Interview with a Herding Group Breeder Beth Dillenbeck
Where do I live? How many years in dogs? How many years as a breeder?
Beth Dillenbeck: I’m in northeastern Pennsylvania, just outside of Clark’s Summit. I’ve been training dogs for other people since I was a pre-teen. I obtained my first purebred while in college… did pet portraiture to earn the extra money with which to buy my first well-bred Shepherd. I began showing in obedience at that time, so depending on whether you count from my first paid/“pro” training or whether you count from my own first competitions, I’ve been “in dogs” for 40 or 50 years. I began breeding when I finished my first champion, around 38 years ago.
What is my kennel name? How many dogs do I currently keep?
Beth Dillenbeck: I began breeding under the kennel name “Hollow Hills,” which I still use for my American breeding program. When I began importing German/European dogs, I translated the Hollow Hills prefix to a German-language suffix, and now my German breeding program uses the “vom hohlen Huegel” suffix.
Which show dogs from the past have been my noteworthy winners?
Beth Dillenbeck: I’ve had my share of wonderful dogs that became champions as well as obedience title-holders, often at the same show, going back and forth from one ring to another. For the past couple of decades, my focus was on my European breeding program with only occasional forays into the AKC ring. My current star of note is CH GRCHS Hollow Hills’ Steele River, OFA, DM clear, who is expertly shown by Liv Calabrese who also co-owns her together with Colleen Smith and myself. “River” is ranked No. 1 female GSD at the moment.
Which have been my most influential sires and dams?
Beth Dillenbeck: Tough question. In my American breeding program, I have always loved what I’ve gotten when I utilized Maryellen & Robert Kish’s dogs. River herself is linebred Dallas, and I do adore that type. In my European lines, I had some fabulous dogs from my boy VA Stano Hasenborn, SchH 3, IPO 3, Kkl 1 Lbz ‘a’. I do feel that the bitch line is often overlooked, and for me, the choices have always been based on ruthless objectivity of the individual animal’s strengths and weaknesses, with character and correctness foremost in mind. I tend to breed to an older stud, so as to have had an opportunity to evaluate his previous offspring at maturity. However, one exception features highly in River’s heritage, her mother having been the result of the very first breeding to “Dodge” (GRCH CH Pinebuck-Kismet’s Adagio, OFA).
Can I talk a bit about my facilities? Where are my puppies whelped? How are they raised?
Beth Dillenbeck: I have a kennel compound with two buildings and several large exercise yards in addition to seven more traditional 5’ x 15’ kennel runs. But pups are always born in my family room and have a wooden deck just outside the French doors where they can enjoy the outdoors in their early weeks. They start spending time in a grassy yard just beyond the deck when they are ready for more freedom, and from there they can begin spending time in the two-acre paddock. I always emphasize lots of exercise for my pups. I’m convinced that’s an essential element in developing healthy skeletal structure, not to mention mental health. I have cats, horses, chickens, and rabbits… I like a very natural, outdoorsy world for my pups during their formative months. We do a lot of hiking and putting in miles, with behavior shaping to set the stage for performance work (schutzhund, SAR, tracking, whatever the future holds) being emphasized far more than any conformation ring prep.
What is my “process” for selecting show puppies? At what age do I make my decisions?
Beth Dillenbeck: I always say that it’s an art more than a science. Having an “eye” for harmony, which derives IMO from an artistic sensibility, helps in combination with an engineer’s objectivity for evaluating form as it relates to function. I make notes at birth, while they’re still wet, if I notice anything that stands out (shoulder layback, upper arm relative to shoulder blade, that sort of thing) and then I like to take stock at two or three different “waypoints”… every pup in every litter develops at its own rate, but generally speaking, I find that at six weeks I look at proportions and overall balance… they aren’t usually terribly coordinated then, so you can’t always see the easy movement that you hope for, but if the parts are there then I hold them back through the 8-12 week growth phase… their croups usually drop around 12 weeks, so that gives me the next meaningful opportunity to evaluate. I make another round of cuts then and usually hold a couple of pups until their “miniature adult” stage, which, in my experience, is somewhere between 4.5 & 5.5 months. At each stage, the most promising stay for the next evaluation, and if they are still showing me what I want to see at that “mini adult” stage, I try to remember how they looked then and ignore the odd growth phases as they go through the pre-teen gawkies… I’ve sold too many wonderful dogs in that stage and then kicked myself later, so I’m still susceptible to being too unforgiving of developmental stages. Some pups never hit the gawkies, but I find it’s more common than not.
The GSD is uniquely presented, both standing and moving. How do I prepare my pups for the show ring?
Beth Dillenbeck: Frankly, I don’t like to bore them by overtraining. I focus on exercise, building a true athlete, and with good genetic character, normal socialization, and confidence-building for performance sports, they’re generally ready for my handler to work her magic in creating a show star.
Care to comment on the various coat colors of the breed? Any personal preferences?
