Helping Dogs, Helping People
A Conversation with Breeder of the Year and AKC Breeder of Merit Pluis Davern
In Orlando last December, the huge crowd at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship roared its approval as Pluis Davern, of Sundowners Sussex Spaniels in Royal Oaks, California, was named 2011 AKC Breeder of the Year. The annual award honors breeders who have dedicated their lives to improving the health, temperament, and quality of purebred dogs. Pluis also holds the distinction of being an AKC Breeder of Merit participant. This program recognizes those experienced, responsible breeders who are dedicated to breeding beautiful purebred dogs whose appearance, temperament, and ability are true to their breed.
With a gift for working with dogs and a conviction that it is vital for breeds to retain ability to perform their original function, Davern has been deeply involved in breeding, showing, training, and hunting with dogs for more than 40 years. She has owned and bred many dual-titled sporting dogs and has had a distinguished career as a dog trainer and professional handler, and she is an AKC judge of both conformation and field events.
Following years of involvement with several large sporting breeds, she sought a somewhat smaller breed and fell in love with the Sussex Spaniel. In the early 1980s she acquired her first Sussex, Ch. The Vicar of Lexxfield, CD, who would become the first of his breed to go Best in Show in the U.S. and to place in the group at the Garden. Her next, Ch. Sand Creeks' Up to Snuff, CDX, SH, had two Bests in Show and more than 40 group placements, and was the first Sussex with advanced field and obedience titles. As a breeder of this wonderful rare breed, she is committed to helping to ensure its future.
In addition to her success as a breeder, Davern has become one of the most highly respected dog trainers in the country, and she was named 2011 Trainer of the Year by Dog Fancy. She is the founder and owner of Sundowners Kennels in Gilroy, California, where all dogs for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation are trained. Once trained, these dogs—all of whom were rescued from shelters or breed-rescue groups—are donated to selected firefighters and law-enforcement personnel in the U.S. and Mexico.
Recently we were fortunate to have Davern share with us a bit about her history in dogs and some insights on the sport.
What was your first dog?
Growing up in New Zealand, I was given my first dog that was truly my own when I was a 12-year-old, in 1955. He was a Boxer–German Shepherd cross, called Buster. With the athleticism of a Boxer and the biddability of a German Shepherd, Buster was the perfect dog for me to learn how to train. I had read Man Meets Dog, by Konrad Lorenz, and became instantly fascinated with behavioral things and the questions of nature versus nurture.
How did you first become seriously involved in dogs?
Later while attending the Australian National University in Canberra I became acquainted with a dog-training club and was soon immersed, training my GSD for potential competition.
What were your early experiences in dog events like?
I did not start to compete until years later, when my husband, children, and I settled in California and we purchased our first family dog – Shandy, a Golden Retriever. I attended obedience and conformation classes and was instantly hooked. Shandy typified the Golden temperament and joyfully led me on the path of obedience and field events, at which she excelled.
Who were a few of your particularly memorable dogs from the early years?
A grandson of this foundation bitch, Almaden Sundowners Sequoia, became a Ch., UD, WCX dog, and with him I became interested in the field of disaster search-and-rescue. He certified in this venue, as did his daughter Gaylans Sundowners Aurora, UD, JH, WCX.
What were some of the important things that you learned as a breeder early on?
The first thing I learned as a breeder right from the get-go was patience. You can't improve on everything in one generation.
I was fortunate to have a husband who was a geneticist, and he talked me through those early breedings with some very sound advice, not the least of which was to have a vision for at least the next five generations, not just the litter of the moment.
How has your involvement in performance influenced your perspective as a breeder?
I count myself very lucky to have started out in dogs from the performance perspective. Knowing what the dogs required structurally and psychologically to engage successfully in their various activities made me very aware of the need for soundness, athleticism, and drive. All of those things being are a part of breed type. However, a dog that has these attributes but must overcome its conformation to do its job is compromised on many levels.
How has your involvement in performance influenced you as a conformation judge?
Now when I judge, as I watch exhibitors take their dogs around the ring I am constantly reminded of the original function for which these breeds were developed, and the need to maintain their ability to do so.
I therefore have a pet peeve: fat dogs. Judging breeds in the Sporting and Hound groups, I expect at the very least to see athletes in good working condition.
How did you become involved in search-and-rescue work? Can you describe some of its highlights, challenges, and rewards?
I became acquainted with search-and-rescue back in the 1970s, when I was looking for a community-oriented activity to do with my young champion Golden. I opted for disaster work as opposed to wilderness searching, since the former demanded a host of skills that as a trainer I found both intriguing and challenging.
Over the years, working with not only dogs but handlers as well has given me a greater appreciation of the relationship between our two species. Knowing that those teams can make the ultimate difference between life and death offsets all the mental and physical challenges these high-drive dogs can pose for a trainer.
One of the most rewarding moments that comes to mind was the satellite phone-call we received at the kennel from Haiti, following the January 2012 earthquake, to apprise us of the news that one of our search dogs had found three little girls buried under 15 feet of concrete rubble. It doesn't get much better than that! The fact that most of the dogs we train are themselves rescued from shelters is icing on the cake.
What advice would you particularly like to share with new or prospective judges?
The best advice I can give them is to educate themselves about the original purpose and history of the breeds. Learning that, it becomes much easier to pair form with function and to prioritize virtues and faults based on that specific breed knowledge, and thereby judge accordingly.
What have you found most rewarding about your involvement with dogs?
My daily involvement with dogs is in and of itself incredibly exciting and rewarding, but it is the addition of the people who own, breed, and train them that makes the experience complete. My students and fellow judges, breeders, and trainers have all enriched my life and continue to do so.
What do you consider to be the most important aspects of the role of the breeder?
I think the best breeders are educators – sharing their passion and knowledge and supporting the neophyte in their venture into the sport of dogs. It doesn't matter if prospective puppy-buyers want a show dog or a pet, a breeder has the responsibility of making the transition as easy as possible for the puppy and the people. Lifetime friendships can be forged from those early interchanges, and it is always a pleasure to see a new generation of breeders and competitors come from those beginnings.
A final thought you'd like to share?
I feel that as a species, humans have not come close to truly understanding the canine and what dogs are capable of doing. I wish I could be around a hundred years from now and see what strides will be made in that direction. In the meantime, I will just go on appreciating those dogs in my own life.
Thank you, Pluis.
Arliss Paddock breeds and shows English Cocker Spaniels and is former managing editor of the AKC Gazette.
Breeder of the Year Group Winners
- Breeder of the Year (from the Sporting Group): Pluis Davern, Sundowners Sussex Spaniels
- Hound Group: Gretchen Bernardi, Berwyck Irish Wolfhounds
- Working Group: Thomas Oelschlager and Marlene DePalma, Kontoki Siberian Huskies
- Terrier Group: Elena Landa, Doubloon Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers
- Toy Group: Sharon and Raymond Stevens, Sharbelle Toy Poodles
- Non-Sporting Group: Barbara Wood, Anbara Lhasa Apsos
- Herding Group: Steve and Alice Lawrence, Fuzzy Farm Pulik