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Inside the Mind of Michelle Santana, Foxfire Doberman Pinschers

An interview with the 2012 Winkie Award Winner for Breeder of the Year
By Richard G. ("Rick") Beauchamp | July 22, 2013

Dogs in Review: What is the most difficult thing you've faced as a breeder?

Michelle Santana: Breeding isn't for the faint of heart. In fact, this is my advice to myself!

The advent of subjective "health testing" and a breeder's true desire to produce the very best is both a blessing and a curse. I believe there are two camps among breeders —the realists and the idealists. Some (the idealists) think that health testing is going to create the perfect gene poolor populace of a given breed. Others, probably more where I stand, realize we do health testing for information in making our breeding choices. We are not of the belief that health testing will make for any guarantees of the progeny produced. (Unfortunately, the puppy-buying public seems to think we breeders have superhuman powers and can somehow control the health of a species by reading and breeding by the results of health tests, which in reality can be as fluctuating as our day-to-day weather!)

We realists are aware that we live in an age in which we aren't fully able to get a handle on longevity and health and the many diseases that affect our human population. We also realize that trying to control the fickle finger of Mother Nature in our animals is that much more of a conundrum.
With the exception of just a couple of DNA tests for the Doberman, health testing is purely conjecture on what an animal will actually pass on to its offspring. I've witnessed OFA'd parents produce dysplasia, thyroid-normal parents produce hypothyroidism, and dogs that have passed annual heart testing produce children that die of the most dreaded of our diseases: cardiomyopathy. At the same time, young dogs that die from sudden death have produced progeny that live on into the double digits.

The most dreaded words we breeders can hear from our puppy buyers is, "I want a healthy puppy with no health issues behind it." Does that even exist? Placing the responsibility on the breeder's shoulders to override Mother Nature and dictate the genetic material that does and does not go into each and every dog we create is a task that even those who claim the most godlike powers aren't able to assert. And the simple fact is we face this ominous burden on a daily basis, generation after generation
Bill Shelton of Coventry Pembroke Welsh Corgis presented the 2012 Breeder of the Year award to Michelle Santana of Foxfire Doberman Pinschers.
Dogs in Review: What do you consider your greatest achievement as a breeder?

Michelle Santana: The most obvious achievement would be the blessing of having my dedication, passion and contributions recognized by the huge honor of receiving Dogs in Review magazine's Outstanding Breeder Award this year in addition to the honor of receiving the AKC Working Group Breeder of the Year Award in 2010. Never before have these two accolades been bestowed on the same Doberman breeder! It is indeed an honor larger than life!

I was also sincerely touched when the DPCA membership voted for me to judge our Grand Prize Futurity not once but twice in my life. However, eclipsing all these "tangible" awards for me is the ability to reminisce about the many, many wonderful generations of Dobermans that have passed through my hands as I knelt on the floor beside our whelping box these past three decades. All that has been accomplished by the grand Foxfire Dobes and their owners just takes my breath way.

I reflect on the commitment, sincere effort, intelligent direction and execution of many choices coming to fruition as my life's work. What can I say? I've had a blessed life to do what I love.

Dogs in Review: What has been your greatest disappointment?

Michelle Santana: That there hasn't been an "answer" to the myriad of health problems that take our Dobermans away at far too young an age — to have to learn to accept and surrender to the fact that there are just some things beyond our human control. Even in an age when we can put men on the moon, we average mortal breeders aren't born with the superhuman power to control that fickle and often wicked finger of a force greater than humanity known as Mother Nature!

We spend thousands of dollars each year testing our Dobermans, but it really hasn't been an effective method of eliminating disease, just putting a name to the various afflictions and development of some treatment methods.

Dogs in Review: What would be the most important single piece of advice you would give to the person just embarking on a breeding career?

Michelle Santana: There is no one piece of advice, just like there is no one part of a dog that makes it a great. It takes all the many small parts coming together to realize success!

