In Depth: An Interview with ...
Merry Jeanne Millner and her husband, Thomas L. “Tommy” Millner, have notched a place in history as the breeders or owners of a record number of black or gray Briards to win Best in Show. Their nine Best in Show Briards, five of which are multi-Best in Show winners, have gifted their Sendero breeding program with the hallmark characteristics of this ancient French sheepdog.
“Black or gray” Briard begs a lesson on the breed’s color genetics.
“There are two grays,” Millner explains. “One gray is born black and turns gray as dogs age. We call this ‘black-born gray.’ The other is dilute gray, a blue, but these Briards do not have a black nose as they should, which is a DQ.”
At their home in Monticello, Georgia, the Millners’ antebellum plantation house, built in the 1840s, includes a state-of-the-art horse stable that has been converted into an ideal kennel for breeding and raising Briards. When they moved there in 2017, it was a return to Millner’s hometown where her father, Ernest Key, was mayor in the 1960s.
Besides Best in Show winners, Sendero is known for its Best in Specialty Show winners, including four Briard Club of America (BCA) National Specialty Best of Breed winners, and three No. 1 all-system Briards. Their success in all-breed competition with this rare breed that ranked 150 among 197 breeds registered with the American Kennel Club in 2021 is noteworthy.
Sendero’s top black or gray Best in Show Briard, MBIS/BISS AM/CAN Ch. Sendero’s Sterling Gray Ghost HOF, was a black bitch whelped in 2001 from the third litter the Millners bred. Derby became the winningest black or gray Briard in breed history with seven Bests in Show. Although Derby had no heartbeat at birth, when she rallied it was the beginning of nonstop exuberance. A quintessential show dog whom Millner says thought the world revolved around her, Derby finished her championship before her first birthday. Her career highlights include 57 Herding Groups Firsts and a Best in Specialty Show. Derby also is the only American-bred Briard to have won a Herding Group first in France.
Only 10 years before Derby was born in 1991, the Millners bought their first show Briard, Derby’s maternal granddam, Am/Can Ch. Gillian de Bejaune HIC TT HOF CGC. The natural-eared black-born gray bitch called Gilli finished her championship before her second birthday. Described by Millner as having wonderful movement and being a great example of the breed, Gilli received an Award of Merit at the BCA National Specialty in 1995 and then was shown in Canada, where she quickly earned her championship and a Herding Group second.
“Gilli had a huge impact on our breeding program, though she was only bred one time,” Millner says. “What a litter! Gilli really set us on our way.”
Sendero’s foundation bitch was bred to a gray French import, Ch. Dakar Du Chemin des Rocailles, producing a litter of six girls and a boy whelped in 1995. This resulted in four dogs achieving three American championships and three Canadian championships. Importantly, the litter gave Sendero the winningest black or gray Briard bitches in breed history, a record that stands today.
BIS Am/Can Ch. Sendero’s Lil Lead Shot HIC TT HOF ROM, known as Remington, the dam of Derby, was a record setter for Sendero. In 2000, this black-born gray bitch won Best in Show at the Penobscot Valley Kennel Club in Maine and then took Best of Opposite Sex at the BCA National, where her dam, Gilli, won the largest Brood Bitch class in club history. The No. 1 Briard bitch that year, Remington had a beautiful head, beautiful long neck and was quite full of herself, Millner says.
“Remington was a bit of a pistol,” Millner says. “She was our first homebred champion, first Group placer, first Group winner and first Best in Show winner, as well as the first black or gray bitch in Briard history to go Best in Show.”
Remington’s notable contributions as a brood bitch are reflected in her one litter of 11 puppies, which resulted in seven champions and gave her a Register of Merit. Remington’s daughter and Derby’s littermate sister, Ch. Briardale’s Shur Shot of Sendero, was Sendero’s first Best of Breed winner at the BCA National Specialty in 2008.
BIS/BISS AM/CAN Ch. Sendero's Lillian bested her littermate sister's record by winning a Best in Specialty Show and becoming the No. 1 all-system Briard in 2001.
Meanwhile, when it was Remington’s littermate sister’s turn in the show ring, BIS/BISS Am/Can Ch. Sendero’s Lillian HIC TT HOF, called Lilli, repeated Remington’s successes by winning Best in Show at the Cambridge Minnesota Kennel Club in 2000 and Best of Opposite Sex at the BCA National in 2001. Lilli bested Remington by winning a specialty Best of Breed at the Briard Club of California in 2001 and achieving status as the No. 1 all-system Briard in 2001.
