Why you should think twice before breeding your pet dog

I originally wrote a draft this post two years ago after responding to someone in a Facebook discussion. When I recently strumbled across it in my drafts, I thought it might be a good time to revisit it – this is a lightly edited version to make it more like a coherent blog post. Just imagine I wrote this two years ago – and then read my reflections at the end of the post.

The question about breeding one’s pet dog comes up occasionally on different Facebook groups. I feel really strongly about responsible breeding practices and especially dog wellbeing – usually people mean well but don’t know enough, so they inadvertently make a lot of mistakes. I have seen it a lot on cocker spaniel groups where people want to breed one litter from their dog to keep a puppy or for their dog to “experience motherhood once”. The result is puppies whose parents haven’t been health tested at all because nobody thought it was necessary or even aware of it, and dogs often get preventable hereditary illnesses very young – it breaks my heart and makes me angry because we are doing a disservice to both dogs and people.

Cute… but a lot of responsibility.

Breeding dogs is a HUGE responsibility. First and foremost, you need to be prepared to take any and all puppies back during their entire lives – if you can’t guarantee that, don’t breed, because then you are the kind of person why dogs end up in shelters. Proper breeders carry the responsibility for their dogs for their whole life and support the families of their puppies. It’s important to ask whether you are knowledgeable and experienced enough to do that before moving further!

Health and wellbeing must be #1 consideration when breeding dogs. That means health screening because we need to clean up the mess we’ve made so far breeding dogs – breeding dogs without health tests is reckless and irresponsible. You might get your puppy fun, but you will sell the puppies to families and if you are unlucky, your dog or the sire pass on hereditary illnesses. In other words, you can cause a lot of heartbreak and financial consequences for other people – something I’ve witnessed too much in spaniel groups with new owners.

You also need to be knowledgeable about nutrition for the pregnant bitch and puppies, and also how to raise stable puppies – meaning you need to understand just how crucial those first 8 weeks are. It’s a huge amount of work, hundreds of hours. And if you don’t do it well, you create a problem for the people you sell the puppies to.

You also take a risk on your own dog’s life – pregnancies and births can go wrong, are you prepared to lose her? I’m not against breeding at all – our dog’s breeder would like us to have a litter from ours but I’m unsure if I’m experienced enough and ready for the responsibility, even though I would have our dog’s breeder supporting the whole time and there is extensive guidance for who would be a suitable partner for our dog.

Wellbeing means choosing to breed dogs with excellent temperaments to be family dogs. It doesn’t make dogs less valuable or less worthy of love, but why pass on temperament that makes the lives of people more difficult in the next generation? You risk people not being able to cope and that leads to rehoming. A dog being unsuitable for breeding doesn’t mean they’re not a great dog – our older one is my heart dog but her temperament is not something I’d wish to “gift” to 6-8 families to potentially deal with – I don’t know if it would be passed on but I wouldn’t risk it.

You need to be specific about the characteristics of a mate: our younger dog might be a great example of her breed in many ways – she was (apparently) the best of the litter in human focus, sniffing and retrieving. The breeder chose her for us because we are an active dog sports home and she had all the puppies aptitude tested to match them with the right homes.

Our younger dog has shown ability in many things as she’s grown and by many standards she is a great dog. However, if I’m brutally honest, she is also a bit high strung and sensitive, prone to anxiety which could easily turn into reactivity in the wrong circumstances – it’s the flipside of her extreme handler focus and quick learning ability, things that make her good at agility and detection. [N.B. This was written when Grace was in the middle of puberty! I waited a long time to see her adult temperament to develop to see more clearly what kind of dog she turned out to be.]

So if I were to breed her, I would choose a more mellow temperament for the sire – otherwise, there is a risk that I would create 6 to 10 puppies into the world with a strong tendency for anxiety, reactivity etc. just because I didn’t think about my dog objectively. Doing anything else is a risk for the puppies to be rehomed or returning back to me, both outcomes I wouldn’t want to see.

Choosing families for your puppies is also big deal. A good breeder matches the puppy to the family so you need to know about dogs to do that. Our breeder considers all her pups her “grandchildren” – always wants to hear how they are doing, always there for support.All of these things are what we should be doing if we are breeding dogs – failing any of them risks dogs ending up in a not-forever home and resulting in more rehomed dogs.

On the whole, I still fully agree with everything I said and feel like I have lived up to my own expectations from a time when I had not made a decision to breed with Grace – actually quite the opposite, I was entirely unconvinced that would be a wise thing to do!

Since writing this, I have seen Grace mature and develop into a beautiful, stable adult – and it was particularly important to see her character without the influence of another dog. We have also done a lot of health testing, and I’ve educated myself extensively about a range of considerations when it comes to aiming for healthy, stable puppies.

