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Editor: W. Patrick Tandy

May, 2004

 

A Different Breed

By Patrick Tandy

“They’re not toys,” Steve Silberman says, qualifying the four Tibetan spaniels trotting around the floor of his Westminster, Maryland, office. The career insurance defense attorney, who only recently opened his own practice, is obviously making a case: “They’re full-size dogs in small bodies.”

His wife Pat, herself a retired attorney of “arcane specialty,” quickly elaborates. “These are not sporting dogs,” she admits, a smile spreading across her face. “But it’s a little embarrassing for a big, old guy to go around cuddling a little tiny…” She turns her grin from Steve to the moppish pup on her lap.

“It could be worse,” she says, mildly taunting her husband. “It could be a poodle.”

“Right!” he laughs with an appreciative nod. “A toy poodle.”


“They’re one of the oldest dogs – a relatively rare breed,” Pat Silberman says of the Tibetan spaniels that she and her husband breed and show. “They go back for millennia. They were not allowed out of Tibet until about 1900, I guess. Then [one or two] went to England, but they died out there during World War I. [They were] reintroduced into England in the ‘40s, and we got them here in America in the ‘60s. They were recognized by the AKC (American Kennel Club) in 1984.”

“A lot of the other Asian breeds are believed to be descended from the Tibbies,” Steve adds, employing the term with which Tibetan spaniel enthusiasts affectionately refer to their charges. “Pekingese, the pug, the lhasa apso…”

Despite its relatively late arrival on the Western scene, however, the Tibetan spaniel’s historical role is as ancient as its homeland.


Sibermans

WALKIN' THE DOGS
Steve Silberman (left) and his wife, Pat, hold their Tibetan spaniels

“They were basically held by the Buddhist monks in the monasteries,” Steve explains. “They have excellent eyesight, and they like to sit up on high places. They would sit on the outside rim of the monasteries and look out. If they saw something they didn’t recognize, they would bark-bark and alert the monks to go investigate with the Tibetan mastiffs.”

“As you see, they like to get up on their hind legs,” he adds. “Tradition has it that they were taught to spin [Buddhist] prayer wheels with their front paws.”

But while the dogs - whose fur is generally either sable or black in color (with the occasional white) - might not be pulling much sentry duty these days, they’ve not retired fully from their ancestral roles. “They’re small, about 11 to 15 pounds in the adults,” Steve says. “They didn’t have central heating then, a thousand or two-thousand years ago, so they were used as bed-warmers.”

At this Pat laughs: “We use them as bed-warmers, too!”

Though the Silbermans have been dog-owners for most of their lives (primarily Shelties), they never made the transition to becoming breeders – that is, until they saw their first Tibbie.

“We were looking for a second breed,” Pat explains. “[We were] looking at a tape of the Westminster Kennel Club Show, and my thumb slipped off of the fast-forward and bang, here was one (Tibetan spaniel) on the table. We were literally thunderstruck – the dog’s name was Thunder. And the rest is history.”

“We looked around, asked around, if anyone in the local area had any we could see, and discovered someone who had a bunch of them,” Steve adds. “[We] got our first couple Tibbies from him and his wife.”

Though the Silbermans’ kennel license permits them to have up to 10 dogs (at times, they have had as many as nine), the household currently includes four Tibbies: 7-year-old Clover and her daughter Moon (both AKC Champions) and two recently-acquired spaniel pups, Rally and Winsome.

“[Acquiring a kennel license] depends on how much land you have,” Steve says, noting that they have not built any special structures for their pets. “We moved from Finksburg to north of Westminster to get more land so that we could get a kennel license – it’s strictly a hobby kennel license. We’re not allowed – and [we] have no interest in – boarding other people’s dogs or anything like that.”

“We breed them for us, for show,” Pat adds. “If some don’t turn out show-quality, those we sell as pets. That’s pretty much true across the whole Tibetan spaniel community – we all just breed for show.”

