Judy Russell – Telling It Like It Is
322 – The Annual, 2016-2017 by Joan Harrigan
Much has been written about the future of the sport of purebred dogs. There are lots of shows, but entries are declining at many of them. New breeds gain full AKC recognition each year; yet the survival of some formerly popular breeds is threatened by dwindling gene pools and too few new breeders.
Anyone with doubts about the prospects for our sport would benefit from a talk with Judy Russell, who has bred Siberian Huskies at her Karnovanda Kennels since 1959. She believes that there are enough breeders who “do it because they love the breed—not to be famous or to make money”—to keep the sport going.
Russell is just such a breeder. When asked if she’d like to talk about her kennel’s records or wins that were especially cherished, she simply replies “no.” Not that there aren’t accomplishments of which to be proud. Her website gives the statistics, but Russell admits that it’s out-of-date—she’s well past the 22 generations of her own breeding and more than 400 champions the site indicates. She’s been a board member of the Siberian Husky Club of America and was named their breeder of the year for three consecutive years. Her dogs have won their breed at Westminster and the Siberian Club of America National. But this is not what is important to her—rather, it’s the breed itself.
Horses and “Gorgeous Dogs”
Russell grew up in Chicago and while her family had pet dogs, horses were her first passion. She went to a riding camp when she was nine—this led to her father’s purchase of her first horse, and ultimately “a stable full of Saddlebreds.” She showed her horses throughout the Midwest, and ironically, in 1958, they provided an entrée to the world of purebred dogs.
Russell’s trainer, Chris Reardon, was struck by some “gorgeous” dogs he saw at the American Royal Horse Show in Kansas City, Missouri. Russell remembers that he called her (she was in college at Marquette) and said, “I’ve ordered two—which one do you want?” Nineteen-year-old Russell chose the bitch, and that is how she acquired her first Siberian Husky. “Nonie” went on to become Ch. Eska’s Nonie UD—the fourth of her breed to earn the Utility Dog title.
In 1961, Russell married, and she and her husband, Joel, went on to graduate school at UCLA-Berkeley, where Russell earned a teaching certificate and her husband was a PhD candidate in chemistry. Though never the enthusiast that his wife soon became, Joel Russell “put up with the dogs and enjoyed them” during their marriage, and even built their kennels. In the beginning, Russell showed her Siberians in obedience—her early dogs had at least Companion Dog titles. She got into conformation because she thought she’d enjoy it. Russell is proud to have owned both the third (Ch. Kim’s Karen UD) and fourth (Nonie) utility-titled Siberians. Anyone who has attempted a utility title (known in some quarters as “futility”) can appreciate what an accomplishment that was, particularly with a non-traditional obedience competition breed. In time, Russell’s obedience career was ended by the births of her children—she was far too busy to train for competition.
From California, the Russells moved to Minnesota for Joel’s post-doctoral work, and then to Michigan, where their landlords were Dr. Fred and Julie Gasow of Salilyn Springer Spaniels. In the north, Judy Russell found a new sport to enjoy with her dogs—racing.
Karnovanda Kennels: Built on Performance
Unlike obedience, sled dog racing was something Russell could enjoy with her children. “We raced competitively for 11 years,” Russell recalls. “It ended mid-season one year when my son, Ethan, decided he’d rather be on the ski team. This is not a sport that you can do by yourself!”
Russell’s children were active in 4-H, where they participated in many projects—dogs, of course, but also horses, pigs, goats, and sheep. Karnovanda Kennels had moved to 30 lakeside acres in Davisburg, Michigan, about an hour northwest of Detroit. There are no longer any horses, but Russell maintains a flock of Suffolk sheep.
Russell credits her years spent in obedience and racing with enabling her to produce a line of healthy, well-built Siberians. “When the kids were little, racing dogs from October to February was the most important thing. But it’s why I have good dogs today. I was in the right place at the right time to develop some good genetics.”
The Karnovanda name is a tribute to some of Russell’s foundation dogs—Karen (Ch. Kim’s Karen UD), Nonie (Ch. Eska’s Nonie UD), Ivan (Ch. Karnovanda’s Ivan Groznyi), and Zenda (Ch. Karnovanda’s Zenda CD). Initially, as mentioned previously, Judy began showing in conformation because she thought she’d enjoy it. In addition to Julia Gasow, two of her early mentors were Lorna Demidoff of Monadnock Kennels and Donna Foster of Frosty Aire.
