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  • Rob Oliver

You Want to Breed Dogs!!!

When I first began breeding dogs many years ago I had enough academic training in genetics to make me dangerous but little real world experience. Recognizing my lack of real world experience, I sought out mentors that could compensate for my lack of experience and help me in achieving my goals. The mentorship of such men as Gunther Rahnefeld and Albert Uhalde were of inestimable worth in my development as a dog breeder. Gunther had a PhD in genetics from the University of Minnesota and successfully campaigned such dogs as NFC AFC FTCH AFTCH Yankee Independence, NFTCH AFTCH Call Me Mister Independence, FC FTCH AFTCH Damn Yankee II, and FTCH AFTCH Revilo's Spirit of Independence, and was the breeder of NFTCH AFTCH Call Me Mister Independence and FTCH NAFTCH FC Free Trade (littermates). Albert bred many successful field trial campaigners under his Westwind prefix had a wealth of real world experience.


I distinctly remember Gunther's response one day when I suggested that I would love to breed a dog that was just like his great dog Call Me Mister Independence (Spook). He turned to faced me, and with his index finger of his right hand poking me in the chest, reminded me that my job was to breed a dog that was better that Spook.


An animal breeder's goal should always be toward long-range improvement of a breed, not merely propagation. To accomplish this goal one must have in their mind a standard or a picture of what perfection looks like. Robert G. Wehle in his book "Snakefoot -The Making of a Champion" described his venture into breeding purebred English pointers this way: "The breeding program at Elhew Kennels was started in 1936, at which time a long range breeding plan was established and conformation and psychological standards adopted. These standards were to be the ultimate objectives of the program. It was the desire then to produce, over a period of years, a strain of pointers that would consistently fulfill these standards - a strain that would reproduce true to type generation after generation.


"This strain was to be of the quality necessary to win field trials, to be pleasing to the eye, and to be gun dogs to satisfy the most discriminating sportsman. These dogs must be outstanding in conformation and performance and of a quality that would be popular over the years and that sportsmen would be proud of for generations beyond." (Robert G. Wehle, Snakefoot - The Making of A Champion, 1996, pg.19)


When I first began breeding Labradors in 1975 I similarly established a goal for myself that was much along the lines of the previous quote. I had a picture in my mind's eye of what a Labrador should look like and what their temperament should be. Although breeding dogs that possess the qualities to satisfy the most discriminating sportsmen has always been my focus, I believe that they should be able to compete in field trials as well, if so desired.

The process of breeding for long term improvement of a breed by definition requires striving to develop a strain of dogs that breed true generation after generation. Historically, and theoretically the only way to accomplish the development of a strain is through a sound inbreeding program. In fact, the very history of the Labrador breed of dogs owes it early beginnings to the relative geographical isolation of the island of Newfoundland which favored the development of this unique breed.


It is of interest to note that in contrast to the use of sound inbreeding as a tool of developing a strain of dogs many breeders utilize a more helter-skelter heterogeneous breeding program often motivated more by economics than by science. Whehle observed "instead of breeding for long-range improvement of the breed, so many dogs are bred for what will sell best." (ibid pg13).


On occasion I received requests from people to recommend a sire for a particular female. I do some genetic analysis and make several recommendations of who might match well genetically with that female only to hear this response "Oh, I want to use a male that is better known and who's pups are in demand".


I remember, years ago I had a great bitch who I wanted to breed. There were three littermates who were running trials at the time who I had selected as prospective sires. One had gained great notoriety because he was owned by a person who had no end of money and could afford to campaign him nation-wide. Another, had experienced almost as much success, but his owner was difficult to deal with. The third was owned by a dentist, and although he possessed the same titles as his brothers, had only been campaigned locally and was much less known. I opted for the third one. Admittedly, the pups probably didn't attract a second look from people who were shopping for notoriety but for someone with an understanding of genetics, my pups were a great deal. Titles never begit titles.

Similarly, I have watched breeders chase the flavor of the month sires depending on the outcome of Nationals and other performance events. Once I tried breeding a great bitch I owned to FC AFC NAFTCH FTCH Aces High III (Willie). At the time that I tried the breeding Willie was a very popular sire in North America. You couldn't pick up a copy of the Retrieve Field Trial News without seeing several adds for Willie pups. Unfortunately, the breeding didn't take. After that attempt Bob and Marge Beck, Willie's owners, chose not to do any further breedings with Willie. However, when they decided to retire Willie, Bob gave me a call and asked me if I would still be interested in breeding to him. Although, I had lost the bitch that I had originally intended to breed to Willie, I did have another that was a great genetic match and I jumped at the chance. I got a very nice litter from this breeding, including AFTCH Revilo's Kootenay Toque. It was interesting to me, how little interest I received on that litter owing to the fact that Willie was in his post prime and the flavor of the month had shifted to younger dogs who were being campaigned and whose names were now in the lights so to speak. Breeding for economics does not improve the breed.


