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Responsible Breeding

Responsible Breeding

The myth of kennel blindness

Hang out with show breeders for any length of time, and you’ll hear it. “She’s so kennel-blind,” or “Classic kennel blindness.”

What this is supposed to mean is that people fall in love with their own dogs so much that they can’t see what’s wrong with them in terms of conformation. They therefore continue down a path of mediocrity and will never produce the quality that they should.

It’s usually said with great superiority and a little feigned sadness; poor Phyllis, who is so kennel-blind. I’ve never seen a good front come out of her kennel in all the fifteen years I’ve known her.

What kennel-blind has come to be is a nice neat epithet of total dismissal.  “Not only are her dogs crappy, she can’t even SEE that they’re crappy. That is how DUMB she is.” It’s the perfect put-down, a combination of slashing criticism of an entire breeding program AND the person who orchestrated it.

BUT…I have never ONCE, in all the thousands of times I’ve heard this phrase, listened to somebody say “I am kennel-blind.” In fact, I have only ever heard “I am harder on my own dogs than anyone else.” And I think that’s true. We all nit-pick our dogs to death. We are all acutely aware of every hair on the dog that’s not perfect.

So – if a whole ton of people who are not ME are kennel-blind and I am never kennel blind, and that sentence is being repeated across thousands of breeders, what’s the truth?

The truth is that “kennel-blind” really means “She has different priorities than I do.” You can tell this instantly based on the breeders you personally would say are the LEAST kennel-blind. Their dogs tend to look a lot like your dogs, huh? (Or, if you’re a younger breeder, the way you wish your dogs would look.) Their dogs’ strengths just happen to mirror your dogs’ strengths, don’t they?

Here’s why we need to shut the heck up: YOU do not make decisions for people’s breeding programs, and YOU do not have any right to tell them their priorities. The standard lists scores, even – depending on the breed – hundreds, of qualities a dog should have. You as a breeder have the task of putting all of those in a list and prioritizing them. Some do so starting with the head; I may not agree with them, but they’re no less dedicated to the breed than I am. If they put a dog out there who has a gorgeous head and a bad rear, they are no less kennel-blind than I am with the perfect rears and the common heads. I have the right to not breed to their dogs, but I do not have the right to say that they’re stupid and can’t even see what’s in front of them.

Finally, where the heck do we get off implying that it’s wrong to love the FRACK out of our dogs? Of course we should be hopelessly and totally in love with our dogs! If that’s not the kind of breeder you are – if you are completely unsentimental – then fine. But it doesn’t make you a better breeder than someone who is head over heels and sloppy for every single one of their breeding prospects. More power to them, honestly.


Responsible Breeding

Cardigan puppy socialization

If you look at the Cardigan breed across the entire world, let’s be honest with ourselves. They’re a spooky, shy mess. They can’t stand still on the table, they flinch when you reach for them, they hide in corners when you walk in the room. They get a panicked note in their barking when they see strangers.

I believe, ONE HUNDRED MILLION PERCENT, that this is NOT genetic. I believe it’s because most Cardigan breeders don’t socialize their puppies the way you have to socialize a super smart, sensitive, incredibly intuitive, vibey herding dog like a Cardigan.

Socialization has never been preached in the Cardigan world the way it has been in other breeds. Maybe it’s because they’re more rare, or because they’re small enough that a spooky one can be safely managed at home without hurting people. Whatever it is, I see far too many entire litters of puppies kept in ex pens in the corner of the kitchen until they’re five months old and the breeder finally decides to get one or two of them out. There might be a flurry of activity in the week around the puppy party/evals, but after that the puppies meet nobody except family for weeks and weeks on end.

OK – here’s how it should be done, based on every scrap of evidence and data on behavioral success:

Read this link. Now read this link (Chapter 3 is the one I am talking about – the whole thing is well worth reading, but the section that basically addresses “How your breeder should have raised your puppy” is the most important for this discussion).

