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#20 – My Origins Story – How I Became a Dog Breeder

by | Sep 23, 2021 | People Management

I’m a sucker for origin stories. I loved watching how Iron Man went from the arrogant genius to the hero, willing to risk himself for the greater good. I loved watching the son become a man as he was running from the mob with his hitman father in Road to Perdition. I loved watching James become James Bond, in Casino Royale—granted I’ll probably watch any movie that has Daniel Craig in it…I love the transformation where you learn the story behind how they became who we know them to be. I suppose this is why I enjoy TV series more than movies these days, I feel they have the time to develop the characters in a more natural way. You ever go back and watch the first season after you finished season four? The characters are so much different, and you got to be there for the whole journey.

This is dog breeding to me. It’s a journey and it will grow you as a person whether or not it was your intention. When you look back 3-4 years down the road at where you’ve come from you’ll be blown away by what you’ve done and accomplished.

I figure if you’ve been patient listening to me this whole time, I should share my origin story.

My first dog I got for my fifth birthday. She was a Dalmatian, named Spotsy, inspired by my love of the movie 101 Dalmatians—the cartoon, I’m pretty old. She had black ears like Pongo, and to my dad’s credit—although he really knew nothing about puppies and dogs—he bought a book on the breed and did a simple temperament test and selected her.

She was a wonderful dog. She did one obedience course with my dad and learned the basic commands and after that, she was a gem. She passed away my first year at university.

She started my love for dogs.

I joined the Army National Guard when I was 17 and did both university and the guard for a while until I got married at a young age to a soldier. It wasn’t my smartest move. We were moving all over the place, as with my service I only needed to attend monthly, but he was active duty and so I went with him.

I adopted a dog from a large adoption event, named her Dakota, since my husband-at-the-time didn’t like the name for a kid. When he deployed to Afghanistan I made that poor dog sleep with me in the bed each night so I wasn’t alone. She would wait until I fell asleep and would jump out of the bed onto the floor where it was much more comfortable of a temperature for her, considering she had a pretty thick winter coat.

Things fell apart with him not too long after getting back from Afghanistan and we split. I ended up moving to Arizona to get a job working on a military post teaching soldiers to do what I did in the Army. I really enjoyed teaching.

I met another soldier there, he was smart and good at his job, we hit it off and eventually got married a year and a half later. We rescued a blue heeler cattle dog from the shelter, that’s Dally, and she’s my shadow, follows me everywhere. I swear I could attach toilet paper to her collar since she’s with me in the bathroom all the time.

Then we had Dakotah, our daughter. My new husband liked the name Dakotah, and so it worked out well. I added an “h” at the end of our daughter’s name to be a little more feminine, but also to separate the spelling from the dog, Dakota, who we still had. Now we explain that the “h” stands for human.

It was not too long after Dakotah that we were driving into work one day and co-worker came up to us in the parking lot. He explained he was moving to Missouri to live in an RV on his son’s land and that it would be a terrible idea to have two German Shorthairs in such a tiny space. He knew my husband had wanted a bird dog and offered to give us his male shorthair. Without probably thinking it through like I should’ve, I said yes before he could say anything more. I think I was trying to be the cool wife. I had no idea how my life would change from this one decision.

So we picked up Buster.

That dog pushed me to my limits. My oh my. He was so much more dog than I was prepared to handle. He had energy for days, could jump fences, escape near anything I put him in. He was all about any food on the counter and I believe if it hadn’t been for crate training, we would’ve ended up in a dual to the death.

Despite being a bit of a challenge, Buster was amazing. He was so good with my daughter, she could climb all over him and he’d just laid there, occasionally looking at us, like, “hey, can you grab your puppy?”

With no training, we took him out hunting only a few weeks after getting him and we limited out on birds in 45 minutes. He had an incredible drive and temperament, and was structurally solid. Just an amazing dog, so much personality and fun to be around.

Now my ex and I, we didn’t really know how to ease into things. Within a year of having our property we already had some horses, chickens, and a few goats, looking to get turkeys and pigs. I had really enjoyed learning about breeding goats, maximizing their production and health by selecting better breeding pairs. I met a wonderful goat breeder a few hours away from me and she taught me all sorts of things about how to evaluate an animal’s structure and how to use breeding to bring out the traits you wanted.

I had some nice goats compared with the local selection and a local woman contacted me interested in seeing my new doeling. When she arrived she saw Buster running around the property and asked if I was planning on breeding him. I told her I wasn’t. She said, she bred Dobermans and Buster had beautiful conformation and would make a great stud.

