There is no black and white definition of success. Ask a few people what their definition of success in life is and you’ll get all sorts of answers, some will say being happy, some will say a good marriage, some will say children who make it to 18 (I did throw myself a little party when my kids survived to 5), and others will say a lot of money.
As a breeder, you could define success by sending all your puppies home at 8 weeks, you could define it as a financial success, or you could define it by titles in your preferred event.
Is Success sending all your puppies to homes by say, 8 weeks?
In a way, yes, it’s success to no longer have puppies, it implies you had enough demand for your dogs, you found them homes, and therefore you weren’t breeding dogs, who you were unable to home.
But this isn’t a very good definition of success. You see if you lost a few puppies in the litter, well then, that wasn’t very successful, and yet, it’s easier to home 4 pups than it is to home 6 pups. So if losing pups makes it easier for you to obtain success, well then sending home your pups at 8 weeks, isn’t a very good gauge of success.
Further, it doesn’t take into account if you sold your pups for a very low price or gave them away, which isn’t the best design for a breeding program, as we need money to take care of our breeding dogs and to cover our time.
It also doesn’t address the quality of the homes you sent the puppies to, are they going to give the pup the life he deserves?
Part of being an honest breeder is not only producing quality dogs, but finding them homes that align with the dog and his temperament and drive, therefore, just finding them homes is not enough, we have to make sure it’s the right fit for both the family and the dog.
And while sending pups home isn’t a complete definition of success, we shouldn’t write off the importance of sending pups home in a timely manner; puppies are one of those weird products in the world that are worth less money the longer they are with us: so many people want the new puppy, the one whose ears aren’t all the way erect, who still has puppy breath and poor coordination.
If you aren’t sending all your pups home, or at least they all have lined up homes at 8 weeks, then you need to evaluate why that isn’t happening. Usually your marketing isn’t working in this instance, it might be attracting the wrong people or not enough people. So if all your pups are not sold by 8 weeks, then take a moment to investigate that.
Even though the criteria of sending all your dogs home by 8 weeks is helpful in gauging your success, it’s only a piece of the pie. And I say 8 weeks, but for some of you it will be longer depending on what you’re breeding and the future plans of your dogs, I know many breeders who keep them to 12 weeks as a standard. We can discuss the pros and cons of early or later placement of your pups on another episode, but if you usually do 12 weeks, then that’s fine.
What about financial success? As in being in profit?
People love to bash breeders for making money, but the reality is, you should be making money. If you want to know the details on why breeders NEED to make money, check out episode #8. What you need to know is that making money from your breeding program enables you to breed better dogs, without placing a burden on yourself and your family.
As a criteria for a successful breeding program, money is important. If you aren’t making money then you need to listen to the money, the money talks.
Money will tell you where your breeding program needs improvement. If you have too high of vet bills, why? Usually unexpected vet bills are facilities related or dog health management related. If you don’t have good facilities they can be hard to sanitize, difficult to clean (which sometimes means you don’t clean them as often as you should), or they can cause injury because adult dogs were near the puppies or the puppies were able to get into something they shouldn’t.
Bill, my other half, worked in construction for 25 years, and I have to admit, and I’m rather embarrassed to say, it wasn’t until he really sat down with me and helped me sort out my facilities, that I really got it all figured out. Mind you, he wasn’t there at the start of my breeding program, let’s just say, when he met me—and ALL my dogs, well sometimes I’m surprised he stayed. Facilities are so important, but we’ll talk about them, and planning them for success, on another episode.
Another reason you may be losing money is because you aren’t feeding a quality feed and so the puppies aren’t born as strong as they could be or your females aren’t recovering and cycling correctly.
In other cases, it means you aren’t charging enough for your pups. Some breeders lack confidence to ask for what their dogs are worth, sometimes you spend too much on the puppy pack, and if your marketing isn’t working, then you might be reducing the price of your pups to sell them, so that you don’t have older pups at your home.
It’s always worth it to listen to the money, it tells you where to put your energy to improve your program.
However, money isn’t the be all of evaluating your program, after all, puppy mills run in profit, right? So while money is a great guide, it is just that, a guide, if you place money as the gauge of success, then you might be led to compromise the integrity of your program in the name of profit.
How about titles?
I believe that titles can be very helpful in a breeding program, they can help you evaluate breeders, but I don’t think they capture what a successful breeding program is. Two titled dogs don’t always complement each other in breeding, so it isn’t right to say that it’s the gauge of success.
You could have titled dogs and then place their puppies in homes who don’t understand the breed, and the dogs could have poor quality of life. You could also have titled dogs and them sell them for less than they are worth, and be running in the red, putting a financial strain on your family, which is certainly not successful.
Titles are helpful when the title helps to evaluate the dog in his future life with the new owners, but using titles as a measure on your success, simply isn’t a complete assessment.
And while I believe that sending puppies home on time, making a profit, and titling all have importance in their own way, I don’t think any of them captures the entirety of what success is for a dog breeder, they are all bread crumbs to the bigger picture.
Because we are choosing to bring new life into this world, we breeders are responsible for that life. We are responsible to do the best we can to give each puppy the best chance for a high quality of life. A successful breeder is consistently making puppies who enjoy a high quality of life, not just at the breeder’s home, but throughout their life.
