FIRST SUPREME VERSATILITY CHAMPION:
NICK DAVIS AND APACHE TRAILS
interview by Kay Spencer
Nick Davis is a person who should need no introduction to Australian Shepherd lovers, but whose name and whose dogs have, like many deserving others, moved out of the passing public spotlight. Nick’s career in Aussies is among the longest. He started competing in ASCA shows and trials in the 1970’s, and became well-known through his most famous dog, HOF SVCH WTCH CH Apache Tears of Timberline UTD, ASCA’s first Supreme Versatility Champion, and his kennel, Apache Trails.
Nick spent most of his life in southern California, but in recent years has relocated to western Oregon, where I found him living on a small farm, in a log home surrounded by the memorabilia of his glory years in ASCA, antique furnishings, and many wonderful drawings, prints, and paintings of horses from the early 20th century; Nick’s grandfather was the famous equine portraitist George Ford Morris.
Nick has a hard time getting around these days, but he has no trouble collecting his thoughts, and speaking his mind. The below is the result of combining in-person, written, and phone interviews, and excerpts from previously-written material by Nick, some of which was published in the Australian Shepherd Annual. Nick also graciously lent me a portion of his large collection of photographs to scan and upload. Some illustrate this article, and others have gone into the ongoing Working Aussie Source Historical Photo Project.
In Nick’s words:
In the late 1950’s, I was pursuing a career in horse training. I became acquainted with
Aussies while working for a cutting horse trainer in southern California. I was impressed with their working instinct, and was convinced that I would own an Aussie myself someday. In early 1964 I purchased Harvest’s Blue Sparkle CD, and later, about 1972, learned about ASCA and another club then existing, IASA. I competed in Conformation and Obedience (which was all there was, back then). Sparkle won many high score awards in Obedience with me and also with my daughter Kathy.
As my wife Marleen and I learned more about Aussies, we realized Sparkle was not only exceptionally smart, devoted, agile, and protective, but also was a very sound, correct bitch. We decided to breed her, and our search for a mate concluded with the acquisition of Apache in 1974, when he was nine months old. He excelled in everything we tried, and became ASCA’s first, and for many years, only, Supreme Versatility Champion: conformation champion (CH), working trial champion (WTCH), and the highest obedience title, Utility Dog, plus Tracking Dog (UTD). He surpassed all previous standards.
THE STORY OF APACHE
I bought Apache in 1974 from Linda Boysal, someone nobody has heard of anymore. Timberline was her kennel name. Apache was truly a phenomenal dog. He was definitely my dog, but was devoted to my wife and daughter and performed for them too. His parents came from some of the original Pacific Northwest lines such as Poverty Ridge and Diamond A. In particular, his line-breeding on Schmutz’s Liz of Poverty Ridge, and Turner’s Ebony Dash is what I believe gave him his uncanny intelligence and high degree of stock savvy.
Another interesting ancestor was Hay’s Mr. Dillon. Jim Hays was a livestock hauler who bred Aussies to help in his business. He transported stock throughout the Northwest, Utah, and Colorado; dogs of his breeding was found in those states and probably California as well. The Hays dogs were of superior intelligence. Mr. Dillon also was our first Aussie Sparkle’s grandsire.
Although I was an awkward and inexperienced handler at first, Apache earned his conformation championship in about six months, taking some Group placements in the process. He went BOB or BOS probably twenty to twenty-five times in his career.
Training him in obedience was extremely easy. The biggest problem was preventing him from getting bored. His Open and Utility degrees were earned without benefit of classes; my dear friend Beth Donnelly helped me with Utility, but otherwise, I read some books and after a few weeks, entered the ring. I can honestly and proudly say that he was a GREAT obedience dog. His obedience career spanned ten years, during which he earned almost three times the points required for the ASCA Obedience Trial Champion (OTCH) award, however due to lack of good record-keeping by ASCA during those years, he may never be awarded that title. He was retired at age eleven; he had refused a jump, most atypical of him, and when he was x-rayed it was found he had slipped discs in three places, probably from Schutzhund training a little late in life.
Stockdog trialing was the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding, and yet the most frustrating thing I did with Apache. Initially, I did not understand the basic principles of herding with a strong fetching dog.
