Followup on A Football Field of Dogs

I wanted to address comments specifically in a post, because I know that not everyone reads comments. I am not including identities because I want to be VERY CLEAR that I am responding to issues, not people. If I use “you,” it’s the collective you and includes myself. I am making no statements about individuals or breeders with names.

I don’t know. Your posts along these lines always give me a lot to think about, and I certainly agree on some levels. For instance, the fact that every dog that is sound, mentally fit, & healthy has a place in a breeding program if so desired. And I think it takes a trained eye to be able to tell what faults will eventually cause unsoundness. But I am nonjudgmental when someone breeds a dog that isn’t “typey” or has some glaring faults, as long as the dog is sound. I could care less about a dog having the CH in front of their name. Some of the best Cardigans in history have come out of less than stellar parents, and I think that is a lesson worth studying.

Yes, I think it really is. I suspect, however, that those “best” Cardigans were not really anomalies when you look at the whole pedigree–at least in terms of soundness. You can have a bitch with a wonky topline and still breed her wisely if you know that the bad topline is not throughout her pedigree, or if you know that the stud dog you’re considering for her reliably corrects toplines. It ends up coming down to our two tests: Does it affect her life? Yes. Will it affect and hurt future generations? If you’re fairly sure the answer is no, it’s a good and ethical decision to breed her. 

To a certain extent I think this mindset follows down to “fault judging” versus finding the virtues of a dog. Many people fault judge and will decide that so-and-so shouldn’t be bred because of xx fault. I also think that what you should consider for the whelping box is vastly different than what you should consider for the show ring.

Yes, yes, and yes. If you have a dog who is likely to produce well (and by “well” I mean my oft-repeated phrasing about a happy, healthy, long, pain-free life), it is a solid contributor to the next generation even if it is not shown, or shown heavily. Breeders SHOULD show, and I think it can’t be a low priority. As political and unfair as it is, showing makes you put your money where your mouth is. It’s a peer review activity, where you “show” the products of your breeding program. But it’s not invalid to say that the products of your breeding program don’t have to be every single dog you’ve ever kept. Many good breeders keep back animals, especially bitches, that they feel will produce well but would not necessarily be the best choices to represent them in the ring. Now you have to be very careful–there’s a fine line between keeping a dog back because it is a solid producer and keeping an unsound or nasty dog out of the show ring but thinking up ways to justify breeding it. Keeping dogs out of the ring can’t be an invitation to kennel blindness. But as a strategy, yes, it’s valid.

And, of course, the issue with trying to do only the “valid” and relevant tests is that it’s not always clear which are which. I’ve heard many arguments that hips are not a relevant test in Cardis, but having lived with an OFA “mild” who DID show symptoms (while his OFA “moderate” dam did not), it’s hard for me to accept those arguments. Like above, I don’t get judgmental of those who choose to breed borderline hips when the dog seems very sound, as long as they do so thoughtfully. But I also can’t accept that idea that we should give up on trying to improve hips just because the tools are flawed. 

For me, the question on hips again comes down to whether it hurts the individual dog and whether it hurts the next generation. In some breeds that answer is completely obvious. In ours I really think it’s not. You saw it yourself in dogs that did not follow the “rule” of severity of dysplasia equalling pain level. And the answer to the second one, hurting the next generation, seems to be VERY poorly understood. I think we can say in Cardigans that an OFA-type view has moderate–not super, but moderate–value when it comes to analyzing the health of that dog as he or she stands there. It does not seem to have a lot of value when it comes to predicting how that dog will produce the next generation. The question is not whether the tools are imperfect–the question is whether they work AT ALL.

And I also feel that because of the AR activists, we need to be very careful about differentiating ourselves in as many ways as possible from mass-market breeders. That’s a tricky line to walk.

I want to address this one more fully below, because I think it is a VERY VERY BAD IDEA to be thinking along these lines. But since it’s repeated below, let me write about it once and not twice.

Comment 2:

“EVERY DOG WHO IS REMOVED FROM THE POPULATION HURTS THAT POPULATION.” – No, I won’t go there. And then you don’t go there either as you go on to talk about eliminating dogs with unsound structure or temperament from the gene pool. However, structurally sound dogs with cosmetic problems (such as mismarked or coat length) need not be eliminated in my opinion as well. And color? Well, most know how I feel on that issue.

Removing any animal from a population hurts that population. That’s how it works. It’s not my personal agenda; it’s ecological fact. No change is neutral, no removal without cost. The question is whether the removal benefits the population more than it hurts it. 

Nature performs this task with incredible efficiency and also with incredible conservation. She never unnecessarily removes an animal; she leaves the maximum number who can survive to reproduce. Barring a bottlenecking event like a flood or a volcanic eruption or something that kills a ton of animals in an unnatural way (i.e., in a way that doesn’t prove whether or not they would have survived in their environment), populations will stay at their maximum possible, breeding as widely as possible, maintaining the richest gene pool possible. The extent to which we screw with that process is the danger we put populations in. 

I am sure you know the term “no sacred cows.” We need to make sure we’re not falling into groupthink or conventional wisdom; we have to tell the truth even if nobody else is. For some reason, breeding has become something we view almost as a necessary evil, and it’s really better to not breed. That’s how the majority of “breeders” feel, or at least how they behave. I’ve heard people brag that they’ve been in a breed for 30 years and only bred four litters in that time, and they really do think that makes them a better breeder than someone who has been producing three or five litters a year over that span. 

That is, in the words of Trollope, a damnable lie. It is utterly contrary to the way you behave if you want to produce and maintain the healthiest possible population. We need to stop thinking that the best way to be good breeders is to not breed! We need to be breeding the largest possible number of dogs to the largest possible number of dogs or our gene pool will disappear. It should be “I neuter wisely,” even more than “I breed wisely.”

I strongly agree with [the above] statement about needing to be careful in today’s political AR climate. We need to be the guardians of our breeds and do our best to raise the bar, not lower it.

Now, see, here’s where I get the major heebies.


It is utterly vital to realize that the HSUS and the more generalized animal rights agenda has absolutely nothing to do with discovering who has the healthiest puppies. If you are laboring under the delusion that we have ANY kind of defense against their agendas because we do four health tests instead of one you are VERY VERY wrong.

And, if we’re honest, no matter how careful we are we can’t guarantee health. We can’t even guarantee that the puppy we’re selling is going to live a longer or better life, or have a better temperament, than the most raddled Malti-Poo from Petland.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you know that the dog we are all foolishly and totally in love with is Ginny, a genetic nightmare of a designer dog with a mouth that can’t even close properly. If I had a houseful of Ginnys I’d be in heaven. And the worst experience I’ve ever had with a dog I owned was a purebred with a pedigree as perfect as you could ever imagine.

That’s why I think it’s a really terrible idea to even pretend we can “promise” a product, or to say that our dogs are “better” than the worst reject from a puppy mill. Owners love their dogs, and what makes dogs “better” from their standpoint has nothing to do with the way we tend to define it. We can say they are sounder, we can try to educate them about conformation, we can talk about the ability to do a job. Ninety-nine percent of that will go in one ear and out the other. And then we’ll sell them a puppy, they’ll make a hundred dumb mistakes, they’ll create a fear-biting dog, and they will be convinced that we’ve ripped them off. Promising “better” is a dead end.

What we can do is WARRANTY health, stand behind our dogs; fix problems and replace puppies. But we should be doing that just because it’s the right thing to do, not because it will decrease litigation or liability. I’m afraid that ship has already sailed, and we’re going to be in court whether we like it or not and it will have nothing to do with whether we have healthy dogs.

The HSUS and its ilk make no differentiation between responsible and irresponsible breeding; their only goal is to end breeding altogether. The HSUS is asking for lemon reports to prove that unhealthy puppies come from breeders, that breeders produce unfit animals (and they do-I don’t care how many tests breeders do, if you have more than a couple of litters you will produce puppies that die young and even horrifically, sometimes due to genetics but usually due to the fact that they’re living things and some living things die young), that breeders create animals with bad temperaments or bad behavior, and that breeders treat their animals cruelly, and therefore you should never buy from a breeder.

If we breed with the HSUS’s threat as a motivator, or with some mythical definition of perfect health as the qualification for responsible breeding, we WILL fail. Don’t forget that we’re breeding dogs with a deformity, and even though we know that their quality of life is not hurt we’re automatically viewed as sickos who like deformed dogs. In other words, if we cater to that approach we will be neatly forced into not breeding at all.

