On the Shoulders of Masters
Karen Staudt-Cartabona reminds us that good mentors help make good breeders.
Karen Staudt-Cartabona with two of her Majenkir Borzoi.
Courtesy Karen Staudt-Cartabona
You have just watched the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship show and thrilled to see top awards go to the handler of a proud, beautifully groomed double of the dog contentedly dozing at your feet.
Perhaps you have already entered the show ring with this dog, so dear to your heart, and she has completed the points necessary to become an official AKC champion. Your decision made, you begin to search for a suitable mate, and you are eager to join the ranks of dog breeders.
Where Do You Go From Here?
Every aspect of dogs is well covered in print. A good place to begin is a visit to the AKC web site or the AKC Library for a lifetime of general and breed-specific reading material. These sources also contain contact information for each parent club, so you can learn who the breeders are. Reading is recommended as an invaluable tool no matter what stage in dogs you are at, but one needs more than “book knowledge” to achieve your goals.
Applying what you read is not as easy as it appears—you will be faced with years of trial and error. Each breed will have slight variations to whatever is learned. The fastest and surest way to learn as much as possible in the shortest time, and to bypass this trial-and-mostly-error period, is to find a reliable mentor in your chosen breed.
Parables and Blueprints
I was quite fortunate to have begun my quest for knowledge at a time when I was able to benefit from the wisdom of several undisputed master breeders of their time. They became my breed mentors. I was saved many years of trial and error by just listening. I continue to rely on the advice these past masters.
Foremost on my list will always be Louis J. Murr, of the famous Romanoff kennels. His Borzoi were descended from the foundation O’Valley Farm kennels of Joseph Thomas, who imported his hounds from the great hunting kennels of the Russian aristocracy at the beginning of the last century. All of my better dogs’ lineages go back in a direct line to these early imports.
Mr. Murr maintained it took him 40 years to perfect his ideal and create his main line. He explained that when it was necessary I should breed out, but to always breed back on, and stay with the main line, as it would never do me wrong. It never has.
Louie Murr was a great storyteller. I soon realized that each story was actually a parable. Over the years, I have often recalled small bits of advice that still prove invaluable.
Most breeds have a famous founder; many of these founders have left a legacy by writing a breed book wherein they describe the “beauties” of the dog through type. The function of the breed is described as it relates to the written breed standard. Any prospective breeder must have a full knowledge of how to apply the standard to the living dog and to always maintain breed type. The standard is your blueprint. Keep in mind that “form follows function.” This timeworn adage is still a golden rule, and should apply to each breeding. The only correct way is to keep the living dog balanced. This will produce sound and healthy animals. This is really a form of natural selection, and nature does not look kindly on imbalances.
Read the standard. Memorize it. The knowledge is all there, but applying it to the living dog is difficult. Always remember to listen to your mentor. I once heard this marvelous expression applied to newer but successful breeders: “those who ride in on the shoulders of an experienced or master breeder.”
This is a wonderful description of mentoring. It is the way it was done in the past and is without a doubt the most efficient way to learn. One bypasses the costly, disappointing and often heartbreaking mistakes. You learn to see the breed through the eyes of one with years of experience.
The names in a pedigree are not just names but dogs that the mentor has seen, has had hands on, and knows the virtues and weak points of. You will learn the intricacies of proper feeding, whelping, exercise, training, grooming, show handling, breeding—the list of what you will gain is endless. Best of all is that once your have gained the trust of your mentor, you will have access to the successful bloodline. This will ensure a solid foundation for your breeding program. Every good breeder-mentor understands that it is better for the welfare of the entire breed when the gene pool of successful and healthy dogs is widened.
Choosing a Mentor
1968: Louis Murr, a “mentor’s mentor,” puts up Ch. Big Jim of Bella Dane. The handler is Lina Basquette.
Great Dane/AKC File Photo
The person or persons whom you chose to learn from should have been in dogs long enough to have established a reputation. They must have been breeding their own line for at least three generations, otherwise they have not been in it long enough to even know the average life span of their dogs or the genetic weaknesses not only in the breed, but in their own line.
Their dogs should not only excel in the show ring, but should have done some work in whatever field for which the breed was created. If, for example, the dogs are sighthounds, some from the line should have done well in field coursing. Beware of the person who downplays one or the other factor of the breed’s abilities, as they do not really understand their breed. Especially beware of those who brag about having perfect dogs, while the competitor’s dogs are all inferior.
The person worthy of being a mentor should have a decent sprinkling of their kennel name appearing in outside pedigrees. It goes without saying that they do the health tests their breed requires. Have they participated in their sport by speaking at symposiums, or have they held an office in their parent or local breed club?
Once you have decided on the person worthy of becoming your breed mentor, do not walk in and expect to bowl her over with your knowledge. Rather than how much or how little you know, she would be more interested in how sincere you are.
Try to make yourself useful by offering your help in whatever capacity you are able. While show handling appears glamorous, the serious breeder-fancier had better not be averse to getting down and dirty. You will quickly learn to pooper-scoop with the best.
If all goes well, and a relationship develops, once you are able to prove that you are serious about learning, you will quickly reap your benefits. As time passes you will be guided and even carried over many of the pitfalls you may not have the fortitude or experience to survive on your own.
One pitfall to becoming a successful breeder is that this lifestyle is not conducive to the breakneck speed of our modern world, where instant success has become the accepted way. If you recognize that you crave instant success you would do better to cancel your breeding plans and instead buy the best dog that you can find, then campaign it. This is also highly rewarding in its way. Achieving a successful breeding program is better left to someone who is willing to make the lifelong commitment.
I will never try to lead you to believe that this will be easy, nor that there will not be heartaches and disappointments. The rewards will, however, counterbalance the problems. What pleasanter way to go through life than surrounded by man’s best friends, your own pack? The dogs you breed are not only the preservation of a legacy of a gene pool handed to you from the past, but are a living work of fine art you have molded and brought to being through your own creativity.
Karen Staudt-Cartabona, of Swartzwood, New Jersey, was the 2005 AKC Hound Group Breeder of the Year. Her Majenkir Borzoi are a dominant force in the breed and can be found in the pedigrees of top kennels both here and abroad.