As breeders, the Silbermans adhere to the guidelines and ethics put forth by the Tibetan Spaniel Club of America (TSCA; www.tsca.ws), the breed’s national parent club. “It sets up the breed standard,” Steve says. “That is, what Tibbies are supposed to look like – size, the shape, temperament, what the coat looks like…things like that. In addition to establishing the standard, the club also has a code of ethics that you subscribe to if you want to become a member – Pat knows more about the code of ethics than I do.”

As well she should. “I just finished writing the new one,” admits Pat, who also serves as TSCA’s breeder referral contact as well as the organization’s corresponding secretary.

“They come into season about once a year, maybe every 10 or 11 months – not as often as most breeds,” Steve notes. “We won’t breed them on successive seasons. If they have a litter, we won’t breed them a year later. We let them have a year off, so to speak.”

And the Silbermans are nothing if not selective with regard to their breeding practices – in fact, none of their dogs are bred until they’ve become AKC Champions.

“We don’t breed them unless we think that they’ve got something to contribute to the breed,” Pat says. “We don’t just breed them to have puppies.”

“We’re very particular,” Steve adds. “I mean, all that we’ve bred are girls, so we’re very particular about what studs or sires we use.”

By way of example, Pat points out their canine matriarch, Clover. “She was bred to a stud in Switzerland that’s an international – Luxembourg, French, British blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah – champion,” she says.

“The dog happened to be in the States,” Steve notes with a laugh, negating the question of proximity. “He was in Colorado, so Clover took a flight to Denver. [She] was picked up by the person who had the sire and [they] took care of the breeding and sent her back.”

Pat laughs. “We’ve never been to Colorado,” she says, “but that dog has!”

The Tibbies and their human entourage go everywhere in style, traveling to shows from New York to North Carolina in the Silbermans’ Gulf Stream motor home. The TSCA national specialty show (held annually in rotating locations around the country) notwithstanding, the Silbermans attend general events “at least three weekends a month,” by Steve’s estimate, with separate shows on Saturday and Sunday. “Sometimes there’s also a show on Friday,” he adds. “I often don’t go to the Friday [shows] – Pat may go, and I show up on Saturday.”

And Pat has the time, after all, having assumed the role of full-time caretaker for the couple’s dogs (as well as their website, www.doggoyles.com, through which they sell “statues of dogs as gargoyles”) since retiring from her own law practice in 1995.

“I was hired right out of law school by one of the stuffy downtown [Baltimore] firms,” she explains. “I was their first female lawyer – this is back when there weren’t a lot of us – and they gave me ladies’ work to do.”

“Ladies’ work” didn’t sit well with Pat Silberman, so she leapt at the first solid opportunity that came along.

“I practiced international liquor law,” she explains, her husband quickly pointing out that her practice was on the manufacturer and importer, not the retail, level. “There were only 28 of us in the country.”

“At one point, Pat had clients on every continent except Antarctica,” Steve says.

“That’s only because they don’t drink beer in Antarctica,” Pat quips.

“Well, they do,” returns Steve. “They just don’t make it there!”


But hold fast before bathing the family dog and trotting him down to the nearest competition; citing entry fees that can run as much as $25 per show, Pat offers a word of caution. “It’s got to be the world’s most…well, second-most expensive sport,” she warns. “Horse shows, I understand, are worse, but when you’re talking three shows in a weekend – the one dog is $75. And of course you don’t win anything – you win a dinky little ribbon or at best a coffee mug.”

“If you want to start from scratch, having no dogs,” Steve adds, “look around and see what kind of breeds would fit your lifestyle, [and] how much time you can spend with your dog.”

For anyone interested in learning more about Tibetan spaniels, the Silbermans recommend visiting the Tibetan Spaniel Network online at www.tibbies.net. But as Pat quickly points out, don’t start clearing a place over the mantle for that ribbon prematurely.

“Check with your breeder and see if the breeder thinks your puppy is a show-quality [dog],” she advises. “That’s first because it’s a lot of money to waste on a dog that’s not going to win.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: May, 2004

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