by Anna Cooke – This feature first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of The New Barker Dog Magazine.
One year, out of the blue, 15-year-old John Patrick asked his parents for an English Bulldog as a Christmas present. With his sister Sarah looking on, their parents, Jo-Ann and John Lefner said no, citing the family’s current dog, a rambunctious Yellow Lab named Jake, as exhibit number one in support of their argument. The young man quietly left the room. His parents looked at one another, wondering about their son’s curious request. This, from a most giving child who himself had never really asked for anything. How could they deny him?
And so it was that a little brindle English Bulldog puppy entered the lives of the Lefner family, instantly finding a place in each of their hearts (except maybe Jake’s). They named him Dauber after coach Dauber Dybinski, a character in Coach, a popular television series at the time.
Dauber was not long for this world, passing away just a few months later at the age of one. The whole family was so devastated they could not even process the thought of bringing another dog into their fold. Even Jake, the Yellow Lab, seemed out of sorts. But, we don’t find dogs. It seems, when the time is right, they find us.
One afternoon, Jo-Ann was watching domestic diva Martha Stewart on television. Martha has a signature closing at the end of every show. “It’s a good thing.” Those words never rang more true for Jo-Ann than right at that moment.
“This family,” she thought to herself, “needs a good thing, right now.”
Just then, Jo-Ann’s telephone rang. It was Dauber’s breeder. “I have a litter of Bulldog puppies, and there is one that I think would be perfect for you and your family,” she told Jo-Ann.
And so it was that a second little English Bulldog entered the Lefner’s lives and, once again, stole their hearts. Jake took one look at his new housemate and glared up at Jo-Ann with a wrinkled brow as if to say, “What have you done to me now?” They named the English Bulldog puppy Martha Stewart, and she would lovingly torment Jake the rest of his days.
Over the years, the Lefners and their dogs would travel from their home in New York to spend their winters in Charleston, North Carolina. Jo-Ann and Martha Stewart would take walks, visiting the many beautiful parks. While most of the parks allowed leashed dogs, Jo-Ann found that they weren’t really very dog-friendly. There were no water stations or designated places to dispose of dog waste. Soon Jo-Ann and Martha Stewart became crusaders for improving Charleston’s dog parks, successfully campaigning for these and other amenities.
Fast forward a few years. Martha Stewart (the domestic diva) was being released from prison after having served a five-month term for conspiracy to obstruct justice. Ever the marketing maven, she had a quirky idea for her first television show following her incarceration. Why not have a program featuring everyone they could find named Martha Stewart?
The staff Googled “Martha Stewart” and found 167 women, and one English Bulldog, all named Martha Stewart. The internet’s search engine found Martha Stewart, the 10-year-old English Bulldog, via stories about the Charleston dog park campaign.
“Having a dog named Martha Stewart, well, you can imagine the crank calls we had endured from friends and family over the years,” Jo-Ann explained. “Questions like ‘what is Martha Stewart cooking up for dinner tonight?’”
Jo-Ann recalled the evening she received the phone call from someone claiming to be a producer with the Martha Stewart Show. She and John were having friends over for dinner.
“We were in the kitchen, and I picked up the phone to hear someone tell me they were from the Martha Stewart Show. They asked me if I had an English Bulldog by the name of Martha Stewart.”
Jo-Ann immediately thought it was one of her friends joking around, and responded accordingly with a sarcastic answer. Suddenly, she realized that the person on the other end of the phone was serious.
“No, really. I am a producer for the show, and we want your dog to be on Martha Stewart’s first show of her new season,” the woman told Jo-Ann.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They wanted our Martha Stewart to be on the Martha Stewart Show?”
They were flown, all-expenses paid to New York to be on the show in 2006.
“My dog, Martha Stewart went to hair and make-up and Martha Stewart, the star of the show, baked dog cookies for her,” smiled Jo-Ann.
The fame never went to Martha Stewart’s head (the dog, that is).
In December 2010, Jo-Ann Lefner opened a boutique on Anna Maria Island and named it after the family’s fourth English Bulldog, Bella. Regulars loved seeing Bella at the store. Over the years, The New Barker co-hosted a couple of fundraising events at the store in support of animal advocacy, including Florida English Bulldog Rescue.
After 10 successful years, Jo-Ann has decided to close Bella by the Sea Home Boutique. She made her decision just after the first of the year and long before the pandemic crisis. After years of sitting on various Boards, supporting community activities and going to market for her store, Jo-Ann is looking forward to visits with her children and grandchildren.
“It’s time to sit back, enjoy life, and think about my next new adventure,” said Jo-Ann.