From the first:

…socialization with an average of 100 different people, of all ages, sizes and shapes, before they go home… daily woods walks from six weeks on… beach walks… swimming…

From the second:

How to Select a Good Puppy
Your prospective puppy should feel thoroughly at ease being
handled by strangers—you and your family. The puppy should
be fully desensitized to sounds before he is four weeks old.
Likewise, his housetraining program should be well underway,
his favorite toy should be a chewtoy (stuffed with puppy chow),
and he should happily and eagerly come, follow, sit, lie down,
and roll over when requested. If these are not so, either your
puppy is a slow learner or he has had a poor teacher. In either
case, look elsewhere.
An essential ingredient of puppy husbandry is regular (several
times a day) handling, gentling, and calming by a wide variety of
people, especially children, men, and strangers. These exercises
are especially important during the early weeks and especially
with those breeds that are notoriously tricky when handled by
strangers—that is, several Asian breeds, plus many herding,
working, and terrier breeds: in other words, most breeds of dog!
The second most important quality in any dog is that he enjoys
interacting with people, and specifically that he enjoys being
handled by all people, especially children, men, and strangers.
Early socialization easily prevents serious adult problems.
Please remember, the single most important quality for a dog
is to develop bite inhibition and a soft mouth during puppyhood.

I have done the above programs for all of my Cardigan litters so far (I did it with the Danes before that). IT IS A FULL-TIME JOB. I am not exaggerating; I found it completely incompatible with working. In my last litter, a family situation kept me from having people come visit puppies. I had to bring every single puppy out with me and find 100 people before they were eight weeks old. I did it (thank God for the holidays), but it about killed me.

It’s also impossible to do solo, once the puppies hit eight weeks and should be experiencing all the things by themselves rather than with their litter. It is killer difficult to find a hundred people – there’s no way you can find four hundred. You’ve GOT to get the puppies out of your home and into new homes or socialization placements (Amanda, Brittany, Bri, and the others, you know how much I adore you).

I cannot do it well and be a great show breeder. I’m third-tier at best and I’ll never be above that. Cardigans cannot be well evaluated at 8 weeks because of the weird growth of a dwarfed dog and because fronts and turnout will fool you. There’s no reliable “puppy puzzle” type eval for Cardigans. You get some idea at 8 weeks, more at 12, and the final decision might be made at six to twelve months. If you get them out the door, you can’t keep them long enough to evaluate a bunch and keep only the one who is going to go great guns in the ring.

But, I would strongly argue, our ambition to be better show breeders MUST take a back seat to this need. There’s nothing wrong with our dogs; it’s our fault that they have this reputation. When are we going to have as much peer pressure to socialize and consistently produce friendly, confident dogs as we do to finish our dogs in the ring? Because until we do, we’re not going to shake this, and it’s bad for our dogs. They don’t live as happy life as they should if they’re meeting every activity with an immediate fear reaction. If it has to be an either-or choice, either socialize well or consistently succeed in the breed/group/BIS ring, which is our responsibility?

Responsible Breeding

How short for dog toenails?

I asked this on Facebook, but I am going to ask here as well because I would love to get opinions.

I usually tell puppy buyers to keep puppy nails “hidden in the hair,” meaning that no part of the nail shows when the dog is standing normally. Cardigans are so vulnerable to their feet getting flattened and turned out (and nails are a big part of that) that I am super careful about length.

But recently I began to wonder if I was saying the right thing, or putting it correctly. After all, there are some that have very fluffy feet and some whose owners think that as long as some part of the nail is hidden it’s OK. What’s the best way you’ve been able to impress on your owners that nails MUST stay short?

Responsible Breeding

Is the dog fancy at a tipping point?

Meriscan 1

This blog post is making the rounds, and is being passed along from person to person on Facebook and so on. It makes some good points, and has some decent advice, but I think the attitude is totally wrong. COMPLETELY. Because it’s one more post talking about how fantastic we all are and how we’re being victimized by the evil animal rights movement that doesn’t understand us and they’ve turned the public against us.