During this time, the Millners adopted their Sendero kennel prefix. “When we bred Gilli and were going back and forth on our kennel name, Tommy and his partners had just bought Remington, the firearms manufacturer,” Millner says. “They had developed a gun called Sendero, which is Spanish for ‘clear path.’ Tommy said it could mean a clear path for our Briards.”
Today, 27 years after their first litter, Sendero’s mark on the Briard breed is unmistakable, though Millner concedes that their breeding program has been conducted on a limited basis.
“Tommy worked for several large corporations that pressured our free time immensely,” she says. “The result of which was that we could not breed as often as I would have liked.”
Breeding true to the Briard’s purpose as a French sheepdog has guided their endeavors. “Briards must be able to move in quicksilver fashion as their job was to be a living fence for a flock,” Millner says. “They were also guardians of the flock, so maintaining a bit of aloofness and a wary eye are important aspects of breeding proper temperament.”
Sendero has imported Briards from France, England, Spain and Slovakia that have provided genetic diversity and brought success to their breeding program. Through partnerships with co-breeders, such as Bill and Becca Weber (ne’Orageux) of Neenah, Wisconsin, the Millners have shared their journey to producing exceptional Briards.
“When I look at pedigrees, I am trying to find those dogs that come close to the perfect Briard,” Millner says. “We try to breed dogs that are sound in temperament, true to the breed standard and at the highest level of health standards.
“As we know, not all are perfect, so then you look at the individual qualities of the dogs and see what pedigrees and dogs work best together complementing each other. I have done a lot of outcrossing and then brought these pedigrees together through loose linebreedings.”
The Millners have always made time to serve the dog fancy. Currently, Tommy is a member of the board of directors of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, best known for its Canine Health Information Center, which works with parent clubs to establish breed health and genetic testing. He also is vice president of the Westminster Kennel Club and member of its Board of Governors.
Both serve the Briard Club of America. Tommy is on the board of directors (class of 2023), and Merry Jeanne is chair of the education committee, taking on developing an illustrated breed standard and recruiting members to help educate judges about the breed. They also serve roles with the Furniture City Kennel Club in High Point, North Carolina, and Oconee River Kennel Club in Watkinsville, Georgia, the latter of which has Merry Jeanne as a member of its board of directors.
Giving back is rooted in their love for their breed. “Our Briards are our passion and our friends,” Millner says.
Outstanding Briards of the Past
Reflecting on exemplary Briards of the past, one representing Sendero and three not of their breeding, Millner chooses a Sendero male whelped in 2012 and two dogs and a bitch shown in the early 1990s.
“These are the Briards I learned on, so they are always going to be my favorites,” she says. “They are the ones I cut my teeth on, so they are the ones that always come to mind.”
Millner’s pick of the Sendero black male born May 12, 2012, is UK Ch/Am MBIS/BISS GCHG Sendero’s Here We Go at Charson. Neyo is the first American-bred Briard to hold champion titles in the U.K. and U.S. and in March 2019 became the first American-bred Briard to win Best of Breed at Crufts in the U.K.
The first American-bred Briard to hold championships in the U.K. and U.S., UK CH/AM MBIS/BISS GCHG Sendero's Here We Go at Charson is also the first American-bred Briard to win Best of Breed at Crufts.
Neyo is the second wave of a friendship between his breeder-owners, the Millners, and co-owner Sonya Hillier (Charson) of Pewsey, Wiltshire, England. It began when Hillier, the breeder of his sire, sent the dog to the Millners for showing in the U.S. In a flip-flop of credits, Neyo’s sire, Am GCHB/UK Ch. Stormfield Seiso at Charson, is the first English-bred Briard to hold champion titles in the U.K. and U.S.
While campaigning in the U.S. in 2012, Seiso was bred to the Millners’ GCH Sendero’s Dirty Lil Secret, Neyo’s dam. The sire achieved ranking as the No. 1 Briard in all-breed points that year. “Seiso also won a couple of specialties and Best of Breed at the Garden before going back to the U.K.,” Millner says.
As for why she chose Neyo, Millner says, “Neyo is the picture I think of when reading the first line of the Briard standard, ‘A dog of handsome form. Vigorous and alert, powerful without coarseness, strong in bone and muscle, exhibiting the strength and agility required of the herding dog.’ The other thing I love about this dog is that when you watch him move, he appears to walk on air – the epitome of our quicksilver movement.”
On the U.S. circuit, Neyo was the No. 1 all-system Briard and was the No. 10 ranked Herding dog in 2018. He also captured Best of Breed at the BCA National Specialty in 2018. His charming, independent temperament prompted handler Joan Scott to ask to keep Neyo when they finished showing, which was gladly honored by Hillier and the Millners, who share in his care.
