Before I start the interview let me say that HySpire is a partnership of three women, myself, Vonnie Russell, and Lisa Da Ross and also Vonnie's husband Jim Russell. Any successes we have had at HySpire should be attributed to all four of us and we have all worked hard together and put together a partnership that has allowed us to attain a certain amount of success in our chosen hobby of breeding , showing and loving Labrador Retrievers. However I will answer theses questions in the singular, I, in many cases because like all breeders we do each have our own opinions about different things and they are not always the same and therefore I do not want to make it appear that I am speaking for my partners as I answer these questions. There are some questions that will require a ‘we' answer however, pertaining to how we operate at HySpire.
1. Tell us a bit about your kennel - how did it all start? How many dogs do you have? What is your daily schedule?
My kennel started the way that many do. I got a Labrador Retriever as a pet for myself and my family. I had always liked the look of the breed because I grew up riding quarter horses and I felt like the short coated medium sized well muscled Labrador looked as much like the Quarter horse as a dog possibly could. I was fortunate, however, that they also had the same gentle nature as a Quarter horse because I stupidly did not one bit of research on temperament. The first Lab I acquired was a black male and interestingly enough, although his mother was more of a pet, his sire was Glenarvey Barrister an English import. I took this dog to obedience class, found I had a real knack for it and was soon heavily involved in obedience competition and did quite well. Once I became more involved with other dog people, it was an easy transition into the breed/conformation ring. I did both for many years. After 15 or 20 years of breeding and showing Vonnie and Lisa and I became involved with a breeding we did and then we bred some more litters and before long we were doing all of our breedings together and eventually decided to blend our two kennels and have one kennel name. My kennel name was Inspiration and theirs was Hygate and from that came HySpire and we have never looked back or regretted our merger. I have been breeding for 41 years and Vonnie and Lisa for about 31 years. I believe we have been breeding together for about 15 years.
We are fortunate that we have three different households so we can have more dogs that way. I believe between the three of us we have about 40 dogs at this moment. However that changes and I suspect we will have fewer soon as we have some young dogs growing up and clearances will be done and decisions will be made and some will go to new homes over the next year because they never all make it through those hurdles we put these dogs we show and breed through. The number we like to have at any given time is less than thirty. Of course there are always the ‘space wasters' as we jokingly call them, and those are the older veteran dogs who live in our homes and sleep on our sofas and occasionally think they are a pup again and have to tear up a book or steal a loaf of bread off the counter. There are some that just stay forever no matter what.
Our daily schedule is like any dog breeder. We get up in the early am and feed and clean up after the dogs and clean and refill water buckets. None of our dogs live in a dog run/kennel. All three of us have paddocks for our dogs and they run in groups in the paddocks. Our boys and girls have to be able to live together peacefully and if we ever have one come along that cannot do that, then he is out. Its how it has to be and it has given us wonderfully sweet tempered tolerant boys and girls. Our outside dogs ( as opposed to the house pets inside) sleep in dog crates at night in our dog rooms and after they are fed they go out to the paddocks where they have plenty of room to run and play and sleep and dig and chew- just do whatever their little Labrador hearts desire. In the summer they have swimming pools of some sort put into every paddock so they have water to play in. Vonnie has a real swimming pool at her house and her dogs get to take turns at supervised swimming in the pool and I live near her so often in the summer take my dogs over for a swim as well. Vonnie also works at a boarding kennel and therefore her dogs can go to work with her and they take turns doing so and it is great socialization for them. I work from home so my dogs live in my office! In the afternoons we generally clean our paddocks again and in the summer empty waters and put fresh cool water into the buckets and then when it gets dark the dogs all go into their crates with a bedtime cookie and go to sleep. In the summer they have big fans on them in their paddocks and also in the dog room while they are in their crates.
2. What faults of your first dogs, if there were any, were you able to eliminate in the next generations, and what features might you have lost?
Well some of our my first dogs were not even good enough to talk about and information was so limited back then as we only had one publication that came out annually and that was the Julie Brown Labrador Retriever Breeders Directory, and I don't think we had a way to gain quick knowledge as to what was good dog anatomy, what dogs were out there, and all the information we have today to help us make educated decisions. I don't think my first breedings were all that good. I was living in Arizona at the time and there were only three dog clubs of any kind and so we had three dog shows a year. Then I moved to California where there are probably two hundred dog shows a year and that is when I really began to see and learn. I read every educational book I could get my hands on and some were excellent but you also need to just have real life experiences to put what you have read into play sometimes.
