Rissana Weimaraners | Alessandra Folz – Breeder Interview by award-winning journalist and broadcaster Allan Reznik.
Where did you grow up?
This question always makes me mildly uncomfortable because I don’t have an easy answer for it! My father was a colonel in the US Air Force, and by the time I came along he was a squadron commander and a “red-phone-can’t-tell-you-I’d-have-to-kill-you” kind of military person. I always believed he was something between Batman (he would disappear for long periods of time, and was working below ground for a while) and Snoopy fighting the Red Baron. Long story short, I was born in Landstuhl, Germany. We lived in several different small towns in Germany, and then, in Mons, Belgium, Belleville, Illinois, and Woodstock, Connecticut.
Do you come from a doggy family? If not, how did the interest in breeding and showing purebred dogs begin?
My mother (Patricia Folz) started breeding Vizslas in 1970. We had two old Vizslas from her first breedings when we lived in Europe, but she didn’t get more dogs while we lived overseas. The European style of Vizslas, at that time, was incredibly different from the style in the United States, and she wanted dogs that would be competitive in the AKC show ring. So, when we returned to the US, my mom set about finding a new Vizsla. Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever lived in Belleville, Illinois—and not to throw any shade—but at the time, it wasn’t exactly the height of cultural interest and activity for a family that had just come from Europe. And it was truly in that artistic vacuum that my love for this sport was born. Necessity really is the mother of invention.
Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their influence.
I have been so lucky to have had amazing mentors in this sport. I know that I was partly helped by being a truly interested kid, so adults were willing to share their knowledge with me without feeling threatened. Through years of moving to new schools and being thrown into new environments, I had already perfected the secret to getting great mentorship; sit still, be quiet, and listen. I am always bemused by people who claim to be unable to find “good” mentors or find that people are unwilling to share their knowledge. Mentors don’t have a curriculum for people to follow. Being mentored takes time and patience—something in short supply lately.
My first mentor was, obviously, my mother. She has a keen eye for a dog, and is unflinchingly merciless when it comes to our own breeding program. It is the single greatest lesson I ever learned from her.
I had a Vizsla puppy that was 10 months old, and I was 12 years old when I showed her to Best of Winners at the National. Being a kid, this clearly made her perfection on a lead. Well, after that, I couldn’t get a point on her to save my life! One car ride home from a show where we had lost miserably again, I was lamenting about all of the terrible judges who were all “such idiots.” My mother slammed on the brakes and pulled the car over onto the gravel (I can see it in my mind, to this day). She turned around, looked at me, and with steel in her voice said, “Do you really want to know why she lost?” “Yes,” I replied. “Get out of the car, then.” She got my puppy out of the back of the car with a show lead on her, and made me watch as she took her down and back. Twice. And there it was; a front you could drive a Mack truck through. I was devastated. Heartbroken. But mostly, embarrassed. Then she looked at me and said this: “There are a few bad judges. But, put together, ALL of the judges can’t be wrong.” She is, quite often, annoyingly right (don’t ever tell her I said so).
My mother also has an uncanny ability for whelping puppies. In all our years of breeding, we have only ever had (knock on wood), two C-sections.
She could get puppies out of a stone. And dead puppies simply come alive in her hands. I always tell people that the three of us are in charge of different departments; my sister runs stud dogs, my mom runs breedings, and I run the showing department.
My second mentor would have to be my best friend, my sister, Sosanna. She is three years older than I am, and we competed against each other in Juniors and in the breed ring at every single show. We were fierce with each other inside the ring gates, but when we walked out, we were just sisters again. We didn’t and don’t harbor grudges against each other. We both understand that we are working toward the improvement of our own line of dogs. She’s a better handler than I am, and is always nurturing that one special puppy toward perfection. I know that I am luckier than most to have a built-in group of “peeps” around me, who cannot and will not betray each other, something that I know can be a painful part of this sport.
