FLINT HILL, Virginia (Reuters Life!) - Until a lanky five-year-old Scottish deerhound won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York few people knew about the large, gentle breed.
But Hickory, the 85-pound (38-kg) grey and white female who nabbed the top prize from about 2,600 competitors in February, could change that.
She is the first deerhound to win at Westminster and has shown traits of a champion since her win at a North Carolina show in 2007.
"People kept telling me that we should keep showing Hickory," Cecilia Dove, who bred and raised Hickory, told Reuters in an interview. "But we couldn't afford to do that on our own, our first son was in college and second son was starting college."
After hearing of Dove's financial dilemma, dog show enthusiast Sally Sweatt, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, came to the rescue and became Hickory's sponsor.
"To me, Hickory reminds (me) of the racehorse Secretariat when she moved," Sweatt said about the gentle dog with the effortless gait.
"There was such beauty, elegance and style to her. This dog is a one in a million dog. A dog like this doesn't come in a lifetime," she added. "We'll probably never see a dog like her again."
Dove had intended to get another breed, a Borzoi, in 1975 when she went to a farm in Keswick, Virginia. But she ended up also buying a deerhound and described herself as thunderstruck when she saw the breed, which sheds less than some other dogs.
After her Borzoi died of old age, Dove concentrated on deerhounds.
"I never have wanted any other breed since. The deerhounds are so easy. Of all the sighthounds that I learned about, these dogs just want to be with you," she said.
The clincher for her was "their overall rugged beauty, gentleness and not being busy."
After Hickory's prestigious win at Westminster and a round of personal appearances in New York, including a guest spot on Martha Stewart's television show and a visit to the Empire State building, she has retired from competition.
She returned home where she was welcomed with a party attended by more than 100 people in a celebration worthy of an Olympic champion.
Hickory, who is formally known as GCH Foxcliffe Hickory Wind, has rejoined her pack of a dozen dogs and four horses at Dove's 56-acre (22-hectare) Virginia farm.
Dove plans to breed Hickory and has already received requests for puppies from as far away as France and South America.
As for the secret to breeding a champion, Dove said it comes down to healthy food and exercising each day without a leash.
Handler Angela Lloyd, who showed Hickory at Westminster, described the deerhound as "a well-kept gem in the dog world."
"Lots of people don't even know that this breed exists. It's not a common breed but once you are around them, you don't want to be without them," she said.
"They are quiet and gentle creatures. Their eyes talk to you. I absolutely love her," Lloyd added emotionally.