Interview with Sandra McCrady, Breeder of Aquilon Great Pyrenees
Where do I live? How many years in dogs? How many years as a breeder?
Sandra McCrady: I’ve always lived in the Colorado Front Range in the Greater Denver area. Until recently, I’ve usually supported more dogs than are legal within city limits, so we have enjoyed country life. Saves wear and tear
I found a local breeder with a new litter of Great Pyrenees in late 1970 and brought home my first Pyr in 1971. He was dignified, controlled the house and cats, and made me understand I could not have just one Pyr. With this boy, I learned all about obedience training for Pyrs. Not! He was very forgiving of my mischief, but only because he felt sorry for me.
I purchased a show quality adult female from Joann Teems in 1972, when she was returned due to a divorce. She taught me that girl Pyrs rule. The boys may think they are big and tough, but any female will explain how life will be. The boys aren’t in charge.
“Chris,” the girl from Joann, was pregnant when I brought her home and she produced a litter of 11, all heavily marked with a red-gold. I’ve found that my litters still seem to carry a lot of color.
I joined the Great Pyrenees Club of America (GPCA) in 1973 and celebrated 50 years of membership this year. I’ve known quite a few of the people considered the original breeders who imported the dogs and I learned from all of them. I’m sure I still have more to learn.
What is my kennel name? How many dogs do I currently keep?
Sandra McCrady: I use the kennel name Aquilon (a French word for North Wind), which is registered with AKC. I’ve used it since 1971, for the second Pyr I bought and for all my puppies. I’ve had as many as 25 dogs/puppies at a time, but only have four right now. One is almost 13 years old and only one girl is for breeding a future litter. I have two pups from her recent litter and expect to show one of them. The pup will also be trained to be my Service Dog over the next year.
I’ve cut down on the number of dogs I keep. As we “age,” it is important to be able to give each dog the very best care. Each owner needs to re-evaluate how many dogs they can care for, and make adjustments accordingly over the years. I want to balance having upcoming youngsters with giving total care to elderly dogs.
Which show dogs from the past have been my noteworthy winners?
Sandra McCrady: My very favorite, who did much all-breed winning, was “Tiger,” FCI AKC CKC Mex CH Aquilon Wind And Fire CGC. She became the No. 1 female in 1988. She was my house dog, pack leader, ultimate lover of showing, and lived almost 14 years as the ruler of my house. I never saw another dog suggest she wasn’t in charge. She never growled, but everyone knew who was in charge.
My second favorite was “Joy,” AKC/UKC GCH Aquilon Double Jump For Joy, HOF. Joy was also an IABCA Gold Cup winner. She had many AKC and UKC BOB with a number of UKC BIS wins and she became a Top Producer. She was also my house dog and definitely MY dog, as she would not allow anyone else to take her into the ring. She lived well past 14 years and ruled the other five girls in the house the entire time.
My third is my current house girl, “Nubbikins,” AKC/UKC GCH Aquilon For Wind And Fire. She is now almost 13 and has won two regional specialties and finished 2020 as No. 3 in Breed statistics. She believes her house is sacred and will not allow any other female inside. She tolerated the house male, “Freddie,” until he passed earlier his year. She sleeps beside me every night. I never showed a male to rank him in the Top 10.
Which have been my most influential sires and dams?
Sandra McCrady: A female I kept from my first litter was very dark and never finished her title. Aquilon Jon Loupe Sauvage, HOF produced one litter of eight pups. Of that litter, six finished easily. I never bred her again because I kept three females from the litter and planned to breed them.
I bought a young male I called “Slick,” CH Valle d’Aspe’s Ahsum Adrian, HOF. I found that he sired well for my females, eight of the 10 pups from my girls finished, but I did not use him in the general population of females. He became a Top Producer.
I believe every successful kennel starts with the best females money can buy, then “rents” the best males for litters. So, I will say I used Slick with three of my closely related females and those litters were influential for me. I know which other breeding lines produce with my girls, and I try to go to the best boys for my girls. This may vary by girl.
I believe my best producer was “Ruffian,” AKC CH Aquilon Fire And Magic, HOF. She only had one litter of eight puppies. Six of those finished easily (with OFA-E hips for several) and the pups went on to produce well. (A seventh was pointed when killed in an accident.) I kept four pups from that litter, so I didn’t need another litter from her for my limited breeding program.
