Showsight Interviews Connie Gerstner Miller, Malagold Golden Retrievers

From the December 2018 Issue of ShowSight. Click to subscribe.  Pictured above: Connie relaxing after a show.

1. Where did you grow up?

I was born in Kentucky but grew up on a farm in Stoughton, Wisconsin. My family had horses, sheep, cattle and farm dogs. I was an active member of our local 4-H club, showing sheep and cattle at the local fair, as well as participating with my horses, and earned the title of State Champion Barrel Racer. I also participated in the first 4-H dog program started in our area. This began my serious interest in dog 
obedience training.

below – Brother and sister duo, “Clover” & “Corey” with Geri & Connie, winning the Veteran Bitch (judge Betty Gaye) and Veteran Dog (judge Ludell Beckwith) classes at the 1988 Golden Retriever National. “Corey” went on to win Best of Breed.

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

I did not grow up in a dog family. Our family had farm animals, not necessarily family pets. My interest in showing dogs began after I was married. My then husband had a Golden Retriever and we initially concentrated our efforts in 
obedience events.

After a divorce, I was a single mother with a baby daughter, and had to make a living for the two of us. Fortunately, I could incorporate my love of dogs into a career. This was the start of Malagold Kennels in 1964, which included a breeding program that encompassed both the Golden Retriever and the Alaskan Malamute, hence the formation of the 
Malagold name.

Eventually, concentration on the breeding of quality Golden Retrievers became the primary drive for me, which has continued through my current tenure at Malagold. I feel that a true family of Golden Retrievers exists at Malagold due to the focused effort in breeding a consistently high-quality dog that properly conforms to the long-established standard of the breed.

3. Who were your mentors in the sport? Please elaborate on their contributions to your early life in dogs.

I was fortunate to come into the dog show world at a time when people from all breeds generally worked together, and respected breeders were generous with their time and the sharing of their deep knowledge. The first and most important person in my Golden Retriever life was Ludell Beckwith, of the famed Beckwith Golden Retriever line. It was from her that I learned the importance of studying and understanding the breed standard of the Golden Retriever. She wanted me to know the total of the dog—history, purpose, structure, temperament—everything that is the complete Golden Retriever. I worked with Ludell for a long time before she sold me my very first “show” dog. This was BIS SBIS Ch. Malagold Beckwith Big Buff CD, OS, SDHF. “Buff” became the foundation dog for the Malagold breeding program. He was a multiple Best in Show and Best in Specialty winner, and I won the Golden Retriever National with him in 1970.

I also developed a wonderful friendship with the esteemed authority on canine anatomy and movement, Rachel Page Elliott. “Pagey” and I spent many hours discussing the importance of proper structure and its effect on a dog’s movement and overall health. We were both interested in breeding a healthy, long-lived Golden Retriever and she had a significant impact on how I look at dogs and their pedigrees.

There are two others whom I have counted on over the years to keep me on point with my vision of the breed standard and for my plans within my breeding program. Marcia Schlehr and the late Betty Gay are/were advocates and historians of the Golden Retriever breed, and I have always respected their determination to keep the Golden Retriever true to what the breed standard calls for. They have always stressed the importance of the Golden Retriever as a moderate sporting dog, with a biddable and willing temperament. They have my admiration for their commitment to what the Golden Retriever should be and I have counted on them to keep me focused.

Below: “Big Buff” and Connie winning Best of Breed at the 1970 Golden Retriever National Specialty

4. The Malagold dogs are widely known, highly successful and well respected. What breeding philosophies do you adhere to?

I have a few basic tenets that I follow. The first is that I generally do not breed outside of my own line. Basically, I work with pedigrees of dogs within my own developed lines. I do not breed to the current “It” dog, or the show dog of the moment. When deciding on a breeding, I need to know the history of that proposed pedigree which tells me their health, their temperament, their type and their strengths in what has been produced through the generations. I know this because it is what I have developed and experienced within those pedigrees over many years of breeding. Occasionally, I will do what some might call an outcross, but when you look closely, the dogs are of similar style, and I can see familiarity of the Malagold line in that pedigree. I also do not outright sell “breeding” dogs to anyone else, allowing me to maintain control over the Malagold line.

Additionally, I always breed to my vision of what the Golden Retriever should be. My vision of the ideal Golden is based on the breed standard. If I stay true to that vision, I feel my breedings will remain constant through 
the generations.

Below: Malagold’s foundation bitch, “Bootes”

5. How many dogs do you typically house these days? Tell us about your facilities and how the dogs are maintained.

This is an interesting question, as my philosophy on this has changed over the years. I began Malagold with a boarding, grooming and show kennel. As a professional handler, the dogs were primarily housed in large 
paddocks and had access to acres of open areas for conditioning and exercise. I had a few house dogs, but being that I was on the road handling much of the time, the house dogs would spend time in the kennel as well. After retiring from professional handling, selling the boarding kennel, and moving to Michigan 25 years ago, I keep anywhere from eight to 12 dogs in my home. They all live together and run together over 16 fenced acres. The exercise and conditioning practices are the same, but they are all part of the family now!

6. Who were/are some of your most significant dogs, both in the whelping box and in the show ring?

Oh, there have been so many proud moments over the years. My daughter, Geri Hart, and I have bred and shown numerous nationally ranked Best in Show and Specialty Best in Show winners that I am so proud of!

