Where did you grow up?
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall : I grew up on Long Island which, at the time (1950s and ‘60s), was a hotbed of dog breeders and dog shows. It wasn’t unusual to have match shows with entries of 200 to 300 dogs. There were dog training clubs with huge memberships that also held training classes. The one I went to had Peggy Adamson, Diane Bleeker, LaMar Kuhns, Muriel Freeman, among many others, attending to work their young dogs. It really was an education to see so many high-quality dogs of different breeds.
Do you come from a doggy family? If not, how did the interest in breeding and showing purebred dogs begin?
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall: I am a second-generation dog fancier. My dad had Labradors. His interest in the sport was encouraged by my godmother, who had National Specialty and Group-winning Samoyeds in the 1940s and ‘50s. My dad’s main interest was obedience, but he wanted good-quality dogs. His interest wasn’t in breeding so he would seek out good breeders from whom to purchase a dog. At one time, he had two males he was working in obedience. One was a Group winner and the other, a National Specialty Best of Breed winner, at a time when that was the only Labrador specialty.
Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their influence.
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall: I can’t say that I had any specific mentors in the sport. Back then I don’t think mentorship was a common concept. I went to handling class and listened to the longtime breeders talk about their breeds. I went to match shows, met people, and learned about their breeds. One of the first people I remember meeting at the match shows was Sybil Sommer, Scott’s mom. All regular dog shows were benched, outdoor ones included. If you were smart enough to keep quiet and listen, you picked up so much experienced knowledge. People would realize you were truly interested and share their thinking.
I had shown my dad’s Labradors in the breed ring. A local Irish Water Spaniel breeder loaned me one of his bitches to show. She became the first champion in the breed to get a UD degree. I was in my early teens when I showed her, but she placed twice in the Groups at a time when bitches in the breed really weren’t recognized. The judges who placed her were William Kendrick and Alva Rosenberg. She also was the great grandmother of “Irishtocrat” who was Best in Show at Westminster. She was a quality dog all around and a wonderful dog with which to learn.
Being one of the kids who hung around dog shows all day long, we were tolerated by the well-known handlers. We were allowed to watch and learn as long as we were quiet and did not get in the way. They were the bonafide professionals like the Forsyths, Annie Clark, Richard Bauer, Ted Young, Bill Trainor, Steve Shaw, and others. They were nothing like the “have lead, will show” secret agents of today. These people had such depth of knowledge spanning many decades, and were also successful breeders. There was so much to learn by keeping quiet, watching, and listening. That was the mentoring experience back then. Priceless.
The Edgewood English Cockers are widely known, highly successful and well respected. What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall: I began in the breed with two males, a father and son. By having a background in dogs, I was well aware that I had a lot to learn about the breed before starting to breed, if I were going to be at all successful. I made my mistakes and learned with the two boys while I was in college and right after graduating. They were wonderful dogs and I was so very fortunate. Both were BIS winners, Westminster Group placers, and top producers.
As to breeding philosophies, I have to like the dog and the pedigree equally. No matter how much I like a dog, I will not breed to him if I don’t like the pedigree. Conversely, no matter how wonderful the pedigree, if the dog doesn’t match it, I will pass.
Having been interested in, then involved with, then breeding English Cockers for 50-plus years, longevity certainly does have its advantages. I usually have seen all of the dogs in a four- or five-generation pedigree and know how they’ve produced.
I linebreed. It’s what works in this breed. I have gone out very occasionally, but then it’s right back to linebreeding. I had done a father/daughter breeding once. It was the bitch’s last litter after seeing what she produced, and the sire was older and well proven. I felt comfortable that nothing disastrous would be revealed. The result was a two-time National Best of Breed winner, but that was the only time I did an inbreeding. I do like to plan at least two generations out, three if possible. Sometimes this does work out according to plan, but other times a reassessment is necessary, depending upon results. When breeding, always remember that Mother Nature will have the last laugh.
I have only done a breeding when I have needed something to go forward with. I will keep a bitch puppy only if she is an improvement on her dam. To keep a male puppy, he has to have a platinum head, a body of gold, and two diamond testicles. I want the puppy I keep to be of such quality that he is competitive at the National. This breed is judged so poorly at the all-breed level that the only true in-ring test (comparing breeding stock) is at our National Specialties. I will only sell a puppy to a show home if its quality is such for me to have kept and shown. There are more than enough poor-quality dogs in the ring. I do not wish to add to that. I have bred BIS winners, National Specialty winners at all levels, and top producers but, in 50 years, there are fewer than 75 Edgewood champions. If they aren’t top quality, I don’t want them in the ring.
I usually have one or two litters from a bitch. A wise person once told me that the first time you breed a bitch, the result will tell you how you should have bred her. The second litter should be an improvement on the first. If it’s not an improvement, either she’s not worth breeding again or you are not smart enough to figure it out; so just stop. I don’t repeat breedings. The only time I might consider it is if I needed a bitch from that particular combination and all I got were males. I don’t want to spin my wheels with repeats. I always want to move forward.
I wish I could have done more breeding. Working for years as a handler apprentice and then showing dogs professionally leaves precious little time to breed and raise puppies. When I breed a litter, I always do so thinking that this could possibly be the last litter I ever breed, so it better be worth doing. We all know that the perfect dog of any breed will never be bred, but I like to think that the best dog I ever bred has yet to be born. It keeps me going.
How many dogs do you currently house? Tell us about your facilities and how the dogs are maintained.
