In late 1980, being fed up with commuting between Canberra (where I was working at the time) and Sydney (where my family lived), a matter of six hours drive in those days, we decided to move to Canberra despite the resultant dislocation to our childrenís schooling. At the same time I had decided that I would retire from full time work as early as practicable. A BBC television program called "The Good Life" about a couple who attempted self sufficiency showed us the way.
Jane (my Wife) and I decided to buy a small farm and found one for sale within 30 minutes travelling time of Canberra. We called it "Yarrow Fell" because when the first settlers to the area arrived here in the early 1800ís they found the herb Yarrow growing on the large hill which abuts our property, which they subsequently called Yarrow Peak. The Fell part comes from the old Norse word Fjell that was used to name the high rolling moorlands near where I was born in Yorkshire UK. Hence Yarrow Fell.
Becoming self sufficient on the property and all the heartache and sheer hard work that entailed is another story, but what the move to the country did allow was for us to buy a pair of dalmatian puppies. Although we knew nothing about the breed at the time, we were very fortunate to be steered to Mary and Reg Young of Dumbledeer fame. (It is rumoured in Australia that they bred the original dallies which went on board the Ark with Noah). We bought a little boy from them that we called Mintie and then looked around for another one to keep him company and was fortunate enough to find the little girl we called Pepper. (i.e. peppermint).
In the hotel in Canberra in which I had lived while commuting was a young couple called Elka and Holt McMinn who bred and showed Labrador dogs under the prefix "Elkholt". Elka, on seeing Mintie one day, asked if she could show him for us, although having no idea what showing was we agreed and awaited developments. At his first show (in 1982) Mintie achieved Best in the Non-Sporting Group and Junior-in-Show. As you might imagine we became hooked and have been involved in Dalmatians ever since. Mintie, whose real name was Ch Dumbledeer Norwester and Pepper whose real name was Ch Childwall Cute Electra both lived to a ripe old age and must have given the whole family tons and tons of love over the time we had them.
Of course nature being what it is thoughts turned to puppies, and we had to register a breederís prefix. Well, we thought of all sorts of dally type prefixes from "Spottyfoot" to "Roadrunner" and everything in between, but finally settled on "Yarrowfell" as being fairly unique and so it has stayed ever since. Our first litter, which was from Mintie and Pepper, produced two outstanding dallies Ch Yarrowfell Abacadabra (pet name DeeBee), who stormed to his championship with four Best-in Groups, and Ch Yarrowfell Alez Oup (pet name Cappy) who was bought by Mavis Vickary of Vickma Kennels and became quite formidable in the show ring. What funny names I here you say; well we have always weighed our puppies twice a day to ensure they are gaining weight satisfactorily and, in order to identify them, we tie coloured wool around their necks. Often their pet names flow from that colour or type of wool (DeeBee had dark blue wool around his neck and Cappy had "Capricorn" Brand wool).
I suppose one could call the early eighties for us the halcyon days. I recall one Championship Show here in Canberra where DeeBee was awarded Best-in-Group, Cappy awarded Runner Up to Best-in-Group, and dalmatians took every other class in Group except one which did not have a Dalmatian entered in that class. You can imagine how unpopular we dally owners were with the other exhibitors on that day! It has always been our policy only to have three litters from our bitches and the next two matings although producing a few champions were not of the outstanding quality of that first one......I wonder why?
It was early in our breeding that we got caught. I suppose it happens to us all at least once! We agreed to take a bitch puppy in payment for a stud from Mintie from a well-known local breeder. To be honest we were flattered to be asked for a stud. When the bitch grew up we had two litters from her. In the first one we had three deaf puppies and in the second litter four deaf and one with spinal-bifida. It almost broke our heart to leave the puppies behind at the vet to be destroyed after they had been tested positive to deafness. We placed the bitch in a pet home never to be bred from again (nor indeed her progeny) and determined that we would develop a breeding program to try and isolate our lines from problems such as these. It must have been very successful because since then (so far as we are aware) we have not had one incidence of deafness, nor epilepsy, nor entropian, nor hip-displacia nor eye or nose pigment problems, nor blue eyes, nor tricolours, nor lemon spots, nor indeed anything except one or two patches in the occasional litter, which I donít regard as a problem. They have been and continue to be good, healthy, well-tempered dogs. Not world beaters perhaps but we are getting there!
