“Gob-smacked” is how Pluis Davern describes feeling the moment she learned she was named AKC Breeder of the Year. The founder of a “boutique” kennel of Sussex Spaniels in Royal Oaks, Calif., she describes that memorable moment as “surreal. I thought of my fellow nominees and those breeders who’ve been nominated before me. Being chosen 2011 Breeder of the Year was absolutely surreal.”

Pluis Davern moments before being named 2011 Breeder of the Year.

The capacity crowd in attendance that evening at the Orange County Convention Center roared its approval as Davern, representing the Sporting Group, was selected from an accomplished group of breeders representing each of the seven AKC groups. Though all have dedicated their lives to improving the health and welfare of purebred dogs, the night belonged to Davern and her family of Sundowners Sussex.

A Golden Opportunity

Most tales of triumph begin rather modestly, and the story of Sundowners Sussex Spaniels is no exception. When Davern emigrated from Australia to Long Island, N.Y., in 1964, she began looking for a German Shepherd Dog. Her search for the ideal family companion, however, came up short. “I just couldn’t find anything I liked,” she says. What she did find was a neighbor’s Golden Retriever with whom she fell in love. “We were starting a family and wanted a stranger-friendly dog,” Davern says. “The Golden seemed perfect.”

The family eventually moved to California where Davern began researching the breed. “I wanted a dog that could do the job it was designed to do,” she says. “We went to dog shows so we could see the breed. This was in the days when Goldens rarely placed in the group. They were darker in color than they are today, with much less hair,” she recalls. “My search led me to a litter with a beautiful – but timid – male puppy, though eventually I found an outgoing female from the oldest field trial line in the United States, Stilrovin. Shandy Russet Aubrey became my foundation bitch in Goldens,” Davern is proud to say.

“I started working with a field trial trainer of dual purpose gundogs. I trained my own dogs as well as clients’ dogs,” she says. “I went to obedience classes too. ‘Aubrey’ became a Champion UD, WCX as a 4-year-old and a benefit to the community.”

Sundowners Sussex Spaniels

In time, Davern eventually considered getting a smaller breed, although one that was both active and companionable like her Goldens. “In the early ‘80s, I got my first Sussex, Vicar, from Erin Miller,” Davern remembers. Though the dog had been returned to his breeder, he would go on to establish the breed as a major contender in the Sporting Group. Ch. The Vicar of Lexxfield CD would become the breed’s first Best in Show winner in the U.S. and the first of his breed to place in the group at Westminster.

Davern’s association with the breed was firmly established.

Her next dog, Ch. Sand Creek’s Up To Snuff CDX SH, became a multiple Best in Show winner, and a Vicar son, Ch. Sundowners Heat Wave MH, proved to be another dog with talent to spare. “Talented dogs like to work,” emphasizes Davern, who offers advice to people living with energetic dogs like her Sussex. “Do something with them,” she implores. “Engage their minds!”

“Sussex make me laugh,” Davern freely admits. “Through them I see the world from a more humorous perspective.” She also appreciates the breed’s relatively unspoiled nature “They love to hunt,” she’s proud to say, “and their low numbers mean they can’t be wrecked by overbreeding.” Davern says the breed is “athletic enough.” She has no problem walking five at a time. Best of all, she says, “After a walk, Sussex spend only about five minutes of ‘crazies’ before they settle in.”

Davern takes a break with Ch. Sundowners Orion Up The Ante CD RE SH.

From Rescued to Rescuer

“I just want to train dogs and people,” says Davern, who began teaching search and rescue to various clubs with the help of a Champion UD Golden and her daughter. In the mid-‘80s, a retired physical education teacher was seeking help with her dog’s training. “I can help you,” Davern told her, “but you’ll need a different dog.” Together, the two women forged an alliance that would become the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that partners rescued dogs with firefighters and first responders for the heroic task of finding people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters.

The 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City led founder Wilma Melville to develop her program for FEMA certification of the dog-handler teams. Davern was asked to be her trainer and, to date, 140 teams have been certified through the program and deployed around the world to places from Ground Zero to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

When the Haiti earthquake hit, two task forces had the blessing of FEMA and were deployed right away. The rescue teams trained by Davern were one of the two groups sent to the island nation with a single mission: to find people alive.

With time running out, the teams operated ‘round the clock in what remained of the capital city. By satellite phone, Davern remembers receiving a call from Capt. Billy Monahan to report that, thanks to his partner, Hunter, three little girls had just been pulled from beneath 15 feet of rubble. Alive.

“We’re saving dogs and we’re saving people,” Davern is proud to say. “Two out of three of our dogs are rescued only hours before they’re scheduled to be euthanized.” The over-the-top energy level that often lands a dog in a shelter is just the kind of spirit a talented search and rescue dog needs. “Nothing stands in their way,” says Davern. “As long as they get to play the ‘tug-a-toy’ game at the end of a search, they’ll do their job.”

Davern spends 6 to 8 months training each team, and follows up with four-day visits as needed to be sure the pair stays on track. If required, teams can return to Pluis’ kennel for a bit of tweaking to ensure their disaster preparedness.

So successful is the program today that handlers are now being trained with their second canine partners.

“Three elements are involved with search and rescue training,” says Davern. “Victim, safety, and trainer and dog.” Of course, the dogs are critical to SDF’s mission, and when they retire from active duty, they’re supported by the organization with a lifetime of care. Each dog lives with its partner during its career and each gets to spend a worry-free retirement in the company of the family it has come to know.

A Lifetime of Caring

Davern’s work training search and rescue dogs and breeding Sussex Spaniels have much in common. Both endeavors are saving lives.

As a rare breed, the future of the Sussex depends on devoted breeders to ensure its survival. Healthy litters must be born and suitable homes found so that this charming old hunting dog continues to thrive. Likewise, saving dogs from certain death and training them as search and rescue partners is a win-win, according to Davern. There’s no telling how many lives her good work is saving.

Davern, who turns 70 this year, doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. SDF is planning to train 21 new teams in 2012 to add to the 71 that currently exist throughout the U.S. (See recent graduates here.) Plans are also underway to raise $10 million to establish a National Training Center, where anyone who wants to train for search and rescue will have a facility to help them become disaster-ready.

After a long day in the field – or on the rubble – Davern can relax amidst a pile of golden-liver Spaniels. Silky coats and silly antics are all that are needed to remind this Breeder of the Year that her work has its own rewards.