The work of a breeder – part 2

In the previous post, I said that the male is the second most important choice in the process of breeding – the most important one is the mother. 

The mother needs to meet the same kind of criteria as the father, and a bit more because they are a much bigger influence on the puppies. You need the mother to be calm and happy during pregnancy to minimise the risk of anxious puppies, and the quality of maternal care has a huge impact on the puppies’ future temperament and stability. You can’t know exactly how your dog will behave as a mother, but you can try to guess based on their temperament. 

Choosing to breed a dog is effectively multiplying them – we don’t add just one, but several dogs into the world, and ultimately they will become someone else’s problem, if something isn’t quite right so it’s a big responsibility. I have strong opinions about people breeding their dog just because THEY think their dog is lovely – a dog can be worthy and lovely without multiplying their genes. I wanted the decision to be as objective as possible: would adding Grace’s genes be positive for the future of the breed’s population? 

So, we started gathering evidence. From June 2021 to September 2022, we travelled a total of 8500 km to attend 14 days of dog shows in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Poland. Grace is a Dutch and Belgian champion, but we also wanted to have her evaluated against other dogs of her breed to be sure she is good enough. In Poland, she has enough points to be a champion, but one of them needs to be 6 months after the first, so we’ll get the extra one later. 

I should add that dog shows are not really our thing – we turn up, do what we came to do, and go. It’s also often pretty unglamorous – in Poland, we sat in a wet tent waiting for our turn… It is a means to an end, an impartial evaluation – although I need to acknowledge that it isn’t always so, especially in all breeds. There are instances where a judge has favoured another dog over Grace because she is smaller, but I’m OK with not winning as long as the content of the evaluation tells me she is structurally sound and optimal.

Structural criteria covered, we also wanted to get evidence of her temperament. When Grace was a teenager, she was a little highly strung – not unlike a typical working spaniel but enough that I wanted to make sure she had the capacity to work with a human in challenging conditions. So, we spent the last year competing in agility – a total of 17 competitions around the Netherlands, adding 2500km to our car’s mileage. We’ve not been hugely successful thanks to me, but I needed to see that she is able to focus and perform reliably in highly distracting and stressful environments. 

All of our holidays in 2022 were spent doing dog stuff – either shows or agility competitions – but as a result, we felt that Grace had definitely met the criteria and could positively contribute to the breed’s future. 

The last piece of the puzzle is to really know your dog – to look at them objectively and honestly. No dog is perfect, not even a champion – what are their strengths and especially weaknesses? With Grace, I wanted to balance her spirited nature with a male who was more relaxed and calm – not doing so might risk accentuating the extremes of each parent, and the goal is for the next generation to always be better than their parents. You know how what happened next, but… even this isn’t the true beginning of the history of these puppies.  

An individual breeder – especially a first timer like me – can’t take full credit for their work because they are building on the work of others that came before them. In my case, the work of Grace’s breeder Dorota is a huge contribution to what these puppies will become. 

Before Grace came into our lives, dozens and dozens of decisions and choices led to her existence. From her foundational pair Lulu & Leon to finding Grace’s father Ali and selecting Grace’s mother Szajba for herself… the choices add up. Puppies can show temperamental traits going back more than a generation, so if you have negative ones, they might pop up – this is why every breeding choice matters and why it is important to know the lines of the dogs involved. 

I have personally met both of Grace’s parents, her grandmother, great-great-grandparents Lulu & Leon, as well as Hunter’s father Farel, and his mother Kawa’s lines are also known to me as she is from the same breeder as Grace. For me, this is a matter of risk reduction and having more confidence in how the puppies will likely turn out. 

This is not a trivial matter, because once a puppy goes home their new family falls in love with them, and by the time problems emerge, people will do anything to help their dog which is commendable, but often that casts a shadow over their lives. 

There are, of course, many ways to be a breeder, and everyone has their personal goals – other people might not want to know the dogs’ pedigree as intimately as I do. When we decided to do this, we didn’t know if we would ever do it again, so if I was only going to do it once, I wanted to make it as perfect as possible. However, it is a question everyone should ask before getting a puppy: how well does the breeder know their lines? If they can’t answer that, be careful.

