Book mini-review: Dog Breeders Professional Secrets: Ethical Breeding Practices

This is a book currently being discussed on the DogRead discussion group (it’s a Yahoo Group). The author is Sylvia Smart and it’s published by DogWise.

I think that DogWise usually picks some good authors to publish, so I am not sure why they apparently tripped and fell into a puddle of stupid on this one. That probably gives away a lot of what I’m going to conclude, but for the sake of fairness I want to begin with the stuff in the book that is actually decent:

The Good: This book is there to fill a real void of education in the novice breeder world. There are very few ground-floor resources for people who would like to begin breeding dogs but haven’t the slightest idea where to begin. There are resources for showing dogs (Show Me! is a good one), on whelping specifically (Myra Harris, though I vehemently disagree with her on some stuff, is very good for this) and there are some very high-level resources for refining breeding programs (Battaglia’s book and Trotter’s book come to mind), but I can’t think of good nuts-and-bolts manuals for someone who literally doesn’t know that you have to feed puppies more than once a day.

This book falls into that gap–and maybe that’s why DogWise published it, that nobody’s ever done a better job. It’s very similar to the “How to Breed [Fill in the blank] the Modern Way” livestock books that used to be sold at the feed stores in town. Basic housing, care, veterinary resources, worming, feeding, a little on showing, etc.

The reason I give it credit for what may seem like a simple quality is that, all too often, we breeders forget that we spent a LONG time picking up some very elementary rules for care, and we forget that ignorance is not the same as willful disobedience. You know this is true–if someone approaches you about buying a show puppy, and they say something really dumb about care or feeding or health or their plans, do you spend three or four e-mails, or an hour on the phone, figuring out whether they’re just new to this or whether they really do have bad intentions? No, of course not. None of us do. We figure we’ve dodged a bullet on that one and we throw their application away. I know that’s what I do–I say a little thank-you prayer that I didn’t send a puppy to that person and I never think of them again.

The other reason a book like this (I would say not this book, but one like it) is needed is that good mentorship can be a hard thing to find. I know plenty of more experienced breeders than I am, but I count only a very few as true mentors. Others I respect but haven’t clicked with for one reason or another. Some others I recognize for what they’ve done that is good, but I’d not touch their advice with a ten-foot pole. If you’re brand new to the idea of breeding, you don’t know how to tell the difference between these groups and you don’t know if the advice you’re getting is good or crazy. And there’s very little out there by way of authority so you can check what this person is saying against what you know to be a “best practice.”

So I give kudos to an author who is ballsy enough to get out there and try to provide some kind of basic “how not to be a complete disaster at this” guide.

And that’s the other good thing about this book: If you follow the advice in it, you will not kill your dogs. You will not let them starve, freeze, die of parasitic infections, etc. You’ll keep them basically clean and dry and warm(ish) and at least somewhat exercised. You will be miles above the level of the careless or thoughtless breeder who does not know anything about the extra care that has to be devoted to breeding dogs and tiny puppies.

Smart also encourages some very good things: She wants you to do some showing, she wants you to do at least some health testing, she wants you to be a club member and give back to the sport. If you do everything this book tells you to do, you will be a mediocre but not disastrous breeder at the end of it.

One final point goes to Smart for saying that it’s a GOOD thing to breed. It’s a GOOD thing to want to be a breeder. There’s no reason to be afraid of intact dogs and there’s no reason they can’t be good pets and companions (oh, how terrible and pervasive this lie is). It’s a wonderful and VERY rewarding thing to be involved in.

The Bad: Expect to feel slimy when you’ve finished reading it. Because this really is about dog breeding as a BUSINESS. Profits are mentioned immediately and are hit at every opportunity thereafter. Every piece of advice is couched in terms of making a good bottom-line decision. For example, don’t choose a breed that has big litters, because you’ll spend so much time supplementing the litter that you’ll lose money on it. Choose a breed in the top 50, numbers-wise, because that is an expression of the demand for that breed. Try to choose a segment of production that meets the most profitable segment of demand–if you’re in a college town, choose a breed that the administration and professors will be willing to spend big bucks on. Go for the breeds owned by doctors and lawyers.

