610 Breeding for New Millennium

by   David Hancock

 It is a sad fact that most dog breeders breed on the phenotype, i.e. what the parents look like, rather than the genotype, i.e. what genes are able to be passed on. Breeding living creatures can only ever be an exercise in genetics and breeders seeking to establish a line of consistent type must accept that every dog and bitch mating is a blending of two families not just of a sire and a dam. The phrase which seems to lead to mistaken assumptions is the one that states that a puppy gets 50% of its genes from the sire and 50% from the dam. A better, more accurate, more valuable phrase is that a puppy gets 50% of its genes through its sire and 50% of its genes through its dam. That is why it is simply vital to know what stock is behind the parents of the puppy.

 Breeding pedigree dogs is made more risky in Britain by the lack of reliable records. It is automatically assumed that the written pedigree is accurate whereas an alarming proportion of them are not. No dog has to be individually and irrevocably made identifiable by way of a tattoo or microchip. Judges in the show ring and owners of bitches only have someone's word that the dog before them in the ring or the sire being used for the service is the one named on the pedigree or put forward as such. It only needs one prolific breeder to be dishonest for the whole breeding record of a pedigree breed to be made unreliable. The written pedigree too is restricted to number, gender, colour and breed; there is no record of the strengths or faults of the dog on its pedigree despite show critiques containing detailed comment being available after every major show.

 In Britain there are no routine mandatory health checks on breeding stock, unlike the vast majority of other countries in which the pedigree dog is looked after by a kennel club. Health checks of course will never represent a 100% assurance of clear stock, a guarantee of faults being present or not, or be an indication of quality by themselves. There are bitches with worryingly high hip scores which regularly produce progeny with low hip scores. There is however no data on the hip health of the next generation from such dogs. No sensible breeder seeks dogs with perfect hips and eyes but lacking breed type or soundness of construction. But dog breeders should have access to sufficient data to enable them to make a balanced judgement. No humane person wants to produce dogs with a built-in likelihood of future lameness, blindness or deafness. But currently no truly realistic attempts, on a proper scientific system, are being made nationally to seek a reduction in the chance of unhealthy or crippled dogs being bred.   

 One of the difficulties facing breeders of live animals, whether it be dogs or parakeets, is that professional scientists have made genetics a foreign language. The role of the expert surely is to make a complex subject more easily understood. Scientists are not good at this and yet display impatience when their work is misunderstood or not heeded. Dog breeders know too that there has never been a geneticist among the most successful of them. Geneticists are scientific advisors and breeding is an art as well as a science. They can advise us on how diseases which are inheritable are passed on. They can advise us on how physical and mental characteristics are likely to be passed on. But in the end the skill of the breeder lies in selection, the selection of breeding stock, the selection of parents and the selection of a breeding path to follow.

 Selection based on the mere fact that the dam is a nice pet and ought to be bred from, or has won a couple of prizes and her pups will bring in income, or the future chosen sire is a current big winner, contributes little to a breed and even less to the reputation of the breeder concerned. No bitch should be bred from just because she is female and fertile. Puppies should, in the genuine dog-lover's world, never be produced to suit someone's bank balance; there are already too many unwanted and ill-kept dogs in Britain. For any breeder to mate his precious bitch to a dog just because the dog  is currently winning well is sheer folly. It assumes that the judges rewarding the sire are knowledgeable and unbiased -- but are they? And even if the sire to be is a worthy champion, what family does he come from? The genes of his ancestors will come through him.

 Until we have better data from approved national schemes, selection of breeding stock will rely on the researching skills of each individual breeder. With the accuracy of the written pedigree never being checked by the Kennel Club, just the breeder's word accepted, with no mandatory health clearances, no national dog identification scheme and no information of breeding value on the written pedigree, coupled with untrained judges rewarding unworthy dogs, any breeder faces an uphill battle in the pursuit of breeding better dogs. The appointment of a geneticist for each breed and the appointment of a breed archivist to verify pedigrees, together with a grading system to establish just how good each dog is, would help enormously. Sire ranking lists are available to livestock breeders but not yet to dog breeders -- how long can that continue?

 Novice breeders may well despair of finding the essential data on which to base their breeding programme. Veteran breeders usually know that dogs bearing this particular affix display certain good qualities, whilst those bearing another one feature other complementary ones. Shrewd breeders usually utilise an older stud dog, his track record can at least be examined. There is financial sense in a small breeder not kennelling his own stud dog but using outside blood to a well-researched plan.

Long established kennels in every breed often develop their own kennel signature or kennel type. When this conforms precisely to the breed standard, it provides valuable stable genetic material. But when one influential breeder is producing untypical stock, however attractive or successful, it is most important for the novice breeder to detect this. In the end, the breed standard is the breeding blueprint, a design for the future product. Knowledge of it  and more important still, an understanding of it, is essential for the successful breeding to type in a pure-bred breed of dog.