BIS SBIS Ch. Malagold Beckwith Big Buff CD, OS, SDHF was the foundation of the Malagold line of Golden Retrievers. He did everything I could have ever asked for—in the show ring, in the obedience ring, and as an outstanding sire.

Buff has provided the most significant contribution to the quality of the Malagold line as he is the sire of my foundation dam, Malagold Beckwith Bootes, the producer of 11 champions in her own right. I can still see Bootes in the bitches produced at Malagold today, which is exciting.

Grandsons of Bootes, and brothers, Ch. Malagold Summer Chant OS, SDHF and BIS Ch. Malagold Summer Encore OS, SDHF were wonderful show dogs in the early 1980s, with Bravo earning multiple Best in 
Show wins.

Chant was the sire of the outstanding brother/sister team at Malagold of Corey and Clover. Ch. Libra Malagold Clover, OD was a very influential bitch at Malagold, producing multiple generations of Best in Show and Best in Specialty winners. The same holds true for BIS SBIS Ch. Libra Malagold Coriander OS, SDHF. Corey had a truly remarkable show career that included a Best of Breed and Sporting Group First at the AKC's spectacular Centennial Dog Show in 1984. Corey retired from the show ring with an exciting win at the 1988 Golden Retriever Club of America National Specialty—Best of Breed from the Veterans Class. What an honor for me as a breeder.

A proud moment for me was the Best of Breed win at Westminster Kennel Club with our Stormy, BIS SBIS Ch. Malagold Storm Warning OS, SDHF. Stormy was also Winners Dog at the Golden Retriever Club of America National Specialty as a young dog and won a Judge’s Award of Merit at the National later in life, as well as the Top 20 winner in 1996. Geri showed him to his multiple Best in Shows. He was everything I had worked for and he holds a very special place in my heart.

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

Generally, the Golden Retriever remains an easy breed to live with and continues to be a wonderful family dog. But with that comes the problem of popularity and people getting into breeding and producing litters for the wrong reasons. Trends, good and bad, go along with popularity of the breed. In general, we see excesses and extremes in the dogs walking into the ring today. We see an overabundance of coat. We see shorter leg, heavier bone and larger overall size. We also see excessive grooming and trimming of that heavier coat. And lastly, we see improper side gait, with the toplines rolling and excessive kick in the rear. The Golden Retriever is a moderate dog—in all areas. There should be nothing notably excessive about a 
Golden Retriever.

Handlers today should also pay more attention to movement and gait in the ring. A Golden should be shown on a loose lead at a moderate speed. We rarely see proper presentation of this breed in the ring today.

8. For many years you were married to Fred Miller, the President of the United Kennel Club. Were there aspects of the UKC that you admired and thought the AKC could benefit from?

This is a great question. Fred was truly a visionary, with ideas that were unlimited in scope and possibility. He always thought in broad strokes and encouraged others to be as innovative and creative as they could be. Fred initially hired me to create a dog show or conformation program within the UKC. At the time, there was no such event available for an owner-handler to participate in with their own dogs. Fred encouraged a friendly and welcoming atmosphere at all UKC events, and he specifically wanted the same for conformation events. I was to come up with a program that would put his vision into practice. I believe that this is why the UKC events work so well—each 
dog-and-owner team will have a great time participating in the broad variety of UKC events. Everyone should have fun! This is just what Fred envisioned.

9. The sport has changed greatly since you began as a breeder, exhibitor and professional handler. 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 see this a little differently. A declining number of breeders is not a problem in the Golden Retriever breed. The number of breeders has been increasing, but the decline is in the number of breeders breeding quality Golden Retrievers. There seem to be fewer people coming into our breed who want to remain in the sport, choose a mentor and truly learn. I see many who come in with the idea that they already know all they need to know and do not feel the need to study, intern, or even ask questions of the long-time successful breeders. On the other hand, we, as mentors, need to open ourselves up to those expressing an interest in learning and understanding our breed, answering questions and providing guidance. As mentors, we need to share our breed history so that the next generation of breeders can become the proud new caretakers of our breed.

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

below: “Stormy” & Connie winning the Golden Retriever Top 20 competition in 1996.

As I have just turned 75, I hope to be followed by those I have mentored, and I am confident that they will make me proud.

I would like to thank a few people who have helped me through years. My daughter, Geri Hart, has been a true partner in Malagold since the early to mid 1980s, and still contributes today. When I owned the boarding/grooming/training kennel, my kennel manager, Mary Hopkins, made it possible for me to travel as a professional handler and helped keep my breeding program thriving. In recent years, I am lucky to have Laurie Olsson as website coordinator, Klaranne Spearbraker as kennel manager, and Melissa Davis as breeding partner, travel companion and veterinarian for our dogs.

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

Even though I have traveled so much as a professional handler and as an AKC dog show judge, I still enjoy a relaxing holiday trip. The highlights have been two trips to Africa, as I am mesmerized by the animal life and the beauty of 
the location.

My dogs have been both my hobby and my profession, so I don’t really have any other hobbies! I am grateful for every opportunity that I have been given because of my dogs, and for all the people they have brought into my life. It has truly been 
a blessing. 

Below: A recent photo of Connie and a young Malagold boy, “Drummer”

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