Whose Wheatens Are They, Anyway? Fierce Breeder Reclaims Puppies

When Pam Friedman took a trip to Ireland last summer, she thought she was leaving her soft-coated wheaten terrier puppy, Casey, in the best of hands: with the very same breeder from whom she’d bought her only three months before.

At first it didn’t concern the family when, back from their 10-day trip to Ireland and anxious to pick the dog up, their calls to the breeder were not returned for two days. Then came the bad news: On June 11, the breeder, Diane Lenowicz, called them with a litany of complaints.

Casey had a terrible ear infection, Ms. Lenowicz told Ms. Friedman–the worst she had ever seen. And there were broken hairs around Casey’s mustache, indicating that she had been allowed to play with other dogs.

This was a no-no, Ms. Lenowicz said. The contract Ms. Friedman and her husband, George, had signed said that Casey would have to be maintained in tip-top condition, ready to be shown at all times–or risk being returned to the breeder, who was Casey’s co-owner by contract.

Casey would not be allowed to return to the Friedmans’ Manhattan home.

“I was devastated,” said Ms. Friedman, a literary agent with grown children. “I mean, it’s not a child, but our twins were born 30 years ago. This was like being a new parent again.”

The news was especially upsetting because, Ms. Friedman said, the Lenowiczes had seemed so pleased with their care of Casey when they had dropped her off for boarding. And why shouldn’t they? Ms. Friedman said she had been devoted to the dog’s upkeep. She said she took care to follow all of the breeder’s instructions: holding the dog in her arms when they went out for walks, so that Casey could get used to the sounds of the city without exposing her to elements that could mar her beautiful, champagne-colored coat; employing trainers and veterinarians at both the Friedmans’ Fifth Avenue home and their house in East Hampton; indulging the pet in professional grooming that would sometimes exceed two hours a week–all at a hefty price.

It was no bother to Ms. Friedman, who said she fell so in love with the soft-eyed creature that she was willing to lavish anything on her.

“Have you seen these dogs?” she asked. “They look like little teddy bears.”

But Ms. Lenowicz maintains that she had every right to act as she did, based on the contract the Friedmans had signed–even if they had paid her $1,500 for the dog and even if the action was taken, as Ms. Friedman claims, without warning and without any chance for reclamation, short of paying thousands of dollars in mandated expenses or legal fees.

Representatives of the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America, the primary national organization of wheaten breeders, said it is highly unusual for a breeder to make such a drastic move. “In the 20 or so years that my wife and I have been doing this, we’ve never heard of such a situation,” said Jim Little, association president.

And yet, it would not be the last time that Ms. Lenowicz would invoke that contract clause. Two months later, Neal Hirschfeld and Janet Parker called to arrange the return of their wheaten puppy, Frankie, which they had boarded (according to their sales contract) with the Lenowiczes during a 10-day vacation. They were also told that the dog (which came from the same litter as Casey) had not been properly cared for, and that they couldn’t have her back.

And as recently as February, when John and Mary Ann Donaldson left their 10-month-old puppy, Reilly, to be groomed overnight at the Lenowiczes’ home, they found much the same thing: On the day they were supposed to pick the dog up, they called the Lenowiczes four times, they said, and did not hear back until the following day.

“She said she was a little concerned that [Reilly] was mouthing [or biting] when she went to brush him, and that she wanted to work on him for a week,” said Mrs. Donaldson, who lives in Farmingdale, N.Y. “Well, four nights passed, and she called us back on Feb. 15. First she said she was concerned for our children, and as the conversation went on she accused us of abusing the dog, of not maintaining the show coat and weight, and said that we would not be getting the dog back.”

The Donaldsons’ 9-year-old twins were already asking about Reilly. Now, more than six weeks later, the dog is still at the Lenowicz home.

“After about three or four weeks, she told us she would give us back $500 and not sue us if we just went away. And John said, ‘No, I want my dog.’ And she said, ‘Listen, you can go ahead and try to spend a lot of money to get your dog back, but you’re not getting the dog back.’”

Ms. Lenowicz would not comment on the Donaldsons’ situation, saying that it was in the hands of her lawyer.

Some of these stories have had happy endings. Mr. Hirschfeld, a writer who lives on lower Fifth Avenue, won an order of seizure and, with two sheriff’s deputies, seized Frankie from the Lenowiczes’ Suffolk County home. (“Our Elián Gonzáles,” Mr. Hirschfeld called the episode.) The Hirschfeld and Lenowiczes sued each other and, in September, a Suffolk County judge ruled that Frankie belonged with the Hirschfelds. The contract, the judge ruled, clearly said Frankie had been sold for $1,500; any rights Ms. Lenowicz had to the dog did not include keeping it. (In the March 26 issue of The Observer , Mr. Hirschfeld wrote about the experience in a New Yorker’s Diary.)

