An Interview with Guy and Thelma Mauldin’s Collie Protégés
Originally published by Collie Expressions in their July 2003 issue, The Kismet Connection remains one of the most acclaimed articles in the 30-year history of the publication. It was republished in 2018 as it was clear the Kismet Connection Story had only begun to be written in the early 2000s.
Debbie Holland (Fantasy Collies), Pete Denbow (Ashbury Collies), Debbie Price (Capella Collies), Jennie Rutkas (Taliesin Collies), Crystal Stoner (Accolade Collies), and Matt Stelter (Wyndlair Collies) all served apprenticeships under the tutelage of Guy and Thelma Mauldin of Kismet Sheltie fame in Richmond, Texas. Everyone provided answers to a variety questions about the impact and influence of the Mauldins on their dog careers and personal lives. Below are Matt Stelter’s responses:
When did you first become aware of Guy and Thelma and what triggered that awareness? Describe some of the context about the event (who, what, when, where). From what years did you work at Kismet and how old were you? What was your involvement in dog showing before that?
Matt Stelter: When I was getting into Collies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Debbie Holland was an idol of mine, both as a handler and breeder. As a handler, I admired her artistic grooming and beautiful presentation. As a breeder, I was impressed with the way she developed and locked the “Fantasy” look into her dogs. I was aware she had gotten her start years prior at Kismet Shelties, living with Guy and Thelma Mauldin for 7 1/2 years. I met and became friends with Crystal Jose (Stoner) at the 1995 CCA in Oklahoma. Both of us were seniors in high school at the time. Shortly after graduating, Crystal went to work for Guy and Thelma Mauldin.
Early in 1996, Crystal contacted me to see if I’d be interested in apprenticing at Kismet. Guy and Thelma were looking for another assistant to take Crystal’s place after she moved on after her one-year commitment. I was a freshman in college and in no position to put school on hold, but I was yearning for the opportunity to learn from such experts. Up to that point I had experienced some success both as a breeder and handler, but I knew that if I wanted to someday be successful on a national level, I needed to advance my learning under one of the “Greats.” I was able to meet Guy Mauldin at the 1996 CCA in Columbus, Ohio and convinced him to allow me to move down to Texas for the summer to learn under him.
What events led to your immersion into their household/kennel operation as proteges? Describe some of the terms of your relationship. What were your duties? How did they evolve from your first days there to your last? Describe a typical at-home day… a typical show day. What elements of being in Texas made special care requirements necessary for maintaining a national-level competitive kennel? How did the Mauldins’ lifestyle accommodate those requirements? What was your range of travel? What kind of vehicle – how did you all get to the show? What do you think were some of the best kenneling innovations they developed… which ones do you use today?
Matt Stelter: The summer in Texas was a life-changing event for me – both as a person and a fancier. Never had I encountered such focused, energetic people! It took me a little while to adjust to their whole way of doing things, but it was an outstanding experience. Guy and Thelma took me into their home and treated me like family. Although we were from different generations, we shared many views, and it was not long before I considered them dear friends. They were quiet, private people, but very giving to those who proved they are sincere.
Days at Kismet started early. It was my responsibility to be first out to the kennel to let the dogs out for their morning run. Kismet Kennels was still at full operation at that time, usually carrying 30-40 dogs, primarily Shelties. Both Kismet breeding and show dogs, as well as a full string of client dogs, comprised the kennel. Thelma always had a full breakfast prepared by 8 a.m. After breakfast, it was back out to the kennels to put up dogs before the intense Texas heat set in for the day. Kennels were picked up and water buckets were cleaned and emptied. A few of the larger runs were concrete that needed to be soaped and hosed down. By then it was time to head for the air-conditioned kennel building and begin the day’s grooming projects.
Grooming lasted for most of the day. It was during these long days of grooming that some of the most valuable lessons were learned. Guy would often come down to the kennel during the day, and we would get lost in conversation about breed standards, breeding philosophy, and more. I was obsessed with watching him do head trims. However, it was never a “free lunch.” If I was going to learn head trimming from Guy Mauldin, it was going to be from my own mistakes. He would always have me trim the heads first, then he would critique the result. Finally, he would pick up the scissors himself to create the finished product. My goal all summer was to finally trim a head that he would not need to finish off! To meet Guy’s approval meant you’d “done well!”
Evenings were the one relaxing part of the day. Thelma always had a large dinner prepared. After dinner, we spent time visiting, training puppies, and watching movies. Kismet often had visitors and there were many summer evenings gathered around the pool. My favorite evenings were the ones when Debbie Price (Capella Collies) would blow into town! As stern and proper as Guy can be, no one could get him busting out laughing like Debbie Price! We would go out to the infamous Hunan Gardens for Chinese, go to the horse races at Sam Houston Raceway, or sit around visiting, drinking Guy’s homemade margaritas.
