OUR DOGS asks the all-important questions of respected geneticist Dr Malcolm Willis
1. Malcolm, how old are you and where were you born?
I was born in 1935 (the year hip dysplasia was discovered!) and I was born in Dewsbury though we lived in Mirfield. I am Yorkshire born and bred and a Taurean.
2. Did you grow up in a doggy family?
No. My father was a prison officer and moved around. We lived in prison quarters so never had much garden. I had wanted an Alsatian as they were then called but mother was the houseproud type. Years later I learned that in his youth my dad had owned a couple of Alsatians. I never found that out until I had my own dog.
3. Did education play a large part in your upbringing?
My paternal grandfather, who managed a cotton mill, was very keen on education as was my dad though I recall my maternal grandmother saying: "you can educate them too much and never get anything back!" In 1946 I passed the 11 plus, the only one in my primary school to pass that year and Granddad patted me on the back and said: "your Granddad is right proud of you, lad". I went to the Durham Johnston Grammar School, a fine school for boys (now sadly a comprehensive), but Granddad died the next year so never saw me get to university. I went to Kings College, Durham (now Newcastle University) in 1953 to read Agriculture and in 1957 to Edinburgh to read for my PhD in genetics/animal breeding under Prof Alan Robertson FRS.
4. When and where did you first become involved in dogs?
I had a younger brother Anthony who worked on a mixed farm near Sedbergh and in 1953 I spent some months there in the summer prior to going to university. I worked several Border Collies and bought a GSD (4 months old) who was from a commercial kennel (I knew little about where to go). He was a grandson of Ch Yvo of Ravenscar and Ch Southdown Karda and was linebred on Voss v Bern HGH.HGH is a sheepworking qualification. As soon as he saw sheep the puppy clapped and he had sheep working ability and a fine nose. He was not 100% in character but had I known more I could have made more of him. One day I lost a Parker 51 pen on a long walk and that afternoon I put the harness on him and set out to find it in the woods and fields where we had walked. He found it! As a middle aged dog we were in the country and came across four sheep in the lane. He fetched them up and we put them in a field.
5. Who were your mentors and why did you choose them?
I joined the Northumberland and Durham GSD Club in 1953 and when I turned up with Karl I remember being asked: " Where did you get that bloody thing from?" I asked what was wrong with him and got a detailed summary. No doubt it was correct. Mac MacGregor of the Rockverne kennels taught me about angulations with matchsticks and then I had a long correspondence with Nem Elliott of Vikkas av Hvitsand fame and studied at her feet as well as her husband Percy. At this time I was reading everything I could about the GSD and Kitty Hargreaves gave me a literal car load of magazines and journals. I was doing my doctorate at the time and I asked her why she had picked me for the gift. She said it was because she thought I would stick in the breed and be someone. I have an extensive collection of material on the GSD including several books in foreign languages. Miss M.E.Crooke, whom I had once defended in the canine press, left me in her will a large number of SV Zuchtbuchs and by this stage I was doing some writing in the dog papers.
6. What breed did you start off with?
The GSD and aside from a few years I have had a GSD ever since even when living abroad. In 1982 I was given a Newfoundland and in 1986 I met Helen and we have had BMD since then along with a Border Terrier and Chihuahuas.
7. What year did you first judge?
I judged my first show in 1959, an open show run by Perth ASPADS. I judged here and there until I went abroad in 1965 and even then I did a breed survey in Barbados in 1971. I got CCs in GSD in 1978 so it was a long apprenticeship. I got CC status quicker in BMD giving them in 1991, about five years after my first appointment.
8. What put you on the route to becoming a geneticist?
I was reading Agriculture at Kings and in the BSc course there was plenty of genetics and it was my best subject. Of course it was in relation to farm livestock but I could see a relevance to dogs and decided that when I graduated I would try to do a PhD in genetics at Edinburgh which at that time ranked with Iowa and Cornell as one of the best genetics places in the world.
9. You lived for a time in Cuba; how did that come about?
From 1960-65 I was geneticist with the Milk Marketing Board in Thames Ditton and I enjoyed it but I wanted a change. Dr Reg Preston, who had been doing a doctorate when I was an undergraduate at Kings and who was one of the best nutritionists around, was looking for staff to join him at the newly created Instituto de Ciencia Animal in Havana province and I applied and got the job as Head of the Division of Animal Science. I went on a two year contract in September 1965 and stayed until January 1972. Scientifically it was the most productive time of my life. I was mainly in charge of post graduate education and animal science research and had some fine students. Some 33 years have elapsed since I left Havana but in August 2004 I was invited back to assist the police dog section. In my time there had been no real dog activity but in 2004 I saw some very good police dogs and there was an active civilian GSD breeding operation with several Excellent class animals. I had had a GSD soon after arriving in Cuba in 1965. She was a very tough, oversized bitch sired by Nino zd Sieben Faulen out of a granddaughter of Bill v Kleistweg who was US Grand Victor.
10. As a well known canine author you have written many books on dogs. What awards have your books won for you and are there any more books to come?