The first handling class I went to was at the Belle-City Kennel Club, run by a lady named Grace Church. She gave me a beginner’s packet that I still have today. She was very much about the correct way to show your breed—and your dog. There was no grandstanding. There was just the proper way to do things. It was the finest foundation in handling anyone has ever had.
And then another hugely influential person entered my life: Patrick Pettit. He taught me about the art and joy in showing dogs; the presentation of beauty, and most of all, Drama. He taught me tips and tricks, and always with a gleam in his eye. He bred curvaceous Whippets under the kennel name Patric. And we were there, every week, come rain or shine, driving to St. Louis for handling class. And every week, after class, we would all go to the restaurant down the street for dinner. And I sat still, was as quiet as was possible for me, and just listened.
It was devastating for me when he died. I wish he was here to help me and to see what I’ve accomplished. He was someone who believed in me so much that it made me believe in myself.
It was in the Midwest that my love for Weimaraners was also born. We only had one Vizsla when we started showing in the US, but my mom had made a friend, Kelly Lovejoy (also a military wife living in Belleville), who had come back from being stationed in Germany with two Weims, and at one time had been involved in showing. So, Kelly graciously extended me the use of her older Weim, Anna, to train me. It is only now that I realize that Anna loved me simply because I had either a ball or a treat with me at all times, but as a kid, it was mesmerizing. And like a true Weim, she had me trained in no time!
However, when it came to the shows, everyone felt I was too little to show a Vizsla, let alone a Weim, in Juniors. I ended up with a Basset from Kathy and Jim Sommers, also members of Belle-City Kennel Club. It was a time when the village was committed to helping raise a child, but that’s a story for a different day.
While I was at the shows with my Basset, I would haunt the Weim ring and watch Christine Grisell (Nani Weimaraners) show her dogs. They were fabulous—big-fronted, huge rears behind them, and they always looked one step from marvelous mayhem.
We moved from Illinois to New England when I started high school, and it really was a happy accident that got me into breeding Weimaraners.
It was my last year in Juniors at Westminster, and about a week beforehand, the Vizsla bitch that I showed came in season. And as you know, you can’t show a bitch in season in Juniors. I was heartbroken (you know, in that way only a teenager can be), but I still had an older Vizsla that could fit the bill—until a couple of days later when he got a high fever and went lame (Lyme Disease). I was sure that the Westminster God of Shenanigans and Broken Dreams just wanted me to fail.
It should be noted here that the Folz family crest has written on it, “I strive regardless.” I have, in my more recent years, decided that it should really say, “Folzes don’t know when to quit.” I digress, though.
Undaunted—well, slightly daunted—I plucked up the courage to call Judy Colan, of the revered Colsidex Weimaraners, and asked if she had a dog I could show in Juniors. Here’s how that conversation went:
Me: Ummmmm, hi, Ms. Colan? This is Alessandra Folz. I’m sure you don’t know who I am, but I…
Judy (in her gravelly voice that was terrifying to a kid): Of course, I know you. What do you want?
Me: Ummmmmmm… so, my Juniors dog came in season, and I need a dog to show at Westminster, and I thought that a Weim might be a good replacement, and it’s just that, you know, yours are so beautiful and I was just hoping that…
Me: Yes, Ma’am?
Judy: Sure. Just show Fergie (Ch. Aria’s Allegra of Colsidex; the top-winning Weimaraner at that point).
Me: Ummmmmmmm… I’m pretty sure Mr. Flowers doesn’t want me showing his special in Juniors…
Judy: Fine. Come pick up Doogie then (Ch. Colsidex Whiz Kid).
I got off the phone, and my mom asked me what happened. “I have no idea,” I replied.
In the years after I picked up the phone to ask the unparalleled Judy Colan if I could borrow a dog, I was humbled to show the best line of Weimaraners you can imagine. They were stunning and sweet. Quirky and hilarious. Challenging, but once I won them over, they were loyal and devoted enough to let me show them. But that isn’t really the important part of my relationship with Judy at all.
