Cradling 7-week-old Bichon Frise puppies in his arms, veterinarian Larry Letsche smiles proudly. Six fluffy white powder puffs, the latest litter of Belle Creek Bichons, are being carried to the minivan for a quick ride to the Remrock Farms Veterinary Services clinic for a day of puppy play while their owners work.
Twenty-five years ago, another litter of Belle Creek Bichons took credit for the accidental meeting of Larry and his wife, Lorrie Carlton. "Lorrie had brought the puppies in to be cared for by the boss of the clinic," Larry says. "He was not in, so she got me."
A fancier of Bernese Mountain Dogs, Larry had pined for a show-quality Berner. Lorrie, a second-generation professional handler, found Larry his first show dog from a breeder in New York. Three years later, in 1989, the couple were married.
"She needed a vet, and I needed a handler," laughs Larry.
All jokes aside, their mutual respect for each other has shaped the success of their 22-year marriage and working relationship. His veterinary knowledge and her dog show experience are the ties that bind.
"Lorrie was my first mentor in both Bichons and the world of purebred dogs," Larry says. "Her best advice was to become an all-around dog person by watching other people and other breeds at dog shows. I think this advice has made me a better dog person."
Having bred and finished 146 champion Bichons over the past 32 years, Lorrie will tell you that she is a perfectionist born under the astrological sign of Virgo. Her fastidious nature contributes to her workaholic 60- to 80-hours-per-week schedule.
Bustling around Remrock, where three days a week she grooms clients' dogs and her own for dog shows, Lorrie is grooming Belle Creek's current Specials, "Governor," "Roxy" and "Turbo," who are going different directions this weekend in late May. Professional handler Amy Booth is taking Roxy (CH Belle Creek's Razzle Dazzle), the No. 1 Bichon bitch in the country, to the Cincinnati shows. Lorrie is showing Turbo (CH Belle Creek's Flight to Deja Vu), ranked No. 8 in the breed, at the Kalamazoo, Mich., cluster, and Governor (CH Glenliegh Gangs N' Roses), who took a 5-Point Major in May at the Bichon Frise Club of America (BFCA) National capturing Winners Dog and Best of Winners, is headed to Tennessee to be handled by professional Ellen Perry.
Remrock Farms Veterinary Services is a converted ranch-style house that was Lorrie and Larry's first home. Its purpose changed when Larry quit the clinic he worked at when they met to go solo. Situated on 12 acres in rural Plymouth, Mich., the clinic shares its name with the prefix Larry uses for his Bernese Mountain Dogs, a combination of the names of his first two show dogs, "Remmie" and "Rocky."
As she clips Turbo's coarse, dense coat, expertly scissoring the rounded look of the Bichon head, Lorrie explains that the Bichon is the only breed that is 100 percent sculpted. The intense grooming has taken a toll, causing her to have two carpal tunnel surgeries, the first in 1986, followed by a second in 1996. These days, dogs are prepped for her by an assistant, who bathes and blow dries the coats.
A friendly family atmosphere pervades at Remrock, partly because more than half the staff is related. Lorrie and Larry's niece, Saundra Luttermoser, is the veterinary technician. The receptionist is Becky Vagt, and her sister, Kim Rehberg, assists with grooming. Karen Weaver prepares dogs for grooming. All are passionate purebred dog owners with seven breeds among them.
The clinic's clients include dog show judges, handlers and breeders. Plaques, rosettes and bronze figurines won at dog shows decorate the clinic and speak to Lorrie and Larry's accomplishments as professionals. Photographs of memorable dogs, some winning National Specialties and all-breed shows, symbolize special moments.
Animal lovers at heart, Lorrie and Larry's two Arabian horses and a small herd of pygmy and alpine goats graze leisurely on the clinic's pastures. Thirteen cats — four rescue cats Lorrie took in to help a local cat rescue — complete the menagerie.
