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#21 – What does ‘Breed to Improve the Breed’ Really Mean?

by | Oct 3, 2021 | Business Management, Dog & Puppy Management, People Management

Breed to Improve the Breed. Any time a new breeder asks about breeding in a Facebook Group you see this phrase littering the comments. People throw this out there like it actually means something at face value.

I remember calling a woman at the German Shorthaired Pointer Club of America when I first started breeding, I was looking for guidance. This miraculous phrase was what she gave me. I remember getting off that phone call thinking, “oh yeah, that’s clear as mud.”

I even hear many breeders say that they want to breed to improve the breed, as though that in and of itself is a breeding goal.

Let’s dive into to this very existential term in the dog breeding world. First off, breeding to improve the breed becomes simpler when you flip it around to its opposite: “don’t worsen the breed with your breeding selections.” Yet again, this still isn’t exactly guidance.

At face value, the simplest way to improve the breed is to follow my breeding mantra, never knowingly breed problems. The easiest start to this is to not breed two dogs where you know their offspring will have problems. We talked a bit about this in Episode #18, where we talked about the six criteria for selecting breeding stock, but to summarize, if we can have the option to know if problems exist, then we owe to the integrity of our breeding program to do the tests and learn the status of our dogs. This can be simple DNA tests or X-Rays. If a dog will pass poor genetics to their offspring that will affect the offsprings’ quality of life, then it isn’t worth breeding that dog.

Now we know there are no perfect dogs, so it is important to know where to draw the line between breeding a pair of dogs or not. A good rule of thumb is 10%, if 10% of the dogs may be affected by a trait or problem, then I think it is an acceptable risk in an imperfect world. This should, of course, be considered with the quality of life. If the dog would be in a lot of pain because of the trait or would have a hard time living a full life, say they would have issues walking or eating, then the 10% may not be acceptable. If they will have a bad ear set, then that may be against breed standard, but wouldn’t affect quality of life, then I find that to be more acceptable.

Often times you’ll see people looking for a way to prove that their dogs are worthy of breeding, so they look for a stud they can use with titles. While I understand the drive to use vetted breeding stock for your breeding program—I like using vetted breeding stock—I don’t think that titles will be the best way to do this. Titles can be helpful, just like pedigrees, BUT there is no way of knowing if the dog is a good fit for your female without really getting a good look at the dog and seeing the strengths and weaknesses of that dog in not only build, but also temperament and drive.

We’ve all met people who had a great resume, but couldn’t do the job, that’s a lot of what titles can be if you aren’t careful. Now if your blood pressure is rising while hearing this and you’re considering throwing something at me, please understand that I believe titles can be very helpful, I just don’t think they are a pass or fail for rating and selecting your breeding stock. If you want to learn more about that, check out Episode #11, all about how titles contribute—or not—to the success of your breeding program.

Okay, so far we’ve discussed not breeding problems as a way to breed to improve the breed, but what else? Well, we need to be respectful of the breed standard.

Great Julie, what does that mean?

First, I encourage you to know your breed standard. Different clubs, countries, and registries will have different “standards” for the same breed, so if you prefer one over the other, then select that standard as your baseline. You would also do well to know where your selected standard deviates from other standards, especially if a different standard is more popular in your area or country. For example, in shorthairs, the AKC standard is a much smaller dog than the German standard, to the tune of 15-25 lbs difference between the two. AKC is often what people are exposed to here in Arizona, so if I show them my big German stud they may think he’s huge. It is helpful for their understanding, their trust in me as a breeder, and, for my breeding selection, to understand where the German Standard deviates from AKC.

The reason we need to know breed standard is because we need to know when we are deviating from it. Sometimes we will deviate from it as a consequence of trying to improve other traits, using my German Stud as an example, Rusty is a big boy, he is much heavier on his feet, pulling himself over the ground instead of gliding. He has more bone, more muscle, longer ears, and the thing I was most interested in was a slower metabolism.

