There's a funny thing that happens every time, for example, a movie about Swiss Long-Haired Terriers comes out.
Every breeder across the entire earth of Swiss Long-Haired Terriers freaks out that this will encourage a "run" on the breed and people who shouldn't own one will go out and get one. They discuss it forever on their breed lists, they print out copies of warning signs, and they (hopefully) get either a long-term breeder or the president of their national rescue to go on Good Morning Everybody and talk about Swiss Long-Haired Terriers and exactly how challenging they are.
"Oh, my, these dogs will tear up your house! They need an enormous commitment of time and energy and they fight with other dogs and one of the breed traits is pooping on your pillow! Never, never, ever buy one!"
Once, only once, did I see the Good Morning Everybody cheery host ask what I think is the crucial question, which was (in real life) to a Dal breeder around the time that the live-action 101 Dalmatians came out. He looked staggered as she listed off the forty-seven things that Dalmatians will do to ruin your life, and said, "Oh dear. And you own a Dalmatian?"
She said back, "Yes, I have nine! I love these dogs!"
The fact is that being serious about dogs, including very challenging dogs, is INCREDIBLY REWARDING. Breeding is, and I am not exaggerating, one of the highlights of most of our lives. It deepens your relationship with your dogs, it brings you wonderful friendships, it forces you to be other-centered, and it cuts you down to size (nothing is quite as humbling as going to a dog show with a dog you're sure will win Breed and walking away with a third-place ribbon in a class with three dogs).
In this country there are far too many bad breeders, the ones who breed their Shih-Poo because it's a lark, and there are far too few good breeders. It's so difficult to be a reputable breeder – so expensive, so exhausting, so discouraging and elating in turns – that the average life of a new breeder is five years. That's how long it takes to realize that breeding is hard and often thankless and heartbreaking. My private suspicion is for many that's how long it takes for the first puppy from your first litter to die of something unexpected and hideous and the reality of what it means to bring puppies into the world hits you.
You should know this, if you're thinking about breeding. It sucks your life away and will change you forever. The great news is that, if you're committed to doing it right, to treating people well, to giving dogs the life they deserve, it changes you for the better.
Here's why you should breed your dog:
1) Your dog does something better than any other dog on earth.
Or at least 99 percent of them. For some dogs this will be showing in conformation; for others it's hunting or other field work, protecting livestock, herding, running flyball, doing obedience or agility. The point is that we reproduce only the very best of what's out there. There's absolutely no need to breed a dog who is below average or even average.
One of the hard-and-fast rules of good breeding is that peer review is an absolute must. In our living rooms or in our backyards or in our own hunting leases, every dog is a champion. Just because we have a dog with a storied pedigree doesn't mean that we're immune to the same "My dog is the absolute best on earth" conviction that I talked about earlier. We're very tempted to write off all failures as flukes and to build up all successes.
Having an objective person evaluate the behavior or instinct or conformation of the dog brings us back down to earth. It forces us to realize that in almost all cases we have (at best) a "good" dog, when he is compared to his peers, not a great one. And if the dog doesn't at least reach the level of "good," there's no reason to reproduce him.
The reason it's so important to breed only the very best you can to the best you can is that there will be a wide swing downward in the puppies. If the bitch is a "9" and the dog is a "9" (in whatever discipline you're interested in), the puppies will end up somewhere in the 6-to-10 range. Your goal as a breeder is to put the 6s and 7s in pet homes, the 8s and 9s in show or performance or hunting homes, and keep the 10s for yourself!
If you start with average dogs, breeding a 5 to a 5 – because you figure (and this is true) that most people are very happy with pets that are at about 5, the big problem is that your puppies are going to range from 2 to 6. You won't get a whole litter of happy average dogs. It's not fair to those poor 2s, and it's not fair to the homes you'd be putting them in, who came to you because they expected a dog who would look and act as advertised (as the breed is supposed to do) and didn't get anything of the kind.
So having a dog who is at the very highest end of what you can buy and train, and being committed to pairing him or her with a dog of similar quality, is vital.
2) You feel confident that your dog's offspring will also do that thing really well.
This is not just about vanity. This is about the fact that you have a responsibility to the dogs you produce and to the people who buy them. If you breed Yodeling Crowhounds, the people coming to you will have read hundreds or thousands of pages and websites and testimonies and will have chosen a Yodeling Crowhound over every other breed because they believe that it will be a better fit for their family, and they'll be able to give it a better life, than any other.
If you sell them a Yodeling Crowhound that is purebred in name only, that doesn't look or act the way it's supposed to, their ability to provide that life will be harmed. That's bad for both them and the dog. And if you produce a dog whose brain doesn't match its body – if Yodeling Crowhounds are supposed to have the patience to wait for hours in the thicket for crows to come close and then spring out and yodel at them, and you bred a bitch who only waited 10 percent of the time but you convinced yourself that she was good "enough" because she did do it every once in a while, and now four of her six puppies have very low impulse control and are basically untrainable – you're responsible for the fact that those puppies are going to have a reduced quality of life and be yelled at all the time and end up sitting in someone's backyard ineffectually trying to yodel at pigeons.
Doing this right is learning how to research pedigrees, networking with your peers, being extremely humble and willing to hear the bad things about your dog, and beginning to understand the breed as a whole and not just your dog. If the thing that your dog does well is kind of flukey within the breed – for example, a Cardigan who virtually never barks and can be left for 12 hours without noticing – the chance that she will produce a litter that shares that trait is very low. If, on the other hand, your breeder and your friends can sit with you and look at the pedigree and say "Of these five generations of dogs, virtually all of them were extremely relaxed about being left alone," that's going to be predictable and something you can feel pretty sure will be repeated in the puppies.