I attended a clinic by Maryland Little, and both Bob Carillo and Oby Blanchard tried their best to help me out, but since I had the misconception that stockdogs were driving dogs and blindly persisted in trying to force my STRONG fetching dog to drive, we made little progress. My wife Marleen was making some of the same mistakes with Apache’s daughter, Tears. Our dogs were rescued from ruination when we met Mari Taggart in the 1970’s.
At that time Mari was living in Los Angeles county, and had a group of followers with different herding breeds. She had a Border Collie, and particularly loved Aussies as a working breed. She’s out of dogs now and is living in Austin, Texas. She remains a great friend of mine, and I will always be grateful to her. Mari taught us how to train our dogs. I still remember many of her wise words. One thing she always stressed was that Aussies need a job to do. (ed.note: Mari is the author of the well known book “Sheepdog Training: an all breed approach”, and stockdog training articles, some published under the name Mari Taggart Morrison or Mari Shafer — many are available in the Stockdog Library).
Over the years Marleen and I attended many stockdog clinics and were involved not only in the ASCA stockdog program but also all-breed groups. This was a most gratifying experience. The Border Collie people understood and appreciated Apache’s instinct and abilities more than the Aussie folks did. My poor and heavy-handed early training had caused my extremely smart dog to be more comfortable in trials other than ASCA’s, trials better designed for fetching dogs. Still, he loved to work so much he succeeded in spite of me. By 1979 he only lacked one Advanced Cattle leg to have all his Advanced titles. He’d won many HIT’s and had defeated some very good Border Collies in all-breed trials. We seemed to be jinxed for that last leg. Finally in 1983 he got his WTCH in style, with High Score Cattle and Sheep and High Score Aussie.
Apache and I also took on Schutzhund training, and tracking. Apache was a natural at Schutzhund, biting readily and hard, but releasing immediately once the aggression ceased. Unfortunately, we had some problems when the agitators didn’t deal well with a dog who sought the offending arm (the one with the stick) rather than the padded one. Since I wasn’t skilled enough to help Apache as well as I could have, this resulted in Apache being yanked off the ground several times by unbalanced decoys. Because of this, I decided to not pursue Apache’s Schutzhund titles. I learned later that these events caused the spinal injuries which eventually retired him from his obedience career.
After abandoning Schutzhund we turned to tracking. Apache was immediately good at this also. I was his main handicap, doubting him and pulling him off the track. Thanks to the patience and excellent training help of Ralph and Eileen Swingle, Apache learned to track in spite of me, earning his TD at the 1982 National Specialty.
While doing all this, Apache also helped my daughter Kathy win the national Top All-Around Junior Handler award several times by being her junior stockdog competition dog.
Apache won the Most Versatile Aussie award many times, including four National Specialties. In 1992, he became ASCA’s twenty-third Hall of Fame Sire. This made me particularly proud, as Apache sired far fewer litters than many studs, and only one of his get was ever trained and shown by anyone outside the family. That one, was Don Lawson’s Sham (Lawson’s Cool Shamus UD ATDds OTDc), who won many High Scores in obedience and stock trials, went MVA six times, and competed successfully in Border Collie trials as well. When Sham took MVA at the 1985 Nationals, that made Apache the only National MVA winner ever to sire another.
One of the the things Apache and I enjoyed the most was helping on farms and ranches, often where we had never been before, doing real work. Demonstrations at fairs were fun too. With such a special dog, it should be no wonder that he is my foundation sire and everything ‘trails’ off him.
I hear folks say their Aussies are not very protective. Mine are. Apache was, but in a reasonable way. He did not think strangers should walk in, but when I let them in, he would get acquainted. Apache worked hard for me, but also was very independent. That resulted in him occasionally choosing HIS way rather than MY way. Example: one day at an obedience trial at a park, it was very hot. In Open, during the 3 minute sit — in the sun — he decided it was unfair and he was not going to do it. Three times, he got up, left his place, and went under the judges’s table where there was shade. Three times I put him back. No way was he going to stay, with me out of sight, that day.
His thinking mind, his reliability, and his true stock-savvy made him an invaluable worker in real-life situations. He did everything I asked him to do, and did it well, even fun and games like frisbee, tug-of-war, and swimming. He had great heart and grit. He was a loving, brave, and loyal friend. I still miss him.
