Memories: Germany, Wienerau and Lots of Dogs

I’ve been editing old videos from our trips to Germany so I’ve been reminiscing a bit. The video link at the bottom of this post is a portion of a regional SV (Verien fuer Deutsche Schaeferhunde – the German breed organization) show in 1989 near Vernheim, Germany. If you are unfamiliar with the SV style of conformation showing, it may seem endless! There is a good reason for long periods of movement because dogs with structural weaknesses will break down and lack endurance over time. But this post is not explaining conformation showing. We can do that some other time.

A screenshot of the video showing myself, Hans Engels (standing) and Walter Martin.

At minute 8:38 you will see two German breeders, Hans Engels of West Germanien and seated next to me, Walter Martin of Weinerau. I first met Walter Martin in the early 1980’s when he was speaking in the US – and I wished I could remember where! But no matter, at the time he discussed many topics in the seminar as well as later when a small group of us went out for dinner. This began a cordial relationship as we ran into Walter at SV functions in Germany over the next years.

Of the many subjects discussed at this first meeting, I particularly remember Walter discussing how to develop a breeding program, something that I was considering embarking upon. He advised building relationships with the most successful breeders but not to expect getting one of their best dogs or most promising puppies since you had no experience at breeding and no evidence of success. According to Herr Martin, that was okay. He advised buying a dog/puppy from the best kennels knowing that it was not the ‘first pick’ and prove yourself by breeding that dog to partners who would correct whatever faults the dog had. As he explained, this dog shared the ‘blood’ or genetics of the better dogs in the litter and one could build upon those genetics wisely. This way, you would prove your merit as a breeder and that would open the doors to the best puppies and dogs from the best breeders. It is just good sense that a successful breeder does not want to have their most promising dogs lost with an inexperienced novice.

This should make sense to breeders of purpose-bred dogs since we expect our dogs to prove themselves in order to breed them. People also must prove their ‘breed-worthiness’ and ability to combine dogs and families that will produce high quality.

Walter also addressed questions about faults in dogs. He, like most Germans I met over the years, was practical and candid about strengths and faults that were present in dogs – their own dogs included. As he explained, there were no perfect dogs and a breeder’s responsibility was to objectively analyze their dogs and know what their weaknesses were. Building knowledge and experience by going to shows and working trials would provide an understanding of pedigrees and what those pedigrees carried. Understanding bloodlines was critical in making wise choices when breeding. Walter believed that creating one’s kennel ‘type’ and standard of quality was a life-long project, not something that magically happened in a few litters.

In 1996, Walter and I once again sat together on a bench at a German show. He mentioned he was irritated that he was stuck sitting because he had a sore foot.  He then asked me why I had never come to him to buy a dog. I answered honestly that the caliber of dog I would wish would be beyond my financial abilities. At this, he replied that I was wrong, and he had watched what I had done with my dogs over the years. He kindly said that I had a natural dog sense and had proven that I could produce very good dogs. He also said it was important to him that we brought our dogs to Germany to continue to train and compete. He offered that he would gladly help our training and showing in Germany with one of his dogs. As we chatted, I remembered his advice from the seminar all those years before when he discussed the importance of proving one’s abilities by the dogs one produced. I have to admit that I was just a little pleased that Herr Martin of Weinerau kennels had approved of what I had accomplished.

That evening when I relayed this to my husband, Peter, we agreed we’d plan a visit to his kennel in a future trip to Germany. As we both agreed: Why not?! One never knows how something will work out unless you try. We also agreed we would not visit him the upcoming Sieger Show since he would be swamped with visitors.

Walter Martin passed away in August of that year from sepsis from his foot injury. It was a shock to the German Shepherd world and was sad that at a time he had achieved so much success that he was taken from what he loved.

The Martin brothers are now commonly paired together – very often in criticism. I interacted with both brothers although admittedly more with Walter. Hermann and Walter were very different personalities from each other. Those who knew them well admitted they were very competitive with not always the chummiest relationship. Breeders in Germany largely respected Walter’s talents of having a natural eye for dogs and success as a breeder.   They also believed Walter’s strengths were as a breeder and not as SV President even with the immense knowledge he possessed of the breed. Hermann was more of a businessman and ran the SV powerfully. My opinion and one that was shared by many others was of the two brothers, Walter had more innate talent as a dog fancier.

