David Williams

Growing Up in a House Full of Perfect Dogs

For a mother-daughter show-dog team, life revolves around the dogs—breeding them, training them, grooming them, and showing them.

With four days to go before the prestigious 2019 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Mara Flood is spending a good chunk of her waking hours keeping Poe, a two-year-old smooth collie (full name: Travler SugarNSpice Witches Do Come Blue), from impulsively humping the young female in heat who’s been staying in the next room over. Flood has been taking the two outside in shifts, making sure one or the other is always in a crate. It’s a hassle, but then again, it’s right on schedule for a dog of Poe’s age: “He’s my teenage boy,” Flood laughs. “He doesn’t even eat. He’s like, Oooh, a girl!”

On Sunday, Poe will travel from the Floods’ home in Orange County, New York, to Manhattan, along with five-year-old Tiger (SugarNSpice Hear Me Roar) and potentially eight-month-old Cherry (SugarNSpice Cherry On Top), to show at the Westminster Dog Show on Monday. (Flood will decide on Cherry’s participation “Sunday—maybe on the way out the door.”) So when Flood, a vegan, cooks up the assortment of steak, chicken, hot dog, and liver that she’ll use as bait for the collies in the ring at Westminster, she’ll add lots of extra seasoning for Poe’s bait—because in the ring, “you could have a bitch in season three dogs behind you.” When you take an easily sidetracked dog like Poe to a high-stakes show, she says, the bait has to have a powerful and seductive enough scent to distract from the fragrance of animal allure.


Over the next three days, Flood will also bathe each dog, condition its coat, and trim its nails and whiskers. Given that all three dogs have been romping around in the Floods’ muddy backyard all week (“They’re in ‘pet’ mode,” Flood says), this will be no easy feat. Especially now that Becca’s gone off to college.

Eighteen-year-old Becca Flood—the youngest of Mara’s three children and her partner, until recently, in managing SugarNSpice Collies, their home kennel—moved out six months ago to start her first year at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, a three-hour drive from home. When Mara and Becca would groom their dogs as a team, Mara says, “I would bathe a dog, she would take them out and start blow-drying them, [and I’d start on the next dog]. Now I’m bathing everybody, towel-drying, and then I start the blow-drying process. So right off the bat, it’s double the time.” And now, she adds, “I’ve gotta lasso my husband or my son and say, ‘I’ll buy you dinner if you come help me out with nails!’”

Becca and Mara Flood grooming one of their dogs at a show. (Ashley Fetters / The Atlantic)

Down in Manhattan, meanwhile, Becca has been dutifully preparing for the big event. On Monday—with her professors’ permission—Becca will be by her mother’s side all day, powdering the collies’ faces with CoverGirl 115 loose powder (to give their fur “a little bit of a finish” and obscure any scratches or cuts) and then taking them out on the floor. But not too much loose powder—otherwise, Mara says, “Some judges will say, ‘Why is there so much makeup on the dog?!’ And they’ll boot you right out of the ring.”

It’s a truth well known to the dog-showing community—but perhaps less so to outsiders—that the lives of families who show dogs revolve almost invariably around said dogs. But even among dog-showing families, Mara and Becca Flood might be an extraordinary case. Every dog in a dog show is bred by a human, owned by a human, trained (or “handled”) by a human, and showed by a human. For any given dog, four different humans might perform each of the four different functions; for another dog, one human (or team of humans) might perform every duty. The Floods work in tandem on all four.

Mara and Becca breed litters of collies every few years at their home, which for puppy-proofing reasons has few low-sitting shelves and no rugs on the floor. Though Becca’s dad and two brothers have never taken much of an interest in dog showing, delivering (or “whelping”) a litter of puppies is still sometimes a whole-family affair: “Someone’s gotta get the coffee and someone’s gotta get the clean towels. Somebody’s got to take the dirty ones out and give you fresh ones,” Mara says. (One brother’s old bedroom was converted into SugarNSpice’s second kennel room after he moved out.) Once, Becca says, she was almost late for a spring AP exam in high school because a litter of puppies was arriving just as she was getting ready for school.

And while many know the chaos one new puppy can introduce to a household, the Floods are the rare family who can tell you what kind of pandemonium a dozen puppies—the size of their most recent litter—are capable of. “When we have a litter, our life stops for, like, 12 weeks,” Mara says. She and Becca move the furniture around so that they can sleep next to the whelping box for the first two weeks, when they take care to make sure every puppy is nursing and gaining weight. “You think you’re over the hump after two weeks,” she says, “but then they start eating! And then they start pooping! Can you imagine, 12 eight-week-old puppies … ? It’s brutal.” Most of the puppies are eventually sold to other families.


Mara and Becca also train dogs at SugarNSpice—some are their own, and some live at the Floods’ home while the Floods train them on commission. (Becca describes herself as a stricter trainer than her mother.) No matter what, though, “all the dogs that are at our house are, like, forcibly part of the family,” Becca laughs. “They all come and cuddle with us on the couch; they all eat off the table. They sleep on your feet when you eat dinner.”

But what sets the Floods’ family life apart most drastically from other families’ is arguably their grueling show schedule. Before Becca left for college, she and Mara traveled some 50 weekends of the year to show their dogs, sometimes driving as far as Wisconsin or Florida.

“I was almost never in school on Thursdays and Fridays, and some Monday mornings,” Becca remembers. She would email in her homework from the road. “My teachers just got used to that.” As a result, most of the major dramas of Becca’s teen years have taken place not in school but in the junior division of the dog-show circuit; her first boyfriend was a fellow junior handler whom she met at a show.