Judy Colan was not the greatest at making conversation with a kid. She didn’t seem to mind having me around and she’d take me to handling class with the dogs, so we had plenty of time for chatting. To begin with, I can remember her looking sideways at me, like I was some kind of alien. So, I devised a plan.
Judy always had tons of Weimaraner Club of America magazines lying around. So, I would sit at the breakfast bar in her kitchen, while she stood on the other side, smoking cigarettes, and I would ask her a thousand questions about every single dog in the magazines, and every single Weim breeder’s lines. I’d ask about health and temperament, style and standards, breeding and husbandry. And she would talk. For hours. And I would sit there, be quiet, and listen.
Judy really is, in my opinion, the Godmother of the American Weimaraner. Before she brought Joga on the scene (Ch. Colsidex Standing Ovation), I believe that Weimaraners still kind of looked like German cast-offs; a little all over the place in type. There are a few dogs in our history that, obviously, were wonderful dogs and producers. After all, Judy’s line had to come from somewhere, too. But it was really Joga that catapulted Weimaraners into their modern style and into the breed we know today.
After the Garden, that infamous year, I asked Judy when she wanted me to sign off of Doogie. She told me not to worry about it. And so, as you see, I became quite the happy accidental Weimaraner breeder.
There are so many other mentors I’ve had. Every time you see a beautiful dog, of any breed, you are getting a master class in someone else’s breeding. And those words were never truer than the day I saw Ch. Greywind’s Phoebe Snow. Phoebe was bred by Mrs. Ellen Grevatt. I have been lucky enough to have a friendship with her for nearly all of my life, in and out of the ring. Ellen showed me, by her excellent example, how to be a sportsman and how to be a handler while maintaining my own breeding program. But back to Phoebe… I cannot even begin to tell you how perfect Phoebe was on a lead. She was heart-stopping. She was shown by the incomparable Stan Flowers. Mr. Flowers gave me someone and something to aspire to be. He was epic with a Weimaraner. Somehow, he could entice them to his will. And by the time I’d graduated high school, he and Fergie held the Best in Show record for Weimaraners and the all-time, top-winning Weimaraner record. From the time I first saw Marge (who would go on to become multiple BIS SBIS Ch. Colsidex Seabreeze Perfect Fit BROM) at seven weeks, I knew she could beat all of the records, and I wanted to do it with her—not because I wanted to beat Stan’s long-standing record, but because I aspired to be like him.
And, lastly, perhaps my greatest mentor was Marge herself. She was the kind of dog that made you want to be better. She transcended that anthropomorphic barrier into a true partner. She was my medical service dog—though it should be said that it wasn’t out of kindness. (When I needed to take my medicine in the middle of the night, she would wake me up, because I was disturbing her beauty rest.) One of my favorite things about her was how she brought people into her circle. She remembered everyone, even if she met them once and hadn’t seen them in a year. Ringside one day, she shared Kent MacFarlane’s salad with him for lunch—just a couple of old friends splitting a Caesar salad. Derek Beatty came to my house when Marge was 11 years old. He was so excited to see her, and came into the house calling her name. He stopped, turned to me and said, “I forgot how she could look right through you, and make you feel worthless.” She was, in all respects, the very best of the breed.
Your dogs are well known, highly successful and well respected. What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?
Weimaraners are very challenging to breed. First and foremost, I will NOT compromise on issues of health. Nearly all of the puppies we produce, for any breeder, will end up as beloved pets. I do not want to get devastating and devastated calls from puppy owners. Dogs are part of people’s families, and we have a heavy commitment to provide dogs that will have long, healthy lives.
Now, with all that said, if they can’t be pretty, I don’t want to breed them. There is no point in breeding healthy, ugly dogs. It isn’t really improving breeding stock—or the breed in a historical sense—so why bother?
