Area's top dog show has a big, new wrinkle A Neapolitan mastiff joins the fold.

Posted: November 11, 2004

Bellagio was born with a silver bone in his mouth.

He is the grandson of an international champion show dog, and if he wants to be a champion, too, all he has to do is suck up to (but not slobber on) the judges and display the superior attitude that comes naturally to him. If he does, he's practically guaranteed a ribbon at the Kennel Club of Philadelphia Dog Shows, being held Saturday and Sunday at the Fort Washington Expo Center.

Bellagio was actually born Mafioso, but his owner changed his name. "I'm embarrassed to walk around Philadelphia with a 170-pound dog named Mafioso," said David Gross, who lives in Maple Glen with his wife, Christina.

Bellagio is actually 150 pounds but at just 18 months old, he's still growing. He's gray, though some in the dog world call him blue, with more folds on his face than an accordion.

Bellagio is a Neapolitan mastiff, a breed whose history traces back 3,000 years to the giant war dogs of Egypt and Asia. This is the first year the breed has been accepted by the American Kennel Club and will be judged at the nation's biggest shows.

Neapolitans, which walk like lions, were bred and trained to be guard dogs. They are dark, quiet, and for centuries were mean and aggressive.

"So they sort of sit there in the shadows until somebody comes on your property. Then it's all over for the person," said Sherilyn Allen of Boyertown, a veterinarian who has spent 20 years trying to breed friendlier, sturdier Neos, as they're known in the trade. "Bellagio has a wonderful temperament," she said. "He's just like a golden retriever. But that's not the temperament of most of these dogs."

He's being handled by Harry Booker, 33, of Manayunk, who likes to put Bellagio through his paces on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Booker trains Bellagio at the steps because there are distractions - just like at a dog show.

Booker walks Bellagio up them twice, across the top a few times, and that's it. "If a Doberman is like a long-distance runner," Booker said, "a Neo's the shot-put guy." The workout is about as rigorous as lighting a cigarette after sex - something, by the way, that the young Bellagio has yet to experience. But that day is coming.

"He will be fruitful and multiply," Booker said. Pups sell for around $3,000.

And while we're on the tawdry subject of sex, Booker first discovered Neapolitan mastiffs while watching X-rated videos.

Yes, it's true. He was a teenager, rummaging through his father's office in search of a book to read (that's his story and he's sticking to it) and happened upon Caligula, Ken Russell's lusty biopic of the third Roman emperor. The erotica didn't impress him as much as the emperor's giant dog. Booker later bought one, and then another, and eventually began to show them.

(David Gross, for the record, first fell for Neapolitan mastiffs when reading the Robb Report, a magazine about lifestyles of the rich and famous. He saw a picture and said to his wife, "Now that's a dog!")

Your kids may know Neapolitans from a more familiar movie. Hagrid's dog in the Harry Potter films? A Neapolitan.

Booker will show Bellagio in Fort Washington, and take him to Tampa for another competition in February. And later that month the Grosses hope to show him at the Super Bowl of dog shows, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York.

"He's got WHAM," Booker said. "Wrinkle, head and mass."

(Most Philadelphians have WHAM. Mega WHAM. But that and $1.50 will get them a cup . . .)

Booker, a systems analyst by day at the U.S. Mint, knows something about small change. There is very little money in dogs, he says. People show dogs for love. He also says that Neapolitans are not for everyone.

First of all, there's the smell, which some dog fanciers describe kindly as "woodsy."

Second, and more important, there's the drool.

"With these dogs you want to feed them outside if you can," Christina Gross said. "When we do feed him inside at night, you do need to stand there with a big bath towel. When he's done eating, the slobber will go everywhere if you don't catch him immediately when he leaves his feeding bowl. Same thing when he's drinking water. Even if you're across the house when he's drinking, it sounds like somebody's splish-splashing in the bath.

"We have a towel in every room," she continued.

Where does Bellagio sleep?

"Wherever he wants," Christina said.

Except the bedroom. Bellagio snores.

Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com.

Competition

Kennel Club of Philadelphia Dog Shows

Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the Fort Washington Expo Center. $10 for adults, $5 for children. Information: 610-627-1911, www.philadogshow.com.

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