Responsible Breeding

Five things you think know about breeding (but you’re wrong)

1) Linebreeding is better than outcrossing.

I’m sorry, but that is the biggest piece of total crap on earth and if I could change ONE thing about dog breeding that would be it.

This is population ecology 101: A diverse population is healthier (and this means REALLY healthier, not whether your meerkat passed his hip tests) than an inbred one. You know what one of the very first and most important things scientists do when they’re trying to determine whether a population is going to become extinct? They look at inbreeding. If you have two otherwise identical populations – same numbers, same food source, same conditions and natural disasters, if the diverse population would be extinct after ten years, the inbred population will be dead after seven.

Linebreeding reduces genetic diversity. That’s why breeders like it. You get more consistent results when you linebreed. However, you are hamstringing the ability of your population to thrive over time. You’ll do great in the show ring during your lifetime, which is why linebreeding has been so lauded. But it’s making the typical mistake humans make, which is forgetting that anybody exists before or beyond them.

Think about it – if all but two of your dogs had been wiped out by a fire ten years ago, would you just breed the two of them and the daughters back to their father and now, ten years later, say you’re OK? Of course not. Now think, if you could somehow live for three hundred years, which means the period from WWII from now would be just a small part of your breeding effort, would you still be linbreeding the populations that came out of the 40s with seven or eight individuals?

But that’s what we do, and that’s what is said to be the “best” breeding. Make no mistake. It is the BEST breeding only for producing show winners during your lifetime. If that’s what you care about, if that’s what your legacy is, then go on doing it. Otherwise, forget what somebody told you the best breeding was and breed for the longevity and survival of your entire population. That means sound to sound, then preferring outcrosses, then preferring very loose breedings, then preferring tight breedings, and avoiding inbreeding unless there is absolutely no other choice.

2) If you health-test, you’re producing healthier dogs.

If you health-test, you’re looking at a certain aspect of your dogs. LOOKING at a CERTAIN aspect of YOUR dog. You are not changing anything. You have not yet improved anything. You may, in fact, go on to torpedo the longevity of over a thousand dogs throughout your lifetime; I have no idea and neither do you, and that’s the truth.

A health test is a data point. Hundreds and hundreds of health tests over ten or twenty years are just data points. They have nothing to do with you. Where you come into it is if you can understand those data points and use those data points to make decisions that change things.

I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands, of breeders health-test their dogs. I know of probably ten thousand more. I’ve seen a bare handful who have genuinely made a positive difference in the health of their breed. The majority of them are not known for “health testing.” I know a slightly bigger handful who are famous for producing or buying a dog who radically injured the overall health and longevity of a breed or variety. In that bigger handful all of them “health tested.”

a) Understand the data points.

b) Use the data points to draw conclusions that are supported by evidence.

c) Make decisions that are based on that solid evidence to turn things in the right direction.

If you are not absolutely solid on all three steps, you are not making any good changes except by bare accident. You’re just flailing. And if you’re going to flail, it might be a good idea to not base your decisions on those factors. Base the decisions on data you CAN see, CAN understand, and that DO have a basis in solid evidence. Unsurprisingly, that’s pretty much the way all good breeders have been breeding since the beginning of time, and why so many do so much good completely without the existence of x-rays and DNA tests… and why you can do so much wrong when you forget what you’re looking at in real life and decide to breed based on those things.

3) Lots of show homes mean you’ve succeeded.

Lots of show homes means you convinced lots of people that you had show puppies. The word “convinced” should not be taken lightly. Sometimes it was your effort, sometimes their effort, sometimes their mentors’ effort. Sometimes it was the pedigree, your reputation, your lack therof, sometimes the dog or the bitch. Sometimes it was based on solid evidence; often it was not. Sometimes it was based on nothing more than the fact that you’re convinced that show homes are better and so you held on to a ton of puppies until you found people who were willing to tell you they would show the dogs.

There’s nothing wrong with lots of show homes. But there’s nothing particularly right either. It’s an adjective, not a medal.

4) Dogs who can’t make it in show homes are usually great performance prospects.