In 1982 we bought a girl puppy which we called Branston because she was a real pickle when she was young (Branston is a brand name of a pickle that accompanies cold meats). We were fortunate to have her because not only was she an outstanding bitch (e.g. Best of Breed Royal Easter Show Sydney 1989 when she was nearly 9 year old) and a beautiful temperament, but she was able to pass her characteristics on to her offspring fairly consistently. Her official name was Ch Vickma Anthea. Mind you like all dogs she had her bad points for she inherited from her grandfather the problem of flecking a she got older, although that didnít seem to influence judges who took the trouble to look beyond her coat. If you look at the pedigrees of our latest dogs you will see that we have tried to fix her characteristics in our line by breeding back to her as much as is reasonable without getting too close. She died in my arms a couple of years ago from cancer, loving us all to the end. Her most famous puppy was, or should I say is, Ch Yarrowfell Delovely ( the litter being named after that well known Cole Porter song). In her three litters from differing males, "Lilac" has produced the majority of the improvements in our line. She is still around in magnificent retirement living with a friend of ours.
It was about this time that we realised all was not as it should be with breeders in our area. To explain. We breed dalmatians as a hobby rather than as a business. We only have one, or at the maximum two, litters a year and barely cover our costs. As a result there is no commercial requirement to win in the Show Ring. We see winning as confirmation of our breeding, rather than as a means to an end and thus it is just as important to us that our dogs do not CARRY any genetic defects as it is that they should not DISPLAY them. This is why we take our dogs out of the Show Ring once they have gained their Championship title rather than going on to try to "make the highest score in history". In our innocence we thought all breeders had the same attitude. I canít point to any one incident that changed our minds, it just gradually dawned on us that some breeders ignored genetic defects in their stock and continued to breed from them hoping for the one dog that would be the big winner in the Show Ring.
While running the rescue service, giving people advice about their dallies over the phone and discussing the situation with other breeders, it became obvious that there were a lot of members of the public unhappy with the puppies they had bought, but were not prepared to take legal action against the breeders concerned. Without proof canine controlling bodies could not act while the breed clubs were unwilling to do so. The most common problems: temperament, epilepsy, deafness, allergic reactions and heart defects.
A few of the hobby breeders in the area decided that the way to assist with solving the problem was to:
Thus was born Associated Dalmatian Breeders (ADB). We now have a permanent listing in the "Yellow Pages" and other business directories where the phone numbers of the breeders involved are displayed. A phone call to one for a puppy is passed on to those which have a litter and the Puppy Parties have become real social events.
A companion organisation called "Social Spots" has come into existence which breeders in ADB encourage their puppy owners to join. It is a very informal organisation with no meetings or minutes. We simply get together with our dallies once every couple of months and have a BBQ or go for a walk (aptly named a Dallython) around one of Canberraís lakes collecting money for the RSPCA. This allows breeders to keep in touch with their puppies and monitor how they turn out. We also produce a newsletter once in a while with articles on nutrition, training, jokes and so on. Membership of Social Spots costs one book of stamps a year which covers postage; everything else being donated. During the recent release of the film 101 Dalmatians, Social Spots organised for members to display their dallies at cinemas and shopping centers. The funds raised will support the rescue service for some time to come.
No one would claim ADB has been totally effective in stopping poor quality dallies from being produced in our area, but it has certainly reduced the number considerably, while at the same time kept the rest of us from becoming kennel blind to our own problems. There is no mercy shown at Puppy Parties especially after a couple of beers.
While all this breeding and showing was going on our family was growing up and Philippa, who was about ten years old by this time was taking her turn at showing the dallies in the ring. Although they are quite well trained and are really family pets, the dallies are simply too big for a child of that size to handle effectively, so often she didnít do very well and the tears came in buckets. Finally I gave in to pressure, need I say more, and agreed she could buy, for show, one, small, short-coated dog. She chose a pug and though now married with a family of her own, she still breeds and shows them very effectively. She must be one of the few people who have bred a Best-in-Show winning black pug. Philippa uses the same breederís prefix, Yarrowfell, which is why we have bred far fewer dalmatians than it appears from our alphabetical progression.