Another good producer was “Joy,” AKC/UKC GCH Aquilon Double Jump For Joy, HOF. She produced three litters, with six champions from 10 total pups. One pup is now a Top Producer and another pup produced a Top 10 female. These two Joy pups were sired by a male from the Ruffian litter. He produced well and I intend to use his frozen semen again.
Can I talk a bit about my facilities? Where are my puppies whelped? How are they raised?
Sandra McCrady: I have a three-bedroom house on five fenced acres—and wonderful neighbors. I have a building with four 4×16 ft. in/out dog runs that are no longer used. All the younger dogs are now either in my house or terrorizing cats, birds, squirrels, snakes, or anything else that trespasses in their yard. They are in love with baby Great Horned Owls, for some reason. Regardless of their preferences, they all eat and sleep in the house. Keeps the neighbors happy.
Puppies are born in my guest room and kept in the house until they leave for a new home. From the time they are about three days old, they have regular training four or more times each day. At about 5-6 weeks, they eat and nap in individual wire crates in my living room several times a day. I use a training program developed for military “super dogs.” There are defined exercises for them from the time they are starting to gain weight as newborns. The exercises become more complicated as they age, gradually becoming early obedience training at about 6 weeks old. Overall, this training not only gives each puppy a start at being a good doggy citizen, it provides me with a vision of their temperament and trainability—both of which define the type of home they will best serve.
What is my “process” for selecting Show Puppies? Performance Puppies?
Sandra McCrady: My process for the first 3-4 weeks is to observe the front and rear of the puppies, as a whole litter. Who stands up first? Who can actually trot first without tripping over their own feet? Who escapes the whelping box and explores the room first? I typically find that the first out is the best show dog. At about seven weeks, I observe balance, angles, and temperament in detail. If a puppy is wrong at this age, it will probably not totally recover as it matures. If it is right at this age, it may still not stay show quality. Right from the beginning, I do exercises to prepare each puppy for animal-assisted therapy and mobility assistance as a Service Dog.
First, the “process” starts with understanding the definition of a “show” puppy: There are many puppies with no disqualifications, which can be shown. They may actually get a few points and may even get a title after numerous shows with a professional handler. I place these into loving pet homes.
There are fewer puppies with good qualities, but a novice owner would need a lot of training or a professional to finish them. I may show this pup myself for the owner or just place it as a pet.
Then, there are those few special puppies that can make a novice look good, as long as the novice doesn’t “bother” the dog in the ring by over-handling. I like to know this pup will be shown and may contribute genetics to future generations.
I can usually tell which puppies fit into the first category when the puppies are 2-3 weeks old. Placing a puppy into the latter two categories is an ongoing process that may extend past a year old. Regardless, no puppy should go to a show home before 12-16 weeks old. The pet quality puppies are always promised to new owners early, but stay with their mom until 10 weeks old. She teaches them to be good dogs and to interact correctly. Dog Language. People Language. For me, the “pet” and the “nice” puppies with no disqualification go to a pet home at 10 weeks. I require all of these puppies to be neutered. The puppies that should be shown go into possible show homes, or stay with me, when they are about 16 weeks old.
My contract requires that I evaluate them at two years to determine if they can be bred and, if so, approve any possible mate. Harsh? Only I know which mate will go well with this dog/pedigree and I need time to educate the potential new breeder.
For me, a breeding animal has a very different quality than a “show animal.” The breeding male/female must improve on the show dog and have a pedigree that has produced excellent puppies bred to various other pedigrees AND the pedigree must be known to produce uniformly good litters with no serious health or temperament issues.
In very limited cases, a puppy may not be a show prospect, usually due to a medical accident, but may be a breeding candidate. And the reverse… some terrific show dogs should not be bred. These depend on pedigree.
When I select a puppy for Performance, to include Therapy and Service Dog work, I want a pup who looks at me when I talk to them and makes an effort to do what I ask. I see this as early as 4 weeks old and encourage the behavior until the puppy leaves my house.
Do I compete in Performance Events? In Parent Club Tests & Trials?
Sandra McCrady: Uh, these are Pyrs. No. They were bred to work alone in a mountain pasture. They don’t believe people are very smart, but their person can be trained with repetition and rewards. I’ve made Performance titles as easy to train for as I can by how I raise the puppy, but it is up to the owner to find a way to negotiate with their individual dog on whether it cooperates.
I admit to training for some Performance titles, but have not been known for the results. I praise an owner who undertakes Performance and/or Companion titles and I encourage them as much as I can. I believe these are more for bonding than reputation. I have a couple owners who are enjoying Performance titles right now.
