That old saying, “My momma didn’t raise no fools,” doesn’t necessarily apply to all of us in the sport of purebred dogs. We all get foolish, full of ourselves and kennel-blind at one time or another in our careers as dog breeders. Regardless of someone’s early success as a breeder, I’ve long felt that you have to get at least 15 years down the road in a breeding program in order to have enough wisdom to look back and see just how many mistakes you have made and realize that you are going to make many more.
I had early success with my English Springer Spaniels. Goodness, my first dog, whelped in 1972, was a multiple BIS and Specialty BOB winner, and a top-producing sire. Boy, didn’t I start out with the world by the tail, and wasn’t I just so smart? As I learned later, not so much. I got extremely lucky with that first dog. He was a natural-born show dog, and I just held on to the end of his lead and let him do his thing. And great, he was an outstanding sire, but I didn’t have anything to do with that, either. He had the genes that clicked with a lot of differently bred bitches. Lucky me, again.
Getting a Wake-Up Call
When you start with a dog like that, time shows you that you probably have nowhere to go but down. I didn’t have a beginning breeding program at all. I had this dog, one of his full sisters and one of his half-sisters. I bred the sister to a top-producing dog in the breed, and though there was one champion in the litter, there were also a myriad of problems that I didn’t see coming. I didn’t see them because I didn’t know nearly enough about the genetics and the history of the pedigrees I was working with. I hadn’t been honest with myself about admitting that there was so much more I needed to learn before I started having litters. The problems that showed up (and fairly early) in that first litter were the beginning of my wake-up call. Oh, and I got more wake-up calls, and shortly.
I very stupidly bred the half-sister to a dog on the opposite coast that I had never seen. But his ads were great, and his photos were quite lovely. His pedigree was mostly West Coast dogs that I had virtually no experience with. (I said I was starting to get a wake-up call, but I didn’t say I was totally awake yet.) Those puppies, though healthy and with good temperaments, were pretty poor quality. They didn’t look much like their mom, and they sure didn’t look like the photos of their sire! How could this be? Here’s how. About six months after that litter was born, my then-husband was in California on business and went to visit the sire of the litter. To say he was a bit taken aback by the actual dog might be an understatement. He really didn’t resemble his photographs at all. Serious dog-breeding lesson number one: Don’t breed to a photograph! Even back then, creative photography existed. This dog had been retouched and photographed at specific angles to make him look much different. When we put all this newly acquired knowledge together, it made perfect sense that the puppies looked as they did. Since that time, I have never bred to a dog that I or my breeding partner (my daughter) have not personally seen, touched and spent time with.
Yet over and over again I see people breeding to dogs that they have never seen in person. One dog in my breed a few years ago was used quite extensively and mostly by people who had not only never seen the dog but had never even seen a photo of him! After being finished by a handler, he went home to the kennel and was never seen again until he was of a fairly advanced age and taken to one Specialty as a Veteran. I actually saw a post on a public forum where someone who had bred to the dog was looking for a photo of him because she had never seen him; and shortly after another person chimed in that she had bred to the dog too and would love to see what he looked like. I almost fell off my chair.
Choosing a Good Stud Dog
Just because a dog has produced a few offspring that you find attractive does not automatically qualify that dog to be the right one for every bitch out there. And if you think it does, then you are not being honest with yourself about what you are doing. Do you really think that your bitch is so perfect that she can be bred to any dog to give you more just like her? Maybe you should step back and take a long look at your bitch. And be brutally honest with yourself about how she stacks up to the breed standard. Maybe you don’t want more just like her. It might be better if you admitted to yourself that there is room for improvement. If you are so blind to your bitch’s faults and failings (and they all have some!), then go to someone who has a long and successful background in the breed and ask for help and advice. In fact, seek out two or three long-time dog breeders, as each will have a different perspective.
People who truly love your breed want to see more good-quality, healthy dogs produced. They know how to think outside the box when breeding. If you run into someone who only wants to talk to you about their own stud dogs, move on. That person doesn’t want to help you do anything but line their own pockets. You do not have to let somebody else tell you what to do, but you should let someone else tell you what they see. They might know far more than you do about the pedigree that you are working with. They may be able to offer up suggestions about what you should be looking to strengthen in your bitch and where you might be able to find the dog or dogs that can do it. If you are just breeding to a dog because some other people bred to it, then you are wearing blinders and not being honest with yourself at all. And guess what, your dogs won’t get better. But you probably won’t realize it. You cannot live on a secluded island in your own mind and be a knowledgeable, successful dog breeder. It takes a village, and there are many people out there who want to help you be part of that community.
