by Kathy Lorentzen
The most important thing that any show breeder can remember is that the majority of the puppies that any of us produce are going to spend their lives as someone’s cherished companion or working dog, not in the rather artificial limelight of the show ring. It’s our responsibility to plan breedings around that fact, rather than just from the standpoint of producing a litter of puppies that might contain a big winner. Health and temperament have to be the biggest priority in any breeding. A beautiful dog with a poor temperament or a crippling genetic health disorder is useless to you as a show dog and causes heartache to the family that purchased it as a pet, so no matter how tempting a particular prospective sire may be from a glamour point of view, as a responsible breeder your research on any dog has to begin with the basics of soundness of mind and body.
Breeds of dogs are grouped together based primarily on their function. Gundogs, sighthounds and scenthounds hunt, herding dogs instinctively gather and move flocks; guardian dogs protect, defend and serve, and so on. Breeds developed for different purposes have personality traits and basic character that differ according to that purpose. It is very important to select dogs for breeding that possess temperament and character traits that are typical for their particular breed, in order to keep the breed true to its origins and capable of doing its job. When you are considering a dog as a prospective sire, you need to spend time with that dog so that you can be absolutely sure it has the sort of temperament that you want to pass on to another generation. Compromising on temperament is the first step on the road to failure as a breeder.
All breeds of dogs have genetic health problems and as a prospective breeder it is your responsibility to understand which problems exist in your breed and to do everything in your power to plan a breeding that will be as free as possible from those problems. This responsibility goes far beyond just putting together two dogs that have all their ‘clearances’. While that is certainly the first step, breeding two dogs that are normal in most instances does not assure you that the offspring will be normal (unless you are dealing with a particular disease for which there is a DNA test and you are breeding together two dogs that are genetically clear of a certain disorder, such as PRA).
We are still at the point in dog breeding where we are dealing with phenotype (what is physically present) when it comes to most genetic health issues. This is why it is so important to have as much information as possible on both the dogs in the immediate pedigree and on their siblings and offspring. Don’t just look at a dog and it’s parents, look at that dog, then get information on as many of his littermates as possible, then on his parents and their littermates and other offspring, and on and on back as many generations as possible. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (www.offa.org ) offers an excellent search mechanism and the option of looking at vertical pedigrees that give you sibling and offspring information on hips, elbows, thyroid and cardiac clearances. Of course this is not the entire picture, because most of the time abnormals are not noted, but it is an excellent starting point for finding normalcy in pedigree depth. The more strength there is in the pedigree, the more likely your breeding is to also produce normals.
As food for thought, I would offer here that I’m not, and never have been, a believer in ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ when it comes to genetic issues, BUT, and that’s a big but, making a decision to use a dog that expresses a genetic health fault is not something that can be done lightly. Would I ever breed an epileptic dog? Never, not under any circumstance. Epilepsy is an insidious disease, heartbreaking for the owner and life-threatening to the dog. Even breeding normal littermates to affected dogs, or normal parents or offspring of affected dogs, is not something to be done without very careful consideration. Combinations that produced epileptic animals should never be repeated and putting together similar pedigrees should be avoided. On the other hand, would I ever breed a dog with hip dysplasia? Maybe, if that dog is physically sound and has a pedigree full of normals and particularly has multiple siblings that are normal. I was taught that using a dog that is the only dysplastic in a litter of normals is a better risk than using the only normal from a litter where the rest were dysplastic. In a perfect world, we would have choices that would allow us to avoid both of these scenarios, but the reality of dog breeding is such that sometimes, in looking at the whole picture, that mildly dysplastic dog with the six normal littermates is overall our best option. Striking a balance between being a genetic purist and doing what is best for the breed overall can be akin to walking on a very high tightrope. Knowledge and experience come into play in these situations, and the more you have of both the better equipped you will be to make intelligent decisions.
There is something about every dog that we would like to improve. This is the challenge of dog breeding, to make improvements to the weak points without losing the strengths we already have in each individual. It’s a game of give and take and the reason that the perfect dog has yet to be created.
Before we can try to go forward and improve in the next generation, we have to recognize where the strengths and weaknesses lie in the dog we are looking to breed, and then go seek a dog that compliments her. Here’s a secret, breeding dogs to one another that are at opposite ends of the spectrum in a particular characteristic does not produce one in the middle! In other words, breeding a dog that is smaller than normal to a dog that is larger than normal will not produce dogs in the mid-range of size. It is much more likely to produce some big ones and some small ones. Always breed towards the norm, not two opposite extremes to one another. If you have a smallish female and feel that you need to increase size, then find a dog for her that is well up in the normal size range for the breed and that has siblings, parents and grandparents that also are of normal size. Using the one good sized dog from a family of small ones won’t make the size improvement you are hoping for. Again, this is where knowledge of siblings and pedigree depth is vital to making intelligent breeding decisions. This concept holds true for any characteristic you are seeking. A dog that has a particular characteristic will be much more likely to reproduce it if he comes from a family of dogs with great strength in that area. When you put prospective pedigrees together to study, pay particular attention to the four grandparents, as it is their traits that you are most likely to see in the resultant litter.
Line breed or out cross?
There are reasons to line breed, reasons to out cross, and even reasons to occasionally inbreed, and those reasons are often dependant on the individual breed you are working with. Some breeds of dogs have such limited gene pools that seeking to breed dogs that are physically complimentary, but as unrelated as possible, is the best way to preserve genetic diversity and health for the long term of the breed. Sometimes a breed gets bottlenecked by a syndrome known as ‘frequently used sire syndrome’ and breeders are soon faced with few options for opening up pedigrees. It’s a wise breeder that sees these syndromes developing and avoids falling into the trap of losing genetic diversity due to them, regardless of how tempting that frequently used sire might be.
In a breed that has multiple families to work with, line breeding to set positive traits is a useful tool because once the trait has been firmly established, out crossing to another family to maintain genetic diversity is possible. Common line breeding combinations are uncle/niece, grandsire/granddaughter and cousin to cousin. Just be careful that the actual dog that you are line breeding on and not just the parents of the litter possesses the trait that you are trying to establish in your family, or you will be sadly disappointed in the outcome. Once you have your closely line bred individual, then breed that individual out to a dog of another family that is also line bred for the specific trait you worked so hard to set, and then breed the resultant offspring from that out cross combination back into your own family.
Inbreeding is generally not something that should be attempted unless you are intimately familiar with many generations of the pedigree you are working with. Extremely close breedings can set positive characteristics but they can also set negative ones and make them nearly impossible to eradicate. Know that you are working with a pedigree that is really free of temperament and genetic problems before you attempt to do a breeding such as half brother/sister or parent to sibling, or you could be faced with a nightmare of problems that are the result of combinations of a few identical genes being expressed, even if those problems didn’t exist in the parents of the litter.
Putting it all together
There are so many things to consider when you are planning a breeding. Probably what is most important is to keep the whole dog and the benefit to the breed in the long run uppermost in importance when you are making your final decisions. Make the breeding that you strongly feel will do no harm to the breed, not the one that might benefit your show record in the short term but is riddled with question marks in the health or temperament department. Current breeders are the caretakers of their chosen breeds and are charged with preserving and protecting them for the future. Your job is not to change your breed, but to hand it on to the next generation of breeders in as good as, or better, shape than it was when it was handed to you.