There aren’t many parent club titles. I believe a Producer Hall of Fame is something to shoot for with the best candidates. I also praise puppy owners for Therapy and Service Dog work; particularly, the Service Dog function. These have both become important to me in the last few years. I, personally, have been assisted by five Pyrs as Service Dogs, but am currently without a trained dog. I am training a puppy from my last litter. My Service Dogs have also worked as Therapy Dogs, even though the formal certification organizations frown on cross-training. I believe the dogs understand the difference, even though the skills are slightly different. It’s like the difference between the Obedience ring and the Conformation show ring. They know.
Is “performance” part of my decision-making when it comes to breeding?
Sandra McCrady: Every Performance Dog must have good health, good structure, a biddable temperament, and a quiet demeanor. I require that of all my puppies. So, I’d say I DO consider performance. But, it is difficult to select for puppies that don’t come to think of humans as… a bit… dumb. The owner just has to work to convince them this isn’t true. Who has the opposable thumbs?!
How would I define “conditioning” as it relates to my breed? I want to see an animal that has correct weight, hard muscling, and a coat with strength and shine, reflecting proper diet and exercise. When the physical conditioning is right, the mental condition must be considered.
I also want them to be mentally prepared for the rigors of the job they are to do, whether it is working in the high fields, or tending children at a reading event, or lending assistance to a person with difficulties. Or, just maybe, caring for new babies or exciting crowds in the show ring.
Are there any health-related concerns in my breed? Any special nutritional needs? As with most large and giant breeds, Pyrs have an incidence of cancer and structural difficulties (hip dysplasia, luxating patella, etc.). From experience, I don’t consider hip dysplasia an automatic death sentence. I’ve only had one individual where it shortened his life or caused him issues. The tendency toward torn cruciate in some dogs presents a more difficult issue because I’ve known several that needed expensive surgeries to give them a healthy life.
The National Health Committee collects health info from owners and breeders so that we can make changes in our breeding programs to strengthen our breed. All owners and breeders need to be encouraged to participate in the database. We need to know our potential problems in order to avoid them.
I warn my puppy buyers about a nutrition problem which I see more often than not: FAT DOG bordering on OBESE DOG. With most pedigrees, the Pyr has a very low-calorie requirement after a certain age. For some, they start getting “over fed” at about two years, but some can eat too many calories by four months of age.
I strongly recommend puppy buyers switch their puppy from a puppy food formula to an adult food as soon as the ribs are well covered; not overly fat, but not thin. I show them how to evaluate proper weight as their pup grows. As a concern, I’ve seen many vets tell the owner the dog is in excellent condition when not a single bone can be felt. I consider this a major nutritional crisis. An adult Pyr does NOT need to eat much to maintain proper weight! And, an average adult Pyr male does NOT weigh 200 pounds!!! The biggest adult female I’ve had, Tiger, weighed 118 pounds while being shown. She was bigger than most males in the ring. I’ve never had another female over 95 pounds. Most are now about 85 pounds. It is startling how little they eat when they aren’t working in below zero weather.
Do I think my breed is supported by a sufficient number of preservation breeders?
Sandra McCrady: I’m not sure I know what a preservation breeder is. Perhaps it means many years or many litters? Does it mean many show wins? Does it mean many titles? Any breed benefits from breeders who have a good eye for a dog and a knowledge of genetics, structure, temperament, and the health of their breed. I consider those the preservation breeders. We have some right now. We have new breeders who would benefit from associating with a good mentor (from any breed). I often recommend a mentor from another breed that is short-coated and an endurance trotter. This gives perspective. The beginner can learn structure more easily without the coat. I feel we need much more mentoring and breeders of knowledge who will mentor new people who are willing to learn. Send me mentors and people who listen. New preservation breeders need to be in training to secure the breed in the future. Without the training, we could lose the breed we love.
Is my breed well suited to be a family dog? Who are the best candidates to own my breed?
Sandra McCrady: The Pyr is the absolute best candidate for a family dog—in the right home. Wrong home equals wrong dog. They shed, dig, escape, and bark. They are also dedicated, devoted, and understand when they are needed for comfort.
They are not “obedient” dogs, which is frustrating for an owner who would prefer a Golden Retriever. I start by looking for an experienced Pyr owner with few complaints about the “Fluffy” they are replacing. If Fluff had an issue, New Pup will likely have the same issue. I look for a person with a quiet hand and a quiet eye who can enforce a command without making it a big deal. An owner must “negotiate” with a Pyr, rather than count on giving commands and expecting obedience.