Think about this carefully: If you were taken to court and asked to prove that the puppies you’re selling are “better” than a group of ten Aussie-doodles, could you do it? Because that’s what you’re saying you can do. You’re saying that because you health-test and somehow breed only “elite” dogs, raising the bar, you’ve differentiated yourself as “better.”

The prosecutor leans over and says, “So you’re saying that none of your dogs have ever shown any kind of reactivity or aggression toward other dogs? How about kids-is every single one of the dogs you have in your house completely trustworthy with children? Will they happily approach the elderly and disabled? Has any dog you’ve ever sold bitten any other animal or human? Has any dog you’ve ever bred been diagnosed with any genetic health problem? OK, well, plainly you’re in trouble there, so let’s go on to our expert witness. Dr. Wilson, can you show us a study that establishes that the defendant’s dogs are healthier than these mixed-breed dogs? OK, well, are the defendant’s dogs able to run normally? Oh, they have a deformity, yes. Why would anyone choose to breed dogs with a deformity? Well do they have any hip dysplasia? Oh, these deformed little dogs have hips that are twice as loose as the mixed breeds’ are? So… in other words, there is a documented history of bad temperaments, bad behaviors, bad health, and they’re congenitally deformed and damaged.”

You could NOT defend yourself. You would not have a single leg to stand on. “Raising the bar” is what we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better, to tell ourselves that when someone comes knocking we’ll be safe. WRONG. This is one thing I CAN guarantee: If breeding Cardigans were put on trial according to the animal rights agenda, our breed would be shut down without hesitation.

So forget the animal rights organizations-they do not respect you, they do not make ANY differentiation between you and the guy who has a thousand dogs in rabbit cages full of filth. They will work just as hard to destroy you as they work to destroy him.

You breed for the BREED. For the DOGS. Not because somebody has a carrot or a stick. You find out the truth-about genetics, heterozygosity, soundness, movement, health, testing, all of it-and you breed to hand off the best and best-prepared population to the next generation of breeders.

Being a guardian of the breed needs to be something you take very seriously, and that means understanding and owning your decisions and working to understand the situation and the actions that will benefit the entire breed.
We’ve GOT to stop defining it as “doing more health testing than my neighbor does.” Even if that were a positive, it’s about five percent of what makes a healthy population. What about disease resistance, heterozygosity, population dynamics and geographical diversity, founding members, 200-year projections, growth rates, fecundity, fertility, lifespan, survival rates, biomechanical fitness, and the hundreds of other topics that we know about PINE TREES, for crying out loud, that every property manager has to know about his CLUB MOSS but we conveniently ignore in dogs because ooo, we’re such great breeders because we x-ray hips?

The long-term health of this precious, precious population, this endangered species, this cup of wine so close to spilling, think of it however you want. Bringing it from |here| to |there| demands every single bit of us; it demands tearing down the sacred cows and looking at the truth. It demands actions that are defensible scientifically and morally. It demands seeing the whole picture. That is the ONLY motivation; nothing else will stand the test of time and nothing else is fair to the dogs.


A football field of dogs (health testing…yeah, you know I’m going to stir this pot)

OK, sports fans, imagine standing on the 50-yard line and looking at an entire football field full of Cardigan Corgis. Tens of thousands of dogs, representing the entire national population of the breed. 

It is your job to get from this football field to the next field, the field ten years from now. You can use any of the thousands of dogs in this field, and success will be measured by whether you have a result pool (the ten-years-from-now field) that is at least as long-lived, healthy, athletic, sound, happy, and sane as your current pool. Bonus points will be awarded if you can improve on at least one of those axes without hurting any of the others. 

So how do you do it?  Stop for a minute and really plan it out before you read on.

My instinct is that most people thought to themselves “I should be as picky as possible, health-test everybody, prove that each dog is healthy, make sure that only the ones who are incredibly high-quality in terms of conformation and show success are allowed to breed. I should build the next ten thousand dogs from the most elite pool of this one.” That’s the conventional wisdom, the way “good breeders” do everything, right?

I want to suggest to you that a strategy like that will bring most breeds swiftly and inevitably to the grave.

Because here’s what is NOT being taught as conventional wisdom, and the entire breeding community needs to be smacked upside the head with it.


That is FACT. It’s population ecology 101. A huge proponderance of all animal behavior is designed to create a population that is the most unrelated it can be–where the genes are as much UNlike each other as possible. That’s why bachelor males are kicked out of packs and herds; it’s a huge reason that animals try to get away from each other and form territories; it’s why we evolved different genders and all the millions of behaviors that govern breeding.

Maximum genetic variation is essential to a population that can withstand stress. If you lose genetic variation, you end up with substantially lower resistance to disease and you stand a good chance of concentrating deleterious genes. Loss of genetic variation is why we have such huge problems with cancers in Flatcoats, or epilepsy in Poodles, or Fanconi in Basenjis. 

One of the ways that breeders continually shoot themselves in the foot is by eliminating founding lines–if there were ten founding stud dogs of the breed, back in 1930, and they together produced ten thousand dogs that are living in 2008, are they evenly represented? Or are eight thousand of the puppies the descendants of just two of the founding dogs, two other dogs have disappeared entirely and their genetic material is now gone forever, and the other six have just a few hundred puppies in the entire world that are now living? 

Because of what is winning and what is in fashion in terms of hot kennels and top stud dogs, the entire world will rush to just a few dogs, like people running to the side of a sailing ship. This overweights the gene pool and it decreases the ability of the population to respond to threats and diseases. 

If, for example, we end up with a ton of heart disease, and Cadno and his descendants represent a pool of dogs with no heart disease, even if Cadno Cardigans have, for example, longer legs than we’d like we’ll find them extremely valuable. If that line was abandoned in 1970 because the Golden Arrow (or whatever) descendants were tearing up the green carpet and had such glorious short legs, we’re going to be stuck.

Why is the conventional wisdom so different from this? Well, one HUGE problem is that we have a collective guilty conscience, and we’ve bought a certain amount of conventional wisdom that comes from other breeds, and we’re under the thumb of a lot of groupthink that is actually coming from animal rights, so we have made it a virtue to remove every single dog from the gene pool that we possibly can. 

That’s where you get the “I know it isn’t perfect, but it’s SOMETHING” line that is used to justify neutering dogs based on everything from the DM test to the fluff test. In the back of that is a thought, however subconscious, that it’s good to neuter and iffy to breed, so the more stringent, even nonsensical, we make the requirements the more moral we are as a group of breeders.

We in Cardigans have a wonderful, healthy breed with very few issues. One of the best ways to KEEP it that way is to breed toward maximum genetic variation–in real-world terms, that means breeding as many individuals as possible to as many individuals as possible, spreading the genetic material as far as we can. Sharing the wealth. It’s not good to neuter but iffy to breed; it’s BAD to neuter and GOOD to breed. 

I know this is already making people itchy, but I challenge you to prove me wrong. It’s supported in every population study I have ever read–loss of breeding animals is a bad thing.

So the question is NOT how to choose the best from this football field. The question is how to REMOVE the weakest.

After all, that’s what happens in nature; it’s how all living things evolved. The term “survival of the fittest” is a little misleading; evolutionary pressure doesn’t choose which animals survive. It’s “death of the weakest.” Nature kills those that are not strong, leaving behind every single individual that WAS strong enough to make it. Those are primed to breed as widely as is practical for the population, keeping the population at its maximum level of genetic richness.

So how does this apply to our field of dogs? It’s our job to wisely remove the weakest. It’s not plucking the very “best” out and elevating them–if you do, in just a few generations your population will lose the great majority of its genetic material. It’s deciding who “dies” in the population, who does not get to reproduce. Thankfully we can do it by sterilizing or separating and we don’t have to actually kill them, but the effect on the population is the same.

Remember, every loss to the population is a negative. It is NOT a neutral decision, ever. That means that the benefit to the population of removing that dog must outweigh the negative effects of removing him or her. If it does not, you are hurting the population and sending your breed to the pit.

So, for a moment, forget anything to do with health testing and let’s just try to choose which dogs to “kill.” It’s honestly better to think of it as killing than neutering, because it correctly communicates the gravity of the decision. It is a great and terrible responsibility to remove dogs from a breeding population and you SHOULD do it with no little fear and trembling.

If you’re going to kill a dog, you need to make sure that you’re doing so based on two criteria: The “fault” needs to hurt that individual dog AND that fault needs to be reliably communicated to the next generation. If the faulty dog won’t pass on that fault, he or she should not be removed. 

I would say that the first dogs we remove are those that have broad issues of unsoundness. We are absolutely sure that major issues with body shape a) hurt that individual dog, and b) are reliably communicated to the next generation and therefore hurt that generation.

