Icons of the Sport: Sylvia Owen

Learn about the contributions of dog breeder Sylvia Owen of Skysyl Pulik.

By Amy Fernandez | April 1, 2012

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Sylvia Owen
Skysyl Pulik

The Puli arrived in America in the 1930s, but interest in the breed centered on its role as a working sheepdog. It merited little attention as a show dog until Sylvia Owen founded her Skysyl kennel. Sylvia met her first Puli in 1946, when her husband brought home Juli II. Juli was passed from owner to owner and eventually offered to Schuyler Owen.

A Puli wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for Sylvia and Schuyler it was love at first sight. “Juli impressed us from the first day that she became ours,” Sylvia wrote in The Complete Puli. “Our desire to promote the Puli, and to place Juli’s puppies in good homes were the reasons she was bred. It never occurred to us that Skysyl was destined to become one of the best known strains in the country.”

The fact that Juli arrived matted and filthy may have explained her difficulty finding a home, as well as Sylvia’s preference for showing her dogs brushed rather than corded. To Sylvia, it became a defining feature of the breed.

Sylvia didn’t come into Pulik as a novice. In college she had majored in art and genetics, which honed her eye for type and balance, and her understanding of breeding principles. While living in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s she developed a very successful Wire Fox Terrier breeding program based on top British lines.

Also an accomplished horsewoman, she trained Polo ponies professionally and continued this work after moving to America in 1945 and settling in Blairstown, New Jersey’s horse country, where she met her second husband, an Air Force Major named Schuyler Owen.

In 1947, Sylvia and Schuyler purchased West Wind Farm, 300 acres in Lyme, N.H. She described it as an ideal location to raise working dogs.

Juli II descended from Hungarian stock imported by the Department of Agriculture in 1935 for its research on herding breeds. Their experimental breeding program, in Beltsville, Md., produced three generations from these Hungarian dogs before it was canceled. In 1945, 40 Pulik were auctioned off to breeders. Three were purchased by Juli II’s breeder, Tony Williams, who had bred Pulik since the early 1940s.

On his recommendation, Juli was bred to the German import Dorgo Von Barengrund in 1949. According to Sylvia the breeding clicked so well that the strain was founded right from the start. Skysyl’s first litter of nine puppies produced Ch. Skysyl Apeter-pan, the kennel’s foundation stud.

The kennel prefix, Skysyl, came about by combining Schuyler’s and Sylvia’s names and was AKC registered in 1949. Along with training their Pulik to herd, Skysyl began campaigning them in breed and obedience.

Although the breed had been AKC recognized since 1936, it was routinely ignored by the judges. None were shown at Westminster in 1947 or 1948. Sylvia made it her mission to change this.

She was instrumental in the formation of the Puli Club of America in 1951. She encouraged new breeders and anyone interested in the breed to visit Skysyl. She also wrote the Puli column for the AKC Gazette from 1952-64, and authored The Complete Puli in 1976.

Skysyl took Breed at the Garden six times between 1952 and 1961. In less than five years, the kennel had a national reputation, which became bigger in 1968 when Ber./Can./Am. Ch. Skysyl Question Being Is It earned the breed’s first BIS.

Sylvia ensured that no one regarded this historic event as mere luck. “Monday” picked up another BIS in September 1970, ultimately earning 50 Working Group placements.

Am./Can. Ch. Skysyl That’s It, “Adam,” became the third Puli to go Best on December 17, 1972. Within a few years, Skysyl also became a crucial source of stock for breeding programs all over the country.

Her breeding program emphasized overall type, soundness and versatility. The line’s hallmark traits of thick coats, square muzzles and lean chiseled heads were established and refined through generations of linebreeding. She didn’t outcross for quite a while, but when she did the second generation produced the famous Harvey Wallbanger litter.

One of these outcross puppies became Ch. Skysyl Sketch in Shaded Gray, and Sylvia considered her one of her most valuable bitches. She was bred to Ch. Skysyl Up And Away in 1967.

The litter produced Skysyl Watch Mr. Big Stuff, the first Puli exported to England, and Ch. Skysyl Harvey J. Wallbanger. Co-owned with Ann Bowley, he became the fourth Puli to go Best in July 1974. Harvey was campaigned throughout the country. His irresistible personality and striking appearance attracted many new fans and brought tremendous recognition to the breed.

To Sylvia, this was just as satisfying as his show ring achievements. Her dedication to popularizing the Puli and making it competitive in the show ring earned her the nickname “Mrs. Puli.”

 

From the April 2012 issue of Dogs In Review magazine. Purchase the April 2012 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs In Review magazine.

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