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Featured Breeder: Joann Neal

Featured Breeder: Joann Neal

When I was 10 years old, our family dog, a Collie mix, died of old age. Our veterinarian called my mother and offered us a Poodle that had been left to board and was never picked up. My mother replied, “We’re just not Poodle people.” He said, “Just come look at him. You might like him.” Mother took my two brothers and I to meet “Lucky,” a white Miniature Poodle, and he went home with us. Lucky was always my dog. I taught him tricks, and he slept on my bed. Mother got a set of clippers with green stamps. (Those who remember green stamps are as old as I am!) I started clipping the dog, and as one might imagine, my first attempts were not that great. Lucky was quite a character, as a Poodle should be. If we were not home, he answered the phone, pulling the receiver from the cradle and barking. He never liked for two people to embrace each other—he would jump on them and bark and growl until they separated. We always wondered what his early life was like. In a few years, Lucky died of renal failure, but by then, we were “Poodle people.” My parents and I never had anything but Poodles after Lucky.

Skirt’s First Litter – to become 4 Breed & Performance Champions

One summer, as part of a Girl Scout project, I worked as a volunteer at a boarding and grooming business. The owner had several Poodles as well as clients’ dogs, and she helped me get better at my grooming skills. By high school, I was grooming friends’ dogs in my home for spending money. (I never enjoyed babysitting!)

When I got out of college and married a veterinarian, my first order of business was to get a Poodle. I set out to find a black female standard. Through an ad in Dog World Magazine, I contacted Penny Harney of Pinafore Kennels, and came home with a white male standard puppy. My husband was in the Army as part of a college finance deal, and we got orders for a threeyear tour in Japan. This was great news for several reasons: it was not Viet Nam, I could accompany him, and we could take the dog! While there, I started showing “Casey” in Japanese dog shows, and finished his breed championship. In Japan, we could take the dog everywhere we went. He even climbed Mt. Fuji with us.

Lucky, my first poodle - 1960
Lucky, my first poodle – 1960

Training has always been my first love, and while in Japan, using the book by Blanche Saunders “Training You to Train Your Dog,” I obedience-trained Casey. When we returned stateside and settled in Oklahoma City, I saw an ad in Dog World for an obedience trial to be held there. I sent for a premium list and entered the dog, even though I had never even been to an obedience trial. Casey won first in a class of 56 Novice A dogs (those were the days of big entries!). I was hooked. I joined the local training club and continued training through Utility. When the dog was about six, and we had two Utility legs, he died suddenly of bloat. I have never been so grief-stricken.

Others followed—a white standard, a black mini, an apricot toy, and a white toy. I showed them some in conformation, trained them all through Utility titles, and never bred them. By that time my son was in high school, I was divorced, and we were living in Lubbock, Texas. I was working in my family’s airplane business writing aviation insurance. I was ready for another dog, and through my experience with all three varieties and several colors, I had formed my thoughts on exactly what I wanted. I went shopping for a white Miniature Poodle bitch. I was watching Poodles at shows, reading the Poodle magazines, and talking to people. In 1991, at a specialty in Dallas, I saw “my dog.” A handler had a special by the name of CH Braylane Bugsby. After looking at hundreds of Poodles, this one stopped me in my tracks. He was moving beautifully, with drive and purpose, head up, tail up, and commanded the ring. Soon after that, the PCA Regional was in Santa Fe, NM. I had my Toy Poodle entered in obedience there, but I went with the purpose of finding Judy Bray and getting my name on a list for a puppy. I found her in the catalog, and followed her back to her motor home when she came out of the ring. Judy was originally an Oklahoma girl— warm and friendly. We hit it off, and she showed me all the dogs she had with her. Judy started out in obedience, and liked to sell dogs to people who did obedience. I told her I wanted a dog on which I could get a CH OTCH TDX, and I wanted to do it all myself. (Years later Judy told me that she was thinking, “Yeah, right! Like that’s going to happen.”) But ten weeks later, I had my Braylane bitch. I was worried about shipping a puppy from Seattle to Lubbock, and opined to Judy, “What if they drop her on her head, and she’ll never be the same?” Judy said, “If they drop her on her head, and she’s never the same, she’s not the dog you wanted anyway.” Judy was full of wisdom about dogs, and this was only one example. A good show dog (whether conformation or performance) must be resilient. They must, first and foremost, be temperamentally sound.