So if a dog cannot run freely, walk without pain, eat its food, and live to a normal old age, its genes should be killed off. Very unsound bites, fronts that end up painful and arthritic, swaybacks, terribly unsound movement, etc. I would also add congenital shyness to this list; a dog who is born so shy that it cannot be happy in normal society would never survive if it had to live in a community of dogs or run down game. Ditto with ingrained reactivity and willingness to ignore the bite-humans taboo. Environment is ALWAYS king of behavior, but you know what I’m talking about here. That bitch who bites judges and you know that three of her puppies also bite people? Don’t be blaming the owners; look in the mirror for that one. Perpetuating what is in effect a mental illness is bad for the population.

If we’ve killed off the unsound dogs–please note that I did NOT say the “untypey” dogs–we should be left with a group of dogs that is basically able to make a next generation that will succeed. They all have strong, sound bodies and would be considered at least average to good in conformation and movement. We now start applying the kill criteria that are much, much more slippery. These are health testing and selecting for “type.”

I want to talk about type first because I am terribly worried about the fact that so many dogs are “killed” for totally superficial reasons. Jon Kimes got here first, but maybe he’ll allow me to expand on this.

The proper Cardigan head is called proper because it is a SOUND head, a healthy, long-living head that allows the dog to do its job. So if a dog has a tremendously clunky head, a Lab head on a Cardi body, that’s not a superficial fault. It goes to soundness and, while it is nowhere near as unsound as a very forward front or a straight shoulder or cowhocks, there are good valid reasons to try to remove it from our healthy population.

Similarly, the extremely foreshortened radius and ulna in the front legs are sound. Thick, short dwarfed bones are actually healthier than longer, thinner dwarfed bones. So, as with heads, a dog up on too much leg is quite possibly still sound enough to  breed, but it’s a genuine fault. 

Markings, on the other hand, or coatedness. Let’s examine them according to our two criteria. Does having white around one eye hurt the individual dog? It MAY, to a very marginal extent, if the dog does not have good pigment otherwise. But clearly white in and of itself doesn’t hurt working dogs; every livestock guard dog, the big hounds, the big sporting dogs–they all have a ton of white around the eyes. So it certainly isn’t a slam dunk. Now #2: Does having white around one eye hurt the next generation? Since white-headed dogs can clearly produce lots of color when bred wisely, the answer to that is no, unless you breed stupidly. 

The “off” colors are even more superficial. They have no detriment to the individual dog and are not passed along unless, again, you don’t understand color genetics or how to breed the standard colors.

Coat is similar. A long coat is NOT disadvantageous automatically–the long coat we call “poor” is no longer, softer, or more open than many breeds with distinguished working records have. And coated dogs can clearly produce dogs with standard coats.

Both of those–markings and coats–are part of the “game” of showing dogs. If you want to show dogs, you follow some rules just because they’re part of the game. So Labs can’t have any white, but Tollers need it. Rotties can’t, but Berners must. All of them are just part of the stuff we accept when we decide to show. They are NOT reasons, and I’d challenge you to prove me wrong, to kill off dogs from the population. If a dog is sound, healthy, built to live a long and good life, has working conformation and a sane temperament, it’s really not very defensible to kill it when it can clearly produce worthy contributors to the next generations. 

So back we go to our football field. We’ve taken out some ugly heads and the really bad tails (we’ve probably left in the tails with hooks, but we’ve taken out the tails that go way up over the back because they’re a sign that the dog can’t move the way a working dog should). We’ve taken out long, weak legs, and a few other un-typey dogs. 

It is only NOW that we’re at the place where many breeders begin–at health testing. That is VERY deliberate. The dogs who were going to hurt the population because they were so unsound were “killed” long before we’d even consider winnowing them via health testing. 

And here’s where I make my big pot-stirring statement:

I think that many people get the whole motivation behind health testing completely backwards. They feel that they’re doing it to “prove” that their  bitch or their dog “is healthy.”

If you go that route, then there is no end of testing that you can and should do. In fact, there is no end to the testing you MUST do. After all, just because I know that his hips are healthy doesn’t mean his heart is healthy, and doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have one or more factors for von Willebrands, and doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have autoimmune thyroiditis, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a rare storage disease, doesn’t mean he has healthy patellas, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have elbow dysplasia, and on and on and on it goes. If proving that a dog is healthy is what breeders are supposed to do, then you need to line up a hundred or more tests and you can’t be making any excuses.

Others will say that they are doing it to prove that their dog or bitch is healthy, but only until and up to a certain dollar amount. Again, bad idea. That encourages you to do a lot of cheap tests rather than better, more expensive tests; it also sets up a false expectation of, among other things, puppy prices (at least to a certain extent, health testing is passed along to the puppy buyer; that’s just reality, so if we have to get expensive testing done we should just do it and charge more for puppies rather than whining that we can’t do it because we don’t make it back in the puppy sales).

The only reason that makes ANY sense is that health testing is to remove the right individuals from the breeding population. It MUST be a removal process is because that keeps the focus on what actually WORKS. If a health test protects the integrity of the population by reliably removing dogs who will hurt that population, it is worth it and not only worth it but mandatory. No matter how much it costs or what kind of trouble it is or what we have to pass on to puppy buyers.

So, for example, because Danes have cardiomyopathy, a disease that typically begins to show between the ages of two and four, and because cardiomyopathy is reliably genetic but there’s no DNA test yet, I did serial echocardiograms on my stud dog, to the tune of $400 each time, and his prospective mates got echoes too. Because I was working with a line that had clear GENETIC hypothyroidism (where you can trace it down the pedigree very reliably), everybody got full thyroid panels; because hips are at least somewhat genetic in Danes everybody got PennHIP tested. I routinely had to put over a thousand dollars into each breeding partner before the breeding. It hurt a huge amount, financially, but tough for me. If I wanted an “in” to that breed, that was what I was buying. If I wanted to get into Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, I would feel that I had to do an MRI on each breeding dog to check for syringomyelia. No matter what it cost, it would be absolutely necessary.

Now here’s the part that people get mad about: the opposite also applies. If a test does not improve the population more than it hurts it, then we shouldn’t be doing it, or if we do it we shouldn’t be removing dogs based on its results, because we’re skewing the population–running to the side of the sailboat–for no reason; we are hurting our future generations.

Because Cardigans are so healthy and don’t have the huge issues that other breeds have, we’re in that situation with the majority of our health tests. The stuff we see as health problems are only somewhat genetic and the tests are very unreliable, but the tests exist and they will multiply. I’d put money on the fact that in 15 years we’ll be able to test for twenty or thirty disorders that are only weakly connected to the gene test. 

I believe in testing, believe strongly in it, but for those disorders where there is no clear link between the result and the life of the dog (DM is a great example of this) I think we need to be ignoring the results of the test for a long time, breeding as usual, until we can say “Yes, we now know that dogs with positive DM tests live, on average, four years less than dogs with a negative DM test.” That’s a real reason to start killing those dogs off. If, as I suspect, the line is more like “Dogs with positive DM tests live, on average, three months less than dogs with a negative test,” then we are REALLY foolish to be chucking thousands of dogs from the gene pool–if we “kill” carriers and at-risk dogs, probably more than half the population of the breed–for that. 

So if you are looking at the available battery of tests for your dog, please first be serious about whether the dog is sound and can live a normal life, is safe and sane and happy. If the answer is yes, then by all means do the testing, gather information. But don’t be a slave to the tests if they do not clearly pass the two criteria: They must affect your individual dog and they must reliably change the next generation for the better. Do whatever research you have to do to make sure you really know, genuinely UNDERSTAND, the answers to those criteria. Because we really do, as a community of breeders, have to fill that ten-years-from-now field. And every single breeding decision changes that result. We should be doing so very, very thoughtfully.

Why my puppies are free (also known as “What puppy buyers should be able to expect from breeders”)

This post is coming from the fact that I WANT A PUPPY LIKE MERDE AND WHOA AND HECK, as well as the ongoing mental discussion I’m having with myself about health issues. I have the two elements–prospective buyer and breeder–all swirling around in my head.

And this is a bit of the pattern that is getting splashed up against the wall of my brain.

One question that is always a little difficult to tapdance around, when you’re a breeder or when you’re a buyer, is the price of the puppy in question. It’s considered bad form to publicly price puppies, because that implies that this is a straightforward transaction: You give me a pile of benjamins and I hand you this puppy, end of story. We instead try to communicate that it’s hard to get a puppy from us and we want you to seek out and develop a relationship with us before we start talking business. It’s also supposed to imply that you as a buyer shouldn’t go shop around for the lowest price, because this is not a dishwasher and one does not equal another.

Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead breeders to adopt the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” scheme; this was a pretty big problem in Danes. There were some breeders who decided that their show puppies were worth $5000 plus two puppies back, even though other breeders using similar pedigrees and similar win records were pricing at a quarter of that amount. It can also lead owners into a kind of ridiculous secret-handshake routine where they are still trying to shop around but have calculated exactly how long a phone conversation they have to have with a breeder before they can delicately mention prices.

That’s problem one.

Here’s the other background problem: Every single prospective puppy buyer, without exception, is sort of pre-traumatized when they come into the relationship with you. Since the people who end up with good breeders are the ones who have taken time to research a lot about dogs, most of them already feel somewhat defensive about buying a puppy rather than adopting one. They’ve read a great deal about how the only good way to get a dog is to go to a shelter, pound, or rescue, and they intellectually disagree (or they wouldn’t be calling you) but they feel either a little or a lot guilty about it.

Compounding this problem is that, again without exception, they know someone who has been “ripped off” by a breeder or they themselves have had a bad experience with a breeder. They want a puppy, often quite desperately, but they are not quite sure whether they need to set themselves up as our friends or our adversaries.

Here’s the absolute worst thing you can do: After the long phone conversation tapdance, name the big number and then justify the price of your puppies by comparing what you have or what you’ve done to what your peer breeders (i.e., other Cardigan exhibitor/breeders) have and what they’ve done, making sure the buyers understand that your puppies are better than those breeders’ dogs and DEFINITELY better than adopted/homeless dogs because of XYZ (I’ve even heard people use specific names, or criticize specific shelters, which is really uncool). Tell them that your dogs are expensive because they’ll live longer and are healthier and better tempered, and they’re prettier too.

Why is that a terrible idea? Because there is NO WAY ON EARTH you can guarantee that. You are giving them a live animal in its infancy, and 99.5% of what is going to happen to that animal has nothing to do with the good breeding decisions you may or may not have made (and, all too often, we don’t find out until the puppies are five years old or even older that in fact it was NOT a good thing that we bred those two dogs because the now-grown puppies are metaphorically or literally dropping like flies).

DO NOT FOOL YOURSELF. Even in the best litter you’ve ever bred or will breed, there will be puppies that are less than stellar in appearance or health. I don’t care what health tests you do–you WILL make puppies that are genetic disasters and die young, sometimes horribly young and horribly traumatically. And there are WITHOUT A DOUBT going to be temperament problems in some puppies or grown dogs. Sometimes it’s because you convinced yourself that your bitch who tried to bite a judge, attacks all other dogs, and who violently shies away from anything red, round, less than two feet above the ground, or wearing a hat is that way because the neighbor from next door looked at her funny when she was three months old, instead of admitting that her loose screw is being very predictably passed along to her kids. Far more often it’s because the owner made a series of very bad decisions, as owners often do, and created a problem.

If you’ve pinned a dollar amount to health, longevity, or temperament, the new owner has every right to be furious and every right to call this a ripping off. You sold something that you did not deliver.

And these are the owners that will try to convince everyone they know that breeders are bad news, and the expensive ones are not only dishonest but greedy. No breeders can be trusted, so buying from the classified ads is just the same as buying from the breeder of the big winners and so you should just go save yourself some money.

And that’s the GOOD scenario. In the bad scenario, you get sued for breach of contract and you never breed again.

So let me suggest an approach that I did not come up with–this is what my very wise and wonderful Dane mentor told me.

BE HONEST. That’s all puppy buyers want. Aside from the very few genuinely bad ones, who are not going to be happy no matter what, buyers want to know the real situation. They want to feel respected and they want to know that you’re not going to cheat them.

And the HONEST truth is that we cannot in any way guarantee that our puppies will meet or exceed the health, personality, temperament, or behavior of any other dog. We can say that we’ve done our absolute best to weigh things in that puppy’s favor, and we can explain exactly how we’ve planned the breeding and how we’ve raised the litter and why we think those practices give this puppy a better chance than the people down the road with the “Yelo Lab Pupps: $650” sign on their tree, but this is a living organism and all we’ve done is observed it until it’s eight weeks old.

And so, again following the advice of a far wiser breeder than I, when people ask me how much my puppies are, I tell them “They’re free. Or, if it makes you feel more comfortable, they’re whatever the price of an average shelter adoption is in your neighborhood. When and if we decide that this is a good match and you decide to get a puppy from me, you’ll be writing me a check for [whatever it is], but that check is actually buying ME. You are paying for the right to call me, any time of the day or night, for the life of this dog. You’re paying for me to be your training assistant, your dedicated boarding kennel, your vet advocate, and your nutritional consultant. You are paying me a research fee for making an educated and smart decision about which dog to breed to which dog. And you’re paying me a retainer so that at any time in your dog’s life I will take back that dog, no questions asked, no matter the situation, and you’re paying me to take some very difficult decisions off your hands.”

I then advise them to consider the purchase price of ANY puppy in those terms. The only thing they can be sure of getting for their big wad of cash is a relationship with a breeder. If they are not absolutely comfortable with me, absolutely sure that they will get their money’s worth of me, they should go elsewhere even if I have a puppy available. If they are not completely sure that whatever breeder they’re talking to is a safe place to deposit that “wage,” they need to run away even if the most adorable puppy on earth is staring at them.

It took me until my third litter to have been burned enough to add this, usually during the last big interview and contract-signing before they actually take the dog home:

“Look at this puppy. What I am giving you is what I have created. Don’t take it home unless you are totally comfortable with everything you see, because once it leaves my house YOU are creating it. From here on out, you’re the one shaping temperament and behavior, and aside from wholly genetic disorders you’re on the hook for health too.

You’re paying for my advice. That means you have to come to me IMMEDIATELY if there’s a problem. You can’t see a behavior you don’t like, or a health issue you’re not sure of, and wait around for five months until it’s a real crisis and then show up and ask me to fix it. I won’t be able to. You need to come to me, even if it takes fifteen phone calls and a trip back here, when it’s still something I can solve or can advise you on how to solve. If you make that effort, I will bend over backwards and devote every bit of time and energy I have to solving your problem and getting you back on the right path to happiness with your dog. If you do not come to me–and that’s the first thing I’m going to ask you when you call: when did you first see this issue–there’s a very good chance that it will be too late. And if it is too late, I’ll still take the dog back because that’s my commitment to you and to this dog, but I’ll be sending the dog to heaven.”

Being honest also means defining very simply and without ambiguity when a health or temperament problem is your fault and when it’s their fault. If you screwed up and so the dog died young, replace it. Don’t argue. If the dog has something very wrong with it and it cannot do its job, if the owners are good ones send them a new puppy. Be very clear with them BEFORE they take the dog home (and say it to their faces and make sure they’re listening–when new owners were coming to sign the contract and take the dog home I used to put the puppies in another room so I was absolutely sure they were paying attention to me and not their new puppy) exactly what you do and do not cover, what actions will render your contract with them void, and give them the chance to back out if they’re not comfortable.

And then, although this has nothing to do with your legal or ethical duty, maybe every once in a while replace a puppy that you didn’t really need to, or that wasn’t your fault, if you think the owners are worth it.

When we lost-and-then-found Clue, I called Betty Ann to let her know that Clue was lost. I was sobbing through most of the phone call, which I am sure she found at least somewhat off-putting, but she listened and gave me some good advice and then said “If she’s really gone, we’ll get something to you right away.”

It blew me away. I PHYSICALLY MISPLACED MY DOG. If there was ever a situation that was not her fault, it was this one. For her to take any responsibility for making sure I still had a dog at the end of it was rather mindboggling.

Now I’m certainly not saying that we’re like LL Bean for dogs (endless return policy, even if you lose it), but acting with that kind of commitment substantially raised the bar for me when it came to my own expectations of my relationships with puppy buyers.

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.





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.

Cardigan hip scores: A dose of orthopedic reality (Cardigan OFA, PennHIP, DI, etc.)

Gird your loins, because what I am about to say is (and should be) controversial. The only thing I can say is that I came into this research with a very strong bias toward what I’ve always thought of as the one incontrovertible rule in dog breeding: ALWAYS TEST THE HIPS AND ALWAYS SUBMIT THE TEST. What I will explain below was so striking to me that I find I don’t have anywhere near the same confidence in that unbreakable rule. So don’t dismiss or crucify me before you read and understand it too.

When I was hit with two pelvic “crises” in the same month (Clue’s injury and x-rays, including trying to interpret her eventual breeding soundness, and Bronte’s breeding date being moved up dramatically) I knew I had to get my mind around the hip issue in dwarfed dogs. I wanted to make sure that I was making good decisions and I understood the potential outcomes within various theoretical matings.