I had always thought he looked good, but it never occurred to me that dog breeding could be an option for me.

I had always thought breeding would be difficult with dogs, all I had ever heard about dog breeding was horror stories and figured it was too much for this city-turned-country girl. But she got me thinking. I was excited thinking that I may be able to give other people what Buster had given my family. While he was a bit much, part of that was because I got him at 18 months of age, and I was his 4th home, he had never had boundaries before and once he did, he was always fun to have around. I mulled it over for a while and I decided it was at least worth investigating.

I contacted his breeder and I told him I was considering starting breeding and was wondering what he thought and if he would consider giving me breeding rights for him.

We talked for an hour and I asked him a lot of questions. He explained that it really wasn’t all that complicated and encouraged me to try. Looking back, he down-played a lot of the difficulties of breeding, but I suppose if he had shared all of them, it might have scared me away.

He may have had some ulterior motives, as a week later we were driving the four hours to his house, and we came back with no less than five German Shorthairs to add to our program, for a total of six shorthairs at my house.

The dogs were mostly around a year old, although one stud was getting on seven. Within three months I had three litters and 21 puppies on the ground. Oh, and did I mention I was six months pregnant with my son? It was a little bit of a crazy time, needless to say. I was lucky our females were easy whelpers and the woman who bought the goat from me was gracious enough to come over and help me do tail docking and dewclaws. She encouraged me to microchip and I’m so very glad she did.

I ended up never using the old stud because he didn’t have good elbows, one of the females was a bad mom, and another female never took. I rehomed them and that left me with my two females and Buster, then the three female puppies I had kept from the litters.

If you’re feeling anxiety listening to this…I’m with you, I was drowning in it, and although I thought I had a plan, there was so much I didn’t know.

Despite all the chaos and crazy, I loved it. I loved having the puppies, I loved designing a breeding program and studying my dogs, thinking of where I wanted to improve them. I loved that moment when you hand a puppy to a little kid and he asks, “can we keep him,” and your heart swells with hope that the dog will live up to everything that kid could want in his childhood dog, all the mud, sticky fingers, and camping trips.

I had a business degree and my ex had grown up the son of a talented machinist and gun smith. Before our daughter was born we had pulled our firearms license and started a small gun shop—I know, I know, we just loved being chaotically busy, right?

Well, once my son was born, the cost of childcare and the need for staffing at the gun shop during the day caused me to leave the job teaching for the Army and be there full time. It was during these few years that my breeding program grew. The bird dogs fit in well with the gun shop and I was able to take a few to work. Everyone loved Buster and he became the mascot of the business. During these years I built up my website, advertised on a few brokerage sites, driving traffic to my business, and built a name for myself with my dogs.

Then in the Spring of 2016 something happened. I had three litters on the ground, all ready to go home. I had sent a puppy to Alaska, and some others a few hours away. Then they started to get lethargic. They stopped eating. Then they stopped drinking. They looked emaciated in hours and we couldn’t figure out what it was. They tested negative for Parvo and Coccidia and the vet and I were confused. I was frantically talking to my buyers, letting them know to keep an eye out and get the dogs to care if any of the symptoms happened. I had one family swear it was Parvo even though the incubation period didn’t align. The vet in Alaska also said it was Parvo. You see, Parvo exposure usually works where one dog gets it, then all the other dogs get it from him the same day, this means that they usually all show symptoms within 24 hours of each other. Well this wasn’t what was happening at all. One would get sick, then another a few days later, some would still eat, others wouldn’t eat or drink. We didn’t know what it was.

I don’t think I slept much for three weeks, as we tried to figure it out, that’s when we tested for giardia and got a positive. Since the puppies were struggling we used metronidazole and within 12 hours they started eating and drinking again. I called the vet in Alaska and despite him fighting me, telling me it was Parvo, I asked that he please use metronidazole to treat the admitted puppy. He told me it wouldn’t do anything, so I protested by asking if it would hurt him. He said it wouldn’t. The next day the owner called me and said they wanted her to pick the puppy up because he was too crazy running around and barking. I paid her back her puppy purchase cost and he’s still doing well today.

When it was all said and done, I had lost eight puppies. Thankfully only ones at my home and none that had gone to other families.

It was a really hard time for me. I was really mad at myself. I felt so awful that I made the decision to bring these puppies into the world and they died on my watch. I tossed around if I were even worthy of being a breeder. I felt so responsible. I felt like the biggest failure.

