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Thoughts On Breeding -- Ethics And Success

By Joe Maitland

This article originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of COONHOUND BLOODLINES

For several years I have pondered the mysteries - the why and how of coonhound breeding. Over the years I’ve tried, what I believe, a representative hound of each the family strains within my breed of choice. Because my opinions are limited to the few individuals I have experience with and, to a certain extent, success in the Nite Hunt sport is indirectly correlated with “political correctness” (i.e., “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”), I will refrain from mentioning any certain names or breeding.

What I’ve found is that amongst the strains inherent physical traits seem to reoccur time and time again. What a revelation, eh? We all know these reoccurring traits are attributed to genetics. But that’s not the whole picture. To make a concerted effort to honestly understand why these things occur, and consequently why certain strains of hounds are successful in their trailing endeavors, there is a broader spectrum of subjects to consider. To me, they are ethics in breeding, physical genetics, direction in breeding, and the physical environment.


We all have read, in my own case, while attempting to stay warm in this brutal Wisconsin off season, about the breeder who achieves 90 percent success rate in the puppies he produces. I often wonder what success is. If his main stud dog or brood bitch is a Grand Nite Champion, to be successful, must all their pups achieve that same level of achievement? Or does success mean that these pups grew up to please the expectations of the buyer? In essence, at what level of achievement and to whose perception of that level must a certain dog need to conform to make that dog “successful?”

If I buy a dog and that dog lays in front of the fireplace for its entire life, and I’m happy with it, is that the same level of success as that expected by the serious competition hunter? Well, that argument will go on till the end of time and never find a solution. At least not as long as there are pleasure hunters, big game hunters, competition hunters, experienced hunters, inexperienced hunters, and running game hunters all looking for their particular perfect dog.

Through my travels over the last several years to some of the larger hunts such as Autumn Oaks and several of the breed days, it has become blatantly obvious that perceptions of adequacy in hounds differ greatly between breeders and hunters. As you walk the grounds and follow the card, you will notice quite the opposite than you imagined when reading the magazine ads. You will notice the grandeur associated with certain names and figures seems to fade when you have the opportunity to witness these dogs or men and women in action.

Consequently, the animals involved take on a more realistic persona, contrary perhaps, to the mind of the dog’s promoter. Which leads us to what I call the “Yardstick Theory”. One can only scale the ability of a dog by comparing it to a previous benchmark, a “yardstick,” if you may. What one man considers the best dog he’s had, the next man would refuse to feed.

This phenomenon leads to kennel blindness, which becomes a lethal infection when utilized by a breeder. Kennel blindness occurs when inadequacies or “holes” in a strain or individual are looked over or accepted. Likely due to pride or perhaps lack of exposure, this is the vice that curses the advancement of all the breeds. Kennel blindness is not segregated to the breeders on the front page each month, nor does it solely preside in the backyards of pleasure hunters across the country. It is everywhere and, because of it, traits such as roughness, laziness, poor scenting ability and over-independence will continue to rear their ugly heads in whelping boxes for years to come. We, as breeders, need to become exposed to excellence in dog work, and not drag any hang-ups or lack of humility into the stud pen. Only then will coonhound breeding enjoy some of the successes that bird dog breeders have found in the past.

While success in breeding is subjective, ethical practices are not. There are those who will trade papers on dogs and lie about what they actually produce. I heard tell once that a well-known breeder had told a buyer that he would stand behind a pup he sold if and only if, when the failed animal was returned, it was not branded or tattooed. I thought to myself, why is this so? Perhaps because he intends to resale that dog to some future unsuspecting buyer and the fact by which may be more easily concealed? This is an example of poor ethical practices.

Inevitably, however, a breeder can not be held completely accountable for failed matings. When a first cross is made, a breeder can only attempt to pair a mating of two dogs that possess an acceptable amount of traits he seeks to replicate. But if that first cross does not produce an acceptable percentage of “successful” offspring, it now becomes the breeder’s fault when the cross is made for the second time. That is the dividing line between reputable breeders and those who breed because they have a male and female in the kennel. Reputable breeders learn from their mistakes and move on.


When a puppy is selected, the first consideration should be whether the pup has enough older siblings that have turned out to be the type of hound the buyer is expecting to get. Forget for now what the stud has produced from different crosses. The male only contributes 50 percent on the average to the genetic makeup of the pup. The same can be said for a brood bitch; however, the mother does seem to influence the environment that the pups are subjected to much more so than the sire.

When a conception takes place, both the mother and father donate single chromosomes. However, these chromosomes contain both dominant and recessive genes. When paired together, dominant genes mask recessive genes but do not destroy them. The recessive genes are present to become evident in future generations.

It goes something like this. Let’s say we cross Barney with Sue. Both Barney and Sue are excellent tree dogs, and we want to see this same trait in the pups. One plus one equals two, right? Well, let’s see.