When “Betty” came out of that crate at the airport freight dock after 14 hours in transit, she walked out like she owned the airport. I started crying. It was the most beautiful puppy I had ever seen! Although we lived almost 2,000 miles apart, Judy was my mentor and friend. In our long telephone conversations (they charged by the minute back then), she gave me such sage advice. I groomed the dog, took pictures, and sent them to her. She drew lines on the pictures and sent them back. When I started showing the dog and told her the dog was skinny, she told me how to fatten her up. She said a judge wouldn’t put up a skinny dog. Betty started winning points immediately. When a major entry showed up at the River City Shows in San Antonio, Judy flew down. She scissored one side of Betty, telling me what she was trying to accomplish with lines and proportion, and told me to make the other side match. She watched me in the ring, and told me how to improve my handling. Betty won two majors that weekend, and I was the happiest person alive. Betty finished as a puppy. I put her in an adult trim and showed her five times. She won 5 BV’s, 2 Group Firsts, and a Group Second. I shaved her down and started training her for obedience. My first love was training, and I was out of a dog to train.

In all my training, I’ve been pretty much self-taught. I’ve never lived anywhere that I could take lessons. I have always been very competitive, and wanted to compete at the highest levels. I learned by reading books, attending occasional training seminars in my travel area, and, most of all, carefully watching the people who were beating me. This has been true in training, show grooming and show handling. I see something, I try it, I watch some more. I’ve gotten my money’s worth from the Poodle magazines. I see a picture of a dog whose grooming pleases my eye, and I photocopy it. Then I take pictures of my dog, compare, super-impose the images, and see what adjustments I need to make. I find what I call “landmarks” on the dog to use when reproducing the clip so that I can get it looking close to the same each time. Those who have done show grooming have experienced the clip “sliding off the rear of the dog.” Keeping it where it belongs as the coat grows has to be learned. I’m always studying and striving to get better.

When I returned to Lubbock in 1980, I joined the South Plains Obedience Training Club. I was Training Director and Trial Chairman for over 30 years. With my club, I put on 13 obedience and agility trials a year, and kept training classes manned three nights a week. I feel like it is very important to give back to the sport we love. If participants don’t volunteer to help give classes and shows and such, then there will be none to go to. Classes bring in new people to the sport. What is becoming the norm today is professional trainers who give classes and private lessons. They and their students attend shows every weekend, complain about everything, and do not join clubs or help give shows. Some professional breed handlers are part of this user class. People say, “I’m too busy,” or “somebody was rude to me.” I have worked full time all my adult life (until recent retirement), and raised a son as a single mother, so I know about being busy. And I also know about getting along with, or surviving, disagreeable people. Like that ideal Poodle—one has to be resilient. My generation was raised with idea that one needs to give back. Today’s generation seems to be all about self-gratification, and as a result, dog clubs and entries are hurting.

GCHS Sandstorm Grand Slam, #2 Miniature Poodle 2018
GCHS Sandstorm Grand Slam, #2 Miniature Poodle 2018

Back to Betty. I finished her Obedience Trial Championship when she was 4 years old. During this time, AKC started its agility program. Our club bought some agility equipment, and we set it up in our training room a couple of nights a month. We knew nothing about it, but I taught Betty and a Toy Poodle I had to do the obstacles. I knew nothing about agility handling. I saw that there was going to be an AKC agility trial at the Astro Hall shows in Houston, which I was planning to attend with Betty in obedience. Just like in obedience, I entered my first agility trial without ever having seen one. Betty finished her first agility title that weekend.