Dude, the public understands us a little better than anybody would like to admit. And when (or if) the dog fancy goes toes-up in twenty years, the fingerprints on the knife will be OURS. So is the dog fancy at a tipping point? Absolutely. The problem is, most dog breeders are standing on the heavy end screaming at the people trying to cling to the light end that they’re abandoning the cause.

Let’s look in the mirror, people.

1) We’re insufferable snobs.

The last time somebody showed you their new puppy, that little yellowish beagle mix, did you feel, with every bit of your heart, the squeee of happiness that you’d feel if somebody showed you the offspring of two BISS winners?

You know you didn’t. Now why?

Don’t say “Because I’m so concerned about health.” PLEASE. That beagle mix is going to live longer than virtually 100% of show-bred Goldens, going to have a lower chance of autoimmune disorders than any show-bred Portuguese Water Dog, going to have better back health than my Cardigans.

Don’t say “Because I’m worried about the breeder not being a good person.” You know perfectly well that you hate Sharon’s GUTS and think she should BURN on some VOLCANIC ACID and she pimps out her stud dogs like a NUTCASE and you wouldn’t ask her for water in a DESERT. At least that’s what you told your friend ringside last week.

Heck, we’re so terrible that the last time you paged down your Facebook feed, you saw a beautifully bred bitch puppy with a white face (or substitute any mismark or cosmetic “automatic pet” thing that works for your breed), and you said in your heart, “Oh well, too bad.”

You, my friend, are holding a bag you got in a special advance advance lookbook show at Hermes, after which you side-hugged Esteban and both of you made happy little mouth shapes at the new lining this year; isn’t it wonderful what L. is up to this season? … and, right now, while your fingers are sliding just a bit up and down the stitching, somebody just showed you a Walmart clutch and asked you to say nice things about it. Or you see somebody holding an “irregular.”

We’re AWFUL. We need to stop loving our incestuous little group of perfect dogs and JUST FRELLING LOVE DOGS. We can still own dogs, still show them, still breed them. Go to Hermes and bring home the bag that your heart dreams of. But for pete’s sake, high-five somebody who has a different bag. Talk about how fantastic it is that dogs exist, their great souls, their beauty. Tell that person that you’re picking them up next week so they can visit Rally class. Tell them that  there’s a tracking club in the county. Help them feel their baby’s belly and write down the right worming medication. Give them your business card and tell them to call you anytime. And if you feel tempted to point out to them even one single thing that’s “wrong” with their puppy, SHUT IT.  If you can keep it shut for a full year, I guarantee you’ll see that owner in the vet’s office and her puppy will be neutered and she’ll be planning her next puppy (probably from you). But don’t just do it because it’s good for the fancy – shut the heck up because you have no right to disvalue her dog. You’d go in a cage match to defend your BISS winner’s honor – give her the same respect.

2) We hate science.

We HATE IT. We are the worst set of knowledge-phobic fundamentalist crackpots you’re ever like to meet.

The basic attitude of the entire dog fancy is that if it was current science in 1890, it’s still acceptable now. Anything else must be thrown out because it threatens our ability to breed dogs.

So Dogsteps? Fabulous. Still called “cutting edge,” 130 years after the technology of gait analysis was developed. Freaky German breeding legends like male-line grandfathers to granddaughters being great breedings? Eaten with a spoon. Color genetics? Don’t upset me with facts; I only believe what I was told. Hip dysplasia beyond the OFA view? Fingers in the ears. Population ecology? How dare you even mention the word.

I’ve never had people get as frothing-mouth furious at me as when I post a peer-reviewed study reference. I honestly think I could put up a picture of me naked and eating a live rabbit and I would not get the total and utter fury I get when I DARE to say that scientists have been looking at this over and over and over again for the last 40 years and every single study says we’re wrong.