I started this in the same way I have always done: a pedigree analysis using OFA and some discreet inquiries to people who have been in the breed a lot longer than I have.

Here’s what I found:

1) There is a very troubling and almost complete lack of consistency in the OFA results for this breed. Ditto for PennHIP. I’m not talking about the fact that too few people are certifying; I mean that there is virtually no predictability in scores based on the pedigrees. I am computer-savvy enough to piece together a lot of information from OFA searches, so I didn’t find myself fatally hampered by the fact that there aren’t as many actual results in the pedigrees; I could always find a brother or a cousin or whatever and usually multiples of both.

What I saw was a situation that looked totally random and inconsistent. Two dogs with good ratings producing, within a single litter, everything from Excellent to Moderate. Stud dog lines that I know to have a moderate to high COI (which should indicate consistency) flipping from good to dysplastic and back again.

It didn’t make any sense. Even when you have a breed that is genuinely in trouble, the dysplasia tends to fall into family lines and at least a few people have consistent success. When you see the bad family lines doubled up on, you get worse hips again. You can get some unexpected stuff, but in general good hips make good hips and bad ones make bad ones. And so on. The OFA picture in Cardigans was one of seemingly random and completely unpredictable results.

2) Hip scores do not correlate anywhere near as well as they should with soundness or comfortable working lives. When I spoke to the orthopedic surgeon about Clue, I got some very good and very candidly given information. He said several things: This is not a breed he sees, as a surgeon who does lots of work to relieve pain in hips or to analyze x-rays. This is not a breed coming in with pain issues. It’s not a breed he associates with dysplasia symptoms with any regularity. He does not recommend OFA for corgis of any type, because he feels that the scoring is more or less guesswork unless the joint is clearly already arthritic or the socket just plain doesn’t exist, and EVEN THEN he rarely sees dogs come in with pain.

He said, and this is close to an exact quote, “These are dogs with weird hips, and they get along just beautifully on those weird hips.”

THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. I cannot make that in caps big enough.

There is a phenomenon called “a disease of numbers.” Good human docs know it well. A disease of numbers is a condition that causes a value on a test or chart to go high or low but may not actually correlate with any bad outcome.

Whenever you’re doing medical research, you have to be aware of this phenomenon and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the numbers are actually predictive. So nobody stops with “Your blood pressure is high. That’s bad.” It has to be “Your blood pressure is high. That’s bad because we know FOR SURE that high blood pressure is associated with these ten disorders, with precise and reliable predictive accuracy.”

My point here is that we have not satisfied that burden of proof when it comes to the classic OFA-type evaluation of Cardigan hips. We do not know at what point a hip will or will not cause quality of life issues. We are trying to evaluate them based on how close they are to the hips of a long-legged, short-backed dog (the greyhound–that’s the ideal hip and the one OFA is based on). Think about that: Does our breed look or function ANYTHING like a greyhound? They have entirely different biomechanics and centers of gravity, very different muscle formation, completely different cartilage, ligaments of a different shape and strength. What proof is there that making their hips more like a greyhound’s actually improves quality of life?

Conversely, what proof is there that looser or shallower hips mean a poorer quality of life FOR THIS BREED?

I would also add that we do not know how much the other things we classically do “wrong” with Cardi puppies (like keep them fat, feed them puppy foods, and flip them schizophrenically from hours on a soft couch to hours of play on hard surfaces) are affecting the eventual OFA-type view. We know that each one of those four things is bad for hips, but they continue to be the way most breeders and most owners raise puppies.

It’s at least theoretically possible that the giant variations within litters are the artifacts of these decisions: One owner keeps puppies lean to the point of being skinny, restricts calories and protein, has multiple dogs, and encourages vast amounts of hard free play in large areas for the majority of each day. The other has a soft, chubby puppy on Eukanuba puppy food; the dog is adored and carried much of the day and has a soft bed the rest of the time, gets two walks a day on a blacktop sidewalk, and on the weekends goes to puppy daycare (on a concrete surface, of course) or the dog park and runs to exhaustion.

We all know how adaptable Cardis are. It’s not like buying a terrier puppy who will make you pay for it if you don’t exercise them constantly–they’ll happily spend most of their day under your chair even as babies. And they’ll happily switch “on” and run for hours on the weekends. But that kind of love is MURDER on developing joints.

So, my research and the ortho vet said, relying on an OFA score is not a great idea and is not likely to get you where you want to be: Producing dogs who will predictably have a long, pain-free life. Remember, that’s what we care about. Long, pain-free life. Not a number, a life. The numbers serve us, not the other way around.

The ortho vet recommended that I look more closely at PennHIP because the database is breed-specific. I agree. Purely on that basis alone it is a better measure than OFA; it doesn’t compare Cardis to greyhounds but Cardis to Cardis.

But there I was stumped again. What I got from conversations with people was what virtually all breeders look at and remember: the percentile score. That magic little bar with the carat marking where your dog lies. Pray for over 50.

And AGAIN, percentile scores were CRAZY. Within individual litters everything from 95% to 20%.

With that kind of wild variation in scores, I began to ask to see the difference in the actual DI numbers.

Here’s the background: PennHIP establishes its percentages based on all dogs of that breed that are submitted. 0% is the highest percentile (the loosest hips in the breed database) and 99% is the lowest (the tightest hips in the breed database). With dogs that have thousands of submissions and that really do have a bell curve of hip health (where most are “OK,” some are great, a few are outstanding; some are borderline, a few are terrible), like Labs and Shepherds, that works out pretty well. Dogs with DIs below the breed average really do begin to represent “bad” hips.

PennHIP hedges all its bets and leaves almost every decision to the breeder. It makes only two real statements: Hips with scores LOWER than .3 represent a very, very small possibility of degenerative joint disease  (DJD) as the dog ages. Notice that they do not use the word “dysplasia.” That’s very smart on their part, because the problem with quality of life is not how loose, tight, shallow, or deep the hips are. The problem is DJD, which in layman’s terms is pain and arthritis. Instead of cartilage moving smoothly on cartilage, bone grates against bone. Range of motion is impaired. Weight-bearing surfaces become painful.

The second thing the PennHIP group says is that scores above .7 demonstrate a very high probability of the dog developing DJD.

Now, immediately, you have to realize that in defining the numbers they’re falling into the OFA trap of basing statements on long-legged, big dogs. The breeds that contributed to this statement were German Shepherds, Labs (a huge number of Labs), Golden Retrievers, and Rottweilers.

So begin the very long process of evaluating PennHIP’s predictive nature with that in mind.

Getting back to percentile scores, where things get wonky is when you have either very tight hips across the breed or very loose hips across the breed, or where there are only a small number of submissions.

For example, if you submitted 50 borzoi films, the DI would range from probably .2 to .26. That means that the ones with the DI of .25 or .26 get percentile scores of 5% or 10%. That could lead you to believe that those are dogs with bad hips. Not so–every single one has gorgeous tight hips. The entire breed has tight hips, so getting a score of 5% is meaningless. This is close to the case in Danes, at least it was when I was PennHIP testing four years ago. Median (50%) was a DI of about .33. 90% was .27 or so; 5% was maybe .4-something. I don’t know if there have been many more submissions since then so the median has shifted, but back then only the most cautious breeders were even using PennHIP so they already had an entire kennel of dogs with Good or better hips. So virtually the entire PennHIP population was healthy.

Similarly, if you submitted 50 pug films, the DI would probably range from .7-.9. So the .7 dogs would be in the 99%, but that doesn’t mean they have good tight hips. The entire breed has BAD loose hips. But, curiously, pugs almost never show any hip pain and they live their obnoxious little lives with their bad loose hips.

A similar thing happens when there have only been a few tens or a few hundred submissions. The submissions will tend to cluster and won’t form a good bell curve, so the percentile is not necessarily accurate.

So when you have a bizarre range of percentiles you have to look very critically at the actual DI scores.


The figure above is my attempt to illustrate the percentile versus DI conundrum. Greyhounds cluster at the very top end of the tightness scale, so a low percentage is meaningless. Labradors span a HUGE area, so if you have a 95% Lab it really does have very good tight hips and when you have a 5% Lab it really does have crappy loose hips and a high probability of pain and the need for surgery to fix the joints.

Now let’s consider our little group.

Cardigans have a median (50%) DI of something like .61 or .62 (which would indicate a dog very likely to be crippled or dead by age 4 if you were talking about a Shepherd or a Dane).

Based on looking at a lot of scores, 99% would be something like .51 or .52 and a dog with a really good percentile score would be, say, .53.