I want a buyer I can have as a close family friend for 10-15 years or longer. Any puppy purchase is a joint venture between the new owner and the breeder. The breeder should be available 24 hours a day, every day, as mentor, confessor, and general counselor. The buyer should be willing to learn and take advice from their mentor. I’ve attended births, weddings, funerals—and everything in between—for puppy buyers, and I consider their families perfect for a Pyr.
What is the biggest misconception about my breed? What is my breed’s best-kept secret?
Sandra McCrady: Some people think a Pyr is a bigger, white Golden Retriever. What a shock for the new owner and for the dog. This is not a dog bred to work at the command of a person and seek their approval for each action.
Some people think a Pyr is like other guardian dogs, like the Kuvasz, Komondor, or some of the more rare relatives. The Pyr has less desire to be aggressive than the other guardians. They are physically more quiet and willing to do their duties with minimal effort.
Some people think they can be trained not to bark or not go exploring off their property when a gate is open. The rare example can be trained for these. Very rare. By the time they reach 14, they can usually be trusted to stay home without a serious fence.
They really do have a secret. Pyrs usually like people. They do their best to train us for their needs and make us good Pyr owners. Some people are harder to train, but the Pyr is a patient trainer. Part of the lesson is Pyrs bark. Pyrs dig holes. Pyrs go for walks. By themselves. For miles. Get over it. They still love you.
If I could share a comment or two with judges of my breed, what would I like to say to them? This breed is a family dog first, a working dog second, and a show dog third. In that order. The ring is not an exciting place for a dog that has other duties than the show ring. The tail may not be alert. The ears may not be alert. The body posture may not be at attention. If they see something exciting, they will let you know.
Look for a dog that fits the Breed Standard and moves smoothly, like it could move that way for hours and still have the ability to catch a predator. That’s a Pyr and will catch the eye every time.
Do I have any words of wisdom to pass along to newer breeders?
Dear New Breeder: Buy the very best female you can afford. Research her pedigree. See her parents, littermates, half brothers and sisters, and as many of her relatives as possible. If you can’t see these dogs, ask questions. Talk to people who have seen them. Assume the worst features in any of those dogs will show up in her puppies. Can you live with that? If not, pass her up.
Dear New Breeder: Find a mentor in your breed who has bred generations of good dogs. Find another mentor in a short-haired working breed that has bred generations of good dogs. Listen to what they tell you for at least four years. Follow their advice. After that time, talk to other breeders and get other opinions. Decide which options make sense and follow them. Every time you make a decision, do it with the best interest of the breed in mind.
This is an ancient and noble breed, which is now in your hands.
For a bit of fun, what’s the most amusing thing I’ve ever experienced with a Working Dog?
Sandra McCrady: Many years ago, I accidentally trained a girl to catch mice. She was quite good at it and never hurt one. Some were defective and died of heart failure before she gave them to me. Her skills eventually spread to baby bunnies and turtle doves. She would carry them to me and put them in a paper bag I carried. I would eventually set her gifts free.
When she was about two years old, she was entered in a show that had outdoor rings with an open pavilion cover. Pigeons did what pigeons will do and roosted in the rafters.
All the Breed dogs lined up and she was being very serious about the task as the judge looked at the lineup. He asked them to go around together and that startled the pigeons! As she hit full stride going around the ring, she leaped up in the air, grabbed a slow pigeon, and landed back on the ground without a missed step.
I didn’t have a paper bag. She had a pigeon. The judge was forced to assume her bite was correct. The pigeon played dead. She did all of her gaiting without a single notice of the mouthful. The judge gave her Best of Breed. (A Working Girl, after all.) The steward called for the show photographer. The judge looked at me and asked if I wanted the shot with or without the bird. The steward called for the photographer to bring a paper bag.
Are you looking for a Great Pyrenees puppy?
The best way to ensure a long and happy relationship with a purebred dog is to purchase one from a responsible breeder. Not sure where to begin finding a breeder? Contact the National Parent Club’s Breeder Referral person, which you can find on the AKC Breeder Referral Contacts page.
Want to help rescue and re-home a Great Pyrenees dog?
Did you know nearly every recognized AKC purebred has a dedicated rescue group? Find your new best friend on the AKC Rescue Network Listing.
Great Pyrenees Dog Breed Magazine
Read and learn more about the Great Pyrenees dog breed with articles and information in our Great Pyrenees Breed Magazine.
Great Pyrenees Breed Magazine - Showsight