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall: Two are the fewest dogs that I have had and the most was six. Three to four seems to work best for me. The breed does not do well at all as kennel dogs. They thrive as nosey pets that are always underfoot. I don’t have a kennel. When I am home they are in the house. When I am not, they are in a garage that I had built that has never housed a car. It is heated and air-conditioned. At one end are two 4 foot x 4 foot stalls with dog doors. They go out to two 6 foot x 14 foot gravel runs. There is a roof over half the length of the runs. The garage has a grooming and bathing area, and a trotter. My entire backyard is fenced for free running.
Puppies are whelped in the kitchen. When they start escaping from the whelping box, they move to a big pen out on my all-weather porch. It is more like a playground than a pen. There are many toys, surfaces, a tunnel, wobble board, etc.
Who were/are some of your most significant English Cockers, both in the whelping box and in the show ring?
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall: The father-and-son dogs that I started with, Ch. Kenobo Rabbit of Nadou, ECM (English Cocker of Merit, the top-producing designation from the parent club) and Ch. Kenobo Capricorn, ECM, exceeded any expectations that I might have had. Both were top producers, siring BIS and National winners; both were BIS winners themselves, both were Westminster Group placers (Rabbit twice), and Capricorn won the National twice. At the time, I had just graduated from college and was an owner-handler.
My foundation bitch, Ch. Graecroft Calliope, ECM, was a Capricorn daughter. She was Winners Bitch from the puppy class at the National, BOS at another, and then got an Award of Merit from the Veterans class at a third, after three litters. She was bred to her father for my only inbred litter. From that came Ch. Edgewood Fan-Tan who was BOB at two Nationals and BOS at two Nationals.
After retiring from handling, I only occasionally exhibit at all-breed shows, but there have been wonderful owners who have participated with some of my dogs. Some of those dogs are pictured within this interview.
Please comment positively on your breed’s present condition and what trends might bear watching.
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall: English Cocker exhibitors do an excellent job of trimming and presenting their dogs. If anyone needs help, there is always someone to show them how it’s done. A very disturbing trend in the breed is the very wide division between what wins at the all-breed shows and what wins at specialties. Numerically, this is not a big-entry breed at the all-breed shows. The vast majority of judges look at English Cockers as a scaled-down version of a setter. They could not possibly be more off base, but that’s the reality of it and that’s what they reward. I no longer enter an all-breed show unless the judge is one of about two-dozen judges from outside the breed, who actually understand correct breed type and take pride in rewarding it. I know the old cry of how will they learn type if they don’t see it in the ring, but they do occasionally; it’s always the odd man out (please read Richard Beauchamp’s book), and gets third out of three behind two setter types. Here’s one example: Fan-Tan was BOB at two Nationals and BOS at two more, so not a fluke. Granted, he wasn’t shown very extensively, but all he managed to win at all-breed shows was one Group Fourth. (You thought
The sport has changed greatly since you first began participating. 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?
The sport certainly has changed greatly since I began to participate. It used to be all about who had the talent and eye for a dog, to breed and put into the ring the type and quality of dog that the standard describes. One that could fulfill its original purpose. Now it is all about the statistics and who can train a dog to “nail a stack” and run around the ring like showmanship personified, asking for the finger point by the awestruck person in the middle of the ring. Then it’s off to the next show to collect all-breed points in the quest for Number One whatever.
When I began in the sport, we all learned structure first; how a dog was put together, what balance meant, what dog terms meant—Dogs 101, if you will. Once that was understood, then breeding specific type was learned. Structure was learned on any number of breeds. We watched other breeds being judged. Books and breed history meant something and you learned.
In our current world of instant gratification, new people will tell you that they know what they like. They show and breed what they like. They can’t see or understand structural faults; they only see what appeals to them about the breed. A dog can have all the breed details that they love, but if it’s hung on faulty construction it will not be successful. Then it’s time to blame politics and professional handlers. Nobody takes the time to learn basic dog construction.
I do feel that newcomers are joining us. The problem is they don’t last. They have fun with their dog and then they are on to something else that takes their time and money. What is seriously lacking are breeders.
At specialties, the quality and numbers are in the Bred-By class. I judged an independent specialty in another breed and in Bred-By bitches there was an entry of one. The breeder was a professional handler. I understand the appeal of the Owner-Handled Series, but who is going to breed the owner-handler’s dog? To be a successful breeder you have to have a passion for your breed and the time to do it right. The time involves planning several generations into the future and seeing it through. Passion and time have no place in our instant-gratification society. I don’t have the answer.
Where do you see your breeding program in the next decade or two?
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall: A decade or two, at my age? I should be so lucky. I am very fortunate that my son and daughter-in-law have interest in the breed. They have a busy handling business and two young sons, but hopefully they will continue on in the future. There is also a co-owner in the Midwest who started her breeding program with one of mine and has been very successful. We currently co-own a young bitch that I bred. For now, I am still waiting for the best dog that I ever bred to be born.
Finally, tell us a little about Bonnie outside of dogs… your profession, your hobbies.
Edgewood English Cocker Spaniels | Bonnie Threlfall: After I retired as a professional handler, I applied to judge, which I still do. I judge two Groups and some breeds from all the other Groups. I decided a number of years ago not to apply for any more breeds. I want to learn the ones I already have. I don’t want to be that person in the middle of the ring who doesn’t understand breed type.
Outside of dogs, I am never without a book. I also enjoy working outside in my yard.