Be prepared to be on the highest mountain peak with your arms reaching to the stars and in the next moment down on your knees pounding the ground while you weep! Give yourself over to a mentor, or many mentors — mentors who will unconditionally share with you all that they have wisely learned. They will allow you to also embrace beliefs of your own and make mistakes along your journey with only the occasional "I told you so!" Hopefully, when it is time, your mentor will set you free without a critical word or vindictive grudge. He or she will be proud of your success and know that the solid foundation laid for you was all a part of your "becoming."

Dogs in Review
: What dog of all you've bred and owned do you consider the most memorable? For what reason?

Michelle Santana: Gosh, I could get into a lot of trouble at home by answering this question! My doggies wouldn't be very happy with me! I am fortunate and blessed to have some beautiful Best in Show and DPCA top 20 winners gracing my couches. And some, like our top-producing sire 'Jet' (Ch. Foxfire All Star), have won nary a ring accolade but contributed to the Doberman breed significantly with their influence as sires and dams. Suffice to say it is 'Jade,' Ch. Foxfire's All That Jazz (No. 1 Dobe in 2005 and multi-BIS, BISS and TT winner), now almost 12 years old, that gets the most cookies every day! She made me dream big, and those dreams came to fruition! She is the one that raised the bar for the Foxfires who have come and will come in the generations after!

Dogs in Review: What are your most important considerations when selecting a bitch to keep for breeding?

Michelle Santana: From the very beginning, Foxfire was blessed with a very prepotent, maternally strong lineage — and some very good beginner's luck! This was not by design, mind you, because we knew basically nothing when we purchased Foxfire's foundation dam (her pedigree was a hodgepodge of sorts). Our foundation bitch was a "good one" back in the day, a multi-BOB and Group winner, but by my standard today, she wouldn't be one of my keepers! All of our Foxfire Dobermans have 'Pele' in their pedigree, albeit "off the page" by now eight or more generations later.

It is often said that the Doberman isn't a head breed. I disagree! Our foundation bitch had a beautiful head, so we were spoiled. And I always say that at the end of the day, when your Doberman is too old to capture your eye posing in the yard, it will be laying and staring at you from the couch, so the head ought to be a sight to behold. A Doberman's eyes and expression should pierce and capture you to the depth of your soul. So, that is certainly a criterion to me.

I believe a breeding animal should be finishable within its breed. But you can't always judge a book by its cover. Mother Nature never ceases to amaze me! I've seen nice bitches produce outstanding get, and great bitches produce mediocrity. At the end of the day, it is again Mother Nature's fickle and often wicked finger that dictates our fate as breeders!

Dogs in Review: Are there any breeding combinations (half brother and sister, granddaughter to grandsire, etc.) you find particularly successful?

Michelle Santana: In the beginning, choosing mates for our foundation bitch was always an outcross. (Remember that she had a hodgepodge pedigree.) Just finding any dog common with her pedigree was a challenge! Even with this handicap, she produced six champions out of 10 pups. From there I did try to follow something that made sense lineage-wise, but I can't say any particular formula was the order of the day.

In later years, Pat Craige Trotter's book Born to Win, Breed to Succeed was a book I read cover to cover. (And I covet her autographed message inscribed within, calling me a "Master Breeder.") This book did give me ideas of crosses to try.