You have to be harder on performance prospects than show prospects. Show dogs, while beng shown, live a pretty soft life. If they get somewhat injured you’re likely to not even know it. Performance dogs, on the other hand, are athletes. Poor biomechanics leads to lifelong pain and compounded injuries.

I very much prefer the idea of separating puppies into performance and pet prospects, THEN subdividing into show picks. If it’s a show+pet (which certainly does happen), be honest about it. If it’s performance-minus-show, celebrate.

5) Breeding for the “pet market” is wrong.

Breeding for the “pet market” is the only market that matters. Every single one of us SHOULD be a pet owner 99% of the time and a show owner 1%, and every single one of us, even if we don’t act like pet owners, relies on a pet market. They’re where we put our failures, which end up presented to the world in a much, much more effective way than our successes.

If you realize that, if you really internalize the fact that we’re putting our rejects out there, effectively on TV, while our successes may be seen by a few of our friends but usually by nobody in the “real world,” you realize that there is no more important group of people than our pet buyers.

Pet buyers are also the ones who keep us sane and humble. They don’t care if you’ve finally succeeded in getting an entire litter of round feet. They will NEVER know, their entire lives, what round feet are. They care if the dog lives a happy normal life in the suburbs. They also, regardless of what you may think, very rarely care about health testing and they don’t know a lot about longevity. The meteoric rise of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the enduring appeal of anything involving a Golden Retriever is incredible evidence of that. Those are not dogs who are going to live a particularly long life and they’re not dogs who are going to have no issues diagnosed by vets. They are dogs who are delightful and easy to live with and who adore their owners and everyone else. If you are selling pet puppies, THAT is where you will be seen to succeed or fail by 99.9% of all humans.

It places a huge burden on us to educate owners when we have a breed who has a hard time doing those things and should not be penalized for not being able to do them. But even with education we rely on a steady supply of NON-breeding, NON-experienced homes so our breeds can survive. The overwhelming majority of all the dogs you ever produce will be in those homes. Forgetting that and thinking your responsibility is to your show-breeding peers is to your great detriment.

When you breed, you must breed first for your breed AS A WHOLE. Then for yourself, with your conscience and your good mind, your understanding of evidence and solid decisions. Then for your pet buyers, knowing that you have responsibility to support them forever. Then for your peers – because at three in the morning, your peers are the only ones NOT in your bed, on your phone, or as a still small voice in your heart.

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27 Comments

  • Reply Julie January 25, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Thank you for number 4 alone! Performance prospects should be the pick of the litter structurally. How else could you ever expect them to hold up working? It is sadly a very common misconception that “busy” equals performance, when in reality it is more likely the dog isn’t comfortable in their own skin structurally.
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  • Reply Amayon January 25, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Great post, and very thoughtprovoking as always. You drive me to try to be a better breeder and never think Im done learning or knowing

  • Reply Beth F. January 25, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    wow! this is fantastic…nicely done.

  • Reply Raegan January 25, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Someon recently said to me “pet quality doesn’t mean that dog is fit to be a pet, it means show reject,” and I think that can be really true. If you’re not breeding *for* it, you’re not going to *get* “it” except by accident.
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    • Reply KellyK January 26, 2012 at 10:33 am

      That makes a lot of sense. There’s also such a wide range of what “fit to be a pet” might actually mean to make the term less useful. I mean, probably every dog that’s not so fearful or hyper that they can’t function in a house is fit to be somebody’s pet, if you could find the home that matched them. So a breeder could say quite honestly that their show rejects were “pet quality” without putting any effort into making them good pets for a wide range of people, because they *can* be pets.

      Though I would think there would be a lot of overlap with show qualities and pet qualities as far as soundness and temperament and trainability.

  • Reply Kelly January 27, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    THANK YOU.

    *sigh*

    I wish you were a Westie breeder. I wish more Westie breeders were like you. I wish ALL breeders were like you.

  • Reply Erin January 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Just to be the devil’s advocate here, what about breeds who’s proper temperament is not what most people think of as “pet.” We had this {heated} discussion on the Aussie list, and I pretty much was strung up by my toes for even asking what happens when pet homes can’t handle the Aussie temperament? Again, I was playing devil’s advocate there too, as it’s still something I’m pondering.