Pam Friedman was not so lucky. She finally accepted the news that her dog was not coming home, but she did successfully sue the Lenowiczes in small-claims court for the entire cost of the puppy.

“[Mr. Hirschfeld] was very brave,” Ms. Friedman said in a recent interview. “We didn’t realize you could do that.”

At press time, the Donaldsons’ lawyer, Edward Troy, was serving papers notifying the Lenowiczes of the family’s intent to sue. Mrs. Donaldson is still not sure what the future holds.

“Now every day my kids are like, ‘Did you hear from the breeder? When is Reilly coming home?’” said Mrs. Donaldson. “To do this to a home with children, it’s so bizarre. I want to call her Cruella De Vil. She doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything.”

Puppy Love

The contract the Friedmans, the Hirschfelds and the Donaldsons had signed sold them their pets for $1,500 each–while also stating that Ms. Lenowicz would be a co-owner. Should the dog be of high enough quality to compete at dog shows, Ms. Lenowicz gets to show the dog, walking away with the prestige of having bred a prize dog. The buyer, meanwhile, would have to share the show expenses, but would get to take home the ribbon and prize money. It was up to the Friedmans–and any other buyer of a soft-coated wheaten terrier from the Lenowiczes–to make sure the puppy got into, and stayed in, exquisite enough condition to walk away with prizes for “Best in Show.”

That any consumer would sign such a contract has some lawyers, and some other dog breeders who have seen the document, completely baffled. But we are talking dogs here–beautiful, cuddly, long-haired, teddy-bear-like puppies whose popularity, particularly among the wealthier classes, is beginning to soar. Even the most sane people are known to grow a bit ditzy at the sight of a puppy seeking a new home.

Doubly baffling is how anyone could pay top dollar for an acquisition, then allow the seller to make the determination whether the buyer is “fit” to keep it.

But they did, and Ms. Lenowicz was not shy about invoking the contract clause.

The Lenowiczes have sold 54 puppies in the last six years, and have only had problems with a handful of buyers, they said. Indeed, Ms. Lenowicz supplied The Observer with almost 20 testimonials from people who have bought dogs from her over the years, as well as from trainers and others she has worked with; although she blacked out the names, it is clear that the Lenowiczes had many satisfied customers.

Ms. Lenowicz said her overall reputation is impeccable and her intentions were only the best.

“It’s not uncommon to have people who do not want to honor their contracts,” said Ms. Lenowicz. “When they want a dog, they want a dog. If somebody calls and we have a puppy available, many people will be honest and say, ‘I don’t want to show a dog’; other people will say yes, and then they get the dog and they don’t do what they agreed to do. Luckily for us, it’s a very uncommon thing …. We’ve been very fortunate … to have some other puppy people who have been very responsible, and to have great relationships [with them].”

But The Observer received a few calls in response to Mr. Hirschfeld’s New Yorker’s Diary article and, looking into the complaints, found that Ms. Lenowicz has had other problems in the dog world.

Though Ms. Lenowicz has been in the dog-show world six years–ever since she and her husband, Walter, bought a prize-winning wheaten bitch from a well-reputed breeder and produced litter after litter of first-rate pups–she is not a member of the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America. Sources at the Wheaten Terrier Club said Ms. Lenowicz’s membership was rejected, though they would not say why.

Ms. Lenowicz admitted that her membership was rejected, but claimed it was simply because one of her sponsors was late in filing papers for her. She said she doesn’t want to be a member anyway, because she has known breeders who were members of the organization who bred dogs with hereditary diseases; good breeders, she said, are trying to root out the diseases from the breed. “It kind of makes you lose some respect,” she explained.

The Terrier Club rejection came shortly after the American Kennel Club took back awards won by two of the Lenowiczes’ dogs. Morgan’s Sherlock Holmes, the A.K.C. found, had not been registered at the time it was being shown. (The dog has since been registered.) Morgan’s Romance of Destiny lost titles after the dog was found ineligible to compete in “Bred by Exhibitor” events; Ms. Lenowicz told The Observer that the dog belonged to her daughter and she hadn’t understood that rule.

A.K.C. officials take these rules very seriously. Proper registration maintains the integrity of the awards, A.K.C. officials maintain.

But when another wheaten-terrier breeder–a member of the Wheaten Terrier Club, who asked not to be identified–informed the A.K.C. of irregularities in the Lenowiczes’ show dogs, the Lenowiczes had their lawyer, John P. Huber, write to the woman. The letter called upon the woman to “cease and desist from making any and all defamatory statements” regarding the Lenowiczes “to avoid legal action.” The letter outlines the irreparable harm to the Lenowiczes “occupation and livelihood as professional dog breeders.”