In those days, instructors often walked the courses at agility trials with their students. When I went to trials, I fell in behind Jane Simmons-Moake’s (Flashpaws Agility) students, and listened to what she was telling her students about how to handle the courses. I watched other people, went to a few seminars, and gradually got better at agility. I have never owned a set of agility equipment other than weave poles and a see-saw, equipment that dogs need to see every day to learn. Betty was very forgiving of my mistakes, which were many. We earned our Master Agility Championship (MACH) when she was 10 years old.

In her younger days, I tried to get Betty to track, but was having no luck. My Toy Poodles were natural foot-step trackers, but Betty couldn’t see the point in tracking. She would “hunt up” the dropped articles like a retriever—casting and wind-scenting, but would not follow the track. She was not at all food-motivated, so I set tracking aside, and decided that after she was spayed, she would probably “find her food dish,” as most bitches do. Once she was spayed, she started caring about treats, and I was successful in getting her to track. She finished her Tracking Dog Title when she was 10, and her Tracking Dog Excellent Title when she was 12.

Betty became CH OTCH MACH Braylane Betty’s Bein’ Bad UDX2 TDX VCD3 (and I did it all myself, Judy!!), the first AKC “Triple Champion” of the breed (all varieties), and the foundation bitch of my breeding program. She was invited to compete in the CH OTCH MACH Sandstorm The Need For Speed, VCD3 UDX TDX MXF. GCHS Sandstorm Grand Slam, #2 Miniature Poodle 2018. first two AKC Obedience Invitationals, and competed in several of the old Gaines Obedience Championship events. She won High In Trial at the Poodle Club of America show out of the Utility B class.

I bred Betty one time. Judy had success breeding a Betty sister to CH Parade Kiss ‘N Tell, and encouraged me to do it. He was black, but could produce white. I didn’t want to breed to him because I only wanted white, and didn’t trust my luck. So I bred to Jackson, “Ch Bold’n Worthy of Praise”, a white Kiss ‘N Tell son. Due to timing, we ended up doing the breeding at PCA in a horse stall at the old Upper Marlboro show site. I joked to Dewitt Bolden that if we got puppies, I would name my keeper “A Roll in the Hay at PCA.” I kept a bitch that became CH OTCH MACH Sandstorm Skirt Alert UDX2 XF RAE TDX VCD3. I specialed Skirt for a year as my time and money would allow, and she ended up #3 Miniature for that year. Judy and I were still having our late-night telephone conversations, and she would give me tidbits of information on judges and on grooming and showing. She flew down and met me at a show in Oklahoma with wiggies, and showed me how to put them in. She told me, “When you go in the ring, it’s time to put your comb down and show your dog. If your dog wants to put on a show, get out of the way and let her. Your job is to wear the armband and allow her to show off her personality.” And Skirt had a lot of personality!

Judy Bray had to quit breeding due to her health, and I never really aspired to be a breeder. All I ever wanted was to have a nice dog to train and show, but I could not go out and buy the quality of dog that I had. I don’t really enjoy breeding and raising puppies that much—I like to train and show. I’ve only bred often enough to have something to do that with—usually every 2 or 3 years. Another of Judy’s pearls of wisdom was, “Don’t keep too many dogs.” She never had more than 5 adult dogs. She liked males, so she farmed out her bitches to friends, and would bring them back long enough to get a litter from them. She said dogs deserve a real home—people that love them, think they’re special, and let them sleep in their bed. That’s one reason she liked obedience homes, and rarely if ever would sell a dog to a breeder where the dog would have to live in a kennel. As a result, there’s not much of her line left out there— mostly just mine.

