Aristocrat is big and shaggy, yet somehow elegant. He is graceful and gentle, but can knock over furniture with a false move. There is something about the St. Bernard that told Linda Baker he would be a champion the moment she laid eyes on him when he was just a puppy.
“We owned his father, Aksala’s Arie,” Baker explained. “Arie sired a litter out in California. I went out to choose a puppy and brought him back in a sherpa bag.”
She was right about Aristocrat: the dog has won hundreds of titles and even competed in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Feb. 11 and 12. The 180-pound St. Bernard was shown on national television and photographed for Time Magazine.
Aristocrat’s owners, Ed and Linda Baker, of Hopewell, spare nothing when it comes to their prize-winning dog. Aristocrat lives in a heated, air-conditioned kennel and travels around the country in a special Mercedes van that has two air conditioners in the back. St. Bernards overheat easily, so it’s important to keep Aristocrat cool at all times. For his Time Magazine shoot, Aristocrat was shown on his regal, purple and gold air conditioned bed with a battery of fans pointed at him.
Aristocrat’s sire, Aksala’s Arie, was also a winning show dog. In 2004, Arie took the national specialty title, having been deemed the best St. Bernard in the country. It was the Bakers’ proudest moment in 40 years of showing dogs. There is an oil portrait of Arie in the living room of the Bakers’ home.
Although the “Best in Show” title at Westminster went to a black Affenpinscher named Banana Joe, the Bakers have high hopes for Aristocrat repeating his sire’s feat and becoming the best St. Bernard. They brush off the Westminster loss, happy to have their St. Bernard in the spotlight for a while.
“Westminster is for the little dogs,” Linda said.
Aristocrat weighs as much as 30 Banana Joes.
Handler Melody Salmi showed Aristocrat at Westminster, but unlike some of the dogs at the show, Aristocrat was mostly trained by his owners. The Bakers took a lot of time out of their busy schedule as owners of Baker Chrysler in Princeton to make sure they brought up an obedient pooch. He is a mellow giant, and responds to “Cookie!” as well as “Aristocrat,” having been conditioned to expect a piece of chicken whenever he hears the word “cookie.” That, Linda said, was how he and his handler got their nicknames, Cookie and Snookie.
He also loves snow.
“He plays in it and eats it,” Baker said.
The training is the product of the Bakers’ long experience. They showed their first dog in 1969, shortly after they were married, and have been competing ever since.
“Ed had a boxer, which died, and we decided to get another one. We couldn’t find another boxer big and strong enough. Then we saw an ad in the newspaper, which is the worst way to buy a dog, and we went to see the litter,” she said.
They went home that day with a St .Bernard, and they haven’t had any other kind of dog since.
“They have these human qualities. They’re very sensitive and very smart. They’re a very special breed,” Linda said.
In addition to Aristocrat, the Bakers have three other St. Bernards. Art depicting the breed dominates one room of the house.
Linda used to work at the dealership, but spends most of her time showing dogs these days, while Ed spends a lot of time at the dealership, which they founded in 1970. She said showing dogs helped her relax from the high-stress environment of car sales.
“The business is very tense. With the dogs, it’s relaxing and it takes you into a different world,” Baker said.
Ed Baker, however, saw parallels between car sales and showing dogs.
“It’s a very competitive business and showing dogs is a very competitive sport,” he said. “It takes an awful lot to be successful in either one. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
The Westminster dog show was an example of both the relaxing and competitive sides of the sport. Aristocrat had access to a dog spa and other amenities, but he was in the spotlight almost the whole time. When not being trotted in front of judges, he was on display for the general public. All of the major news outlets snapped photos of Aristocrat, and fans came from all over to see him. Linda said one girl stood for half an hour just looking at him. They went on a Fox morning show, where Linda got to meet Barry Manilow backstage.
Local dog fans will have a chance to see Aristocrat at the Trenton Kennel Club dog show May 5 and 6 at Mercer County Park. Aristocrat will be shown on the 6th, since Linda is judging dogs on the 5th.
Linda is active in the dog breeding community, having been treasurer of the St. Bernard Club of America and holding other offices over the years. In addition to having Aristocrat win his best-in-breed, she hopes that Aristocrat’s pup, Aristotle, will make the line into a dynasty.
For his part, Ed is enjoying the sport as much as ever.
“I can tell you, having spent 43 years in the car business, I enjoy the dogs more than ever because they make more sense than most of the people I deal with.”