DURHAM — Early Sunday morning, Jeanine Dell’Orfano rose and began the long process of washing, and drying, two Bergamasco sheepdogs.
She gathered one at a time and brought them to her home’s basement, which is outfitted with a professional grade tub, and started lathering their thick coats with soap, wringing each strand clear of dirt and mud and whatever else they’d managed to collect.
The dogs then joyfully entered their crates and the drying process began — industrial fans pumped air through their coats, drying the felted wool-like fur that is uniquely characteristic of the breed.
Once they were fully dry, the dogs traveled to New York City, where they took home the top breed prizes in the country’s most prestigious dog show — the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
This year, 5-year-old sisters Faggia and Freya competed at Westminster, where they were judged on breed standards, including appearance, movement and temperament.
“It's really exciting to have both of them in the same litter going to Westminster,” Dell’Orfano said. “It's a big deal for me, as a breeder, to have two of my own puppies in the same breed at a show like that.”
Freya was awarded Best of Breed among the best of the best Bergamasco sheepdogs in the country, and Faggia earned the “Select female” prize, or runner-up female. Faggia won Best of Breed in 2018, her second year competing.
Faggia lives in Durham, but Freya is cared for by a good friend of Dell’Orfano, Jess Meade, who lives in Massachusetts and brought the dog to Connecticut to prepare for the show.
“Faggia is so much more into the show ring than Freya... she lights up, especially with her handler,” Meade said. “She takes another persona entirely ... she really shines.” As for her dog, Freya, Meade said she just goes along with it, but loves obedience training more.
As Best of Breed, Freya competed in the Herding Group Competition at Madison Square Garden Monday night.
Dell’Orfano, who lives with her husband, Joseph, and family on Tuttle Road, has been breeding for more than a decade. She was living on a large goat farm in Nova Scotia and found the Bergamasco breed while searching for a good herding dog to add to the farm. Two years and two dogs into the decision, she had fallen in love with the breed and had her first litter around 2007.
“It’s their temperament and their personalities that I love the most about them and the reason why I keep breeding them,” Dell’Orfano said. Breeding “is something I do for the breed because I love it… and I love these dogs.”
She said the dogs are very loyal and affectionate, and often very quirky.
“They're funny and they're extremely lovable and just have a way of working their way into your heart,” she said.
The breed has only been recognized by the American Kennel Club for four years and is slowly becoming more well-known to the general public. Dell’Orfano said Bergamascos originate from the Alps region of Italy and Switzerland and have only been in the states consistently since the mid-1990s, so American owners have spent years educating people about the dog, especially at shows. She said she’s had to explain to people that the thick coat is natural to the breed and not the result of neglect.
“We do a lot of standing around with our dogs at shows while we're waiting and the public comes by and visits them,” Dell’Orfano said. “And that's when we do a lot of teaching, and we show them what the coat actually looks like, what it feels like, how it's supposed to work.”