But what I will say about the first breedings when I really ‘got it' and started doing breedings that made progress was that Vonnie, Lisa and I looked at structure and looked at it hard. It has been the most important part of the dog for me for many, many years now and it has paid off. You have to have something to build on and that is the structure and you have to get that right first. Then you add the rest of it, heads, coats, type.
I think one of the things we had to fight the hardest to fix on one of our old lines was rear angulation. We had imported a dog who was quite straight in the rear but who had so many other wonderful qualities and we still have a line that comes down from that dog. It took us about three generations to correct that rear and it was a great feeling of success when we finally did it, and even more rewarding when those first dogs with proper rears could produce those same proper rears even when bred to a dog/bitch who was straight stifled. We lost nothing while working to fix the rear.
If your real question to me though is what do I think we can easily fix in one generation…..I would say heads and type- very easy to fix.
3. What do you look for in a Labrador? What is your idea of a perfect Labrador? Who are your ideal Labradors of the past and of today?
A perfect Labrador for me first and foremost has to have a perfect Labrador temperament. He/she needs to be happy to lay at my feet while I work or watch television and bound up delighted if I pick up a gun to hunt, a tennis ball to throw, or say lets go for a swim. It must be happy to have children using it as a pillow and if a baby accidentally stumbles and falls on the dog while it is sleeping, its first instinct is to lick that crying child not bite it. It must love to pick up a duck or pheasant and at the same time bathe an adopted kitten that is curled up next to it for warmth. It must be friendly to all that I am friendly to but discerning and intuitive enough to be suspicious of those who warrant it.
In looks it is one that has perfect structure: beautiful shoulders and forearm of proper length and layback, good spring of rib and depth of chest with a slight bit of tuck up so it does not appear to have what we term a ‘sausage body'. Good turn of stifle and strength to the set of the rear, good muscling in the second thigh and good width across the hips. Good bone in both the front and rear legs and bone all the way to the ground. Good well arched feet, nice and tight and well padded. A good topline that basically starts at the back of the skull and comes down a neck of good reach and goes all the way down the back over those beautifully laid back shoulders and straight across the croup with no drop or roundness from the croup to the tail. Tail not set low but neither set high as many seem to be these days. A lovely head with some width of top skull, eyes neither too small or round with good color, not too light or too dark, good stop, more than a flat coat, less than a Rottweiler, good width and depth of muzzle, with a good scissor bite and no missing teeth. The coat must be thick and double and must wrap. The wrap is all important. I don't believe another breed has this criteria but ours and therefore it is certainly a hallmark of our breed's type. This of course is going to also give you the lovely otter tail that is so necessary and then we must add that the tail is of medium length that reaches to the point of the hock and is straight as a board with no curve and is carried almost straight out and not high and over the back. When this perfect dog moves away the hocks work with good action, not hocking in or wobbling or crossing over and coming towards me the dog is nice and straight, not wide, or narrow. Moving from the side really tells a story. The topline stays nice and straight, head is carried a bit higher than level, not too high, nor too low and the straight topline continues out to the end of the thick otter tail. The front legs reach forward, with no lifting or restriction, out to the dogs nose and the rear legs come forward under the dog and then grab the ground and push out behind the dog with a power and strength that appears effortless – a graceful strength. The rear legs go well behind the dog but not in an Akita ‘kick' which you will see sometimes in a dog with little rear angle. That is not the way a Labrador should drive off its rear. Then for me personally to top it all off this dog is black ( my personal favorite although I do love yellows and chocolates too), loves the show ring, and will occasionally stand like a stallion in the ring. He has hip and elbow clearances, eye clearance, Optigen Normal, heart clearance. And he has the sperm count of a young Angus bull. (Well you said perfect!)
So that is perfection in a nutshell. If that dog ever walks into my life…..I am quitting. It will be my last dog because I will have attained that goal that all breeders seek- The Perfect Dog.