Letting Them Go
Back to that second litter of puppies of mine sired by the West Coast dog. Not a single one of those puppies ever hit the show ring. Not only was this a lesson learned about not breeding to an unknown dog, it was also a lesson learned in realizing and admitting that the entire litter needed to go to pet homes. This is a mistake that I’ve seen happen over and over again in our sport. People plan a breeding, have a litter and convince themselves that because the puppies exist, there must be some really good ones to keep and show and go on with. Just because you have a litter of puppies doesn’t mean that there will be one or more in the litter that will be useful to you in moving forward as a breeder. We all breed with the hope that there will be something good enough to keep. But we have to recognize if we are going backward instead of forward. It’s difficult to look at a litter that grew up under your feet and admit to yourself that there really isn’t one in there to move you further ahead.
Be honest with yourself about the quality of your puppies. And if you can’t be, have a puppy party and invite those same breeders that you talked with before when searching for a stud dog. Invite them to look at and watch your puppies and discuss them with you. Get the right people together and you will have a wonderful learning experience. Don’t just put your puppies up on a table, shove them into a stack, look at them in the mirror and convince yourself that you have a keeper. Let others look at them and most importantly watch them on the ground. Have you heard the old adage, “Sell them on the table, pick them on the ground”? Well, it is so true. You can make almost any puppy look good enough on the table to “sell” it. But the honesty in the situation comes when you put that puppy on the ground and stand back and just watch it. Can it carry a correct profile? Does it move freely and easily at a trot with coordination and balance? Does it maintain its proportion on the ground? Eight-week-old puppies should stand and move correctly for their breed. If they don’t at 8 weeks, please don’t try to convince yourself that they will “grow into it.” You will be in for a disappointment.
I am fortunate because I have a breeding partner who happens to be my daughter. I was raised in the sport by wonderful mentors who taught me to be realistic about my dogs above all. I raised my daughter the same way. We are so lucky that we can bounce ideas off one another, discuss plans, look at puppies, make choices and most importantly disagree with one another! We spend hours and hours driving to dog shows discussing our dogs, where we are in our program, what we need to improve and how to go about getting it. We have a very similar eye but some differing priorities, which makes for lively conversation and more learning for both of us.
Realize that even a promising puppy can go wrong at some point during its growth and may not make the grade. Even the best, most well-made puppies can disappoint. Of course, you have to differentiate between a growth spurt and a puppy really losing its early promise. Know the difference and know when to place that dog. Don’t get so invested in it that you convince yourself that it is a great one! I see this again and again too. Bred it, kept it, grew it up, and it has to be a champion even if it goes to 50 dog shows to finish that title. Oh, gosh yes, then by all means breed it because it’s a champion! Any well-trained dog that is in good condition and properly shown that takes more than about 15 to 20 shows to finish is probably not a very good one.
If you are dragging a dog to show after show with poor results, take a step back. Perhaps the dog just isn’t good enough. In that case, let it go to a loving pet home. Try again and keep trying, and keep learning until you have gained the knowledge that will allow you to have confidence in your breeding program and the ability to discuss in breed-specific terms what you are doing and why you are doing it. Recognize that just because a dog has a champion title and its health clearances, it is not necessarily a good breeding prospect. If it took 30 shows to finish a dog in a breed where it only takes six to make a major, and your dog had a very hard time winning those majors, maybe you should step back and honestly assess the quality of the animal that you are considering breeding. Do you want another one that will take so many shows to finish? If not, if you really want to improve the quality of the dogs that you will go forward with, it might be wisest to place that dog with the hard-earned champion title in a pet home and go in a different direction. Disappointing? Yes, but it is absolutely the best thing you could do for yourself and the future of the breed.
We all know that dog breeding is fraught with heartache and setbacks. The only real road to success is the one where you force yourself to be honest about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Make those difficult decisions as a breeder who truly has the best interests of the breed at heart, not as an owner who loves a dog too much to let it go to a wonderful home. Or keep it and love it but don’t breed it. Long, long ago I told my husband something that he has never forgotten. “It’s just as easy to love the great ones as it is to love the mediocre ones.” What I meant was, love them all, but be aware that many dogs will move through our household and few will stay their entire lives. Enjoy them while they are here, but be willing to let them go to make room for progress and improvement. We have lived by that rule for 36 years, and it has served our breeding program very well.
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