LR: Welcome to Pure Dog Talk. And we welcome Pluis Davern and we’re gonna talk about dog breeding, and we’re going to talk about Sussex Spaniels, and we’re going to talk about rare breeds and preservation breeding, and some of the things that come with that, ok?
LR: Alright, so, numbers of Sussex Spaniels, very low
PD: Very low
LR: Got a number?
PD: Worldwide? Oh, I’d say 600 maybe
LR: 600 total Sussex in the world?
PD: Ya, I think so
LR: Wow, ok. So, you’re working with a pretty small gene pool
PD: Oh, you don’t know the half of it. After World War II, there were 7 Sussex, 4 of whom were viable breeding’s, and from that we’ve gotten where we are today. And the fact that they have relatively few physical problems, medical problems, yes, they have them, is simple remarkable. There were crosses after World War II as there were in all the breeds in England, just to get numbers back up again. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that during the war, the last great war, people didn’t have food in England. They didn’t have food in a lot of places in Europe, and if you can’t your family, you certainly can’t feed your dog, so hundreds of thousands of animals were destroyed. So, after the war, to regenerate people were crossing dogs and then crossing back into their own line. So, every once in a while, in a Sussex we’ll get a light of white, and the breed is golden liver, and we bred Clumbers into them and we got back some size, but startlingly the breed hasn’t had great litters. You don’t see litters with 10 and 12, mostly 3 or 4, 6 maybe.
LR: If you can get them pregnant
PD: If you can get them pregnant. It seems like they ovulate the same as every other dog but they don’t conceive at the same times. We often feel we bred too soon. The reproductive vets that deal with Sussex Spaniels, all bald, they’ve all pulled their hair out. It’s just….ya. So, for breeders it can be a real challenge and it’s a chain. It’s a wonderful breed, what I see people doing now is keeping a whole litter so that they can sort through them. You know with a rare breed, people have them because they’re a rare breed and I always worry about that because you need to have some dog knowledge with these Spaniel breeds because it’s soft, woeful expression hides a little soul of steel.
LR: Yes, indeed, yes indeed. So, ok I was talking to another breeder of another rare breed and they said that for them, an outcross was maybe 25% of the pedigree was not the same. Can you compare for Sussex?
PD: It’s about the same, it’s about the same. Yes, if you keep dipping in the same pool, maybe you’re not jumping all the way in but you’re getting the action. And that’s again is why I find it so remarkable we don’t have more lethals.
PD: We don’t even know. The dogs are long and low, we don’t have a lot of back problems, we have dysplasia, yes. We have some heart issues, an occasional PRA but nothing is rife. You don’t go oh my gosh.
LR: Every single litter has….
PD: Absolutely not. So, that’s very good. Lots of low libido in the boys, and the girls are willing but very modern. All fun and no stability, it’s just very hard.
LR: Interesting. So, you find that they’re not good mother-ers?
PD: They are phenomenal
LR: Oh they are good?!
PD: Yes, it’s just that they want to have sex and not have babies! Well, I just talked to my breeder in England and she was saying the same thing, she said, what is it with these girls? And so, their litter sizes are pretty small as well. Of course, in England they often don’t want to travel vast distances, and those of us that live in the great country of America and in the great state of California, we’ll drive almost anywhere.
PD: But, yes, it’s a very challenging breed, a charming breed, but very difficult to reproduce. And I had no idea when I started in them because my first few litters were fine, and in talking around it got to be harder and harder.
LR: So, you’re in a small gene pool already.
LR: As Betty Anne said, a puddle.
PD: Oh, yes
LR: So you’re in a small puddle of genes, do you find that within that very small, not very diverse group, certain bits work better than other bits? Do you get a nick, or not get a nick?
PD: That’s a really good question. Just, we don’t get enough puppies on the ground to even necessarily go through that. And the breeders in Sussex, the serious breeders, tend to sort of stay with their own stuff.
LR: Ok, so it’s hard to say?
PD: It’s hard to say, it really is. It really is hard to say, it’s just, everybody walks around with their fingers crossed that this one will take. We all have repro people, and the University is helping us to try to increase the numbers.
PD: And you know most of us do a lot of health screening, you have to give up on some things just to keep the breed on the ground. But, ya, it’s challenging. And having come from Golden Retrievers that get pregnant just when they look at the stud dog, it’s heartbreaking on the one hand, but because they are such charming dogs it’s worth it when you get a litter of puppies, it’s amazing. But I know a lot of the breeders keep their litters or spread them amongst their friends so they keep hold of that gene pool, and have access to breeding them.
LR: So then it’s hard. I mean, if you want a Sussex Spaniel you pretty much have to sell a body part!
PD: Yes. And a very valuable body part
LR: A liver maybe!
PD: There you go. Yes, and when you look at it, the population stays the same if you look at the registration.
LR: Hasn’t necessarily gone up or down?