Now since we know that no such dog exists, then we have to look at what we can forgive and I can certainly forgive a missing tooth or two if I have all the rest of that. I can never forgive a bad temperament even if I had all the rest. So that is where breeding decisions come into play.
Ideal Labradors of the past and present: I am not going to mention many dogs from Great Britain only because I have not seen them as I have never been to Great Britain, but I suspect that Sandylands Mark would have been at the top of my list based on production alone, and I always liked that the Rocheby dogs had fronts and rears that matched and were so balanced..
But in theU.S. Ch. Dickendall Arnold, Int. Ch. Raintree Slippery When Wet, Ch. Windfall Black Piper, Ch. Wingmasters K-MA , Ch. Lobuffs Turtledove , Ch. Lobuff Hollyridge Puffin, Ch. Graemor Tim, Ch. HySpire Darktown Strutter, Ch. Inspirations Wish Me Back, many of the Mallorn dogs, Ch Chablais Myrtille and quite frankly I like a lot of our own dogs. If I didn't like them and if Vonnie and Lisa didn't like them we would not have them. So I have to include a bitch we used to own named Ch. HySpire Charmed, Ch. HySpire Somethings Amiss, Ch. HySpire Pipin Hot, and our boys Ch. Sureshot HySpire Impressive, Ch. HySpire Hotter Than Blazes, Ch. HySpire Adrenaline Rush, Ch. Nipntuck HySpire Unforgettable, Ch. Ghoststone HySpire Dressed To Impress, Ch. HySpire Singular Sensation to name a few and that is enough. Again these are Ideal dogs but not Perfect dogs.
4. Do you think there is a difference between "American" and "English" type Labradors?
Well yes, but let me explain. At one time, when I first got started in Labs in 1969 the dogs in the states were quite different looking than the dogs in GB which was the Labrador Mecca! Our dogs tended to have a rather longer muzzles and a bit snipey, did not carry proper coat, long legs with little depth of body and whipety tails. Now all of these dogs went back to English dogs but some came from field kennels and some came from English breeders who sent some of their not so good dogs over because many Americans would buy anything, dogs or chinaware, if it came from GB. And then we continued to breed them and ‘Americanize' them. However there were some good breeders who went to GB and brought home some very nice dogs and we began to get, especially on our east coast, some dogs with proper heads, and coats, etc. Then they began to look different than the dogs that were the American type and when the person walking down the street would comment on this very handsome dog and be surprised to find out it was a purebred Labrador in spite of the lovely head and tail, the owner would say, “well this dog's mother or father or the dog itself was brought here from GB”. Those dogs that had proper Labrador type began being called the English type. So it was merely a way of differentiating between the type of dog that looked more like a field type, American kind of dog and the show dog type which was coming over from GB and it has stuck and now the general public when they call to purchase a dog know to ask for the ‘English type' dog which means they are looking for a dog with nice bone and substance, a pretty head, and nice type, rather than those with no coat, long thin tails and long thin legs. Those American types are usually a bit more hyper as well.
Whether there is a difference between Labradors in America and Labradors in GB though - well I am sure there is since the British keep talking about it but since I have never been to GB to see there dogs, I am not sure I can accurately comment on it and I wouldn't judge that on the few English imports that have come over in the last five years because I do not know if they accurately represent our breed in GB.
5. What faults do you consider the most serious fault in a Labrador ? Which of them are the most difficult to get rid of?
A bad temperament is the most serious fault in a Labrador . You cannot find a good home for a dog of any breed with a truly bad temperament. And it is easy to to get rid of because if the dog has a truly bad temperament and I mean one where it has and would bite then it needs to be put down. But fortunately it is a problem we seldom ever see in our breed. So I would say lets back up a bit into a dog who has a temperament we don't want to see in a Labrador but it is not a truly bad temperament but maybe the dog is a bit too shy, or headstrong, or hyper, or needy. Well these are dogs than can be neutered and put into a wonderful pet home because most of these dogs can do well with a one on one relationship and obedience training and those types of temperament flaws are easy to breed out because you just don't breed the dog, period. At HySpire we are adamant that our dogs have temperaments that we absolutely love to live with and anything that isn't we do not breed and therefore we never produce anymore from that dog or bitch.
