The Long and Winding Road
Sandra Lee Bell, of San Jo Cockers, recalls the ups and downs on the path to glory.
Looking back to reflect forces you to step out of your life for a moment so you can describe what you saw and felt, and what you feel now. When you are in the middle of a rush, that flow is tough to stop and describe right then. You are too busy.
Success at anything requires benchmarks and evaluation. We have to look at what we’ve accomplished, how we’ve accomplished it, and then set new goals.
It is easier to feel good about your work when everything seems to go your way. When the wins add up, and the next generation of puppies are looking even nicer than their top-winning parents. Dog people recognize that feeling of satisfaction. We use creative problem solving when “flow” isn’t there. When it moves just outside your line of vision, like when you try to look directly at a distant star and can’t see it, look out of the corner of your eye and there it is.
Working through problems, whether health, behavior, or circumstantial, makes you reach inside for that gritty part of
you that is determined to succeed. Facing down devastating losses measures mettle and fortitude.
I set my goals high and then adjusted them as I moved through the 32 years of my Cocker Spaniel breeding career. Those dogs are, for the most part, parti-colored Cocker Spaniels known as San Jo dogs.
San Jo Cocker Spaniels
As dedicated, responsible breeders, we work to select for sound, healthy, mentally and physically balanced animals who have that little something extra in breed type and attitude that can make them a conformation champion, a titled hunter, or a swift gaming dog. To be more than average, a Cocker Spaniel needs as much of the best in one dog as can be packed in. You want the odds on your side genetically and physically. Then for a successful breeding program those dogs need to reproduce at least themselves—and ideally, better than themselves.
That is one of my fundamental goals. When it works, it plays like a symphony and illustrates the philosophy of a breeding program. When it doesn’t work, you learn more about yourself, your dogs, and the dog community.
I started San Jo with a search for a well-bred family pet. I researched breeds and we decided on a German Shepherd. Then we learned that the breed can be territorial and protective of the family—too much so. Our kids were young and had lots of friends who came to the house to play.
We finally decided on a Cocker Spaniel. Friendly, small, easygoing, playful sounded perfect for our family. We bought our first well-bred companion dog, a buff male, from a breeder in our part of North Carolina. Within two years we wanted a second Cocker. We knew we wanted a show prospect. After visiting several breeders, we found her. She was a regally bred buff bitch, very up on leg. From then on I preferred an up-on-leg dog.
With her we learned about dog shows as we connected with the local dog community. On weekends we’d pack up the kids for a family outing to a dog show. There we learned about the three varieties of Cockers and were really captivated by parti-colors. Ray and Mac Parker, of Bonny Jay, who were actively breeding and showing, graciously took us under their wing. We had our first mentors.
Back to the Drawing Board
After a few more false starts with dogs who didn’t meet enough of our goals to become a foundation for our breeding program, we found our next show prospect. Those dogs who didn't meet our needs were carefully placed in a loving non-show homes.
Joe's work took us next to Florida. We sent our newest parti bitch, Lulu, out with Mozelle Craft to show. As it was, Lulu didn't care much for the ring, but she had a lot going for her and so we bred her to Ch. Cottonwood Catalyst, owned by Carol and Larry Dixon. The puppy we kept was named San Jo Dottie Design. Dottie was with Mozelle to show at the time she decided to retire.
Losing my handler was a loss of a key part of my dog-show team. Dottie was unfinished, and I struggled with what to do next. Then we got the news we were moving again. It was 1981, and this time it was to Waycross, Georgia. Everything changed. I was without my trusted handler, without my dog friends, and without my mentors. The children were growing up and had other interests. Joe’s work demanded more of him. Nothing seemed to be working for me, and more than once I thought about stopping. Except I had not achieved my First Goal: I did not have my first homebred champion. I found a new handler and the local dog community.
Dottie was a lovely bitch and we arranged to breed her to Dixon’s Ch. Terje's Thunderbolt, who sired Ch. Empire’s Brooklyn Dodger. Our puppy was named San Jo Thunder Showers, and we called her Tammy Faye because of her exotic black markings around her eyes. Tammy Faye became my Achievement One. She was my first homebred champion and jumpstarted my breeding program.
In 1990, I purchased a bitch puppy we called Harriet, Lancer's Essence of Magic. Harriet finished her championship and was eventually bred to Ch. SuRic’s Devil in Disguise. In the litter was a tri-colored bitch, Ch. Lancer’s Hear No Evil, Valerie, who was bred to nationally ranked MBIS/MBSS Ch. Rendition’s Triple Play, Andrew. In her first litter, Valerie whelped a tri-colored bitch who would become MBIS/MBSS Ch. San Jo Playin’ to Win, the dam of MBIS/MBSS Ch. San Jo Born To Win, Patrick.
My kennel is small, so I learned to evaluate puppies young. By 12 weeks I know what I will keep. Most of the time, it works.
Setbacks and Triumphs
Life isn’t ever all rosettes and trophies. Despite how thoughtful, how thorough, or how extensive your health screenings and research, there are many more variables. For example, I had one line that I’d carefully nurtured successfully for years. Then an eye problem was suspected in one dog, and that unraveled the entire line. Back then, our best screening tool was the clinical eye exam that told us if a dog had a problem, but not if the dog might develop a problem.
My guiding rule is “do no harm” to the breed. Once there was a possibility of inherited eye disease, I called owners of dogs from that line and paid for eye exams. The owners then had information to make their decisions, but I removed the dogs I owned from my breeding program.
Most people can select a beautiful sire and dam to produce a typey litter of puppies. Establishing a line and sustaining it over time is a mammoth challenge. Unless you’re experienced in selective breeding, you don’t quite understand that challenge when you start. Fortitude and persistence are character traits of successful breeders. You must be alert and adaptive to keep your vision of your next generation always in mind, and be curious and patient to find those dogs who may have the genes you’re searching for in your next breeding. When it works, it is glorious. Watching a dog you’ve bred from generations of successful dogs you’ve bred, who carries their entire family to the next level, gives you a feeling both personal and public, private and shared. Back in the mists are memories of time spent crunched over whelping boxes to make sure each puppy nurse effectively. Or time spent screening potential homes for puppies. Time spent training, grooming, or socializing.
For a moment when your beautiful champion strikes his pose for the judge and audience, the world stands still. You don’t know if you’re breathing or not—probably not. In that moment when the judge points to your young special for what will be the first of several Best in Show wins at the American Spaniel Club Flushing Spaniel Show, time stops. And each time, it happens it is the same experience. It never grows old or dull. When the judge walks over to your champion, now an older dog in the ring as a veteran, and names him Best in Show again at the ASC Flushing Spaniel Show, you glide over time and marvel at the world from the stars. Ups, downs, and through it all, you travel the path to emerge a dedicated breeder.
Sandra Bell was the 2004 Sporting Group AKC Breeder of the Year.