Being a good breeder

When I started out in Great Danes, I was thoroughly convinced that I had the answers. I don’t know why on earth I thought I had the right to be that arrogant, and thankfully I didn’t talk about it too loudly and make myself look really idiotic, but I was SURE that somehow I could, by following all the recipes I had read about and researched, actually get a better result than anyone else. I really did think that the problems in the breed were because others had become complacent. I “knew” that if I never bred without an OFA number, never failed to test thyroids, did a yearly echocardiogram on all my dogs, that I was a good breeder. Not just a good breeder, a BETTER breeder than the other good breeders.

I bred my first litter with the feeling that nothing could possibly go wrong; my ducks were all in a row; my co-owner had signed off on the stud dog; it was going to be a litter for the ages.

I

Was

An

Idiot.

Looking back on it I just cringe. Nothing terrible happened, although seven hours into the delivery, covered in blood and placenta and trying unsuccessfully to bring back a dead puppy, I had a BADLY needed moment of “OH LORD WHAT HAVE I DONE?” Those puppies did well, I placed most of them well and some of them spectacularly and a couple of them horribly and got them back and, much wiser, rehomed them better.

But I can barely stand to look back on it just because I can remember what it felt like, that sense of total justification and assurance that I was DA BOMB because I was so terribly serious about following the rules. I want to go back there and smack myself upside the head and knock some of that hubris out.

I was a fault judger, of breeders.

Fault judging is that thing that everyone says separates the new breeder from the old, and when you can stop fault judging you are finally on the road to somewhere. So when you look at a dog you don’t say “short neck,” you say “gorgeous topline, fluid mover” while also realizing that yes, the dog is lacking in layback and could use a longer neck. When you fault judge that one fault is the ONLY thing you see, and it disqualifies the dog for you, often completely nonsensically.

And oh, heck yes I did that. I have a catalog from a Nationals, my first Nationals, where beside the name of a dog who was far and away the strongest and soundest and most short-coupled stallion of a dog in his class, I have three words: “not enough stop.” I really thought that I was all that and a bag of chips because I could see that fault, and at that moment you could not have paid me to breed to that dog, because look at that ugly ugly slide down from the ears to the nose.

Like I said, idiot.

We make the same mistake when we fault-judge breeders. Ignore the fifty champions and the couch full of 14-year-old dogs at their house, because they don’t OFA. Dismiss their multiple ROMs and ranked stud dogs because so and so got a dog with bad elbows from them, and I’ll never make bad elbows, no sir I won’t. Because I follow the RULES, man.

I am not far enough removed from that moment when I was up to my elbows in goo and realized exactly how little I knew, and I never will be, to say that now I am some kind of guru. If anything, the longer I stare at dogs and the more I know about them the more I realize that they are perpetually slightly astonished at how stupid we are. I’ve read that “Please, God, make me the person my dog thinks I am” bumper sticker and it makes me giggle, because my dog thinks I’m a clumsy ox with a speech impediment, a useless nose, and a magic pocket that grows hot dogs. She hopes that if she plays with me enough and speaks loudly and slowly enough I’ll improve, but she hasn’t seen a lot of hope for me.

So I am hardly “there” yet. But I maybe have moved far enough from that moment to be able to be slightly more accurate, at least for myself, about what makes a good breeder.

The rule: Good breeders use health testing organizations (like OFA).

The truth: (and if you’ve been reading my blog over the last week you can skip this part, because I’ve devoted thousands of words to it already):

It’s absolutely correct that good breeders have extremely high standards and do every breeding carefully.

However, I would object to the idea that there’s an epidemic of Cardigan breeders out there ignoring the facts and breeding stupidly.

We DO NOT HAVE a method for making perfection if by “perfection” you mean dogs with hips that look like sighthound hips (which is not really my version of “perfection,” but I’ll grant the point). The tools, honestly, suck. Relying on OFA ratings produces a result that is not statistically greater than zero. In other words, it works no better to produce healthy puppies than not using it at all. So why on earth does it make you a bad breeder to realize that? PennHIP is a pretty good method for the breeds upon which it is based (Lab, Golden, Rottie, Shepherd) but a careful look at the statistics provides no such assurance for Cardigans.

Insisting that good breeders use OFA or PennHIP to improve quality of life is like giving someone a fork and telling them to build a house–the tool may make them feel like they are doing something, but the end result is not going to satisfy the requirements.

The response often given is “Well, it’s SOMETHING. So we should use it anyway.” I’d disagree. You don’t make decisions that have the potential to dramatically shift the gene pool without good reason. As I said earlier, the numbers should serve us; we don’t serve the numbers. Our goal is supposed to be to produce healthy, happy, pain-free dogs, not a carat on a number line. If the carat doesn’t reliably equal those healthy pain-free dogs, it’s foolish to elevate it above any other piece of information we have about the dogs in question.