Becca and Mara began showing dogs together in 2009, when Becca turned nine—the minimum age at which a child can participate in the junior divisions of dog showing. Becca went on to win the Collie Club of America’s Best Junior Handler title an unprecedented three times before aging out of the division when she turned 18 last year. (Because Becca qualified for Westminster before turning 18, she will show a dog in the 2019 Westminster show as a junior handler, but it will be her last time as a junior.) Over the past few years, Mara and Becca’s dogs have made consistent appearances in the top 10 of the Collie Club of America rankings and the Canine Chronicle smooth collie and all-breed rankings. In 2016, their year-old female Gretel won the Best of Variety prize at Westminster; Mara showed her in the Best of Herding Group.

That year, Becca remembers, Mara almost didn’t show Gretel. Becca had entered a well-established, nine-year-old smooth collie; Mara had brought Gretel along to compete, as Becca puts it, “just for fun,” but got a bad feeling the morning of the show and considered backing out. Still, Becca talked her into it. “I had all their leashes on, they were ready to go, and I handed her her number. I was like, Mom. Go in and have fun with the puppy! There’s no stress. You’re not supposed to win,” Becca says. “Then she goes in and she beats me.”

Becca, whose dog finished second that day to Mara’s, laughs incredulously telling the story. “Had I let her not show, I would have won. At 15 years old, I would have won [Best of Variety at] Westminster. But I talked her into walking!” What happened next? “I just laughed. I just laughed and laughed and laughed,” she says. “I was like, You know it’s because I groomed her, right?

Gretel, the dog Mara showed, was the granddaughter of the dog Becca showed.

Today, both Floods are admittedly still learning how to live independently. It’s been a trying time for both of them—and for the dogs.

“It was really, really tough when she first went to college,” Mara says. Tiger became shy and needy, often hanging around Becca’s bedroom door: “I’d have to to open it and show her that Becca wasn’t there.” Poe, meanwhile, started eating poorly, and then started showing poorly—but when Becca came home and showed him at an event over Thanksgiving, Mara says, Poe “looked like a million bucks.” Becca, not Mara, will show Poe at Westminster on Monday.

Becca, for her part, is adjusting to life without pets—and life in one place. In her new neighborhood in lower Manhattan, she often finds herself wandering around, just exploring, for entire mornings or days. Before college, “I wasn’t used to being settled in one place. I was used to being in a new place every weekend,” she says. In the end, her time on the road and her time at home probably came to an even 50-50. “Even my childhood bedroom, I wasn’t in it that much.” Becca admits, too, that she didn’t quite realize what an unusual lifestyle hers was until college, where some of her new classmates have raised quizzical, I’m sorry, you did what in high school? eyebrows. Still, sometimes she thinks about the possibility of bringing Poe into the city to live with her next year, when she moves out of the dorms and gets an apartment. “I think he could get his therapy-dog license, with the little vest,” she says. Maybe he could come with her to her long classes and lie down in the corner.


Mara’s daily routine has a conspicuous void, too. She’s hired a helper on dog-show days for tasks that require extra hands or heavy lifting (and Becca, meanwhile, has noticed she’s lost some core and bicep strength, now that she’s not regularly lifting 60-pound dogs onto grooming tables and into a van). But when Mara drives the dogs to a show, the passenger seat of her hulking Ford Transit 350 empty beside her and the dogs quiet in their travel kennels, she can get a little lonely.

“Becca and I have our going-to-a-dog-show soundtrack—‘It’s Another Day of Sun,’ from La La Land, that’s our 4 a.m. [getting-on-the-road] song,” she says. “But I can’t listen to it now! I start crying.”

“I used to go away for summer art programs and she’d be fine, because she knew I’d be home after four weeks,” Becca explains. “Sometime in October, though, it hit her that I wasn’t going to come home and go back to life as usual. And that things most likely won’t ever be like that again.” And that’s when Mara purchased a new puppy—a Cardigan Welsh corgi named Harper (Sanddigger PD Indecent Proposal To SugarNSpice).

“She’s my replacement,” Becca jokes.

“I was joking around when we first got her—people would ask, ‘What’d you name her?’” Mara says. “I’d say, ‘Rebecca.’”

On Monday, when Mara and Becca show their dogs at Westminster, Tim Flood—Mara’s husband and Becca’s dad—will be sitting with the Westminster Kennel Club app open on his tablet, watching from his desk at work. According to Mara, Tim goes to about one dog show a year (“maybe just to remind himself why he doesn’t go to dog shows,” she jokes), and usually he elects to go to one that’s outdoors and near some good hiking or an interesting restaurant. He loves dogs, Mara says, but isn’t all that passionate about the competition aspect.


“It’s really their thing,” Tim agrees. “I love animals, but I think it was, quite frankly, better that way, to just let them have it, as a mother-daughter thing. I think it’s helped their relationship through the years. It’s gotten them closer.”

But when Mara and Becca travel with whichever dogs they’re showing that particular weekend, Tim stays home to look after the dogs they leave behind. Tim points out that he doesn’t share the same working relationship with the dogs that his wife and daughter do—“so to me, they’re all pets, all family members,” he says. On those weekends, Tim carefully arranges his schedule to make sure he’s home at feeding times (5 a.m., 4 p.m., and occasionally a lunchtime meal for certain dogs in between) and to chase the dogs around in the yard a little during the day. And that’s where he’ll be for at least part of the time while his wife and daughter are away for Westminster—at home, playing outside, maybe carving out some time to watch TV on the couch, a dog under each arm.