APACHE TRAILS: THE FIRST TWO DECADES
The Apache x Sparkle mating gave Marleen a blue merle bitch, CH Harvest’s Sparkling Tears CDX ATDs OTDc. Tears impressed many in every venue, and won HIT’s in Obedience and stockdog trials, and many BOB’s and BOS’s in the conformation ring. Her untimely death was a great tragedy. She could have been one of the all-time greats. She was the mother of my daughter Kathy’s bitch CH Harvest Tears’ Pride N’ Joy CDX STDd, who along with Apache made possible Kathy’s many successes in the ASCA Juniors program.
In 1980 I acquired Lita, Fairoaks Chulita of Harvest CD OTDds, from Sandy Cornwell. She was a daughter of Sandy’s well-known Chulo (HOF CH Chulo Rojo of Fairoaks). Lita was a red merle, an outstanding, affectionate, and gritty dog. She lost a front leg from an attack by other bitches, just before she was two. On three legs, she got her CD and stock titles. Lita became the foundation bitch for Apache Trails. Bred to Apache, she gave us a dog who would carry on the lineage of Apache Trails, Apache’s Brave Challenge CD ATDds OTDc.
Brave was born in 1982. He was an exceptional dog, and my chosen Apache son to carry on in his stead. While working sheep he made a tight turn at a run and jammed a hind leg into a rabbit hole, causing an injury which flared up on occasions thoughout his life, preventing him from finishing his WTCH and going for his CDX. Brave could have been a great contender if not for that.
Also in 1982, Marleen and I parted. The Harvest Ranch kennel name stayed with Marleen, while I took on the kennel name Apache Trails. The meaning of my kennel name is that the dogs I bred ‘trail off’ from Apache.
REFLECTIONS ON ASCA
The Stockdog Program
The late 1970’s was the real time of development of the ASCA Stockdog Program. In those early days, it was a rodeo. It was awful back then. Hardly anyone could make the center pen or chute. Many dogs were ‘scatter-gather’ — split and put back together. Some dogs were out of control, and people yelled all the time. But, they won anyway. The early judges were cattlemen. Sometimes they judged from horseback or even muleback in the middle of the arena. They didn’t know about ‘the fine art of herding’. The original scorecard was derived from a Border Collie instinct test.
Aussies were then thought to be driving dogs, which is why the original (A and B) courses are mostly driving. It is possible that there were more true driving Aussies back then, but it is debatable. Aussies have always been great at doing a job with and for their person, whatever that might be. On ranches, working big flocks and herds, they were usually driving, because that was what was called for. The early judges didn’t know much about fetching dogs. Most of us competitors didn’t know how to train a stockdog, certainly not a fetching dog, or even knew that Aussies did, indeed, naturally fetch. Which was probably why it was so difficult for people to make that center obstacle, since it was the only part that was a fetch except the repen.
Often, Border Collies won these early trials because they could fetch, and hence could make the center obstacles, even though the corners presented problems to those which couldn’t handle putting on pressure or had too much eye.
At that time, it was a point of pride to have an Aussie which would heel hard. I remember Calvin Tupps, who made his dog heel just because the judge wanted to see him do it.
Apache never heeled in an ASCA trial, although he did while doing real ranch work. But he was very often the only dog at the trial who could make the chute. He was often criticized, however, because he had a different style. It was around this time (late 1970’s) that Bob Vest called me and said he’d had the same experience, of being criticized or not winning because his dog worked differently. His dog, Vest’s Chargin Tank, was a red merle, a big burly dog with houndy ears (recently someone told me he was actually a muddy blue). He was anything but a charging tank. He worked much like Apache; with rate, straight lines, walking the stock, relaxed. I didn’t see anyone else’s dog working that way then.
I got so fed up with the ads for dogs like Reddy Teddy (Ch Jones Reddy Teddy CDX OTDcds), Kathy Warren’s dogs, and the Sorenson’s dogs, proclaiming they were “low aggressive heelers”, that I ran my own ad in the Aussie Times stating “Apache is NOT a low aggressive heeler, he is a gentle fetching dog”. This provoked a quarter-page response ad in which the above mentioned “resented criticism of their dogs”. However, when Apache won the ‘Teddy Duck Award’ there is a photo of me and Kathy Jones with our arms around each other.
Today, many are much better trainers and handlers, and there are many more people to help them learn.
