Jessica Hekman: Welcome to the Functional Breeding Podcast. I’m Jessica Hekman, and I’m here interviewing folks about how to breed dogs for function and for health: behavioral and physical. This podcast is brought to you by the Functional Dog Collaborative, an organization founded to support the ethical breeding of healthy, behaviorally sound dogs. FDC’s goals include providing educational, social, and technical resources to breeders of both purebred and mixed breed dogs. You can find out more at www.functionalbreeding.org, or at the Functional Breeding Facebook Group, which is a friendly and inclusive community. I hope you have fun and learn something.
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE
Jessica Hekman: Hi, friends. This week I have the pleasure of presenting to you Linda Seaver. Linda is the founder of Berner University, a two-day educational conference which convenes once each year at the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America National Specialty. Berner U aims to educate Berner owners and breeders about their dogs, including information from veterinarians, behaviorists, and experienced breeders, among others. Linda was a pleasure to talk to, and I hope you enjoy hearing about just how good breeder education can be.
Linda, thank you so much for agreeing to be on the podcast. I really appreciate your time.
Linda Seaver: You’re more than welcome. I’ll always talk about Berner U. (laughter)
JH: And I figured I would start out as I generally start out, asking the easiest question first, which is, “Why don’t you tell us about your dogs!”
LS: I currently have my 10th Bernese mountain dog. I started looking in 1978, and I had to go to Switzerland to get one in 1980. I’ve had three brood bitches, and some lovely males. And I wouldn’t live without one.
JH: They are lovely, lovely dogs. I have a friend who I train with who has one, so I get to have one vicariously through her. (laughter)
LS: Perfect. You don’t have all the fur.
JH: I don’t! Well, I have my own fur. But I, at least during the pandemic, too, because we trained together, I still get to see lots of video.
So you transitioned then at some point from having Berners to educating Berner people about how to make more Berners. So how did that happen? Like, what were the seeds? Let’s just talk about where Berner U came from first, and then we’ll sort of slide into what Berner U is from there.
LS: Okay. I was fortunate to have three, minimum three, lovely mentors who really taught me about how to maintain a Bernese and keep them healthy and then how to breed. I’ve only had five litters in 40 years. But I was fortunate to learn from some people who knew a whole lot, who had a whole lot of knowledge that I didn’t have. And at some point they started getting older and maybe stopped coming to specialties, and stopped showing and judging, because they were aging. And I also got tired of standing behind them ringside trying to eavesdrop on what they were seeing that I couldn’t see.
And so in 2005 I was asked to be the Education Chair for our national specialty. And rather than do one well-known speaker after dinner on Thursday night, I agreed to do it if I could do it my own way. And Andrea Brin, who was my partner in creating Berner University, and I created… the first year we had four days of classes. We had 48 classes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during specialty week. And our specialties have always been pretty much Wednesday through Saturday. But they were gradually creeping earlier in the week because Berners started herding and tracking. Berners began doing agility and Berners draft. But there were fewer people the first days of the week. So I felt I could introduce Berner University and people were adults. They could choose to go watch draft. They could compete and then come to class.
And in the end we have had, for 15 years, two days of classes. Classes are two hours long. We’ve… I think I said to you – we’ve made a lot of mistakes. But the thing that works is 9am to 11am is the first class. 12pm to 2pm is the second. Bring your lunch. The third class is 3pm to 5pm. And there’s an hour in between for people to walk their dogs because dogs are welcome. Well-behaved dogs are welcome in every class. So that’s very attractive to people who come to a specialty, particularly when they come with one to five dogs. They don’t want them to spend all day in crates, or in cars, or in hotel rooms. So they come to class with their dogs.
We have five different departments. Better Breeding was the first one. And it was because I wanted to learn more about this. It was all very selfish. Sure, sounds good, but it was very selfish.
JH: I mean, this is why I’m starting this whole project that I’m starting – so that my next dog will be the dog that I want. That’s entirely the reason. (laughter)
LS: I wanted to learn more about breeding. And then I wanted to learn more… Berners suffer from really lousy immune systems, and terrible, terrible problems with cancer. So, and our longevity just is dreadful. Males’ average age of death is seven. Females’ is 8.2. So there was a lot that I wanted to learn. So I basically emailed or called people that I knew knew something that I wanted to learn and said, “Would you teach a class in ‘x’?” Or, “Would you teach a class in something you’re really excited about now? Something you want to teach? Something that you love to talk about?”
And there was an amazing response of generosity. Peer educators among BMDCA members, the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America members, and then I started tapping guest faculty, and guest faculty were well known canine professionals: Jean Dodds, Andrew Luescher, David Waters, Ian Dunbar. And asked people would they come and teach? Because we had people that really wanted to learn. And they said, “Yes.”
JH: Did it take much convincing, or was this the kind of thing they were eager to do?
LS: No. Basically, I collect all the faculty and schedule the two days. I try to balance it between Breeding, Correct Conformation… Because in the early 80s, Berners were short and squat, long legged and tall. Some of them were really rangy. Others of them were correct. (laughter) And so every year we have a class in the standard, in the AKC Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America standard, where a Berner breeder judge teaches the standard of this dog. And that seems to pull in new owners who fell in love because the dogs are gorgeous, and they’re affectionate, and they’re, and they’re funny. But if they think they want to breed, they have to learn how… What they’re breeding for and to. We’ve had lots of classes.