WE MUST HAVE THE COURAGE TO BE RESPONSIBLE TO THE TRUTH. We are being absolutely ridiculously asinine about this. It is NOT going to hurt our ability to breed good dogs to say that we have stuff to learn from research. All it’s going to do is HELP US. We won’t waste so many breedings, we will create dogs that live longer and healthier, we will have happier and longer relationships with our owners.

3) We hate each other.

Oh my GOSH do we hate each other. The behavior I’ve seen this year in terms of personal attacks and even outright threats in public forums (not even mentioning private ones) is horrifying. I’m not going to take any more time explaining this one, because any dog breeder reading this should know what I am talking about. If the dog fancy spent even one percent of the time in public outreach that it spends trying to insinuate without ever mentioning her name that Judy’s dogs produce bad underjaws, we’d be the most beloved group in the US.

4) We’ve kept breeding dogs a rich man’s game.

Everybody in the dog world except show breeders understands how wrong this is. That’s why dog parks, dog playdates, dog coats and clothes, groomers, and a hundred other facets are thriving, while we’re dying and withering and growing old and fat. Everybody I know spends more on their dogs than I do, and everybody that I know spends less on their dogs than I do. I can’t buy the cute coats, the new beds, the nice crates every year… because a single show weekend costs so much that one more time, the bed goes in the wash instead of in the trash. Think about every breeder you know – most are close to penniless. Most show crates are rusty. They skimp on dog food and buy the crap stuff so they can enter next weekend. Meanwhile, their town just effortlessly raised two million dollars to make a dog park, and every vendor in town will be there with samples.

This is utterly upside-down and backwards. Dog shows began as a hobby for the idle rich or gentleman farmers who were selling pet puppies to an eager middle class. If you want to build an organization on that assumption (and we did, and we named it AKC), fine, but it needs to change when the breeders are now the middle class and the pet buyers are invariably better off. The AKC is convinced the solution is to make us pay MORE – make us Breeders of Merit if we promise to register every puppy. Give us new titles and new shows so we will enter more. Is that the right way? Or are we going to continue to shrivel?

Here’s the end of my story:

I am the person who sighs at the white-headed bitch.

I am the person who barely manages to smile at the beagle puppy. Of course I am.

But I am going to try like all-frelling HELL to stop being that person. I want my fingerprints off the knife.

Responsible Breeding

Never be afraid to tell the truth.

I am sitting at my desk, stealing a few minutes from my workday to eat a yogurt. On the side of my container, a prominent circle announces that the milk used to make it is from cows not treated with rBST.

That’s the power of telling the truth. rBST is great for people, terrible for cows. The simple insistence on paying attention to this fact has given a spanking to an entire industry (animal pharmaceuticals – rBST was never a farmer-led product).

Have the courage to insist on the truth when it comes to breeding. Look at every decision you make and ask whether this is for your benefit or for the dogs’. If they are in conflict, choose the dogs. And tell people that, and keep telling them that. Empower your puppy buyers to ask those same questions, and know enough to be able to support your answers. Hold your fellow breeders, your clubs, your standards committee, and your judges accountable too; don’t tell yourself that not rocking the boat is justification for choosing something that doesn’t benefit the dogs.

If we are not doing this for the sake of our dogs, we need to stop doing it entirely. And that’s the truth.

Responsible Breeding

Bracing for the fire hose

My oldest daughter has a dream.

She, all on her own, found a high school near us that she wants to attend. This school could not POSSIBLY be a better fit for her. It’s arty, it’s free-form, it’s community focused; being loving and kind to one another is one of the tenets of the entire organization. It’s sort of like a Montessori school for almost-grown-ups.

It’s one of the top prep schools in our area. It costs more than a private college. We have trouble putting food on the table most weeks.

Before I go on, let me tell you a story. It’s a story that has been repeated so often that it’s passed into legend or lore; I have no idea if it ever really happened, though I’ve found it referenced in dozens of scholarly articles (but never with a footnote). It FEELS so real that nobody seems to mind.

