Fred Peavy shows an Amercian Staffordshire Terrier at a recent IKC Dog Show at McCormick Place.
The International Kennel Club of Chicago held their annual dog show at McCormick Place recently and 8,000 dogs – 2,000 dog owners – and 110 professional dog handlers put on quite an exhibition for the thousands of people who attended. The dog show offers a close up view of the dog breeds that Americans love, and provides an opportunity to meet the dog lovers and professionals who put in the hard work to bring out the best in man’s best friend. Two dedicated dog enthusiasts, Dan Dixon and Fred Peavy, who both grew up on the West Side and west suburbs represented the small contingent of African American dog handlers at the show. What African American dog handlers lack in numbers in the industry they make up for with passion and perseverance, which are important qualities to have when working with dogs on the highest level, experts say. Dan Dixon was the youngest African American dog owner/handler on the scene and the 23-year-old grad student was having the time of his life, handling and showing his prized American Staffordshire Terriers, 10-month-old Bella, and 2-year-old Achilles. Dixon has only shown his dogs at three shows in his young career, but he’s on a mission to win in the show ring. Bella did well at the IKC show, winning first prize in the 9-12 month old group, but Dixon wasn’t at all satisfied. "I learned a lot about showing, but I’m a competitor and I definitely want to win," said Dixon. And winning is important in dog shows because that is how you earn the points to move up the ladder to become a “special” and a “champion.” Reaching these levels puts you in position to win at the big shows and earn the recognition needed to be in demand as a breeder or handler, which is how money is made in the sport. But it takes time to breed and raise a quality dog and develop the skills in the ring that allow a handler to bring out the best in a dog at the right time to impress the judges. "You do want to see the benefits of it and I plan to. I’m not rushing it because I know they’ll come," Dixon said. "As long as I stay on the right path and keep doing what I’m doing I’ll be alright. Even if I don’t end up making tons of money off of this I’m not going to stop doing it because that’s not what I’m in it for." Dixon says he has a love of animals that was instilled in him as a youngster by his father. Another person who helped Dixon along the way with dogs is Fred Peavy. He’s been breeding, owning and handling dogs for over 20 years and works over 30 dog shows per year. He’s been at it a long time, but the dog show society is a hard one to gain acceptance into and it takes a lot of self-confidence. "It’s very hard to get in and deal with some of the stresses of the sport. There’s a lot of prestige involved and the money can be intimidating. But by the same token it allows someone who is an upstart or newcomer in the sport a chance to compete directly against a multi-millionaire," Peavy said. Breeding and showing dogs is a complex endeavor and people get into it – and stick with it – for different reasons. One thing Peavy likes is the artistic element of it all. And helping create a dog that brings joy at this level takes serious effort and money. Dixon purchased his American Staffordshire puppy for $1,500. Far more than the amount most backyard breeders charge for what they might think is a quality dog. Dixon is committed to maintaining the quality and official standards for the American Staffordshire, and he doesn’t want his animals mixed up with the pit bull mania that has taken the world by storm. Pit bulls and American Staffordshires share a common history and have a close but awkward relationship today. Some people see them as distinctly separate breeds, while others see them as pretty much one and the same. Dixon is in the former camp. “I’m not speaking for all American Staffordshire people but the vast majority will get offended if you call their dog a pit bull,” said Dixon. “Pit bull breeding is out of control and it’s done by people who have absolutely no idea about what they’re doing.” American Staffordshires are strongly built and they have famously powerful jaws and robust personalities. A person with bad intentions can channel these qualities for malicious purposes, breeders say. But Peavy sees a dog that’s a wonderful companion, with an array of good qualities to be nurtured for positive reasons. "The animal is strong and athletic. It has the persona of having strength without being mean and vicious," Peavy said. " And they’re easy to care for animals that will do almost anything for you. When you train one correctly and get one with a good temperament they’re great dogs." And more great dogs should be on the way from Dixon and Peavy. Dixon plans on studding his male dog and Peavy already owns several Staffordshire Bull Terriers, a somewhat smaller version of the American Staffordshire. There is a lot of hard work ahead to crack into the upper echelons of the dog show world, but both handlers have a flame for the sport that they claim will not extinguish easily. And if word gets out about how rewarding it is, maybe the numbers of African Americans in the sport will grow, the men hope. "A lot of people don’t even know this sport exists," said Dixon. "I’ve always known it existed but I didn’t know how deep it was and how fun it can be. If they knew how much fun it is more people from the community would definitely get into it."