Until Rusty, my dogs were very American Field Trial lines, which are light, airy, and glide across the ground like they are under a lighter gravitational pull. The problem with them is that their metabolisms are absolutely ridiculous. My original stud Buster weighed only 55 lbs, but according to the dog food bags, he ate enough for an 85 lb. dog. Not only did I have to prepare my buyers they’d need to feed more, but the high metabolism made for dogs who burned through their resources very quickly if they got sick, which happens a lot with bird dogs given all the gross things they eat. If an adult got giardia, which was common given the cow tanks they often drank from while hunting, in two days they would look like they hadn’t eaten in a week. They would burn through fat resources and sometimes muscle tissue much too quickly for my comfort.

I didn’t like the responsibility it put on the owners. Rusty, brought the metabolism down and made for a dog that was a much easier keeper, not subject to swift weight decreases if he had a GI issue.

This was an improvement in quality of life for my dogs and owners, however, it did bump a lot of my dogs out of the breed standard as determined by AKC. It wasn’t my intention to make my dogs bigger, but it was a consequence of selecting for a slower metabolism.

When you are adding an outcross like what Rusty was, you have to look at the whole picture and weigh the pros and cons, the metabolism shift was a much greater improvement over the slight size gain that I had. It made it worth the shift and then I worked on bringing the size down for my next generations.

What about temperament and drive?

Just like the breed standard talks about what the breed should look like, there are also temperament and drive that the breed standard dictates. I would argue that temperament and type of drive are just as important in distinguishing a breed as structure and appearance. When breeding to improve the breed you’ll want to respect temperament and drive, while also niching within these rather large ranges so that your kennel is producing consistency in these areas.

Temperament is the personality of the dog. When you read the breed standard you’ll find that temperament has a section, but it will be generic and will give you a little bit of room to play around. You want to make sure your dogs align with the breed standard.

In my shorthairs, as with a lot of bird dogs, they should be pretty go-with-the-flow, they sort of love everyone, and they shouldn’t be aggressive towards other dogs or people. Simply put, they make terrible watchdogs, since their loyalty correlates strongly to whoever has the best treats. This is their temperament, if I bred shorthairs that were dog aggressive at the dog park, I would be veering away from breed standard, not respecting what the breed was designed to do. In essence I wouldn’t be breeding to improve the breed.

You’ll find that a lot of breeding to improve the breed is working toward the ideal that the breeder originally had in mind when they designed breed. Now it gets a little convoluted, you see, many breeds are old, like centuries old. Shorthairs are over 130 years old as a breed, and some breeds have been around for millennia.

I’m not sure about you, BUT, I do like some of the cultural improvements that have come over the last century, I think it’s pretty great to be able to vote as a woman, I’m glad we don’t have to hunt all our meat and can buy a steak at the grocery store, sooo there are a few things that aren’t quite the same culturally as they were back when the breed was developed. There also weren’t emotional support animals in the ways we think of them today, but there is a huge desire for them in today’s market.

Shorthairs for example were developed to be ideal family dogs that helped the family hunt and survive. In Germany there were used for all sorts of game animals, everything from birds to stag. However, let’s be honest, my shorthairs are not really the driving force behind my buyer families being able to eat or not.

Drive

Let’s take a moment and break down drive. Drive should be an important consideration in your breeding program. There is type of drive and also level of drive. The type of drive is what the dog desires to do from an internal, generally inherited motivation. For example, in bird dogs that’s their drive to hunt birds, for livestock guardians their drive to protect and guard, and for herding dogs, their drive to herd. Then there is the level of drive. Think of the level of drive as a slider bar: for my dogs it would be a bird-dog drive slider bar, and the most birdy dogs would have it slid all the way to the right, while the least birdy pups would barely register on the slide.

A dog can have multiple drives, but, generally speaking, you should be able to categorize it into a big category that goes with the breed group, for example, herding. As you’re evaluating puppies and your breeders you’ll be able to break down drive in more detail, but overall you’ll be able to slide that slider bar for each dog and rank them amongst your dogs and also amongst the breed.