The rule: Good breeders never do questionable breedings.

This generally means, or is meant to imply, a breeding that doesn’t follow rule 1 above. I’ve rarely heard anyone say that about, say, breeding to a stud dog who is cowhocked. It’s code for “she bred without an OFA number” or “He knowingly bred a dog with one dysplastic hip.”

That was one of my huge hangups; I developed big statements about certain breeders in that breed or in others, statements like “Well, I always thought he was a great breeder, but now I know THIS juicy fact and my opinion of him is ruined!” Again, I was an idiot. And I was also nasty and mean-spirited and I am ashamed I ever built those air castles of meanness.

The truth: Listen–every single breeding we ever contemplate, every single breeding we do, no matter what letters or numbers are before after, or under their names, is “questionable.” We’re producing living things who don’t tend to follow neat little patterns. And that’s not rationalization; that’s fact. Breeders who break the “rules” generally know about fifteen thousand percent more about the breed than I do, and they know far better than I do how much you have to give up and let go and sometimes breaking that rule is the best possible thing you can do for your breeding program.

So let’s put aside health certifying agencies for a moment. Let’s look at breeding choices apart from that.

The rule: Good breeders only have a small number of litters, maybe one or two a year at MOST. (This often becomes “I’ve been in the breed for 28 years and only bred six litters in that time!” or similar)

The truth:

This is a really bad one, a really insidious one, calling people bad breeders if they don’t apologize for every litter (which is what I sometimes think is being implied–that good breeders only breed if you have no other choice, or only breed with extreme reluctance).

The breeders who have done the greatest good for this breed, from the latter half of the nineteenth century to now, didn’t fall into the belief that fewer breedings are somehow automatically better. That’s an extremely effective lie that has permeated even the good breeder community. The fact is, good breeders DO test breedings, do “experimental” breedings, see what happens when Joe is bred to Mary because maybe Joe would be good for Marsha as well. Many of them would say that you don’t even know what your stud dog does or doesn’t do until you’ve seen five or six litters grow up, so it’s only after those litters that they start really using him with wisdom and intent. Fewer breedings is not better; those that breed a litter only once every five years are not the ones that change the breed. They may go along with the breed changes, make a few really nice dogs, but they’re not a force for improvement.

The rule: good breeders do not compromise.

Unlike “questionable,” which the secret decoder ring translates to “She didn’t submit those x-rays to OFA,” “compromise” means a breeding that the speaker personally thought was a bad idea. Generally one or more of the pair was ugly, or had some screaming fault, or in some other way the breeder did something that the speaker is super-super-sure she’d never do. “Oh yes… I think it’s so sad the way she had to compromise to breed that bitch.”

The truth:

Good breeders know that there is NO SUCH THING as a breeding that does not force a compromise. You will NEVER find a dog for your bitch that is absolutely perfect; you will never ever feel that there is not something you’re giving up, or something you’re really hoping doesn’t show up in the puppies. There will be some breedings that you are absolutely thrilled about and some that you aren’t (for example, breeding to a male that you think is ugly because he’s got a beautiful sister), and good breeders know that sometimes the very best puppies come from the latter and sometimes those oh-so-fabulous breedings are a genetic disaster.

If you DON’T go into a breeding agonizing about what might show up if the thing that makes the male less than perfect and the thing that makes the bitch less than perfect happen to meet up in the puppies, you have no business breeding. Breeding IS agonizing. If you don’t lie awake at night worrying about puppy owners standing in your driveway with pitchforks and torches, you shouldn’t be breeding. Your conscience should be screaming at each and every breeding, because that’s what keeps you from getting careless and foolish.

The rule: Good breeders make happy puppy buyers.

This usually gets whispered as “I heard that Bigshot So and So got a puppy back because it was a fear biter and it had to be put down!” or “I heard that Top Winning So and So sold a puppy and it was CRAP!”

The truth: The number of times I have seen the downfall of a puppy and can absolutely say that it was the breeder’s fault is very, very, VERY small.

Puppy owners are like any other buyers of any other products, except that most people who buy a fridge understand how to use a fridge, whereas the majority of people who own dogs are well-meaning but completely clueless.

No matter how well you screen, there will be a few complete dipwads who buy your dog and then blame you for everything they do wrong, and no matter what you do they will try to bad-mouth you every chance they get.