A = an oversimplified generic “strong treeing” gene
b = an over simplified generic “weak treeing” gene

As shown in the following equation (over-simplified, mind you), the “A” gene is dominant and visually evident in both the mother and father. The “b” gene is recessive (signified by a lower case letter) and is not visually present in either of the parents, but both parents carry the gene. Ab signifies this for both the father and mother.

Father MotherOffspring
Ab + Ab =AA, Ab, Ab, bb

Puppy #1 (AA) possesses strong traits for treeing and in fact is double dominant in this respect. Therefore, he is good breeding material because in successive generations the percentage of offspring sired by him will possess a dominant “A” gene.

Puppy #2 & #3 (Ab) possess treeing traits similar to the mother and father. They might make decent breeding stock, but the weak treeing trait continues to be carried by them and will inevitably show up again in future generations. This is probably what the majority of the breeding stock in the coonhound circles can be compared to.

Puppy #4 (bb) possesses no strong treeing genes from either of the parents. In his case, he got a double dose of the hidden weak treeing genes carried by the mother and father and is now double recessive in this respect. He is one of the 25 percent of the litter that bears no resemblance to his parents because his genes are masked by the dominant “A” gene his parents have that never got passed on. He will never make good breeding material.

Now, let us apply this to real life scenarios. Puppy #1 was sold to a young kid who had never raised a coon dog before. At four months old, young “AA” was beaten up bad by the neighbor’s rough dog at the tree. And then when the coon was shot out, the coon got a hold of that pup and scared him pretty bad. Well, that’s the end of promising young “AA”. He ended up chained in the backyard for the next ten years until he died bored and overweight.

Puppies #2 and #3 were kept by the breeder and raised up right. Both dogs made decent hounds, but likely not quite as good as the either of the parents because they had to split time in the woods. Then one night, Puppy #2 (Ab) is crossing the road while learning to trail a coon and along comes a pickup truck driving too fast for conditions. End of promising young Ab. In the meantime, Puppy #3 goes on to be the breeder’s next stud dog. He’s not as good as his daddy, but his owner is too kennel blind to mention that in his ads, so he proceeds to sucker breed a few females, some good, some bad. His lifetime percentage of successful reproduction is somewhere around 20 to 40 percent, depending on who you ask.

As for Puppy #4, now he really got the good life. Puppy #4 was kind of a runt and because there were so many ads for puppies in the magazine the month he was born, there were not enough calls to sell him. So he was given to the neighbor. Puppy #4 lived a real dog’s life. Of course he never made a coon dog; he never had it in him. Puppy #4 either got left behind in the kennel because he started slow or got culled at an early age. Perhaps, though, he went on to take up kennel space until his brother over at the breeder’s house finally had a name that was made for him by the breeder. Well, to jump on the bandwagon, never mind if Puppy #4 is any good and he’s a full brother to Puppy #3, he should be bred! And they're probably closer in proximity than other potential breeders, so low and behold Puppy #4 gets to pass on his unwanted genetic profile to poison the strain for many years to come.

Of course this equation is oversimplified. In reality, there are thousands of genes that combine to make a dog. Each dog is a product of those who came before him. We also can not solely signify a favorable trait such as “strong tracking ability” by one gene, such as “A”. Rather, strong tracking ability is probably a combination of many genes that combine at the point of conception to control the physical makeup of the nose, the ears, and the parts of the brain that interpret different scents. Geneticists are learning now that some traits skip generations or show up many generations later, such as baldness in humans or albinism.

We all were following the Top 20 Stud Dogs in each of the breed issues this year. This was interesting reading and I’m sure sparked some fiery debates around the tailgate this summer. I found it particularly revealing to crunch the numbers a little differently. Take for instance you figure the percentage of offspring of each stud that made Nite Champion or Grand Nite Champion rather than merely totaling the number of Champions produced. You will notice some shocking statistics pop out.

First of all, the six breeds were nearly equal by percentage of titled dogs produced among the top studs across the breeds. This tells us that none of the particular breeds are consistently much better than the rest. Some just have more representatives out there. The volume of offspring varied greatly, but the percentages did not. In fact, if the owners of some of those dogs had known the results of the search prior to publishing, they may have wished those results would never have been posted. I’m sure it made liars of more than one. Not all, mind you. The successes enjoyed by many of those breeders are much to be proud of.

Remember the mating equation? Until modern day science catches up with natural selection, we will always be dealing with percentages. Success in breeding will forever be a guessing game; a dice roll on the craps table. The best we can do as breeders is to load the dice. How is this done? Well, linebreeding, inbreeding, and out-crossing are three methods.

