Interview with a Herding Group Breeder Donna Calabrese
Where do I live? How many years in dogs? How many years as a breeder?
Donna Calabrese: Hi, I live in a little town called Edinburg in Virginia, in beautiful Shenandoah County. I am the second generation of a three-generation family kennel. I’ve been in dogs for 50 years. Growing up, I spent all of my time learning from my mom and helping in the kennel.
What is my kennel name? How many dogs do I currently keep?
Donna Calabrese: Our kennel name is Aramist Kennels & Enterprises LLC. I own six GSD myself; I co-own many that come and go, and I also do training/conditioning, which makes my numbers change weekly.
Which show dogs from the past have been my noteworthy winners?
Donna Calabrese: There are many, but I will name only my personal favorites: Am. & Can. GVX Futurity VX CH Aramist’s Ivana of Kolbrook ROM; Sel CH Breauhausens Titanic ROM; CH Covy Tucker Hills Fly N Jibodega HIC; AOE Can. GVX Am. Sel. BIS CH Jantar’s China Lake v Witmer HT; 3x Sel. Exc. GCH Scharo Ark’s Fire n Ice ROM; and 2x Sel Exc Rising Sun Bunker ROM.
There are many more, but I’m not so sure how much space this interview would allow…
Which have been my most influential sires and dams?
Donna Calabrese: “Ivana” (listed above) along with “Titanic” created a long list of Futurity and Maturity winners and many champions, putting her at the top of the Dam List for those years she was active. They have progeny now going 5-6 generations back, doing very big things for other breeders.
More recently, the Fire n Ice x Bunker combinations; we did this several times and they too have produced amazing producers and champions. Over the years, I have also consulted on many successful breedings with clients and friends, and have made suggestions that have worked extremely well! I am always happy to help!
Can I talk a bit about my facilities? Where are my puppies whelped? How are they raised?
Donna Calabrese: My facility is “rustic” and “homey,” not fancy. I have a kennel with indoor/outdoor kennels, the inside flooring is cement with horse mats on top, and outside are 12 ft. wooden deck pens. I don’t allow my dogs to live on cement. I also have a smaller building that we call the puppy barn; same situation except that the outside footing is gravel with horse mats on top. I then have 70 ft. paddocks with chain-link, for them to run. They never stay just in one place. They move around the property for various reasons for self-conditioning, even when they aren’t being on a regimented plan.
I have a nursery set up in my basement. We have three pens elevated; with heat lamps, heat mat, and a proper station to weigh, clean off, and label each puppy. We always have medications on hand and monitor them 24/7. As they get older, and the weather cooperates, they have the outside nursery pen where they go and spend time with momma at first… along with toys. They don’t go down to the puppy barn until they outgrow the nursery and need more space. In their outdoor pen in the puppy barn are various large toys, jungle gym, tunnels, activity boxes and, in summer, a baby pool.
Puppies are raised in the house, getting proper socialization, mental stimulation to different noises/sounds, people, children, and eventually, other pets, including a cat. After they receive proper immunizations to keep them safe, they go to work with me… TSC, Lowe’s, etc. Their favorite is the custard stand in the summer where they get special treats!
What is my “process” for selecting show puppies? At what age do I make my decisions?
Donna Calabrese: Keep it simple… I start from the beginning, just by watching; most of the time they tell you which are the best. Structure is there when they are born. Unfortunately, we have to go through many growth stages to finally return back to what they were. We video them from when they first get up on their feet; we are a moving breed, so for us, that’s the most exciting part! We spend hours doing moving videos and standing pictures… and then watch them in slow-motion, making sure our eyes aren’t playing tricks on us. We try to evaluate with the most critical eye.
By 8 weeks, I know which are going to be sold as companions or to working/performance homes. On occasion, I also sell puppies to an organization that trains them for alert dogs and therapy dogs. The ones that I see have more potential, depending on the breeding, I hold longer. If they are super special, they stay till they are old enough to prelim/DNA test/teeth all-in/etc. If I’m keeping them for breeding, I’m also learning “their” growing stages and keeping it documented to have as a reference for the future. Sometimes I look back at videos on my phone of the grandparents and I say, “Oooooh my, that’s where they’re getting this or that from!”