And so, sorry: Better Breeding, Correct Conformation, Health Maintenance, because of our cancer problems. So we’ve had lots of cancer researchers: Matthew Breen from North Carolina State, Heidi Parker from the National Institutes of Health. And then Effective Stewardship, which includes my belief, and I think many people in the Berner community, if you’re going to breed you better rescue. You can’t just go pumping out puppies and let somebody else do the painful, sad taking them in, getting them, you know, the surgery that they needed that the owner couldn’t afford. So we have Effective Stewardship with classes on fostering and rescue.
There’s a Rescue Roundtable every year where all of the regional rescue chair people and the National Rescue chairperson, who just got the outstanding member of BMDCA this year…
JH: Oh, cool.
LS: They all sit down and network for two or three hours. And Berner U provides an opportunity for them to do that.
And then the last department is Working Partnerships, which was the best phrase I could describe to include draft, agility, obedience, rally, barn hunt, dock diving, surfing. We had a class in surfing Berners when we were in Monterey. Yes! And you know what? I think there were six or seven Berners who were new to surfing and they learned how to do it in that class.
JH: Wow. You didn’t have an ocean in the class. Did you actually bring surfboards in?
LS: We were in Monterey.
JH: So you actually went out and did it?
LS: We went down to Dog Beach in Monterey and the dogs surfed. They did it.
JH: Wow, that’s a lot of fun.
LS: Noni was the first surfing Berner. This was a Berner in California who raised a lot of money for canine welfare, you know, rescue groups. And the owners, Noni’s owners, taught the class and there were BMDCA members.
So of the 18 classes that happen over two days, probably a dozen of them are taught by BMDCA members who are sharing their expertise or their passion, what they’re excited about. The breeder judges… I usually ask… I try to spread that around and have different people every year. And then I invite about a half a dozen faculty guests who are either really well-known people like Jean Dodds and Ron Schultz to come and talk about vaccines and titers and the Rabies Challenge Fund. Or they are local canine professionals, like you were. (laughter) Or if somebody said, “Oh, I know, Jessica,” or “I know Shannon Hall. She’s terrific. And she lives right where we’re going to have the specialty. Invite her.” So the local people get to contribute. The regional club people clue me in on who to ask.
The other really important class, I think, that we’ve had relates to breeding. Do you know what European Siegar Evaluation is?
LS: In Switzerland, in Germany, and I think in Denmark and Sweden also… There’s a ring and a judge and the judge also has a scribe, and you bring your dog into the ring and the judge goes over it, and then asks it to go down and back and move around, you know, go around the ring. Then out loud so that everyone can hear (all the people standing ringside and all the other competitors) the scribe will read a list of about three dozen aspects of this dog. So she’ll say, “Head type, eye color, muzzle, shoulder lay back, outline, tail set, angulation.” And the judge gives a number from one to nine. Don’t ask me why, but it’s one to nine. It should be 10. But yeah, it’s one to nine. And then that’s posted on a big, like a sandwich board. Afterwards, all the other competitors, as well as people ringside, can go up and see what that judge thought about that dog. So that’s how they do their competition.
We tweaked that to make it a class. So if you pay an extra $40, you can have a Berner breeder/judge go over your 12-month or two-year-old female if you’re trying to decide if you want to breed. Is this bitch worth breeding? What are this girl’s faults, so that I need to know what strengths to look for in a sire. Right? So the same thing happens. The judge goes over the dog with his hands, asks the dog to move, comes back, and then the scribe reads out the list of three dozen characteristics. And our Berner breeder/judge gives them a number.
The difference is this is not a competition, and there’s no points. But the other people in the class, and there are often two dozen people in this class that came to sit and listen, get to ask questions and have a conversation. “I don’t see the shoulder lay back.” “I don’t see that the way you… Why is that a five? It looks like a nine to me.” And the judge can then, or the teacher/judge, can then say, “Come up. Put your hands on this dog and I’ll let you feel. This is what the shoulders are doing. And this is what they should be doing.” So the people in the class get to touch the dog.
And if your dog gets an Excellent, which is what Siegar means, you get a biography of the judge. You get a sheet with all the numbers on it. So there’s a record. You get a photograph of the judge with your dog that day. And you get to take that home as a record so that you know who you’re looking for as the sire or a dam to match your dog, according to this one person. Now, what it ignores is that different judges see different things. However, this is somebody who’s been breeding Bernese for a long time and has had several champions and several healthy litters.
JH: I love the interactive aspect of it where people can talk and learn. I think frequently we think of the best way to teach someone is by lecturing, and we just deposit the information in front of them and hope that they absorb it. But, in fact, a much better way of learning is by interacting and trying to use what you’re learning. I love having an expert there and people saying, “Well, why did you say this? Why did you say that?” and being able to actually work through it and ask questions.
