Looking after a breed long term by Sheila Atter
"The demands on dog breeders grow increasingly complex in efforts to ensure future generations of dogs are bred responsibly.”
There’s no doubting the accuracy of this statement, but where does it come from? The Bateson Report, the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, the British Veterinary Association – even Jemima Harrison could be the source of such an opinion, but in fact it is the opening sentence of the Kennel Club’s introduction to Mate Select, the much heralded genetics programme that was sold to the public as a sort of doggy dating agency, thereby immediately alienating those who could possibly get the most from it.
Breeding by numbers
The result has been that Mate Select hasn’t perhaps had quite the recognition that it should have had, and there is still very strong suspicion among many breeders of ‘breeding by numbers’. Actually the whole programme, although it still has a long way to go in order to be really meaningful, has a lot to offer the breeder, especially those who are just starting out and are considering where their first litter will take them in the long term.
It’s long been evident that many of those that breed dogs today are not in it for the long term. Forget the puppy farmers – it’s sad, but nevertheless true that in the main they will contribute very little to the overall improvement of any breed. At the other end of the scale there are those that have devoted a good chunk of their life to just one breed, or at most to a couple of different breeds. They can quote pedigrees off the top of their heads, can instantly pinpoint where that dodgy ear set or that unfortunate marking has come from. "Don’t you remember?” they will ask, ”Old Joey had just those ears, and they come out every three or four generations.” If novices are prepared to listen they can avoid making the same mistakes over and over as they build up their own knowledge of which lines click and which don’t.
But what of the vast majority of dog breeders? They would be horrified to be classed in with the puppy farmers; indeed the conditions in which they raise their puppies are often exemplary. It would be interesting to know what proportion of bitches have just one litter, and also how many people only breed one or two litters.
There are a huge sub-section of people who, with the very best of intentions will never actually contribute anything to the future of their breed. They may well start out with a well-bred bitch and have a bit of success in the show ring. They have a belief that they have as much right as anyone else to breed a litter. Certainly they will do it reasonably well. They will almost certainly carry out health checks, and will research their pedigrees, choosing a stud dog with care. Their circumstances will not permit them to keep large numbers of dogs, and since they will hold resolutely to the idea that they should only breed if they intend to keep something for themselves it’s likely that they will breed perhaps once every three or four years at most.
It’s a worthy sentiment, and one that shouldn’t be derided, but one has to ask just how much these people will contribute to the future of their breed. They will have nice homes lined up, and will vet prospective purchasers carefully. Most of these pups will be neutered just as soon as the vets can persuade the new owners that it is the responsible thing to do.
But where does this leave the future of pedigree dogs? The animal rights lobby would have us believe that morally there is no justification for the selective breeding of any animal. Assuming that we do not subscribe to that view, it then has to be conceded that it is the breeder’s responsibility to act in an ethical manner and ensure that those puppies that are born have a real chance of a healthy future.
This means that it is essential that there is a strong, knowledgeable body of breeders who have a long-term goal in mind. These are the people who don’t just think of the one litter that they hope to have from their bitch this year, but also whether a different combination might be a possibility in 12 months time.
They have already planned the next generation, and probably the one after that as well. In order to be successful they will be absorbing as much knowledge as possible. They will collect pedigrees and photographs and will store snippets of information about the dogs who interest them. Not merely show wins, but also notes on temperament, records of other litters sired by the prospective stud dog, and details of health and longevity will be kept.
Life in the 21st century isn’t conducive to becoming a dog breeder. Many of us live in small houses, with even smaller gardens. We have neighbours who may not be dog friendly. We may have to go out to work for several hours a day, and a litter is both noisy and disruptive. Having several litters each year might well be considered as anti-social by those whose houses connect with ours.
There are those who manage perfectly well, keeping a small number of dogs themselves and placing others of quality with breed enthusiasts who will continue to breed along the same lines, but in general the big kennels are a thing of the past.
So those that do breed have a big responsibility. With the vets neutering everything on their books as soon as possible, the actual percentage of dogs in any breed that form the nucleus of the next generation gets smaller all the time. Most of us, if we do regard ourselves as serious breeders, have a picture in our mind’s eye the ideal specimen of our breed, and regard it as a compliment when others can pick out one of our dogs and know with certainty that we bred it because of a recognisable kennel type. But at the same time, it is vital that we do breed responsibly, and that we understand basic genetic principles and their relevance to our own breeding programme.
Mate Select has other features, especially its ability to display health records, that are of great value to the breeder, but it is the ability to calculate co-efficients of inbreeding that have attracted the most attention. Sadly many still seem to be unaware of the reason why COIs are so important in dog breeding, hence the dismissive claim by some that their consideration leads to breeding by numbers. COIs are simply a tool, but every tool has value.
The KC runs an excellent breeders’ symposium, but by and large it is the same faces that attend each year. Many others perhaps feel that the subjects tackled will be way beyond their level of knowledge. Maybe the time has come when the KC should put money and effort into providing speakers for breed seminars who can give a simple explanation of the principles of genetics and their practical relevance to the dog breeder?