Beth Dillenbeck: I defer to the Standard, which is pretty explicit that “rich colors are to be preferred.” I completely agree. I don’t care if it’s a sable or a black or a saddle, bi-color, or blanket-marked dog, let the underlying pigment be intense. My gut has always said that richer pigment is associated with other desirable traits… scenting ability, intelligence… don’t ask me for research articles, I don’t have them. Call it instinct. I have a soft spot for the solid blacks, but a rich blanket-marked red/black dog can make my knees go weak!
What are my thoughts on the various “styles” of GSD seen in the US and around the world?
Beth Dillenbeck: I don’t think there should be “styles.” Every dog in every breeding program should be born because the breeder applied the Standard to their choice of breeding partners. There is a Standard for a reason, and if breeders would commit to bringing that Standard to bear in each breeding choice, we’d have more consistency of type. In the US, people don’t like being told what to do. There has been more inconsistency of type in this country than European countries where they are more bound to adhere to the Standard set by the SV and World Union. The Standards are nearly the same, differing primarily in proportions (AKC says 8.5 units of height to 10 units of length, whereas the SV Standard says 9 units high to 10 units long), but the interpretation thereof has been left mostly to the breeders in this country, yet more to the judges in European systems. Judges go through a mentoring process in Europe that results in a greater degree of consistency of interpretation and application of the Standard. When I look at photos of some of my earliest champions and hold those against my more recent ones, I think there’s been a consistency in type that I hope is representative of my interpretation of what the Standard calls for. I won’t sacrifice intelligence or soundness (physical or mental) for the sake of the latest/greatest flash-in-the-pan that is turning people’s heads. Nor will I breed to a top working dog just because of high Schutzhund scores if the structure isn’t correct. My emphasis is on versatility, and if that means my dogs don’t reach the pinnacle in any one area of the breed’s vast array of skills, so be it. I expect to be able to put a doggy backpack on my show champions and hit the trail, or have someone who wants a personal protection dog or drug detection dog to be able to select from a litter out of any of my “show dogs.” This breed is a working animal, first and foremost.
Do I compete with my dogs in Companion and Performance events? Are Specialties important?
Beth Dillenbeck: I started out competing in AKC obedience and was nationally ranked in the Top 10 with my first OB dog. As I got into European dogs, I switched to training for schutzhund, and many of my dogs were titled. I’m semi-retired now and haven’t competed in any performance events in quite some time, although pups that I’ve sold have continued to garner titles, including Herrschaft vom hohlen Huegel who recently achieved her CDX with all first placements.
Yes, I think Specialties are important since they tend to attract breeder-judges who have the most insightful interpretations of the Standard and should know how to single out the dogs that best epitomize the ideal GSD. My own dogs tend towards all-breed type, but the SV style shows could all be considered Specialties.
In my opinion, is my breed in good condition overall? Any trends that warrant concern?
Beth Dillenbeck: We went through a period back in the 1980s when I could barely attend a Specialty without cringing. Breeders took some aspects of the breed to an extreme, which was not healthy in that doing so meant they ignored so much else that’s crucial to making this breed the versatile, multi-talented, athletic, thinking creature that it can be. I think we’re coming around to appreciate a more balanced animal lately, more in keeping with the ideals of the Standard, although I think far too few breeders have personal experience with Schutzhund or other character/intelligence-proving events and, overall, we are losing or have lost a lot of the deeper intelligence and working drive that makes this breed what it should be. Without first-hand experience training for these higher-level performance sports, it’s far too easy to be pleased with what you have in your kennel rather than constantly evaluating and making corrective choices. As to other concerns, we do need to be cognizant of autoimmune problems and avoid the temptation to turn a blind eye to a plethora of potentially genetic correlations to shorter lifespans and overall vigor.
Is the GSD well-suited to be a family dog? Who are the best candidates to own my breed?
Beth Dillenbeck: Absolutely. A correct GSD is usually tolerant of other pets and is able to demonstrate astonishing discernment of how to behave with family members of differing ages and personalities. They do tend to choose one person around whom their world revolves, but their loyalty to the entire “pack” is renowned. They are not appropriate for just anyone, and I do have a degree of frustration with those who think that providing a lovely house is what the dog desires… the dog doesn’t care how many square feet you have in your house; it wants to be with folks who get out and *do* things… play games, play hide’n’seek, tug-of-war, hiking (routinely, not occasionally), jogging, biking… the dog should be part of your world, not just part of your backyard.
Do I feel that my breed is supported by a sufficient number of preservation breeders?
Beth Dillenbeck: It does concern me that too many knowledgeable breeders are “aging out” or have already moved on to other breeds out of a variety of frustrations that I’ve heard expressed over the years. I have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to encourage younger people to step up to take on the perpetuation of this breed, but I don’t feel terribly optimistic.
For a bit of fun, what’s the most amusing thing I’ve ever experienced with a GSD?
Beth Dillenbeck: I have endless stories, not so much amusing as amazing, like the dog that, without training, backtracked through the woods when I’d been bushwhacking for hours and found my dropped car keys. The dog that went back into a fire-engulfed house to guide the kids to the window where the firefighters were gathered. The dog that grabbed the kids by the shirt to drag them away from the street when they wandered too far. Or, more seriously still, the dogs that lived through the experience of being grounded in Halifax on our flight home from Germany on 911. So many stories I could tell!