    I think to a lot of people “good temperament” means Golden-esque. What about the breeds where that temperament is clearly *against* the breed standard. If I had that kind of temperament in my dog, it would be wrong. Aussies are to be aloof, bonded to their people, and reserved. Reserved is not shy, but it is also not going to be petted and fawning over strangers. So, when you say yourself that the Golden is loved by homes and that is how we can judge success, can we really when that compromises our breed?

    Perhaps I missed your point, and if I did, I’d like to know that, but if I’m somewhat on track, how can you reconcile various breed standards that outline a temperament other than what is ideal for a pet home, without just saying the breed is obsolete? Is there an answer? I’m not sure.
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    • Reply KellyK January 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm

      I think that even among “pet homes,” different people want different things in a dog. Some people want a dog that’s protective, some people want a dog that instantly warms up to strangers. Some people want a really active dog even if they aren’t using it for the job the breed traditionally does (for example, they run marathons and want a dog to run with while training, or they’re going to do agility or other dog sports as a hobby rather than a full-time enterprise).

      But, then, I don’t think “good temperament” has to mean Golden-esque, more that it should mean that someone who understands the kind of temperament that dog is supposed to have can live with them happily. (Like, there’s a difference between a protective dog who alert barks a lot and growls at potential threats and one who routinely tries to eat the mailman, and there’s a difference between an aloof dog who hangs out in the bedroom when strange people come over and one who doesn’t tolerate the vet’s office.)

      I wouldn’t think someone breeding working border collies should try to make them acceptable for average pet homes, as long as you have places the dogs who aren’t suited for the main thing you’re breeding for have places they can be successful and happy. But I also don’t think it would be wrong to breed border collies for the subset of the pet market that wants and can deal with super-active dogs (like making the serious running/hiking homes your goal, rather than the working or show homes).

    • Reply Richard August 12, 2013 at 11:50 pm

      This is why all dogs are not suited to all “pet” owners. It is much more important to find the right home than a fast home. I have had Giants for nearly 35 years and BRT for 8. Neither should go to a typlical pet home. People tend to pick a breed because they like the way they look, not because they fit in their life. Most of the rescues I have dealt with were dogs that went to the wrong home, people that would not do the work required to make these dogs safe and good pets. I end up being able to “fix” them, but everyone would have been happier if they had been directed to a different breed.

      Everyone loves our dogs when we take them out, and they want one. That holds until I explain that by 2 I have around 2,000 hours of training in to them. I ask if they are willing to make that commitment to get the dog they want. Generally the answer is no. So I suggest they find a breed more suited to their life…

      Rich

  • Reply Beth January 29, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Erin, I was thinking something along the lines of what you were, and I think that is part of the reason the Border Collie people pitched a fit at AKC.

    If I’m breeding working Border Collies, I should be breeding for one market: the herding/working farm market. Maybe my less herdy dogs can go in agility homes, or serious running/hiking homes. I might have the occasional quirk of a dog that fits ok in a regular pet home. But if I’m breeding for pets, I’m doing it wrong.

    If I’m a Border Collie breeder, and primarily thinking “how will this dog be in a pet home?” then I will not get great (or even acceptable) working Collies. SImilarly (but for different reasons) a good Chesapeake Bay Retriever makes an AWFUL pet. Most homes can’t hack a Chessie.

    On the flip side, if I’m breeding labs/Goldens/crosses of the two for seeing eye dogs, my “failures” all should make wonderful pets.

    I read from more than one source that search-and-rescue handlers frequently start their search in the shelter, because they are looking for extra high energy dogs that flunked out of pet homes.

    There are some dogs that just always will need to go to active, educated homes and the breeders of those breeds should be keeping their numbers small to match the demand for the working market, and then carefully placing puppies who are not up to snuff for whatever reason.

  • Reply Beth January 29, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    I wanted to add I agree with most of the rest . But it is true that there are more than a few breeds out there where the correct temperament makes for a not-so-good pet, at least in the way most people define pets.

