The momentum builds as a black-and-white Basenji named "Zen" sprints after a gray squirrel that has hastily scampered up an oak tree in pursuit of safety. Teased by the squirrel's swift movement and swishing tail, Zen's burst of energy is reminiscent of a fast-trotting racehorse, albeit a small, 25-pound one.
"I call it the 'Basenji 500,'" says breeder-owner-handler Russella S. Bowen, describing the backyard romp that Zen and her other Basenjis enjoy daily.
Watching her current homebred Special run effortlessly, his black coat glistening in the sunlight, Russella smiles proudly. "Zen is absolutely prom gorgeous," she says.
Though black Basenjis traditionally have not been as popular in show rings as the chestnut red, brindle and tricolor hounds, Russella is undeterred. "Zen is a great Basenji who just happens to be black," she says.
A Basenji lover for 24 years, Russella's passion for the ancient African hunting breed dates to her college days, when she sought a canine running companion. Due to having frequent migraine headaches, she was sold on Basenjis when she learned they don't bark, rather they yodel distinctively when they are happy.
GCH C-Quest Jokuba Zensational is the seventh generation of Jokuba Basenjis that Russella has bred since 1997. Owned by Russella, Cindy Russell and Nicolas Pineiro, Zen completed his AKC championship in four shows at 7 months old. He took Best of Breed and a Hound Group Four at his first show. At the 2011 AKC National Championship, Russella led Zen to a Bred-By Exhibitor Hound Group Two. A Jokuba relative, Multi-BIS AM/RUS/MEX/INTL GCH Kazor-Jokuba's American Treasure ("Nicky"), won Best of Breed handled by owner Pineiro of Moscow.
A perfectionist who thrives on overachievement, Russella concedes, "I tend to get caught up in the little details and sometimes forget the whole package."
Her co-breeders, Russell of C-Quest Basenjis and Kristen Marshall of Redmarsh Basenjis, have helped transform her. "Cindy has helped me look outside the box when breeding," Russella says. "We study pedigrees and look for a dog's virtues before the flaws. She has taught me not to forget the whole package.
"Thanks to Kristen, who twisted my arm to start running our dogs in lure coursing, Jokuba has produced four generations of well-rounded Dual Champions."
Russella's ranch-style home, guesthouse and kennel on 24 acres in rural Lugoff, S.C., provide easy access to dog shows along the Eastern Seaboard and support her work as a professional all-breed dog handler. She lives by her motto, "Do what you love, love what you do."
"I love showing the dogs," says Russella. "Sighthounds are my specialty, but I especially have fun winning with dogs that are challenges. You have to get into their heads and figure out what makes them click. My goals are to present the dogs to the best of their abilities. Making my clients happy makes me happy."
Back to the Basenji 500, Zen stops abruptly and focuses on the upper boughs of the oak tree, where the gray squirrel leaps from one limb to the next. Zen, his rear legs firmly on the ground, balances his weight with his front legs on the tree trunk, ready to spring into action. His wrinkled forehead, tightly curled tail and small, hooded ears are trademarks of the Basenji. His easygoing temperament and beautiful breed type are trademarks of Jokuba Basenjis.
An Image of an Ideal Basenji
After buying her first pet Basenji, a chestnut red male named "Scribbles," from a breeder's newspaper ad in 1988, Russella subscribed to The Basenji Magazine and started studying show dogs. Though her interest in dog shows was piqued, she says, "I created a monster in Scribbles by letting him walk all over me."
Despite his pure pet qualities and spoiled behavior, Scribbles was a precursor for Russella's next two male Basenjis, "Rukuba" and "Jock," bred by the late Katherine Sullivan of Polk County, Fla. Coincidentally, their litter was born the day Scribbles died.
"I decided I was going to show Rukuba," says Russella. "Our first weekend at a dog show, he won three of four days, picking up 12 points and both Majors. I had caught the fever."
Just starting out, Russella was impressed with the ring maneuvers of the late professional all-breed handler Davin McAteer and "Boss" (CH Calaz Executive of Embasi), who in his time was the top-winning Basenji. "My goal was to show Basenjis like Davin," she says. "He was flawless. He would put two 6-foot leads together, and Boss would move effortlessly in front of him. Boss was a big mover and a great showman."
After finishing Rukuba's conformation championship, Russella handled him to Senior Courser (SC), Canine Good Citizen (CGC) and Therapy Dog International (TDI) titles. Russella gained hands-on experience training Rukuba, while absorbing knowledge about the breed.
She pored over the breed standard and put together an image of an ideal Basenji. "The dogs from the past were more balanced and possessed the finer details of what makes a good Basenji," she says. "The Basenji is a moderate breed, with a short back, level topline and square outline. It is important to pay attention to the outline and structure, as correct carriage requires correct structure."