BUT (and this is a BIG but) 30%, at least as of two years ago, is .625.

Were you paying attention?

50% (remember, that’s your goal, 50% or higher) is .61…but 30% is .625.  So 20% would be something like .63, and 0% would be a few hundredths below that, right?

That means the ENTIRE RANGE of the breed is .52 to maybe .64 or .65 or .66. That’s a VERY small range; the entire range of the Labs is about .2 to .8!

SO, the question becomes–is a .61 (the average) really a better indication of a lifetime free from pain than a .625 (30%) or a .64? Keeping in mind that a .61 means a crippled dog in most other breeds? If .61 doesn’t cripple a Cardi, does .63?

The DI represents the percentage of the femoral head that can be moved out of the socket. A dog with a .55 has a femoral head that has moved .55 of its diameter out of the socket.

THINK ABOUT THAT. Consider the difference between a .2 and a .8–this is an easy mental exercise. A .2 barely moves out of the socket. A .8 moves almost entirely out. Clearly, one is going to be a better and sounder hip for a lifetime of pain-free work.

Are you prepared to make the same statements about the difference between .61 and .63?

Are you prepared to remove a dog or bitch from a breeding program because its femoral head moved two percent further than your other dog? Are you OK with other breeders telling you that you should do that or you’re a bad breeder? Because that’s exactly what’s happening. Make public that you are breeding a dog with a 20% PennHIP score and see how many love letters you get. Criticism falls like hail and people’s reputations are trashed based on a hip movement of two percent, even though we have no earthly idea and zero scientific evidence that that difference means ANYTHING when it comes to lifelong soundness.

So, then, where the heck does that leave us?

The fact that I’ve just written like fifty paragraphs on this should give you a hint about how conflicted I am about the genuine worth of EITHER method.

And so I have come to a conclusion that is not easy: This is up to you as a breeder. It’s not up to the score. ANY hip score given by an outside agency should be looked at with suspicion (in terms of it meaning the slightest amount about the actual health or life quality of your eventual puppies).

Guess what this also means: You don’t get to make the “She’s a bad breeder because she doesn’t submit hips to OFA” or “She’s irresponsible because she bred a bitch with one hip that was loose” statements. I pretty categorically hate those kind of statements anyway, since if we’re being honest with ourselves they very rarely come from a good place in the soul, but blanket pronouncements are sometimes at least somewhat reliable in other breeds. In this one, I think it’s inescapable that you can be a very, very good, very health-oriented breeder and not be submitting to either registry and you can have a flawless understanding of PennHIP and breed a 20% hip.

You know who the global authorities on Cardigan hip health are? The breeders who have been responsible for their own x-rays and making their own decisions for the last two or three decades. Personally, I’d love to see a Nationals panel of three or four breeders who have been x-raying hips and putting their own breeding programs on the line and ask THEM what a breedable hip is. They’ve probably seen a hundred times more Cardigan hip films than any ortho vet doing his rotation at OFA.

You’ve also got to stop leaning on OFA or PennHIP scores in pedigrees. It was already a iffy idea because of the spottiness of the data; if you face the fact that you have no idea at what point hips are genuinely functional, and that a whole bunch of breeders and owners follow an absolutely ideal recipe for creating bad joints, you need to stop assuming that lot of OFA scores mean a better risk than a few, or that poor scores in some offspring make the dog a bad stud dog.

I can feel the hackles rising, so let me assure you that I do not think that hips don’t matter. I think we must x-ray them all. But I think that analyzing hips is a unique and huge responsibility for the Cardigan (and other dwarfed dog) breeder and if you’re smart you will not leave it solely to outside agencies to decide.

I think the best we can do is to look at as many aspects of the picture as we can, make certain decisions about what we absolutely will not tolerate (keeping in mind that there are some Cardigans with a complete LACK of hip socket) and, if a dog comes back from analysis with looser or shallower hips than we like but is definitely pain free, we weigh whether that dog is actually worth breeding, with the weight against a “yes” decision depending on the severity of the hip “issue.” Call it a serious fault, like a bad bite or a fiddle front. For some dogs, that answer will be absolutely, if you breed to something with really wonderful hip structure (like you would breed a fiddle-fronted dog only to something with minimal turnout, and that may mean that you never find the right match). For others, that serious a fault will (and should) disqualify them from breeding.

My own personal limit would always be at the level of causing pain. If I x-ray a dog at 20 months and I can already see arthritis in both hips, that dog would have to be pretty freaking outstanding to ever consider breeding and then I would do so only for myself or with full and complete disclosure to any other breeders. I already have a replacement puppy clause for pet owners, so that wouldn’t change. If I x-ray at four years and the dog has weird-looking hips but no bony changes, I would feel no guilt about breeding him or her.

I will continue to use tools like PennHIP, and I will continue to get an OFA-style x-ray of each dog’s hips, but I will not allow the percentile score to make decisions for me and I very much doubt that I will waste money on getting an opinion from three guys at OFA who are staring at an x-ray and saying “Wow, corgis have weird hips–I dunno, what do you think? Should we treat it like a Basset hip?” I already have two x-rays to begin my library and I will continue to build that library and continue to refine my decisions. And when I face you, as other breeders and as potential buyers, you’ll know that whatever decision I made is one that I own, and one that I take full responsibility for.

And if anyone catches me making those lovely comments about so-and-so being a bad breeder, slap me.

Canine Health Foundation (CHF) Biennial Conference, and a post in which I use the word “stupid” a lot

I’ve been meaning to highlight this report, which is a summary of lectures given at the Canine Health Foundation’s Parent Club Conference (“parent club” means the big-mama clubs that make decisions for an entire breed, as opposed to the local clubs–so my local club is the Yankee Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club, but my parent club is the Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club of America–and each parent club was encouraged to send delegates to this conference).

The Canine Health Foundation is the research-supporting arm of the AKC. It donates millions of dollars a year to fund studies and research on canine health, and it relates directly to breeders via the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC). CHIC was set up to have a centralized repository of health-testing information; each participating breed designates the health tests that they consider best practice for that paricular breed. If you get all those tests done on your dog, the dog recieves a CHIC number.

The upshoot for breeders and owners is that the CHF is a little different from the larger vet organizations in that its main audience is a body of educated and dedicated breeders, not pet owners. For that reason they, I think, sometimes feel freer to make recommendations that other bodies feel are too dangerous because of the “unwashed masses” assumption (that all pet owners are stupid and won’t show up for vet appointments, and that they’re stupid and won’t keep dogs safe or fenced, and again that they’re stupid and if left to their own devices will prove to be the downfall of dogdom, so we say or do whatever we have to to get them in to our offices and get their dogs taken care of and sterilized).

So, here are some highlights:

– While spaying is still considered beneficial, health-wise, because of the risk of pyometra and mammary tumors, the best studies show that neutering actually has a deleterious effect on dogs. This report is the first time I’ve seen it put this baldly–as recently as a year ago I was hearing that the risks and benefits were basically balanced, but this is an excellent retrospective analysis of evidence that neutering gives a several-times-higher risk of several cancers, of obesity, of ACL tears, and even of some behavioral disorders. The implications of this finding for breeders are staggering–neuter contracts are now called into question, as are recommendations that performance dogs (agility, obedience, and so on) be neutered, training facilities refusing to accept unneutered dogs, etc.

As breeders have been yelping about for years, there is no evidence that mixed-breed dogs are in any way healthier than purebreds, and in fact mixed-breed dogs are more likely to have some of the genetic disorders that breeders routinely test for (hip dysplasia is one, thyroid is another). However, this effect, which should lead to a longer lifespan, is ruined in some breeds by the concentration of extremely bad genes (such as cancer in Boxers). So owners, ask your potential breeder, if you are puppy-hunting, what bad genes exist in the breed and what they are doing to minimize your puppy’s chance of getting them. And breeders, you now have good studies to point to to disprove the idea that cross-breeds are healthier.

The “chicken and egg” scenario of ACL tears has been reversed (this is actually quite dramatic). It used to be assumed that the arthritis vets were seeing in post-ACL-tear joints was because of the ACL tear; this research shows that in fact the ACL tears are due to arthritis and bacteria/inflammation in the joint. So the current therapy, which is surgery, can provide physical stability to the joint again, but has not cured or even addressed the root cause.

