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Despite setbacks, local German Shepherd wins high honors

River’s road to the top female German Shepherd in the country was bumpy.

The five-year-old pup from Newton Twp. was competing in American Kennel Club dog shows before she was in a car accident with her handler, Anya Vasilia.

Vasilis, a Pittsburgh area resident, was a well-known animal lover and skilled bicycle mechanic. As a dog handler, she traveled the country seeking championship honors for her clients' dogs, like River.

Vasilis died in the accident in South Carolina while traveling home from a dog show in Florida. All the canines with her in a converted box truck survived.

River suffered a head injury in the crash. She had puppies and returned home to her owner Beth Dillenbeck, a local German Shepherd breeder, and retired where she was born at Hollow Hills Shepherds in Newton Twp.

Around a year later, Liv Calabrese, a close friend of Vasilis, called Dillenbeck to ask if she could campaign River again.

"So she persuaded me that my little farm dog needed to get spruced up and go back on the road," Dillenbeck said.

The Newton Twp. shepherd had already finished her championships and grand championships easily with Vasilis. And at the time, Vasilis told Dillenbeck that River could do more, she was confident if they continued to campaign her River would be a Best in Show dog.

Dillenbeck believes Calabrese not only saw the potential in River but also wanted to continue Vasilis’s mission.

Campaigning a dog is extremely expensive. So Calabrese, who was River's handler at the dog shows, brought on Colleen Smith to co-own River with her and Dillenbeck. River is now officially retired at Smith’s home.

The dogs compete at a variety of levels first against their own breeds, then within group classes with other breeds. German Shepherds are in the herding groups.

“On her own merit, this dog just started winning very quickly," said Dillenbeck.

James Moses, who judges at the famous Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, gave River her first Best in Show.

"James is kind of like the ... patriarch of the breed almost at this point, he's just so well known and well respected," said Dillenbeck. "So for him to give her, her best first Best in Show was just a real honor."

Ultimately, it’s a point system and the dog with the most points accumulated throughout the various American Kennel Club competitions is a winner.

While River, the German Shepherd from Northeast PA, scored enough points through competitions to be the number one German Shepherd female in 2022, a male Shepherd also named River went on to win the number one male and the Best in Breed.

Dillenbeck said the whole dog fancy — a term that describes those invested in the sport of showing dogs in judged competitions — was devastated when Vasilis was killed.

"River had such a fan club and I really think, in a sense, everybody was cheering for Anya when they were rooting for River," she said. "That was sort of bittersweet, but very touching.”

Dillenbeck has been breeding German Shepherds for 40 years. She can trace River’s pedigree through eight generations of her dogs. Every breed has a standard that describes their mental and character attributes as well as physical attributes, she said.

German Shepherds should be able to trot all day. Their movements must be smooth, effortless and efficient, she said. They have to be reliable, alert and aware of their environment so that they can calmly and intelligently assess their circumstances.

As a breeder, Dillenbeck isn’t always looking for beauty in her dogs.

"All these generations behind River, I always incorporated in what I felt, instead of breeding to the top winner, I was always looking at the individual animal and trying to pick one who had a proven track record of producing consistent things that I was after," she said.

Dillenback moved to Newton Twp. in 1984. She is an animal lover by nature. But her love for German Shepherds started as a kindergartener in Kansas. Her classmate’s dad was the police chief and he brought the police dog, a German Shepherd, to her class for a demonstration.

"First of all it was clear how intelligent he was," she said about the dog. "But it was also that oneness with the officer and I just remember watching in awe."

The police chief planted something on his son then sat all the kids in a semicircle. The dog sniffed every child and then stopped in front of her classmate and barked. The chief next took the dog outside and told him to jump. The dog sailed across a bike rack. Then, the chief had the dog climb the stairs to a slide and go down.

“I remember at that point, I turned away from the window going, 'I have to have one of these,'" she said.

Dillenbeck stresses to future German Shepherd owners that the breed is not like others. The dogs form an extremely strong bong with their families.

“It's like they read your mind," she said. "I can be sitting doing desk work and if I just think 'oh man, I gotta go upstairs and get something for my work,' the dog will be on its feet looking at me like 'let's go' before I've moved."

She is selective in who she picks for her puppies, making sure their future owners have what it takes to keep up both mentally and physically with a German Shepherd. Daily, the dogs need to go on lengthy walks and play.

On Dillenbeck's eight-acre farm in Lackawanna County, the Shepherds live in her house and in the kennel, alongside a horse, a cow, rabbits and chickens.

There’s a stack of wood inside a pen.

“That wood pile attracts rabbits and woodchucks and different things," she said, "and these dogs don't have Xbox so that gives them something to do.”

Some of them have the distinctive coat: light brown legs and face with a touch of dark fur around their eyes and mouth, a strip of black runs down their back. Others appear all black but the familiar patterns are hidden underneath, most visible when the sun hits them.

River’s daughter Ally lives at the kennel. Recently she was resting after a meal when she sniffed out a stranger in her space who might be able to help with an easy escape. Dillenbeck had to raise her voice over Ally's cries.

"She wants out, it's a sad song," she laughed. "She's very expressive and she will not stop."

Dillenbeck never set out to be part of a team that competes a dog at such a high level.

“I'm about breeding a true German Shepherd for the sake of what they used to be or what they still ought to be," she said, adding she breeds family dogs.

At their core the shepherds are European mountain dogs that protect sheep flocks from wolves and predators.

River’s rise is still surreal for her.

“It's almost like being hit upside the head with with a frying pan like my head is still ringing, my ears are still ringing," Dillenbeck said. "Every time I think about it's kind of this little thrill ... all over again because it just wasn't on my radar at all."

Editor's note: a previous version of this story said Anya Vasilis was River's owner. She was her handler.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.