Dog Breeding, A Struggle Against Mediocrity
Posted on 09/06/2005 in Ringside Conversations.
By Richard G. (Rick) Beauchamp
“Mediocre,” “too plain,” “just ordinary.” We hear those criticisms all too often in purebred dogs. How can it be that the litter sired by a handsome multiple Best In Show winner, out of an exquisitely beautiful Champion bitch can best be described as completely uneventful? Is it the sire’s fault? The dam’s?
We always have great expectations when we breed a litter. No one should be breeding just to have puppies in this day and age! Even with all the study and care given by a responsible breeder, why do we have so few superior individuals in any given breed?
In my mind, the overriding challenge in dog breeding is Mother Nature herself. Breeding toward goals set by man attempts not only to harness the capricious lady, but also asks that she accede to what we have decided is best. Those who have had much experience with her know full well that if you ever want to hear Mother Nature laugh, just tell her what you have “planned.”
You can take all the AAbb’s along with the Cbi’s and XYZ’s known to modern genetics, put them together exactly as outlined by the most advanced formulas, and if you think for a solitary minute the result will be as you have decided it should work - well, obviously you haven’t bred many litters of anything!
These wonderful little equations would work perfectly if all purebred dog breeders had to do was breed white dogs, or dogs with short hair, or long-legged dogs. However, what we are attempting to do is breed all three of the characteristics like those, plus a thousand others that add up to a specific preordained picture. On top of that, even the time-proven formulas won’t work for us unless we have the genetic material present in the stock we put together to work with in the first place.
In my book, Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type, I tell the story of a seminar I attended where the instructor presented formulas for successful dog breeding based upon success achieved by Thoroughbred horse breeders. The ultimate goal of Thoroughbred breeders is, of course, to produce winning racehorses.
The formulas were entirely sound, but the seminar fell short in my mind because of two important factors. First, our task as dog breeders includes an entire network of phenotype qualities that must be achieved before success is accomplished. Secondly, there wasn’t enough emphasis placed on the fact that the formulas presented simply wouldn’t work if the necessary genetic content weren’t there in the first place.
For example, if the goal in breeding American Pit Bull Terriers were to produce a dog capable of pulling a load of a specific but realistic number of pounds, the task wouldn’t be unreasonable. I’m not saying every dog bred would be able to succeed in the goal, but over a few generations, I do believe that a line of dogs of the size and strength necessary to perform the task could be achieved.
If our singular goal was speed - to produce dogs that got to the finish line first - we could concentrate on whatever it took to create that single aspect. However, our selfimposed goal as purebred dog breeders is to produce an animal who looks a certain way, acts a certain way, and moves in a certain prescribed manner. In other words, what we breed must have high scores in all five of the elements of breed type: breed character, silhouette, head, movement, and coat.
Thoroughbred breeders know that the odds of their winners ever coming from a family of plow horses are next to none. However, should their Triple Crown winner look like something that should be hitched to a plow, so be it - breed character, correct silhouette, a typical expression, and color are not a priorities. You can spend the money a plow horse look-alike earns just as easily as you can a reflection of Ruffian.
We on the other hand have to care about an overwhelming number of characteristics, and that was the point the seminar presenter failed to point out. Formulas work for breeding show dogs only when all the genetic content for the complex arrangement of qualities we seek exist somewhere within the bloodlines we use. And those odds are greatly exacerbated by the proximity and frequency with which the qualities do exist.
Overhearing those who attended the seminar made me fear their take on the seminar’s material was that it was the formulas that accomplished the goals rather than what is required - i.e., the genetic content - for the formulas to work successfully. I suspect this is the kind of thinking that inspires breeding to a winning dog simply because he is a winner. As fine an example of the breed as the dog might be, he has to have the genetic makeup to produce the qualities that result in winners. The equation is not winner X winner = more winners, but rather genes carrying winning qualities X genes carrying winning qualities = may result in winning qualities.
To further complicate the issue, we go back a step. Where to? You guessed it - Mother Nature! Not only must we have all the qualities in the genetic makeup of our breeding stock, but it is ultimately up to her to arrange all the qualities we desire in a breed to come out in a prescribed manner in a single package. All this takes place with nature’s draw to take the canine world to the center - not too long, not too short, not too big, and not too small. Left to her own devices, Mother Nature wouldn’t give us the incapacitating extremes that man has developed throughout the canine world.
Urbanization has relegated the large and successful breeding kennels of the past to the pages of our breed history books. Zoning laws and property values limit even country dwellers to three or four dogs. (Keep as many pigs as you want but dogs - only three!)
Those prolific kennels of the past were able to import the best from around the world, house enough dogs and breed enough litters to establish a line that consistently produced that certain “look” or “style” desirable in a breed. They were able to produce and maintain the type of qualities that distinguish a respective breed, but are so hard to obtain since they oppose the natural course that Mother Nature would take.
By and large, theirs were quality dogs and excellent representatives of the breed standard. Because of their quality and resultant success in the show rings of the day, they influenced the majority of local breeders to breed dogs of a similar style.
In many cases Breeder A’s dogs would excel in some respect, where Breeder B in another part of the country might fall a bit short. Conversely, Breeder B might have the corner on some quality that his competitor wouldn’t have. Both were successful for different reasons.
Along would come an astute breeder who was clever enough to see the respective qualities of both lines, and develop Line C, combining the best of what Breeders A and B had produced. Sometimes this necessitated a good many dogs to accomplish, but the breed would take a great stride forward and then await what just might be Breeder D’s take on it all.
Today, dog folk would look at all that in shock and call all these efforts puppy mills. My dear friend, the late breeder and judge, Robin Hernandez, once said something that I feel is profoundly applicable here: “You know, when people brought the dogs up from the kennel and made them members of the family, dog breeding and the dog game changed forever.”
Call them what you might, the large kennels of the past was how many breeds developed and thrived in the past. They were able to obtain the best stock from around the world - dogs who carried the genetic potential to produce what they, the breeders, were looking for. They then had the wherewithal to try their formulas often enough so that in the end Mother Nature relented and gave them that “one-in-a-million” specimen they were working toward.
This is not to say that everyone who bred dogs did so in a mega-kennel operation, but, generally speaking, independently owned kennels with their own take on breeds were the most influential. The smart little guy benefited in that he could see the value in each of the lines and combine them effectively for himself. He had a place to breed away from or go to for help. He didn’t have to do it all himself.
This is not written to defend large breeding programs, but rather to illustrate how and why breeders of the past did have a distinct advantage and were so influential in the development of our many breeds. Today, average breeders must to do it all, and on a drastically reduced scale. But that does not mean it is impossible. Outstanding dogs, and even though small, kennels do achieve reputations for top-notch quality. Evidently the breeders of those lines are aware that the age old adage, “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best”, still applies today. (And they do their best to keep Mother Nature as happy as they possibly can!)
The information contained in Mr. Beauchamp’s “Solving the Mystery of Breed Type” series that appeared in BLOODLINES, can be found in his book, Solving the Mystery of Breed Type, published by Doral Publishing, Inc.