PD: We stay the same. It’s very challenging.
LR: So, where do you see this going, I mean are Sussex going to become extinct? What is the future for the breed?
PD: That’s a really good question. I don’t know, I worry about it. There are people now in Europe who’ve never had Sussex before that are starting to breed them as well, but if this low turnover keeps happening, ya. But it was that way after World War II, so as long there are people who care and research goes on, hopefully we will find out some reasons why.
LR: Are we gonna clone the Sussex?
PD: Oh dear God no! I should hope not, I should hope not, but I’m hoping we will find out why there’s so few. And hopefully find an answer because they’re a charming breed. They’re not for everybody, they’re extremely strong willed not unlike Clumbers. Yes? But they are devoted beyond measure and their remarkable little hunting dogs. And even if you don’t want to hunt, they can do activities, that, you know not everybody wants to go out and shoot a pheasant, but they are remarkable good at it, but they transfer very nicely to other sports.
LR: Right. And I think one of the things that I have always valued about the Sussex, much like the Clumbers and few of the other rare Spaniels, you don’t see a divide between a field dog and a show dog. Can you speak to that a little bit?
PD: Absolutely, because it’s happened to all of our other breeds.
LR: Not all, but many
PD: Yes, but many. I think one of the things about the Spaniel program that has been so good is the Spaniel Hunt Test program, because it gives those of us who want to prove our stock, to show that they can still do what they were supposed to do, a venue. They can’t run in field trials, and I don’t ever want them to run in field trials. I’m happy for my Vizsla to run in field trials but I don’t want my Sussex because to be competitive with a Springer, they have to run like a Springer. And the moment they have to be another breed, they become another breed. And that’s, I don’t ever want to do that. When you see the original purpose of the Sussex, it was a gentleman’s shooting dog and they were hunting in very deep ravines and high cover in England, where speed was not necessarily what you wanted. You wanted a dog to get under the cover and through the cover like a little bull dozer, and not over the cover. And so, I think that in field trials, the breeding of those breeds that run, not necessarily in pointing breeds, but in Spaniels, to be competitive with Springers, you have to change your breeding program. And then you don’t have a Sussex or Clumber any more. These were gentleman’s shooting dogs, not Olympic runner shooting dogs.
LR: Exactly. And I know you see it in your Retriever breeds. You see such a huge dog between a dog that would be in a show ring, and a dog that would be out performing in a field trial. Maybe you could speak to the idea of hunt test in general, as providing a way to continue with the basic instinctual ability that these dogs were designed for, and have them still look like what they were designed to do.
PD: Well, it’s a great topic because when the hunt test program was started by AKC, I think for those of us who wanted to breed what the breed was supposed to be and have a testing ground for it, was one of the most brilliant things that the AKC has ever done. And this was a proving ground without the dogs competing one breed against another. When I look at field trials, I ran field trials with the Retrievers for a while, it’s heavy stuff but you’re not proving the dogs. You can’t mix oranges and bananas, right? I don’t want a banana to taste like orange, and so these dogs were all designed for the same job, but in different terrain and for different people. There was a gentleman’s shooting dog. Now, a gentleman is not going to run 250 yards to catch up with this dog that is standing there, or try to fletch a bird at 250 yards, you can’t hit a bird with a shotgun.
LR: No, your active shotgun range being about 50 yards.
PD: Exactly. And in my case these days, much shorter than that. But, so the hunt test program, I thought, was a brilliant move because it stayed true to what each breed was developed for. You were not comparing those, you were actually honoring what each breed was supposed to do, and I appreciated that and thought it was absolutely brilliant. I now have some issues with the fact that Retrievers are allowed to run in Spaniel tests.
LR: Yes, that changed
PD: The very first non-Spaniel that got an approval to run was an Airedale. Now I have no fault to find with Airedale’s or my Golden running in a Spaniel’s, but they should have gone up one test of their own because you’re running dogs that are twice as tall, can cover ground much faster, to a little American Cocker. And then you have a Golden Retriever, or as somebody approached me the other day and said, I have a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, I’d like to run in a Spaniel test. And I’m going, just run in the Pointing test, right? So, I’m not terribly happy with that. I think the AKC could have a wonderful program for an up one game test where you could run the long-legged dogs and have the Spaniels run Spaniel test. So, probably never go back again to that, but, there you have it. Anyway, the program for the Spaniels is wonderful, and it’s not competitive but they have to meet a certain criteria to get their degrees. And I think it’s also wonderful for people who run field trial dogs, like field trial Springers, to see these other breeds, these rarer breeds, working and producing just as many boards in their own way, and to me that diversity is the thing. I have a Sussex because they appeal to me. I don’t want it to be like a Clumber or a Springer, and I love to watch Clumbers work and I train them for people, but when you have a specific breed, that’s what your heart has given you. So, I don’t want it to be like anything else.