When breeding to improve the breed, the key would to be respect the drive and not breed the drive out of the dog, but you can opt to adjust the level of drive.

So what would this mean? Well, in a herding dog, you wouldn’t want to breed out herding, so they have no herding drive, nor would you want to turn your cattledog into a bird dog pointing dove. However, you may reduce the herding drive so they aren’t trying to round up all the toddlers at the picnic, especially if your ideal puppy buyer isn’t a cattle rancher, and instead wants a family dog that is very intelligent and easy to train.

The most successful breeders who are breeding to improve the breed will retain the temperament and drive of the breed, while also consciously adjusting and selecting traits that adapt the temperament and drive to align best with their ideal customer.

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Does breed standard matter?

In order for us to care about breeding to improve the breed, we have to ask ourselves does the breed standard matter?

This is a huge ethics question I’ve been struggling with for a few years. I don’t know the answer, but I think I am narrowing it down. I’d like to run you through my thoughts and then I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment below.

As you may have guessed by now, I love the free market. I love the ability for entrepreneurs to see a need in the market and to develop a product or service that meets that need for the consumer. This is why I have absolutely no qualms about supporting Doodle Breeders or really any breeding that isn’t traditional, I would never consider myself a purebred dog enthusiast. I feel that so long as you are hitting the big golden three points, taking into account the long-term quality of life for the pups you produce, the owners that will have them, and then of course I believe you need to have dog breeding improve your life and your family’s, not letting it become a burden or net negative, then I think you’re on the right track. Obviously hitting those criteria isn’t simple, which is why I started the Dog Breeder Society, BUT I don’t think there’s only one way to skin the cat of successful dog breeding.

Having that said, I’ve often questioned whether breeding to the breed standard matters or not. If you can hit the above golden three points, then does it need to fall within a breed standard?

By definition of success as a breeder, I do not think it does.

Imagine that you breed the perfect dog by breed standard. Perfect structure, health, temperament, drive, right in the middle of breed standard, but then you place that dog in a home where they have no idea how to manage his drives…was that success? What if he was the only one in the litter that came out like that and the rest have problems, was that success? What if you bred this dog and after it was all said and done all you were able to do was feed your kids Mac ’n Cheese for a week because you spent so much money on the breeding and raising the litter or didn’t sell the puppies for enough money? I don’t think that’s success.

Because a perfect dog within breed standard does not guarantee quality of life for the dog, owner, and breeder, I can’t conclude that breed standard is the be all of success.

In contrast, I could breed a version of a dog that is too small for breed standard, maybe the drive is a little lighter than would be breed standard, and then I can place that dog in a home where the smaller size is perfect, the lower drive is easier to manage…the family is therefore successful in giving the dog what he needs and he brings joy to their life. The dog is happy. The breeder priced the puppies right, makes a profit, and in turn gives the breeding dogs the highest quality of life because she can afford to. This seems like success, but this success is found outside of the breed standard.

Now let’s look at another example. Over the course of generations a bird dog breeder selectively reduces the bird drive of her dogs. She then advertises dogs as pointing dogs with low pointing drive. This is beneficial to her ideal puppy buyer because the puppies are going to great homes who appreciate their temperament, but don’t hunt and don’t really have an outlet for managing their bird instinct.

I think this still falls within the range of breed standard. However, what if she somehow found a way to get those dogs to herd sheep or to become watch dogs or to become guardians of the chickens? A change like this isn’t an adjustment to the level of drive, rather it’s a change to the type of drive.

She then might advertise that she has herding bird dogs. Now, not only does that sound a little wonky, but it is directly violating the drive and temperament of the bird dogs she used to do this. The question is, if you have a bird dog that herds, is it really a bird dog anymore? Is it fair to call it a German Shorthaired Pointer if it no longer points and instead herds or acts as a guard dog?

Understandably, the pedigree could all be bird dog, but if it doesn’t carry the temperament or drive of the breed, is it really fair to call it that breed? I don’t know that it is. In fact, I don’t feel it’s honest to pitch your dogs to be something they aren’t and if they aren’t living up to the breed standard, at least in drive and temperament, then can we really advertise them as that?

