DOG GONE, BUT WHAT A WEEKEND FOR DEE AND HER BLUETICK COONHOUND!By Dave Wielenga
Dee and John Gunter are home in Yucca Valley again, cooking and baking and taking care of their dogs after enjoying an extended weekend in Long Beach. Who knows if they’ll ever be back? They’ve been heading in the opposite direction for a long time.
“I was born at Queen of Angels Hospital—you can’t get any more Los Angeles than that—and I grew up in what is now Carson,” said Dee, who at 61 remembers the era when that busy suburb was just a swath of scrubby open space. “But it got too populated, so I moved out.
“First I moved out to Ontario, then out farther to Fontana, then out even farther to Yucca Valley. I just kept moving out. John’s retired and I’m semi-retired, and in the next few years we’re going to leave California—go somewhere where they’re hound-friendly.”
Hound friendly? That’s not Long Beach, not except for one long weekend during each of the past five years—including last weekend—when the American Kennel Club has held its national championship dog show at the Convention Center.
“That’s not anywhere in Southern California,” Dee clarifies, not wanting to single out the people of Long Beach after they showed her and John such a nice time. “I mean, even up in Yucca there’s really no place to hunt [with] ‘em. And then my neighbors had to get used to … well … the baying, you know? When a bobcat or a mountain lion comes around and your coonhounds sound off, it tends to shatter the neighborhood.”
Dee happens to love the sound of baying coonhounds—an orientation that only begins to explain why she and John have 11 of them—but she understands that people who don’t enjoy their flat-and-formless warble aren’t necessarily intolerant, but maybe just wired differently.
“People are of two opinions on baying. They either go, ‘Ohhhh, myyyy looorrrrd! I couldn’t live with that!’” she says, her imitation of the oft-heard reaction nearly as loud and throaty as the hounds that provoke it. “Or the majority of the people we run into say, ‘Oh, that reminds me of home! I love that sound!’ So, I mean, it’s a love-or-hate. It’s not in between.”
Most of the people Dee and John run into have coonhounds, too, and just about all the rest have some other kind of dog … or dogs. Thousands of them—people and purebreds—invaded the Convention Center last week for four days of competition in obedience, agility, primping and presentation.
Because this was the last AKC Nationals in Long Beach after a five-year run—the show is moving to Orlando next year—I was there, too … my first time, ever, at any dog show.
“You’re kidding!” Dee blurted when I admitted it. “Well, let me tell you, you picked one of the most plushy ones in the country. Oh, yes. This show is probably on the same level, in my opinion, as the Westminster Show.”
But see, I was looking for something more on the level of “Best In Show,” the 2000 film comedy that deftly skewered the high-maintenance animals and owners who inhabit the world of dog shows. I was pretty sure a day at the AKC Nationals would provide plenty of opportunity for secretive snickers and self-righteous pronouncements.
And it got goofy right away. An assortment of brown furballs that a sign said were Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were scattered around a Granny in a Christmas costume and her sleigh. A skunk-colored critter with a big forehead and a plush-toy bark was identified as a Japanese Chin. Other signs pointed out the Leonberger, the Dogue de Bordeaux and the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. I walked on by.
But I stopped at Dee and John Gunter’s booth, beneath a sign that designated their dogs as Bluetick Coonhounds. That’s right. Two Bluetick Coonhounds—a male named Blue, a female called Lacy—were right there, among some Black & Tan Coonhounds, some Redbone Coonhounds and some Treeing Walker Coonhounds. On a nearby table was a copy of the magazine, “American Cooner.”
Before I could ask, Dee explained.
“The blue tick, or ticking, is the rash of tiny blue-black spots that mix with the white of their coats,” she said, and although that pretty much summed it up for me, Dee had only begun. “One of the unique things about Bluetick Coonhounds is the variety of patterns on their coats. You’ve got your blue ticking on most of the body, your red ticking on lower legs and feet, your black patching in various places and your tan points over the eyes, on the cheeks, the chest and below the tail.”
As she spoke, Dee pointed out the patterns on Lacy, who was patient and cooperative while being lifted and turned to display her various colorings. When the demonstration was over, Lacy stood up on her hind legs, placed her front legs on Dee’s shoulders and licked her face. “She sleeps in bed with me,” Dee giggled while returning the hug, “if you can’t figure that out.”
Dee’s love affair with Bluetick Coonhounds has been nearly life long, and the sweeping arc of their relationship ultimately found its destiny over the weekend in Long Beach.
“I saw the movie “Savage Sam” when I was 17 and the Beverly Riviera Dog Show hosted Disney Days,” she recited, and I could tell this was an oft-told tale.
But the rendition stumbled a bit when Dee realized I’d never heard of the 1962 sequel to “Old Yeller,” in which Yeller’s son was played by a Bluetick Coonhound. She pointed to a publicity still from the movie, framed and hung in the coonhound booth. “Here it is! Right here! This is it!” she said, practically pleading for me to remember. “No? Really? Huh. Wow.”
