534 Selecting your Bullmastiff breeder

by   David Hancock

For so many dog-owners, choosing a new puppy brings excitement and joy. Quite often, in the pet market, this selection is done on the basis of cuteness, eye appeal or even coat colour. The endearing bundle about to join the household for twelve years or so is in front of you; its genetic health, its ancestors are not. The pup could live three years or thirteen, it could have an unpredictable temperament leading to immense disappointment as well as embarrassment, it could be carelessly bred, with its sire and dam lazily chosen; it could go blind. Yet this purchase is going to cost thousands of pounds over the coming years, in food, vet's bills, insurance, kennel costs, etc. In the show world dogs are usually bred with regard to their written pedigree. But when most pedigree pups are sold as pets to the general public, what really is the value of five generations of names and affixes? Who bothers to understand breeding as opposed to the production of puppies?

The selection of mates will forever be the principal factor in successful livestock breeding. So often, in the working dog world, it's done on a work-rating: how good at working are the prospective parents? In the show dog world, however often this is denied, rosette-winning is the biggest single factor, with even unworthy Crufts winners being freely used as breeding stock. This is an entirely irrational act; it is based on a view that, firstly, Crufts judges are trustworthy in their judgements, secondly that the winning dog is physically and mentally sound, and thirdly, that the chosen mate will actually 'nick' with the other mate. By that I mean, produce the quality offspring the blood behind each mate should create. As master- breeder Jocelyn Lucas wrote in his Pedigree Dog Breeding (Simpkin, 1925): "A stud dog is not good just because he is good looking. He must be bred right and not be 'chance got', or his good points will not force themselves on his progeny."

Far too many pedigree pups are 'chance got', any success coming from luck, or bred in hope not to a plan. Charles Castle FZS, in his Scientific Dog Management and Breeding (Kaye, 1951), wrote: "Bruce-Lowe traced the pedigree of every racehorse back to the original dam...he was able to classify these families by their characteristics, such as 'sire- producing families', 'running families', etc...these families run true to the present day, passing on family characteristics and certain families 'nick in' to each other to produce winners..." There, was a serious enlightened breeder. As vet and exhibitor RH Smythe wrote in his informative The Breeding and Rearing of Dogs (Popular Dogs, 1969): "It is true that some kennels contrive to turn out a champion each year, but they are usually those that contain a number of bitches often similarly bred, and their owners have been fortunate enough to discover a sire that 'nicks' ..." This system has a run-out date as repeat close-breeding can penalise in time; breeding closely is a skill, not an opportunity.

I once had a stockman who was astonishingly good at this 'nicking'; he didn't study bloodlines, he wasn't bedazzled by show ring success, he seemed to have a gift at matching sire with dam. I have heard of Irish Greyhound breeders with a similar 'eye'. But my stockman was an older man with decades of experience with livestock; he had learned not from paper but proof in the flesh. He did in fact know a great deal about bloodlines and had shown winning exhibits for years at agricultural shows. Breeding livestock is very much a science, but he made it into an art. There are show dog breeders with similar insight. In the Bullmastiff world, for example, distinguished and highly successful kennels like Oldwell and Bunsoro, have long excelled at sire selection and choice of darn. Some of their very best dogs have not come from high winning parents.

Some quite sound but not truly outstanding dogs sire high standard offspring, as Bunsoro Bymesen, top sire in 2005, and Azer of Oldwell, who never became a champion but sired nine, illustrate. It is the blend of phenotypical and genotypical features which produce the offspring; top quality can skip a generation. The concept that a Crufts winner mated to an indifferent bitch can somehow produce top quality pups is seriously flawed. It is based on wishful thinking not science. The lazy thinking which leads to a good quality Bullmastiff bitch being mated to the nearest available Bullmastiff sire is just puppy-producing. If I were buying a Boerboel I would approach a dedicated breeder like Peter Wilson, who, in his diligent quest for quality toured the Boerboel kennels in South Africa, before he came across stock with the mental and physical attributes he was seeking. That is serious enlightened intent. All too often 'dogs only good on their papers' or pedigree-irnpressive dogs are assumed unwisely to be valuable breeding material. Why?

In dog-breeding, the written pedigree has a role, but should never ever be the deciding factor. Without the written pedigree declaring health details, how can anyone know the genetic health of the dog? The written pedigree can misinstruct; if you believe that it accurately sets out a dog's ancestors, then you are naive. Far too many written pedigrees are accepted at face- value; no DNA checks are routinely made to verify accuracy. I know of well-known breeders offering stud-dog A at a fat fee, but actually employing kennel-dog B, a better performer. It is fraudulent but it happens. The Danish geneticist Winge proved on coat-colour grounds alone that 15% of the Danish KC pedigrees were untrue. A serious breeder is an assiduous researcher. Honest breeding records are of course immensely valuable but it takes skill to read them rewardingly.

