Interview With Breeder/Owner Handler Susan Speranza
Susan Speranza: In 1987, I went into a local pet store to get a book on Pugs. I was researching this breed as I was certain this was the breed for me. My husband saw this little white fluffy dog in the window, and instead of a book, we came home with a Pekingese puppy. She was adorable, but incorrigible, so I hired a trainer to save my sanity. He told me she wasn’t incorrigible. Rather, she was very intelligent—and very bored. He recommended I bring her to class at my local dog training club. There I saw amazing dogs doing amazing things: sitting, coming, jumping over jumps, picking up dumbbells or gloves, all at the silent commands of their owners.
I wanted a dog like this too. I trained her in Obedience, getting a CD and one leg toward a CDX on her. When I went to dog shows, I’d amble over to the breed rings, and there I saw them—“real” Pekingese with long, flowing coats, rolling around the ring with their owners. I thought this was the coolest thing, so after researching pedigrees and lines, I obtained my first show Pekingese and my foundation bitch. That was the beginning of Castlerigg Pekingese. The rest is history. I have had many litters, champions, grand champions, and Group winners through the years, almost all of whom I have shown and/or finished myself.
How were you first introduced to the sport of purebred dogs? To your breed?
Susan Speranza: I was introduced to the sport through a dog trainer who pointed me to my local dog training club. I was introduced accidentally to Pekingese via my pet store puppy.
How many years in dogs? How many as an Owner Handler? As a Breeder?
Do you attend show handling classes? Have you attended in-person handling seminars?
Susan Speranza: I attend handling classes when available, though in my area (Vermont) they have become scarce since COVID. I have attended in-person handling seminars but only when I was first starting out.
Have you found virtual learning tools to be helpful? Videos? Websites? Social Media? AKC Canine College?
Susan Speranza: I do, and I often encourage people who are new to the breed and/or new to showing to seek these out.
Do you compete in the National Owner-Handled Series? Are rankings important to you?
Susan Speranza: I rarely do, and hence, rankings are not important to me because I have a real issue with the AKC encouraging Owner-Handled over Bred-By.
How important is the Bred-By Class to you? How important are Specialties?
Susan Speranza: Years ago, when I entered the ring to show my dog in the Bred-By Class, the judge (whose name I sadly forget) turned to all of us and said, “Thank you for showing in the Bred-By Class, the most important class.” His words have stuck with me through the years. Anyone with enough money can buy a great dog and hire a top handler, but until you’ve duked it out in the whelping box and shown that puppy to his title, you really can’t call yourself a breeder/owner/handler. And in my opinion, these three words are inseparable.
Is it a challenge to compete with your breed as a Breeder/Owner Handler?
Susan Speranza: Not necessarily. There are handlers in the Pekingese ring, and some well-known ones at that, but through the years I have managed to beat them all at one time or another. But as an owner/handler, I am aware that the dog I bring into the ring has to be an excellent specimen of the breed in order to beat them. That encourages me to breed the best dogs I can and to make every litter I have count.
Who have been your mentor(s) as an Owner Handler? As a Breeder?
Susan Speranza: My mentor was a woman who had been breeding and showing for 30 years before I entered the dog world. I met her at my local training club as she conducted the breed handling classes. She didn’t have Pekingese, but she did have Toy breeds (Silkies, Cresteds, and Min-Pins) and Great Danes. She knew structure, she knew movement, and she could pick out a good dog no matter the breed. I learned a lot from her about breeding, about showing, and about handling. I was able to adapt what I learned from her to my own breed.
How important is the Breeder/Owner Handler to the future of the sport? To your breed?
Susan Speranza: The breeder is the essence of this sport; without us, it would cease to exist, so breeder/owner/handler is very important.
What advice would you give to Owner Handlers who are thinking of breeding their dog(s)?
Susan Speranza: Read and understand the Breed Standard and learn to see how the dog you bought from a breeder conforms to that Standard. Learn about the history of the breed, the different lines and what they produce. Research and learn about pedigrees. And when it comes time to breed, don’t just breed to a dog because it won some award. Make sure it has the physical features that complement your bitch.
Get to know the dogs in both pedigrees and what they’ve produced. Understand what soundness is for your breed. The breeder you bought your dog from should mentor you, so don’t hesitate to ask questions. Learn from that breeder everything you can about the act of breeding, whelping, and neonatal care. Do the research—there are a lot of YouTube videos about all aspects of breeding. You should avail yourself of all these resources, from the knowledge and experience of old-time breeders to modern-day videos.
What are your goals as a Breeder/Owner Handler? Is there a victory that has eluded you?
Susan Speranza: As a breeder, I seek to preserve my breed as best I can in accordance with our Standard. I recently went over a little bitch who had completed her championship and was startled to discover that not one feature conformed to our Standard. How she came to be a champion is the subject of another article, I’m sure. Suffice it to say that the owner, who is new to Pekingese, was clueless about this, as was the breeder who is also relatively new to Pekingese. But when I see more and more of these dogs in the ring, I am all the more determined to preserve the qualities that make a Pekingese what it is.
There are two victories that have eluded me. One is that I have not been in the position due to life’s circumstances to campaign a dog. I am hoping that that will change in the near future. The second is that I wanted to make it to 25 years never having lost a puppy while breeding one to three litters a year. In 2021, I lost a puppy, breaking a 19-year streak of no puppy losses.
Is there a funny story that you can share about your experiences as a Breeder/Owner Handler?
Susan Speranza: “Charm” has been unpredictable in the ring. At a recent show, I asked my friend, a handler, to show her while I concentrated on my puppy. When the judge told her to take the dog around, Charm refused to budge. My friend then told the judge that I’d be better off showing her and handed me the lead. It didn’t go much better for me, as Charm dug in her paws and refused to move. The judge cautioned that if she didn’t take five steps, she would have to excuse her. Desperate, I tugged a little on the lead and said, “Come on, Charm.”
Charm pulled back and out of her lead, looked me in the eye and then proceeded to show herself—she walked by herself around the ring, staying on the mats, periodically looking back at me (who was scrambling to catch up with her) as if to say, “See, I don’t need you.” She walked up to the table and waited for me to pick her up. The judge thought this was very funny, and Charm wound up going Winners Bitch and Best of Opposite that day, all the while entertaining everyone outside the ring.