Conformation faults: I would say in going around the world and within our own country I am seeing two problems consistently and I hate both - straight forearms, or upper arms as some call them and tails carried too high. Of the two I think the tails are the hardest to correct because I see them coming from lines that should not be producing them and I personally have not figured out what is causing them when the tailset is not really high but the tail carriage is. So that is the next challenge.
The forearms though - you just need to breed that into your line once and then do it again and do it again and keep picking your pups that are the best looking pups but with the best forearms until you ‘set' it in your line. Of course first of all you have to know what a good forearm is and how it should look.
6. How do you choose a stud dog for a bitch, do you look at his pedigree, his looks or something else? Do you prefer to use linebreeding or outcross?
This is pretty easy. There is an old saying in horses, “You can't ride a pedigree” and it is soooo true. However we have gone both ways in selecting our stud dogs. Generally speaking though it is done like this. We almost always have a short list of stud dogs we have personally seen and whose ‘get' we have seen that we really like and keep them on our list of dogs to breed to. Then when the time comes to breed a bitch or to at least talk about breeding, we look at the bitch or usually we already know what it is about her that we want to correct in her pups. I can tell you too, that usually there is not much to correct because of the way we go about out breeding program and so we are starting with a very correctly made girl in the first place. But none are perfect so we know her failings and then we look to our shortlist of stud dogs and decide which dog is strong and has produced strongly where she is weak. Then we look at the pedigree and again we usually know it already but we will review it again to make sure it looks like it will work with her pedigree. We have on one occasion when we were trying to get rid of a specific fault and we had bred the bitch twice with no luck in changing that fault, decided to look to her pedigree and pick the dog in her pedigree that was strong where she was weak and we linebred back on that dog. That was the straight rears I was talking about and that put us on the road to recovery from that fault.
We have used and like all three methods of breeding: inbreeding, linebreeding, and outcross. We don't use inbreeding very often at all . I think we have only done that twice and it was very good for us, but we take those pups from that breeding and they are bred on an outcross. Recently we have been doing more outcrosses and I think they are the hardest and the least productive sometimes on the first generation but they definitely are needed. We have been doing them because we like our own boys so much and love what they are producing but we cannot breed to them because all of our girls are closely related to them. So we have done some outcrosses, brought in some new blood and now this year we are able to breed back to some of our own dogs for the first time ever and are we ever excited about that.
7. What do you look for in a puppy when you choose your pick of the litter? Can the whole litter be of the so-called ‘show quality' or it's usually 1 or 2 pups?
We look for that structure I have spoken of before. We know we have the type and we don't worry about the heads because they are so easy to get. So we look at structure. We have been doing this so long now that we are pretty solid on that as well so I would say we do try to look for the best pup structurally and then when we find four or five hopefully or even more with that structure we start getting more picky to sort them out. We try to look at coat quality because it seems wrapping coats are harder to find these days and we look at tail set and carriage and then again we look at the bitch and what we were trying to improve from her in her pups and if that was a straight forearm then we are going to look for the very best forearms. If, for instance, her eyes are too small then we look for good eye size and shape.
We have a lot of litters that have four or five show quality pups. In fact I would say that is the norm. We seldom anymore have a litter with just one pup that is show quality but have had more of that in the past. We have also had the occasional litter where the whole litter but one or two were show quality and but even among the show quality ones there are a couple that are supreme show quality- specialty winners…………and that is what we are looking for. We are also apt to keep four pups out of a litter. Our last one we kept three. We are trying to do less of that now and let more of them go to other breeders. But it is an addiction, you know!
8. Which health issue (hips, elbow dysplasia, eye disease, EIC, allergies, etc) is the biggest problem in the breed in your opinion?
Elbow dysplasia by far. When I first started in Labradors and we were only doing hip x-rays and not everyone was still doing them and we all looked for excuses as to why our dogs had hip dysplasia so we could still breed them, the Veterinary schools had the data to teach their graduating Vets that one out of every four Labradors had hip dysplasia. Well time passed and breeders were basically forced to x-ray hips by other breeders and the people purchasing their pups. Now we seldom ever see bad hips in our kennel. We have had two in the last ten years and both of those dogs came from a pedigree that was ? imported dogs from a country that has been doing hip x-rays for less time than has been done in the pedigrees in the U.S. I talk to other breeders of show dogs in the states and they are telling me the same story. They seldom see it anymore.