In our beginning years, Foxfire was most well-known for our girl's maternal line. We did have one popular stud dog, national specialty-winning (from the Veterans class) Ch. Foxfire's Devils N Demons WAC. He had moderate success as a sire, and I'd say that today Foxfire is based through a couple of his daughters. In the last decade I believe Foxfire's paternal success has equaled our maternal lineage's reputation.
Over the years I have incorporated several different philosophies in pairing up mates, most notably my "artiste's" eye first and foremost as our guide. This has given Foxfire an arsenal of studs to choose from within our own family of dogs. Add that to an outcross in 2006 to an Argentinean-bred male, World Ch. Inaqui De Black Shadow (I believed Argentina had the hallmark of some qualities American Dobermans were in need of), to our No. 1 girl of 2005, multi-BIS/BISS Ch. Foxfire's All That Jazz 'Jade.' This produced a litter of five champions, including a male that is now a cornerstone of most of Foxfire's success today (and many lines across the nation). Ch. Foxfire All Star is the 2009 and 2012 AKC top Working Group sire, siring nearly 100 champions to date, most notably two record breakers: Ch. Protocol's Veni Vidi Vici, top owner-handled Dobe in breed history who needs no introduction as the No. 1 Working dog of 2012; and BIS Ch. Catawba's Take No Prisoners CD, ROM, SCH, I, the first Doberman in history to be a Best in Show winner and Schutzhund-degreed. One of Jet's sisters was 2008's No. 2 Doberman and a multi-BIS winner. Another sister is a multi-champion producer and dam of our current star, GCh. Foxfire's Tell Me About It 'Jewelia,' that finished with five majors in four weekends! Now she is Foxfire's most current DPCA top 20 finalist and America's No. 6 Doberman in just four weekends of specialing!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dogs in Review and its Winkies Award program and the many people in the family of "dog folk" who voted for me to receive this coveted award, "Outstanding Breeder" of 2012. Wow! What more can I say?

Dogs in Review: What qualities do you admire most in a judge?

MIchelle Santana: Honesty and integrity to oneself to do the best possible, and to choose the right dogs for the right reasons. I feel when you judge, it is about the whole dog — assessing and rewarding virtues and penalizing faults accordingly. We can’t totally discount or count in a dog to our breeding programs based on one fault or one virtue they possess because their progeny will inherit many things from them. Why would it be different with judging?

It pains me when we have judges who focus singularly on any one part of the Doberman standard (i.e., finding the shortest and squarest, fits-in-a-box Doberman in the ring). And all too often the dog is actually under square and inherently stick straight on both ends, hence the square, boxy illusion they are smitten to pin. The Doberman is about angles (front and rear) as much as it is about square. Our standard calls for a 45-degree layback of shoulder and a 90-degree angle where the shoulder meets the upper arm. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of square when it is that way because it lacks the angles to make it a Doberman! Learn about the angles, proportions and balance a Doberman should possess so you aren’t one of the many who just judge our breed by what singularly looks like a box.

Dogs in Review: What differences do you see in the judge of today as opposed to those you showed your dogs to in the early years of your career as a breeder?

Michelle Santana: I was just discussing this query over the weekend with an accomplished Boxer breeder and handler. We were reminiscing about judges of yesteryear who were true dog people. AKC had a large pool of judges who were accomplished in their acquisition of dog knowledge and husbandry. Before judging, many were licensed handlers who had managed large strings of dogs or kennels that rounded out their knowledge. Others had been breeders who produced outstanding dogs over many generations and years. They had the gifted "eye” to find our best dogs of any breed.

Today we are often faced with walking away from the ring shaking our heads, wondering what the heck a judge is doing judging our breed. We were discussing how our "DNR” (Do Not Re-enter under) list is sadly sometimes longer than the "drive to the ends of the earth to exhibit to” list

Dogs in Review: What are your most important considerations when selecting a stud dog?

Michelle Santana: As much as I’d like to say it is some scientific formula, it is oftentimes nothing more than a pitter patter of the heart! Albeit it is invaluable to have the decades of traveling with specials (and nationals) behind me that have taken me to places far and wide, with access to see many of the Dobermans in pedigree of today. When I look at a dog, I not only see what is in front of me, but often a "road map” of the many, many dogs that make up a particular dog’s pedigree.

In addition, I have a very good breeder friend who is an engineer by degree. We laugh that he breeds with his protractor in hand, assessing each little nuance as if it’s an architectural design. We muse to each other how I am more the "artiste,” with a paintbrush in hand, stroking the canvas I sit in front of. I just get a feeling — I see a dog, and I get goose bumps. I know innately I want some piece of that dog. And then I set out to find the bitch in my own breeding program that will best utilize that piece (also taking into account the health test puzzles). So, I guess it can be said that I breed from the gut. My "creations” are the result of my mind’s eye, with brush in hand and a canvas as my backdrop. I "paint” what I want to see in my yard and at the end of my lead!

From the July 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the July 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.