Interview with Clayton Heathcock, Breeder of Camelot Rhodesian Ridgebacks
Where do I live? How many years in dogs? How many years as a breeder?
Clayton Heathcock: I live in Martinez, California, and I’ve been involved with Rhodesian Ridgebacks since I purchased my first one in 1988. My first litter was born in 1990, so I have been a breeder for 33 years.
What is my kennel name? How many dogs do I currently keep?
Clayton Heathcock: My kennel name is Camelot Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and although I am no longer actively breeding, I still have three Ridgeback housedogs and I co-own a young male who is actively showing and currently the top-ranked Rhodesian Ridgeback show dog; his name is Camelot’s Godfather (Brando).
Which show dogs from the past have been my noteworthy winners?
Clayton Heathcock: My two most well-known show dogs from the past were littermates; Camelot’s Promise to Bakari (Ruger) and Camelot’s Code Red (Mojave). Ruger was shown by Don Rogers and Mojave was shown by Mike Szabo and Bill Sahloff. In 2005, these two brothers did something absolutely remarkable—they finished the year in an exact tie for No. 1 with 2,025 Breed points each.
Which have been my most influential sires and dams?
Clayton Heathcock: My most influential dam was my foundation dam, Deer Ridge Morganna, whose name now appears in the pedigrees of many hundreds of Ridgebacks in America, Australia, and Europe. My most influential sire was Ruger.
Can I talk a bit about my facilities? Where are my puppies whelped? How are they raised?
Clayton Heathcock: I have modest facilities, a nice kennel with three runs, and a large fenced yard with a number of fences and gates so that the dogs can have some privacy while exercising when needed.
During my 30-year active breeding career, I’ve whelped and raised about 40 litters. All puppies are hand-raised for the first month in a whelping box in my master bathroom and then in my kennel until leaving for their new homes. I always make an effort to be sure the puppies are well-socialized and I am fortunate to have had a number of nieces and grandchildren who liked to just come over and sit in the whelping box or on the floor with the puppies.
What is my “process” for selecting Show Puppies? Performance Puppies?
Clayton Heathcock: When puppies are about five weeks old, I begin the process of identifying likely show candidates. The most important part of that process is actually just sitting in the yard and watching the puppies run and play. What I am looking for is to see how they stop, if all four feet are the corners of a rectangle; especially the two front feet. I also do “audition” photos to assess overall conformation, usually with the help of my longtime friend and handler, David Bueno.
Do I compete in Companion Events? Performance Events?
Clayton Heathcock: I have not personally taken part in Performance Events and do not make breeding decisions on that basis. However, some of my puppies have gone on to excel in Lure Coursing, and one of them, Ruger, is the only Ridgeback, and possibly one of the few hounds, to have both a BIS and a BIF.
Is “performance” part of my decision-making when it comes to breeding?
Clayton Heathcock: No, please refer to the previous answer.
How would I define “conditioning” as it relates to my breed?
Clayton Heathcock: In my opinion, the most important conditioning is an appropriate diet, to maintain a good weight, and the opportunity for a lot of exercise. Ridgebacks were bred to be farm dogs in Africa and had to have the stamina to run effortlessly for long periods of time when accompanying their owners on horseback or in wagons. So, to hone a young Ridgeback into the best show condition, some road work is necessary. In addition, Ridgebacks are pack animals and will condition each other if they live in a family with other Ridgebacks, especially if given a large area for exercise.
Are there any health-related concerns in my breed? Any special nutritional needs?
Clayton Heathcock: The classic breed-specific health issue for Ridgebacks is dermoid sinus. This is a deformity that occurs during fetal development when the neural tube is incompletely sealed and is similar to spina bifida. A dermoid sinus is essentially a thread-like passage from the skin to the spinal cord. It is something that can be detected when the puppy is just a few days old, and experienced breeders can easily find them and have the condition surgically repaired. Of course, any puppy that has this condition at birth is desexed and not used for future breeding. The condition is clearly hereditary and it is slowly disappearing from our breed.