– (This one is WONDERFUL) Core vaccines are defined to be rabies, distemper, parvovirus. After the puppy series, distemper and parvo vaccines are to be given NO MORE OFTEN than every three years, and seven- to ten-year intervals should be seen as absolutely normal. Rabies is still mandated to be given every three years, but longer-term challenge studies are being done. Titers are to be seen as very useful, but the levels of the antibodies are immaterial. Any positive titer should be seen as a sign that the dog has an adequate antibody response and does not need to be vaccinated. Bordatella vaccine is largely unneeded except for “lap dogs” who never leave a house or yard and are never exposed to other dogs and are then kenneled in a kennel-cough hotbed. Leptospirosis vaccine should be given only where lepto is a current problem, and never at the same time as other vaccines. Lepto has a very high reaction rate, especially in small dogs. Lepto vaccine is ineffective after nine to twelve months.

– Probiotics have been shown to be effective in many ways, including strengthening overall immune response, and should be considered for every dog.
– High-fat, high-protein diets are dramatically better than high-carb diets (to this I give a resounding “No DUH!” but I suppose it’s good to have it finally ratified by a governing body). In particular, high glutamine levels are very protective.

The full report, which is an absolute must-read for breeders and serious owners and has lots more than I’ve summarized in this post, is here.

“We’re responsible breeders…”

You want a very sad and ironic laugh? Google that phrase. I think, of all the responses, I found ONE website that actually looked like it was from a responsible breeder.

DO NOT BE TAKEN IN. Bad breeders are very adept at glomming on to words and phrases that will make them seem less like bad breeders. I am sure many of them actually DO believe that they are good breeders.

I’m going to single out one site that actually does exist, but the words in brackets have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent and keep me from getting sued.

This site features [Irish Setters] and is a great example of someone who knows what good breeders are supposed to look like, and is doing a lot to make you think that she’s a really good breeder.

good: the breeder says she does health testing.
bad: health testing doesn’t make sense. For example, one health page has Penn Hip results listed as “no distraction index.” That’s impossible, because Penn Hip measures a distraction index and that’s what gives you a result. The DI is how far the hip moves in the socket; every living thing has some movement in its joints. A DI of zero would be a dog in rigor mortis. So this breeder maybe is health testing, but doesn’t fully understand the testing that is being done.

good: Dogs are not just “run of the mill” Irish Setters; pedigrees have some champions.
bad: She does not show herself, has no obligation to produce dogs that can actually win, but is referring to the accomplishments of dogs and breeder/owners that came before. The problem with that is it only takes one generation for a show-quality dog to become a pet-quality dog. I’ve seen BIS-winning dogs produce some UGLY puppies. That’s why EVERY generation has to be shown, and you never slack off. So she’s not taking responsibility for breeding only the best. That’s also why there are dogs with such very different “types” on the site; she thinks that as long as there are champions in the pedigree it’s OK to call them high-quality and to breed them together. There are dogs on her site that look like [red Golden Retrievers] and others that honestly look like [red Borzoi]. There is NO WAY that breeding those together is to a standard.

good: Speaks in some quality-related words that talk about structure and so on (head type, gait, etc.)
bad: She’s using the wrong words, which shows that she doesn’t actually understand or keep in mind the true measures of quality. For example, in the bio page of her dog [Harry], you can see the dog trotting, and the words “Harry has magnificent stride and carry.” It’s plain that she’s seen show breeders’ sites that feature dogs showing off stride length. However, she’s not using the right picture or the right words. We evaluate dogs on the move using a very specific pose, this one: We would also never say “magnificent stride”–that means nothing. There’s also no such thing as “carry.” I think what she’s going for is “open sidegait” and “stable topline on the move,” but I am not really sure.

Other miscellaneous red flags: dogs’ weights listed (good breeders do not generally do this), non-standard color descriptions used (“thick coat, fox-red fur, Scarlet shimmer highlights”).

These kind of things are super obvious to show breeders, but are subtle and confusing for most pet owners. That’s why it’s so important to keep the requirements top of mind, and to not slack off. Good breeders show their dogs (in conformation, hunt, etc.). They show their CURRENT dogs, and EVERY breeding dog who possibly can be shown (it’s OK to not show a breeding dog if, say, an injury caused a tail to be docked or something, but these exceptions are few and far between). They health test their CURRENT and ALL breeding dogs, and they can tell you exactly what those tests are, why they’re doing them, and how the results help them make breeding decisions.

It’s a good idea to look at ANY website with a cautious and discriminating eye. Some of the worst breeders have the most beautiful and professionally produced websites, and some of the best breeders have sites their daughter’s boyfriend created on Geocities three years ago and never updated. Never let yourself be sold the sizzle; look for the steak.

Dooce does it right; so do Basenji people. Also, I type the words Dooce and Basenji in same sentence.

First, Dooce, the queen of all the blogosphereoworldouniverse, has done what I have silently been begging her to do since Coco arrived:

Got Coco herding lessons

I was really frustrated when she bought Coco, who pretty much epitomizes the dog you DON’T buy (irresponsible breeder making “just one” litter from “shock value” dogs that don’t meet the AKC standard) but I am thrilled to see the fact that they’re meeting the huge challenges of a breed type that is very difficult to do right by. I would still much rather see her having gotten a gorgeous Propwash aussie or one of the other well-bred, sane, trainable aussies, but Coco really landed on her feet in their home.

Second, THRILLING news from the AKC: They are opening the Basenji Studbook for a full five years to African imports. This is the kind of common-sense brilliance that is rarely seen in the beaurocratic “machine.”I dearly wish that more breeds still had native stock to access, and think that all breeds that do have the opportunity should petition to do exactly this.

The Basenji Club’s informational site

AKC’s statement:

American Kennel Club Opens Basenji Stud Book
[Monday, August 18, 2008]
AKC announced today that, at the request of the Basenji Club of America (BCOA), it will open the Basenji stud book to dogs from countries with no AKC accepted registry. The BCOA has initiated this program in order to offer an opportunity to import dogs from their native land.

“Due to the changing circumstances in the areas where these dogs thrive, this may be the last opportunity to import the breed from its homeland,” said BCOA president Sally Wuornos. “The Basenji stud book has been closed since 1990 when it was briefly opened to imported native stock.”

The BCOA has established a ten-step process for dogs who wish to apply, after which, members will vote to ultimately approve the dogs’ entry into the stud book. The stud book will be open from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2013 for Basenjis who have gone through the ten-step process, been approved by the BCOA Board and membership, and that meet the following requirements:

  • Applicant must be at least one year old at time of evaluations
  • Applicant must be imported after 1990 directly from Africa or in utero from Africa

Dogs from the following areas are currently under consideration for admission:

  • Northern Congo
  • Southern Benin
  • Southwestern Cameroon
  • Central Congo

For more information and all necessary forms visit the Basenji Club of America web site:

Bitch war!!!11!!11!!!

I wrote this on a dog book discussion list I am on; it’s entirely my own wording, so I am reproducing it here as well. The discussion is on one of the several (very good) books out there that are pictorial references for dog behavior; my criticism or at least worry about one of them in particular is that conclusions about the best way to train or the best way to handle dogs have been drawn from the pictures and descriptions; it has moved from a narrative to a prescriptive book. And I am not so sure that’s a good idea, and here’s a VERY long description of why. I would welcome any feedback–I don’t care if you’re reading this six years from now; if you know where I can find my studies let me know.

Transcript begins:

I’ve been following the discussion (and reading the book) with great interest, and as I’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks I’ve been uncomfortable with a sort of “big-picture” problem.

I come from a biology background, then went to grad school in history, helped teach a college communications theory class, and for all those years had “never assume, always support” drummed into me (and drummed it into others). Never use language without a supporting study, never use second-person analysis (always go to first person), insist on statistics rather than assumptions, remove every veil that could possibly be clouding the results. Never make a fact statement without a footnote, and, of course, distrust analysis that has any kind of bias.

So when I look at what we have as dog behavior language and analysis, Handelman’s excellent book, Aloff’s excellent book, Rugaas, etc., I am struck by the fact that we may be making rather sweeping statements based on anecdotes and a very skewed perception.

Let me give you some examples:

Dogs are “meant,” if you can even say such a thing, to live in big fluid blobby packs, with overlap and bitch-stealing and all that, of INTACT animals, over five or more years. But I’ve never seen conclusions coming from long-term studies of large, stable, INTACT (reproductively, meaning no spayed/neutered members and puppies being actively produced) packs under very little physical limitations (on other words, no fences) who have members who all grew up together. We instead almost exclusively draw from small, unstable, castrated packs who are together in short bursts (for example, playgroups, visiting dogs, obedience classes, fights) and who have humans messing with them (putting up fences, putting on leashes, etc.). We’ve also removed the Grand Activity of all packs, which is hunting and territory building, so we’ve effectively removed a huge portion of their vocabulary.