Before deciding to apply for a kennel name, we made sure she was objectively going to add something to the future of the breed: we went to a dozen dog shows where we received independent evaluations of her structure and movement (you can read all of them here). She achieved both Dutch and Belgian championships, and she has also technically enough to be a Polish champion but needs a duplicate point after a certain time to complete it. We also spent last summer going to agility competitions which helped us see how she copes with those high pressure situations and busy environments as a way to test her temperament. After all that, we decided that we felt that we could objectively say she would have something valuable to contribute to the future of the breed.

To be honest, I was surprised to see we did actually choose a male exactly as I thought back then even though I had no memory of writing this! I hope Hunter’s more mellow, relaxed temperament will bring balance to the puppies – he is a lot like Grace in being a gentle, slightly sensitive dog in the sense of being focused on their humans. It took me years to weigh up Grace’s temperament but ultimately I decided that she has enough great qualities that would be valuable to the future of the breed that by choosing a male carefully, I can manage any potential risk that might exist – there are no perfect dogs, after all, and the most you can aim for is as much of the good as possible, while being comfortable with the risk of the parts that are less than the ideal.

Our process of choosing a male included driving to Poland in September just to attend our breed club’s show where I stood by the ring watching the males being evaluated – how they were placed by the judge was less important to me than how they behaved in that high stress situation and busy environment. Hunter was relaxed and calm throughout, checking in with his human occasionally for reassurance which is impressive for a young intact male dog sitting in the middle of a dozen other intact males. When he passed my temperament test, I checked his pedigree for relatedness and was pleased to see he was a match. He also has the kind of structure I am looking for: slim, light and closer to 9:10 ratio than 9:12 – more square than rectangle – because I feel this is a good fit with Grace and I prefer more compact dogs. He has also received excellent evaluations in the shows he has attended, and at 12 months he completed a working trial where he received full points and first place – very impressive for a teenage dog, and certainly more mature than Grace was at that age. He ticked boxes I hadn’t even dared to imagine having – he is a charming, handsome and gentle dog who I could imagine myself sharing a life with.

For me, the risk minimising strategy for temperament goes beyond choosing a male but also observing the puppies’ temperament and choosing homes for each that are suited to them – before starting the process, I decided I would wait to find the perfect home for each puppy, even if it meant they would stay with me to an older age. I am also fully prepared to be available for advice and guidance for the duration of each puppy’s life – among other things, I have been collecting articles and information to share with the families of the puppies as they grow, and also documenting our own journey with the puppy who stays with us. Although I’m not a dog professional, I know my own dog very well and according to objective evaluations she has turned out rather well so some of my approaches may well be helpful for the families of the puppies as well.

In terms of health, I also took a calculated risk when I found out her hip score was C – something that came as a surprise to me, having witnessed her effortless movement since she was a puppy. After weeks of intense research, deep dives into the scientific literature and teaching myself a lot of stuff about genetics, structure and kinematics as well as a 2500km trip to Poland for a second opinion with a top radiologist in Warsaw, we decided that the hereditary risk was small enough to accept if the sire’s hip score was A because the change in probability from A+A to A+C is minimal – something the Polish radiologist confirmed, and approved of using Grace for breeding since she was otherwise in excellent condition.

For me, this doesn’t go far enough, so I will also have all of the puppies checked by a physiotherapist before they leave us, and ask all of the homes to commit to having the dog checked regularly during the first two years. I am also implementing certain things while the puppies are with us to maximise their chances of developing strong muscles and minimise any risks of damage, and help the new homes to work out an exercise programme that will build muscles safely. Finally, I will ask all homes to conduct a hip examination when the dogs are two years old. Note: There is a lot more to say about HD screening that have influenced my decisions, but I will write about these later.

We have also had her genetically tested for hereditary illnesses (results here) and she has had her eyes and heart evaluated too. She has a very low coefficient of inbreeding even genetically, which adds to the value she can bring to the future of the breed along with the sire, who has a similarly low COI. This is hugely important, because high COI % increases the risk of recessive mutations which cannot be tested for with DNA tests – essentially, the more related two dogs are genetically, the higher the likelihood that they’ll have a matching set of randomly occurring mutations. This is one of the key critiques of pedigree dogs and conversely a “benefit” of mixed breed dogs, and in some ways there is a kernel of truth in it. However, mixing breeds can also create problematic structural combinations which negatively impact a dog’s wellbeing later on in life, so it’s not so straightforward that it’ll automatically create healthier dogs because health problems are not limited to genetically inherited ones.

I have also spent a lot of time in the last year learning about puppy development and specifically how to boost resilience and mental stability. Our plans include working through the Puppy Culture programme which includes Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) as well as Early Scent Introduction (ESI) and a lot of activities similarly to this gundog kennel.

Later on, we will also have a puppy play gym designed similarly to the Avidog Adventure Box (see right) and various ways of developing proprioception like this set (below) from Wooddog.pl which is borrowed from a friend, but also things like balance cushions and puppy swings.

Are we prepared? As much as we can, but at the same time this is a learn-on-the-job kind of thing.

Wish us luck.

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