It goes like this:

Behavioral scientists set up a food reward – let’s say it was a bunch of ripe bananas – at the top of a ladder, and let a group of monkeys into the room. The monkeys immediately made for the ladder and the bananas, as you’d expect. Easy access, great reward.

As soon as the first monkey touched the ladder, the scientists sprayed him with ice-cold water. Then they ALSO sprayed the rest of the group with water, so the entire band was punished for the first one’s effort. 

Another monkey tried it – same result. Ice water in the face for the whole group.

Within a short amount of time, not only was nobody heading for the ladder, but if a monkey so much as considered it, the rest of the group would drag him down and beat him up. They were not going to take the fall for that monkey’s mistake.

At this point, the scientists introduced a new monkey, one who had never been sprayed. The new monkey headed for the ladder – and was immediately grabbed, dragged down, and punished. He quickly learned to not approach the ladder. 

As the experiment progressed, the scientists introduced more and more new monkeys, and gradually removed the original ones. By the end of the experiment, the entire group was made up of monkeys who had never been sprayed with water, who had no idea why they shouldn’t get the bananas, but who were just as viciously attacking any newbie who dared to go near the ladder.

Thus ends our story. The moral is twofold: First, misery and deprivation are extremely contagious, and the disease is usually spread through deliberate effort on the part of the miserable one. If I’m depressed and feel like my life has not met my expectations, I’m going to do my very best to make sure that everyone around me feels the exact same way – by force if need be. Second, you really have no idea if somebody else can’t do something. All you know is that YOU can’t do it. Don’t perpetuate a myth that is really all about you.

So every time I think about that school and my daughter’s dream, I am closing my eyes and shutting up. She’s incredibly mature and she knows her own mind better than most adults; she’s not oblivious to our family’s means and me telling her that we’re poor has no purpose except to steal her joy and knock her off the ladder. She’s surprising me already. She got herself to the open house and spoke to teachers and students. She’s investigating creative writing scholarships; she’s (on her own) made appointments for a full day of shadowing a peer student and meeting with the admissions director. Even if she never gets any further than this, the lessons she’s learned about how to be a serious adult and network are invaluable – and she never would have learned them if I had said “Impossible; it’ll never work – have you seen how often we eat beans?” And she ALSO would never have learned them if we were wealthy enough to just write a check. Whatever happens next, whether a great reward or a no, she’s gained a level of determination and optimism that may well change how she lives the entire rest of her life.

And, of course, this made me think about dogs – because everything makes me think about dogs – and the other big theme in my life, which is teaching and photography. And I wondered how many times I’ve seen new breeders knocked off that ladder, or new teachers, or new photographers. How much time and energy and love is wasted by that group milling around the bottom of the ladder looking for an ankle to grab? And how much time is wasted on the fear that somebody will think we’re being “too big for our britches” until we are so paralyzed that we’ll simply stop the effort entirely?

I think I need to go try to climb some ladders. Bananas may be awaiting me.



Responsible Breeding

Why we MUST drop our obsession with coat and color in AKC dogs

1) It makes us look stupid, because we’re being stupid.

This is one place where pet owners, who are always genuinely bewildered and often legitimately offended by the fact that their dog “can’t” be a good Labrador because of a big chest spot or a breeder is petting out a dog because its coat is too long, are absolutely right.

And, even more tragic, because none of the other things we talk about – the subtle layback of shoulder, the length of the croup, the topline – can be seen or appreciated by the general public, but they CAN see coat and color, we have become the idiots who don’t see that their dog is wonderful because he’s got a toenail the wrong color.

That’s never going to change until we can say “You’re absolutely right; I may have personal preferences, but none of us really care about his coat. Let me show you what I DO care about.”

2) It teaches breeders to focus on superficial qualities that are not even genuine faults.