While Rukuba was a wonderful show dog, Russella realized "his front was not as ideal as they should be," she says. "I saw this from the beginning and knew I had to work on fronts."
In 1997, Russella bred Rukuba (CH Sir Red Rukuba Thunderboomer, SC, CGC, TDI) to CH UnderCover Starlet Rusty, a female from the UnderCover & Escapade Basenji bloodline of Gale Whitehurst and Steve Berry. "This was my foundation litter, the beginning of Jokuba Basenjis," Russella says.
"Rukuba had the most incredible temperament for a male Basenji. It is where the temperaments in Jokuba Basenjis come from. That litter made Rukuba the Stud Dog winner at the 2002 BCOA (Basenji Club of America) National, where he was shown with his daughters, 'Nicchi' (DC Jokuba UnderCover Ab initio, SC, BBHR) and 'Alibi' (CH Jokuba UnderCover Alibi, BBHR)."
In creating her kennel prefix of Jokuba, Russella combined Rukuba's and Jock's names, an alternative since her first choice, Rukuba, was taken. Nicchi and Alibi from her foundation litter would give her many finished Jokuba champions. A couple of generations later would come the 2009 BCOA National Specialty Best of Breed winner, BISS DC C-Quest's Hide And Sneak, SC, CGC ("Hunter"), only the second Dual Champion Basenji ever to win.
That same year, Russella took Winners Bitch from the Bred-By Exhibitor class at the National Specialty of her second hobby breed, the Chinese Shar-Pei, with "Miranda" (CH Jokuba's Miranda Rules). Miranda's littermate brother, "Trebek" (CH Panache Double Jeopardy), took Winners Dog from the Bred-By Exhibitor class at the same Specialty, handled by co-breeder Tami Luddeke.
Though she has bred more Basenji litters, and thus had more overall success with Basenjis, Russella notes that Miranda's dam, "Eva" (BISS CH Asia's Jokuba Whiptastic Fantastic), is a littermate of the top-winning Shar-Pei in history, CH Asia's Excalibur Whiplash. All seven puppies from Eva's first litter became Specialty winners and contributed to Eva's tying the breed record as the top-producing dam. Eva's second litter has produced multiple Specialty winners as well as Group winners.
Hunter was the second Basenji Russella handled that won the National Specialty. In 2006, she agreed to handle a tricolor bitch, bred by Jeff Gillespie and Sue Kite, for Debbie Hauri of Mata Hauri Basenjis at the National Specialty. "It was the first time I laid my hands on 'Klassy,' let alone handled her," Russella says.
Multi-BIS/Multi-BISS DC Klassic's Ms. Mata Hauri, SC, won Best of Breed at the 2006 BCOA National and would become the top-winning female Basenji, after notching a place in the record book as the No. 1 Basenji in the country from 2006 to 2009. When Klassy retired, she had won seven Bests in Show and two Bests of Breed at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, all with Russella handling her.
The Checks and Balances
Russella had come a long way from her college days at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she majored in political science/prelaw and owned a pet Basenji, to campaigning Klassy and Hunter as nationally ranked Basenjis. When she was growing up, her parents, Russell and Ercelia "Herce" Bowen, enjoyed having dogs as pets, but none were show dogs. After college, Russella supported herself designing clothing, specializing in exercise and boutique styles.
Her love for Basenjis grew with each litter she bred, as she took to heart her dogs' health and well-being. She diligently tested for hip dysplasia, eye diseases, thyroid conditions, and Fanconi syndrome, an inherited renal condition. "Before the mutation for Fanconi syndrome was discovered, I was devastated when one of my Basenjis came down with it. I almost quit breeding," she says.
In 2009, she was named a Breeder of Merit by the American Kennel Club (AKC), recognizing her efforts to produce healthy, beautiful dogs. The designation honors those who have competed for five years in AKC events and finished four champions and who health screen their breeding stock and register their puppies.
When a male Basenji out of Nicchi showed promise, Russella hired a professional handler in 2002 to campaign "Unum" (DC Jokuba-Meisterhaus E. Pluribus Unum, SDHR). It was a turning point. "I learned that Basenjis are not a good breed to send out with handlers who do not have experience with them," she says. "I decided to always show my own dogs."
Russella's poise handling dogs subsequently led to her success with Klassy and Hunter. A marriage to professional handler Aaron Wilkerson, who won Best in Show with the Beagle "Uno" at the 2008 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, cemented her love for dogs and handling. "I was helping raise and train the dogs we were showing," says Russella. "I helped care for and groom the dogs."