By linebreeding, the attempt is to produce more homogeneous, or “consistent,” litters of puppies by crossing different combinations within a strain such as uncles to nieces, aunts to nephews, or cousin to cousin. This minimizes the introduction of unforeseen traits from a different strain of dogs. This seems to work by most breeders’ standards and has seen great successes in some strains of dogs. The isolated gene pool within that line is replicated and strengthened by culling away the “double recessive” characteristics. The good are bred, the bad are culled. Consequently, what’s left for breeding are representatives of the family with favorable genetic traits that run several generations back. This reduces the reoccurrence of hidden traits. These family individuals are homogeneous in nature, meaning they are “like” in genetic makeup. There are fewer surprises when linebreeding.

The downside is that inherent weaknesses within the strain will also reoccur to the same extent as the strengths. It then becomes more difficult to breed these away in future generations.

Inbreeding is an intense form of linebreeding. The idea is to “clone” traits by breeding mother to son, father to daughter, or brother to sister. This has been successful in limited instances but can lead to major problems as well.

The favorable traits are propounded as well as any evidence of unfavorable traits present. Inbreeding seems to amplify characteristics of the grandparents. If a grandmother was a late starter, perhaps all the inbred grandchildren will never start properly. On the contrary, some believe the possibility of producing offspring genetically identical to both parents exists. Physically, inbreeding will lead to sterility at some point. That is medical fact. Inbreeding should only be used when the development of an entire litter can be monitored and the results can be observed in totality. It is then arguably best to out-cross the successes and cull or sterilize any failures.

Out-crossing, in its purest form, would mean two genetically isolated individuals are paired in the hopes of producing offspring with a balance of favorable traits from each strain of ancestors. Seldom does this actually occur in the coonhound world as most strains of hounds can be traced back to some common foundation stock.

There are strains that have been isolated by linebreeding for several generations, but in most cases, a six or seven generation pedigree will show one or more common ancestors in both strains. If you study pedigrees, I think you will find a majority of successful dogs are the product of out-crosses. However, the chances of them consistently producing a consistent range of homogeneous pups is probably less likely than successful linebred stock.


Remember the aforementioned litter of “Ab + Ab” pups? Well, their destiny was written at an early age, but in actuality the fate of all puppies is a result of their environment. The environment of a pup is the strongest determining factor in its development. I have seen promising young dogs ruined by an array of unfortunate physical causes. Parvovirus has claimed many good young dogs; dogs that had all the ability in the world with a heart that couldn’t take the stress. As we all know, cars have taken some of the best hounds any person could own. But the single most detrimental environmental factor is poor training or lack of training.

Inexperienced handlers and some not so inexperienced that should know better, commonly treat hounds as robots rather than animals. If you can teach a dog to shake or roll over, with the help of modern technology, you can certainly train them not to chase unwanted game. Trash runners with a wealth of potential have been spied down the sights of the neighbor’s rifle more than a few times.

Young dogs are more impressionable than many people give them credit for. There’s plenty of information out there about how to properly train young dogs; here is not the place to effectively get into that.


What does the future hold in store for the coon hunting community? Time will only tell. Looking before us, however, we see that the science of genetics is on the verge of dramatic new breakthroughs. Over 50 years ago, Albert Einstein dreamt of the ability to unleash the power contained within the atom. His only wish was that this power would be used for the betterment of mankind and not the destruction of, as time would soon prove possible.

Similarly, the breakthroughs in genetics may be just as volatile as nuclear energy. Cloning is no longer a tacky plot in a Star Trek episode, but rather a reality in practice. The possibility of creating a genetically identical individual is real. Without a doubt, barring government regulation, we will see, in our lifetime, the commercial use of cloning in livestock to increase yield and production.

Genetic alteration is currently being used to prevent disease and prenatal defects. It will only be a matter of time when virtually any genetic trait will be able to be replicated, deleted, altered or multiplied by demand. The registries will be forced to make decisions on how to handle or accept the introduction of these techniques in canine breeding. As members and supporters of these registries, such as UKC, we should consider these issues now, before they are presented before us. The alternative is to bury our heads in the sand and being forced to make irrational decisions when that time comes.

At any rate, we as promoters of our pastime must attempt wholeheartedly to make sound advancements in breeding by raising the bar of ethics and avoid being tempted into the confines of kennel blindness. Only then will the percentages of quality animals be increased.

While doing so, we continue more so than ever to maintain a responsibility to be more honest when dealing with each other in breeding, buying, and selling hounds. By slandering each other as breeders, we allow a corridor through which the anti’s may enter, divide and conquer us. Failing to disclose the weaknesses in our breeding is, in its very essence, dishonest and serves no purpose but to reinforce future vindication by potential buyers.

You see, it is the most humble of breeders who are respected the most. The soft-spoken gracious types who can accept their own weaknesses and strive to improve are those we are attracted to time and time again. Those who find fault in everyone else’s breeding or blame other people for ruining their stock are the one’s likely to move on and leave this sport. Remember that when you buy your next World Champion!

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