Far too many breeds of purebred dog are 'overdone': Beardies, Rough Collies, Shelties, Bull Terriers, Bulldogs, Mastiffs, Fox Terriers, Dachshunds and Basset Hounds are, in my view. Selective breeding for show points has gone too far. Some Bullmastiff heads are 'overdone'. In the new edition of my book The Bullmastiff, A Breeder's Guide, I show over a hundred illustrations of the pre-war breed; which is the true head for the breed? The Bullmastiff is sometimes unwisely described as 'a head breed'; 'overdone' heads exaggerate themselves. But it would take a brave soul within the breed to attempt redress. Soon there were be a generation, if there isn't one already, which doesn't know what their breed once looked like. So much for respecting a breed and its functional origin. In The Principles of Dog-Breeding (Toogood, 1930) RE Nicholas wrote: "The breeder who returns from each show wi th a new rather than an improved ideal seldom accomplishes anything worthwhile, for vacillation in standards is the direct road to confusion of types and to absolute failure. The rolling stone gathers nothing but hard knocks." Every breed needs breed-architects ahead of breed optimists.

When you breed, selectively for coat, as has happened in the Beardie, the Rough Collie and the Sheltie, you can end up with all coat and no dog. When you breed, selectively, for head- shape, you lose genuine type, as in the Bull Terrier and the Bulldog, no matter how widely accepted the new look is. When you breed, selectively, for 'stance', substance and excess of breed features, as in the Fox Terrier, the Mastiff and the Basset Hound respectively, you betray the breed's heritage and don't always put the well-being of the dog ahead of slavish perpetuation. Breeds which feature the over-heavy head are so often unbalanced, especially on the move, as the dog's centre of gravity is shifted. Regrettably, overseas judges and all- rounders see loss of basic soundness and true type quicker than breed specialists, although it is more a matter of honesty than eyesight. Over half a century ago, as a vet's kennel boy, I went with him to Molly Harbut's Airedales, to Manson Baird's Deerhounds, Miss Lipscombe's Bull Terriers and other renowned kennels; it would be good to see such 'type' once more.

It is perfectly possible to breed selectively for soundness. All sporting and working breeds were created that way. The soundest breed I see in the show ring, abroad admittedly, is the American Staffordshire Terrier. They are unexaggerated, supremely fit, superbly constructed, uniformly typy and impressively 'like themselves'; they look, even in a ring of thirty, as though they all came from the same dam. A class of Bullmastiffs at a championship show a few years ago was described by the judge as 'any variety Bullmastiff'. American Bulldogs can look very different, one from another, as different kennels favour different types. But each appears to have been selectively bred to be a canine athlete. When I judged a class a few years ago, type was varied but soundness still manifested itself. Selectivity wasn't working towards one design but still producing sound construction. A dog of this size too, which is Bullmastiff size, must be bred with temperament in the forefront of the breeder's mind.

In his enlightening book How To Breed Dogs (Orange Judd, New York, 1947) the highly experienced dog-breeder Leon Whitney wrote: "Now, as every breeder knows most dogs are bought on the basis of what cute puppies they are. The buyer hardly stops to ask, ‘Will it have a calm even disposition when it is grown?' Nor does the breeder usually stress disposition. Instead he brags about the wonderful champion show dogs in the pedigree - anything to sell the pup. Why can't breeders all realize that what makes dogs lastingly popular is first, disposition?" If the general public buy puppies without any regard to their likely temperament, is it at all surprising that children get bitten, breeds can get a bad name as a result and fewer sales in that breed ensue. Most 'returned' puppies are done so from behavioural defects. Were their parents well selected?

Surely the very first question any responsible parent should ask when selecting a future family pet is: 'What is the temperament of the parents and previous litters from this mating?' Every breeder of purebred dogs needs sales to pet homes to sell litters; who is going to recommend breeders of dogs likely to have undesirable temperaments? The biggest single cause of Bullmastiffs going into rescue is their temperament. What possible solace is there in saying later, in sorrow, that it was such acute puppy! ' What comfort is it to be told that the dog which bit your child had ancestors that won Crufts? Even accredited breeders are not obliged to put temperament high on their list of desired qualities. Is this the best way to promote the breeding of companion animals? Is this the best way to promote the breed you love? Is this the best way to improve the man-dog relationship? Selectivity really does matter; selecting the breeder really does matter.