Her friendships with Cindy Russell and Kristen Marshall blossomed into a co-breeding partnership. "Our lines mix beautifully," Russella says. "You've got to surround yourself with a good team. Cindy and Kristen provide the checks and balances. Our goals are the same, but our means are different. They also help me keep the volume of dogs down and the quality high."
Carefully planned litters, bred every year or two, usually are whelped at the home of a co-breeder since Russella travels frequently. "I always breed forward," she says. "I am not a fan of repeat breedings. They don't contribute anything new to your breeding program or the gene pool. It takes confidence to try something new. The trick is knowing where you stand and being honest about what you have.
"I believe in linebreeding, but you also have to be able to go out and find pieces of dogs that you need to add to your line. I never breed to a dog just because he is winning. Rather, I look for dogs that complement my breeding program and the bitch I am breeding. It takes patience to piece dogs together, one generation after another."
The first Jokuba linebred litter, whelped in 2002, was a nephew-to-aunt breeding, sired by Unum out of Alibi. The results gave Russella "Spike" (DC Jokuba-Asia's The Reign of Freedom, SC, SDHR), and "Freedom" (DC Jokuba-Asia's Let Freedom Ring, SC). Spike would sire Hunter, the 2009 National Specialty winner, and Freedom would produce Nicky, the international champion Basenji and breed winner at the 2011 AKC National Championship.
Designed for Individual Attention
Russella's new venture as a professional all-breed handler is possible because of the live-in help she receives from her mother, Herce, and her mother's boyfriend, Emerson Villegas, who care for the dogs when she travels to shows. Her mother, a native of Peru, reconnected with Villegas, a childhood friend, after her husband died in 2006.
Russella's current client-owned Specials are: "Monte" (GCH Solivia's Mojave of Marsuz), a Pointer; "Sara-Beth" (GCH Burmack's Whole Lotta Love), a Standard Manchester Terrier; "Chesney" (CH Dazzle's You Had Me at Hello), a Smooth Chihuahua; and "Jason" (GCH Mystic Wood Golden Fleede of Dapper Dan), a Dalmatian. Zen, the black-and-white Basenji, completes her Specials.
Longtime clients, Burmack Manchester breeders Jim Burrows and Pat Mackesey, will be sending Russella another Toy Manchester Terrier later this year, having recently retired "Rosie," (BIS/BISS GCH Burmack's Rosie V Ervmore), who Russella handled to Best of Breed at the 2011 AKC National Championship. "They send me their dogs when they are young to finish and then special," she says.
Russella, her mother and Emerson share their lives with four house dogs who receive royal treatment: Nicchi, who is 14 years old, "Diva," a 1-year-old female Basenji from the first litter Zen sired, Miranda, the Chinese Shar-Pei who is 4 years old, and "Cyndi," a hairless Chinese Crested from handler Kay Paiser who will be her mother's dog when she finishes her championship.
Most Basenjis go to hand-selected, loving pet homes once they become champions and after they are bred. "Basenjis are not good kennel dogs," explains Russella. "They are headstrong. Things must happen on their terms and be their idea. You're just along for the ride."
As for their personalities, Russella says, "Each one is different. They are unique." The food Russella feeds each one is unique as well. "Not every dog eats the same food," she says. "Puppies and bitches are fed Pro Plan Performance Formula. My older dogs are on Pro Plan Weight Management. I have a client's dog that cannot eat chicken, so I feed him Pro Plan Sensitive Skin & Stomach Formula because it is made with salmon. I lovePro Plan because my dogs' coats glisten, and it is balanced to provide complete nutrition."
The Jokuba kennel setup in the house's lower level is designed to provide individual attention. Stainless-steel wall crates are used at nighttime. Spacious outdoor kennel runs, each with a heavy plastic house and playground structure, provide fresh air and exercise during the day. One by one, the dogs are walked outdoors each morning. In addition, they run freely every day in fenced exercise yards, coursing the Basenji 500.
The clean, tidy kennel reflects Russella's personality and desire for order. "I tend to put 110 percent into everything I do. I like perfection, almost to a fault," she says.
The day before leaving for a dog show, Russella usually is busy grooming dogs. Show dogs are bathed weekly, with their coats blow-dried to push out dead hair. "Clean hair grows hair," says Russella.
The family often spends evenings downstairs in the kennel sitting area watching television, with some of the dogs nestled beside them. Zen finds his place beside Russella.
"Zen is a taller Spike," she muses, reflecting on the Jokuba family resemblance. As the black Basenji's Specials career kicks into full throttle, the Basenji 500 and the elusive gray squirrel will have to wait.