My first book was written when I was in Cuba. Reg Preston had been commissioned by Pergamon Press to write a book on beef cattle but hadn’t got round to it. He asked me to come in with him and Intensive Beef Production came out in 1970 and was highly praised. When I returned to England I wrote another beef book with Prof Cooper and then my first GSD book. I have published nine books and written numerous chapters for other authors’books. My 1992 GSD book won the Maxwell Medal of the Dog Writers of America in that year and Genetics of the Dog (published 1989) has been highly praised and commands high prices if you can find one. Hopefully, I will revise that but being retired doesn’t give you the expected lots of time.
11. Which is the best dog you have ever judged?
In GSD Ch Ariomwood High and Mighty who was the best dog of his day and won BOB at the national under myself (and Louis Donald) in 1988. In BMD Am.Ch. L-Sin’s Dream’s and Desire’s who was BOB under me at the 2004 American Speciality in Texas. He was also top winning BMD of 2003 as I found out later.
12. In the same vein which is the best dog you have ever seen?
In BMD the one above but in GSD Fanto v Hirschel whom I saw go BIS at the World show in 1992 at Dortmund. However, there is one GSD that I have seen only recently on video and I regret not seeing him the flesh because he looked outstanding. That is the late Vikkas Rasputin.
13. Which of your own dogs has been your favourite?
In GSD though not the best specimen I have had he was the best character and a joy to live with and that was the all-black Verus v Ulmer-Felswand son Cauto Cheyenne (Macho). In BMD we have Joslyn’s Dark and Dapper for Nellsbern who came to us when his owner died suddenly aged 35. Buddy goes back to our old Bogie and is a reincarnation of Bogie’s outstanding character. Buddy has one RCC and is no longer shown but as a dog he is absolutely fearless and a privilege to live with. His son Nellsbern Rikkor is a very good looking dog to carry on the line. Of all our dogs Buddy is the only one who is really mine.
14. What order of preference would you place breeding/exhibiting/ judging and why?
In order judging, breeding and exhibiting. It is exciting to look at dogs and try to get them in the right order and I take it very seriously though I like to place first to last. Breeding is interesting as one watches the qualities develop. Exhibiting is a necessary adjunct of breeding but my wife does all the handling and in GSD exhibiting has been spoiled by the antics of handlers.
I have judged at championship level in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Eire, Holland, Norway, USA and the UK in BMD which probably gives me more countries than any other British BMD specialist and mostly these were speciality shows. In GSD I have judged in Australia*, Barbados*, Eire, Kenya, Malaysia,New Zealand*, RSA, Trinidad and the UK (* indicates more than once). I have also been a breed surveyor for the BSD Breed Council which I enjoy even more than standard judging.
15. What has been your biggest thrill in the world of dogs?
There have been several which I would not care to rank in order. In judging the opportunity to judge the GSD national in 1988, the first Englishman to do so, and the American BMD speciality in 2004. To be awarded the gold medal of the GSD Council of Australia in 1988 for services to the GSD and to be made an Honorary Associate of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1996 (the highest honour that the RCVS can give a non vet).
16. Equally what has been your biggest disappointment?
I don’t really dwell on disappointments but maybe not making up Nellsbern Casablanca, the real founder of our kennel. We didn’t show him enough (He had 1 CC and 3 RCC). He sired three champions out of a mere 80 progeny and died relatively young but his type shines out in our kennel.
17. You are well known for your honest and forthright views. Has this ever caused you problems?
Not serious ones and I enjoy a battle. I was expelled from the KC after 15 years of membership but 15 years later I was invited back so apart from some wasted years that is water under the bridge.
18. Would you say you have mellowed with the passage of time?
We all mellow with time but mellowing is not the same as sticking to your beliefs.
19. Have you any advice to pass on? If you want to really know a breed as opposed to just winning then learn all you can about the breed’s development and history. History is behind all your dogs and failure to know history means you end up wastefully repeating it. Don’t look down on the old stagers… some of them (not all) have something to teach you about long dead dogs that may still be in your pedigrees. Do not become a fanatic about some feature. By all means penalise serious faults but do not become a head judge or rigid about lightish eyes!
20. How would you like to be remembered?
As a man who put back into dogs more than he took out.
21. Finally, when not involved with dogs what other hobbies or pastimes do you have?
Neither a hobby nor a pastime, but as a Yorkshireman, cricket is a religion. I was brought up by my granddad and dad with stories of George Herbert Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes, Hedley Verity and Herbert Sutcliffe and I saw Len Hutton bat at Bradford after the war. I played for Durham City juniors and for my school. At the Milk Board we had a good side and I played against some county players. Later I played for Newcastle University Staff from 1972 to 1989. That was an even better side. Over time we had an ex Glamorgan player, a Minor Counties player and several County and senior league players. I played in 387 games, bowled in 295, and took 388 wickets at 15.94 apiece taking five wickets plus on 14 occasions and one hat trick. The man with more wickets than me (463), also a Yorkshireman, was younger and better so I was never going to catch him. In my last match I took 4 for 9 (we had won the match by tea time) and it seemed a good time to retire at 54. I have never played since but when I go they can scatter my ashes at Close House where we played.
Editor, Our Dogs