Robert Urban, Foxfire Black and Tan Coonhounds
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Geauga County, Ohio, roughly 40 minutes east of Cleveland. It was pretty rural when I was a kid but has since become partially suburbanized, particularly the western end of the county.
Do you come from a doggy family? If not, how did the interest in breeding and showing purebred
We always had mixed-breed dogs in my house. My first dog was a sort of Collie/Golden Retriever mix. I got him when I was about six-years-old and had him through most of my college years. My mom’s family all came from Appalachian southeast Ohio and a number of my uncles had Beagles and Foxhounds. These were all hunting hounds, not show dogs. The Foxhounds were all run at night, in the American Foxhound tradition, and followed or “hilltopped” on foot. Around 1974 my Collie mix Curly had taken off into the woods and I was out searching for him. An old road ran up through the woods across from my house and I was walking up that road, calling for him. I soon saw this dark grey Chrysler Imperial driving toward me slowly. The car pulled up next to me, the back window rolled down and there was a small, elderly woman in the back seat. She said she was looking for her dog—a tricolor Smooth Collie—and asked if I had seen it? I said that I hadn’t but that I was looking for my dog, too! She invited me to get in the car and see if we couldn’t locate one or both of the dogs. I did (the innocence of years past!) and before long we found them—both running together! So began a lifelong friendship with Margaret Haserot, whose Pebble Ledge Smooth Collie kennel was instrumental in getting the variety established in this country in the years following World War I. She was a great dog woman and offered me work in the kennel and on her farm after school and all day during the summer months. I was in heaven! One of my most memorable summers was when we had a litter that I was charged with looking after, feeding, cleaning up after and exercising. I attended my very first dog show with her, the Cleveland Collie Club in 1975. In those days, there was a club for the Smooths, the ASCA, and their annual “convention” was held in August at her farm and coincided with the old Chagrin Valley KC show. Smooth Fanciers came in from all over the country and stayed at her huge estate, which included not just her large farmhouse but two additional guest houses on the property. My first all-breed show was Chagrin Valley. It is safe to say I was bitten by the dog show bug at that time. The people were so very nice and the dogs were so beautiful. I was hooked!
Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their influence.
I have been extremely lucky to have had and still have great mentors in this sport, starting with the aforementioned Margaret Haserot. When I bought my first AKC Black and Tan Coonhound from Neal and Ruth Emmons of Twinlakes kennels, they treated me like family, and Neal and I enjoyed many a night in the woods hunting the B&Ts. Through them I met [professional handlers] Jerry and Elaine Rigden, who at the time were showing the great Am./Can. Ch. Codach’s Lyrical Melody for them. Jerry was 100% dog man and Elaine had a photographic memory for dogs and people.
They also took me under their wing as a rank novice and I benefited greatly by their knowledge. They were direct and to the point, and neither one minced words. I respected that and truly enjoyed our dialogue; they never once sugarcoated the message. My first B&T was my best friend. She went to college with me, eventually turned into a pretty decent “coondog” and I finished her myself. Having said that, she was an okay but far–from–great breed representative. I bred her once and kept a dog but in all truth, it was an unexceptional litter. I spayed her soon after and began looking for a proper brood bitch. Jerry offered to look at a litter with me with that goal in mind. We looked at three bitches and on his advice, selected the largest, typiest one. Ruby was not the flashiest but I can still hear his words today: “If all you want to do is ‘hawk’ puppies, quality doesn’t matter. If you are serious about this, only pick and keep the best. You can’t afford to do anything less. You don’t have room for merely ‘finishable’ dogs….”
Stanley D. Petter, Jr., continues to be one of my greatest friends and mentors in this business. I obtained my first Hewly Greyhound in 1990 and I have relied on his considerable wit and wisdom ever since. I have never met anyone with as critical an eye for his own breeding as he. Together we have owned several champion Greyhounds over the years as well as multiple American Foxhounds, including one multiple group winner. He has taught me to never be satisfied with what you’ve got; that there is always room for improvement. The standard is your only guide and don’t be distracted with what your competition is up to. Our goal, elusive as it may be, is perfection. I am forever grateful for his counsel and friendship over the years. There are and have been so many other good dog people in my life it is impossible to name them all but the folks mentioned here stand out. There are still many out there, though maybe not as many as in years past.