LS: Yes, we’ve done the European Siegar Evaluation classes with one judge. We’ve reinvented an American Siegar Evaluation class, which had two American judges having a conversation about, “Well, I don’t see it that way. Why do you see it? I see it differently. This is why I see it differently.” So you’re right. It’s really the dialogue that’s generated, which is kind of what I was looking for, you know, in terms of eavesdropping behind people who knew so much more. (laughter) I wanted to ask. I wanted the opportunity to ask questions and not feel intrusive and not feel so flagrantly ignorant, which in 1980, I was. I mean, I knew nothing. I knew nothing. I didn’t buy my dog as a show dog. I bought my dog because I fell in love with Berners. When he was two, he won a match. And frequently, that’s the way it happens. You win a match, and you get that one. “You love my dog as much as I love my dog? Oh, cool. Let’s do this again.”
JH: And you felt like at the time that there wasn’t anywhere else for you to go to learn all of this stuff.
JH: It was really person to person at the time.
LS: Absolutely. Which is a lovely way to learn, to be tutored.
JH: If you can do it.
LS: If you can do it. And I was fortunate. I had wonderful people teaching me, but everybody doesn’t have that. And if you live in the middle of nowhere… I live an hour outside Manhattan. If you live in Nebraska, if you live in South Dakota, there’s not a wealth of Berners in the first place, and there’s not a lot of people who will give you the time. So I was blessed, and wanted to share that. But the Siegar Class, every year, I have that every year. Of all of the classes that we’ve offered, Understanding Movement is probably the most popular class and it’s taught by a Berner breeder/judge, and she will get 50 or 60 people to sign up for that class and show up for the class.
JH: Is that also more of a conversation-driven class?
LS: There’s a lot of conversation and she’s very welcoming. Yes, but she has wonderful videos and wonderful slides and she knows movement inside and out. Margie Reho. She’s a gem. And so we have that.
And the other class that year-in/year-out is always a success is Massage. We can have 30 or 35 dogs lying down on a banquet room rug in a hotel, with their owners learning how to do hands-on massage or Tellington Touch or Reiki. And people love doing that with their dogs. Lots of pet owners come to our specialties. I think that may be different than some other breeds. But we have often 800 or 900 people sign up for this week of what amounts to me to “dog camp.” It’s dog camp. And it is lovely. It’s one of the happiest weeks all year long. But so, Massage and Movement are very popular.
For several years I was also Breeder Education Chairperson. So I not only organized Berner U, but I chose the Breeder Symposium speaker. So this is kind of where you are right now in creating something. Two other active Berner owners in the specialty and I were having a glass of wine, and we’re trying to figure out how to get more breeders to come earlier in the week to class. Sometimes breeders just show up on Wednesday or Thursday for conformation competition. And we wanted them to come and learn more genetics. We wanted them to come learn more movement, more whelping classes to keep puppies alive and avoid as many c-sections as possible.
And so among the three of us, we decided that we would create the Breeder Symposium on Monday night. And if we offered a nationally-known speaker who was so amazing, everybody would come and pay the extra two days hotel just to be there on Monday night. And it worked and it really worked. So that the reservations followed and we started the first year with Gerald Bell. And he spoke for two hours. There were 200 people sitting in that room and you could have heard a pin drop. Berner people really thrive on education. Berner owners, they really do. It’s been 15 years now. We’ve had 15. 2019 was cancelled because COVID, obviously. But there was a virtual specialty that they tried to have, they held. And that’s part of where the webinars were part of. That’s where you taught. But we’ve had 15 years. I’m no longer Breeder Education Chair. Don Cox is now. But we get really amazing people to come and teach. They’re paid. We give them hotel rooms. We give them dinner. We ply them with questions and drive them crazy and shower them with attention. But it worked. So it’s really nine to nine, Monday and Tuesday.
JH: I love that you wanted people to come to get education and you thought, “How am I going to get people to come get education?” And your answer was, “I’ll offer them more education.” (laughter)
LS: Well it had to be somebody that offered value, and that had answers to some of our questions.
JH: Yes. You can’t teach people things they don’t want to learn. And one thing I learned when I did this certification on how to be a good teacher. One of the things I learned was, if you can’t tell someone why they should learn this, then you can’t expect to teach it to them. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I wish I could have told all my vet school teachers that.” (laughter)
So it sounds like it’s been a really major undertaking for you. When you started off, it was just you at the beginning?
LS: Andrea Bryn was someone who was a BMDCA member, but I didn’t know her. I had never met her. I don’t think we met in person for a whole year. She had talents that I didn’t have and they meshed really well. Andrea created our first health cards, which were baseball cards that are laminated and they address Berner-specific health issues. So our first one was bloat. This was because so many Bernese at that time in the 80s died of bloat. It used to be our second cause of death. It’s now down to four or five, I think. We did heatstroke because Berners are double-coated dogs. And we went on from there. We had 15 or 16 different health cards that we made up, and then we give them out. So if you registered for registration the first year it was $25 for 18, for 48 classes. It’s now $50. It’s been that way for a long time, but you’re still getting…
JH: That seems reasonable.
LS: It’s insanely cheap. (laughter)
JH: Yes, it is. So the cards are little laminated cards. And so what’s on the cards? So if it’s a card about bloat then what’s on the card?