It would’ve been so nice to have a breeder support group with people who were actually supportive, with other breeders who said, these things happen, but you’ll learn and it’ll get better.

After moping around a few weeks stewing on it all, a voice in my head gave me a new perspective. It said, “if you don’t solve this, if you don’t figure out how to fix this so it doesn’t happen again, and if you don’t learn this information and share it so other breeders can be spared this heartache, then all eight of those puppies will die in vein and you’ll be responsible. Not fixing this for your dogs and for others will be what actually makes you a failure.”

I picked my head up and I dug into my research, learning all I could about giardia and how to manage and prevent it. This is when I found out oregano oil was effective against giardia. You can’t just use the oil though, it is too hot and can burn the dogs, so I tried a few things and eventually added it to olive oil to dilute it and made MOOM.

Once I had MOOM in my arsenal I was able to get a good handle on giardia. I never had problems with it now.

Losing all those puppies was tough, but it was a coming of age moment for me. I realized that tough things are going to happen when breeding. I realized that I didn’t intend on getting giardia, I didn’t know Buster had it when we got him, no breeder intends on their puppies getting viruses, bacterial, nor protozoan infections. Merely getting these things does not mean you are a bad breeder or that you don’t care, but how you handle it says a lot about you as a person and as a breeder.

In my many years as a breeder I realized that many breeders get out of breeding after suffering a loss like this, it just hurts too much. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad breeder if you decide to get out after a loss like this, please don’t misunderstand. More so, I mean that the right answer is changing things, improving things. You have to make adjustments so you can make it better next time.

You also have to have reason why you’re breeding that’s stronger than the pain of a loss like this. For me, I knew that if I could solve this, I could consistently bring great dogs to people, and that little kid deserved a good healthy dog to grow up with and I needed to make it for him.

It’s a dirty secret in breeding. I absolutely love my dogs, but I figured out I love my buyers just a little more. I know that I have to prioritize them and their happiness with their dog or else they’ll never be able to give the dog the quality of life that I want for him.

My goal is always to breed a dog that improves the quality of life for the owner in such a way that the owner’s are then able to love on that dog and give him the quality of life that he deserves. If a dog I bred stresses the family out, then it’s just not a good fit and it won’t work out for the dog nor the family. It’s like a bad relationship between a boyfriend and girlfriend, you can’t force-fit what doesn’t work.

Want to Get the Roadmap to a Successful Breeding Program?

Well, back to my story. After solving giardia, I was driven to share what I had learned with the world, but I didn’t have a good plan. I started a website for breeders, but between the gun shop, stress of the animals at the farm, and just a poorly executed schedule, I was unable to get it moving like I had hoped.

Near the middle of 2017 my life was at a tipping point, the relationship with my husband was falling apart, we couldn’t seem to get our relationship back on track. I was waking up knowing I wasn’t giving my kids the mom they deserved, they needed a mom who could be more present with them, who had them home early, cooked them dinner, read them bedtime stories, had their laundry washed and folded nicely in their drawers. I was failing at all of that, they deserved better.

That fall and into winter my now ex husband and I split. We weren’t angry, but it was clear it wouldn’t work. We sat down together with a document filer and wrote up the divorce decree and filed it.

Without being together there was no reason for me to have the gun shop anymore. Although my firearm knowledge rivals many men who love guns, it wasn’t my passion and I couldn’t sustain the rent. I gave it to him in the divorce.

Leaving the only job I had known for the last three years left me in a weird spot, what was I going to do to make money? All I had was the dogs or the opportunity to take a well-paying job back on the Army post, but I’d been home with my kids day in and day out since my daughter was nine months old and always for my son. I couldn’t leave them in daycare and my mom was working full time so that wasn’t an option, not to mention the job had shift work that often included overnights. I decided I needed to find a way to make it work and the dogs were my best option.

My reputation was strong, I had a decent waitlist and demand had caused me to raise my price a few months earlier.

I had seven breeding females at the time and within seven weeks of me leaving the gun shop, all seven girls were bred. It was during this time that my toilet innards broke, you know the flapper and float, but also the return tube had gone brittle and cracked. I was no plumber, but I certainly didn’t have any money to hire anyone. I did well and replaced the inside, but what I didn’t know was that my kids bumped the tank while I was turning the water on and when I got the valve back running, I realized the tank was cracked and water was pouring all over the floor.

