If it weren't the sort of cold, drizzly evening at the time of year when melting snow turns the entire world into a sea of mud that clings to dog paws and sometimes splashes up their legs and onto their bellies, and if he weren't a 110-pound cane corso, a breed that is capable of killing not only wild boar but also tame humans (at least according to urban legend), and if he weren't a prize show dog whose single drop of sperm is probably worth more than my entire monthly salary, Paradiso Błekitna Przystan—known to his loved ones as Ivo—and I would be off together having an adventure, maybe splashing in the surf at Montrose Beach or lazing on the deck of a fishing boat or frolicking in the snow in Cumberland Park. But instead, as darkness falls, here we are in the living room of his house in Franklin Park, which doubles as Fide Core Kennel. I am sitting on the couch drinking coffee, about which he is intensely curious. He is pacing the floor, showing off his toys and swallowing animal crackers, judiciously awarded when he sits like a good boy. The Avengers is on the TV, and Ivo's human parents, Marcin Proszek and Agata Buczak, Fide Core's owners, are trying to put into words what makes him so perfect.
The two humans have been friends a long time. They talk over each other, sometimes finishing each other's sentences. If they were dogs, Buczak would be a border collie and Proszek would be a cane corso. They talk about Ivo's proportions, his angulation, his character, his personality. They search for the right word, in English and then in Polish. Maybe it doesn't exist in either language.
"There's just something about him," Proszek says. "It's hard for us to explain."
It's not just his body, although it is splendid. He stands approximately 27 inches tall at the withers—Buczak and Proszek can't find a tape measure for a more precise number—and his chest and shoulders cannot be described without resorting to language right out of a romance novel ("broad," "muscular," "firm"). His fur is like black velvet, a little coarse, but still plush and shiny. His head is elegantly modeled; there are apparently statues that look just like him in medieval castles all over southern Italy, where cane corsos have been guard dogs since the 14th century.
And of course there are his eyes, large, brown, and limpid, with a slight bit of goo at the corners, the windows to his canine soul. At first he was suspicious of me, like a good guard dog should be, but when Buczak told him I'm OK, he gazed up at me like an enormous, innocent, trusting puppy. His eyes asked, "How can you not love a charming, magnificent creature such as myself?" (Then he plunged his nose into my crotch where, if I were a dog, I would have a gland that produces a distinctive smell so he could track me forever.)
He doesn't win dog shows just for these reasons, though. He wins because he conforms perfectly to the breed standards established by the American Kennel Club—which only began recognizing corsos in 2010—a bizarre document that says things like, "The circumference of the head measured at the cheekbones is more than twice the total length of the head," and because he moves gracefully in the ring to show off his perfect proportions and then holds still so the judges can lift his lips (only slightly pendulous, and never covered in slobber except when he's eating or drinking) to inspect his teeth and reach down for a quick squeeze to make sure he's fully equipped to father puppies. (The only thing that can destroy Ivo's magisterial calm is the nail clipper. It reduces him to a whimpering, cowering mess.)
But there's also that ineffable something. You can tell even now, on a quiet evening at home when Ivo is playing the role not of show dog but of beloved pet. He wags his little stump of a tail when he hears his name and good-naturedly accepts defeat when his attempts to climb up onto the couch are foiled (he's fluent not only in the nonverbal language of Dog, but also in commands in both English and Polish). But you will never see Ivo do something so dumb as chase his tail or lick his balls or lie on his back and wave his paws in the air, at least not in public. Ivo has dignity. You can see it in photos, where he gazes into the camera, eyes smoldering, head tilted just so to show off his best angle, his splendor undimmed even by the Santa hat jammed on his head and the jingle-bell collar around his neck.
"When he walks on the sidewalk," says Proszek, "people stop and look at him. If you put a tie on him, he could work downtown."
Ivo, though, is not some crude master-of-the-universe type. He has the soul of a European gentleman—which, in fact, he is. He was born on June 27, 2011, in Błekitna Przystan, a kennel in eastern Poland near Poznan. His mother, Galla, is Polish. His father, Majoshaza, is Hungarian. Both are champions. It's likely he has memories of neither, although Buczak, who is a dog trainer and behaviorist, believes that during his first seven weeks of life Galla instilled in him everything he needed to know about being a dog. And then, when he was still a small puppy, he flew off to begin his new life in Chicago, escorted by a nanny named Iza Bratkowska. (Buczak and Proszek refuse to transport full-grown dogs by plane. Buczak's first corso, Shiva, traveled with her when she moved from Krakow to Chicago in 2009 and emerged from the cargo hold with a bloody face.)
Although Buczak and Proszek counsel potential owners that they should always meet a puppy before adopting it, the first time they saw Ivo in the flesh was when they picked him up at O'Hare. But they had visited Błekitna Przystan and knew and trusted the owner, Natalia Wysocka, who had given them the pick of the litter and sent dozens of photos to help them make their decision. Of the three males, Ivo had the best-shaped head and body. His personality turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Ivo ignores me when I ask how being an immigrant has affected his outlook on life. Buczak believes a far greater influence has been his job as a stud. When he was young, she worried how it would affect his behavior, whether it would turn him aggressive and domineering. But as the top dog in the kennel, which includes his two sister-wives Genua and Oli, and several puppies, some his, some adopted, he's gracious and kind, leading by example rather than by force.