LS: On the front you have all the symptoms and on the back are what you do and how much you have to worry.
JH: And the expectation is that someone would have this what, like in their wallet or something?
LS: In their wallet. In their glove compartment when they travel. Every breeder who sells a puppy doesn’t do major education for their new puppy owners, or they do and they put it in a notebook, which was very common in the early days, and hand it to the new puppy owner. But the new puppy owner gets very busy and doesn’t necessarily read all that health awareness information. So we made them health cards. There were three Bernese that I’ve heard who had bloat and were saved because somebody whipped out their card.
Andrea also created the Berner U website, which is up and still has the history and a lot of lists of the people who’ve spoken, and a lot of the articles that they gave us permission to print. And Andrea’s contribution was also the media center, which was beyond me, technically. But probably 12 out of the 15 years we have had a smaller meeting room in a hotel where we put up a half a dozen laptops with new software, new programs that people have found that were relevant to Bernese, either about structure or anatomy or health.
We’ve also had almost a throwback to your science fair, where members have made trifolds. You go to Staples and you get a trifold and tell a story. We’ve had dozens of trifolds on death cap mushrooms, surfing… After we did surfing the first year there was this surfing one because people didn’t believe it, so we would have photographs of this surfing Bernese. But anatomical models… We had a full skeleton, a hip and elbow and ear. An actual model so people could see what hip dysplasia looks like. They could pick it up and move it and see what the dog was experiencing. I had a notebook of contracts. I asked Berner breeders to send in the contracts, their sales contracts, their breeding contracts. So that whole notebook… So if you were considering breeding you could come in and sit down and read through contracts, and see what people concluded and what made sense to them.
And probably best of all we had, well two things. We had a Berner Book Swap, which people look forward to, because everybody buys too many books and subscribes to too many dog magazines. But when you have five years sitting in your basement or on your bookshelf, you don’t want to throw them out, but you want to share them. So we just set up two eight-foot tables and pile books on and the rule is, “Bring one, take one.” And if you didn’t bring one, leave $1 you know, and then we give that money to rescue.
JH: That’s amazing.
LS: It’s fun. And the years we haven’t had it people were really annoyed that there was no book swap because they brought three cartons of books that year. So we give them to the regional club and the regional club does a book swap the next time they have a match or a meeting.
The other thing we’ve included, which has been a lot of fun, was Berner crafts. We’ve had Berner fur felting, we’ve had… (laughter)
JH: That’s amazing.
LS: We’ve had… Barbie Wilczek makes astoundingly gorgeous hooked rugs that are from photographs of her award-winning Bernese, who all have tons of titles because she’s really active. We had a Berner textiles exhibit. We’ve had Berner…
JH: Wait a minute. What are Berner textiles?
LS: Well, I’ll send you a picture. We have had people that did Berner macrame, Berner knitting, Berner needlepoint. We even had a needlepoint class and how to hook needlepoint for Berners. I mean, pictures of Berners on Christmas stockings. You know. Fun goofy things. Is that education? No, but it’s something that people like to share.
JH: For sure.
LS: And then spinning Berner fur for all that fur that you have around your house. How to spin it…
JH: I would take that class. I have this one dog, Jenny, who is a Samoyed mix, among other things, and she has super soft fur. And whenever I’m pulling out big clumps of it I’m thinking to myself, “That would make such a nice sweater.” (laughter)
LS: So yes we had… There’s a lovely lady whose name escapes me right now, but I can provide it to you. If you send her photographs of your dogs she will make knitting patterns from your photographs. She’s done it for several breeds. We also had an exhibit… I took… I did what you said. I had two Bernese. I’ve had two and three at different times. I’m down to one now. But I took a box that was probably four feet by four feet by four feet of Berner fur to Still River Mills in Connecticut. And they spun my Berner fur with worsted wool, and returned to me 28 skeins of very nice gray, not black, but gray wool. A friend and I have both knitted scarves, so that was in the Berner textile exhibit. Well, all kinds of things. All kinds of things: knitting, needle point, macrame. Mary Alice had a macrame that she had done a long time ago of a Berner. So that’s fun. You know, it was just Berner art.
JH: Yeah, it’s great. I would really love at some point in the post-pandemic world for the Functional Dog Collaborative to have in-person meetings. And so all the stuff that you’re talking about, I’m just like, “Oh, I could do that. And I could…” You know, I didn’t think of having craft tables. Why not? That’s a great way, because we want to build community. And that’s a great way to have people get together and talk and meet each other.
LS: The other thing… The other aspect of this media center, which was open nine to nine both days, is that it provided a kind of hangout place for newbies, people who had never come before. And then I could introduce them. I can chat and say, “You know, you’re here. You’re welcome. And tell me about your dog and what are you interested in?” And then somebody else would walk by, and, “She’s really good at draft. You know, come in here. Let me introduce you to this new person.” It allowed people to kind of hang out and meet other new people and connect to all the people. So yes, the media center was valuable for community building, for sure.
JH: And tell me again. I feel like we started talking about the media center, but we got distracted, possibly by Berner knitting. Knitting Berner fur. You were saying there was something like nine to twelve computers, and they had new software on them. And then, what was the goal? What were people there using the computers for?
