Breeding basics

How do you produce that perfect pup? Before you plan your litter, gather all the pieces of the genetic puzzle.

I make two assumptions in this article. First, I assume that you have already chosen your breed. Secondly, I assume that you are considering breeding in the future and plan on purchasing a female – your foundation bitch.

Visualise your ‘holy grail’

As you wish to breed, you must obtain the highest quality foundation stock and gain a vision of your ideal specimen. This vision is your holy grail. To help train your eye to recognise its features, place a photo of your ideal dog on the fridge and visualise that image.

Each and every dog breed has a ‘Breed Standard’ that reflects conformation. The standard is a picture in words that describes each breed of pedigree dog. To create your vision of an ideal dog, obtain a copy of your breed’s Standard and, as you read it, don’t skim over unfamiliar words ­– look them up in books such as Harold Spira’s Canine Terminology.

Still, some terms and phrases require interpretation with knowledge of the breed’s purpose, so you will need to research the breed’s origin to fully understand specific characteristics. For example, the Australian Cattle Dog (ACD) was developed to herd cattle, and keeping this in mind aids the interpretation of certain points in the standard.

Consider for example, that the ACD Standard states: “The broad skull is slightly curved between the ears, flattening to a slight but definite stop.”

My functional interpretation is that the hoof of a kicking cow needs to be deflected over the cranium and should not crash into the skull.

Watch, ask and learn

With Standard in hand, go to a local dog show and watch the judging of your breed. Note the performance of each dog and handler in the ring. After the breed has been judged, and dogs settled into their crates, visit and talk with breeders – not just the winners of the day.

Ask to view a dog and clarify specific points of conformation. Ask the breeders to point out the strengths and weaknesses of their dogs, about the pedigree of the dogs, and about any genetic disease in the breed.

Mosey around to an exhibitor in the same dog group but a different breed (for example, if you are looking at ACD you might speak with a Border Collie breeder). Ask if they have any behavioural or genetic concerns with your breed – expose your inner sleuth!

Approach a breeder

Before making a decision on a preferred breeder, visit multiple kennels. Ask breeders prepared questions about what inherited problems are in the breed and what tests are recommended. Also ask what they feed their dogs, how they control parasites and select their vet.

When you have developed a positive relationship with a breeder, ask about planned litters and any necessary testing.

All ACD puppies and breeding stock, for example, should have BAER hearing tests because we do not currently know the genetic basis or pattern of inheritance of deafness in the breed. In contrast, not all pups may need to be tested for the common eye disease progressive rod-cone degeneration.

Because the mechanism of inheritance is known and the disease-causing DNA mutation is published, dogs that are known not to be at risk need not be tested.

Find your foundation bitch

Some breeders assess their puppies at eight weeks of age following the ‘Puppy Puzzle’ method developed by Bob and Pat Hastings. Others use their experience and knowledge of the breed. However you assess your pups, you must choose a pup to suit your ideals and your vision of the breed. If no suitable puppies are born from a specific litter, you should be prepared to wait.

You will need to have a plan in place when your foundation bitch arrives. It should include diet, health checks, exercise, grooming, preschool, socialisation, positive reinforcement and some dog shows.

Raise her well

For canines, the critical period of socialisation is between the fourth and sixteenth weeks of age. The personality and future of pups are in their owners’ and breeders’ hands. The key to a well-rounded, sensible dog is an enriched and interesting environment that the dog owner provides.

Owners who have busy lifestyles can neglect their dogs. Remember that roadwork and chasing balls are not substitutes for regular outings or obedience classes. Read up on ways to train and raise your dogs. One useful book is The Art of Raising a Puppy, by the Monks of New Skete.

Exhibiting your pup at dog shows serves multiple purposes. It gives you a goal and fosters training.

Work on your handling by listening to constructive criticism and attending conformation classes, which can teach you to understand your dog and what it requires in training.

Select a mate

Watching breed judging aids the selection of a future mate. Your preferred dog may not be entered in your local show so be prepared to travel to find him. You should also seek out the puppies of this male as they may give a better indication of his suitability as a sire. To select the optimal male you must know the strengths and weaknesses of your female. Acknowledge her major limitations and look for a male that has strength in this area and produces puppies with strength in this area.

You must be objective and not necessarily choose a mate from people you know best or choose the dog that wins the most at that time – be true to your vision. Breeders often worry about size, shape and colour, leaving the animal’s temperament to last. Remember, you have to live with the puppies as they grow to adulthood and well beyond!

Although it is not always the case, I often find that a more nervous sire tends to produce quieter puppies, while more aggressive dogs produce more challenging puppies.

Consider genetics

Some potential sires should be immediately excluded if they are genetically incompatible with your female.

By incompatible, I mean that carriers of many genetic diseases should not, as a general rule, be mated.

Sometimes, a male may be too closely related to your female. But what does too closely related mean? This debate underlies the recent BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed.

In the program, Simon Swift, a Cardiologist at the University of Liverpool, suggests that the high incidence of particular diseases is likely attributable to the extensive use of a few sires in the the 1950s or 1960s.

This is thought to have enabled the frequency of disease-causing mutations to increase and the diseases to spread, because such a small gene pool was passed on to so many pups.

This example serves to emphasise the importance of carefully choosing your sire based not only on his genes, but the many ways his genes may interact with those of your bitch.

By Professor Bill Ballard who is Head of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of New South Wales, where he regularly supervises postgraduate researchers working on canine genetics. He is also a registered breeder of Australian Cattle Dogs.