LR: Right, right. And do you find in Sussex, that the natural instinct is really strong?
PD: Absolutely, it’s still there. I’ve taken dogs that have been nothing but dogs, and once they realize that thing that’s flapping out there is what it is, that instinct comes right to the front and it’s charming to see.
LR: It’s one of my favorite things when you see a baby puppy, or a dog that’s never encountered birds, encounter them for the first time, oh.
PD: Oh, when you see a little Pointer puppy, my Vizsla puppy, it goes on point and you can see it going, I don’t know what’s happening, but I have to stand here, oh my goodness! And I’m sitting there laughing and almost crying because that to me, is showing what genetics does, and as breeders we have to foster that. Not everybody wants to shoot over a dog, not everybody wants to hunt, but if you get a hunting dog, those characteristics and those instincts should be there because that’s what makes a pure bred dog a pure bred dog.
LR: Yes, yes absolutely. And I think that is so incredibly important.
PD: Yes, and there is nothing to me, after all these years, there is nothing like watching my Shorthaired go on point, or my Sussex flush a bird, or my Golden Retriever do a water blind, I go darn it, this is what breeding is all about. You know breeding those characteristics and refining them, and then just watching the dogs be so happy.
LR: And understanding the dog looks the way it looks because it was designed to do its job.
PD: Absolutely, absolutely. Yes, and that’s the joy of a pure bred dog, and my hat is always off to breeders who maintain a breed, and makes sure that, apart from the health screenings, obviously, that they breed dogs that can still do the job whether you and I, living in a city, are going to use that. But this is what makes that dog that breed, and so I’ve always felt it very important for breeders to test their puppies for their field abilities if they’re a hunting breed, whether they go to a hunting home or not. Because those instincts can then be trained into different directions for a family that lives in a city. But, you know a hunting breed is not a hunting breed if it doesn’t want to hunt.
LR: Exactly. So, two more things. One, and I think this is a great point to make and I’d like to develop it a little bit: you have a hunting breed that has hunting instincts, it’s instinct is to stop and look at game, or to flush or retrieve game, or whatever it’s instincts that has been bred for how many hundreds of generations are to do. So, let’s talk about, in addition to search and rescue work, what are some of the other things that the family who isn’t going to hunting with their hunting dog, can take those instincts and channel them into a different direction?
PD: Oh, there’s so many things. For an active dog like the Pointing breeds that are running breeds, there is agility, there is barn hunt so you’re using the dogs nose….you may have changed what it’s look for. There’s lure coursing, and I’ve often thought that lure coursing is great for people who are really not into killing small, furry critters, or feathery creatures, but the dogs have such a wonderful time going for it. After all, they do it with Irish Wolfhounds, and I haven’t heard of an Irish Wolfhound going after a real wolf for generations. So, there are lots of activities that the American Kennel Club has and my gosh, anybody who wants to do anything with their dog can find a venue where they can use those instincts that were used for hunting, and morph them into something else.
LR: Excellent. And, follow up always, the future of Sussex?
PD: The future of Sussex. If we can keep breeding them, that in itself, so we keep their numbers up. I don’t ever think that they’re ever going to the numbers of Golden Retrievers by any means.
LR: Are you seeing the breed continue to be healthy, improve in any particular area, or an area that you’d like to see continue to see be improved?
PD: I would hope that people who have them and breed them, go through the health checks. Now, having said that, you may not always get all of the health checks done, but as long as you make sure that if you’re breeding a dog with an issue, you’re not breeding it to another dog with the same issue. I mean, it’s common, but common sense. I feel they’re relatively healthy, I worry about their reproductive levels. They are not the greatest reproducers in the world but there are enough people, I think, that care enough about the breed worldwide, that they will maintain it. It went down to really, 4 dogs after World War II, so the fact that we don’t have more genetic issues, we used to say that they’re not dropping in the ring, and that’s remarkable in and of itself. Because, basically the breed was resuscitated with 4 dogs after World War II, so we’re all related. But, I just always hope, my personal hope is, when people get a Sussex that they use its mind as well as it’s body, as well as walking it in the park or whatever, because they need to do that. And in all fairness to the breed, I would never have become a hunter if it hadn’t been for my Golden Retriever who said, excuse me, this is what I do! And we went to a little picnic trial and this dog just went berserk, and so I learned how to hunt so that I can satisfy my dog. Of course, I became a hunter, and now I hunt all the time! But, the hunting instinct is still very strong in the Sussex, even people who say well, my dog has never seen a bird. They’re a primitive breed, they haven’t been over-bred because they don’t breed well, and so I feel as long as people check health, know what you’re breeding, that’s what I call breeding sensibility, and they’re an amazing little dog.
LR: Thank you very much Pluis, I appreciate your time so very much.
PD: My pleasure, thank you for asking me.
LR: Thank you for joining us.