LS: Andrea’s concept was that there would be an opportunity for independent learning. You didn’t just have to go to a class. If you were new to this specialty, and you’d never been to a specialty before and you were tired of meeting and greeting and you just wanted to go hang out someplace, it allowed you to do independent education.
We also had posters. We would sell posters from, you know, photographers that had produced them. It was kind of a mishmash of all different things. Not really a vendor, more of a hangout place with alternative things. Between the trifold displays, and we have some t-shirts. We did sell Berner t-shirts and, my friend, if you’re trying to build a community… Marge Bumen who was the president of the Regional Nashoba Valley Club for several years is famous for saying you could finance a small country on t-shirts. So you need to have a super logo.
JH: But we have a super logo.
LS: Great. And then you need to sell t-shirts. Not so much for the money, but because when people wear them they are advertising.
JH: God, I would love for us to have t-shirts. I’m in such a fledgling community that I don’t want to start doing something like that too soon. But certainly in the next year, we will have t-shirts. And who knows? Maybe people will listen to this podcast and they’ll say, “Jessica, t-shirts!”
So Berner U has grown into quite an undertaking. And you were telling me before that you feel like you have really great volunteer support for it.
LS: Absolutely. This is not something I do by myself. This is something I do by myself 12 months a year, a little bit each month. But the whole thing would fall apart if I didn’t have technical support. Because what happens is speakers will say, “I’m coming with my thumb drive,” or “I’m coming with my laptop. Do you have a projector?”
LS: So I would either rent projectors or buy projectors in the first year. We now own three projectors because very often we have three classrooms going at the same time.
JH: Oh, wow.
LS: So I arranged with the hotel, obviously in advance, for a screen and for audio, and how I want it set up, whether it’s classroom or conference or circle. But I always have the blessing of two guys that know how, and I own every connector possible that they’ve told me to buy to connect every possible computer to every possible projector. And without that, it’s nothing. I mean, like you said, somebody can stand up there and give a talk, but if you have a wonderful PowerPoint, that’s valuable. And that’s what people expect now. They want to be visually stimulated, as well as to hear what you have to say. So there’s that.
There are people who will show up. Usually I arrive on Saturday night and get a really good night’s sleep because I know that won’t happen again for several days. And Sunday after lunch, I start setting up the media center and they’re always a half a dozen people, at least, that will pass me in the hallway or come into the media center and say, “What can I do to help you?” So we say, “Assemble the easels,” and they’ll put up the easels. And we take the health cards, which are baseball-sized, and I make them into posters, three feet by two feet. Big posters. So if you don’t get bloat this way, you’ll get it this way!
People assemble the posters, or they’ll unpack the boxes, and they’ll set up the laptops with the new software. And in the meantime everybody says, “Oh! People I haven’t seen in a whole year!” Because there are people that come to the BMDCA specialty from South Africa. They come from Colombia. They come from Japan. They come from Europe, often Switzerland and Germany. England, also. And tons of Canadians obviously come, because they’re our buddies. But people come from far away, and they’re always looking to reconnect and chat. And sometimes they do that by saying, “I’ve got a half hour, what can I do to help you?”
I have a wonderful proofreader so that all my advertising… The advertising starts in January for specialties in May. I have a collection of canine poetry books. And one of the things that I enjoy is reading all the dog poetry, and then finding a good poem that somehow obliquely references a class. So I’ll post the poem, and then post the class individually. And that starts… In January, I’ll post all of the classes and the schedule, and the biographies of all the faculty online. But then each day, on the Facebook page (it used to be on Yahoo groups, but now it’s Facebook) I will post a poem with the description of one class and what you need to know about this teacher and why you would want to come and learn from him or her. So that goes on through January and February. By March registration closes.
And then I have a registrar, a wonderful person in Illinois, Tracy Keith, who collects and allows… We have limits. Some of the classes have limits, and there’s only so many people that can take it.
JH: You can’t have 100 surfing Berners. (laughter) You need to know how many surfboards you’re going to need, right?
LS: Well, right. The thing is that… The other thing about attendance is this: if the room is set up for 30, Tracy will register 40 or 42 people. Because no matter how many people say in January that they want to come to that class, by the time it gets to May they may not show up. I don’t get bent out of shape about that. They may not show up because they couldn’t come to the specialty because somebody’s sick. They might have had car trouble. Their bitch whelped early, or the puppies didn’t leave soon enough. Or they got to the conference, they got to the hotel, and they started talking with somebody they haven’t seen in two or three years, and they’re like, “Oh my god. I forgot I was supposed to be in a class 40 minutes ago.”
LS: So what I usually tell people who are teaching is, “Yeah, there are 35 people registered for your class. If only 15 show up, please don’t get discouraged. Because every one of those 15 is going to tell two other people what they learned from you, and the networking aspect of education here. Because we’re all here for the whole week. Just enjoy teaching. Enjoy being here and talk about what you love.”
JH: And you were telling me earlier today that you’ve had requests to put this stuff online from people who can’t come.
LS: Yes. That’s how I met you, yes.
