How do breeders choose which dogs to breed?

There's more involved then availability, looks, and temperament


A question for our dog breeder’s round table. . . .

Some owners of purebred dogs want their Sassy or Blue to have a litter or two for various reasons, and they choose a sire for the puppies based on availability, looks, and temperament. Mrs. Smith has a Shetland Sheepdog and Mr. Jones has a Shetland Sheepdog and both are registered with the American Kennel Club and voila! – they put the dogs together and 63 days later, puppies arrive.

It’s not so easy for serious dog breeders who are trying to produce sound, healthy puppies that are good examples of their breed. Here members of our breeders’ round table discussed the difference between show puppies and pet puppies. In this issue, they explain how they choose which dogs to breed in hopes of meeting their goal to produce puppies that are better examples of the breed than the parent dogs. Breeders have their own language, so we’ve some definitions to explain some of the terms they use.

Dr.Tracy Leonard DVM, Basenji breeder, Dayton, Ohio

My breeding program is based primarily on my girls. They are health tested as they grow and after reaching adulthood. Some tests like hip certification (OFA) are done once after two years of age and that is all that is needed. Other tests like eye certifications (CERF) are done yearly. Because of the kidney disease called Fanconi in my breed, I do a urinalysis monthly.

Most of my girls are three-to-four years old before they have their first litter. I want them to have matured and also to have finished their conformation championship and some performance titles. Then I begin to look for that dream date! I evaluate the Mom-To-Be’s strong points and shortcomings. I try to find a male who is going to compliment her by improving on her weaknesses. Of course, I also make sure the future father of my puppies has his health clearances, too.

Before hand, I write down a five or six generation pedigree of the possible mating. Doing a test breeding on paper allows me to evaluate the generations that will be behind the puppies. Am I doubling up on a weakness? Some of the strengths and weaknesses I am evaluating are head type, eye shape and color, ear set, topline, tail set, length of leg, shoulder layback, bend of stifle, coat texture, pigment and bone. Does my girl have ears that are too large? Then I want to be sure not to double up on individuals who had that characteristic or tended to throw big ears. What I want to see is that the pedigrees of the potential parents mesh and compliment each other.

It is always a roll of the dice, but what better compliment can one receive when the owner of your puppy’s great grandfather tells you the pup “looks just like him.” Which is wonderful since great grandpa was one of the top conformation and performance dogs of his breed!

Gale Snoddy, Borzoi breeder, Milford, Ohio

That’s easy!!! Select the bitch that has the characteristics that come closest to your interpretation of the breed standard. Match her with a male who has features that compliment that bitch, with an eye toward producing puppies that come closer to the breed standard.

That said, you can see it’s not easy at all!

When considering any dog, male or female, for a breeding program, you must first take two things into consideration.

  1. The dog should be free of genetic diseases. This includes eliminating dogs that may be free of the condition themselves but are likely carriers.
  2. Temperament. Dogs selected for a breeding program should have stable temperaments, being neither aggressive or shy.

In my opinion, breeding dogs should not be for the purpose of creating more dogs, but to create better dogs. Both males and females used in a breeding program should have many strong points based on the breed standard, and few weak points. As breeders look over the females they have available to use, they should evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. What do we need to improve upon? What do we need to ensure we keep? How hard are certain problems to fix? When you evaluate this, you are not just looking at that bitch, you also must take her relatives – siblings, parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles – into consideration. Your bitch may have a wonderful front, but is she the exception in her family? The more relatives that have the same feature – good or bad – the more likely your bitch is to produce that feature.

Once a breeder has finished the evaluation of the bitch and thinks she can produce well, he begins the search for the appropriate male to breed her to. The male must have strengths to balance the bitch’s weaknesses without bringing in new problems. The same evaluation of the male’s relatives should take place with special attention to any puppies he has produced. Modern science allows breeders today an opportunity to consider studs further away, even overseas, with the use of frozen or chilled semen. This can give breeders great opportunities, but can also make evaluation of a male’s relatives more difficult.