My personal opinions of the Herman Martin years of leadership are thus. I believe the emphasis on breed uniformity did not serve the breed well. By choosing a limited gene pool to accomplish this uniformity, the breed lost many valuable dogs that could have proven important in future generations. The Uran Wildsteigerland and Quando Arminus concentration without a bounty of other lines was a dangerous direction. Not because there was anything wrong with these dogs but because limiting the gene pool so exclusively is always dangerous.

Quando Arminius
Both Quando and Uran were fine dogs.
Uran Wildsteigerland
They shared the same mother.

There also developed what many called at the time, The Mafia. These were breeders and judges who aligned themselves with this development and carried out judging decisions and breeding choices to support this uniformity. When I discussed the direction that Hermann Martin was taking the German shepherd, many fanciers agreed that breeding to the chosen bloodlines was the only way to win in the ring.

Walter was not one of these followers even though many people assume he was. He was focusing on creating what he envisioned for the breed and his kennel type. There was a time where his dogs were not winning the top positions at Sieger Shows and other Regional shows while his brother ruled the SV. It was rumored Walter often felt over-looked by his brother and believed his dogs were not receiving their fair share of consideration. It was only when he bred Zamb and Vanta that the quality could not be ignored any longer. I wonder what Martin family holiday celebrations were like during those times!

Zamb von der Wienerau

The changes in standards made under the Hermann Martin presidency for protection work at shows ultimately was an improvement although the transition was difficult. Show dogs had a history of poor training and preparation for Schutzhund. The owners prepared them for conformation shows and that does require a great deal of conditioning and training. But the owners and handlers of show-line dogs very often slapped working titles on their dogs without proper training. It was also considered a demonstration of the dog’s strength in protection for the dog to be out of control and have no ‘Out’. Sort of a macho thing: “My dog is so strong it won’t come off the sleeve.” Many a handler would make a spectacle of trying to get their dog to release the sleeve as the crowd would laugh and cheer.

Then when mandatory ‘Outs’ were phased in and requisite for achieving high ratings at the Sieger Shows, these same dogs who were reinforced for not releasing found themselves in what must have seemed a confusing position. Many show dog breeders were not of the highest caliber Schutzhund trainers.  So, sadly, instead of training an ‘Out’, many dogs received almighty thwacks on their heads to ‘train’ the release. This led to obvious reactions of fear, cowering in anticipation of being hit or running off before they would receive the anticipated wallop. Some dogs showed reticence to bite the sleeve at all as they were so confused as to what was expected of them. There were some sad sights at training clubs and the Sieger Show and humans, being typically arrogant humans, blamed the dogs. There were some very nice dogs – not Bundes-Sieger participant level – but fine dogs who endured this mis-training and subsequent criticism. I felt badly for those dogs and didn’t like their handlers much.

Vanta von der Wienerau: Walter Martin believed Vanta was one of his finest dogs.

Walter Martin began his career in German shepherds focused not in the show ring but in the working and obedience venue. This perspective provided a base for how he judged his dogs’ characters. Sure, not every dog he produced was spot-on in structure and temperament but then all breeders, if they are totally honest, would admit to not hitting the high mark every time. As he also acknowledged, breeding to develop one’s kennel type is a work in progress. It doesn’t happen over-night and it doesn’t happen easily. There are steps forward and there are steps laterally. He did believe that Vanta was one of his best dogs that also achieved high rankings and admiration.

Walter Martin (standing) and Hans Engels with our V Falk vom Mons Tabor SchH3 KKL1a at a show in Bowling Green, KY. Walter was judge and Hans had previously owned Falk in Germany.
Getting ready to show. Falk and Walter Martin (in suit) as judge.

The reminiscences that I share about Walter Martin came from conversations I had with him and from a few of the talks/seminars I attended of his. This isn’t meant as a biography but merely, my sharing memories of my life.

Here is a video of the Regional Show near Vernheim, Germany.