THE VIEW FROM EUROPE:
AN INTERVIEW WITH SANDRA ZILCH (S BAR L, Germany)
interview by Kay Spencer
How long have you been breeding Aussies? What is your history with the breed?
I had my first litter in 2000 with my blue merle female WTCH Deep Blue Heaven In May RD DNA-CP. My very first Aussie, May´s sire, is now 16 years old. I got to know the breed during my studies when I went to work for a western riding trainer.
I fell in love with them and when one of the customers brought three puppies (one for the co-trainer, one for the vet and one for another guy) and told me that he had two puppies left at home, I decided to go and take a look at them the next weekend. So I ended up with Leo. I had no idea about bloodlines, health stuff, papers etc. Guess it was simply a lot of luck to get a dog like Leo. He was my companion at the university. Everywhere I went, he was with me. When someone at university didn’t know my name, somebody just had to say “it’s the girl with the black and white dog”….
After my degree, it happened that I met my future husband at a riding clinic. Since I did not have a job yet, I asked him if he needed some help with the horses at home . . . and the rest is history. They had the Charolais cattle already and Leo started to work them. He was a very strong header.
I started collecting all the information I could about herding dogs and how to work and train them. I got two daughters from Leo and with them my breeding program began. Because nobody here really seemed to select for working instinct and I knew some cattle breeders who had started to look for an alternative to the Border Collie, I started to import some dogs from proven working backgrounds.
I didn’t choose dogs because the pedigree seemed to be nice or the owners told me that the dog worked. I always went to see the parents and the most relatives possible, because I need to see with my own eyes if the individuals had the traits I look for.
What are some of your successes, both recent and in the past?
Beside a lot of High In Trial, High Combined and Year End Award wins with several of my dogs here in Europe, at the Nationals Pre Trial in Paso Robles in 2004, May won the open cattle class; I ran her in advanced then in the Nationals Trial and she missed the High Combined non WTCH by only a few points. I was extremely happy with that, she did such a nice job so far away from home.
I think my greatest success up to now has been with my red male, WTCH Slash V Han Solo RD DNA-CP, at the National Stockdog Finals in New Jersey 2007. We made the first cut in all three classes of stock (which only 4 dogs altogether did) and placed 7th on ducks, sheep and cattle in the Finals and placed 3rd in High Combined.
We also have a Merit Program here in Europe in our club called WEWASC (Western Europe Working Australian Shepherd Club) and Solo has always been one of the top three dogs in all classes so far.
What is the general situation for the working-type Aussie in Germany?
Australian Shepherds selected primarily for working instinct and ability to work stock are absolutely rare to find. And I really mean “selected for”. Just mixing together working lines does not have much to do with selection.
Yet there is an increasing need for a breed other than the Border Collie to work on cattle and sheep ranches, very often, for example, to work in the high mountain regions of Germany, Austria and Switzerland during the grazing seasons in summer.
Many people are part time ranchers now and the family is doing other jobs in town. So they often come to the conclusion that a good dog could really help them.
In Germany we have something we call “Berufsgenossenschaft”. It’s a required insurance for any profession; in case of an accident or injury you get money or a pension. There are some really bad farming accidents reported every year, especially when people work with cattle. In some regions it is a must to keep to certain regulations in order to prevent accidents. One of them is that you can take a trained stockdog with you to the pasture. Then, in case something happens, the insurance will pay.
Especially in the eastern parts of Germany the ranches are quite big and the number of cattle can be up to 2000 head for a ranch. Which is really big in Germany. So the need of stockdogs here is certainly big also.
However, it is my impression that people still tend to be cautious about using stockdogs. Maybe because they have not yet really thought about it, or they have had a dog that was useless and hesitate to spend money for a good one now. But the need for a true stockdog is certainly there. We try to do demonstrations here at home or also at stock fairs so that especially cattle breeders get used to the idea of using a stockdog.
What qualities do you look for in an individual breeding prospect?
First of all, I think that the female has the more important part in a breeding. Therefore, I look for very strong maternal lines. Which means good temperament, cool and laid back, good reproducing abilities with everything that includes, great working ability and good behavior in the pack. They need to adapt to life as easily as possible with the least effort as possible from my side. These qualities must be innate because what I have trained into the dog does not reproduce.
They need to be able to work here on the farm and do all the stuff we need to be done. Of course everybody is doing it a bit differently and has special strengths. But they all need to be able to load cattle, hold Charolais in the stable while feeding, and bring them to different pastures in an area that is quite crowded with folks that do not do agriculture and where room is very tight. They need to help sort sheep, bring sheep to pastures, load and unload them, and bring in the ducks.