(If the Lenowiczes are indeed professional breeders, they would have a more difficult time becoming members of the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier Club of America; professionals are viewed as detrimental to the breed, likely to care for profit more than the health and well-being of the dogs.)

In interviews, the Lenowiczes denied that they are supporting themselves with dog breeding; “We’re hobby breeders,” Ms. Lenowicz explained.

If each of the Lenowiczes’ more than 50 puppies were sold at $1,500, the Lenowiczes stood to take in about $80,000.

Besides the $1,500 the Lenowiczes made for selling Frankie to the Hirschfelds, they walked away with $2,300 the Hirschfelds gave them in a settlement to end the Lenowiczes’ countersuit. Mr. Hirschfeld said he paid it just to stem the “financial hemorrhage” of fighting the Lenowiczes in court and the extensive drain on his time.

Doggy Desire

The Lenowiczes have also been involved in a prolonged dispute with a Manhattan buyer who wanted to give her dog back to the Lenowiczes. That case, a lengthy she-said/she-said dispute, shows how difficult issues of ownership can become.

In another case, an owner who contacted The Observer said she had an experience similar to the Friedmans, Hirschfelds and Donaldsons: She was told her dog was not up to par and would only be returned to her after extensive–and costly–grooming and handling. That owner said she has full expectation that she’ll get her dog back on April 4, but did not want to elaborate on her case, for fear it would jeopardize the dog’s return.

Yet Florence Asher bought her puppy Mamie from the Lenowiczes in June of 1999, and she said her relationship with the couple has been very positive.

“If for any reason she feels the dog is not in a good setting, it’s my understanding she really has the right to take it back,” said Ms. Asher. “I know that sounds nutty, but that’s just sort of what they do.”

And others not only enjoy their relationship with the Lenowiczes, they also encourage others to seek out the couple if they want a top-grade soft-coated wheaten terrier.

“She’s trying to breed cleanly,” said one former breeder who now runs a dog-grooming business specializing in wheaten terriers, and who refers would-be buyers to the Lenowiczes. “There are a lot of health problems and diseases in this breed.”

But Ms. Asher’s dog grew too big to compete in dog shows; size is just one of the many criteria looked at in judging a show dog. So the Lenowiczes ended their co-owner relationship amicably.

Ms. Lenowicz said too many people simply sign the contract, with no intention of providing the care and environment a show dog needs.

“Sometimes it’s because they have a position of power, or a position of wealth, so they don’t care that they’ve signed a contract,” said Ms. Lenowicz. “And that’s not right.”

And there’s some truth to her statement: Wheatens are so in demand right now, people will do anything to get one.

Ms. Friedman’s husband took one look at the show contract and said she’d have to be crazy to sign such a thing. Mr. Hirschfeld’s lawyer also thought the contract absurdly tilted toward the breeder, but also saw that its provisions were so outlandish as to be unenforceable.

And yet, it can be difficult to get a wheaten otherwise. When Mr. Hirschfeld contacted other breeders listed with the Wheaten Terrier Club about getting a puppy, he was turned away, either because he lived in the city or because the waiting list with the breeder was already so long. Callers to Ms. Lenowicz’s home in Long Island are greeted with a recording that asks the caller not to leave a message regarding wheaten terriers, “as it is difficult to answer all calls.”

According to wheaten experts, as few as 500 purebred wheatens become available each year from litters whelped by breeders listed with them, while more than 2,000 each year are registered with the American Kennel Club. Given this increase in popularity, waits of as much as two years or more can face a potential wheaten owner–unless they take co-ownership in a show dog, as the Donaldsons, Hirschfelds and Friedmans did.

Yet, according to other breeders, it is rare when owners who go that route lose their dogs to the co-owner. Another local breeder said that more often, the breeder relinquishes the dog altogether if the buyer is not able to keep the dog in show condition. Short of physical abuse, it is unusual, she said, for the breeder to take the dog back.

To Ms. Lenowicz, the conditions in which she found the dogs in dispute was tantamount to abuse. And she was merely protecting the pups she had so lovingly bred.

“We’re proud of the work we do as breeders.… And we want our dogs … to be placed in a safe and loving environment,” said Ms. Lenowicz. “To think of somebody not treating [the puppies] well–it’s very difficult to live with as a breeder.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Friedman still has not gotten another dog to take Casey’s place. When she does?

“I’ll go to the pound,” Ms. Friedman said.

–with Karina Lahni