JH: Well, I was gonna be there. I was gonna be there in person. I was going to be there in person. And I was really looking forward to that. I was thinking I was going to have a whole weekend of cuddling Berners.
JH: I thought that was going to be a good weekend for me. But then things happened and there was a pandemic. But then we decided to do it online.
LS: Yes, but I met you because I asked Kathy Berge to teach about bloat, which she had done 10 years ago. And she said, “Yes, but we need a geneticist. And this is the person that I think you should have.” And that’s when I wrote to you. So, in addition to genetics every year, which have at least one, if not two… That’s how I knew you. And then when COVID arrived and the specialty was cancelled, within a couple of days I got an email from the specialty coordinator, Dottie Schultz, another person who steps in and offers her time and talent endlessly. And when I sent the email to all of my faculty that it was canceled, you immediately wrote back and said, “I’ll do a webinar.”
JH: I may have waited for you guys to propose doing webinars.
LS: You know, you offered. Yes, you did. And I thought, “Oh shoot. Now I’ve got to know how to do it.” So I put out a call and said, “Dottie’s asked me to do webinars.” And so I said, “Is anybody in the faculty willing to do, you know, an hour/90 minute webinar? Are you willing to have it recorded and put it online?” So we did that and we now have maybe a half a dozen, within two weeks. There’s four that are already online as an added value for Bernese Mountain Dog Club members, and there are two more to be recorded. In the next two weeks, we’ll take a break.
In the fall, I will start asking people again. I put out a call to the Berner community for anybody who’s ever taught at Berner U, if they would like to do a webinar, to let me know. Anybody who’s got a new passion that they would like to share, contact me. And actually, that’s already happened. Somebody that I had talked to about two or three years ago and totally set it aside called me and said, “I want to do a class in 2021, in Colorado (we’re going to be in Estes Park next year) and I want to do a class on all of the therapy things that I do with my dogs.” And she has several dogs, and she does the READ program, and she does hospital and she does hospice and she does colleges at exam time. I mean, her dogs are pros. And I said, “Absolutely. We haven’t had a therapy dog class in a couple years. Your timing is right. Let’s do it.” So I kind of invite the Berner universe. And people show up.
It’s one of the nicest parts. People show up and say, “Can I help you? Can I teach? What do you need?” So it doesn’t feel like a burden. It doesn’t. It doesn’t feel like a huge responsibility or a burden. It doesn’t feel heavy. I just like to throw out a request, and then I get to see what comes back.
JH: It’s great having a supportive community like that. So then, speaking of communities, and how different communities are different, we were also talking about how Berner U is a little unusual in the dog world. So do you want to speak to that a little bit?
LS: Yeah, I would love to be wrong, actually. I would love there to be some form of Berner U for every breed, every one of the 200 AKC breeds. But after I did the first one in 2005, I called AKC and said, “Okay, we did it. I made a whole bunch of mistakes. Our classes are way too short. And you need an hour in between classes because dogs have to pee, and people have to pee. And what other breeds have done this? I am happy to beg and borrow and steal. I don’t need to invent everything.” And it was Marybeth O’Neill, who said to me, “I’m sorry, nobody else is doing this. You’re at the head of the parade. Keep inventing.” Which was a little disappointing.
Over the years I’ve had other breeds, I think the St. Bernards, maybe the Newfoundlands, and then even this spring, the Portuguese water dogs… Somebody from the club said, “I have a friend who’s got a Berner. She told me about Berner U. I think I want to do something like that for my breed. I can’t do all that you’re doing. (Because it took us years.) But what do I need to know?” And so I’ve mentored a couple people. People from other breeds have come to Berner U to kind of see how it actually unfolds, and borrowed aspects of it.
We used to make a CD that came with your… We were very grandiose in the beginning. You not only for your $40, your $25, or $50… You not only got a health card. You got a CD of all the handout articles. I would ask every faculty member for two articles that related to your topic. They could support your position or they could be opposing, but it was to get people to think and then I would write for permission to reprint them. And then we moved on from the CD to Dropbox.
JH: Very modern.
LS: Yes. (laughter) Contemporary! We move! We’ve made every mistake in the book. And I’m happy to share what didn’t work. But people from other breeds have come and visited and taken aspects like the CD or like the card or like the media center, but not the whole “kit and caboodle.” And the only reason it can be as expansive or elaborate as it is, in a way comprehensive, is because there’s a lot of people. There’s a whole 12 people. I mean, my proofreader… I’ve had the same proofreader in addition to my husband. Sherry Vendetti proofreads everything that I put online, because I spell things wrong all the time and she’ll write me back. She’s an excellent scientific writer. She’ll say, “I think I don’t think you mean this. I think you mean…” (laughter) She’s right every time. She’s absolutely right. So it really is a collaboration of the most fun kind and our motto – and I think this was from Andrea in the beginning – “Come back to school and major in Berners.”
JH: That’s awesome.
LS: Yeah. Which is what you do. It’s been a wonderful way to welcome new puppy owners into the Berner community, which breeders appreciate because then their puppy owners get ongoing education, and make connections, and volunteer, and contribute to the stewardship of the breed long term. It’s not just, “I got my puppy.”