I was speaking to a breeder friend Natalie, she breeds working livestock guardian dogs in bear country, and she put it well when she said, “if you find yourself advertising that your dogs don’t have the specific traits that characterize the breed, then that might be a good indication you’re in the wrong breed.” I think I agree with her. There isn’t a reason to breed a certain breed if your goal is to change the traits that are characteristic of the breed. I believe in adjusting temperament and drive within breed standard to meet your ideal customer’s needs, but not in pushing that outside of breed standard.

Those are my thoughts, do you disagree? I’d love to hear from you if you do, is there a point in this argument you don’t think I’m considering?

So then what about the doodles?

Doodles and other crosses bypass the breed standard in an effort to build something the market wants. I love the entrepreneurial spirit of doodle breeders, they see the need and they work to support it. I’m often bummed that so many breeders look down on doodle breeders, but I think it’s because it is really hard to pull off and so not as many pull it off as we would hope.

I am not a doodle breeder, so I can’t speak from experience with doodles, but I selected Rat Terriers as my second breed so I could eventually cross them with my shorthairs to make ideal service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD. I only have Kylie as a prototype, so I don’t have a bunch of experience to reference, just my thoughts on it.

After studying the crossing of breeds, I’ve concluded there is nothing simple about building a doodle breeding program. The three things I find most difficult in doodles—or any crosses—are 1) most breeders stick with F1 or F1B crosses for predictability and repeatability, 2) you have to have more dogs to make it work, 3) you generally have to make your own standard.

If you aren’t familiar, an F1 Cross is first generation of a cross, this would be a purebred parent from breed A with a purebred parent from breed B. The offspring would be called F1. Then you can take that F1 puppy and breed it back to a purebred dog of either breed A or B, this is considered F1B. The F1B crosses tend to retain the traits better, they are more predictable than F2.

In contrast, F2 is a second generation cross, this means that you are breeding two F1 crosses, so the breeders in the pairing are both 50/50 mixes of the two breeds. What tends to happen with F2 crosses is that they often will heavily pull traits of one of the breeds in the mix, but not necessarily in a predictable way. For example in a labradoodle, an F2 litter will have some puppies that will heavily resemble labs and others that will heavily resemble poodles. I made a Punnett square to demonstrate this and I’ll be posting it in the Dog Breeder Society.

Regardless, the way to build a bloodline and have repeatability and predictability in your dogs is to select for the same traits generation after generation. In crosses, if you are sticking with F1 and F1B, then you aren’t able to build generation after generation of dogs, UNLESS you choose to run two purebred lines along with your cross. This leads to a considerable number of dogs.

Lastly, without a breed standard, doodle and cross breeders have to put a lot of time into designing their programs and building their ideal dog from their ideal puppy buyer to make that ideal dog their standard. While I know it can be done, it’s a lot of work and it’s not easy.

If you are doing doodles, or other crosses, I would first figure out the goal of your breeding program, what will the cross offer that the purebred line won’t? It doesn’t have to be too far off from the purebred, for example, I understand the need for hypoallergenic, or at least less allergy-inducing dogs, and I do believe all kids should be able to have a dog. From there, figure out how you’re going to manage the three difficulties that come with crosses. To recap, those are:

  1. Are you going to do F1, F1B, or F2 crosses?
  2. Will you run purebred lines as well? And,
  3. What standard will you follow? Or how will you build your standard?

I hope that sheds light some light on doodle breeders. I know many great doodle and cross breeders and I love the integrity they have in designing their programs. They understand success just isn’t as simple as breeding two purebreds together.

In the end, remember, if all your breeding decisions consider the quality of life of your puppies, the quality of life of the buyers who own them, and the quality of life for your breeding dogs and your family, and they pass, then you’re not wrong with your breeding program. If you deviate from breed standard, understand the impact and don’t be dishonest in your marketing.

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!