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 area, but would like to advise future breeders that it is important to pick the very best breeding pairs from around the entire US—or even the world. Don’t become blind with your local dogs. Your litters are only as good as the pair selected as parents.
I have over 50 years in dogs, but I have not bred many litters. I keep a log of every litter I’ve bred, down to the individuals, along with sex, markings, any titles won, and any health notes I’ve accumulated. Numbers of dogs finished is not something I look for, but percentage of litters that finish titles, live long lives, and produce well. I bred my first Great Pyrenees litter in 1973 from a female I co-owned with an experienced breeder. With her assistance, we picked a good male and produced a Top Producer from that first litter.
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 the second Pyr I bought.
I’ve had as many as 25 dogs/puppies at a time, but only have five right now. Two are over 11 years old and only one girl is for breeding a future litter. 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.
Which show dogs from the past have been my noteworthy winners?
- My very favorite was “Tiger,” FCI AKC CKC Mex. CH Aquilon Wind and Fire CGC. She became the #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.
- My second 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 wins and 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 dog, “Nubbikins,” AKC/UKC GCH Aquilon for Wind and Fire. She is now over 11 and has won two regional specialties and finished 2020 as #3 in Breed statistics. She believes her house is sacred and will not allow any other female inside. She tolerates the house male, “Freddie.” She sleeps beside me every night. Freddie sleeps in the kitchen.
Which have been my most influential sires and dams?
Sandra McCrady: I believe every successful kennel starts with the best females money can buy, then “rents” the best males for litters. So, I don’t consider any male influential for me. I know what other breeding lines produce with my girls, and I try to go to the best ones for my girls. This may vary by girl.
I bought a young male I called “Slick,” CH Valle d’Aspe’s Ahsum Adrian, HOF. I found that he produced well for my females, but I did not use him in the general population of females. He became a Top Producer with the litters I used him for.
For females, 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 many) and 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 was “Joy,” AKC/UKC GCH Aquilon Double Jump for Joy, HOF. She produced three litters, with six titled from 10 total pups. One pup is now a Top Producer and another pup produced a Top 20 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 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 5-6 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? At what age do I make my decisions?
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?
- 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.
- There are fewer puppies with good qualities, but a novice owner would need a lot of training or a professional to finish them.
- Then, there are those special puppies that can make a novice look good, as long as the owner doesn’t “bother” the dog in the ring by over-handling.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.
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.
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. (And, they do get educated.)
For me, a breeding animal has a very different quality than a “show animal.” The breeding male/female must 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, but may be a breeding candidate. And the reverse… some terrific show dogs should not be bred.
How do I prepare my pups for the show ring? Does my breed require any special preparation?
Sandra McCrady: For myself, show training starts at three days.
- They are handled
- They are trained to hold still
- They learn to cooperate and love to be fed
- They learn to react to voices
- They also start nail trims, brushing, and washing/drying
At 3-4 weeks, they start learning about collars, leashes, walking with a person, and (the ever-popular) bait training.
At 6-7 weeks, they learn SIT. This teaches them how to learn. Before this, they have no idea I’m actually teaching them something. With SIT, they become aware that I have an expectation of them. STAND is just the companion of SIT. With this training, showing is just a case of reviewing the lessons and refining the details. Any “special” preparation should be grooming and keeping them accustomed to strange places and strange people/noises.
Is mine a cropped and/or docked breed? Can I share my thoughts on cropping and docking?
Sandra McCrady: No. I leave those decisions to the individual breed standards. I am glad Pyrs are shown natural.
Are Performance and Companion titles important to me as a breeder? Are parent club titles?
Sandra McCrady: Uh, these are Pyrs. 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 praise an owner who undertakes performance and/or companion titles and I encourage them as much as I can.
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. These have both become important to me in the last few years.
In my opinion, is my breed in good condition overall. Any trends that warrant concern?
Sandra McCrady: In general, the breed is in fairly good shape. I, personally, want more angulation than many dogs have in the ring. I also want to see more body, particularly on the taller dogs. This gives them the strength and power to overcome predators. The Pyr is also supposed to be slightly longer than tall, which gives them the proper “endurance trotter” profile in movement.
Each Pyr must have an excellent headpiece that fits the standard. Most Pyrs in the ring are an improvement over what was present when I started. The hardest things to improve in a breeding program are: front structure and headpiece/eye shape/ear set. I believe breeders have incorporated correct stock to improve these in most cases. Using a dog without excellent conformation and temperament is dangerous in any program. Most temperaments are quite solid these days.
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 companion for a family dog—in the right home. Wrong home; wrong dog. They shed, dig, and bark. They are not “obedient” dogs, which is frustrating for an owner who would prefer a Golden.
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. I also want a person 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.
Do I feel that 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. I feel we need much more mentoring and breeders of knowledge who will mentor new people who are willing to learn. Listening is a skill few new people seem to start with.
For a bit of fun, what’s the most amusing thing I’ve ever experienced with a Working Dog?
Sandra McCrady: Amusing. For whom? The dog? The handler? The watching population? Okay.
“Tracer” was a Big Boy whose IQ matched that of a goldfish. He was very good at obedience—for food. He really liked food. A lot. I took him to a fun match where they had a “fun class.” Little kids, barely taller than the dogs, were entered in a hot dog eating contest for their pets. One boy, about five years old, didn’t have a pet and was quite distressed.
I explained to the mom and “judge” that this big, hairy beastie was well-trained and that I’d be outside the ring to rescue the boy if anything bad happened. Okay. So, they had all the kids enter the ring with their dogs and have the dogs SIT beside their kid. I told Tracer to SIT, and he did… politely.
He was at the back of the line, so I positioned myself by the fence and got prepared. I wasn’t well enough prepared. The judge had a bag of hotdogs. Her plan was to go down the line, give each kid a hotdog, then stand in the middle of the ring, start the contest, and declare the first dog to finish the hotdog as the winner. Right. She started at the back of the line and handed Tracer’s boy a hotdog. She turned her back and went to the next kid to hand out a hotdog, and she proceeded down the line of maybe 10 kids, all the while the noise from the parents was getting louder! And kids yelling. And dogs getting excited.
Tracer’s kid didn’t guard the hotdog well, so Tracer calmly took it and swallowed it when the kid waved it in front of him. His kid reacted and yelled at him, so Tracer got up and went to the next kid in line. Repeat grab/swallow. By the time the judge reached the last kid, Tracer took the hotdog right from the judge! All the kids were now gathered around the judge, yelling about Tracer taking everything!
The adults outside were laughing too hard to care (myself included), and some probably had to sit down. Bless the judge. She dragged Tracer back to his position and told him to STAY, and she got all the kids back in line. This time, she delivered hotdogs from the front of the line. Tracer and his kid still won. The kid got a ribbon. Tracer still wanted dinner that night. The kids said he cheated.
Are you looking for a Great Pyrenees puppy?
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