Unfortunately, breeders will often, like magpies, stare at and make judgments based on obvious visual cues. Color and coat become a convenient way to sort “bad” dogs from “good” dogs, which is what new breeders are usually obsessed with and (unfortunately) what many breeders never move past. Additionally, in breeds where color rules have led to a description of what breedings are allowed – again, purely based on color – breeders get fixated on color as defining a good breeding.

I am not sure anyone could possibly come up with a MORE NONSENSICAL way to tutor and mentor our new breeders. I am also not sure anyone could come up with an easier and swifter way to boot every breeder into a greater sense of responsibility for understanding soundness, type, and pedigrees than removing it.

3) It allows judges to place greater weight on superficial choices than on soundness or type.

Judges have a maximum of two minutes per dog, and if they are honest most of the time they’ve got half the class judged by the time they’ve gone around the first time. That’s not a bad thing – a good eye for a dog means you SHOULD be able to do it fast. But judges are no less prone to adopt anything that lets them make snap decisions about a “good” dog than anyone else. Coat and color encourage them to make an immediate decision – that one, or those three, I can stop considering right now because I can see that the coat or color is wrong.

I don’t care how ethical and wonderful a judge is – if a coat or color feature allows them to sort dogs, so no dog of a “bad” color or coat ever comes into consideration, they are being both allowed and encouraged to judge first according to superficial features. That does no good for the dog, the breeder, the owner, the handler, the judging community, or the breed.

4) None of it stands up to the most shallow logical scrutiny.

I’ve harped on this until my fingers are sore, but it has to be said again – there is nothing we do with bigger self-imposed blinders on than talk about coat and color being a sign of functional worth. It is laughable, or would be if we didn’t hold on to it with such single-minded attachment. I’ve heard Chesapeake Bay Retriever breeders say, with an absolutely straight face, that their dogs must have an oily and curly coat to retrieve in cold water, and then show pictures of their dogs in field trials retrieving in November and there’s a Golden in the corner of the picture. Cardigan breeders insist that a long coat is not a working coat, as they’re grooming next to a Polish Lowland Sheepdog and a rough-faced Pyr Shep. A Pudelpointer must be solid but a Spinone must not be.

It’s completely inescapable: Decisions about coat and color are simple cosmetic preference. We’ve got to admit it. If we can, we can retain color and coat *individual preferences* if we wish – nobody should be penalized for liking a certain color or coat. But we should all admit that it’s a cosmetic decision, not a functional one or one that genuinely matters in terms of whether a dog is a good or bad one.

5) As we know better, we do better.

The be-all and end-all of arguments for color in standards (and for a phrase that we need to wake up and realize is incredibly offensive, “color purity,”) is that the breed founders wanted it that way and so they must know something we don’t.

That’s nonsense. We don’t do it with any other part of our doggy lives – are you still worming with calomel (mercury chloride, a potent poison)? Are you still drowning all but six whelps in large litters? Still using paint thinner for mange? All of those are the hard and fast advice of breed founders.

Color and coat are human decisions made by people who were convinced of them. Sometimes they were using good thought processes; more often they were basing their decisions on superstition (white is a weak color), old wives’ tales (hair equals the constitution, so soft hair equals a soft constitution), and – probably most perniciously – old German breeding assumptions. (A bunch of these center around the notion that phylogeny is indicated by physical traits – basically, you can tell the ancestors of an animal by looking at the appearance of an animal. If you want to get away from what you think is an undesirable ancestor you select against his color – so yellow indicates that the dog has a mastiff ancestor or long hair indicates a collie ancestor, so if you breed away from those things you’ll be making your breed more pure and less adulterated.)

It’s not that we dismiss the wisdom of breed founders. It’s that we hold it up against everything we know (not believe, but KNOW) about dogs now and we go with what we know is in the best interests of the breed and the dogs. Our dogs demand no less.

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.

Responsible Breeding

I am a dog breeder.

