remembers precisely the day she
"It was Feb. 21, 2005," she
said laughing."I fell in love in the movie theater."
The film was "Because of Winn-Dixie," and Richards
was smitten with the rascally mutt she
saw stealing scenes on the big screen.
Charmed by the movie's smiling pooch, Richards
started doing Internet research on the canine star.She
was drawn to the dog because she
thought its shaggy good looks and goofy grin resembled her
learned that the "Winn-Dixie
" dog was no mutt, but was a purebred Berger Picard (pronounced bare-Zhay pea-Caar), also known as a Picardy shepherd, a rare breed of herding dogs native to the Picardy region of France that was almost wiped out during World War II.
At the time the movie was made, Richards
said there were less than 15 Picardy shepherds in the U.S.
"[The filmmakers] wanted a dog that looks like a mutt," Richards
said."But to make a movie you need several dogs that look alike, so they used this breed because almost no one [in America] would recognize it."
Soon Richards was contacting the few American and French breeders she
could find.Then she found a ticket from Dulles airport in Washington, D.C., to Paris that was less expensive than a ticket from Roanoke to Kansas City, Mo.She
Bringing back the PicardRichards
spent a week in September 2005 living with the breeder in the Picardy region, attending the French national dog show and meeting dog breeders from all over Europe.At the end of the week, she
brought a fluffy little puppy, Alsace des Garous d'Ebene, affectionately known as Sassie, home to Roanoke
Since then, Richards
has added two more pooches, Boomer and Beaujolais, to her
Picardy pack.Boomer was acquired from a breeder in Florida in May 2006.After he
military service, Richards' son Doug visited France and brought Beaujolais home with him in July 2006.That year Richards said she used the organizational skills she's honed through years of political campaigning and volunteer work to found the Berger Picard Club of America, the breed's national club.She was elected its president, writes for its newsletter, maintains its Web site and organized its first national meeting in December 2006.Richards
61 fellow club members got Berger Picards added to the American Kennel Club's
Foundation Stock Service registry in 2007, the first step for rare breeds to be fully recognized by the nation's most well-known pedigree registry and eligible to compete in events like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
The breed was recognized by the United Kennel Club
in 1994, and Richards and other club members regularly compete in UKC
shows.The UKC's breed standard for Berger Picards describes them as "a medium-sized, well-muscled dog, slightly longer than tall, with a distinctive rough coat and erect ears."They are also described as a "lively, energetic, affectionate dog."Richards
realizes some people will not understand why she
imports purebred pups into the U.S., which is already overpopulated with homeless dogs.But she
thinks it's more appropriate to aim that criticism toward people who choose to buy designer dogs like Labradoodles and Yorkiepoos.
"We are resurrecting a breed that was almost lost," she
put Coury in touch with a breeder in Denmark.
brought another Picardy shepherd puppy, Cosette, back from France to live with the Coury family in 2007.
said the affectionate nature of the dogs helped take the edge off the typical adolescent angst for her
sons, describing the happy-go-lucky pooches as "teenage Prozac."
"Will would come home from school mad at the world, and he
would look at [Sassie] and he
was like a different person," she
said."I heard him say one time, 'Sassie, if it wasn't for you, I'd stay mad all the time,' "
The dogs have a similar effect on Richards