a friend who was interested in a hunting dog. I took him over to watch my friend’s black poodle retrieve, and he bought a big white poodle, Glacier.”

Gelin is familiar with the fanatical grooming that some owners demand for their poodles, but she refuses to say anything bad about it. “My dogs are dogs. I don’t dye their hair or paint their nails. You can do that. My grandchildren dress the dogs up and have tea parties, and the dogs love it. They have a competition in Long Beach for groomers. They dye them all sorts of different colors, and they trim them wildly — even putting hair extensions on them. It’s quite a fun thing, but many people think that that’s all that a poodle is, but a poodle is many other things.”

Unlike Brossard, Gelin insists that there are only three breeds of poodle: standard, miniature, and toy. She believes that standard poodles are mellower dogs than the toy or miniature poodle. “When a dog is tiny, they are a little more frightened, so they make a lot more noise.” She also believes that the color of a standard poodle reflects something in its personality. “White dogs are supposed to be more sensitive, the black ones — which are the prototype for all standard poodles — are more realistic and human, and the brown ones are the clowns.”

As Gelin describes what makes poodles different, I hear a familiar story. “They’re more human than other dogs. They are more bonded to people than any dog I’ve ever seen. They’re playful, like circus dogs. They love to entertain, and they won’t give you a moment’s peace! They’d rather be around human beings than other dogs. It’s been said that poodles understand the spoken word better than any other breed, and I think they are more sensitive to your tone of voice. They know when you are angry, and they know ‘no.’ Before my pups are adopted out, they learn to do their business outside, and they learn ‘no,’ and they learn ‘come’ at six weeks old.” This is proven when she calls the puppies in for a photograph, and they all file in through the doggy door.

“I work nights at the Tri City Medical Center and sleep days, and the poodles get used to whatever your routine is. They are very adaptable. When I come home from work and lay down, my brown poodle, Tutti, will bring her toys and lay them all around me. She’s ready for me to wake up and play.”

In Gelin’s view, the type of people who buy poodles runs the gamut. “I love the middle-aged women who are looking for something beautiful and showy to attract attention to themselves. You have families with children who have read and studied about poodles — poodles are coming back; they were very popular in the ’50s — and they want a fine family dog in the house. And poodles are very intelligent and very poised. They don’t run around or have big wagging tails. They know how to act in the house.

“I have holistic people who don’t want to have its tail doctored or its claws removed —”cutting a portion of the tail is a common practice in poodle breeding “— which is the norm in England too. I always tell them that they have to let me know a litter ahead of time if that’s what they want in a dog.”

While Gelin breeds dogs for “regular guys,” many of her poodles end up in expensive neighborhoods. “I have dogs in La Jolla, Beverly Hills — very wealthy people buy my dogs — some from as far away as New York City. But I field people to other breeders, depending on what they’re looking for. The thing that I am most asked for is temperament, and that’s what I breed for: very sweet family dogs that get on well with children and other dogs. My dogs are primarily bred to compete in field activities.”

Gelin is careful about whom she sells her poodles to. “I sold a puppy to an older couple who lived in Topanga Canyon. They had a running area for the dog, and they let him out the doggy door one night and a screech owl got him. They called and asked for another puppy, and I had to really think about it. I finally told them that I didn’t want to sell another puppy to them if they had that much wildlife. I’ve only refused customers twice in five years, and that was one of them.”

The Del Mar woman who sold Gelin her first poodle, Willow (the daughter of Cinder, the dog Gelin was impressed with at the beach), is now one of Gelin’s best friends. Debbie Vachal is the proprietor of Full Moon Poodles in Rancho Peñasquitos. “I wanted dogs that were intelligent and really athletic. I work together with Jan, because our poodles come from the same show line. I’ve been breeding them for seven years now.”

When Vachal comes in the house with her poodle, Nomad, Gelin’s poodles get excited at the prospect of a family reunion. One of the dogs marks his territory by peeing on the floor, which Gelin and Vachal notice moments later. Vachal grabs the suspect, Nomad, by the chin and says, “If I find out you did that, I’m going to kick your ass!” Then she looks at me and confesses that she could never hurt him.