The Foxfire Black and Tan Coonhounds are widely known, highly successful and well respected. What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?
I have never bred on a large scale. I have historically bred a litter every two or three years. My absolute requirements for a brood bitch are a calm, stable temperament; 100% soundness; and possessing the breed type characteristics I place emphasis on: ground–covering stride, dark eye, and correct ear set. When I first started out I was a bit more rigid than I am today. I probably excluded some very viable breeding animals for not the most logical reasons, as I’ve come to be more informed on the genetics and heritability of certain traits and issues. I sell very few puppies to show homes. Out of a litter of ten or so, you might have two or three really good ones if you’re lucky. Thanks to my mentors, I have never been one to think that everything in a litter needs to be shown or even should be shown. B&Ts are a fairly small breed, genetically speaking, but due to some of our highly influential sires and dams from many years ago, anomalies still show up that we’d rather not see. It’s tough, but those animals with significant faults should not be shown and are better off spayed/neutered and placed in good homes.
How many dogs do you currently house? Tell us about your facilities and how the dogs are maintained.
I have had as many as twelve to fourteen hounds in the kennel but these days I have a much more manageable number. We have six B&Ts in the kennel along with the aforementioned multi group-winning, elderly American Foxhound bitch. I am lucky to have a couple of good co-owners out there, including my longtime breeder friend Edith Atchley in Alabama who is my partner in a lot of the breedings we do. We have a bit of variety in terms of dogs. My other half, Megan Anderson, is a longtime Borzoi fancier and we have a couple of those that are house dogs as well as our two Terriers, a Border and my Parson, and one elderly Chihuahua. We maintain two large fenced yards, one for the sighthounds, and one for the scenthounds and terriers. The Coonhound kennels are surrounded by their fenced yard and we built a “sallee port” for the sighthounds so that there are two gates to pass through to enter/exit their area. The kennels are indoor/outdoor 20x20x6 concrete. I like to keep two to a kennel run as the B&Ts are naturally social and I pair up compatible hounds. We don’t use air conditioning in the summer but instead utilize shade and fans. I have supplemental electric and LP gas heat in the kennel during winter but the kennel building is well insulated and they have warm bedding so I typically only use the heat when the temps drop below 30 degrees. B&Ts are hardy animals and I am a firm believer that they are healthier when kept in a more natural environment. Dogs are fed once a day, except for puppies, and fresh water is available 24/7.
Who were/are some of your most significant Black and Tans, both in the whelping box and in the show ring?
My first group-placing B&T was also my foundation bitch, Ruby, Ch. Traverse Hill Midnite Magic. She was an indifferent show dog but was very typey and a good mover. Her first group placement came from judge Peg Walton in Battle Creek, Michigan back in ’87 or so. My first really special B&T was a hound I obtained from and co–owned with the late Dr. Theo Kjellstrom, Am./Can. Ch. Vikingsholm Clarence. He was a great show hound, had a great pedigree and proved to be a great stud dog. I still have frozen semen collected from him. He took around 30 group placements between the US and Canada, including winning six groups. This was back in the late ‘80s, all owner handled. I showed a hound for my good friend Cheryl Speed, co–owner and co-breeder of several B&Ts over the years, named Am./Can. Ch. Britts Bounty Hunter. Bounty had many group wins and placements over the years starting around 1990 and won three specialties, including our National in Chicago in 1992 under Anne Rogers Clark. He went on to sire group and specialty–winning hounds. I sold a bitch that I had bred to a couple in Pennsylvania, with the intention of them breeding her and getting a pup back at some point in the future. The dog puppy I got out of her was Zeke, Ch. Foxfire–Hothouse Snakeroot. He was a multi group–winning hound, winning our National in 2008 and the Morris and Essex specialty in 2005. In addition, he was a great stud dog and sired my Molly, Ch. Foxfire Full Force Gale, herself a multi specialty winner, including our National in 2014 as well as a multi all–breed BIS winner and ABTCC Hall of Fame inductee. She enjoyed a very successful specials career thanks to the partnership between myself and AKC Hound Group Breeder of the Year, Andy McIlwaine. Molly’s brother Louie, Ch. Foxfire Fifty-Five Blues, was the grandsire of Crow, Ch. Cashlane–Santana As The Crow Flies. Crow and I have enjoyed a very successful past few years, winning many groups, a couple of all–breed BIS and, to date, four or five specialties including our National in 2017. Crow was bred by Shelley Cafferty and Lisa Fey, and is co–owned by Shelley and me. He will be inducted into the ABTCC Hall of Fame in 2020.