"I've been fortunate to have a gift with animals," Lorrie says. "I either learned it or was born with it. My parents were breeders and owned a kennel, so I started walking by holding onto a longhaired Weimaraner named 'Heidi.'"
George Carlton was a pharmacist who raised Weimaraners for dog shows and field trials, winning the National Amateur Championship in 1957. People who bought his puppies would ask him to kennel their dogs when they went on vacation. This led to Carlton opening a boarding kennel, which he named Belle Creek after a creek that ran through the two-acre property in Livonia, Mich. Lorrie's mother, Roberta (Carlton) McDonnell, managed the kennel. In 1967, Carlton retired from his pharmacy job and began handling clients' dogs professionally. Grooming services were added at Belle Creek.
Sharing her father's love of animals, Lorrie spent time helping in the kennel. She handled an Old English Sheepdog for a client of her father's when she was 11 years old and groomed her first client's dog, a Cocker Spaniel, in a pet trim when she was 14 years old. "When I was about 16, our groomer left us, and my mom asked me if I would like to groom," she says. "Mom is an artist. She said, 'I will be your eyes.'"
When Lorrie was in high school, her mother arranged for her to be released early from classes to groom dogs at the kennel. Self-taught on grooming Irish Setters and Old English Sheepdogs, Lorrie groomed her first Bichon when she was 19, the same year she bred her first litter out of her father's Weimaraners.
Lorrie's father introduced her to professional handlers Dick Cooper, Jack Funk and Clint Harris, from whom she learned tricks of the trade. "Jack, a non-Bichon person, gave me some of the best advice about grooming," she says. "He told me to get a picture in mind of the dog I liked the most and then trim to that picture."
By the age of 21, Lorrie had become an AKC (American Kennel Club) licensed handler. She handled a Bichon, CH Jadeles The Kid HH Pride ("Sam"), for Naomi Makowiec and won her first Best in Show at the Marion (Ohio) Kennel Club show. That Best in Show was the first recorded for a Bichon from Michigan.
"Naomi was my earliest mentor," Lorrie says. "She showed me many ways to dry a Bichon coat."
In 1979, Lorrie's parents sold the boarding kennel to her. Since her first litter was Weimaraners, it was "only natural for me to keep their kennel name," she says. The Belle Creek name also was stamped on her professional handler services.
Ten years later, when Lorrie married Larry, she sold the kennel but continued to work as a professional handler. She handled a Borzoi named "Rose" (Multi-BISS CH Fox Run's Ivy Rose), for owners Ron Mater and Joanne Hack, to Hound Group Firsts at the Westminster and Detroit kennel club shows in 1993. The No. 1 Borzoi in the country that year, Rose holds the record for the most Specialties won by a bitch, which includes winning the 2002 Borzoi Club of America National. "Rose did things most Borzois don't do," Lorrie says. "She baited in the ring and came when she was called. She was such a pleasure to be around."
After Rose's campaign, Lorrie continued to work as a professional handler, but she scaled back to focus on showing her own dogs and working at the veterinary clinic. "I was so worn out from the constant travel," she says.
Bichons from the Beginning
A variety of breeds, mostly hounds, non-sporting and herding dogs, consumed Lorrie's time and attention as a handler, but it was the Bichon that stole her heart. "They are the most charming, appealing little white dogs," she says. "The Bichon is an independent, intelligent dog with a happy temperament. They love human company."
Makowiec, her early mentor, bred under the Dedeb prefix. Lorrie helped breed several Dedeb litters for Makowiec, even raising the puppies. Another early influence was Clover Allen of Diandee Bichons. "She helped me with the vision of the face and what to think of when I was trimming it," Lorrie says.
Recognized by the AKC in 1973, the Bichon was a fairly new breed when Lorrie won Best in Show in 1976 with Makowiec's dog Sam. A hypoallergenic breed that sheds little, the Bichon is long-lived, with an average life span of 15 years.