I can give about a hundred examples of this: Feed based on profit/loss. Show because champion-sired puppies are worth more; show only your best dog and the rest stay at home pumping out puppies. Keep water bowls thawed, because if the dog has to eat snow you’ll have to feed more to keep him in good weight (no, I’m not exaggerating–that’s as close to a direct quote as I can use). Every action that is typically defined as part of ethical breeding and is usually justified on the basis of being the right thing to do, for the well-being of the dog, or for the betterment of the breed, she defines as the best way to make money.

For a LONG time, I thought (hoped?) that what I was reading was a sort of sublimely ironic joke, trying to get people to do the right thing by appealing to their base instincts. Chris Walcowicz has something a little like this in one of her books, where she tells people that it’s fine to buy a puppy from a pet shop as long as you can verify that both parents have had appropriate health testing and good temperaments for the breed, and you can call and talk personally to the breeder–if you think about it for more than a second, you realize that there’s never been a pet store puppy on earth that actually satisfied those requirements.

I really wanted this to be similar, for there to be some point at which I’d see the “slow take” toward the audience and realize that Smart had just boxed the reader into a corner and in fact didn’t want you to only thaw the water to save money on food.

But, as far as I can tell, from the book and from Smart’s own comments on the DogRead list, she really is serious. In fact, she speaks of the breeder’s “responsibility” to turn a profit, and hits again and again the “fact” that the “vast majority” of good breeders make “very good livings” by breeding dogs.

And how, exactly, are you supposed to do this? Well, exactly the way you’d picture. You don’t show all your dogs, only the one that will finish fast and therefore bump up your puppy prices. It is strongly implied that you should produce to your market when it comes to show/pet types–for example, if you breed Chihuahuas you can have half your dogs be the big leggy dogs and half be show-type, and sell the first as pets only (which, yes, will make you quite a bit of money, since you have nothing invested in showing). You price your puppies to make sure you make money, and you produce enough puppies to get there. She recommends breeding all bitches back-to-back and then resting for a year, and provides the helpful calculation “so that means with five bitches you’ll have ten litters of puppies one year and five the next.”

(my note: There is NOTHING wrong with breeding a bitch back-to-back, or even back-to-back-to-back. That’s actually not my objection here. It’s that it is EXTREMELY difficult to do the incredibly careful stud dog selection, finding the very best dog for each bitch, that we’d consider a best practice, if you’re doing it seven to ten times a year, every year. In order to avoid thousands of dollars in stud fees and impossible travel requirements you’d have to have all the dogs in-house, which means you need to have at least as many stud dogs as you have bitches. You CAN do this and be a good breeder, but housing that many dogs would kill your profits because stud dogs don’t make money for you the way bitches do. To make a long story short: what she’s talking about are not bitches being bred to a bunch of outside dogs or even bitches being bred to your own five or ten stud dogs; this is a stable of bitches being bred again and again to a single champion or field-titled stud dog owned by you or by a friend. )

She neatly ties up this make-money message by saying that you need to keep the money-making secret or private, that every breeder denies making money if you ask them directly.

The REALLY Ugly: Remember how I said you wouldn’t kill your dogs by following this book? You’re not going to help them thrive either. A huge proportion of the book is out of date or does not reflect current recommendations, and a whole bunch is just flat-out wrong.

Some of my favorites:

*Breeders cannot and should not ever participate in rescue or fostering, because those dogs will bring in disease.

*Never feed a raw diet, because it’s risky and expensive and you won’t do it right anyway. Kibble is the only way to go.

*It is completely normal for bitches to eat several puppies; it’s how they survived before they were domesticated (when they do not leave the whelps for several days). You may need to muzzle her to prevent this, but it’s normal. (Joanna sez: it’s NOT normal, it’s NOT how wolves survive, and if your poor bitch is attempting it it’s an excellent sign that she’s critically low in calcium and heading toward eclampsia.)

*Don’t let buyers put one over on you–she tells a story of selling a puppy and having someone try to return it, but the puppy they tried to return was a “ringer” (another puppy, not the one she sold). Her “win” in this situation was that she showed them to be deceptive and she never heard from them again. No mention of the poor dog she sold, no hint of worry that she totally lost contact with him.