When I started looking for a kennel name, I was trying to think of something that depicted my part of the country—the High Plains of Texas. Lubbock is probably most famous for its wind and sandstorms—when visibility can be no more than 50 feet, so “Sandstorm” it was. My first home-bred’s name, “Skirt Alert,” is a west Texas wind warning. The weather forecasters would give skirt alerts in the morning, warning listeners not to wear full skirts today if they didn’t want them over their heads. I have liked rhyming names or names with alliteration, like “Betty’s Bein’ Bad,” which was the name of a country song on the radio at the time.

What do I look for in a dog? First off, it’s got to look like a Poodle. I need head up and tail up. I discovered in my early obedience years that not all Poodles carry their tails up all the time. Their tail carriage depended on their mood. Obedience guidelines say that a dog should show the “utmost in willingness and enjoyment,” and with Poodles, this is measured by the tail carriage. I discovered that you can’t “cheer” a tail up. But you can breed a tail up, and when I went looking for my first white mini, I was looking specifically for a dog that kept its tail up all the time. I want a compact dog under that hair—substance without losing elegance. I must have beautiful movement— reach and drive delivered effortlessly. Because of my performance goals, I look for a lot of drive—energy— desire to go fast. Courage. Resilience. A dog that likes me and wants to be with me. If a puppy doesn’t want to come willingly and happily with me on a leash, I have no use for it. A balky dog is not going to be good at anything I want to do.

When picking a puppy which will meet my conformation goals, I look for a poser. Turn them loose in the yard, and look for the one that stops with all parts in the proper place. I put the puppies on a leash, and my keeper should be willing to go with me and show me beautiful reach and drive and carriage, even as a little puppy. If the dog has these things, then the rest are just details. A dog which looks good standing and moving can’t have too much wrong with it. I have always been overly critical of my dogs’ faults. Judy always told me, “There are no perfect dogs. All dogs have faults. Best In Show dogs have faults. Judge a dog by what you like about it, not by its faults.” Using the criteria above, I have never felt that I picked the wrong puppy, even though I make my choice and send the others to their new homes by the age of 8 weeks.

My worries for the breed are that breeders that breed exclusively for the conformation ring will ruin the breed, a they have in so many breeds. Breeders get in a race to produce extremes that stand out from the others in the ring. More is not usually better, although it may win more. Conformation breeders are producing working dogs that, because of extremes in conformation, can’t do any work. Many conformation breeders ignore things like bad temperaments, allergies, epilepsy, bad knees and hips, eye problems, and a myriad of other expensive medical problems. I fear the win at any price mentality. We inherited a lovely breed. Why do we need to change it? Why should handlers require stomachs to be tacked before they will take a Standard Poodle to show? Why should Toy Poodle knees be routinely surgically fixed as a precaution before sending the dogs out to show? People seem to be breeding show dogs that can’t even stand up to the rigors of trotting around a breed ring. At a recent PCA meeting, a judge told the audience that the purpose of a performance sweepstakes at PCA was so performance breeders wouldn’t develop a different breed. I was dumbfounded. It is the conformation breeders who have taken breeds that originally were bred to do a type of work, and created dogs that can no longer do that work.

This article would not be complete without talking about some of the highlights of my breeding and showing. As a breeder, 60% of my puppies have finished their breed championships—all shown by their amateur owners. Over 60% of my puppies have earned one or more performance championships, and all of them have earned performance titles. I personally have finished 4 CH OTCH MACH TDX dogs, and am working on a 5th. I have bred and owner-handled two all-breed Best In Show dogs, and one dog that was the Number One Miniature the year I specialed her. Many others have been in the Top Five Miniature Poodles, all owner-handled by me. I’ve qualified and competed in many National Obedience Invitationals and AKC Agility Championships, and had the Number One AKC agility Poodle one year. My puppy buyers have had similar successes with their Sandstorm Poodles. My goal has been to produce dogs that can compete at the highest levels in both the breed ring and the various performance venues, and to place them in homes in which their potential will be realized.