Coonhounds and beagles thrive on Homer City's family's passion

Breeder buys houses from neighbors bothered by the noise

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Preston Keres, Washington Post
Uno enjoys a romp at Amanda Alexander's kennels in Homer City, Pa. Alexander's father has spent $400,000 training coonhounds.
By Eli Saslow, The Washington Post

HOMER CITY -- When the screeching of claws against metal fences becomes too much to bear, when they no longer can tolerate the cacophony of howling and whining, Bob Alexander's neighbors have been known to march up his driveway, past 70 hound dogs and their luxury kennels, and bang on his door.

Mr. Alexander, an imposing family patriarch at 6 feet 4 and 350 pounds, leans on the door frame and listens to his neighbors. Then he interrupts with the booming, gravelly baritone he often relies upon to holler above his dogs' barking.

"Well, how much do you want for your house?" says Bob, 62. "Because our dogs ain't leaving."

Bob already has bought three houses from unhappy neighbors -- " 'Shut up' purchases," he calls them -- and considers it some of the best money he ever has spent. Bob and his daughter, Amanda, refuse to let anything or anyone interfere with their effort to raise championship coonhounds, hunting dogs that have the pleading eyes and floppy ears of a beagle and the gangly legs of a greyhound.

Amanda, 27, spends all but two weekends each year driving to dog shows. Bob has spent more than $400,000 purchasing dogs and lavishing them with accoutrements generally reserved for elite athletes: performance-enhancing food, a heated indoor pool for winter cross-training, personal drivers to shuttle dogs to distant appointments with nationally renowned veterinarians.

In return, the boisterous hounds have won 11 world dog show championships. The Alexanders are recognized by fans and featured on magazine covers in a coonhound community that's centered in backcountry America.

Late one recent afternoon, Amanda collapsed into a chair at her pet grooming shop in Homer City, about an hour east of Pittsburgh. She sat in what once was the shop's waiting room, now a shrine: More than 500 trophies were displayed on the floor, forming a sea of oak and metal covering all but a four-foot swath of tile in the middle of the room. The trophies, ranging from six inches to six feet tall, bore the names of dog shows held in the last eight years. More than 300 ribbons, plaques and certificates decorated the walls. Last year, Amanda had hired a cleaning crew to dust and shine each award.

Amanda cherishes the prizes, which she also views as relics of her own transformation. Once too shy to speak in front of her high school class, Amanda now regularly saunters into dog show rings before 1,000 people. She has become a self-assured competitor and an assertive business owner.

Locking up her shop just after 5 p.m., Amanda drove a half-mile across town to her family's property. She toured three heated indoor-outdoor kennels and visited dozens of coonhounds. She checked the water temperature in the swimming pool. She lifted one hound, Excalibur, onto a show bench to practice his posing. She released Sissy, Faith, Babe and Storm into a fenced, four-acre field for exercise.

Finally, just before 8 p.m., Amanda walked into her parents' home. Amanda lives next door with her boyfriend, Curt Willis, but spends much of her time here. An oil pointing of Shoogs, a famous family coonhound, hung at the center of a living room wall. Four magazines, all with feature articles on Amanda, rested on a lamp stand. Her mother's two small poodles sniffed her legs.

"You can't really get away from dogs around here," Amanda said. "But I guess we'd never really want to."

Bob never had allowed dogs in his house until the late 1990s, when Amanda graduated from high school and opened her shop. Amanda told her father that she wanted dogs both at home and at work; Bob, who once gave her a Hummer for Christmas and then, a year later, a Cadillac DeVille for her birthday, relented.

In 1999, Bob bought four treeing walker coonhounds, choosing that breed because he wanted dogs that he could take raccoon hunting in the neighboring woods. A year later, Amanda decided to show one at a local dog show. She lost, badly. But, watching from the bleachers, Bob saw her urge a dog into a show pose and decided she had been blessed with talent.

Bob has since built a dog collection with the same limitless ambition he used to shape his trucking company, his equipment-leasing firm and his 40-employee garbage disposal business. Bob and Amanda wanted ALL of the best dogs in ALL six coonhound breeds.

On the first morning of a weekend dog show last month, Amanda and Curt woke at 4 a.m., loaded four Plott coonhounds into a camper and drove about two hours southwest to Waynesburg. At daybreak, they parked at the Greene County Fairgrounds, surrounded by more than 1,000 dogs and 100 recreational vehicles.

A few days earlier, Amanda had spent 90 minutes readying the dogs, trimming and filing their nails, shaving their underbellies, using Q-tips inside their ears. But as she stepped out of her camper and looked around, Amanda wondered if she'd prepared enough. Groomers were spraying dogs with hair color, lining their eyes with mascara, whitening their toenails with chalk, smoothing their coats with flat irons.

Until recently, Amanda had competed almost exclusively in the United Kennel Club, a less formal, less prestigious organization popular among coonhound owners where, she said, hound owners spat chewing tobacco in the show ring. At events held by the American Kennel Club, including the renowned Westminster Kennel Club dog show, professional handlers wear suits in the ring.

Amanda decided to become one of the first owners to show coonhounds in the AKC because she believed that organization better fit her competitive makeup. Once happy to win any ribbon, she now dismissed anything but first place. She recognized imperfections in her dogs she'd never noticed before: a droopy eye, oversize feet, dangling skin below the neck.

"I kind of wish I could still just be happy with anything," Amanda said.

In the morning, Storm won the Plott competition. That afternoon, Amanda stepped out of the camper in a jacket and khakis and walked Storm to the all-hound show, where they joined 17 other hounds and their owners.

While other owners manipulated their hounds into position by offering treats, Amanda had practiced with Storm so often that the dog instinctively obeyed her. Amanda used only one word, varying the decibel and pitch when necessary. As she lined up Storm's legs and lifted her tail, Amanda whispered in the dog's ear: "Woe! Wooooee. Woe! That's it. Woe. Good girl."

A judge came over and examined Storm's teeth and felt her legs. The dog remained motionless, like a sculpture, until the judge commanded Amanda and Storm to run around the ring. They took a brisk lap and returned to the judge, who looked over Storm again and then dismissed her. Ten minutes later, the judge picked four hounds as winners. Storm was not one of them.

Back at her camper, Amanda called her dad to tell him the bad news. She patted Storm's forehead and leaned against the camper, exhausted. She would drive two hours back to Homer City to take care of her other dogs that night. After a few hours' sleep, she would wake at 4 a.m. and come back for another show the next morning. Curt walked up and put his hand on Amanda's shoulder.

"You OK?" he said.

"It's just a little disappointing," Amanda said. "We did great. Storm did great. I'm not sure why they didn't like us."

"Maybe they'll like us tomorrow," Curt said.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out two ribbons Storm had won during the morning competition.

"Hey," Curt said, "at least we're not leaving here totally empty-handed."


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