Another consideration in choosing your male and female is how closely related do you want them to be. Somewhat related (line-breeding), closely related (in-breeding), or unrelated (out-crossing)? All of these will have an effect on the outcome, and there are pluses and minuses to all.

If a breeder has carefully done the research and evaluation and the breeding is successful, there is a greater chance the puppies will have the traits desired. In the end, however, Mother Nature has the final word.

Paula Drake, Akita breeder, Cincinnati, Ohio

Breeding is not for the faint-hearted. It is a very time consuming project. It involves a bit of science, some determination, and a lot of luck. When it turns out right, it is very rewarding. When it turns out wrong, it can be heart-breaking.

I think the longer one is an active dog breeder, the more particular one becomes in the management and selection of males and females to breed.

To be considered for use in my breeding program, a bitch has to pass several tests.

First she has to be healthy. Dogs to be used my breeding program must be OFA’d, CERF’d, brucellosis clear, and thyroid normal. Her overall health must be excellent. She must be in good weight, and all blood work should be within normal range. She must be at least two years of age and not more than seven years old.

Next she must have a rock solid temperament. I believe temperament is at least 80 percent hereditary. Attitudes including shyness, sound sensitivity, prey drive, aggressiveness, touch sensitivity, and overall durability to situations can be inherited from the sire or dam.

Next she must be of quality to breed. That is to say she meets the standard for her breed.

Lastly, she must have a pedigree with which I am familiar. She may come from ancestors with a prediliction to produce certain attributes or faults, so if I am familiar with her background, I know better which male to breed her to.

In choosing a male for a bitch I have decided to breed, I look for a male who has passed the same tests as my bitch. Then I look at the puppies he has produced to see which of his attributes he more readily passes on to his pups. I also talk to other breeders who have bred to a male I am considering to find out more about his offspring.

It is important to choose two dogs who complement each other in physical structure and temperament. If my bitch has a strong rear but rather large ears, it is not enough to choose a male that produces small ears. He must also produce strong rears.

There is no perfect breeding. It is a step by step process. Hopefully each breeding produces a little better dog.

It is also important to know what the stud dog owner’s contract requires and warrantees. I want to make sure the stud dog owner is professional and reasonable to work with.

If I am planning a natural breeding, it is important to know how my bitch will be kept while at the stud dog’s home or kennel, as well as how the breedings are handled.

If I prefer an artificial insemination of my bitch, it is important to choose a stud dog whose owner has access to a vet who can collect and ship the semen properly.

There are some excellent books out there which tackle the tough question of how to breed better dogs. If you are thinking about breeding your dog, read, read, read before you breed.

Melody Greba, German Shepherd Dog breeder, Verona, Kentucky

This is not an easy question to answer. We use phenotype (the physical appearance of the dog) and genotype (the genetic make-up of the dog) as the basis for our breedings.

Knowledge of pedigrees in conjunction with the validation of titles and ratings acquired at shows and trials are the basis for a lot of breeding choices. We use a software information system that has collected information on all dogs registered with the SV (Germany’s shepherd registrar). This software includes the dogs’ titles, show ratings, and hip ratings, along with littermates, parents, grandparents, and their pedigrees, hip ratings, koers, titles and show ratings, even for lesser known dogs from some of the smaller breed kennels. Before computers, this knowledge was acquired through time, but it was not possible to know all dogs.

With the knowledge of the genotype or by breeding based on pedigree, one can line-breed on a dog with exceptional breed worthiness. Breed worthiness would include health (as in a dog that is a well known good hip producer), longevity, type and temperament.

Line-breeding will bring out the best and the worst of the line. With the doubling up of genes, it is essential to only line-breed on exceptional candidates. Through this practice, a specific type can be reproduced. Line-breeding should be well contemplated and seriously undertaken, as it may bring out negative genetic problems as well as doubling up on essential sound genes .

