Whenever Robert Abady, a slender, intense artist and breeder of immense working dogs known as bouviers des Flandres, appears at a dog show, no one knows what to expect. Once, when Abady feared he would be late with a dog at an outdoor show, he shot his car around the admissions gate, swept by several rows of startled officials, gunned across an open field, bounced over a log—nearly demolishing the Popular Dogs stand in transit—and slammed on the brakes at ringside. After giving his dog, Ch. Marc de la Thudinie, to an embarrassed handler, Abady raced the car around the ring, parked in front of the Popular Dogs stand and coped with the angry army descending upon him by cautioning, "If you have something to say, say it in gentlemanly fashion. Otherwise I'll report you to the bench show committee."
Abady, symbolically, lives in Stormville, N.Y. but he was educated in French schools and is all gall. Doggy people either love him or loathe him. The latter group includes the American Bouvier des Flandres Club, which steadfastly refuses him membership. "They won't let me in because they know I'd wipe the floor with them," he says.
To just about everyone in dogdom, the American Kennel Club is the ultimate power seat, the White House, Vatican and Kremlin rolled into one, but to Abady the AKC is "a dilettante organization" composed of "pompous idiots" who do not have the true advancement of the breeds at heart. In 1965 the AKC suspended him for life for allegedly striking a woman handler and kicking her dog at a show in Connecticut. Among other things, this penalty made dogs from his kennel, Vuilbaard Bouviers, ineligible for AKC registration, but Abady sued in federal court and won reinstatement—an unprecedented victory.
Abady gives unhesitating voice to his opinion that the dog-show game is shot through with stupidity and politics. In his gentler moments he says most judges are "semi-Mongolian idiots." Once, when a judge who had been brought over from Europe rendered what Abady, who speaks 11 languages including Arabic, deemed an absolutely rotten decision, he offered to debate the judge on all the points involved. "I challenged him in French, in Flemish or in any language he wanted," says Abady, afire at the memory of it. "It didn't make any difference to me. The guy backed down. I told him he was obviously an incompetent. When I get an audience, I am really at my best." But all Abady got that day was a kick in the shins from one of the judge's supporters.
Abady's controversial convictions reach beyond the show ring. It is his deep belief that "most people involved in dogs are fruitcakes," and he adds that the average American dog, be it family pet, show dog or field dog, is in "miserable condition." Abady's admirers, though they may cringe at his outspoken assaults on the canine Establishment, hail him as a great guru of dogs, a true authority on the breeding of dogs, the health of dogs and dog nutrition. "I think Abady is the most important thing that has happened in the dog business in the last 10 years," says Jacquin Sanders, a breeder of bull mastiffs. "His nutritional ideas are extremely advanced. His dogs are in fantastic condition. The breed looks completely changed from five years ago when I saw bouviers limping around the ring."
A number of guard and attack dog enthusiasts regard Abady as a seer, and his attack-trained bouviers fetch several thousand dollars each. "Every time there is a murder in New York City, Cleveland or Chicago, we're inundated with phone calls," Abady says. "So that's good for business."
The bouvier des Flandres, native to Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France, is a shaggy, bearlike dog with cropped ears and tail and a heavy beard. In Belgium a show championship cannot be awarded to a bouvier unless it has won a prize for tracking or as an army, police or guard dog. The male is big, up to 140 pounds, very strong and agile. It is a good jumping breed. A bouvier holds the world record for scaling a wall: 16 feet. Originally bred in Flanders to herd cattle—bouvier literally means cattle dog—the dog is supposed to be of calm temperament. "The bouvier does not have a chip on his shoulder," says Abady's wife, Isabel, an assistant professor of French at Vassar. "He does not want to be nasty. He is gentle and friendly and marvelous with children. He is only aggressive when someone threatens his people or his property. Our kennel motto is Nemo me impune lacessit [Nobody touches me with impunity.] The bouvier protects not because he's vicious, but because he is your dog. He does what is needed."
As an example of the dog's measured response to a situation, Abady cites the time a plumber came to his house a day late when no one was at home. "There were seven dogs in the house," Abady recalls, "and the plumber was pinned to the living-room wall for eight or nine hours. When we came in, he was ashen. The dogs didn't hurt him, they just wouldn't let him move even though he was only a foot and a half away from the door. Of course, he should have come the day he said he would."
Then there was the time Abady went into Manhattan with Picot, an untrained year-old male. "I took him into the Figaro, a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village," Abady says. "You could take a dog in there, eat, drink coffee and play chess in a relaxed atmosphere. A guy who seemed about eight feet tall and wearing an orange motorcycle suit came in and sat at the next table. He ordered a hamburger and French fries. Picot was curled up at my feet. When this guy's order came, he got up and leaned across me to get the ketchup. It was a very irritating and insolent gesture, as though he wanted to pick a fight. I did nothing. Shortly after that, he came back for the pepper and salt. I did nothing. As he was eating, he dropped one of his French fries on the floor and kicked it toward Picot. I kicked it back. He kicked again. I picked it up and said, 'Don't feed the dog without the owner's permission.' I threw the French fry back at him and, by accident, it landed on his plate. Get the picture? He stands up and pushes the table aside. I stand, and suddenly I hear this high-pitched shriek from this huge guy. I didn't know what was going on. The place was absolutely still, and all I wondered was how a big guy, an enormous guy like this, could scream in such a high voice.
"What had happened was Picot had grabbed the guy by the hand. The guy fell over a bannister, his hand bleeding, rushed into the bathroom and then shot out of the Figaro. There wasn't a sound in the restaurant. Not a sound. It was eerie. I didn't know what to say. Should I offer to pay his check? The waitress comes over, silently gives me my check, I pay and I leave with Picot. I didn't know whether I could ever go back, but a few weeks later a friend of mine went in there and he told me, 'Hey, there's this legend about this guy who went into the Figaro with a bear! And the bear tore this motorcyclist guy apart! The guy was all covered with blood after the bear chewed him up, and they had to carry him on a stretcher to an ambulance.' " It turned out the manager was delighted, because motorcyclists had made the place a hangout and annoyed his customers.