The word “human” comes up again when Vachal describes poodles. “They’re more humanlike than other dogs. They are so bonded to me, I can take six of them off leash anywhere I want, and they will stay with me. I have had every kind of dog imaginable growing up. Every dog we ever had was rescued from a pound or off the street. When I finally wanted to go out and find a dog, I chose standard poodles.”

Vachal reports an unusual example of hunting and retrieval she witnessed with one of her poodles. “I have some friends who live in Rancho Santa Fe — they have lots and lots of money. They came over to our house, and we have a doggy door in the family room. Tahoe, who is Willow’s mother, was there, and we were talking when suddenly a huge rat comes through the doggy door. Tahoe pounced on it, broke its neck, picked it up in her mouth, and took it to our guests to present it to them! She climbed up on the coffee table! It was terribly embarrassing.

“Tahoe’s terrible! She can pull the tops off cans of cat food with her mouth. I came down one morning and she had eaten half a case of cat food! There were cans everywhere. She had opened the pantry door with her mouth.”

Like Gelin, Vachal has had some unique requests for her poodles. “Boy, you can get some nutcases! One woman was a psychiatrist, and she got a puppy at seven weeks old. I knew she was neurotic from day one, but she comes back the next morning at 6:00 a.m.in her pajamas — with mascara tearstains running down her face — crying, ‘I can feel his pain!’ because he was whining his first night away from me. I sat her down for coffee and told her that he was not going to spend the rest of his life with me, and at some point he would have to go through it, and it’s a natural process. She just whined [Vachal mimics a dramatic voice], ‘I don’t know if I can take his pain anymore! ‘She was pretty intense.”

Training a poodle requires great patience. Vachal recalls an incident when her daughter went to Simi Valley to pick up a poodle for another friend. “She brought him home, and my husband said, ‘Bring that dog into my back yard, and we will be divorced!’ ” she laughs. “So my friend picked him up, and the first thing the dog does that night is take a giant dump on her bed. Her husband’s, like, ‘Oh my God!’ He marked everything in the entire house, and on top of that, he had severe separation anxiety. ”Finishing the story, Gelin offers a possible explanation for the behavior. “The dog had been from Florida to Simi Valley, and this was his third home.”

Gelin and Vachal agree that you will never find a standard poodle in an animal shelter. “You won’t even find a smaller breed in a shelter,” Gelin says. “Poodle rescue would snap them up!”

Vachal explains. “A lot of breeds have a rescue that will take up any lost or unwanted dogs.”

“We have contracts that say we have first right of refusal whenever we sell a poodle,” Gelin adds.

“There are a lot of different kinds of contracts,” says Vachal. “I don’t demand that my dogs get spayed or neutered, and neither does Jan. I’m just not a control freak. People who buy a poodle are not like people who go out and buy a Lab. They usually have a lot of money. They usually buy it as an extension of their own ego, so the dog has to look good. They won’t buy a dog if the area is dirty or if the puppies aren’t groomed. Presentation is everything.”

These two women have remained friends rather than competitors and often refer customers to each other when their own litters are spoken for. Vachal believes that being cutthroat doesn’t pay. “In the dog world, if you screw somebody, it’s the kiss of death. If you have a genetic problem come up, the best thing you can do is replace the dog. Just like any other business, if one bad thing comes up, everybody knows about it. Does everybody hear how all your puppies are wonderful? No. They hear about the one time when people spent all this money and got a bad puppy. I always do a guarantee for a replacement. And if I don’t have a litter, then Jan will supply the puppy and vice versa. It’s just bad karma to do otherwise. Some [breeders] demand a spay neuter contract, not because the dog is not breedable, but because they don’t want the competition. And that’s about 95 percent of them.”

“That way they can keep their dogs at $3000,” says Gelin, “because they have a show title to them.”

“A person who has one poodle for 20 years really doesn’t know poodles,” Vachal concludes. “They know their poodle, but they really don’t know poodles.”

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