You'll need to do this for just about every trait, and you will need to be rabid about it in the traits that really matter to you. You're ready to say something true about what your dog will produce if and when you can look at him and say (and not be making this up!) "I really like his head, and Topsy and Mippy and Lucas and Younder all had that head, so I think I'll get good heads on the puppies. I love his tailset too, but I've seen a bunch of Petunia's puppies and a lot of them had terrible tails. So I think he'd be a good match for Pickles, because Mikey and Shadow both had great tails and she does too, but I wouldn't risk him on Honey because she's already a little iffy and her dad had a faulty tail."
If you are nowhere near able to do that, you are nowhere near ready to breed.
3) Your dog is sound in body and mind.
Does your dog have a body that will last into its teens without pain? Does your dog have a brain that can make the kind of decisions that the breed should be able to make? Does your dog have – not "sort of" have, or "sometimes" have, or "almost" have – the correct temperament for its breed? This touches on aspects of health testing, but don't fool yourself into thinking that a dog who passes his elbows but has a hideous topline is going to be better off, or more worth breeding, than a dog with a questionable eye score but a beautiful, fluid body that obeys him.
If you're not aware of the way conformation works, and wonder what this "sound" thing means, the best way to think about it is this: If your dog was a plastic toy, and you picked her up and dropped her on her feet, would she stand or would she fall over? Once she's dropped on her feet, does her back look flat and straight and is her head up? Look at the way she's standing right now. Do her legs come out of her body smoothly and at the four corners and then go straight to the ground? Does she choose to stand the way a plastic dog stands? Or does she usually stand with her feet turned out, elbows sticking out, back feet tucked under her, back humped up, head low? When you look down at her from above her, Is her width at her hips about the same as her width at the shoulders (showing that she's muscled all over) or is she super front-heavy or back-heavy?
Now watch her trot – trotting is the best way to see sound movement. Again, just like a toy, when she comes toward you you should see her front legs moving under her body without anything sticking out or flapping around. When she trots away from you, her back legs should move in either parallel lines or a single converging "V," but they should be straight. If she looks like her back legs are both making Vs so her toes are pointing right and left instead of perfectly north-south, that's not sound.
Another way to think about it is like you would a human athlete. You know how some people can run for twenty years and never get so much as a heel spur, and others have five knee surgeries before they retire? If you analyze them, they move differently. The guy who never gets injured usually stands straight, runs efficiently with nothing moving around too much, and is built evenly. The guy with the surgeries may be fast and strong, but his biomechanics are a mess.
An unsound dog, no matter how well it can do its job within its breed, should be bred only with extreme caution or not at all. It does a dog no good if its brain is working right and its body hurts. It's not a virtue to breed a dog who is arthritic in its hocks (heels) by the time it's four because it has always run wrong on them, even if running wrong brought him his MH title.
4) You want your lifestyle to change.
A lot of dog sites will say "Never breed your dog so your kids can witness 'the miracle of birth'!"
I would say the exact opposite. I think that growing up with an understanding of real-life issues and birth and death is a fantastic way to model responsibility for your kids. It's also a great way to change your own life, giving up some of the luxuries and gaining some of the things that really matter.
Breeding dogs makes you beholden to others and to a noble concept (that of "The Cardigan Welsh Corgi" or "The Dachshund" or "The Bichon Frise"). It becomes, honestly, like you're married to the breed. You argue, you sometimes have big fights, you criticize his friends and he is furious that you don't turn out the lights, you threaten to walk out and go to your mother's, but at the end of the day the only thing that makes you truly happy is when he's happy. Breeding is being committed to a good result at the end of that day. It's saying that you left things better than you found them. It's understanding very, very long-term goals and being able to learn from and move past short-term tragedies.
You will buy cars differently, and usually from the used section of the lot. You'll buy houses differently, and they won't be more fashionable. You'll go out to dinner less and you'll eat more ground beef. You'll spend ten years plotting how to buy an RV, when you used to laugh at the people driving them down the road. Your standard of fashion will go in the crapper. Your ego will too.
In short, if you want to get poor, own land with trees, and stop thinking about yourself so much, go become a good breeder.
5) You're ready to move from loving your dog to loving dogs.
Becoming a good breeder is moving from being a pilot to being an air-traffic controller. Suddenly your plane isn't the most important one in the sky.
Breeding is about trying to see where your dog fits in the entire world of its breed, and seeing where your breed fits in the entire world of Dog. It's about being very honest with yourself about where things are going well and where they aren't. It's about questioning the way things have always been done in order to get things to a better place. It's about being less concerned with getting your own way and more concerned with seeing the entire group move forward. It's about realizing that your dog ISN'T good enough to contribute, or realizing that your dog IS good enough and taking a deep breath and realizing that now your life belongs to five or six or nine families who own your puppies.
Breeders become trainers, behaviorists, geneticists, politicians, veterinarians, grief counselors, cheerleaders, and punching bags, and very often they're in those roles for dogs that aren't even theirs. Good breeders feel committed to the entire world of dogs, and have a heart for any problem that they can swoop in and fix.
If you are ready to have breeding change you this much, it is EVERY BIT as rewarding as anybody has ever told you. If you're committed to doing it right, the joy is hard for me to express. I hope you have gotten a tiny taste of it in this blog – since I got into dogs, I cry more from happiness and cry more from sadness than I ever thought possible.
So DO become a breeder.
And then blog about it. So I can cheer for you.
If this was helpful to you and you'd like to help us rescue and foster dogs, here are Amazon links to the books and tools mentioned in the article – and thank you so much!