When Wind-Morgan was still active and x-raying Labrador hips, hocks, elbows and shoulders and keeping a data base with a four generation pedigree on every dog, their statistics showed that one out of every four Labradors had elbow dysplasia. I think we see less of elbow dysplasia than we used to also – at least in our kennel and that I don't know about other kennels. Hard to believe but I still run across the occasional breeder who does not do elbow x-rays and then there are the other ones who do the elbows but when the dog does not pass they tell everyone the dog had injured the elbow and that is why it did not pass. Unfortunately I know that the radiologists who are reading the x-rays can tell the difference in an injured elbow and elbow dysplasia. They are not the same. But I believe if we continue to x-ray elbows and eliminate the dogs from our programs who have ED and the bitches who produce it in litter after litter we are goingto have much healthier elbow joints before much longer. I am already seeing it in our own dogs. We have had to make some hard calls to get there though, for instance spaying and placing a lovely bitch who was clear on elbows but produced a lot of it in two litters. An interesting statistic from Wind-Morgan also was that the bitches tended to produce it more and the dogs tended to have it more.
Another reason I picked ED as the worst is because it is so painful for the dogs and there really is not a good surgery that is truly successful for these dogs. I have seen for years that it is more painful than bad hips because a dog cannot easily throw its weight off its front onto its rear unless it sits or lies down, but a standing dog can lower his head and put more weight onto its front end than its rear when it has bad hips and I have seen many dysplastic dogs do this.
9. What food do you feed your dogs, especially puppies? Do you give any supplements (glucosamine, vitamin C, etc.)?
We feed Purina Pro Plan Chicken and Rice and we feed their old formula which we had to ask for very forcibly to get.. We do not feed their new Shredded formula. The old formula is a maintenance food and it is not Large Breed. I do not believe a Labrador is a large breed, but rather a medium breed. A Newf, Saint Bernard, Great Dane is a Giant breed but not a Labrador . We feed our pups Purina Pro Plan Chicken and Rice Puppy Food and we sometimes give our adult dogs a mixture of the chicken and rice and the Salmon and Rice which they call their Sensitive Stomach/Sensitive Skin food. It seems to really help the coats because of the Omega 3 Fatty Acids. However lately I have been thinking about just adding fish oil to their food rather than feeding that very expensive food. We give no supplements at all except occasionally if a pup is cutting teeth and goes down in the pasterns pretty badly we will give a Pet Tab one a day dog vitamin till they get through that stage but we really seldom ever get that. Also an older dog on Glucosamine.
10. What would you advise to novice breeders?
The most important thing you need to do is pick a short kennel name!!!! Okay a little joke there but do think hard about a kennel name that fits easily on the registration papers giving you plenty of room for the rest of the name.
I would say to the novice breeder ( once you have picked your short kennel name):
A. Don't forget Temperament, Temperament, Temperament.
B. Don't forget Structure, Structure, Structure.
C. Read Mary Roslin Williams, “ Reach For The Stars” ( Used to be Advanced Labrador Breeding) and read it again every year.
D. Buy and watch annually the DVD ”Dogsteps“ by Rachel Paige Elliott ( I think Amazon.com has it)
E. Go to the Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac Specialty in April in Frederick, Maryland, USA and see the largest Lab specialty in the world and listen to the conversations of breeders from around the world and see dogs and what they have produced. And be sure to go to the bar on Karaoke night!
F. Whenever you hear a rumor about a dog or its owner, don't just say ,”Wow” and then run around spreading the rumor. Unfounded rumors hurt our breed. When you hear one, ask the person saying it how do they know this, who told it to them. Then go ask the person who told them where they heard it, how do they know it's the truth. Track that rumor down. I have done that with several rumors and gotten back to the source and found that they were completely wrong and untrue. Remember everytime we lose a Labrador to a genetic disease or a stud dog because he has produced a genetic disease it is a blow to the breed you profess to love. Losing them to rumour is useless and wasteful. Preserve the integrity of our breed by protecting it from unfounded and hurtful rumors.