Weekends were filled with dog shows. We were typically traveling 3-12 hours each way. The Mauldins still had their large box truck that was filled with crates for 10- 20+ dogs. It was at these shows that you learned to run an efficient set-up. Organization and timing were critical, but never did anything less than a beautifully groomed dog ever enter the ring. For a northern boy used to Wisconsin summers filled with fishing, boating, and softball, it wasn’t an easy time in South Texas. For the only time in my life, I was homesick! However, I knew I was gaining invaluable experience for my passion that would benefit me for a lifetime.
What elements of Guy and Thelma’s relationship with each other influenced you? For instance – how did they use their talents and work together to make their successes happen…. Who was the groomer? Who picked puppies? Bred bitches? Dealt with clients? Handled in the ring? How did they deal with conflicts between their own breeding program and clients’ dogs? What parts of what you learned from their partnership do you retain and strive to preserve? How did they influence the development of your priorities as breeders and handlers?
Matt Stelter: Guy and Thelma were the perfect team. Guy ran the show. He was the handler, head trimmer, client contact, and more. Thelma kept things organized. She was also the primary caregiver for all the Kismet puppies. Puppies were raised in a room attached to the house. She spent a good part of each day working with the young prospects, preparing them for their future days in the spotlight. This is a valuable lesson I try to continue in my own dogs. The difference between a beautiful prospect and a National winner can be decided between 3 and 6 months of age. At this age, the puppies aren’t much to look at and easily ignored, but it is the optimal time to lay critical groundwork. By the time Kismet puppies hit the Sweeps classes, Thelma had them performing like top specials – trained, confident, and ready to win.
Guy made most of the breeding decisions, always analyzing the dogs and their pedigrees. Guy is adamant about the importance of “breeding grandparents.” When you look at the great producers, more times than not, they had outstanding grandparents that complemented each other, both genotypically and phenotypically. Thelma was not absent during this process. Just about the time Guy was about to settle on the “perfect breeding,” Thelma would add her little pearl of wisdom, “Honey, if you double up on those poor ______ (fill in the blank), they will haunt you for years!” He would usually agree.
Most breeders have a significant enough challenge reaching national prominence by breeding top-winning dogs. Guy and Thelma had to do it while juggling it with a heavy load of client dogs. Client dogs always had to be first priority. I often wonder what the great Kismet Shelties could have achieved had Guy and Thelma been able to focus strictly on their own dogs all those years!
Cute is NOT in the Standard! – Guy Mauldin
Guy and Thelma have always striven to improve the breed, selecting with the Standard in the forefront of their minds. They were not swayed by trends. In a time when cute too often beats quality, I am reminded of a statement Guy drilled into our heads – “Cute is NOT in the Standard!” Kismet Shelties has had its ups and downs like any bloodline that has stood the test of time. Many bloodlines have run their lifecycle, and in the end, the breeder is often not able to turn the tide from mediocrity. The mark of a truly great breeder is when one can recognize the early signs of decline and discern where one must go to halt the decline and resume the improvement. I am thrilled to see the current Kismet Shelties continuing to improve and progress. It is a real testament to Mauldins’ breeding genius.
Identify a few individuals – Collies and Shelties – clients or Kismet breeding/show stock – that have had an influence on your mental image of those breeds and your goals for your own breeding programs. Describe in detail what particular virtues or characteristics created that influence. What about other breeds – did you gain relevant experience there with any of them?
Matt Stelter: As mentioned previously, Guy taught that a truly great dog must have balance and outline. He highly respected the Celestial Collies of Bettie Crawford and frequently used them as examples of correct type. They typically had beautiful outline and balance, sound bodies, and good heads with round muzzles.
Another virtue he taught was flat topskulls, certainly more difficult to obtain in Collies than in Shelties. While Collie fanciers can be obsessed with lean backskulls, to be correct, it must also be flat on top, with no lumps, bumps, or holes. A flat topskull with flat sides will then create “corners” on a good headpiece.
Identify a few individuals – people you met as a result of your relationship with the Mauldins – clients or friends – that have had an influence on your mental image of your breed(s) and your business philosophy. Please give a few funny or poignant anecdotes to illustrate particular events that stick in your mind and provide a little background on them for readers who wouldn’t be familiar.
