Interview with Dr. Natalia Samaj Kunze, DVM, DACT, Breeder of Cross the Rubicon Kerry Blue Terriers
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you live? What is your breed? What is your kennel name? Do you have a website? How long have you been in dogs? How long have you been breeding dogs? Who are some of your best-known dogs?
My name is Natalia Kunze. I am a board-certified veterinary theriogenologist and residency trained veterinary pediatrician, living in Warrenton, Virginia. I fell in love with Kerry Blue Terriers in 1994, breeding and competing under the Cross the Rubicon prefix. I bred, owned, and personally handled to the top rankings a few Kerries, including the 2015 No. 1 Male, “Firelord,” 2016 No. 1 Bitch, “Hexbreaker,” 2018 No. 1, “Hummingbird,” 2019 & 2020 No. 1, “Korvin Ray,” and I currently show his son, “Omen,” recently awarded his first Best in Show.
As a Breeder, can you share your thoughts on your breed today? Is breed type strong? Are there things to be concerned about? Are there any health-related issues? Have you worked with breeders overseas? Are pet homes typically available for your breed?
Our breed continues to exhibit wide variation in type. Although we’ve reduced “low-slung” appearing Kerries, we still need to improve the outline and shorten the topline. To complete the upstanding, terrier style that our Breed Standard calls for, we should be aware of weak rears, low tail sets, and droopy tail carriage. Presenting a Kerry with Poodle type, fluffed up coat with no wave on the body, should be unacceptable. Coloring of the coat is unnecessary, as the Standard allows for any shade of blue gray or gray blue, from the deep slate to light blue gray, in a mature coat.
Healthwise, I still believe the Kerry is a pretty healthy breed, if we continue to implement good breeding practices, including the simple and inexpensive testing for all four well-known genetic diseases (DM, vWd, CMSD, and Factor XI), and use the readily available OFA testing for hips, elbows, and eyes. If breeders do not want to do it, it is on the puppy buyers to request such information. Just like in other breeds, there is a rising need for monitoring of the prevalence of cancer—lymphoma, melanoma, and osteosarcoma, specifically.
Working with the breeders overseas is not just a part of my specialty, it is close to my heart as a breeder. It poses its own challenges and rewards. My newest litter is sired by the 2023 Switzerland’s World Dog Show Best of Breed winner, Vaya Tela Figaro from Spain, whom I picked a few years back as a youngster. The Internet is an amazing source of information and makes the contact with other breeders easy. Be aware, however, that the quality and the type can be very different just based on changes in the AKC Standard or its interpretation. Waiting to follow through with the health testing can be very frustrating. As one foreign breeder said, “If I test, then I need to deal with the consequences. I rather not knowing.” But the opportunity is there, to go back to the original bloodlines or bring in something new.
Our breed enthusiasts should understand the ability to exchange semen is easier with some countries than others. For example, it is not possible to ship chilled semen to/from Spain at this time. There is a limitation on registration of the dogs from Russia during the war with Ukraine, and the CDC temporarily suspended importing dogs from high-risk countries for dog rabies. If you consider importing, do your due diligence. You can always have a video chat with the breeder. The minimum: request original testing documents for the parents, confirm the microchip on the puppy you pick, and make sure the puppy has at least a correct bite and two descended testicles at the time of shipping.
The (Kerry) pet puppies are a by-product of striving for perfection. The Standard asks for “definite terrier character” while the current pet homes are looking for the convenience of a problem-free companion. I wish we were required to present more friendly dogs, just like in SCWT, where they ask for a happy animal and steady disposition. As a handler, we are left to battle a discrepancy between the need for presenting the dog “with a spark,” standing its ground when sparred, yet we must avoid possible aggression leading to disqualification in or outside the ring. Behavior has a strong genetic component, so the responsibility passes onto the shoulders of the pet owners. As such, the Kerry is not a breed that is easy to place in large numbers.
As an Exhibitor, can you comment on recent entries in your breed? Are majors available in your area? Does your breed often participate in Companion and Performance events? How can newcomers in your breed be encouraged to join the sport of dogs?
The dog show entries are declining, with declining numbers of breeders and show prospect homes. There is a reasonable chance of majors at the once-a-year Terrier Specialty in Maryland, but not in Virginia or Delaware at this time.
It is not well known, but the Kerry, bred for the purpose of being an all-round-farm dog, can be a great worker and successful in many different sports. My first Kerry loved water and she also participated as a retriever on the pheasant hunt. Depending on their virtues, they can become great Obedience, Agility, Dock Diving, Barn Hunt, and CAT competitors, and as Therapy Dogs. We also have one active in Canicross.
Science and technology are helping us move towards ultimate comfort, convenience, and pleasure in life, and I believe many dog owners are looking for the same in the sport of the dogs. Our breed is not just “show and go” but requires skill in handling as well as grooming.
What are the biggest challenges facing the dog show community as a whole and how can we address them? And finally, what are some of the positive changes you’ve seen in your breed and in the dog show community as a whole over the past decade?
Recently, I saw a poster offering free handling seminar to Juniors, with “You Are the Future of Our Sport” motto. I truly believe it should be the breeders and the owners who are the future, because without their work there is no need for handlers. The majority, the non-professional exhibitors (and the parents of the Juniors), need to work and plan their lives to support this sport, so the focus should be on the fair treatment and an increase of educational and the enjoyment value of the venue.
The plan for how to truly support the owners and breeders should include offering handling, grooming, and basic Breed Standard seminars at the shows at reasonable times, and simple things such as having a wicket available throughout the day for anyone interested in measuring their dog, having a practice show ring available, judge’s sharing (freely and without fear) their opinions on dogs they’ve judged, and having all NOHS Group competition before the regular Group. It is maddening to come out of the ring defeated without any constructive criticism, not knowing how to do better next time. How many times does one think those owners will come back?
I had felt there was an improvement in the visibility of the owners handling, but after COVID the fair chance of regular Group placements markedly decreased. The professionals will enter and stay as long as required for the show cluster, but the majority of exhibitors, when unfairly treated or there is a perceived low return on investment, will “vote with their feet” and not come back as we have seen.
With the added demand for designer mutts of questionable quality, the true reason for entering dog shows, the evaluation of breeding stock, is diminishing fast. If all that is left is “The Best of The Best” competition, which nowadays is about visibility and sponsorship, there is no reason for the general public to become truly involved in the numbers. The times are changing.