*In the chapter called “To Show or Not to Show” she advises you to enter the Am Bred class because that gets you a blue ribbon, then get your photo taken; that way puppy buyers will see your dogs as show dogs.

In addition, there’s a bunch of stuff in the reproductive/whelping advice that’s incorrect: the idea that small puppies are younger than big puppies because the breeder let the dogs breed for too many days (totally ridiculous), how to wean and feed baby puppies (she wants you to use Gerber baby cereal, which is nonsense for puppies), feeding growing puppies, etc. The horrible advice to euthanize puppies by putting them in the freezer is once more passed along to another generation of breeders–please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t do this. It’s a painful, slow death that is worse than almost any other way you can think of. If you think you’ll need to euthanize a puppy and you have absolutely no way to get a puppy to a 24-hour vet to do it (and no, “it’ll cost me too much money” is not a reason), ask your vet for some ether or find someone who knows how to quickly and painlessly kill an animal and put them “on call.” This is a horrible duty that none of us wish were necessary, but sometimes it is. (Personally, I would use an ER vet; I used to have access to ether and I know how to use it, but my old Bio prof who would have given it to me has now retired.)

What you should be asking right now is “So where’s the ‘ethical’ in all this?” The answers come in “ethical dilemmas” she sets up and asks you to answer. One is whether you’d feel comfortable breeding a bitch that is there to be bred to dog A to dog B, and passing the puppies off as the offspring of dog A. Another introduces two litters, one worth twice as much as the other. The cheap litter is 12 puppies, the expensive one four. Would you sell some of the cheap ones as the puppies of the expensive dam? Surgically altering and marking up dogs, showing ringers, and influencing judges are some others. In other words, the “ethics” she wants you to follow are somewhere in the realm of “are you an actual criminal?” They’re so far from being “dilemmas” that I truly worry about anyone who would find them difficult to answer.

In the end, reading this book made me very uncomfortable. The strong message is that all of us who breed dogs have “secrets,” and the biggest one is how much money we make. If a prospective puppy owner reads this, and then asks you if they can make money breeding dogs, they’ll think your incredulous laughter and quick denial is your way of hiding your “secret” from your possible competition. Another “secret” is that lovely one I mentioned above, getting a ribbon from Am Bred because the dog can’t win an Open class. Listing these frankly skeevy behaviors as “secrets” implies that the best way to be a successful breeder is to create a picture of yourself that is, honestly, deceptive.

According to Smart, you’re an ethical breeder if you don’t dye your dog in the ring and don’t falsely register litters–as long as you don’t do that, you can have ten bitches sitting in a kennel two hundred feet from your house and never let them feel carpet under their feet except when they’re whelping twice a year.

There’s an adversarial tone when it comes to puppy buyers, and a willingless to accept puppies going off into a place that may be much less than ideal. Where she’s not warning you that puppy buyers may try to rip you off, she’s giving you instructions on how to get the most money out of them, and how to write a contract that protects you from having to pay more than would be fair.

Do we need a book of best practices? Yes. I think we do. I think there’s a hole here that needs to be filled. But I would recommend strongly against filling it with this particular book.

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5 thoughts on “Book mini-review: Dog Breeders Professional Secrets: Ethical Breeding Practices

  1. On the topic of newborn puppy euthanasia, and I’m asking this out of sheer curiosity, what about CO2 as an emergency option for putting down puppies?

    CO2 is seen as a very valid, and accepted form of humane euthanasia for small animals, and I can imagine, would also be humane for a puppy.

    I agree that freezing, and drowning are examples of horribly deplorably BAD ideas, but I’ve never seen CO2 as an option given for newborn dogs, and cats in times of emergency, yet rat people often use it on full-grown rats, and Guinea Pig people occasionally use CO2 on their Cavies. These animals are generally larger than newborn puppies.

    I’m sure I may offend someone for asking this question, but I’m curious, so am asking anyways. In my mind, CO2 seems like it’d be a MUCH better option to suggest in place of freezing, or drowning- even if still not the most politically correct, or best option.