Matt Stelter: Following my time with Mauldins, I still had the strong desire to be surrounded by “Greats,” but now active in the Collie world. Through Pete Denbow, another Mauldin protegé, I was introduced to Tom and Nioma Coen at the 1997 CCA. Ironically, these again were Sheltie people, but with a very noted tie to the Collie breed. I fell in love with the Coens as people and felt very much “at home” in their set-up, with it feeling eerily similar to the Kismet set-up I had learned in. This is interesting, as Guy and Tom had been arch-rivals in the Sheltie world going back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the days of High Born and Peter Pumpkin. Both had achieved great success through their tireless quest for excellence. After the learning opportunity I had had with Mauldins, it took the atmosphere of “Team Coen” to satisfy my desire to continue learning. I worked for Tom and Nioma at CCAs from 1998-2000. I am forever grateful for the experiences I gained from both the Kismet and Macdega camps.
Name – in order of importance – the most important and valuable lessons you learned from the Mauldins.
1. The Psychology of Success. I learned from the Mauldins that success is a frame of mind, whether in dogs, your career, or life. To be successful, you must expect to be successful. In so doing, you must do everything in your power to become successful. That includes continuing to learn about your passion forever and never being satisfied with what you have accomplished. Enjoying your accomplishments IS different than being satisfied with them!
Cleanliness is next to Godliness! – Guy Mauldin
It also entails presenting yourself, your set-up, and your dogs in a professional manner at all times. A statement that echoes in the head of all Mauldin protegés is “Cleanliness is next to Godliness!” Ironically, only moments before Nancy approached me about contributing for this article at the CCA, I had repeated these very words in our set-up, then stating that we needed to bring it up to “Mauldin Standards”! Never does much time go by at a show or in the kennel when the thought stream doesn’t reflect back to the Kismet days. Rarely does it fail, that when you do everything in your power to succeed, and then expect to succeed, that success soon finds you.
2. Balance. A truly great dog is a truly balanced dog. There must be symmetry in the composition of all parts. The parts must fit together, with one part flowing into the next with correct body lines. This, then, demands outline, angulation, and correct height-to-length balance.
3. How to Establish a Successful Breeding Program. Guy and Thelma have developed a tremendous seminar on this subject. Very simply, the concept focuses on selecting and utilizing a pillar sire, linebreeding and inbreeding on this dog, outcrossing only for a specific purpose, and always being mindful of the importance of the grandparents. Selection is then the key to success. I continually read and reread the outline notes from this seminar and remain cognizant of its wisdom in all my breedings.
What events led to your “commencement” – going on your own? What made you feel you were ready? Did you continue to consult and rely on the Mauldins for guidance? Do you now? Without being too personal, can you describe a few in particular? What is the nature of your relationship with them now?
Matt Stelter: I NEVER had any aspirations of being a handler. The purpose for my learning was only to make myself a better breeder and handler of my own dogs. However, the struggle of maintaining and promoting a breeding program through college became increasingly difficult, and upon my graduation in December of 1999, I was left with almost nothing from the dogs I had developed beginning back in high school. This was a difficult time for me as I questioned where I wanted to go with dogs.
A few days following my graduation, I received a call from Mike Cheatham of Southland Collies. I had met Mike, her husband Steve, and partner Benny Edwards through the Coens. During my time with the Coens, we had presented two beautiful Southland dogs, CH Southland’s Confederate Gray (1997 CCA BOS Puppy) and his littermate, CH Southland Confederate Clouds (2000 CCA AOM). Mike said she had a very special puppy dog sired by Confederate Gray that she would like me to consider raising and conditioning for her, prepping him at a few Midwest specialties before the 2000 CCA where Tom would handle him. However, it was at the 2000 CCA that Tom and Nioma announced their retirement from handling to pursue judging careers. This left Mike without a handler, and myself without my mentors, but with a dog that I felt was destined for greatness.
There was never a real “decision” to go on my own, but rather just the “natural progression.” I was thrilled to finally have a reason to get back into the action, conditioning a top-quality specimen as I had been trained, as well as getting myself back in the ring. Our success in the ring was immediate and the Collie World was soon to come to know Ch. Southland’s Bowen Island, ROM. In 2002, Jennie Duhon [Rutkas], another Mauldin protegé, relocated from Texas to Wisconsin and we joined forces as a handling team to form Wyndlair Presentation. Our focus was not to be top handlers but to present the products of a few top breeding programs at the major specialties. After Ch. Southland’s Bowen Island won Best of Breed at the CCA that year, it was very gratifying to be able to make a special call to Texas on our walk back to the hotel. Guy’s response to the news was a seemingly unemotional “Well, that’s just the way I trained you.” You could tell he was smiling.