Dee had already been showing dogs since she was 10 years old. It was a family tradition.
“My grandfather trained dogs for the movies—he and his brother—and my mother had purebred dogs,” she said. “And would you believe my great grandmother bought the first American Staffordshire Terrier—we call ‘em Amstaffs—in 1898 when they were called Yankee Terriers?”
Yes, I would. Why not?
“I was eight months old when I got my first Amstaff, and I bred and showed ‘em for 50 years, right up until last year,” Dee continued. “But I bought my first Bluetick in ’72, so I had both breeds.
“And I’ll tell you honestly, the beauty of the dogs is this: While my friends and my brothers and my sister were out doing silly things durng the ‘60s and ‘70s, I never got into ever trying any drugs. Because my parents told me, ‘As long as you stay good, we’ll pay your entry fees,’ and the dogs were more important to me. So I never did marijuana, LSD … uhhh … I didn’t even know what marijuana looked like or smelled like ’til I was in my middle 20s.”
By 21, Dee had begun to show her young Bluetick Coonhounds at so-called puppy matches, where they could get some dog show practice before going on to the real thing. Except there wasn’t a real thing—or the realest thing, anyway—for Bluetick Coonhounds.
“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s the only place you could show a Bluetick was at a Sanctioned-B show,” Dee lamented, “which is not quite as up there as a Sanctioned-A American Kennel Club show.”
Meanwhile, Dee met John, who turned out to be quite a dog-show guy, too … eventually. Born and raised in the Indiana countryside, he’d come out west and started an automotive repair business in Fontana.
“How we met is, John had his business next to the place I was the manager of,” Dee says while John smiles and nods in confirmation, “and he would come in at night and buy cigarettes, and that’s how we met.”
In 1985, they were married. “You know, I may be born in California but I’m a country girl, and I’ve always dated country boys,” Dee explains while John does more smiling and nodding. “I did not like city boys. So we fit right in. I was real heavy into dog showing, and although John never said a word about it, he seemed to have an inner understanding.”
But one day, three years into the marriage, John did have something to say about dog showing and breeding in general—and coonhounds in particular.
“Out of nowhere, John tells me that he breeds Redbone Coonhounds!” Dee recounts, her voice rising again with the shock that overtook her twenty-some years ago. “Three years I’m married to this man, sleeping next to him every night, going off to care for my coonhounds every day, talking about coonhounds all the time—and he never tells me that he’d been raising them, too!”
Fortunately, Dee is smiling. I look over at John, who is smiling, too. Eventually, he shrugs. “I don’t know,” he finally offers. “I didn’t really think about it.”
“He left ‘em in Indiana, where he was born and raised—he just didn’t bother to tell me,” Dee says. “But after the shock wore off, I was thrilled that John had Redbones. It was no problem. I figured, you know, we’ll just have two coonhound breeders.
“We’ve been married 25 years now—I guess we’re gonna make it—and it’s been really nice. Our love of dogs is another of the many things we share as a married couple. We both love cooking, so we cook all through the holidays; I do the baking and he does the cooking and everything’s made from scratch. It works out real nice.”
In late 2009, Bluetick Coonhounds finally received full recognition from the American Kennel Club, meaning that last week in Long Beach was the first time that Dee’s dog, Blue, could compete in a big event as an equal with the top dogs.
“To finally make it this far, to the AKC Nationals, is a triumph,” Dee said reverently. “My living dream has always been to take Best of Breed in a big show like we did today.”
Huh? Like what? Now I was doing the double-taking. Was Dee saying—
“Yeah, Blue took the breed today,” she acknowledged, her face exploding into a grin. “So he’ll compete in the group—the hound group—tonight, and if he finishes first there, he’ll compete again for Best in Show.”
Meanwhile, Blue is suddenly in demand for photo shoots from all the major magazines—Dog Fancy, Dog World, Modern Dog, Dog & Kennel—and then he’s got to get some rest.
“This is the biggest moment in my dog-showing career,” Dee said quietly. “Fifty years I’ve been waiting for this. I started when I was 10½ and I’m almost 62 years old. Yes, I am.”
[ EPILOGUE ]
It was very late Saturday night when my cell phone rang—Dee was calling from her truck, where she and John were about midway through the long drive back to Yucca Valley. As we exchanged hellos, I tried to discern from the tone of her voice how she and Blue had performed in the show, but the road noise made it impossible. She got to the bottom line soon enough: they wouldn’t be coming back to Long Beach—but they’d carry a bit of this weekend in the city with them for the rest of their lives.
“It went really nice tonight. It was absolutely fabulous.” Dee said. “’Course, we didn’t do anything. But it was really fabulous.”