I had always been interested in obedience training but had found that the traditional ways of training by heavy handed commands and repetition simply didnít work with the dallies. I had to find a solution because we had started to operate a rescue service for dallies in our area and it was no good sending the rescued dogs back into the big world unless one solved the problem that had resulted in them being consigned to the pound or the RSPCA animal shelter in the first place. I hit upon the solution of letting the dog pack do the training. Our dallies have free rein inside the 5 acre paddock (or field) which contains the house. They know that they are not allowed outside this area even if the gate is inadvertently left open. If, or when they do forget and duck under the fence after a rabbit, I throw a real paddy for them when they do come back, shouting and waving my arms around, asking them what would their mother say if she knew what they had done, and then I lock them in one of the runs in the carport for a couple of days where they are, except for feeding of course, completely ignored. By this method over the last fifteen years my pack knows the things that are acceptable and those things that are not, e.g. leaving the house paddock. When the rescue dog arrives and has settled down for a few days with me giving it an occasional cuddle, I gradually introduce the dog to the pack while under detailed supervision. They gradually learn what is acceptable to the pack and what will result in a negative reaction from us all. This usually takes from one to two months though it took a year and a half in one notable case. We won in the end though because that bitch is now in the show ring and has produced a couple of litters of nice puppies.
We support the pecking order in the pack by always feeding the senior dogs/bitches first (all the dogs are fed at the same time in the family room); giving the seniors a pat first when we arrive home; adjudicating in favour of the seniors if there is a difference of opinion about who gets closest to the fire in the evenings and so on. Mind you I come down on the seniors like a ton of bricks if there is any bullying of the juniors or if a senior pushes in when a junior is having a cuddle. We did think there would be a problem when Mintie, our first dog was getting old and it became obvious that George was going to take over as senior dog of the pack (for I am itís leader). We overcame the problem by easing Mintie sideways into a special position that allowed him to stay in the house when we went out instead of having to be locked up in a run; allowing him to ride in the utility down to the dam each day when going for a swim, while the others run down. This avoided the competition to be first out of the gate while also saving his energy for the swim. Eventually Mintie realised I think, that he was getting geriatric and then we moved George right up in the pecking order. You can imagine this is a very stable natural environment for the dogs to grow up in and it tells because the rescue dogs take to it like a duck to water once they realise what the system is. I hope we will have a similar successful result when it becomes time for George to hand over to his son Nemo (Ch Yarrowfell Ultra Dog ET).
Similarly, by encouraging the puppies natural instincts we are able to teach them to go to the toilet on newspaper, come to the call and walk on a lead before we let them go to their new homes at nine to ten weeks. We chose these three because we found they helped the most in assisting the assimilation of the puppy into itís new home. Because they are learned so early they are very deeply embedded in the dogs make-up. I have called a four year old dog which we bred but had not seen since a puppy, from 200 yards and it has come like a bullet. Much to the surprise of the owner who was on the other end of the lead at the time!
In 1991 soon after we had bred our "I" litter (we name them alphabetically) we decided that we would stop breeding because Jane and I were not getting any younger, our children had all left home and we had a house-full of geriatric dogs. I donít believe you can love and give them all the attention they deserve if you have more than six dogs in the house with you. Accordingly I looked around at something else to do with my wonderful dallies and formal obedience seemed a natural progression. I canít say that it was easy because I had to learn how to formally train a dog while at the same time adjusting the methods for my dally George. I soon found that it was self-defeating doing an exercise time and time again until George could repeat it correctly and reliably because after a while he would get bored with the procedure and make more and more mistakes. No, it was far better to do it once or twice to give him the idea and then leave it for a week or so and then do it again with lots of praise when he got it right.
A number of times Judges have said to me after we had failed to qualify at an obedience trial, "To overcome that problem I suggest you try........". I didnít like to tell them that the thing he had failed at he had never failed before so how could one train for a random event? Iíve also had people say after a failure, while I was looking a little glum, "If you are really serious about obedience training you should get yourself a Border Collie (or German Shepherd)". What they donít realise is the lift you get when everything goes right, for you know how striking they look sailing over the jumps or sticking by your side like glue with their tail wagging all the time, being a real partner in the team not a cowed automaton. It showed when George and I started tracking, which by the way is the most fantastic thing you can do with your dog. The dog must be self-confident to work ahead of you at the end of the ten meter long lead, taking the decisions about which way to go, something a dog trained to total unthinking obedience simply cannot or will not do.
