Reproductive Vet & Danikk Labrador Breeder Dr. Fran Smith Talks Dogs

Fran Smith

When counseling clients about breeding dogs, Frances O. “Fran” Smith, DVM, PhD, DACT, is candid about expectations. 

“If money is no object, go for broke,” she advised a woman who wanted to breed a champion show dog with a history of irregular heat cycles and difficulty conceiving. “But do I think it will work? No.”

Her wisdom and quick wit come from 50-plus years as a breeder of Danikk Labrador Retrievers and as a board-certified veterinary theriogenologist. In other words, she’s a reproduction specialist. 

“Probably 95 percent of the world and the great majority of clients don’t know what a theriogenologist is,” she says. “It is a specialty in veterinary medicine that basically combines OB-GYN and urology in human medicine. There are less than 300 of us in the country, and I am one of few in private practice.”

One of the biggest fans of America’s sweetheart breed — the Labrador has been the most popular breed in the country for 30 years — Dr. Smith is passionate about the annual Labrador Retriever Club (LRC) Inc. National Specialty. Even with back pain and surgery scheduled for when she returns home to Minnesota, she would never miss the 2021 event in October at Purina Farms, a celebration of the club’s 90th year. 

Besides bringing her Danikk Labs entered in conformation and hunting tests, Dr. Smith is chair of the National’s hunting and Working Certificate tests. Her longtime partner, Dr. John C. Lawrence, a retired veterinarian, is event chair. 

Tucked in the middle of the week’s activities, Dr. Smith will go to St. Louis for a board meeting of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), of which she has been president since 1990. OFA is probably best known for its Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) program in which parent clubs select testing for breed health clearances.

Dr. Smith also is the health committee chair for LRC. Her veterinary expertise combined with a doctorate degree in animal reproduction landed her the job serving as chair — the club’s first and thus far only one. “I knew how to read grants,” she says.

Through the years Dr. Smith has reviewed a plethora of grants, given that the LRC is one of the top parent clubs to support research funded by the AKC Canine Health Foundation. A charter member of the Purina Parent Club Partnership (PPCP) Program that began in 2002, LRC each year uses its annual PPCP donation to fund studies that benefit the breed and that are expected to help the most people and dogs. 

One of the early studies LRC funded investigated exercise-induced collapse, a potentially fatal disease of hunting and field trial Labrador Retrievers. Affected dogs become weak and collapse after just minutes of hard work. Before the variant discovery in the canine dynamin 1 (DNM1) gene enabling breeders to breed carriers without producing affected dogs, EIC was confused with many other conditions. 

Dr. Smith’s keen interest in canine health is tied to her initiation into purebred dogs and dog breeding at age 10 when her parents bred their German Shepherd Dog, “Trina.” This was before the founding of OFA and the CHIC program. 

“My job was to keep the puppies clean, and because of my work with the puppies I got to pick one,” she says. “I chose a male whom I named ‘Lance.’ He had such severe hip dysplasia at 4 months of age that he had to be euthanized as he could barely stand up. I made up my mind right then that when I grew up, I was going to do something so no little girl would have to put down her dog. It is because of German Shepherd Dogs that I became a veterinarian.”

She and her sister, Jacqueline “Jackie” Stacy, today an AKC all-breed show judge and breeder of Affenpinschers, got involved in junior showmanship through Bob and Mary Kay Brockett, the German Shepherd Dog breeders from whom their parents got Trina.  

“In those days, at the end of a show, they would announce, ‘Junior handlers get a dog and come to Ring 1,’” Dr. Smith says. “You would show anyone’s dog. One of the dogs I showed was a Standard Poodle that was so well-trained, the dog could have done the gaiting pattern without a handler.”

Many years later when her boyfriend planned to go to an animal shelter to find a hunting dog, she told him, “You can’t do that. That’s not the way things are done. You have to get a purpose-bred dog so you know what you’re getting.”

Dr. Smith got him a field-bred black female Labrador Retriever, Rushmon’s Babe. “’Babe’ was a phenomenal gundog. My boyfriend was not a very good trainer, but if he made a mistake, she was forgiving enough that he could retrain her a new way and she would do it right,” she says.

Babe became the foundation bitch of Danikk. “Babe was not show quality, but I bred her to a show champion and she produced a show champion in her first litter,” says Dr. Smith. The show champion out of Babe, whelped June 5, 1973, was CH Danick’s Bonnie Babe, who finished quickly with four Majors. 

Dr. Smith explains the different spelling of her early kennel prefix, “I had combined my children’s first names, Dana and Nick, to make Danick and then found out the AKC would not allow it due to it being someone’s surname. This is when I changed the spelling to Danikk.” 