    My parents have a wonderful Chessie from a show/field-trial/working dog breeder (Chessies are one of a handful of breeds where there is not so big a split between working and show lines, though divisions do exist). She is a delight, but she is just a lot of dog. A whole lot of dog. The breeder puts most of her “failure” (i.e., not field-trial material) dogs in active hunting homes. This dog is 10 and if she does not get miles of hiking and/or swimming every week, she is difficult to live with. She also is the type of dog for whom “testing limits” as an adolescent meant growling and showing of teeth at her family (never at guests). This is a breed developed to retrieve geese all day, in frigid water and high waves, for professional hunters, then guard the boat while the owner went off somewhere else. It’s not possible to reconcile that purpose with “pet home.”

  • Reply melissa February 7, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Thank you for this observation: “It places a huge burden on us to educate owners when we have a breed who has a hard time doing those things [ being delightful and easy to live with and adoring their owners and everyone else] and should not be penalized for not being able to do them. I love my two Cardigan girls and sometimes feel a little weary explaining that they are naturally a little stand-offish and that their dislike/fear/distrust of strange dogs is not unusual (for Cardis) and that while my over the Bridge Golden Retriever and Shepherd-mix could eat out of the same bowl without any trouble, it is not unusual for Cardis to need to eat in separate rooms. I’m glad I found your blog.

  • Reply Amanda @ Photo 51 February 13, 2012 at 4:05 am

    I think your comments on line breeding are interesting. I have been very curious for a while as to just how much line breeding goes on simply because breeders don’t trust “outsiders” enough to be confident in outcrosses. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just wondering how much it influences decisions. There are breeds where being totally open and honest about problems (Berners with BernerGard comes to mind) and really truly working to eliminate problems in the breed is very strong, and then there are breeds where everybody knows that lots of breeders out there are covering SOMETHING up (even while half of them are lecturing about how we should all be honest about everything). When you breed back to something you know and have worked with before you at least have a fairly good idea that you’re not doubling on a problem, but if you are afraid to trust anybody to be honest about what’s behind their dogs, that has to be a pretty big influence on a breeding decision. Especially in cases where a person currently has lines with relatively few problems – it’s very scary letting in the unknown.

  • Reply Elaine Reynolds January 9, 2013 at 7:42 am

    According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, linebreeding is a great way to maintain diversity. My experience is with a rare breed with a small population and large gene pool. Our breed was bred by different families as a landrace breed that assisted them on their farms. They were (and I hope never will be) an AKC breed.

    The families that developed my breed down through the centuries needed and preferred different traits in their dogs, and with no breed club to beat them over the head if they deviated from some imaginary “standard”, the different bloodlines are quite different. Linebreeding in different directions factors in time (unlike the idea of breeding to only the most unrelated possibility according to the COI, and makes sure that your breed has positive and negative assortative crosses far into the future.

    People are different and people’s needs and preferences are different. Dogs come in an assortment. This AKC mindset that there is one dog that is “the best” for everyone, is flaky. It is a much happier situation (and more mature) to be able to say “my dog is best for me because ….” rather than “my dog is better than yours”. Linebreeding is great because when you get too little diversity, you still have a possibility of an outcross in other lines in the breed!

    • Reply Joanna Kimball January 13, 2013 at 10:24 pm

      The ALBC, while fantastic in some ways, was not founded by anything approaching experts in population genetics. A whole bunch of the early members were/are chicken breeders; purebred chicken breeders are one of the most rabidly in favor of inbreeding (they’re worse than ANYTHING – worse than import Arab breeders even) in the entire world of anything-breeding. So I am not surprised that they’d say that.

  • Reply Bonnie Norris March 24, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    I just posted my chagrin at a blog puporting that in breeding of pure bred dogs is a good thing.

    All purebred dogs are in bred. Yes, it may get consistency of type but the price is an ever shrinking gene pool and a dependency on veterinary care to keep these dogs going.

    If I should ever breed a dog, it will be as far an outcross as I can get.

    Thanks for a alternative view that values statistical proof.