With female dogs and puppies, he's chivalrous, letting them win at games of keep-away even though he could easily tug the toy from their mouths and carry it off at high speed. He can calm a nervous puppy with a few gentle nudges of his nose. He's not quite paternal: he probably hasn't realized that the act of mating leads to puppies.
With his male friends he allows himself more liberties; he wrestles with his younger kennelmate Luigi and likes to sit in the park with his friend Trevor, a Doberman, and check out the bitches who walk by.
But Ivo mostly prefers the company of females. When Genua, with whom he's had two litters (he's had a third with Oli), went into heat a few months ago, he suffered a bout of intense lovesickness. He pined for an entire month. He would lie on his bed and cry all night long. He refused all food except what was necessary to keep him alive and lost ten pounds. He went from elegantly slim to so skinny that Buczak and Proszek decided not to take him to the International Kennel Club of Chicago Dog Show earlier this month. It was the first time he had ever missed a show.
Ivo was devastated. Buczak thinks he probably cried the whole time they were gone. "He doesn't look like a sensitive guy," she says, "but he is." When Buczak, Proszek, and the three dogs returned from the show, Ivo refused to greet them. He gave Buczak the silent treatment for two days, harsh punishment from a dog who is normally such a mama's boy, following her from room to room and resting his head in her lap when she's working on the computer.
It wasn't so much that Ivo disliked being left behind—although, since he's the leader of his pack, this seldom happens. It's just that the show ring is where he comes alive. Luigi likes to eat. Genua likes to pull Buczak around parking lots in a small dog cart. Ivo likes to show off and be admired. His walk changes from an ordinary canine lumber to a confident, flowing glide, like a model on a runway. "His eyes are full of glory," says Proszek. "Not every dog has that. He's easy for judges to notice."
"When he walks on the sidewalk, people stop and look at him. If you put a tie on him, he could work downtown."—Marcin Proszek, owner of Fide Core Kennel, describing his champion cane corso, Paradiso "Ivo"
Ivo has been competing in dog shows since he was a little more than a year old. He has been in seven and won ribbons at all of them. It's true that the field is small—after World War II, cane corsos were all but extinct, and they're still very rare in the U.S.—but judges don't have to award ribbons if they don't find any of the dogs in the ring worthy. Yet he won. He won when he had to practice in an alley instead of in a proper ring because Buczak and Proszek were too busy with their day jobs (dog training and construction) to take him to classes and so inexperienced they brought the wrong leash and collar to shows.
Every win is worth a certain number of points; this past December, Ivo acquired enough points to finish his championship, as they say in dog world. Buczak considered taking him to Westminster so he could begin his quest to become a grand champion. (She had no expectations he would win—only one corso has ever made the finals in an AKC show.) But then his lovesickness interfered.
Ivo does not like this talk of lovesickness. With his teeth, he grabs a gigantic teddy bear and begins wrestling with it.
"Ivo, do not go for the eyes!" Buczak begs. Ivo snaps at one of the bear's black eyes anyway. It's not the gentlemanly behavior I've been told to expect from him, but then again, even if you're a champion show dog, it's probably excruciating to listen to your mom talk about your girl problems and your weight.
Nonetheless, this embarrassing conversation continues. It will take several months for Ivo to get back to his full weight, and he doesn't make things any easier with his picky appetite. His eating habits are faddish: he will eat one food for several weeks, and then, suddenly, reject it. Buczak and Proszek cook for him: turkey, beef, raw eggs, boiled whole chickens from Whole Foods. He has a finely tuned palate, unusual in a species whose members have been known to eat garbage or used kitty litter. "If Ivo doesn't eat it," Buczak says, "we know it's not fresh."
(For the record, I would be very happy to have a nice sit-down dinner with Ivo, eating his food.)
In a few months, Ivo and the rest of the dogs will be moving to a new house/kennel in Addison with Buczak and her fiance, Daniel Idzik. "It's a really nasty house," Buczak says, "but it's perfect for dogs. There's a forest and a lake."
"We looked for a house a dog is going to like," Proszek adds.
Even though they sell their corso puppies for upwards of $1,000, Buczak and Proszek don't make much money off Fide Core. Or, rather, what they do make, they reinvest in food and vet bills and show entry fees. They believe that anyone who claims to be making money off dogs can't possibly be an honest and careful breeder; they're selling too many puppies. Genua and Oli each produced a litter last summer, but in the future, Buczak and Proszek intend to have only one per year, with carefully chosen matches. (Because corsos are so new to the AKC and its standards, they haven't been damaged by overbreeding, like the boxer or the German shepherd. Because of their size, corsos are prone to hip dysplasia; Ivo has certificates affirming that his hips are "good" and elbows are "normal.")
"We want to breed the best cane corsos," Buczak says.
"Healthy, good dogs," Proszek continues.
"Not just puppies."
"It's our whole life."
"We want to be the best kennel. We'll start from Illinois."
"We'll be the best in Illinois, then the whole country."
"We'll help other people with corsos with behavior problems."
"They'll say, 'Fide Core, they're honest, they have good dogs. It's worth it to talk to them.' A dog like Ivo," Proszek continues, "he's helped us a lot. People recognize us."
Ivo yips and starts to whine.
"Oh, baby, come here," Buczek says, holding out her arms. Ivo nuzzles her face and plants his two front paws on the arms of her chair. She kisses the top of his head. "Ivo just wants more females and to be in charge. Always number one."