The GSD is uniquely presented, both standing and moving. How do I prepare my pups for the show ring?
Donna Calabrese: You just said a mouthful; we do present them uniquely… at the all-breed shows, we try to conform to the conservative way of presenting a dog, being that “double handling” is frowned upon and we get the brunt of it. However, recently, I witnessed many other breeds doubling… I almost wanted to give a doubling class (laughing) so that they could be more effective! (But that can be a different interview on a different day.) For the ring, we socialize like everyone else. We train to stack, go through a normal individual, the down-and-back and the go-around. The big difference are Specialties; when a dog is in training for those, we start to make them more dependent on the double handler instead of just baiting. We make a “special” noise, give a treat… repeat, play hide and seek, give a treat, repeat… and we also roadwork. The reasoning for things; no intelligent dog is going to keep running the same circle with enthusiasm and alertness without the reward of pleasing their person.
At Specialty shows, the rings are more properly sized for the evaluation of true GSD movement. We aren’t taking two steps and making a turn, which prevents the dog from fully opening up their shoulder while being propelled by a powerful hindquarter—especially if you have any suspension. I believe that half or more of the evaluations done by judges are incorrect, based on the judge having to obey time constraints, ring size, and improper training on judging our breed. (Again, another topic for another day.) However, we roadwork them on long straight-aways at different speeds. I also make them walk up and down hills and in weeds and high grass so that they use different muscles on different terrain. Doing this helps the animal use all of his muscles, making a better all-around, conditioned dog, which will make a better show dog. The one thing I will say, if they don’t want to do it… no matter how good, don’t! It will make you crazy and it’s not worth it!
Care to comment on the various coat colors of the breed? Any personal preferences?
Donna Calabrese: At the present moment, there aren’t any issues with colors in our breed. There are people who want to breed the “off” colors for whatever reason… and people who buy them because they are different. But there are reasons why those colors are disqualifications.
I have always preferred a darker dog, but I love a red sable, traditional black and tan or black and red, and I don’t mind a good solid black. I’ve had them all. An old-timer’s saying was that once you breed sable, it’s like a virus… they take over your kennel (being a
What are my thoughts on the various “styles” of GSD seen in the US and around the world?
Donna Calabrese: This is where our problem lies; one Standard interpreted in so many different ways in so many countries. I can only speak for myself here in America, but I’ve noticed the extremes that other countries have gone to and it looks awful, i.e., hump backs, splayed pinched fronts, and rears so dysfunctional. I believe that, for years, the Americans, like in every aspect of our lives, went to extremes; it’s just human nature… we want more or better. We have done that and now, for some, we have paid a price. The dog is built a certain way to perform its tasks and, with extra length of bone in the hindquarters, we created dogs that looked like grasshoppers. I think we have done a good job here in the States of educating people on proper proportions and showing them how they work vs. not work with the extra, more extreme rear. Let’s imagine for a moment. If a dog has to herd sheep all day long and act as a fence line, moving back and forth mechanically, those bones need to be correctly proportioned or they will get tired by having to compensate for where they aren’t as long; hence balance. It will do the job but will break down sooner and not be able to get the job done at the end of the day, the same as in the beginning. I also think that one of the most misunderstood parts of our breed is the croup. I too fell victim to it until lately. The more I study the films of past shows, go to educational seminars, and study on other breeds and my own dogs, the better I understand. Without a correct croup, the rear cannot function properly like a pendulum. It must open up and get back under the dog. We also have a great educational committee through our parent club, the GSDCA.
Do I compete with my dogs in Companion and Performance events? Are Specialties important?
Donna Calabrese: I personally don’t. I don’t have the time. I have friends and clients who do… I have the utmost respect for them!
Yes, Specialties are extremely important, especially for people who want to actually study our breed and its movement. We aren’t on any AKC time constraints; we get to show our dogs the way they should be shown. When I say this, I mean in large, grassy rings where you get to actually watch the form and function of our breed. The judge has time to do a more thorough job of comparisons, not just take a lap, pose pretty, go down and back and then one more time around and done. I love and thrive on competition and I love to see our breed fight it out on their own, by letting their structure make the decision and having a good judge let that happen.