In addition to everything else, anyone aspiring to breed their dog should learn about structure, movement, and genetics. In the past two years, I’ve bought and (tried to) read as much as I can about these topics – I say tried to, because these are not simple topics, and fully learning them will take years.

I’ve watched webinars and even spent two days in a seminar about dog structure and movement, trying to understand how I can do my best to make the future better for dogs. This isn’t about some dogs being better or worthier than others – it’s about wellbeing. Historically, we haven’t paid a lot of attention to this aspect – from veterinarians to behaviourists/dog trainers to breeders, hardly anyone thinks about the impact of structure on wellbeing and behaviour.

Yet… dogs with less than optimal structure functionally are more susceptible to health problems from mid-life onwards, and it isn’t usually connected to their physical appearance. When a dog’s structure isn’t fit for function, it can result in muscle tension over time as the dog compensates for the lack of balance. This muscle tension turns into stiffness and pain, which creates more compensation – a vicious cycle is born. Eventually, it may look like behavioural issues that nobody thinks to connect to their structure.

As she got older, Nell’s active lifestyle started to take its toll on her body – she had persistent tension around the thoracic part of her spine, which is essentially the bottom of the neck/ withers. When I learned more about this topic, I realised it was likely due to shoulders that were too straight, which meant the impact of landing travelled through the front legs to the back. Additionally, judging by the shape of her front legs, I think her shoulder blades were slightly tilted inwards, which creates more rotation in the elbow – again, more stress on her body. These things combined showed up as tension, and in her earlier life she used to injure her shoulder on one side..

The cumulative impact of this low-level pain changed her behaviour – something we only realised once we did a period of intensive physiotherapy after her minor arthritis of the wrist. We thought her slight withdrawal and irritability were related to Grace’s arrival because she did not show signs of lameness or other physical problems. Yet… only 2 weeks into the physio regime, we saw a different, happier dog emerge – a younger version of Nell, who once again jumped into our bed, who played and looked visibly more relaxed. The tension between the dogs melted away once she was no longer in pain. Afterwards, I felt really bad for her that she had been in pain and we were not aware of it. This experience is one of many that has motivated me to learn more about anatomy and kinematics.

There are, of course, no guarantees of how puppies turn out as a breeder, I can only pay attention to the “ingredients” coming from the parents and try to minimise the likelihood of structural flaws. Again, it doesn’t mean dogs with structural shortcomings are any less worthy of love – I loved Nell for who she was. But as a breeder I have a responsibility to do right by these dogs I’m bringing into the world – I need to do my best to make sure they have a healthy body and mind, and that includes making sure their structure is fit for the active life they are likely to lead. In fact, I would go as far as saying that for a breeder to NOT pay attention to structure is irresponsible because you are effectively pushing a problem to the owners, several years into the future – you will likely not need to deal with it, because dog owners rarely connect the dots all the way back to your choices. That means our responsibility is even greater.

And finally… something practical. Just like a big part of running a bed & breakfast is cleaning up, a large part of the work of looking after puppies consists of cleaning up pee and poop.

From pads in the whelping box and playpen to pee pads under the drybeds that served as rugs in our living room for weeks, to hunting the occasional pee puddle (or discovering it by “experiential means”), to sherlocking our way around the garden several times a day to find the small poos… it’s constant.

Although the pups are largely housetrained (we no longer need pads in the living room), accidents happen because… they’re still puppies and regress from time to time. Just now, I watched someone pee into the curtains right next to an open door (why?!?!?!) and yesterday, as I discovered the SECOND poop in one of the travel crates that after having access to them for weeks, someone had suddenly thought they make great private toilets Then there’s the occasional excitement pee on a sniffing mat which means throwing away whatever was in it and washing it again. It is what it is, and they grow out of it – but the reality is that much of our daily work is being a toilet attendant, hunting for poop.

I’ve shared our journey to this current litter of puppies because I had never seen anyone else write about this – I hope this sheds some light on what goes into breeding healthy, mentally stable pedigree dogs, and perhaps it’s helpful for someone who is thinking about breeding their dog one day. There are, of course, different ways to become and be a dog breeder, but this was ours.

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