It would be like, if I can make a very clumsy human analogy, throwing twelve eunuchs who don’t speak the same language into an airport lounge with a bunch of deli trays and then trying to make statements about human behavior because we study them for half a day. We’d see in those humans, just as we see in dogs, a huge emphasis on greeting behaviors, conflict avoidance, abortive attempts at communication, misunderstandings, focus on food, stress, and fights. So we could probably get pretty accurate about those behaviors, we would not see what we’d consider mature relationships for months, if ever, because the element of sexuality and education and child-raising would be gone. We wouldn’t see the pursuit of work, development of skill sets, acquisition of property, etc.

Or, drawing from another species, we now know that elephants raised outside the herd are substantially delayed in communication, sometimes irreparably, that they initiate many more conflicts, that they are prone to violence and self-stimulating behaviors.

So I worry, a lot, that instead of seeing years of dog communication, we’re seeing the same first two hours over and over and over again. We don’t see the end of the “conversation.” I know that as my own pack of dogs (all intact) has matured, I have seen an almost total reduction in “broad” movements of greeting or conflict. The group of them has a shorthand of infinitely tiny gestures, eye flicks, head movements, ear posture. The only time they ever move back to the broader movements is when they are either teaching a new puppy or socializing a new adult or, of course, when they play (where they seem to enjoy playing larger-than-life parodies of fight or flight or blocking, etc.).

My big Dane male was particularly adept at this–when he met a new dog he would offer a play behavior (like a bow) and if the other dog didn’t “get it” Mitch would repeat the behavior over and over, going bigger and slower each time; his invitations were like a master oil painter playing pictionary. But in the established group the play bow is “sketched” and only a millisecond in duration. And mine have only been together a few years! I don’t yet have a good stable group from elderlies down to babies.

So that’s my first qualm, that we’re only looking at castrated animals who have major speech impediments (because so few are raised by a big stable pack, so few are exercised properly, so many have humans wrecking normal interactive behaviors, etc.) and who are basically stuck in a loop of broad greeting/new member activities.

My second worry is about language, specifically language without studies. I think we DO have some solid data on how dogs learn command words. I’m satisfied that we’re labeling the simpler broad gestures pretty accurately. But we do NOT have good unbiased data on so much else! This is especially true for the complex chains of behavior. For example, we throw around “bitch wars” a lot. But where’s the group of good studies that actually established that phrase? Do we really know that in a stable, unspayed, multi-age, long-term pack, where humans are not screwing things up, bitches have more long-term resentments, initiate more fights, and will inflict greater harm? PERCEPTION can’t be king (or, in this case, queen).

Or, my least favorite term of all, “fear aggression.” It’s an oxymoron, when you consider the connotation of the word “aggression” in English, and we know almost nothing about it, except that if we push a dog to the point that it fears for its life or health, it will bite us. Why do we call it “fear aggression” instead of “being afraid”?

I can’t tell you how many people have told me in tones of great portent that X dog is (dum dum dum!) “FEAR AGGRESSIVE.” And I go and sit with them, and we approach the dog, and I say “Look how scared your dog is of you.” And they literally don’t connect the two. “Fear aggression” lets them blame the dog; the dog is somehow mentally ill and AGGRESSIVE. But in fact the dog is just terrified, and is behaving the way every dog would behave if terrified. So every single dog on earth is “fear aggressive.” Every single dog is “competitive aggressive.” The only thing that separates them is whether or not they’ve ever felt pushed to the point that they resort to using teeth. The fact that we’re such idiot dog handlers that this is a common phenomenon is nothing but a tragedy, but again, it’s a phrase that gets used fifty times a day by everyone from your vet to your trainer to your neighbor who watched one episode of It’s Me or the Dog.

If, in this country, if there were ten million women who were so terrified of their husbands that each one cowered and tried to hit him if he approached her, no human psychologist would be allowed to say,”Oh, they’re just fear aggressive” and close his notebook. The cowering would be seen as the result of half a hundred things going critically wrong. I would argue that the same is true of dogs, but we have very little handle on the half a hundred things and, as far as I am aware, little reliance on, again, long-term stable intact pack studies on what makes dogs afraid enough to use teeth and why, and at what frequency, and what intensity. I strongly suspect that as you reach years in the same pack, “fear aggression” that actually leads to physical contact is vanishingly rare. So we OUGHT to consider it a sign of huge trust violation and treat it with a lot of importance. But again, since we don’t have those studies and we aren’t able to make those conclusions, millions of dogs get a label pinned to them.

OK, I think I’m done. Does this make sense? Am I just wrong and there really are multiple long-term studies of dog packs? It seems like we should have ethnobiologists studying the New Guinea hunting packs or the Carolina dogs or the dingos, or at the very least (and still not ideally) the big packs of foxhounds that live together for ten or more years, and then we can judge our playgroups or our obedience classes against THEM.

Your mother doesn’t work here

I remember that sign taped to the bleachers in the highschool gym, reminding us to grab our sweaty socks before we left the room. As a mom, I sometimes want to stick it on random appliances in the (probably vain) hope that someone besides myself will fill, empty, clean, use, reposition, or repair whatever big white box needs attention at the moment.

It’s a phrase that is incredibly appropriate to the world of dogs. If you distill the job of a good breeder down to just five words, they’re without a doubt “Clean up your own mess.”

What does that mean? It means that with very rare exceptions every single puppy in this country is a deliberately bred puppy. Some are deliberately bred by omission, because an owner put off a spay and then didn’t contain the dog. Many are deliberately bred to make their owner some money, or in the hopes that one of the puppies will be just like the mom or just like the dad. A comparative few (sadly) are deliberately bred to do a job, or to maintain or improve the gene pool of a recognized or developing breed.

Whatever your motivations or lack thereof, if you have a female dog who whelps, you are a breeder. You can’t get away from it. Breeding “just once” doesn’t let you off the hook; an accidental breeding doesn’t either. If puppies have or are about to come out of your dog’s yaya, you’re a breeder. Now clean up your own mess.

What does clean up your own mess mean? It basically means that you will never hurt anyone else, or hurt the chances of any other dog to live a normal life or be adopted, through your actions as a breeder. You’ll never expect someone else to deal with the problems you created. You’ll never abandon a puppy you produce, no matter how long it lives. So you will

– Stand behind your puppies. Offer emotional and educational help if the dog is ever ill; if it’s a genetic issue or your fault, accept financial responsibility as well (either to treat directly or to offer a replacement puppy).

– Always accept a puppy back at any time in the dog’s lifetime. One of your dogs ever being surrendered to rescue or a shelter, or changing hands without your knowledge, must be absolutely unacceptable.

– Support your owners. Even if you’re not the most experienced trainer yourself, work with your owners to find one to solve whatever problems come up. Be there for health issues, temperament issues, divorces, financial problems, whatever it takes.

If those are your sacred responsibilities, you’ll see that a whole bunch of other actions will logically follow. If you’re financially responsible for genetic issues, you’ll want to minimize the number of times you’re out thousands of dollars. If you commit to be there for owners, you want to produce only the best temperaments. If you never abandon dogs to shelters, you want to place your puppies extremely carefully so homes don’t fail. And so on. So being willing to clean up your own mess also means

– Never breed without a reason, and “making nice pets” is not a reason. Making a dog who can reliably do a job is a reason. So is maintaining or improving a breed.

– Never breed without doing health testing. Research your breed enough to know exactly what genetic problems are likely to show up, and make sure you’re not making more unhealthy dogs.

– Interview owners and temperament test/grade puppies. Don’t make a placement unless you are as sure as you possibly can be that this placement will be successful and joyful on all sides.

– Breed only the very best temperaments and abilities, and foster those temperaments and abilities through socialization and training.

– Subject your dogs to peer review through showing, trialing, or some area of dogsport to make sure that they are appropriate candidates for breeding.

So what happens if you DIDN’T do those things–if your bitch got loose and was bred accidentally, or you thought it would be cute to have puppies? You STILL have to clean up your own mess; you can still be a responsible breeder. Place your puppies with a written contract. Never let them hit the shelter. Don’t place them without interviewing and rigorously screening owners. And, I would argue, if you aren’t able to offer any kind of health warranty (because you have no health testing history) or any kind of assurance that the dog will be able to do its job, or any kind of guarantee that the dog is the best specimen of its breed, you can’t sell the puppies. You may ask a small rehoming fee to sort out potential homes (and make sure this is not an impulse buy), but pretending that the puppies have an intrinsic value when they do not is dishonest. So place them carefully, know that you have a lifetime of responsibility to every puppy born, and do yourself a huge favor and do it right the next time.