Sandra Johnson of Waterfall Farms visited a friend's hunting plantation more than a decade ago and fell in love. Her husband Bill didn't mind, since he kind of fell hard himself. Now those who know the Johnsons and their amazing stable of walking horse superstar studs won't be surprised to find out that the object of their affections had four feet and a tail -- but they might be surprised to find out it didn't whinny. It barked.
"I saw a Boykin spaniel work for the first time," said Sandra. "I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, and I wanted one."
And she got one -- a pretty little female named Gator. When Gator got lonely, Sandra got another one ... and another one ...
And now one of those beautiful, deep red-brown curly-coated ladies is making history. On Tuesday -- the day after Valentine's Day -- Sandra's GCH CH Pocotaligo's Big Lick JH (or "Peaches," as she's better known) will be one of 16 Boykin spaniels vying for honors at the 135th Westminster Kennel Club dog show. It will be the first time ever that Boykins have shown at what many consider to be the world's most prestigious dog show.
"Peaches started showing in October 2009," said Sandra. "She was the first female Boykin to become a grand champion."
Peaches didn't get to go to the recent Eukanuba show -- California was just too far -- but she did go to the show that followed it in Charleston, S.C.
"The dog who won at Eukanuba, she beat that one," said Sandra. "She's a gorgeous dog!"
Boykin spaniels are a relatively new breed, designed specifically as bird dogs in the early 1900s, and are able to hunt and retrieve duck and turkey in the swamp and wetlands of South Carolina. In fact, they are now claimed as the official South Carolina state dog. The bloodlines include cocker and springer spaniel, American water spaniel, and Chesapeake Bay retriever -- which is more than likely the source of their curly coats.
They're growing in popularity and are getting a following in horse country, too. Peaches' nickname comes from Peachtree Street, where her owners live when they aren't on the walking horse circuit, and her registered name, Pocotaligo's Big Lick, refers to the Johnson's involvement with performance horses.
"They're wonderful dogs," said Slayden Harris, wife of walking horse trainer Justin Harris, who also raises Boykin spaniels. Her uncle had them on his Arkansas farm and gave her one of the puppies. "We just love them, They make sweet pets. They're good house dogs but love to be outside, too."
Sandra gives credit for Peach's success to her trainer, who also happens to be her breeder, Kim Parkman of Sumter, S.C. When the Johnsons went to Kim's establishment in search of a new Boykin, Sandra fell in love again, this time with a beautiful little female named Joy. But there would be no joy for Sandra, because Kim wouldn't sell.
What she did offer, however, was one of Joy's first puppies, the female who would become known as Peach.
Don't think the little beauty is just a pageant princess, however. Peach has not only represented the best of her breed in the show ring, but in the field as well.
Kim originally trained Peaches for the field and handled her to a Junior Hunter title. While attending a hunt test, it was pointed out that she just might be a good candidate for the conformation ring as well. At first, she balked at the notion of taking one of her field dogs into a show ring. Later, after consultation with Sandra, the decision was made for Peach to spend a month with a friend in Atlanta.
It was then, two months removed from a drastic summer haircut and handled by an amateur, Peach participated in her first show.
"While we didn't win, several judges offered encouraging advice and suggested that we allow her coat to grow and return to the ring," said Kim.
Since returning to the ring on a limited basis, Peach has done quite well. She earned her Championship title with Kim on the leash and followed that up by becoming the first Grand Champion bitch in breed history.
Recently, she was chosen Best of Breed over male specials each day at Charleston Kennel club shows.
According to Kim, Peach is equally at home in the field, show ring or sofa.
"She is such a sweet friendly dog -- Peach is truly a fitting name for her," she said.
Peaches spends her time with Kim for now, preparing for shows, and eventually breeding, but Sandra knows her dog is in good hands.
"Kim's very, very successful," she said. "She's extremely honest and fair and truly cares for these dogs."
She and Bill get to visit, of course, and are looking forward to seeing their girl again Monday night -- and hopefully Tuesday night, for the grand championship -- in the ring at Madison Square Garden.
"Oh, yeah," she laughed. "We'll be there!"
For more information, contact Kim Parkman, (803) 491-8471, or visit http://www.pocotaligokennel.com.
The Westminster Dog Show will be streamed live at westminster.org. The Boykin spaniels, considered in the sporting category, will first be in the ring Tuesday morning. The Sporting, Working, Terrier, and Best In Show competition will be televised live Tuesday on USA Network beginning at 7 p.m. Breed judging highlight videos are available throughout the day on Fnday and Tuesday on the Westminster web site.
Boykin Spaniels: http://boykinspanielclub.org