St. Cloud, Minnesota – In 2015, American Kennel Club (AKC) Breeder of Merit and professor emeritus of psychology at St. Cloud State University Dr. Zoa Rockenstein renovated a Minnesota farmhouse on eight acres. She added attached runs and kennels so she never had to leave her house to be with her champion RiverRock German Shepherds in a Minnesota winter.
When they are not in the house with her, she has views of her dogs playing in their large chain-link fenced lawn from her kitchen, her dining room and even from her shower.
Rockenstein says she has a maximum of four dogs at home and co-owns two show dogs with a Minneapolis partner. “I want no more dogs than I can have in the house at one time, in my van at one time, that I can train or have out in the yard playing without a fight,” she explained. “The quality of life for my dogs is very important to me, and I don’t want them feeling they are not getting enough individual attention.”
Mature lindens, cedars and blue spruce frame a puppy playroom and classroom with rubber mat flooring, air conditioning and heat. A 100 by 200 ft. grass arena for herding and agility competitions is nearing completion.
Rockenstein began handling show dogs for a small kennel in Jacksonville, Florida in the 1970’s while teaching high school. She left the dog world in the 1980’s to attend graduate school and changed careers. In the 1990’s, she studied breeding programs for a decade before making her first official RiverRock breeding in 2005. She has pursued rigorous genetic testing, pedigree analysis, and scrupulous care without staff. Her breeding bitches range in age from two to six-years-old, and produce between zero and two litters a year, whelping in a heated box in her office. She provides written health clearances to clients with three year guarantees on anything genetic she can prevent through testing.
“Puppies reflect my core values of mental and physical soundness, beauty, style and temperament,” said Rockenstein, who was given her first German Shepherd at age seven. Her wait list ranges from less than a year to six years. She never ships puppies, nor does she provide videos or photos. Would-be purchasers answer an extensive questionnaire on her website including “dealbreakers”: ‘Do you have a fence and what kind? Do you own your home? Have you owned a German Shepherd previously? Will your puppy take socialization and obedience classes?’ Rockenstein then interviews the entire prospective family in person.
“I don’t take placement of a puppy lightly,” she said. “I pick their puppies, they don’t get to pick their puppies. Show puppies have to go to show homes, and I won’t know if it is a show pup until six weeks when it can trot. I am very careful to have a good match. If I don’t have a puppy that is right for you, you can roll your deposit over toward another one, or I may refer you to another breeder. I will not put a pup in a home where I don’t feel it’s right.”
“I am strict about things, because I am a preservation breeder,” she explained. “I do not breed or keep anything that isn’t the best the breed has to offer. I want objective evaluations of breeding stock by objective experts, so this is not just my opinion. Bitches must be champions before I consider breeding them.”
Puppies are between seven and ten-weeks-old when they go to approved homes based on their individual developmental stages and on her assessment of each puppy’s readiness.
Asked about health screenings, Rockenstein says she practices diligent pedigree research into the preceding five generations of any prospective breeding. All sires and dams are OFA certified for hips and elbows. She also tests bitches for thyroid disease (none to date) and cardiac defects (none to date). She does not routinely order the CERF test for eyes, because it is not one of the recommended tests for German Shepherds, she explained. Degenerative myelopathy (DM) does not manifest until old age, which makes testing for it in puppies moot. Only 15 percent of those who test at risk actually develop the disease, she points out.
Endocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is a recessive gene in a past RiverRock line. Rockenstein’s contract offers to replace any dog who tests positive for EPI, or any other genetic health problem, but says that she has never been requested to do so. Only four RiverRock puppies have tested positive for EPI, she says, and their owners chose to keep them and use suitable enzyme supplements.
“It comes down to pedigree analysis—I do a lot of research before make a breeding,” she explained. “In addition to keeping a breed database, I call stud dog owners and owners three generations back for information you can only get by talking.”
She provides puppy buyers with documentation for the certifications which are on the pedigrees which can be verified on the OFA database.
She fecal tests her bitches regularly, and has found that the four-inch pea gravel in the runs defeats worms. Her vaccination protocol is an adaptation of one set by California veterinarian Dr. Jean Dodd, including rabies every three years. She also vaccinates for Lyme disease, endemic to the state.
“I don’t want to take chances, because my dogs go to shows and are exposed,” she said. “I would rather protect unnecessarily than err on the other end.”
She guides purchasers and stays in touch with them by phone and online, sending a newsletter to puppy purchasers for their first two years.
“I want to know up front if I need to be more hands on in offering help and not assume a person knows more than they do,” said Rockenstein, who encourages visits by pup owners for playdates, puppy socialization and training, and even hosts parties for buyers. She also monitors her private Facebook group of 125 members, writing them daily about nutrition, training and puppy information.
Her show record bears the fruits of her approach: in 2018, her Champion RiverRock’s Maybe I’m Amazed won the title Best Puppy in both the U.S. and Canada National Specialty shows.
“Winning is not my goal,” she says. “We have to make these dogs happy.”
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– Buyers must pick-up puppy in-person. Does not sell to anyone without meeting face-to-face.