Please comment positively on your breed’s present condition and what trends might bear watching.
While active breeder involvement has declined significantly since my initial involvement with the breed in 1981, we have seen a large amount of activity in Europe and, most recently, the United Kingdom where The Kennel Club recognized the AKC B&T a year or so ago. It is most encouraging to see some very committed breeders who seem to be producing some really high–quality examples of the breed overseas. I wish them continued success.
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?
I began showing in AKC in 1981. I feel as though I came into the sport toward the later end of the “Golden Age” of dog shows, which I view as roughly 1950–1990. It is difficult to look back objectively because as time has changed dog shows, it has also changed me as I am a much different person than the exhibitor I was in 1985. There is no doubt that the truly serious, knowledgeable dog people that existed years ago are in scarce supply today. I believe this is directly a result of the lack of large-scale, serious and committed breeders and kennels we seldom, if ever, see today. The world has changed, for better or for worse. I may be looking back through rose–colored glasses but I can state that the overall stress level in people in general and dog shows in particular has increased from that which we used to experience. I still love the shows and the people but the shows aren’t as much fun as they once were. Age may or may not play a role in that assessment! Part of that goes hand in hand with the level you are competing at, for sure. I am not a fan of the “everyone gets a ribbon” mentality that has overtaken our modern life. I was very disappointed when the AKC introduced the “Grand Champion” concept and came to understand that it is, for the most part, a rubber stamp given to those who show up on the day. Maybe in larger entries it carries more weight, but for the most part when you have only four or five specials in competition I am missing the significance.
I freely admit that I don’t have the answer for recruiting and retaining newcomers to our sport. This is a multifaceted problem and one faced by many other organizations besides dog clubs. Young people today are pulled in many different directions by things competing for their time and whatever disposable income they may have. I was an active member of my local F.O.P. [Fraternal Order of Police] lodge for 30 years. When I joined, I was a young guy along with several others in my age group. Today, the participation level and average member’s age is probably 50 to 65. We are also classic car/truck enthusiasts. It is much the same story there; you don’t see a lot of folks in their 20s or 30s at the shows and events. Many younger people’s careers require them to live within reasonable commuting distance to a metropolitan area. This usually means living in town or in some suburban area. Keeping and/or breeding dogs in such a place has a lot more pitfalls and hoops to jump through than in years past. I don’t know how the economics of it would shake out, but I would love to see shows offer Junior Showmanship classes for either a greatly reduced fee or, when possible, for free. Shows used to offer reduced fees for puppy & BBE classes, and while many still do it is a minor discount at best.
Where do you see your breeding program in the next decade or two?
I plan to remain active in the breed for as long as I want to and at the level I am comfortable with. Campaigning a special takes a lot out of you and the dog, even at the much reduced Owner-handled level. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had a couple of truly “once in a lifetime” dogs that I was 100% committed to and felt needed to be out there and seen. I’m not sure how many more will come along that I am that passionate about. Hopefully one or two!
Finally, tell us a little about Bob outside of dogs… your profession, your hobbies.
I have been a commissioned law enforcement officer for 35 years. Most of that time has been spent in the field of Parks and Natural Resources Law Enforcement. I‘ve worked in nearly every aspect of that profession, from Field Training Officer, Detective, and Evidence Room Manager to Patrol Sergeant and K–9 Handler. One of my own B&Ts, Tory, was my full–time partner for eight years and we were a certified Expert Trailing team. I have been on the Board and served as Instructor for the Old Dominion K-9 Seminar in Appomattox, Virginia for 20 years. I retired from full–time service in 2012, having spent my last eight years as Chief of my agency. I continue to work part-time in the field, maintaining my certification and commission. Megan and I are both classic/muscle car enthusiasts and enjoy that culture as well. We have a couple old 4×4 trucks along with her Z–28 Camaro and my 1967 Plymouth Fury.