Photographs of Lorrie and her first Bichons show a longer coated dog with longer hair on the ears, a grooming style that began to transition in the mid-1990s to the familiar rounded, sculpted look. The art of grooming a Bichon, Lorrie learned, is "a matter of accentuating the good and decreasing the bad. Coats are different, and there is no perfect dog."
Breeding proved challenging. "Bichons do not breed true," Lorrie says. "They tend to be long and low or tall and square. The breed standard states they should be one-quarter longer than they are tall. They should have a rounded top skull and round eyes. Their eyes and nose form an equilateral triangle."
In 1978, Lorrie bought a male Bichon, the pick puppy of the litter, from breeder Jean Rank, who gave her permission to use her kennel name. CH Rank's Raggedy Andy, the first dog Lorrie bought, became her foundation sire. The winner of the 1981 BFCA National, Andy held a Top Five ranking for five years.
"'Andy' was a great show dog, house pet and foundation stud," Lorrie says. "He also was a good watchdog who saved me from a fire that a friend accidentally started while I was sleeping. Andy woke me up about 1 a.m. when the house was filling with smoke. I was able to get all the dogs and myself out safely."
"Andy was an outstanding Bichon," Larry agrees. "Lorrie had him before my time. I only knew him in his later years, and he lived to be over 18 years old. He is one of the oldest, coolest, sweetest Bichons I have ever known."
A devoted Bernese Mountain Dog lover, Larry was becoming fond of Bichons. "I call Bichons 'weasel dogs' because they weasel their way into your heart," he says.
He and Lorrie began traveling to weekend dog shows, finishing their own class dogs and sending Specials out with professionals. Winning from the Bred-By-Exhibitor class was, and continues to be, their goal. "This class says it all more than any other class," Lorrie says. "If we don't have consistently good breeders, we don't have good dogs to show in any class."
Andy was bred to a bitch Lorrie bought from Evelyn Koziel, CH Raelyn's Deliah, producing two outstanding bitches in one litter — CH Belle Creek's Prima Donna and CH Belle Creek's Pride 'N Joy. They were the first homebred Bichon bitches to exemplify the qualities that Lorrie and Larry wanted for Belle Creek.
An outcross breeding in 1993, sired by CH Dove-Cote's Mr. Magoo, ROMX, out of CH Ceejay Mid Nite Surprise, produced a bitch that became their first Best in Show winner. CH Belle Creek's Beyond Compare ("Shelby") also was the first Bichon Larry handled at a BFCA National Specialty, winning the Open Class in 1995.
Another bitch, CH Belle Creek's Aggravation, ROMX ("Hilde"), was bred to Multi-BIS/AM/CAN CH Sterling Rumor Has It, a top-producing sire, giving Belle Creek the first three of 12 champions she would produce in four litters. Those three pups were: "Ripley" (CH Belle Creek's Seeking Gold), a male Larry finished; "Smiley" (CH Belle Creek's Winning Colors), a Top Ten Bichon from 1999 to 2001; and "Darcy" (CH Belle Creek's Ounces A. Bounces), a bitch who became a top producer.
Stud dogs that have contributed to the Belle Creek bloodline include CH Beau Monde Drewlaine Deluxe ("Parker"), the sire of 18 champions. Parker was bought from Richard "Rick" Beauchamp, who bred the top-producing sire in history. CH Belle Creek's Latest News, a male sired by the 2001 Westminster Best in Show winner, CH Special Times Just Right, produced seven champions.
On the bitch side, CH Belle Creek's Risgae Glory Be was named Dam of the Year in 2008 by the Bichon Frise Club of America. That year, five of her progeny finished, putting her in a three-way tie with a Bulldog and Standard Poodle for the Non-Sporting Dam of the Year.
"An old rule of thumb is that a great bitch rarely reproduces herself," Lorrie says. "A nice bitch, but not an outstanding bitch, ends up the best bitch in this breed," Larry adds.
Structure, health and temperament are the key attributes that Lorrie and Larry aim to produce. "You cannot separate the importance of type, temperament and soundness, and breeding healthy Bichons is imperative," Lorrie says.
