Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores entrepreneurship taking root in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which leads a collaborative, nationwide effort to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation.
Dwayne Johnson started as a nobody — but with his muscular physique, charismatic personality, gold chain and a catchy adopted name, he’s become an international sensation, said Sara Pelis.
Success came fast and furious for the 2-year-old French Bulldog, who competes under his AKC-registered name — Dwayne Johnson Signe Du Ciel — but is more widely known as Santino: a father of 21 puppies (including local four-legged influencers Lava and Coconut).
“He has a great temperament and loves to play more than anything — that’s what he lives for,” said Pelis, co-owner of Santino, describing the dog’s recent Select award (essentially runner-up to the breed champion) at the 2021 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. “He can be kind of [wild and crazy-acting], but when he has his lead on, he knows, ‘OK. It’s time to be serious and calm.’ And that’s without any training at all.”
The Westminster win earns Santino invitations to additional shows and drives even greater interest in the brindle-colored dog — along with his Rayville, Missouri, owner.
“I’ve had people from all over the world messaging me — wanting me to take him to shows in the Dominican Republic, Argentina,” Pelis said, attributing much of Santino’s recent success to handler Paul Catterson. “I was kind of dragged into the world of showing, and I’ve handled a few times myself, but I get too nervous in the ring.”
A home breeder of French Bulldogs for the past nine years – importing animals from Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Brazil, and Argentina — Pelis didn’t set out to join the competition circuit, she said, explaining that the venture merely started as a potentially money-making hobby later in life.
Click here to follow Pelis French Bulldogs.
“My husband says I’m replacing kids with dogs. We have eight kids; we’ve been married a long time — 36 years — and have 14 grandkids now,” Pelis said. “So with all the kids gone and out of the house, I think I’d be going crazy without the dogs.”
Littered with challenges
Today, four French Bulldogs — two males and two females — live with Pelis and her husband, James, at their Rayville home, 40 miles northeast of Kansas City. The rest of the dogs are part of a guardian home program, through which they live with other families within 100 miles. Pelis maintains breeding rights, she said, noting the setup prevents the dogs from having to be confined at a kennel.
When pregnant females are ready to give birth — C-section deliveries are required — they return to Pelis, who keeps the mother and pups for four to five weeks before they go back to their “forever homes,” she said.
It’s a challenging process, Pelis acknowledged, but she’s grown to love it over time — even if the venture didn’t turn out as profitable as she originally imagined.
“I was the housewife before all this. I stayed home. I homeschooled the kids. We kept busy and had a family business: commercial heating and air,” she said, referencing Temperature Maintenance in Rayville.
“My daughter loved animals, and she’s the one who was saying, ‘What can we do to make some extra money?’ Of course, once you get into breeding, you realize there’s really no money to be made in it — unless you’re breeding a lot.”
Or operating at the expense of the animals’ health, she added.
“So much care goes into these dogs — the food, progesterone testing, C-sections,” Pelis said, noting her dogs are examined for heart, eye, patella, hip, spine and elbow issues, along with other conditions. “You see a lot of French bulldogs out there and they’re either bigger or have really long tails, and they’re the ones who you could see easily getting hip dysplasia or spinal issues.”
In short, a healthy French Bulldog is an expensive French Bulldog, she said.
Add in handling fees for a show dog like Santino, and a breeder must seek extra income just to keep the hobby afloat, Pelis continued. She’s currently seeking sponsorships from companies to help pay for Santino’s competition travel, as well as taking industry gigs.
In late June, Pelis flew to Istanbul, Turkey, with other “puppy nannies” to help deliver three dogs to new homes in the United States.
“Breeding these dogs keeps you really busy,” she said. “Paying for them is another story.”
“I do this … because I love my dogs,” Pelis said simply. “They’re clown dogs; they’re a lot of fun. They’re a very addictive dog — once a person has a French Bulldog, they usually wind up with several more.”
The breed has become increasingly trendy, she noted. Now the No. 2 most popular breed behind only the Labrador Retriever, French Bulldogs were at No. 58 as recently as 2002, according to the AKC.
Pelis and her daughter, Victoria, got Santino from Buenos Aires — where young Dwayne Johnson won his first and only show in Argentina at three and a half months old. He entered his first competition in the U.S. at eight months with handler and co-owner Debbie Coon, who got Santino to his first championship title.
At Westminster and other dog shows, competitors are judged against the breed standard — or how closely they conform to the AKC’s description of the breed and its attributes.
With Santino, Pelis got lucky, she said.
“He happens to have everything the judges are looking for,” Pelis said. “And now when I’m looking at other dogs to buy, I’m comparing them to Santino — and that’s rough. It’s really rare to get dogs with perfect conformation like this when you’re a breeder.”
But appearance is only part of the equation, she added.
“Expression and personality are probably 50 percent of it,” Pelis detailed. “You can have a beautiful dog — I have one at home like this — with great conformation, but if a dog is shy or timid, it can’t be shown. The judges like to see the excitement in their face, their ears forward and happy to see them. Character goes a long way.”
Santino’s authentically playful nature translates to an infectious personality in the ring that complements the dog’s muscular body, she said.
Westminster judges noticed.
“He came in as a nobody dog,” Pelis said, noting other show dogs were featured in paid ads within dog magazines to gain exposure and impress the judges before the competition; Dwayne Johnson was simply Santino. “Just a little dog from Rayville, Missouri, that goes to Westminster.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that seeks to build inclusive prosperity through a prepared workforce and entrepreneur-focused economic development. The Foundation works to change conditions, address root causes, and break down systemic barriers so that all people – regardless of race, gender, or geography – have the opportunity to achieve economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.