Out-cross breeding occurs if there is not a relative on either the dam or the sire’s pedigree side that is the same, within five generations. An out-cross does not maintain type and may produce dogs of various types within a litter. Breeding a litter that is a total out-cross will cover up the problems in the lines.

Breeding on phenotype with both parents on premises is a large consideration for all breeders. Manifestation of the dominant genes are there for all to see if a breeder has the opportunity to observe and interact with the sire and dam and study their true form and temperament.

We focus on breeding our German Shepherd Dogs in regards to all of this information. We cannot control how the genes will match up. We can only study and put in an educated guess when trying to produce good dogs. Sometimes, we use our own stud dog; sometimes we go to an outside source. All in all, the sires and dams we consider for breeding partners have obtained their hip certifications and earned their titles as the resulting proof of their genetics.

On a lighter side, our German Shepherd Dog sires and dams must fit within our normal living environment without temperament or health problems. This lighter side is the result of our concentrated efforts and is the finished product.

The dog owner’s guide to breeding terms

The terms used by breeders can be confusing, so we’ve compiled this list of definitions to help dog owners wend their way through our breeder’s round table discussions.

1. A bitch is a female dog. An intact bitch is a female dog with reproductive organs; a spayed bitch has had those organs removed and cannot reproduce.

2. A dog is a) a male canine or b) a generic term for a domesticated canine. An intact dog can reproduce; a neutered dog cannot reproduce.

3. A stud dog is a male used for breeding.

4. Estrus is the scientific term meaning that the bitch has entered her fertile cycle. Most bitches experience estrus every six-to-eight months, but some breeds have intervals up to a year. Estrus lasts about 21 days, but bitches are generally only able to conceive from about day nine to day 14. (Individual cycles and fertile periods can vary, however.)

5. A pedigree is a family tree. Breeders study pedigrees back three-to-five generations or more to see what physical and temperament characteristics make up the dog’s genetic heritage. Pedigrees have two ‘sides,’ the sire’s side and the dam’s side, that converge when the two produce a litter.

6. Line-breeding is the practice of breeding related dogs of the same breed that have superior physical and temperament traits and few serious faults and little potential for inherited diseases. For example, a line-bred dog may have the same grandsire on both the maternal and paternal sides or have the same bitch as dam and as paternal granddam. Line-breeding must be done with careful consideration of the undesirable traits as well as the sought-after characteristics.

7. In-breeding is the breeding of close relatives such as a bitch and her sire, a dog and his dam, a sister and brother, etc. In-breeding is best done only by experienced breeders with a particular goal in mind, i.e., to preserve a valuable gene pool in a rare breed or to try to fix a superior breed type.

8. Out-crossing is the practice of breeding unrelated dogs of the same breed. It is used as a breeding strategy to bring new traits into a breeding program, i.e., to introduce genes that may restore weak working instinct or clear up a physical fault. Line-bred puppies can come from two out-cross (non-line-bred) dogs that have a common ancestor. For example, if the bitch’s grandsire on her maternal side is the same dog as the sire’s grandsire on his paternal side, the pups will be line-bred on that common dog even though the bitch and dog are not themselves line-bred.

9. OFA is the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, a registry for diagnostic tests for a variety of inherited abnormalities, including hip and elbow dysplasia and thyroid disease. Responsible breeders screen their dogs for the defects that affect their breeds and use only those bitches and dogs that pass the tests.

10. CERF is the Canine Eye Registry Foundation, a registry for diagnostic tests for inherited eye diseases such as progressive retinal atrophy. Responsible breeders screen their dogs annually for the eye defects that affect their breeds and use only those bitches and dogs that pass the test.

11. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease spread during mating that can cause the bitch to abort her litter and cause inflammation and infertility in dogs. Responsible breeders test bitches and dogs before breeding.

12. Breed type is what makes an Akita an Akita, a Borzoi a Borzoi, a Basenji a Basenji, a German Shepherd a German Shepherd, etc.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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