    Even the ancients knew inbreeding was not a good thing.

  • Reply Anna August 8, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    EXCELLENT, well reasoned piece. I especially like #1. The idea that “linebreeding” is the only way to get animals which resemble each other is ridiculous. Wild animals of the same species look alike via selection, not inbreeding. Same reason the old land race dogs also are similar to each other, because that phenotype is what works in a given environment & is therefore the phenotype that survives to breed & raise young. Breeding similar type to similar type is just as likely to produce similar type as is linebreeding, but without the cost to genetic health.

    The point about performance is a good one, too. In performance dogs, soundness matters MOST of all & performance people look more critically at structure than any show person. A dog with a weak structure CANNOT do the job effectively, no matter how pretty or typey it might be. This is why so many breeds can develop a freakishly exaggerated “show type” which you will almost never encounter in the performance world, & when you do, it will not be competing anywhere near the same level as the “performance type” dogs. If a show-line GSD with its exaggerated angles, topline, & movement was as sound & athletic as a working line GSD, then you would see show line dogs working as K9s, winning German herding trials, & excelling in performance sports. But you don’t. The top performing GSDs invariably have a more moderate structure, because that is what is sound.

    The only point you missed is temperament. This is where a lot of performance people fall down as often as the show people. Performance people, being trainers, tend to be able to make a lot out of a little in terms of temperament & they will often breed crazy drive while forgetting to also focus on stability, resulting in dogs which cannot function in the real world without massive amounts of careful management. You see this less in the working dog world (by “working”, I mean people who rely on their dogs to perform some task not directly related to dogs, such as stock owners who utilize herding & guardian dogs, service dog users, hunters who need to put meat on the table, etc.) since dogs which are actually employed have to cope with the real world & may be owned by people who *don’t* do nothing but train dogs all day. A herding dog which has to be crated out of sight of the sheep when he’s not actively herding or he will scream until he’s hoarse & claw at the walls until he’s bloody is not much good on a small working farm where the farmer may only need the sheep moved from pasture to pasture once a week, regardless of how perfectly the dog works the sheep while he’s actually working. A working herding dog has to have an off switch! Dogs which do well as working dogs may not cut it as pets due to the traits which are acquired to be good working dogs, but they still tend to be reasonable, thinking animals with brains equal to their drives.

  • Reply Jessica Cargill August 8, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    I don’t think that being a working dog excludes the ability to be a performance dog. In fact, breeding for a Renaissance type dog that is capable of wearing many hats is more challenging and worthwhile. Breeding for extreme drive can frequently produce dogs that are totally useless as working dogs, in fact – neurological disorders like BCC and OCD are very prevalent in working lines of border collies and kelpies, and that’s quite likely a result of doubling down on trial dogs to try and produce drivier and drivier dogs.

    After all, if only 1% of the market are for high-level working dogs, why are you trying to produce litters of dogs with 80% high-strung, high-maintenance, neurotic dogs?

    Working ability and calm, level temperament are not mutually exclusive. I’m not sure why people think it is. Temperament is not a sliding two dimensional scale between “working” and “pet” – it’s quite complex and determined by a multitude of different factors, and I know quite a few dogs (yes, anecdotally, but the exception disproves the “rule”) that are quite calm and controlled even if they aren’t exercised for hours a day for a period of time, and then can turn on to doing very hard work consistently when it’s called for. That, to me, is the ideal working dog.

    • Reply Jessica Cargill August 8, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      “I don’t think that being a working dog excludes the ability to be a performance dog. ”

      Uh,

      Pet dog. I meant Pet dog, not performance dog. Sorry.

    • Reply Joe GarP November 15, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      Exactly!!! I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Reply Amanda in Maine August 9, 2013 at 12:51 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more about number four. Since my passion is agility and obedience with my corgis, that is what I focus on–though I do dabble in the breed ring. When it comes to matching families the pet vs performance split is where I start. And I have sent dogs worthy of the breed ring in to pet homes. At least for me, I get far more calls from folks looking for companions than breed show prospects

  • Reply Lori Rimmer August 10, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Hi – I don’t know you and have only just started reading your blog – which I will have to get back to later after bathing/grooming and cleaning the puppy pen – but from everything I *have* read KUDOS….both your style of writing and your content is totally awesome. As someone who has been in dogs since the late 70’s and gone through so many stages and found myself landing in the land of finally grasping my ignorance 🙂 I truly identified with your description of your first litter.
    Looking forward to reading it all later~!