I think the original idea was to encourage and reward people for breeding dogs which conformed to the breed standard, demonstrated trainability, intelligence and agility, and had herding instinct. It hasn’t totally changed, but I don’t think Agility helps; I don’t see how it demonstrates “strong herding and guardian instinct”, which should be the primary focus. I always wanted the stockdog competition to count the MOST! The dog who has been #1 the last four years, Certik Bertik, is truly worthy, and now has equaled Apache’s four MVA’s.
If I could give modern Versatility competitors any advice: Strive to have a great herding dog who is also a good, typey example of the breed standard. I sure hope they don’t add Rally, or anything else, to the MVA competition.
Ideas of what is a good dog have always gone through fads, for example the fad of big, heavy, and furry dogs. The popularity of Agility could be helping to give moderation and athleticism more emphasis. The worst that conformation showing does is to exaggerate, and to emphasize the wrong things.
If I could give conformation breeders any advice: Breed to the standard, not beyond it. And PLEASE keep the ‘herd’ in Australian ShepHERD. My biggest disappointment and fear is that “strong herding and guardian” traits are being ignored, and hence we are LOSING the true Aussie character. I used to think that breeders naturally would value the great, original, Aussie traits and preserve them, but I don’t think so any more.
I would also recommend to any Conformation competitor or breeder to get the following books and study them — they will tell you all you need to know to have/breed/show a true CORRECT Aussie.
- The Structure & Movement of The Australian Shepherd by Victoria Mistretta
- Judging the Australian Shepherd by Sandra (Sandy) Cornwell
How ASCA has changed since its early days
It’s so much bigger, more complicated, with so many more venues like Rally and Agility, but I think it hasn’t changed much in some ways.
Sometimes I feel that the Board is still not looking out for some of us. I have to remember the words of my good friend, Marti Parrish, who says, “ASCA is US”. It’s a volunteer staff and to be a good Board of Directors member you have to give your time unselfishly and without much thanks. As members of ASCA, we need to give input to the Board and committees. When it is time to vote on matters, we need to invest our time to understand issues. When it is time to elect Board members, I try to interview candidates myself. It’s important to me to have people on the Board who are infomed and concerned about stockdog matters.
One thing that has changed is the awareness of genetic health issues. There weren’t even any canine ophthalmologists until the late 1970’s.
FARTHER DOWN THE APACHE TRAIL
Besides the previously mentioned Apache’s Brave Challenge CD ATDds OTDc (Brave), probably the other most important get of Apache was Hilltop Mystic Charm of Apache CD STDcs OTDd. Charm was nice in every way. Born in 1985, she was my last Apache daughter. She was not a great trial dog, as she didn’t trust me in the trial arena, but at home she was an indispensable chore dog. When Brave and Charm were mated in 1994, I was lucky enough to get a wonderful, sweet, devoted male I named Guy — WTCH Apache Trails’ Brv&Chrmg Guy RTDs PATDs.
From puppyhood, Guy was much like Apache. He had the great structure, even better movement, and a lot of the look and personality of his granddad. I trialed him and his litter sister Cher, Apache Trails’ Brave Charmer STDcsd, but they both lived in the shadow of another dog, Ruby, born almost a year before them.
On stock, Cher and Guy each inherited a little different package of herding traits. Guy was like Apache — a “thinking” dog. Cher was more reactive, seeming more intense. Cher got so excited at the beginning of every working session she actually foamed at the mouth on occasion, and was a little barky for the first minute or two. Guy was calmer, kept his stock more settled, was more sensitive to my moods, and didn’t impress people as much as the more excited dogs. If Guy caused a split in a group — which he rarely did — he would stop and look at the splitter/s and at the remainder, which often stopped and settled because he wasn’t on their butts. He would think and then decide which way to go to put it all back together. That is an example of what I call a “thinking dog”.
I’ve had trouble locating records since my move to the Northwest in 2003, so I can’t find or remember Guy’s highest stock score, but I think it was at least 110. He won High Score Cattle at least three times, and two of them were from Started, with tough cattle even advanced dogs were not having success with. He was an alternate for Finals at least once. He earned his RTDc, but the judge erred and it wasn’t given to him. He was put to rest in 2009 at the age of 15. I sure loved him, and miss him still.