I also find it important that they are successful at trials. Simply because they show that they can do the work on different stock in different situations and in different surroundings. And under stress. And that way I am able as a breeder to show them to other people.
I check hips and elbows and eyes, DNA my dogs and also check the MDR1 status. They need to have a sound structure and I like to look at a dog that moves nicely while working. I do not care about minor structural faults or minor faults in appearance. From the horse world I know: the nicest built horse with the best body to do the job can not do it if he does not want to work for you or does not have the genetic ability. On the other hand, one that has the ability and will to work for you can always even out structural disadvantages. This is true for a working dog too of course. I do not look for dogs that theoretically can work all day but for those that actually do it.
They should not be too protective, because here in Europe, people can and will take the dogs everywhere (yes, also into restaurants).
And, since we cannot dock dogs here, I also look at the tailset when working. I like it down. I think tailset has more to do with the work ethic of a dog, so it kind of comes of itself when you select for good work ethic. That includes silent working. I prefer a dog that is not vocal no matter what. Especially when working.
What bloodlines do you have experience with?
I have quite a little bit of variety in my bloodlines. If I see an individual that I really like and that has offspring and close family I really like, I do not really care about the bloodline. I tend to combine the good dogs I have with what is similar in working ability and style but is not too closely related.
My breeding program is relatively young and I am now starting to choose from the offspring I had so far. Of course I have my Slash V dogs Solo and Rosie, who will play a big role in my program. Then I have my “old” female May who is German bred and who is related to three of my future females. And I have Blue, who is from Misty Ridge in Canada , as another foundation female. and her offspring, as well as her sister Black in one of my males. So, I base my breeding program on the strong maternal line of Rosie´s ancestors as well as on May and basically on Bar LW Miss Red Spur.
Do you see different qualities in the different bloodlines? Or would you say that the individual differences between dogs are more important? If the former, what kinds of differences have you found between bloodlines?
I do not like to talk about bloodlines in general. Every bloodline has different individuals. So yes, I think the individuals are more important. You breed individuals with all their faults and strengths. But maybe this comes from me being quite far away from North America and that I just do not see dogs from each bloodline frequently. So I would not say that I am expert enough to talk about different bloodlines.
What is your philosophy about in-breeding, line-breeding, and developing a recognizable “line”, as opposed to outcrossing?
I try not to breed too tightly. I am very cautious and aware of the possible diseases I could produce. And as I already have produced very stable litters without tight breeding , I do not necessarily see the advantage of line-breeding or in-breeding. This is from the point of view I have now. Of course I see that I will have more and more trouble to find very good dogs for outcrossing. So we will see what the future brings.
Do you have an inbreeding co-efficient beyond which you won’t go? Or, a co-efficient that you consider to be ideal?
I would probably try not to go much higher than about 10%. Of course this is increasingly difficult because there are not lots of individuals available that fit into my ideas of a good working dog. But then the COI is only a number and a low one is not a guarantee of a sound dog.
What is your opinion (or experience) on applying the concept of “assortative mating” (mating phenotypically similar but not genotypically similar dogs) to breeding working dogs?
I guess that is what I have done up to now. Don´t know about the future. And I have had some very good results with it. Different litters being total outcrosses, where I just felt that the dogs fit together great. And the puppies (within a litter) are to a very high percentage similar, not just in looks but also in working style. It’s very easy to determine which pup is from which litter.
There is a little story about this: two of my puppy buyers wanted to meet each other for the first time at a big show here in Germany. They did not know each other or the dogs. When they happened to pass by each other on the fairground, they both looked at the dogs and said: oh, you must be Elke . . . oh you must be Iris . . .
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing working Aussie breeders today?
Here in Europe, the biggest challenge is to go on with selecting for strong herding dogs first and foremost, as many many breeders and customers do not yet see the value for the breed and the need for dogs like that, plus the value this has for the use of the dogs in other venues! It is simpy because they are not involved at all in the world of working stockdogs. It’s a big challenge to find the right breeding partners too because there are very few really good working dogs out there. And I mean dogs that have the whole package, not just rudiments.
What direction/s do you see working Aussies heading (good or bad)?
Well here in Germany I see a lot of dogs praised/sold as working dogs or dogs from “working lines”. It should be clear that not every dog with a working dog in the pedigree, or a dog that has worked at trials IS a working Aussie. The good thing is that a few breeders are beginning to understand what it means to select for working ability.
If you could have one wish (from the Good Fairy!), what would you wish would happen with working Aussies?
That more people really understand what it takes to be a good stockdog. That they understand that this benefits not just puppy buyers who want a dog to work stock. And that breeders start to REALLY evaluate their dogs according to ABILITY before breeding them.