  • Reply margaret zacher August 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    you have a lot of merit in several of the areas you talk about.. but some appears to be ranting.. Linebreeding, Inbreeding and Outcrossing all have their place.. and not one is better than the other.. its the breeder that makes is bad or good.. as are several of your other subjects.. The Breeder should be breeding for themselves first.. not the show market.. not the pet market.. but we know that is not always the case.. our companions should be structurally and mentally sound no matter where they go.

    • Reply Joe GarP November 15, 2013 at 7:44 pm

      “Linebreeding, Inbreeding and Outcrossing all have their place.. and not one is better than the other.. its the breeder that makes is bad or good.. ”

      Not really because the first two (line and inbreeding) carry more risks than the latter (outcrossing), specially because of how dog breeds were developed (small number of founders and heavy use of inbreeding) and are maintained (closed population). Also you’re forgetting that under the current system, dog breeders don’t have the choice (well, not if you want to keep your dogs as part of the breed genepool) and can’t make use of outcrossing, and I mean true outcrossing, as in crossbreeding, not cross-strain breeding, which frankly is just loose linebreeding (inbreeding).

  • Reply Jan Sutherland August 14, 2013 at 3:36 am

    The following is just my opinion of course and I am truly open to hearing the point of view of others. But…my mother bred great danes for over 20 years…she was x-raying hips in 1965…and Great Dane breeders have been x-raying hips since then…with NO DISCERNIBLE reduction in the occurrence of displaysia. I bred standard poodles for over 30 years…I, and the majority of my fellow breeders, tested for sebatious adenitis…with NO DISCERNIBLE reduction in the occurrence of SA in standard poodles. These are just two disorders…I could say the same about most of them, with many of them increasing despite vigilant health testing. And, now, because of the reasons the blogger talks about in #1 we are seeing an INCREASE of dominant disorders (only one parent carries the trait and producers that trait 50 % of the time) such as bi-lateral renal agenesis. That is when puppies are born with no kidneys. None…they die within three hours. This is were we are going if we continue with the current practice of breeding within a closed population. Health testing will not stop or slow the decent of our purebred dogs. I, personally, would take the ideas laid out in #1 and move it one step further…in my opinion you cannot out cross within most of the breeds anymore. They are a closed population that is beyond homozygotic. We are at the end of a very freaky 100 year inbreeding experiment that is NOT going well. It did not help European royalty and it is not helping our dogs. And unless something gives purebreds will descend into massive genetic breakdown. It is past time that we start allowing a REAL discussion on what we are doing to our dogs…or watch as they swirl silently down the toilet bowl.

  • Reply Elizabeth Redfern August 14, 2013 at 4:10 am

    It is really all about selection. The use of line breeding, outcrossing and so on is just how you get the animals you select from. Nature has two rules, be lucky and be successful. We want to sell dogs, show them, hunt them and we do not select enough. Every puppy in a litter is equal we feel but often no puppy is worthy. Wild animals do not sit around and contemplate their pedigrees. They are there because they were successful, they met a certain criteria. To create a species the foundering animals had to have shared a lot in common, that is, be related. Selection, ruthless and hard, created a successful result. Many species do die out just as many dogs lines should. When breeders get confused and think they are producing pet puppies to fill a niche as an aside or an aide to financing their top performance or show dogs, they begin not to select. All dogs of a certain breed are related. They have to be to be a breed. Top breeders must copy nature and select rigorously from what they breed by whatever formula or tradition they follow.

    • Reply Anna August 18, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      Members of the same species don’t look alike because they’re related. They look alike because that is the phenotype which has been proven through natural selection to thrive well enough to breed in that particular environment. It’s called evolution, not linebreeding.

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