Eventually George (Ch Yarrowfell Intaglio CDX TDX ET) gained his CDX (Companion Dog Excellent) title in obedience, and his TDX (Tracking Dog Excellent) title in tracking while he had gained his Championship and passed his ET (Endurance Test) a year or so before. Now he is the most highly qualified dally still in the ring in Australia. Presently I am taking a little bitch called "Jaffa" (Ch Yarrowfell Romancer CD AD ET) through her CDX (Companion Dog Excellent) and her ADX (Agility Dog Excellent) at the same time. I have found them complementary for you can mix and match the exercises and the dog never gets bored. It is the first time I have tried Agility so I am on a fairly steep learning curve but still the advantages of having an intelligent breed are showing for I have found that she has had no problem in learning to be handled on both the right and the left hand while being guided around the course (unlike some other breeds). Jane, my Wife, is taking another of our bitches called "Gold" (Ch Yarrowfell Supermodel ET) through the two disciplines as well, and Jane has never done obedience before at all.
We have had one of our dalmatians qualify at the Endurance Test ever since it was introduced in New South Wales. In fact so far as we are aware George was the first dally to pass the Test in Australia. It is not a great distance, 20 kilometres, but is done at a strictly regulated speed of 10 kilometres/hour which is an awkward pace for a dally, being too fast for a trot and too slow for a run. When we were training for the first Test I used to drive the Utility around some of our country roads while Branston, Lilac and George ran alongside. Weíd do say 10k one day, then increase each day up to 30k a few days later, then decrease a little each day again. I learned more about the anatomy of my dogs during this time watching them run, than I ever did pouring over diagrams in books and peering at X-rays. The dogs were magnificent and enjoyed it greatly, rushing ahead to explore an interesting smell in one of the hedges, diving down into a culvert to wade in the mud, chasing birds who came too close. After each training run they would plunge into the dam and swim and skylark; I just donít know where they got the energy from! Much to our disappointment Lilac was too old, at 8 years, by one day to enter the Test, but we know she could have done it.
While this was going on Tim, our youngest son was busy at university. We were absolutely delighted when, after he had qualified, he told us he was prepared to continue breeding the dallies after we have to give up. This allowed us to think about a long range breeding plan with some certainty that it may come to fruition. His thoughts can be seen in the last four litters, the S, T, U and V litters. Copies of their pedigrees can be found elsewhere on this site.
So what are we aiming for? Earlier this year we were interviewed by "Top Dog" magazine for an article on George for their Special Achievers section. We were asked a similar question then and, after some collective head scratching we came up with the following:-
"Our aim is to breed all-round dogs. Conformation is only one aspect of their make up. We also want our dogs to have biddability for obedience, self confidence for tracking, stamina for endurance, and vigour for agility, not forgetting the wonderful colourful personality that all dallies should have...."
I donít think I can say it any better. [A copy of the article can be found here].
After viewing our pedigrees a breeder once commented, "I notice you have no imported dogs in your lines. Donít you like the overseas type?" Of course it is nothing to do with liking or indeed disliking. Our approach of not using imported dogs stems from the view that one needs a thorough knowledge of what is behind a dog and what the dog throws before one contemplates introducing the genes into your line. By definition one cannot know what is behind an imported dog. I recall some years ago a Champion dog was imported into Australia and a fine looking fellow he was. Many people used him at stud only to discover eventually that he carried entropian and they have had the devilís own job of getting rid of it.
You might have gathered from some of my previous comments, we are in this for the long haul rather than for short term gain. In developing our breeding parameters, we have tried to keep this constantly in mind.
e.g. 1. To avoid painting ourselves into a corner with our breeding, we are developing a number of strands in our line at the same time, each with differing characteristics with which we can ring the changes.
e.g. 2. When we use an outcross we can isolate that strand if we wish for a couple of generations to ensure there are no problems before carrying it forward.
So is everything in the garden lovely? Of course not, for it is going to take years before we have isolated and bred out all problems even if it were possible. I know that we have too low a tail set and our bitches do not have the presence of our dogs but we are working on it! In the mean time we are enjoying it immensely.
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