WTCH Apache Trails Rough Ruby CD RTDsc PATDsc
In 1993, I bred a Lita daughter, Apache Trails’ Legacy of Lita STDcsd, to Mistretta’s Rough Eagle OTDd STDsc, and produced my sweet Ruby, my spectacular jewel. I had planned and waited so long to get a red merle female that she got more of my time and attention than the other dogs I was competing with, Guy and Cher, who were a year younger. She was a beauty from the moment she was born. I used to take her to conformation shows when she was a pup, mainly for socialization. She did pretty well, and was a big hit with the conformation breeders. At that time there were hardly any well-colored red merles around, and her dark red spots and bright copper made her stand out. She was very bored in conformation, and wouldn’t bait. Once she almost fell asleep standing up in class. I couldn’t blame her; I was bored too.
Obedience wasn’t her forte either, so I didn’t go on with her after Novice, although even so, she was an MVA winner and won High Score Obedience. Actually, after Ruby was well-started, there wasn’t anything but working stock that she loved, except me. She was a very devoted and unusually affectionate dog.
On stock, Ruby was intense, reactive, a strong fetcher with enough bite on both ends. I used Ruby to dogbreak cattle for the club I belonged to in California. She was great at that task, but it had its bad side. At trials, she thought she had to “teach” the cattle. We had a lot of differences of opinion in trials, and she ignored me too much. We got to be a better team a few years after we stopped breaking the cattle.
Some of Ruby’s best runs were in Post Advanced Sheep. I’m particularly proud of that. She also did a very creditable job in Pro-Novice at a Border Collie trial, where she was the only Aussie competing against over 40 Border Collies. She was better than many and got a lot of compliments from the handlers there. She qualified for Finals four times and placed 9th in Cattle in 2002. She was #2 in the Post Advanced Sheep merit standings one year and was #3 for three years. She won many High in Trials, High Combined, and silver buckle awards.
I lost Ruby far too early, at age ten, from cancer.
PRESENT AND FUTURE
In 1995, Ruby and Guy produced their one litter, two of which are still alive and with me, Apache Trails’ Rite On the Dot and Apache Trails’ Lucky Streak STDc. All of the Guy x Ruby kids were correct AND pretty. All very talented and smart. But about when they were ready to train, my life got complicated and they just didn’t get out to compete much, though the ability was there. Streak got his Started Cattle title without knowing any commands, just on natural talent. He would hit both heads and heels.
Streak has only been used twice. He is over fourteen now, but he does have a few straws of saved semen. My Ana, Justus Ana Streak of Apache STDs, is the only pup I now have from Streak. She was born in 2006, out of Marti Parrish’s Justus Tri Ta Be Tuf ATDds STDc. She is very well built, agile, high-energy, and is very smart and affectionate. I love her and feel quite badly that my spinal stenosis makes walking — even moving at all — so difficult that I can’t train my keen little girl on stock. Marti has been training and trialing her for me, and has gotten her started on sheep and goats. She shows talent and nice control. I’m very grateful to Marti, who has been wonderful to me. I’m still hoping to be able to work my Ana someday.
I’d like very much to breed her and carry on my line, but at present I don’t know who I’ll breed her to. I’ve never bred as much as many breeders, and there have been long gaps during which I had no pups to sell; perhaps I should have advertised even then, to keep in the public view. My last litter was eleven years ago.
Very recently, I was terribly disappointed. Streak’s frozen semen was AI’d to a bitch in Canada sired by a littermate to Ruby, but the bitch didn’t take. That leaves me with just two straws of semen from him. There is also a litter in Germany sired by Ana’s littermate, Justus Fin Wag To Ardiente ATDs OTDcd. The dam goes back to a sister to Ruby. If Ruby was closer in the pedigree, I would get one of those pups. I just hope that I can have one more Apache son or daughter before I die. I’m trying so hard to keep my line going. It’s more than a little frustrating because there are so few out there who are closely related.
I hate the thought of my breeding dying out. It carries so many good qualities. Most of my line of dogs have excellent balance, and control their stock well and reasonably. They’re good-looking, correct dogs too. It’s ironic to me that at this time, when stockdog breeders are searching for outcrosses with talent, that my lines have been mostly overlooked.
I still intend to strive to produce a few more exceptional dogs. I still have a couple of building blocks, so with luck the future will shine — as has the past — with some bright stars.
additional photos September 2010
note: Mr. Davis passed on Dec 22nd, 2017.