Meanwhile, “Bonnie” was bred to a yellow male, MBIS CH Shamrock Acres Light Brigade, who for many years held records as the second top-winning conformation Labrador and the top-producing sire. That mating began a longtime friendship with the (Shamrock Acres) breeder of “Briggs,” Sally McCarthy Munson, who steered Dr. Smith into getting involved with the Labrador Retriever Club and OFA. 

Reflecting on her efforts as a breeder, Dr. Smith says, “My goal has always been to breed a dog that looks like the breed standard and is talented and trainable enough to be a personal gundog for even a novice trainer.”

Her Danikk Labrador Retrievers number more than 20 conformation champions and multiple Master Hunters. Dr. Smith trained and finished the 43rd Master Hunter in history, CH Danikk Leap Of Faith MH, a yellow male. 

“‘Bungee’ exemplified the importance of tailoring training to fit your dog’s personality,” she says. “If he thought I was confused in teaching him, he would basically say, ‘Forget it.’ I learned to trust him and not nitpick.”  

Owners of her Danikk Labs have achieved three obedience trial champions and earned many titles in rally and agility. A 10 ½-year-old Danikk-bred Labrador called “Pearl” (PACH Danikk Pearl Of Wisdom) recently added a new title of Preferred Agility Champion piloted by owner-handler Colleen Bush. 

Dr. Smith judges AKC field trials and competes in them on a limited basis with her own dogs. In September, she judged the fall trial of Back Bay Knott’s Island Retriever Club in Goldvein, Virginia. 

“Twenty years ago, I owned a Field Champion that I got from Mary Howley (Candlewood) and owner Dennis Bath,” she says. “I wanted an older dog to teach me what to do, so they helped me get FC-AFC Bluegrass Dust Commander when he was 11 years old after he had earned 135 Open points.

“If I tried to tell him to do something stupid, he would look at me as though to say, ‘You want to rethink that?’ He was awesome and taught me a lot. He slept beside my bed until he died at age 14.”

Bungee’s granddaughter, CH Danikk’s Tiarra, a yellow female called “Tia,” was memorable. “She was absolutely beautiful and a very talented gundog despite never being formally trained,” Dr. Smith recalls. “She died from squamous cell carcinoma of the footpad, which spread rapidly and killed her less than six weeks after being diagnosed. It was so devastating that I almost gave up Labradors.”

At her Smith Veterinary Hospital in Burnsville, Minnesota, Dr. Smith considers herself lucky to have knowledgeable clients who put their dogs’ health care first. Most breed for conformation and sporting. “They ask questions and listen to my advice. They understand we want to maximize the health of their bitch and her puppies,” she says.

As a frequent lecturer at conferences for veterinary students and breeders, Dr. Smith espouses a straightforward philosophy. “No one has to breed dogs,” she says. “Importantly, breeders should never put their bitches at risk because they are relying on having puppies to pay their bills.”

A carefully timed breeding is key to success, though she finds that some breeders balk at the cost of progesterone testing, the gold standard for determining when a bitch is ovulating. “Typically, multiple tests are needed, and depending on the clinic and the geographic area, a single test may be $85 or more,” says Dr. Smith. “If the cost of progesterone testing is an issue, a breeder probably should not be breeding.”

About 75 percent of the patients at her clinic deliver puppies naturally, and the rest are delivered via cesarean section. Dr. Smith spends a lot of time counseling breeders. When deciding whether to breed a female, she advises, “Your best success is breeding a young bitch that had a litter at her last heat.”

The biggest change in dog breeding, Dr. Smith says, has been the ability to ship semen. “This has made stud dogs much more accessible. I advise owners of promising young dogs to collect them around age 2 to help maximize the sperm numbers and increase the likelihood of multiple litters from a single collection. I look at frozen semen as an insurance policy.”

The biggest challenge breeders face is placing puppies responsibly, she says. “I tell them to be selective. If they have even a twinge a placement might not be a good fit, they should not do it,” Dr. Smith counsels.

As the 2021 LRC National Specialty wraps up, CH Danikk Black Silk had success in the Best of Breed ring, though was not a winner, and Cedarwood Danikk Brass Tacks won the Novice conformation class both days and earned a Working Certificate. Both dogs were models at Judge’s Education, a nod to Danikk’s correct breed type. 

Back at home, Dr. Smith made it through back surgery with flying colors. With a new litter of Danikk puppies on the ground one week later, life is full of promising opportunities and loads of fun.