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The Rarest Dog In America
By Kate Wheeler

The uniformed groundskeeper on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. leaned on his broom and addressed the air, or whoever was listening. "do you know what he wants for those dogs? Those dogs are worth twenty-five thousand dollars."

It was the weekend of the American Rare Breed Association's Cherry Blossom Classic Dog Show, April 30--May 1, and the groundskeeper was talking about Jack Sterling, who was just then going past with his two Thai Ridgeback Dogs on leash.

Nobody needed to be told which dogs the groundskeeper meant, for the exotic blue Thai Ridgeback Dogs were the talk of the show. No one had ever seen anything like them; they had appeared on a television newscast the night before; it was their first appearance in the United States. So, even at the show where most owners are used to fielding questions about their beautiful and unusual pets, the Thai Ridgeback Dogs came in for more than their share of attention.

"Really? Twenty-five thousand?"

"No lie," said the groundskeeper, resuming his slow, heavy sweeping of the littered sidewalk.

But it was a lie, or at least an exaggeration.

Sterling's dogs, velvet coated, the color of blue steel, trotted lightly forward on slack leashes. Their ears were pricked, their brows furrowed with intense interest in their new surroundings -- they'd been in the United States for less than three days, but even after a grueling trip from Bangkok, they showed no sign of jet lag.

The dog's curiosity was nearly equaled by the people around them. "What are they?" "What are they?" "Can I take their picture? Can I pet them?"

"These are Thai Ridgeback Dogs," Sterling said. "They're from Thailand. Do you know where that is? It's in Southeast Asia. They might be the ancestors of Rhodesian Ridgebacks, this is their first time in America, no, these dogs are not necessarily for sale, but I will have a litter of puppies in a week or so, here's my card. House of Sakorn-Sterling TRD kennels, San Francisco."

After repeating these answers several hundred times, Sterling began simply handling over an information sheet he had prepared, which explains the dog's history and breed standard. They have been used as watchdogs, guard dogs, and travel companions, mostly in remote parts of Eastern Thailand, since the seventeenth century. The dogs guard their owners but don't make demands unless invited, thus supporting Buddhist virtues, beauty, lightness of being, a sense of safety and imperturbability. They come in four colors, black, fawn, blue, and red. They are highly prized in Thailand. They have been the subject of a national stamp. "Thank God for lamination," Sterling said, sinking into a folding chair--not his own, just the nearest chair. He bit into a sandwich but before he could chew, the latest admirer was approaching his dogs: a nine month old male, Sakorn, whose name means "River," and a four month puppy bitch, Navinee, who bears a delicate Thailand woman's name.

Sterling leaped to his feed, supervising the encounter.

"These are the dogs we saw on Channel Four last night," the admirer said. She was a peroxide blonde in denim cutoffs, a white tank top, sunglasses, heavy red lipstick, and black shoes.

"Yes, they are."

"Her fur looks like--like Ultrasuede," the woman said. "May I pet her?"

Navinee, the four month old puppy, pranced at the end of her light leash.

"Sure, thank you for asking, go ahead, but just move slowly. They've been touched a lot this weekend. They just got off the plane."

Chatting, he assessed each potential customer for his dogs. "No," he'd say to some. "They're definitely not for sale. They're twenty-five thousand dollars each." But to others--either experienced and responsible dog people, or amateurs who seemed serious enough to be trustworthy--Sterling would reveal his real prices. He had a pregnant bitch at home in San Francisco, three-year-old Bentley. Her pups would be available in less than three months. The best quality, suitable for showing and breeding, would cost three to five thousand dollars each. If some of the puppies were "pet quality," that is, if they do not meet the stringent qualifications of the breed standard, often in ways that only a professional can discern, Sterling would lower the price. But pet quality pups, he warned, he would sell only under stringent contract requiring that the pups be spayed or neutered, never bred.

One breeder of Neapolitan Mastiffs, an ancient gladiator breed that looks like hunks of melted asphalt, approached Sterling, curious about joining in on the ground floor of a breeding program. Sterling turned him down.

"Look, I fell in love with Thailand and Thai people," Sterling said. "We in America have a lot to learn from them. The Thailand way is to be gentle and careful, to give, not take. To uphold beauty through supporting tradition. These dogs are part of that way of life, and I'm not going to let the breed be ruined the way we always seem to do it in this country. Let's enjoy them, but let's do it right."

Sterling has been raising dogs for 30 years. Amongst the breeds he has favored over the years are the Chinese Shar-Pei and Egyptian Pharaoh Hound, giving 15 years of his life to each breed.

He traveled to Thailand to mend a broken heart, he said, discovering the Thailand Ridgebacks by chance. The story of the discovery sounds a little like a movie plot. With luck, help from Thai friends, and detective legwork, he arrived in the home of a wealthy Thai industrialist, an ice and dried fish magnate, who breeds Thai Ridgeback Dogs for pleasure. "When I saw his kennel I could have cried and laughed at the same time," Sterling exulted. "I know a quality dog when I see it, and those dogs were the most exciting thing I've seen in years."

The judges seemed to agree, awarding generous prizes to the unknown dogs--seven ribbons to Navinee, eight ribbons to Sakorn. Giuseppe Alessandra, a judge from Italy who owns a rare breed of sight-hound that are similarly light, agile, delicate, offered Sterling his card, asking him to keep in touch about the future of the Thai Ridgeback Dogs, that maybe he would be interested in purchasing a breeding pair.

With any luck, their future among us will be a bright one.

"There's something special about these dogs," said Susie Keener of Kingwood, West Virginia. "They draw your eye to them and you can't seem to look away." She hopes to buy a puppy from Sterling.

A handler from Florida, took Sterling's dogs into the ring, also predicted that Thai Ridgeback Dogs could do very well in shows. "I mean, those dogs have lived in a kennel all their lives, and they were still very easy to handle. They're very tolerant, alert and attentive. Aristocratic, tough-minded, especially the female. I'd say you could do anything with the breed, especially if they're hand raised."

After the show, Sterling took his dogs to look at the White House. By chance, he said, President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton happened to come out the gate for a bicycle ride, surrounded by Secret Service agents.

Sterling waved and cried out, "Hi, Bill, my dogs came all the way from Bangkok, Thailand just to see you!"

President Clinton turned around and said, "Wow! Very nice dogs!" Then disappeared up Pennsylvania Avenue.

"My dogs have been seen by the President," Sterling chortled. "They're really going to make it in America."

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