In my opinion, is my breed in good condition overall. Any trends that warrant concern?
Donna Calabrese: I do believe our breed is in good shape (USA/AKC). I think we have taken responsibility for fixing and working hard to bring back the whole package vs. pick a part… as it was for years. The only trends to be concerned with aren’t with the dog or breed. It’s people; the trend for the “smoke and mirrors” on social media and the fools who fall for it instead of judging dogs on the day!
Is the GSD well-suited to be a family dog? Who are the best candidates to own my breed?
Donna Calabrese: Yes, absolutely, we are a breed that can do many things and our standard is written for it to be versatile. Our breed can go from being a rug-warming pet and babysitter to an on-the-road show dog, to a faithful protector and then back on the farm to work. We have many service hero dogs that work all day with the police force and go home to be gentle, loving souls.
Anyone who is willing to listen and learn is a good candidate for a German Shepherd. Someone willing to take direction from their knowledgeable breeder. A GSD is so intelligent and, if not trained properly, will train their owners. Most issues are because the dog was set up to fail. They need a job at all times and they will die trying to do that job for you with all the love in their heart!
Do I feel that my breed is supported by a sufficient number of preservation breeders?
Donna Calabrese: Yes and no… old-time preservation breeders are passing. I fear the lack of education for the newer breeders and the lack of willingness to be open to learning is our biggest downfall and, again, social media makes everyone an expert. The younger generation doesn’t study like we did. I don’t believe most study the pedigrees or the dogs like we used to either; sad, but reality! Again, another subject…
For a bit of fun, what’s the most amusing thing I’ve ever experienced with a GSD?
Donna Calabrese: It’s a very old story… I was a kid. All I wanted was to train and condition the dogs like the handlers. It was just my mom and I. She had to work full-time and I was a latch-key kid. I was so taken by the sport of showing dogs; we would go to a dog show and it would be 3-4 chairs deep ringside all the way around the ring. You couldn’t get a front row seat. I would climb under chairs and lay on my belly to get a ringside seat as I watched and learned. I would overhear all the stories, tips, and tricks. I was like a sponge, taking it all in. So, I heard them talking about roadworking and the dogs that won that were in good condition. So, I thought, well, I can do that for me and mom so that our dogs were the best. So after school, I would come home, clean the kennels, and then roadwork the dogs. I had no idea about right from wrong as far as running them on blacktop, etc. I just wanted us to be the best. I would take my bike out; I had a training lead that I tied around the handlebars. I would get the dogs out, hook them up, and off we’d go… I wanted to impress all my friends who were playing ball in the street. I always seemed to be the odd-ball, but in my mind this would impress them. They did know we went to dog shows and that our dogs would win prizes but, like most, they had no idea about what went into all of it.
So I would open the gates and out I’d come, right onto the street. We lived in a suburban neighborhood on Long Island, so no big grassy fields close by that I’d be allowed to go to by myself. The kids on the block would see me coming, and instead of yelling “Car!” and parting from their game and go onto the sidewalk, they’d yell “Doggie Donna!” and go onto the sidewalk as I went through. Most of them would part, kinda like the Red Sea, because they were afraid of the big German Shepherd. (And I let them be scared, so I felt cooler.) Again, I was 10 years old, if that.
So on a certain day, I went through my routine and down the block I came. They would get sick of it when it was the third or fourth dog… so one wiseguy took the ball as I went and threw the ball. Well, it bounced, went off to the side and under the car. I had full control until I wanted to show-off, not knowing what was coming. I let the dog have more lead because on a normal circumstances she’d obey and stay in front, but this time the dog went after the ball; the handlebars came off, and my bike and I went into the car, literally on the hood of the car, like “splat.” The dog and the handlebars went to fetch the ball, but the handlebars got stuck on the tire (thank God) so it stopped the dog… and all the kids screamed and yelled “OMG” and ran for their lives. It wasn’t funny then, but I look back and laugh. Lesson learned; never tie the leash to the handlebars! Someone’s mom came running out to help me, the dog sat there wagging her tail with the ball in her mouth, and I begged the woman not to tell my mom. I guess if she reads this she’ll find out all these years later… and I’m way too old for her to punish.