JH: It’s so important in every breed, and you hear it again and again and in mixed breed dogs: the desire to provide educational resources for owners that owners are motivated to partake of. It challenges everyone.
LS: Well, it has to be fun. Yes, I think and it has to be welcoming. And I really think Berners are exceedingly affectionate. Not that all dogs aren’t affectionate, but Berners are exceedingly, sometimes too affectionate. And I think that kind of owners pass that along, that they’re welcoming, and kind. And I think Berner U is really evidence of that. You know, it’s a really cool, very joyful collaboration.
JH: It sounds like it. I enjoy talking to you, because I can just sort of feel the happiness coming out of you, which is really nice. (laughter) Particularly with what’s going on in the world today.
LS: Oh, that’s nice. I’m having… Well, all right, so what else did I want to tell you? We also, I started to say… We were really grandiose in the beginning and we would give a packet with a bookmark and a notebook with the Berner U on the cover, right?
JH: Oh nice.
LS: Of course with a bookmark with Berner U on the cover, you know, “Read! Read More!” And we’ve done window decals and pins, in addition to t-shirts. But we would also include… I started emailing and actually calling all the dog magazines, Whole Dog Journal and Dogster and all those other ones, and say, “Can I have 300 of your past issues that you didn’t sell?” And they were happy to give them to me. All I had to do is pay for shipping, right? So we would give this kind of package of magazines and notebooks and a pen and a lead that said, “Berner U – Leading the Way.” Here’s the lead to put in the backseat of your car so when you pass a lost dog you can scoop it up with this, you know, slip lead. And some of that stuff has fallen by the wayside. But we tried a lot of things to engage people, aside from the low price and the stellar faculty.
And I guess the other thing I should say, which I think helped some clubs kind of adopt some portion of this, is that we make thousands of dollars that fund other parts of the specialty. If I have even 100 (I usually have about 130 now) people that sign up for Berner U out of six or 700. That’s over $5,000. And I promise the specialty committee that I won’t spend more than that. And in 15 years, I’ve only… Most of the time it costs me about $3000 to put this on, shipping stuff around. I’m in New York shipping stuff to California
JH: And having a lot of volunteers.
LS: Having a lot of volunteers, but I also don’t want to be abusive. So I’ll pay for mileage for people who drive two or three hours to come and teach. I will pay an honorarium for people who teach. And if they need to stay overnight, I’ll pay for their hotel room. In the beginning, we paid for meals and we kind of got away from that. But I mean, I wanted to make it a pleasant experience for faculty as well as students. And even at the most, I would still have $2,000 or more, sometimes three or four, to turn back into the kitty of the whole specialty. So it’s win/win/win. The faculty gets a nice experience. The students get amazing educational opportunities. The dogs get to stay in class with their owners instead of in a crate. And the club in general gets money to fund draft or herding or something that… Barn Hunt. Something new, you know, that isn’t going to make a lot of money, but still costs money. “So here’s $2,000 to do that. Okay, I’ll take it.”
JH: I mean, I’ve been planning to ask you what your relationship with the club was, but it sounds like it’s pretty good. That they appreciate you.
LS: I’m not an official Education Committee… But Andrea and I have been consistent, predictable, and reliable in producing an event that contributes to the overall specialty.
JH: So you would characterize… So Berner U is separate from the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, but…
JH: Yes. Affiliated and very friendly with…
LS: Very friendly. (laughter)
JH: In bed with. (laughter)
LS: I wouldn’t go that far. But I mean, that’s why I did it. Because I was a BMDCA member and I wanted to go to this specialty. And I wanted to learn from these people. I wanted to see structure under all that fur and I didn’t know how.
LS: I didn’t know how. And Silvia Howison, a very early Berner owner and breeder and judge, taught a class on how to feel structure. Now that was like in 2006 or 2007. So yes. I mean I in no way would I violate any BMDCA boundaries. I have great respect. But we have a really good working relationship. We do.
JH: So do you have plans for the future? And I guess part of that question is, how do you imagine Berner U growing and changing? If you do, and part of that maybe is do you think that it has become something solid enough that if the time comes for you to move on that it will continue without you? Or is Berner U synonymous with Linda Seaver?
LS: No. Well, it may be partially, but a lovely lady named Margie Geiger, who’s now on the board. I sold a puppy to her several years ago, and made a new friend. And two or three years ago, guess two years ago, when I turned 70, I said, “Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’m turning into an old lady. So would you be interested in taking this over? You know, if I have a stroke?” (laughter) And she said yes. So for the last year and a half or so she’s shadowed me. And every email that I sent I blind-copied her. So she has a complete… I mean, I will put all of my files on a thumb drive and give it to her if something happens to me, or she can have my computer, you know.
Yes. I wouldn’t want it to vanish. Like I said, I’ve made so many mistakes. There’s no reason for somebody to make them all over again. And the things that work, really work. Which is not to say that it wouldn’t change. The webinar that you did is for BMDCA members, but I imagine at some point some of those webinars might move to, with the faculty’s permission, would have to move online in order to draw people into the club, not just provide added value. But that’s not where we are now. That’s a possibility or not. Or we’ll do other webinars that are online that allow people who have a Bernese puppy and don’t know anything about nutrition, or don’t understand titers, and, “What’s a titer? And why shouldn’t I go get another vaccine?” I bet you know, that kind of stuff.