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What is quality of life for a dog?
Quality of life will be a little different for each dog, they all have their different personalities, as you know. A herding dog’s ideal life is going to be different than a livestock guardian’s ideal life, whose will be different than a hunting dog’s ideal life.
But there are some things that are universal in quality of life for dogs. They deserve to be healthy: they need good food on the regular, they need shelter, and vet care, as needed. Breeders are important here because we can set our pups up for success by breeding healthy dogs, through testing, selection, and proper care as puppies.
Dogs also deserve to live in a home where they aren’t overly stressed, and for those who perform stressful working jobs, like police or guardian dogs, they need to know when they are on duty and when they have a break. They also need to gradually be built up to handle this sort of stress. A lot of this can start with us, the breeder. We can expose our pups to more through socialization and techniques like early neurological stimulation.
Our selection of breeders who are good mothers will be very helpful, also. Good mothers are less anxious while working with their pups and they tend to pass that emotional stability on their puppies.
We then can help our buyers understand what the puppy needs to be successful, then be there to support our buyers with questions throughout the life of their dog. We can also make sure to send our pups home to people who can manage and afford to do these things, who care to understand them, and do right by the dog.
This is why our marketing efforts are so important. Good marketing will bring us the best buyers for our dogs, while pushing away those who aren’t good fits for our dogs.
If our dogs don’t have quality of life, then we are failing them. It doesn’t matter if we have all the pups sold, if there’s profit when they are sold, nor does it matter if titles are involved, if the dogs are suffering, then we are failing.
Oh, and not keeping in touch with your buyers, so that you never know if they’re having struggles, doesn’t count as you never having issues. It’s important to learn from your buyers, and have a relationship with them. That relationship is the gate keeper to your success. If we didn’t have it, it would be like writing an essay and never getting the graded paper back, we would never know how we did.
What about your buyers?
Unfortunately, we can’t place our focus on just the dogs after the we send them home. We have to consider our owners, the wonderful caretakers of our puppies. If our owners are stressed then we aren’t doing our job, either, it shouldn’t be overly burdensome to take care of our dogs.
Do you remember that show with Victoria Stilwell back in the day? “It’s Me or the Dog!” We don’t want to put our owners in a situation where they could audition for a spot on that show.
My colleague, and good friend, Beth Berkobien, is a dog behavioral specialist, she told me a story of a client who had a German Shorthair and he was 2 years old and had tons of energy, he had difficulty settling down in the house and relaxing. When the owners reached out to friends and family for help they were told that shorthairs just need exercise. The couple diligently would bike with this dog 50 miles per day, split into two sessions, just so that he would be able to relax in the home. I don’t know about you, I’m not a super star biker, so even if they were biking at a ridiculous 25 mph, that would take two full hours out of their day, 7 days a week, just to ‘sort of’ manage their dog. This is one of those situations where the quality of life for the owners is now affected through managing their dog.
Thankfully, the owners decided this wasn’t a good way to live and after a while, when the biking wasn’t enough, and he still wasn’t calm in the home, they called Beth.
Beth, to their confusion, told them to stop exercising him like they were. She explained that all the bike rides were doing was conditioning him like an olympic athlete. She switched them to doing two 30-minute walks each day. She added a lot of enrichment to his daily activities, including enrichment-based feedings, and other activities that allowed him to tease his bird drive. It took about 14 days, but he was a new dog.
Owners like this, they have the best of intentions, they have never even thought of giving the dog up, they just do the best they can, but their lives suffer greatly in the process. They’re also the kind of people who don’t always think to call us when they have problems, they aren’t hiding it, they just don’t know there is a better way.
We don’t want this for our owners. We want them to have a great life with their dog that is enjoyable and builds wonderful memories. We don’t want them going to therapy because they took one of our puppies home.
You don’t want your owners to lose themselves in taking care of your pups, eventually they will break and that’s miserable. It’s also no good for the dog you bred, it is difficult to have quality of life when the owner is so stressed out.
We breeders can be so key in these situations. We know when something isn’t right, like 50 miles of bike riding every day. We can reach out to our owners and see how they are doing from time to time.
Instead of saying, “do you need anything?” Ask them, “what can I help you with?” It implies that everyone needs help, so it takes the embarrassment out of having a problem or question.
To avoid this debacle, we can look to the root of it, is it the dogs we bred, as in a few owners are struggling? Or is it a bad fit between owner and puppy? Learn from it and use that knowledge to improve your program and you’ll be an unstoppable, successful breeder.
Success isn’t as simple as breeding dogs, selling them when they are pups, making a profit, nor getting titles, it’s so much deeper.
Success for a breeder is aligning the best dogs to the best owners through their lifestyle, drive, and temperament, such that the dog’s quality of life is wonderful and the owners taking care of the dogs have an improved quality of life because of the relationship they have with their dog.
With that positive relationship created between the owner and dog, everything else will follow. It’ll be easier to sell pups because you’ll better understand your market, and when that happens, the profit will follow. As for titles, well, we will discuss how necessary they are for success in your breeding program in the next episode.