Hilltop Rhodesian Ridgebacks | Julie Buss

Where did you grow up?

I grew up most of my teen years and beyond in Waverly, Iowa. We lived in town, but had a row crop farm in Rudd, Iowa.

Do you come from a doggy family? If not, how did the interest in breeding and showing purebred dogs begin?

I always had dogs in my life and I come from a hunting and fishing family. We had mostly Beagles for rabbit hunting and Labs for duck and pheasant hunting. I was kennel help at a local vet as soon as they would let me and have always had some kind of pet. I had a large aquarium, parakeets, hamsters and a cat, but by far my favorites were our dogs. I also spent a lot of time on my cousin’s dairy farm and loved bottle feeding the calves. They also had pigs so I learned how to cut tails and teeth which I hated! I always knew I would live on a farm with as many animals as possible.

I met my husband, Scott, in my junior year of high school. He is a farm boy and loves animals, too. He had a Border Collie, a German Shepherd, and raised ducks for an FFA project. His family tractor pulled and row crop farmed a lot of acres.

We married in 1989 and soon purchased acreage and started raising a niche breed of beef cattle. Our first purebred dog was “Silvi,” a beautiful Weimaraner, that we bred to a male from Daroco Kennel. Years later we realized that was [professional handler] Doug Carlson’s mom. Our Weimaraners were field, sport and family companions. We raised them for 15 years. Our breeding and nutrition knowledge comes from our cattle background. The breed we raised had some special needs for selenium and other minerals and due to pure lack of quantity, we did a lot of embryo transfer and artificial insemination to produce full-blood breed stock Belgian Blue cattle. These are high-yielding, fast-finishing cattle that are lower in fat and cholesterol than chicken. With a small gene pool to pull from, breeding could be a challenge to achieve a good cross without being too close and line breeding, because in livestock you don’t go as close as you do with dogs to avoid complications. We bred cattle for more than 30 years and did show. I did most of our vet work myself, we had many champions and our main bull was a top all-time producer. Scott is also a certified cattle judge. We find so many things from our cattle background that translate to the care, nutrition and breeding of dogs. A large animal has to have proper skeletal structure to last and to do its job for years of breeding, so structure comes naturally to us. I have trained my eye to see through the outer coat and watch the muscle so you imagine how they work like a pulley system on the skeleton. If you pay attention it gives you clues as to what is wrong or where they hurt.

Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their influence.

My mentor for showing and training has been Cindy Lane Smith. She has such an ease with dogs, it’s like second nature. She was the first person to make us feel like we were worth the work. Everyone else knew the dogs were good, but never really got us. This is more than a hobby to us; it’s preservation of the breed. These dogs are family and part of our daily lives, and we are a package deal. When Cindy met our Ridgeback “Zohan” for the first time she said it’s not if he will win a BIS, it’s when and how many. Then she told me what I needed to do to get him there and he did. We feel similarly about Mark and Tabatha Bettis. No doubt they have had many lovely wins, but they help me be a better handler myself. These three people have different personalities, but share some very similar values. If you are lucky enough to be in the fold you will learn if you listen and earn their trust. It’s truly about your dog’s success and you are part of that equation. Just be ready to be honest with yourself because sometimes you need a dose of humility and they can serve it… lovingly.

When it comes to our mentors for breeding, we would say Marie Cotton (Spring Valley) and Christina Wistrom (Of Afikka) are both so wise and know so much about the people part that it still makes my head spin! I know what I like, but these ladies have the years I do not and the connections I could only dream of. I feel honored to be able to call on them for questions. They are also responsible for Zohan’s existence so I owe them so much. I hope they know how much that means to us and we hope we continue to do this breed justice by breeding to the standard and keeping its purpose in mind.

I always say there are three P’s in breeding: Pedigree, Paperwork and People. With my support team and our own know how I have been pleased with the puppies we have produced thus far. I should also mention those who shall remain nameless who have taught us important lessons like always get it in writing, stand up for yourself when it counts, and never be surprised by someone else’s hidden agendas. It’s the tough lessons and hard times that make us appreciate the good in our lives.

What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?

The Ridgeback that I am trying to breed is, first and foremost, a loyal family pet. They need to have the correct temperament. Do not confuse aloof with scared or unsure; a dog that takes its time to check out a stranger is just fine, but they should not be worried or insecure. Most of mine are usually pretty outgoing and think everyone is there to see them! Second, but almost tied with first, is structure. A dog that is put together right feels good, has a zest for life and is ready to do its job. I pay attention to bone and ratios more than I do actual weight and height, but those are a guide for a reason. A Ridgeback should be a fast and agile mover. For horse people, think of a cutting horse or a jumper; for the athletically minded, a ballerina and a distance runner or wrestler-type muscle. If the dog is too tall or too long the maneuverability is lost (most cattle dogs are smaller to be able to move out of the way of a flying foot); a dog too heavy in bone or mass loses endurance. Then you want to promote those instincts to hunt. They naturally use their noses right from the start to find Mom. We use touch, sound, textures and environment to stimulate pups from an early age. It goes to making a dog that is secure in itself and ready to take on any challenge: the show ring, a new family, a lure, or maybe a lion.

How many dogs do you currently house? Tell us about your facilities and how the dogs are maintained.