There should be some of those that could attract people to the breed and to get more involved. It was a rare breed. It’s not rare anymore. But we do have a bottleneck, a genetic bottleneck. And we’re going to have to move beyond this at some point if we expect to have healthy Bernese for the next 50 years. So having people who get newly enchanted with Bernese and then want to consider breeding…. We want them to find the information online, too.
JH: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of there are a lot of incentives these days and a lot of pressures to move information online. And my suspicion is that even if you have in-person Berner U in another year with no problems, that you’ll still… You will be forever changed by starting to do these webinars.
LS: Yes. I think so, too. But you know what? The media center has contracted. Sometimes that happens because the host hotel just doesn’t have enough meeting space for us.
LS: And so I give up the media center. I’ve done it two years, I think. And there just isn’t one. But instead, things are online. Okay. We’re flexible. I usually say to the… I said it to the 2021 Chair about two months ago, I said, “I’ll make Berner U one day. I could have done it three days, but I don’t really get… That ends up being work somehow. But I’ll make it smaller and larger. You tell me how much space and how much time you want to give to education, and I’ll make it fit.” I’m not rigid.
JH: Well, I think education should have all the space. But… (laughter)
LS: I know! (laughter)
JH: That’s my personal perspective on the world.
LS: I think that’s about it.
There is, or I have… If people want to… If anybody wanted to contact me, because they think they want to do this, I have a list of all of the classes.
LS: Of all of the classes that we’ve… Let me see if I can… I think it’s over 300 classes that we did. 300 different classes.
JH: I feel like we had this conversation before. I need to remember to get that from you. Because we’re putting together a curriculum and looking through those classes would be useful.
LS: I told you that I would give you a list of all the speakers, and I have that, too. And here’s… This was published in 2018. There is an article in the AKC Gazette of July 2018 with a photograph of “Nani the Surfing Berner.”
JH: Is she surfing?
JH: She’s surfing in the photograph?
JH: That’s fantastic.
JS: Oh, yes. You didn’t believe me, did you? (laughter)
JH: I believed you. I just think that seeing it would be such a wonderful moment.
LS: Oh, it’s the best. No, it is. It will definitely make you happy to see this picture. She raises money for a rescue. And she’s got… There are a lot of other dogs that surf down on Dog Beach.
Over the first 14 years there were 2,680 students that registered for 316 distinctly different classes. And there were 340 talented teachers that shared their knowledge.
JH: You have educated a lot of people. I think that’s something to be really proud of.
LS: I am, but it wasn’t me doing the educating. I think I’ve only taught two classes the whole time. (laughter)
JH: It wouldn’t have happened without you, though.
LS: Perhaps not. The classes I taught were… Actually this would be a good class for you. I’ll teach this for when you have your conference. It was called Beyond the Box. And it was all the things you need to know… I taught it with Bobby Hafner, who’s a much more experienced breeder than I am from the west coast. And it was all the things you need to know about being a breeder. Operating a small business responsibly and ethically. Besides the genetics and the reproduction issues. All the other stuff that you need to know to really be good.
And the other one was not really me teaching so much as we had a breeder’s luncheon. In one of the first years where one of the two days the class was all the breeders come and talk to each other. There wasn’t a speaker. There was everybody speaking. And we had the table setup. So one table was about whelping and one table was about selecting a sire. And another table was about how you interview families, that kind of thing. So it was really Berner peer education. Pure peer education.
JH: Yeah, I love that idea. I’ve been to conferences, academic conferences, where at lunchtime there’s a big sign-up for “pick a table” and pick what topic you are going to want to talk about at the table. And I remember I wrote down I want to talk about the science of dogs at my table and that table did really well. (laughter) Yes. So that could be a good way. I am bursting with ideas now. This is good. Thank you so much.
LS: Oh, it was my pleasure. As you can tell.
JH: So if people do want to get in touch with you to learn more about Berner U, or if they want to just learn about Berner U, where would they go online?
LS: There’s a Berner U site: www.bernerU.org
LS: Which has got a lot of information. That’s another person… We have a webmaster. I mean, I don’t know how to do that. Kelly does that for me. There’s a Facebook page which has information on it and all of the health cards are on the Facebook page and the Berner U site. And they’re free for download so you can take it and swap out our Berner logo, put in yours and steal it. Be my guest. Those are the two places. And you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JH: Oh, you’re very brave. (laughter)
LS: Only good people are gonna listen to your podcast! (laughter)
JH: So far, that’s been true. (laughter) Well, thank you so much, Linda. This has been fabulous.
LS: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. It was fun.
Thanks so much for listening. The Functional Breeding Podcast is a product of the Functional Dog Collaborative and was produced by Sarah Espinosa Socal. Come join us at the Functional Breeding Facebook group to talk about this episode or about responsible breeding practices in general. To learn more about the Functional Dog Collaborative, check out www.functionalbreeding.org. Enjoy your dogs.
Copyright © 2021 Functional Dog Collaborative. All rights reserved.