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Are We Taking the Animal Out of Animal Husbandry?

Animal husbandry is defined as the agricultural practice of breeding and raising livestock. As dog breeders we control and manipulate the reproduction of our dogs for our own use (whether that be as show dogs, working dogs or family companions), so while we might cringe at having our beloved dogs referred to as livestock, they do in fact fall into the broad definition of that category.

I readily admit to being an old-school dog breeder. I was brought up in the sport by longtime Sporting dog breeders who regularly both worked and showed their gun dogs. I was also raised by parents who kept and shot over a variety of upland game bird dogs. These were the people responsible for ingraining in me my beliefs about how to breed, raise and maintain a healthy, sound, temperamentally suitable family of dogs.

I learned early on that having a family of dogs as described above meant utilizing the concept of survival of the fittest. If a dog didn’t fit its purpose and competently do the job for which it was intended, it was removed from the gene pool. This is when dog breeding really became a form of animal husbandry.

The first puppies born at my parents’ house was a litter of Brittany (Spaniels). I was about 10 years old. Mom and Dad went to work, I went to school and Suzie was in her big kennel behind the garage, where she whelped her litter of 12 puppies in a secure dog house filled with straw. She did this all on her own with absolutely no human intervention.

When we all arrived home for the day, we went out and visited Suzie and her new family. Right away we noticed that one puppy was quite small and not doing well. It wasn’t pink and warm like the others.

We took the puppy into the house and, being a kid in love with her dogs, I made a futile attempt at warming the puppy and keeping it alive. The puppy died shortly thereafter and Suzie raised her family of 11 remaining puppies completely on her own. For me, this was lesson No. 1 — nature knows best.

I wonder how many of you modern dog breeders who just read that account of Suzie and her puppies think my parents were negligent dog owners? Probably many of you were horrified by the story and the fact that anybody would leave a bitch alone to whelp. While I’m certainly not suggesting that you do, I also hope you realize that many breeders still believe that their dogs should have the natural instincts and ability to mate, whelp and raise a litter with little or no human help.

Springing immediately to mind are the coonhound breeders and the sled dog breeders in the north. These people generally want dogs that are hardy, healthy and have strong survival instincts. Those that don’t fit the bill don’t stay in the program.

Over the past few decades, science has given us many tools to utilize in dog breeding. Frozen semen, fresh chilled semen, artificial insemination, semen implantation, progesterone testing, whelping monitors and improvements in caesarean deliveries are all readily available to us. Have we stopped to wonder if we are doing our dogs, and future breeders, a favor by utilizing all of these modern tools?

I breed Sporting dogs, so my opinion may be skewed by the fact that I deal with a breed that is phenotypically very capable of natural breeding and the whelping and rearing of litters. That said, I do look around in my dog breed and see a lot of early sterility in males, difficulty in getting bitches in whelp, poor whelpers and some that are not much in the capable brood bitch department.

I am a strong believer that good, natural instinctive breeding and whelping is an inherited trait. I want my stud dogs to know when to breed a bitch (no progesterone for natural breeding at my house), my bitches to stand to be bred when they are ready, and for them to be easy whelpers and loving, caring and careful brood bitches. Bitches such as these are, in the words of the late Anne Rogers Clark, “pearls of great price.”

Many breeders today routinely use fresh chilled semen, and rarely breed their stud dogs naturally. While obviously an effective tool for breeds where shipping is difficult or unavailable, I’d prefer to see the bitches that my stud dogs are servicing and experience their temperaments firsthand whenever possible.

With the advances that have been made in successful frozen semen breeding, my question is: if we continually use dogs from the past for breeding, how will our dog breeds go forward? I surely believe that the most useful and successful sires in a breed should be collected for careful future use, but is the wholesaling of semen from a long dead sire really good for a breed?

If you never saw the dog that you plan to use, how do you know that it is a good choice for your bitch? And if you are using semen from a dog that is still alive but went sterile at an unnaturally early age, are you setting yourself up for more generations of fertility problems?

And what about dogs that are never bred naturally? Instead they are artificially or surgically inseminated, and the C-section scheduled on the same day that the breeding is done, whether the reason is lack of sex drive or inability to naturally breed or whelp. Sectioned litters have to be carefully monitored and introduced to their dams, which often have no idea that the puppies are theirs or what to do with them.

I’m neither lazy nor cheap when it comes to my dogs. I choose to think that I am realistic, and that after 40 years in the same breed I have a family of healthy, energetic, strong eager breeders and whelpers because of how I have chosen the dogs to go forward with in my breeding program.

I’ve never had a young dog go sterile and I’ve never (knock on wood, I know) had a dog that needed a Caesarean section. My bitches whelp their puppies with little fuss, clean them up, line them up and look at me as if to say, bye, thanks for being here, see you in four weeks. 

Are we letting science overtake nature? Or is it really the wave of the future? Personally, I don’t think we should lose sight of the ANIMAL in animal husbandry.

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