This is a post that’s been going around Facebook a lot:

I am a dog breeder. I spend a lifetime learning pedigrees, going over dogs, talking and learning from those in my breed and those outside it. I raise each litter as if I gave birth to them and spend an equal amount of time finding them loving forever homes. I only put puppies on this planet that I think will be the healthiest (mentally and physically) and nicest examples of their breed. 
I support each family who chooses one of my puppies and let them know they are now a part of our extended family. I am there if one needs to come back and will aggressively pursue the return of one of my dogs if its in the wrong place. I support my breed in rescue and education. I hold them when they arrive and leave this world, not only my own, but my brethren in the fancy. I share my knowledge and socialize my dogs so that they will be the advertisement for my dedication.

I don’t keep track of the money and time I put in to my love of dogs, it would not be true measure of how I feel. I support my friends in the fancy, because it takes a village sometimes and only WE know how things are for us.

The price I charge for my puppies is never profit, but investment in the next generation. I will not be ashamed of who I am, I work hard at being a good dog person and encouraging others to be the same. I am a breeder and I am proud of it.

If we don’t support each other – we are doomed as a fancy. 

Here’s the truth, and I think this is the case for most of us:

I am a dog breeder. I spend a lifetime learning pedigrees, going over dogs, asking others to tell me that my dogs are crappy and desperately hoping they’ll tell me the opposite, trying to find judges who don’t mind the particular ways my dogs aren’t that great, agonizing over the fact that I’ll never have anything really spectacular and don’t have the money to special it if I did.

I raise each litter in exactly the opposite way I would if I gave birth to them, because ouch, and also because the people I DID give birth to hear nothing but “I cannot deal with you right now; I need to concentrate on the puppies.”

I breed puppies that are as mentally and physically healthy as I can get, except that my breed isn’t all that healthy. And I’ll forgive some temperament quirks for a really typey dog. And they’re not really as healthy as I can get, because I’m not dealing with Sandra L., no matter how long her stupid dogs live. OK, I guess I’m breeding puppies that I hope like heck will be happy, and at least better than average.

I support each family that buys one of my puppies, though the truth is that I’m supporting the puppy, not the family. If it becomes you versus the puppy, I’m going to bury you under a volleyball court and take the puppy home with me. If, like me, you realize that your puppy is the most important consideration in any issue, then you can come over for Thanksgiving as long as you don’t give the dogs turkey bones.

I give lip service to supporting my breed in education. Sometimes I go further than that, if I am a rare saint. But most of the time if the educational program at the Nationals interferes with the open bar time, the bar is going to win. And I’d like to educate Sandra L. right in the face, if you know what I mean. Man, she burns my boots.

I should socialize more than I do; I kind of lost track of that last litter and before I knew it they hated little kids.

I keep close enough track of the money that goes into the dogs that I can tell people to never, ever, ever breed dogs. I support my friends in the fancy as long as they’re my friends and as long as they’ve never said bad things about me. If they’re not my friends I will avoid speaking to them at all costs and if there’s an opportunity to steer a puppy person away from them I will. I once broke a major by “sleeping in” when Sandra L. was showing that puppy who only needed a major. I feel ashamed of that, but I also love every second of it.

The price I charge for my puppies is desperately needed and usually keeps a dog food check from bouncing. Because I have dogs, I am perpetually penniless and the vet owns a boat; because I have dogs, I had to buy acreage; because I have dogs, my car guzzles gas. So I give thanks to God for every puppy buyer who writes a check that covers the home equity loan I took out to pay the stud fee, and I thank God for every puppy buyer who lets me pay the vet back for the c-section, and I thank God for the puppy buyer who will pay for the cremation of the beloved ancient dog sitting on the couch in her last weeks, watching the puppies leave for new homes.

