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Rare bird dogs fill Bell Acres couple's home with trophies and ribbons

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Rocky, a 13-year-old Spinone, licks his paw while lying on the floor in front of owners Dana and Dan Graff at their Bell Acres home Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Dana Graff walks in her Bell Acres yard with 9-week-old Spinone puppies Jewel, at left, and Beau Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. Graff and husband Dan are keeping Jewel, but Beau will be going to another home.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Jewel, a 9-week-old Spinone explores the Bell Acres yard of Dana and Dan Graff Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Lulu, a 4 -year-old Spinone, greets owener Dana Graff with a toy squirrel inside their Bell Acres home Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Dan Graff is reflected in a mirror propping up a painting of his 13-year-old Spinone, Rocky, at his Bell Acres home Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Jewel, a 9-week-old Spinone explores the Bell Acres yard of Dana and Dan Graff Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.

Although Dan and Dana Graff's daughters are grown and have moved out, the couple never could be accused of being empty-nesters.

Their Bell Acres “nest” is full of rare Spinone bird dogs, which have filled their home with love and puppies, and lined their walls with hundreds of ribbons and awards they've won for their hunting and showing skills.

Dan, president of Sewickley Valley Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, said it started about 13 years ago.

Once their daughters, Sarah and Fiona, went to college and were on their own and their Dalmatian and greyhound were getting old, Dan said, it was time for his wife to find a new venture.

Dana, a retired nurse, wanted to start showing dogs like she did growing up in Wisconsin, where her first dog was a miniature schnauzer.

Dan, a board member of the Spinone Club of America, said his wife first tried to talk him into buying a Saluki. Before Dan found out it was a hunting breed, he thought the dog — known as the Persian greyhound — was “too feminine” for him.

“I wanted something more rough and ready,” he said

So, Dana began to search again.

“I looked for the scruffiest looking dog I could find,” Dana said. “I read that no one has ever been bitten by a Spinone, which can't be true because every dog will bite if pushed far enough. But, it was a testament to its temperament,” she said.

It wasn't long until the Graffs, both now in their 60s, bought their first Spinone. Rocky, 13, is the oldest of their five adult Spinoni, the others called Lulu, Gracie, Pearl and Willa. The Graffs have two puppies — Beau — who soon will go to another family — and Jewel, who will stay with the Graff family.

Rocky and Dan soon learned to hunt together. Rocky has won many hunting awards.

The buddies often travel together to hunt grouse and pheasants. Dan raises homing pigeons and Chukar Hungarian partridges, so Rocky and the other dogs can practice their skills at home.

They trudge through a thick grassy area and water area Dan has created for them in preparation for the hunt.

Dan said the dogs don't harm the birds at home. It's their job to find the birds after they are released, “go on point” and hold still.

When hunting with Dan and when a bird is shot, the dogs' job is to retrieve the bird.

After it was apparent Rocky was a hunter and not a show dog, Dana announced plans to look for a second dog. Next came Gracie, who not only proved she was a great show dog, but had hunting skills and produced 47 pups in four litters.

Her granddaughter, Lulu, recently birthed nine pups. Her litter marked the 10th for the Graffs, who typically breed the dogs once a year in the spring.

At one point, the Graffs housed seven adult dogs and a litter of 15 at the same time.

Over the years, they've acquired Spinoni from as close as Ohio and from as far as England.

Since the couple began their friendship with Spinoni, the dogs have produced about 80 puppies, most of which were sold even before they were born.

They have been used for charity work, as therapy and Reading with Rover dogs, and have won numerous show and hunting awards. Some, including those kept by the Graffs, have been featured on televised dog shows.

The Graffs enter their dogs in about 15 to 20 competitions each year and help friends train their Spinoni for competitions.

Dan and Dana have been sanctioned by the Spinone Club of America, with which they've been members for 13 years, as American Kennel Club dog show judges' educators. They soon will conduct a judges' educational seminar in Indiana.

Dana said the education is needed because the breed is considered rare. There only are about 5,000 in the country, and the Spinone, which almost became extinct after World War II, only has been recognized by the AKC since 2000.

At one time used as a one-family, peasant hunting dogs in the Piedmont mountainous area of Italy, the Spinone is “one of the most cooperative and gentle breeds you'll ever see,” Dan said.

Spinone means Italian wire-haired pointer, so Dana said when they named their kennel, she and Dan thought it appropriate to name it Sweetbriar — briar to coincide with wire and sweet to recognize the dogs' temperament.

The Graffs agreed that breeding the dogs and competing with them doesn't result in a lot of of money, but they love it.

“It's a lot of work,” Dana said, “but it's a lot of fun.”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or jbarron@tribweb.com.

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