We have a six pack currently. I stay on as a co-owner on most of my pups so in case I am ever needed I can come to the rescue, but I try not to stick my nose in where it’s not needed. I have been blessed with some very special people in our lives due to the dogs. We have many who have had two or more puppies from us. Dick and Kathy Allbee have three and are very special, as is their latest girl, “Circe,” that is currently a top-ranked female at under 18 months of age!

I do maintain breeding rights on some of the bitches so they come back to whelp, but are not here permanently. I also show pups that I have bred so sometimes we have a dozen here. We do not have a kennel; we have a large, fenced-in backyard and each dog has a crate in the house. They run loose in the house when we are home and go where we go, pretty much. We live on a farm; the cattle are gone now so it’s all fields around us. The dogs go in their crates when we leave and I am fortunate that I can take a dog with me to work when I am not on the road. They all take turns and everyone in the office loves seeing them. We walk the lane to get the mail, they self-exercise in the yard and we will set up teaching moments like a rally ring to change things up.

Who are some of your most significant Ridgebacks, both in the whelping box and in the show ring?

Our top male is Zohan, MBIS BISS BVIS BISOH GCHP Courage Hilltop U Don’t Mess With Zohan Of Afrikka CGC ROM. Not only is he a great dog to live with and full of personality, but he is still a winner in the show ring at age nine. He went BOS at Royal Canin in 2019 with Mark Bettis and the year prior they won the Specialty in Florida during Royal Canin week. He passes on his signature beauty to his pups and never loses movement. He has extremely high fertility and enjoys every bit of every day. I only have one regret and it’s that Zohan missed so many opportunities while we were learning.

Our best girl so far is “Zuri,” GCHB Wild West Courage Hilltop NZuri RN RATN CGC ROM. She was Brood Bitch of the Year in 2018. Her daughters carry on her mothering, from great whelping to raising healthy, sound pups. She goes above and beyond. If she could have pups until her last days she would be the happiest to do just that. You cannot replace what Mother Nature puts in a great brood bitch and I am grateful.

Please comment positively on your breed’s present condition and what trends might bear watching.

It’s nice to see some beautiful bitches do some respectable winning. Sometimes girls get lost in this sport. I also am encouraged by how aware we as breeders are on health testing. I would watch a size trend; bigger is not better. These dogs are not Great Danes nor Mastiffs. Nor should heads be narrow or slight. A liver-nosed Ridgeback should not be mistaken for a Vizsla. It’s about balance; like a good recipe, each breed has its own.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the fancy and the declining number of breeders? How do we encourage newcomers to join us and remain in the sport?

I know that as we got started, it was scary not knowing whom to trust. Remember, showing was not new to us, but this world of showing was. The “top” people don’t talk to you and the people who come to you may well have their own agendas. Then there is the stigma that you have to “pay your dues,” even if your dog is competitive and worthy. Politics are forever present. If you are lucky enough to fall in the hands of a good handler from the start, you are ahead of the game. If you are going the owner-handler route, you need to stay out there showing consistently to get noticed and build your reputation. That is the same as we found in livestock. I feel people think it’s intimidating and costly. As a breeder, I want my puppies shown so I encourage new owners to come get their feet wet and see what it’s all about, even before they take their puppy home. I introduce them to a few people and make that transition easier. We as breeders need to remember we had mentors and it’s our duty to pay it forward. You need to be able to read people just like you do when questioning them about getting a pup. Better to have a few good owners than a lot of questionable ones. Always put quality ahead of quantity.

Where do you see your breeding program in the next decade or two?

We have a few girls that need to be bred so we may be having more pups in the near future than we have had. I would like to do more training in other avenues beyond conformation than I have done. I believe I have dogs that could do well at many other things. I would like to visit other kennels, also. Never stop learning…

Finally, tell us a little about Julie outside of dogs… your profession, your hobbies.

We live on a farm in the small town of Denver, Iowa. We moved from our original acreage to a house we built on 24 acres in 1995. We have a large garden and my hubby, Scott, loves to cook, smoke and barbecue. We have two sons, Erik and Blake. Erik is married and lives nearby with his wife, Jen, and their daughter, our beautiful first grandchild, Maisie. Blake is in the Navy and has been deployed twice. He has inherited our love for animals and has a Rat Terrier named “Jet.” Scott does some custom farming and catering, and I run a mobile scrub boutique. I actually have an Associate of Applied Arts degree in Textiles and Fashion Merchandising. I sell scrubs from a mobile store to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals and clinics. We enjoy fishing, hunting, and just being outdoors with our dogs and friends. We enjoy having friends back to the RV after a long, fun day at a dog show for food and drinks to unwind. Hope we can get back to that soon!

  • Although Allan Reznik has worn many hats in the dog show world over the past 50 years, he is probably best known as an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. He was the Editor-in-Chief ofDogs in Canada, Dog World, Dog FancyandDogs in Reviewmagazines. All four publications received national honors from the Dog Writers Association of America while under his stewardship.Reznik appears regularly on national TV and radio to discuss the dog show sport as well as all aspects of responsible animal ownership.He has bred and shown champion Afghan Hounds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Tibetan Spaniels. He is currently an approved AKC judge of all three breeds, as well as a provisional/permit judge of 11 additional breeds.

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