When asked why she has stayed so devoted to this breed, Russell talks about the Siberian’s beauty and temperament. “Today’s Siberians are friendlier than some were 20 or 30 years ago,” she says. “They are happy, cooperative, and people-oriented.” She finds that most puppy buyers come to her having done their research. Having bred for so many years, she has many who return for their second or third Siberian. “Many years ago, a young couple bought a puppy from me,” she says. “They now have their sixth or seventh Karnovanda Siberian.”
Russell might be a bit unusual in that she doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about her dogs’ wins. When pressed, she’ll point to two great dogs—BIS/BISS Ch. Karnovanda’s Tenzing, who was campaigned in the Pacific Northwest by Randy Schepper and Ch. Karnovanda Hucklebeary Finn, who was Best Bred-By at the national specialty in 2010 and won it in 2012. Karnovanda dogs have won the breed at Westminster three times; however, Russell is not a fan of the long trek to the Garden, saying, “if I never go to Westminster again, it will be too soon.”
The Karnovanda “Bears”
“Bears” are a recurring theme in the names of a number of Russell’s dogs—starting in 1984 with MBIS/MBISS Ch. Karnovanda’s Care Bear. After him came Ch. Karnovanda’s Dream Bear, Ch. Karnovanda’s Albert the Bear, Ch. Karnovanda’s Paddington Bear (and his BIS/BISS Can./Am. Ch. son, “Junior,”) GCh. Karnovanda’s Stephen Coldbear (owned by Delbert Thacker and Donna Becker, and shown by Thacker), and Karnovanda’s The Coalbear Report, to name just a few.
When Russell raises a litter, she starts all of the puppies the same way. They go to classes, go on the road with her, and receive a great deal of socialization. When it comes to showing, Russell knows that “you can’t make them be a show dog. And you have to make it fun for them, for them to be happy in the ring.” She normally keeps at least two promising puppies from a litter to grow out. Her kennel currently houses 30 Siberians—“I keep as few males as possible,” Russell says. “I have six now, including a 4-month-old puppy.” None of these dogs are house dogs—“they have lots of room to run, and this breed is happy outside,” Russell says.
When it’s time to retire a female Siberian, there’s a long waiting list of great homes. “I have a gorgeous champion bitch now who will be placed with a friend,” she says. “Why not let them go and enjoy life as a pet?”
It Takes a Team
Russell’s website credits her fellow “experts”—Sarah Hubbach, her assistant manager and handler, as well as several kennel assistants. “Sarah has been with me since childhood—she grew up with the dogs,” Russell says. Hubbach, who has a degree in graphic design, now works for Russell full-time. They co-own dogs and Russell looks to her for the long-term continuation of the Karnovanda breeding program.
“The pictures of the kennel assistants on the website are a bit outdated,” Russell admits. When she talks about the young people who have worked with her, Russell’s affection for them is evident. “Chelsea Rawe is now 22, and she just finished two years in Nepal in the Peace Corps. Next, she’ll enter medical school.” Abbey Glad is in high school and applying to college. “It’s OK—I’ve inherited her mother to help with the puppies,” Russell laughs.
As for her own children, “I raised them to grow up and go away,” Russell says, tongue firmly in cheek. Though none have followed her into the fancy, her oldest daughter, Andrea, has a 12 year-old Siberian named Molly and manages the Karnovanda website from her home in England.
“I have a network of people that I breed dogs with—they also have the good of the breed at heart,” Russell says. Among them are Donna Beckman (Mistral Kennels), Lenore Demmin and Kendra Ireton (Kayenta Kennels), and Sheila Goffe, who is now the AKC’s Director of Government Relations. Russell will no longer sell a dog overseas, saying, “I don’t want anyone exploiting my dogs.”
“I kind of got carried away,” Russell says, looking back on her life in Siberians. She doesn’t travel a lot – “how can I go anywhere? I have 30 dogs”—and enjoys reading in her spare time. She never aspired to be a judge, saying that when she had the chance, she let it pass through her life. “There’s nothing else that I want to do, other than what I’m doing—helping to keep Siberians the way they are supposed to be—happy, healthy, friendly, and gorgeous,” Russell says.
She has two anecdotes that she feels describe her well. “I had a left shoulder issue a few years ago, and my doctor’s note began ‘My patient is a very pleasant 75-year-old woman.’ We all got a good laugh about that—I was not pleasant!” Perhaps a better summation is what her friend Mike Jennings wrote when he inscribed one of his books to her—“To Judy Russell—who tells it like it is!”
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