Millner’s picks of Briards not of Sendero breeding include a two-time BCA National Specialty Best of Breed winner, a tawny female that won in 1993 and 1994, and a black male that took Best of Opposite Sex to the female in 1993. Her third choice is a black-born gray male born in 1992 that stood out at shows and was an outstanding sire.
Whelped Dec. 19, 1988, MBISS Am/Can Ch. Mielleux’s Orageux de Cembre CD HC VT HOF ROMP, called December, was a powerful, pretty female and beautiful mover, Millner says. Besides capturing two Bests of Breed at BCA National Specialties, December won two regional specialties during her career.
A two-time Briard Club of America (BCA) National Specialty winner, who won in 1993 and 1994, MBISS AM/CAN Ch. Mielleux's Orageux de Cembre was "a beautiful mover and powerful-looking in a female way," Millner says.
Bred by the late Diane Royce (Mielleux), December was sired by Ch. Beardsanbrow V D’Occasion CD out of Ch. U Know Mielleux De Bonheur CD. Owned by the Millners’ good friends, Bill and Becca Weber, December was their first Briard and was not campaigned heavily.
“When you looked at December, you knew you saw a girl, but she was very powerful-looking in a female way,” Millner remembers. “She was just beautiful, beautiful moving and such a pretty, warm tawny color as our tawny Briards are supposed to be. I loved her expression. I see her when I read from our standard, ‘The gaze is frank, questioning and confident.’”
The black Briard male who took Best of Opposite Sex to December at the 1993 National was Ch. Efrem de Bejaune HOF HIC TT. Remy, whelped Dec. 23, 1989, was bred by Michael Greenberg and Meg Weitz (Bejaune) of Yanceyville, North Carolina. His sire, Ch. Beardsonbrow’s V Thriller, was bred in Canada by longtime Briard fancier Janis Charbonneau (Beardsanbrow), and his dam, Unique V D Ridderweide, was a Dutch import.
A beloved companion, Remy was the first special and second dog finished by owner-handler Karen Fedi of Baltimore. In 1994, Remy was the No. 1 black or gray Briard in all-breed points and No. 2 in breed points.
Ch. Efrem de Bejaune (above and below), who took Best of Opposite Sex at the 1993 BCA National Specialty, was a standout male Briard whom Millner describes as having a beautful silhouette and proper proportion.
“Remy was a pretty dog to look at standing still, and when he moved, he was light on his feet and you wanted to watch him even more,” Millner says. “He had a beautiful silhouette and long neck. When you looked at him, you thought ‘Briard.’ When you look at the proportion of what our dogs are supposed to be, he had it.”
Sendero’s foundation bitch, Gilli, was sired by Remy out of the tawny bitch Ch. Phydeaux Delta de Bejaune, making Remy the grandsire of the Millners’ top-winning Best in Show black or gray bitches, Remington and Lilli. Millner had bought Gilli from the Greenbergs in 1991 before seeing Remy ringside. Remy gifted Gilli, and ultimately Sendero, with beautiful movement, Millner says.
A black-born gray male whelped Nov. 30, 1992, is Millner’s third pick of a Briard not of Sendero breeding. Ch. Hubert Le Hallmark of Lindeau ROM was bred, owned and handled by the late Rob Ferber and Linda Wells (Lindeau) of Pinckney, Michigan. The breeders traveled to Belgium to breed their bitch, Ch. Fleur de Lis de Lindeau, to a prominent male, Onassis Du Clos des Cedres.
Hubert’s maternal grandsire was the French import Ch. Dakar Du Chemin des Rocailles, an outstanding producer of Best in Show and specialty-winning progeny. Dakar sired Gilli’s famous litter as well as Ferber and Wells’ two-time BCA National Specialty Best of Breed winner, Ch. Fracasse de Lindeau, who won in 1998 and 2001.
“Hubert had that beautiful outline and was outstanding on his feet,” Millner says. “He was a really handsome dog with dark eyes. His head represents the standard, ‘The head of a Briard always gives the impression of length, having sufficient width without being cumbersome.’”
Hubert also was an outstanding sire, producing Best in Show and Best in Specialty Show offspring. He sired 11 show champions plus obedience and herding titled dogs. Bred to the Millners’ bitch, Kaliphi Jadzia Dax, Hubert sired their BIS Ch. Sendero’s Our Tornado HOF, owned by Tom and Odile Smith.
The winsome ways of these famous dogs of the past have carried through the years, impacting the Briard breed and Sendero personally.
“The common characteristics of these top dogs are their ability to glide around the ring in quicksilver fashion, having outlines that are the epitome of what a Briard should be and their wonderful temperaments,” Millner says.