And, if you breed long enough, there will be at least a couple of evil, abusive dipwads you’ve got to get dogs back from, and you’ll have to threaten lawsuits and police involvement, and those owners don’t generally take out an ad in Variety talking about how great you are.

What makes a good breeder? What’s the REAL rule?

What makes you a good breeder is that you clean up your own messes. You own your decisions and the buck stops with you. You DO x-ray hips and you DO look at eyes and you DO keep track of the longevity of your dogs so you can make truth statements about your breeding program.

If you produce a puppy that is a disaster of one kind or another, you replace it. If one of your puppies needs a home, you take it. If an owner is dissatisfied, you make it right. If an owner is a danger to the dog, you move mountains to get your dog back.

You answer every phone call and you stay up until five a.m. talking an owner through the death of a young, healthy dog, a death that you will then blame yourself for and cry over for weeks. You listen patiently as an owner says that their vet says that it’s your fault that Buffy is now crippled. If it’s true, you don’t argue. You stand ready to accept that blame. Because I don’t care if you do a full-body MRI screening and only breed to dogs with genitals of solid gold, you WILL produce a crap puppy every now and then, and probably far more often than that.

One more thing: the Cardigan CAN AND WILL die out as a breed if we’re not careful. It is teetering on the brink of complete collapse in every country but this one. Three hundred puppies a year is what the UK has determined is a self-sustaining number, and I would add that those three hundred should be largely unrelated to one another for true health of the population. That means without the US population, there are not enough unrelated well-bred individuals in all the other countries put together to avoid the extinction of the breed or (virtually as bad) such a severe genetic bottleneck that the health and soundness of the breed would be destroyed. Because the US population exists we’re in acceptable shape, but not good shape. We’re definitely not in a position where we can make the gene pool even smaller. We should not be looking for excuses not to breed; we should be looking to use the largest number of dogs that are as unrelated as possible as wisely as possible.

What IS true is that the Cardigan is not a breed in a health crisis. “Despite” our very best breeders not OFAing–go to the ofa site and look at the names that are NOT there–we have a breed that lives a ridiculously long, happy, healthy life. Before we start saying that people shouldn’t be breeding, we need to have a good reason to stop them from doing so–we need to be able to say “Your breeding practices are proven to make unhealthy puppies that don’t live a long time.” Until and unless we can do that, we have no basis on which to criticize.

Charlie of Finnshavn Cardigans, who is an amazing owner, breeder, and repository of information as well as a true gentleman, calls this tack of criticism “the faceless theys.” As in “If we don’t make this rule, THEY will destroy the breed.” Evidently these trollish THEYS spring up and take over if we don’t beat them back with a sword made of PennHIP scores over the fiftieth percentile.

All those horrible THEYS makes it really quite incredible that you ended up with the super-nice dog that’s at your feet right now. After all, that dog is the result of decades and centuries of breeders who didn’t follow the rules as well as you’re going to, you there with the sword.

I was that person, standing on someone else’s shoulders, holding a puppy they and the fifty people whose shoulders they were standing on had handed to me, beating them around the head and criticizing them for not doing as good a job as I was sure I was going to do. You can understand why I now cringe and hate to think about it.

Like I said, I am nowhere near where I want or need to be to even BEGIN to be a good Cardigan breeder. But the one huge thing that has changed is that I am trying to know, and tell, the truth. Not the rules, the truth. Even though the truth is a lot harder and a lot more dangerous and allows in a lot more mistakes and even a few breeders who aren’t in it for the good of the breed. Because I think that the only way I can do this with a clear conscience is to make sure that I am not acting out of fear, or guilt, or envy, or the desire to make myself better by labeling others as worse. The dogs, and my friends, and my puppy buyers, deserve the very best of me. The part of me that acts, to quote a very wise book, “reverently, soberly, discreetly,” and above all with love.

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6 thoughts on “Being a good breeder

  1. Amen! Rus & I are still very new to this (4 1/2 years) and I remember something I told one of the long time breeders we met at Nationals…”We hope to one day have a fraction of the knowledge that that person had forgotten!” We are still “sponges” and trying to soak up everything we can, and hope to always think that way and keep learning every chance we get! We should all be sponges!!

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. And in all honesty, this is one of the reasons why it’s been 10 years since I got my first Cardigan and I’m just now contemplating a litter for the first time. (that and the fact that it took me that long to convince Dave to let me!) I think a lot of us start out being judgemental of others. That doesn’t mean that I won’t still have my own beliefs about what is important to me, what faults I can live with and what I can’t, and how I feel about testing…but it does mean that I’ve realized that people can disagree with those thoughts and not be a horrible or stupid person. LOL In fact, they might even have a thing or two to teach me…

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