I usually have a plan that is two to three generations ahead of where I am now. I believe if you don’t know where you came from, and don’t know where you’re going, you’re just floundering in an accident that’s about
And, less helpfully, I breed from my gut. I have the advantage of having years upon years of knowledge—either personal, from mentors, or gleaning it by paying attention over time—so I know what can crop up from what lines, and which dogs contributed certain attributes to the breed. So partly, I use that knowledge, partly, I look at the conformation of the dogs, and partly, I just get a feeling about things.
I think the secret to breeding really may be to just be merciless—something I learned from my mother.
When you’re a breeder, you have to know where you are unwilling to “give.” For Weimaraners, I am unwilling to give on side-go. I think it is so much of the essence of what makes the breed—their make and shape in full stride. They should have ground-eating power coupled with desire, a hard back, an elegant neck, and a great underline.
I think the secret to breeding really may be to just be merciless—something I learned from my mother. I have placed plenty of puppies in pet homes because they didn’t meet my expectations, even though they could easily have been champions, and probably specials. I think it is a disservice to yourself and to the sport to keep, show, and/or breed animals that don’t meet the very highest standards or provide something that your line, or the breed in general, needs.
It can be gut wrenching. The best bitch I ever bred finished by going Breed from the classes and placing in Groups every single time I showed her. She was gorgeous. I had a backer for her, and I was just waiting for the perfect time to start showing her. She’d turned two, and I did her OFA x-rays. I couldn’t stand waiting for the certificates to come back in the mail, so I called OFA and spoke with a lovely woman who told me she had excellent hips. I got really excited. Then she said, “Don’t crack open the champagne just yet—her elbows are dysplastic.” It was devastating. I thought about breeding her anyway, but I know that if I did, I would be forever battling bad elbows, and it’s just not worth it. Enough comes up, that you’re unprepared for, that you don’t need to add something you already knew about! She’s living on a 40-acre farm now, just having the time of her life. She is exactly where she should be—being loved on a couch.
How many dogs do you currently house? Tell us about your facilities and how the dogs are maintained.
Weimaraners are not great kennel dogs. Mine always live in the house. I have a crate room, a paddock, three runs (for in-season bitches), and about 10 fenced-in acres. They are, as I say, “free range” Weimaraners. I believe that this has been part of my success with getting bitches pregnant and keeping them pregnant. Part of the fertility issues in Weims, I believe, is simply that they are unhappy, and hell hath no fury like an angry Weimaraner bitch.
Who were/are some of your most significant Weims, both in the whelping box and in the show ring?
Well, for me, there’s never been a Weimaraner more significant than Marge. She was the greatest ambassador for the breed, and the best pet I’ll ever have. Not only does she hold all of the show records for Weimaraners, but she was also a top producer for Weimaraners and the AKC Sporting Group in 2010.
A dog that my name is on, as an accidental breeder, is Marge’s father, Ch. Colsidex The Farm Top of the Mark. Cliffy has been the most significant stud dog of recent history for one reason—his front. Not only did he have a great shoulder, but he passed on a flexibility of ligaments in the front that allowed the breed to have some reach again.
Marge’s son, Ch. Rissana’s Perfectly Mastered, JH, who was exported to Hungary, has had a huge influence on the breed internationally. He’s an extreme, breeder’s kind of dog who has provided great front pieces and side movement. A daughter, Ch. Perfect Harmony at Greydove, went to Greydove Kennels in Australia, and won Groups and a Best in Show for them.
As for dogs that have stayed in the US, Marge produced Group winners, Specialty winners, Bred-by and Puppy Best in Show winners, and great bitches in the whelping box, something which has continued in the next generations. I will say, however, that after campaigning Marge, I felt like my Weimaraners had nothing to prove, so mostly I just finished them, and haven’t campaigned one since.
So many of my dogs have won things that are significant to me, but for all the Groups, Specialties, and Bests in Show they have won, what really means the most is that my line has produced multiple winners of the Carole Donaldson Trophy for Best Bred-By at the Weimaraner Club of America Nationals.
Please comment positively on your breed’s present condition and what trends might bear watching.