  2. That is actually a VERY good question–I looked up some studies when I was writing last night, because I knew that CO2 euthanization is very common and considered humane.

    The issue with using it for newborns of any species is that the newborn brain is VERY flexible about oxygen and CO2. It has to be, because during an extended birth the puppy (or rat pup, etc.) can be deprived of oxygen for several minutes and the newborn needs to be able to recover from that.

    So euthanizing with CO2 is not recommended for newborns–it takes a lot longer for them to die and they can wake back up even if they’ve been exposed to the gas for as long as half an hour. You need to either use a true anesthetic like ether or halothane or an injection.

  3. TY! I’m glad I didn’t come across as ‘the evil puppy killer’ 😉

    As for the 1/2 hour bit, this is actually about how much time I leave the CO2 on when I use it on ratties. Often rats are suffering respiratory distress (mycoplasma infection of the upper respiratory tract). I keep them in a smaller sized, sealed plastic bin with the tube from the CO2 canister secured to the container. I put the rattie into the bin with the CO2 on low, then up the CO2 as the rattie begins to drift off. After the rat is asleep, I turn the CO2 back down to very low ‘trickle’, ans let it sit for a bit.

    Since CO2 is heavier than air, the important thing is keeping a constant light flow, as that will keep the container full of the CO2. I’ve never personally used CO2 on litters of rats, but I’ve heard the same concern about the use of CO2 with newborn rats (in discussions on culling litters- some breeders DO cull, but I’m not one of them), and know of people who’ve culled litters, or put down a newborn in distress this way (slow trickle of CO2 for 15+ mins)

    Hypothetically it may be possible to use CO2 for a long duration (after actual passing) to put down a puppy or kitten in distress, if a vet trip isn’t possible. That being of course, if a large CO2 tank were handy. My husband is a home-brewer, so we always have multiple tanks onhand for his booze.

    Before I’m flamed by others for using CO2 occasionally, instead of a vet for putting down ratties, my nearest e-vets are over 30 miles away, and NOT rat experienced. Also, rats are NOT put to sleep through a leg vein like dogs and cats, but rather intracardiac (through the heart).

    Even though they are sedated first, they will still react to the injection if the heart is missed… which is VERY possible with an inexperienced vet. In my 10+ years experience of owning, breeding, and rescuing rats, I’ve never once had a rat react badly to CO2, so in cases where my normal/a rat experienced vet is not available, I will put a rattie down peacefully in home, rather than risk a stressful death, even to a sedated pet. I’ve also had cases where a rat is attacked, or has another problem and is in immediate need of euthanisa, where time is too limited to make it to a vet office.

    I figured I should add that disclaimer, since the topic of using CO2 on pets can be a hot one 😉 CO2 is the method most feeder animal suppliers use, and most suggested method for putting down small animals, because it’s effective, and humane.

  4. Thank you for posting this review! When I saw the book listed as a Dogread pick, I considered buying it, but the on-line discussion gave me an odd feeling. Your review confirms my impression that I would not enjoy or benefit from the author’s perspective. There’s a couple different meanings for “professional” used as an adjective, and I don’t think her definition is the one I want to apply to myself.

    Books I refer to often are Evans “Book of the Bitch” (has some quaint lingo!) and Pat Hastings’ Tricks of the Trade and Another Piece of the Puzzle. I don’t agree with the tight line-breeding concepts but at least Trotter’s book assumes that the reader wants to become a dog breeder with integrity.

  5. Thanks for this post! Wow, I can’t believe some of the things you have said that are in the book.

    I could comment on every single one – but I’ll spare everyone my personal thoughts, especially since I actually haven’t (and don’t plan to) actually read the book.

    As far as money goes, my perspective is, if you are “doing it right,” then you can break even. : ) We are lucky if we break even most of the time. There was a period of about 3 years where we were losing money (and, lots of money), but we still kept on. Breeding isn’t supposed to be a business investment. Unfortunately, some people (okay, a LOT of people) treat it that way.

    “Do we need a book of best practices? Yes. I think we do. I think there’s a hole here that needs to be filled. But I would recommend strongly against filling it with this particular book.”

    Thumbs up!

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