I am a breeder. That means the dogs win. No matter what happens. I have said more bad words about Sandra L. than I can remember, and I still hate her guts, but I just heard she has cancer and so I’m driving down tonight to take two of her dogs home with me and they’ll sleep on my bed while she’s in the hospital. The dogs win, so I’ll keep devaluing my house by installing an entire yard of concrete pavers. The dogs win, so I’ll skip the family vacation again this year so I can pay for two neuters and then give the dogs away. The dogs win, so they get organic chicken and are kept at perfect weight and conditioning and I eat far too many hot dogs because it’s all I can afford after paying for puppy K. The dogs win, so most people think I’m a little odd and I don’t seem to take very good care of myself, or care about my career too much.

I am a breeder, and there will be more dogs at my funeral than people. I hope.

Dog Health, Responsible Breeding

Esterisol (Neutersol) back in the US – soon!

This is very, very good news.

Here’s the background: For a very long time scientists have known that sperm production in mammals is actually pretty fragile. The structure of the testicles is a lot like a huge mall parking lot; in each of the parking spaces baby sperm grow. As they mature they back out of the parking spots and join others in the narrow aisles, moving out to the larger roads and then to the superhighway and then hopefully into the great dark world to make some puppies.

Because everything depends on those little tubes, if you damage them they can’t make the baby sperm. And it turns out it’s very easy to damage them with a mild caustic agent, something that’s not very harmful to anything but those fragile little cells.

Rsearchers figured out that a perfect solution was zinc gluconate. Inject zinc gluconate into a testicle and two things happen – sperm production is drastically reduced and the sperm that are produced have poor motility (which means they can’t fertilize eggs) AND – because testicle tissue also converts the hormones the pituitary gland sends out into testosterone – the testosterone production of the dog dropped by 40%-50%.

This is, honestly, a fantastic thing. The dog can’t make puppies, but he’s still producing 50%-60% of his vital testosterone. The drop in testosterone is why so many serious dog people keep dogs intact even if they have no intention of ever breeding them. It’s just simply healthier. If we can remove the possibility of puppies without removing all the testosterone, it’s a great thing.

The zinc injection that was discovered was put on the market as “Neutersol” in the early 2000s – and promptly taken off again.

Neutersol was taken off the market not because the product didn’t work but because (in their opinion) it was such a breakthrough method that people didn’t adopt it fast enough and (in my opinion) because it was stupidly marketed. Most owners in the US don’t worry about the health problems of neutering; they worry about the price. Most serious dog people don’t worry about the price; they worry about the health problems. Neutersol was positioned at the same price as a surgical neuter, which was ridiculous – they wanted to use it as a cash cow even though nothing about it justifies the price. It’s a zinc gluconate solution in a syringe; you don’t need to use anesthesia. And at that time it was positioned for use only in a very narrow age range of puppies. So vets didn’t offer it as a low-cost alternative and most owners never heard about it, and by the time show breeders and performance owners were ready to say that a male had proven that shouldn’t have puppies (typically over a year old) the product was unavailable.

Esterilsol, which is the same thing branded by a different company, has been promised to solve both problems. They say they’re positioning it at 1/5 the cost of a surgical neuter and that it’s no longer age-specific. If that’s the case – if they can make this work – it’s a process that show breeders and performance breeders should JUMP ALL OVER.

I am hoping their promises are true; if they are, this could be a huge game-changer.

By the way, I happen to have access to one of the (comparatively) few dogs that was Neutersol-castrated; when we pulled my sister’s dog Wilson from the Hartford Pound and had him groomed we discovered that he had been Neutersol-injected. So I can tell you from experience that it leaves dogs with small but intact testicles; there’s no way (because I can hear this question coming) that a judge would think he was normal, but they do still exist. And Wilson “feels” more like an intact male than a neutered one, both physically in muscle tone and width of chest and pelvis and behaviorally. He can (and has) breed and tie but is not enthusiastic (with the exception of Ginny who, in her one and only heat cycle with us, drove Wilson to feats of manliness that shocked even him) and obviously no puppies come of it.

I’ll be watching for more news, and hopefully updates in the fall.