I had to buy a new toilet.

I got the new toilet, watched a few YouTube videos to learn how to install it, then I did. I thought I would be nice and buy the elongated toilet, it was taller and supposed to be better. Well the height meant the return line was too short, so I had the property water off and went to Home Depot yet again. My mom lived on my property in a second house at the time, so I called her to see if she needed anything from town on my way home. I told her I would have the water on soon, that I was changing the line. She said, “oh, I turned the water on 30 minutes ago.”

I got a cold sweat, this meant water had been running, pouring, all over my bathroom for 30 minutes straight. I got home and the bathroom was flooded, it had seeped into the bedrooms next to the bathroom and I was at a loss.

I called my friend Melanie and I was giving her the play by play the next day. She happened to be the bookkeeper for two construction guys and said she would send one over. I told her I was in no position to pay, and she said, it’s fine, let’s just have them come and look and see if your floor will fall in.

The next afternoon Bill pulled up in my driveway. He came in and I showed him my nightmare, despite it all, he was sweet and reassuring. He told me my floor wouldn’t fall in, but that the leak with my washer machine was actually a more urgent problem for me to consider. He quoted me a price to fix it that was way cheaper than I knew was probably fair, I figured he knew I was in a bad spot and could really use the help. I appreciated that.

We ended up talking in my driveway for an hour and a half and I was so endeared to his personality and who he was, not to mention I was enjoying staring at him. We texted the next day and we’ve been together ever since.

…now remember, I had seven females bred when he came over to check on my floor, poor guy had no idea what he was getting into dating a girl who was a dog breeder. Within a few weeks of meeting, litter after litter dropped for two months. It was complete chaos. All the dogs were on my porch in various pens and tarter feed buckets, whatever I could put together.

You see, my ex just wasn’t particularly supportive of the dogs and so he wasn’t someone I could bounce ideas off of and he wasn’t very encouraging of me getting more exercise pens or really any facilities. It wasn’t entirely his fault, we were stretched so thin, in the middle of so much stuff, and I don’t think he ever really wanted to be in dog breeding.

Bill, though, he’d been in construction his whole life and quickly realized that I needed facilities and like yesterday. He knew I was strapped for cash, but that fall he worked out a deal with his concrete and block guys to help me put up a large slab. I used some litter money and I was able to order panels to make individual kennel lanes.

It made a world of difference, the dogs are healthier and they have their own space to relax. It makes managing my dogs easier and the puppies have an indoor/outdoor area which really helps them learn to go to the bathroom outside.

Once the facilities were in place my dogs were having better litters, with more puppies, and we were having much better luck raising the pups. It all came together.

It’s been three years now and my program is so much more manageable and predictable making it easier for me to take care of my buyers and help them understand what they are getting and when.

There’s a little bit of luck that plays a role in everyone’s life and my luck certainly came with Bill. Between him sharing his construction knowledge with facilities, his organizational skills that build maintenance systems, and his support of my breeding program and passion for the dogs, it was the missing piece I needed to take my breeding program to the next level.

My story is messy. That’s no joke, but I share it with you so you know how many mistakes I made, how my failures to plan and get organized caused such a burden on my relationship. I don’t want you to ever be embarrassed about how something went in your program because Lord knows I’m in no position to judge.

The only thing I got right the whole time was that I knew it was important to keep improving the dogs so that my owners wouldn’t have problems. I had to keep my buyers and their success as the goal of my program. I kept in contact with a lot of my buyers, learned where they succeeded, where they struggled. In fact, some became amazing friends who were there for me when I was lost and a bit depressed.

If you’re listening now and were worried your program isn’t where it should be, where you want it to be, I got you. That’s why I’m here. I’m still fulfilling my promise to those eight puppies that I will share what I’ve learned so more breeders can build successful breeding programs that collectively improve the lives of the dogs, the people who own them, and, of course, allowing us, the honest breeders, to have the life we want because of the breeding program we’ve built.

The Dog Breeder Society is the product of all my successes, failures, and the ridiculous journey I took that I hope for you to avoid, bolstered with loads of research and conversation with professionals that support the industry. The world needs more well-bred dogs and we just don’t have time for honest breeders to go through all the pain and chaos I went through to finally figure it out.

Want to Get the Roadmap to a Successful Breeding Program?

Hey! I’m Julie Swan! I’m here to help you build a breeding business that you love, one that produces amazing dogs, places them in wonderful homes, gives you the life you want, also pays the bills!