A second breed-specific health issue is early onset adult deafness (EOAD). This is a condition in which the puppy has normal hearing up to the age of four to six months and then the hearing gradually disappears, leaving the puppy totally deaf by the age of about a year and a half. It can be insidious because the hearing gradually disappears during the exact time that the puppy is so easily learning new things about the world. So, it can happen that as the hearing disappears, the puppy learns to use other signals and a family can have a deaf dog and not even realize it.
Over the last 10 years, a targeted research program, funded initially by donations from individual breeders and the national breed club, eventually found the genetic cause of the disease and there is now a reliable DNA test that breeders can use to identify carriers. Because the condition is recessive, we can now avoid producing any puppies with EOAD by simply not breeding carriers to carriers. The EOAD marker is part of the Embark panel.
Do I think my breed is supported by a sufficient number of preservation breeders?
Clayton Heathcock: Yes, I think so, and I am encouraged by the fact that I see a number of newer and very motivated and ethical breeders moving in to take the torch from some of us old-timers.
Is my breed well suited to be a family dog? Who are the best candidates to own my breed?
Clayton Heathcock: Because Ridgebacks are pack animals, they do make very good family dogs. But also, because they are pack animals, they do best in a family with one or more other dogs, though not necessarily other Ridgebacks. As to the best candidates to own Ridgebacks, I would say it is people who like the outdoors and doing things like hiking and running; things that are healthy exercise for an active breed.
What is the biggest misconception about my breed? What is my breed’s best-kept secret?
Clayton Heathcock: Ridgebacks are very stately dogs and, unfortunately, our heritage as being African Lion Dogs has resulted in the idea that they should be big and ferocious—big enough to takedown the King of Beasts. But no, Ridgebacks were never expected to actually engage physically with lions. They were simply to be brave enough and nimble enough to keep them at bay. Best-Kept Secret: “We were wolves once / Wild and wary / Then we noticed you had sofas.” —Francesco Marciuliano
If I could share a comment or two with judges of my breed, what would I like to say to them?
Clayton Heathcock: Movement is important in our breed. These dogs should be able to run smoothly for an hour or more and they need to be able to do it without expanding a lot of energy. So, watch them closely on the down and back and note how they carry their head and topline on the go-around. And they are not racehorses.
Do I have any words of wisdom to pass along to newer breeders?
Clayton Heathcock: Play the long game when making breeding decisions. Don’t breed a bitch just because she is the only one you have. If your bitch has a lot of faults, don’t try to fix them; buy a better bitch and start over. But if you really like most everything about your girl, except for a few faults, then try to find a sire who can bring strength to those areas and don’t select a sire just because he has won a lot in the show ring. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of pedigrees. When choosing a sire, don’t forget his ancestors because he will be giving you a “porridge” of their genes.
For a bit of fun, what’s the most amusing thing I’ve ever experienced with a Hound?
Clayton Heathcock: That would probably be the very first time I showed a dog in the specials ring. It was 1992 and I had a striking young male, a puppy, from my very first litter, whose name was Camelot’s Technical Knockout. “Bruiser” was shown to his championship by Karen Kurtzner. He finished his championship in the last show of December 1991, and my wife and I drove him to Portland for the January shows in 1992. At the very first show, our judge was the late Dr. Donald Jones. Karen was preoccupied in the Beagle ring, so I was sent in to show Bruiser for his very first outing as a special.
There was a very large class of specials at that show, and I had been instructed to go to the end of the line in case Karen could get there and take over. But Dr. Jones would not permit that, so I got stuck in the middle of a line of about a dozen male specials. Dr. Jones seemed taken with Bruiser from the time we walked in the ring, and he kept looking at him every time he would go over one of the other dogs.
I kept hoping that Karen would get there before he got to me down the line, but that did not happen and I ended up showing Bruiser to Dr. Jones. After he had examined all the dogs, he walked to me and said, “Bring this dog out in the middle.” And I did. Then he said, “Loose lead,” and I kind of let go of the lead a little bit, but not very much. Then he said, very authoritatively, “I said, loose lead.” Whereupon I dropped the lead. He just said, “No, dummy, I did not say, drop the lead… but you are Best of Breed.” I collected my ribbon and walked Bruiser back through the building to where Karen was still showing in the Beagle ring. She laughed and said, “I’ve already heard what you did.”
Are you looking for a Rhodesian Ridgeback 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 Rhodesian Ridgeback 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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