The breed has made some great strides in dealing with our genetic health issues. We know more about them every day, and this research has been championed by our national club. The club’s website has a great section on health and testing, and managing genetic issues.
As far as conformation goes, our heads and temperaments have lately improved drastically. Type has greatly improved, as there is becoming more of a consensus about what the breed should actually look like, while still maintaining our characteristic varieties of style. It is all a great testament to our breeders.
Something that does truly bear watching is that our breed is drifting toward square. Weimaraners are meant to be rectangular. While our standard today doesn’t specify exact measurements, our standards throughout history and the dogs produced bear out that this has always been a dog that is meant to be a rectangle, with our original AKC standard stating a height-to-body ratio of 10:12.
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?
A new breeder was shocked when I said that if Satan himself owned a dog that I wanted to breed to, I’d walk right up and ask.
There is no single reason for the decline. However, I believe a fairly large part of it is that it costs much more money to show a dog now. It has gone from a fun weekend hobby where you win some/lose some (but it didn’t really matter because you really came for the social aspect anyway) to a place where it costs too much to lose. Where we are now, with “Team this Handler” or “Team this Dog,” automatically pits people against each other in an aggressive manner. It means that too many people are in it with the
A new breeder was shocked when I said that if Satan himself owned a dog that I wanted to breed to, I’d walk right up and ask. She had this notion that you only breed to your clique’s dogs, and had never considered “an outsider’s stud.”
Part of our downfall with this mindset is that the membership of local all-breed clubs has been greatly impacted. It is these clubs that have always done a tremendous amount of outreach in the community, showing purebred dogs in the positive light that they deserve. (Also, how else do you end up showing a Basset?)
Where do you see your breeding program in the next decade or two?
My own illness has greatly impacted my breeding program. A few years ago, I sent my breeding bitches out on co-ownerships. All I can say about that is, obviously, if you want a thing done right, you have to do it yourself. So, in the next couple of years, I’ll bring a couple of bitches over from Europe and Australia that go back to my line or the Colsidex line, and use some of the great frozen semen I have.
I have a hard time placing puppies with “pet parents,” and because of this, I really only like to place Weimaraners with repeat homes at this point, excepting, of course, the occasional rare and amazing home that comes along. They truly are not dogs for everyone, and I can’t tell you the number of calls I’ve had from people who want them because of their blue eyes as puppies or because their color would look great with their home design.
So, because of all of that, I breed fairly rarely, which is how I like it. Why produce 30 puppies to maybe, accidentally, breed something good, when you can produce 10 to breed
Finally, tell us a little about Alessandra outside of dogs… your profession, your hobbies.
I joke that I was “medically retired” from being a professional handler—a job that I loved more than anything. So that I could still be involved with the sport I love, I started judging, which has been challenging and fantastic. I decided from day one that I wanted to be the kind of judge that people brought their “breeder dogs” to—you know, the ones that you keep hidden until they finish at the National. I’m lucky enough to have shown to some of the great judges, and I use them for inspiration: Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Billings, Mr. and Mrs. Forsyth, Dr. Asa Mays, Mr. James Reynolds, Mr. Edd Bivin, Mr. Joe Gregory, Mr. Frank Sabella, Mr. Eugene Blake, Mr. Elliot Weiss, Mr. Dana Cline, and Mr. and Mrs. Treen—to name just a very few. I can only hope to come somewhere close to living up to their challenge.
As for other things, I have always worked on issues of hunger and homelessness, and in my van there’s nearly always a bag of granola bars and warm clothes to give to people. It’s easy to see people through our own lenses, and discount someone else’s experiences. We can all do better. It’s really not hard to be kind.
For things at home, I can always be found with 20 sewing, embroidery or craft projects that are all halfway finished. I spend time walking either the dogs or the goats. I love baking and cooking, but my greatest hobby of all (and the thing that I am most talented at) is being an Auntie.
Please be kind to each other and wear your masks (as needed). You are too important to this world to do otherwise.