Interview with a purebred Cairn Terrier breeder Joe Vernuccio of Ashwood Cairn Terriers, by Allan Reznik.
Where did you grow up?
Joe Vernuccio: I grew up and have lived my entire life in different towns on the Connecticut shoreline. Living so close to New York City is an opportunity that I have always appreciated and taken advantage of. It’s not unusual to catch a commuter train just minutes from where I live and be in the city in an hour and a few minutes. I am lucky to have access to great restaurants, shopping, cultural events, and theater.
Do you come from a doggy family? And if not, how did the interest in breeding and showing purebred dogs begin?
Joe Vernuccio: I did not grow up in a dog-owning household. In fact, my interest in finally getting a companion dog probably stemmed from the fact that my parents didn’t share my love for having and caring for animals. When I finally lived on my own and could have pets, I decided to attend dog shows to find the perfect purebred dog to fill my life. I was not aware that I would become fascinated
with the sport of showing dogs as well.
I remember my first trip to Westminster and watching breed judging at The Garden, and I was enthralled at seeing the Cairn Terriers go into the ring—groomed, trained, and showing themselves off freely. I guess that was the day I got officially hooked on this breed. I started calling breeders the next day, trying to get my first show dog, and the breeders encouraged me to join the local Cairn Terrier club. I followed that advice, and the fun began.
Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their influence.
Joe Vernuccio: I was fortunate to have many mentors guiding me on the Cairn Terrier and purebred dog landscape. I still hear their voices when judging or when I see a special dog in my travels.
Dr. Alvin Novick did not come from Terriers, but as a close friend and inspiration he taught me many things about the dog show world, ethical judging, and making common sense decisions when it came to selecting and living with dogs. He was a Yale professor and his background in dogs was that he bred Shih Tzu when they were first accepted into the AKC. It was fascinating to hear him talk about how difficult it was to import foundation stock at such an early stage of a new breed. He was the President of the American Shih Tzu Club at some point, so he could also help me understand the world of dog show clubs, politics, and successful negotiations.
Over the years, many Cairn breeders took me under their wing and helped me understand the essence of the breed better, including Jerrie Wolfe (Rose Croft) in California who sold me my first Cairn and who had a very successful program at that time; Ellie Buesing (Ohioville) who is the consummate professional groomer and traditionalist; Louise Hooper (Glenmore) who had amazing training and grooming skills and who travelled to the UK many times and helped me understand about the breed’s global roots; and Judy Sheer (Kenric’s) who had keen dog sense and a great eye for a good dog. There were many more breeders here, in the UK, and in Scandinavia who also spent time with me and shared lessons about how to manage dogs and how to make the best breeding decisions. I am grateful for them all.
The Ashwood Cairn Terriers are widely known, highly successful and well respected. What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?
Joe Vernuccio: At the start of my breeding journey, I read every book on the breed I could find and studied pedigrees in old yearbooks, searching for the “type” that I wanted to recreate. The famous adage of “let the sire of the sire become the grandsire on the dam’s side” became an early breeding tool of mine. However, as I became more involved in breeding, and more scientific data became available about inbreeding as it relates to health issues, I developed my eye to breed type-to-type and not be as dependent on pedigrees alone.
It would be impossible to discuss the many breeding philosophies I followed in 25 years, but at the end of the day, I bred for HEALTH and sound, typey dogs that could MOVE efficiently and do the job they were bred to do and that had the TEMPERAMENT that I and others could live with. This included breeding Terriers that could get along in packs.
I learned that not all breeders evaluate movement in dogs the same way and that people tolerate some temperament issues like shyness or unwarranted aggression differently. As one mentor said, you must be absolutely “brutal” in your breeding and culling decisions to keep the very best, well-rounded dogs if you want to succeed. Difficult but great advice.
How many Cairns do you typically house? Tell us about your current facilities and how the dogs are maintained.
Joe Vernuccio: I usually had six Cairn Terriers in the house with me. Some had the run of the entire place, and some didn’t, all depending on their ages and manners. I’ve had periods where there were more or less, and as we all say, “Puppies don’t count!” I also co-owned dogs with other breeders or companion pet owners to maintain certain lines and have access to certain stud dogs. We all have stories of co-ownerships that have worked wonderfully and those that haven’t.
I live in a quiet, historic neighborhood with about an acre that backs up onto woods. The dogs have always had great places to run and exercise their legs. The streets here have sidewalks and are tree-lined, so they are perfect for walking dogs and allowing them to satisfy their curiosity and clear their heads out. My Scandinavian breeder friends take their unleashed dogs out for long daily walks in the “forest,” and while that is impossible here, I do think a good long walk for a Terrier is like reading the morning paper!
Who were/are some of your most significant dogs, both in the whelping box and in the show ring?
Joe Vernuccio: My biggest and most consistent winner was Ch. Ashwood Kenric’s American Idol, (Kylie) who won more specialties than any other bitch in the history of the breed and every major show that she could in her show career. It seemed that few breeders campaigned their bitches before her successful run, though now it seems more common.