Lorrie passes on to judges what makes a proper Bichon as chairwoman of the judge's education committee for the Bichon Frise Club of America. The 35th most popular AKC breed, based on registrations, the Bichon was overbred in the 1980s due to a fad. "As a result, some Bichon lines are not as social or easily trained," Lorrie says.
A Well-Rounded Life
After a busy day at Remrock, Larry and Lorrie load the minivan with 12 Bichons, ranging in age from 7 weeks to 9 years old, for the ride to their home only a few miles away. As they open the door of their timber-frame style house, a 5-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog named "Torino" (CH Odessa's Let the Games Begin) welcomes them. A 1 ½-year-old Whippet named "Donald" is the other non-Bichon breed who lives with them.
Perennial gardens with bird houses and baths provide a relaxing setting. Both outdoor lovers, Larry frequently slings a Nikon D5000 digital camera around his neck for photographing wildlife, and Lorrie takes in bird watching. Other favorite pastimes they share are attending the theater and traveling. They have visited all 50 states and taken trips to Kenya and the Nile River in Egypt. Lorrie works jigsaw puzzles, and Larry follows his favorite sports teams, which include the Michigan State Spartans.
Their well-rounded interests are rooted in their love of Bichons, a passion that leads them to finishing about 10 champions a year. Individual responsibilities make their partnership strong. Larry oversees breeding, whelping of litters — always in their home — and health testing for hip dysplasia, patellar luxation and eye examinations for Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) certification. Lorrie trains puppies and grooms the Bichons for shows. They both handle dogs in the ring.
They rely on Purina Pro Plan Sensitive Skin & Stomach Formula, mixed with Pro Plan Sensitive Skin & Stomach Salmon &?Rice Entrée, to provide optimal nutrition for their adult dogs. Puppies are fed Pro Plan Chicken & Rice Puppy Formula. "We've fed Pro Plan for the last 15 years," Larry says. "It has been a great success for our breeding program."
Lorrie agrees. "Pro Plan provides the omega fatty acids that are important for healthy coats. It is a complete diet."
Plopping a 4 ½-month-old Bichon puppy named "Fred" on a towel placed on the kitchen island, Lorrie proceeds to stack the puppy. "He is just learning to take food from my hand," she says. "He's not comfortable yet, but it takes time. Fred is very food motivated."
Puppy training never starts too early, although "it is something that can be overdone," Lorrie says. "I like to separate my puppies from their dam between 4 and 5 weeks of age and then from each other around 7 weeks. This gives them independence and makes them respond to me much earlier. At that point, they get structured lessons and lots of play time with us."
Fred's dam is "Lucy," one of the 12 house dogs. Campaigned by professional handler Lisa Bettis, Multi-BIS CH Belle Creek's I Love Lucy, now 5 years old, retired from dog shows in 2009, but not before taking Best of Opposite Sex at the Garden two times. She also won two Bests in Show, the first at the Grand Traverse (Mich.) Kennel Club Dog Show handled by Lorrie after Bettis won three Groups.
"Lucy is a character in every sense of the word," Lorrie says. 'She keeps everyone smiling."
Another house dog is "Stella" (CH Belle Creek's X-Tra Special). A 9-year-old beloved pet, Stella takes a matronly role with the puppies. She was diagnosed with lymphoma last January, but after undergoing chemotherapy, the cancer is in remission. "Stella travels everywhere with us," says Lorrie. "She is our everything — our house dog, herding dog, retired show dog, obedient dog. She greets everyone at our clinic and is great therapy for those who have lost their own pets."
Shifting her focus back to Fred, Lorrie moves him into a steady, standing position and then begins clipping his coat. Over and over, she makes short clips, sculpting the textured outer coat into the beautiful rounded shape that defines the Bichon. "I am a perfectionist," she concedes for the second time, "and my own worst critic."
That perfectionism along with Larry's knowledge and expertise has made all the difference.