She was the No. 1 Cairn all-systems for most of her career and really won everything there was to win. She was breeder/owner-handled and conditioned, including to her Breed win at The Garden, making the final cut in the Terrier Group there, winning both the National Specialty at Montgomery under judge Ken McDermott and following that up by winning the Roving National under breeder-judge Chris Carter, her last show.
My true heart dog and shadow, she truly never put a foot wrong in the show ring and I believe, overall, she loved the experience more than I did. Kylie was that once-in-a-lifetime show dog.
Ch Ashwood Kenric’s Wicked (Junior) won the Breed at The Garden under judge Peter Green for several years, just after my bitch did. He was a multi-specialty winner and a favorite of Anne RogersClark, who told me she had to have a copy of his win picture after putting him up.
There were many other specialty winners that I bred, bought, or co-owned and all the moments were unique, although it’s interesting that as the years pass, it’s sometimes hard to remember which rosettes went with which wins even though they meant everything at the time.
Most of my dogs came down from my two foundation bitches from the Rose Croft Kennels. I spared no expense to breed to the very best stud dogs I could find at the time. I find a lot of breeders today prefer to use dogs that are already in their kennel or close by, which severely limits their opportunities. A good-producing bitch is like gold and should never be wasted because of convenience.
Please comment positively on your breed’s present condition, and what trends might bear watching.
Joe Vernuccio: It’s often asked if the breed is better off today than it was 20 years ago. I think, without question, that Cairns are of better quality today. I feel that they certainly move more soundly and with better reach and drive, carry better bone and substance, have bigger teeth and better bites, and have more steady dispositions.
I feel that the Scandinavian importing, which began in the early part of the millennium, has had a profound influence on the look and temperaments of most of the dogs being bred in North America today.
The grooming has changed and become more stylized as well, but they should still retain the rugged and shaggy appearance. As in many breeds, the dogs have gotten bigger, and you would be hard-pressed to find a 9.5-inch bitch or a 10-inch male in the ring, but I believe if they look and act like Cairn Terriers they still have “type.” American dogs today are certainly more like (and competitive with) the dogs “across the pond” from the country of origin and in other countries.
A Cairn Terrier should be medium and moderate in structure, and that means anything fancy or overexaggerated is incorrect. Although a fancier or judge’s eye might be captured by any exaggeration that makes the dog stand out, that feature is probably not desirable. Heads have changed some over the years, and small ears are becoming rarer.
Additionally, many dogs are becoming slightly over-angulated, causing their toplines to slope which should not be typical of this breed. Breeders and judges should also pay attention that, above all, dogs have a strong croup that leads into a proper tail-set. If the croup dips even slightly (often this is carefully covered with hair) and the set is low, it means that the rear structure will be flawed. I believe rear structure and movement are the areas that need the most improvement today.
The sport has changed greatly since you first began as a breeder-exhibitor. What are your thoughts on the state of the fancy and the declining number of breeders? How do we encourage newcomers to join us and remain in the sport?
Joe Vernuccio: Obviously, the decline of breeders and exhibitors in the sport of showing purebred dogs is a complicated issue and is certainly affected by the current economy and the amount of time and resources needed to properly prepare a Terrier for the show ring.
We should all welcome newcomers into our dog communities and be willing to answer any questions they have, include them in all social functions, and provide mentoring if they show interest to learn.
The challenge also lies with AKC to be creative in finding more opportunities for the owner-handler to be successful at shows and offer more than the current National Owner-Handled Series, which I believe many breeder-owners perceive as just an anticlimax to the regular Groups.
Where do you see your breeding program in the next decade or two?
Joe Vernuccio: While I still have several dogs, I am currently not actively breeding. Since 2013, when I was invited to judge the National Specialty under the AKC’s new rule of allowing breeders to judge Nationals, I put my efforts into judging education and am currently approved to judge the entire Terrier Group. Judging has been a great honor and has offered me the amazing opportunity to assess dogs at many prestigious shows across the nation and in Scandinavia, Europe, and the UK.
I also continue to serve on the Board of the Cairn Terrier Club of America and currently Chair the Judge’s Education initiative. I really enjoy working with new fanciers and judges, and connecting them to mentors in their area or working with them myself. I am also very proud of our recent illustrated standard, the Illustrated Guide to the Cairn Terrier, which our committee got over the finish line several years ago. The illustrations provided by Darle Heck and the updated text really assist readers to understand the breed better.
Finally, tell us a little about Joe outside of dogs… your occupation, your hobbies.
Joe Vernuccio: I was an Operations Manager for a large nonprofit. It required wearing many hats and a strong attention to detail, both of which I enjoyed. In my free-time, I work out daily to stay fit and healthy, antique shop at outdoor markets of which there are many in New England, take care of my 100-plus-year-old home, and occasionally stream series on Netflix.
While all these things are enjoyable, like many fanciers, I probably enjoy “talking dogs” with other enthusiasts the most!
Are you looking for a Cairn Terrier 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 Cairn Terrier 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.
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