Whenever I develop a breeding plan, which consists of choosing a sire and dam, I conduct a three way evaluation if possible. First, I consider the female, what are her strengths and weaknesses. How is she built, what is her conformation, does she move well? Is she sound, does she have all the genetic clearances? What is her temperament like? Is she aloof, or is she a team player, eager to please? Does she possess strong prey drive? What is she like in the water? Is she a great marker? What's her attitude in training, does she retain her training, is she smart? Does she have a good nose? These sorts of things plus many, many more.

If the female scores well, then I go to the second phase of the evaluation, which is an analysis of her ancestors. What is the level of inbreeding, what families are represented. If her pedigree shows that many of the dogs in her close-up pedigree were outstanding and it indicates some thoughtfulness in the matings, then I move forward.

The third step of evaluating a female comes into play if she has previously produced progeny. If she has, what are the like? If she has produced good pups from different sires then the likelihood of continuing the trend is high. The unfortunate reality is that this tool only has relevance in older females and unfortunately, and hence its usefulness is more in the analysis of that female's daughters.

Once the female has been evaluated is the described manner, then the same three step process is used in the selection of the male. Basically it comes down to three choices, mating like to like, mating unlikes, or simply a random mating which is no plan at all.


In mating like to like, one may choose to base their decision of the dogs themselves, meaning their appearance, temperament, field ability, etc.. Or we may base it on their relationship - their pedigree. Not his pedigree or her pedigree but their pedigrees. We need to remember that genetically, the pups must be related to each parent by 50% but the certainty ends there. For example, it is possible for a granddaughter to be unrelated to her "own" granddam as the Figure 1 below shows. The more distant the pedigree relationship, the greater the likelihood will be that there may be no actual genetic relationship. As the genotype(genetic composition) may not be revealed by the phenotype (what we see), the genetic relationship may not be revealed by the pedigree. But the probability is there. If we stick to the odds, success will come. The probable relationship - the number of like genes shared in common - is shown in Figure 2.



Mating like to like with regard to their relationship is inbreeding. Inbreeding by definition is the mating of animals more closely related than the average for the breed. I will not get into the semantics of when such a mating is inbreeding vs. linebreeding. Typically that differentiation is made on the basis of the relationship of the parents. Most would say that linebreeding is an inbreeding plan designed to keep the pups closely related to some outstanding specimen of a breed and is accomplished by mating animals that are closely related to the outstanding dog, yet who are related to each other through no other line.


In his paper "Breeding Better Gun Dogs" Dr. James G. McCue, Jr. states "Inbreeding, is a sure test of the breeding value of any dog." This is because inbreeding pairs like genes - bad as well as good. All of the good, as well as any harm. Inbreeding builds homozygosity (like genes at a loci). Inbreeding fixes traits. Inbreeding builds prepotency. Inbreeding reveals hidden defects. Outbreeding does just the opposite. McCue stated that "outbreeding destroys strains or families, the backbone of any breed. Outbreeding without selection brings no progress but inbreeding without selection brings disaster... progress in any breed will be more rapid and more consistent if breeders will linebreed to the best until something better comes along then linebreed to that...in the same strain."


If one practices inbreeding they must be prepared to make hard decisions. Recently, I had a kept a female out of a litter I bred with the hope that she would be added to our breeding pool. She developed into a very nice prospect, with a beautiful head and great conformation. She has an abundance of drive, and is a great marker, loves the water and a wonderful temperament. When I had her hips and elbows x-rayed there was a problem with one of her elbows. There is no evidence of any problem in her movement. However, she will not make it into our breeding program and I am very disappointed.


Prepotency is one of those words that sounds good to the ear and just sort of rolls off the tongue with ease and we all toss it around, but what is it really? When one says that inbreeding builds prepotency it is like saying it increases the likelihood that a dog will produce its own appearance and ability. Of course prepotency is a relative term. No dog is completely prepotent. Unfortunately, prepotency is not heritable - it cannot be passed from parent to offspring because the prepotent parent supplies only half the genes to any pup. Through outbreeding it can be lost, but it can be preserved and even enhanced through linebreeding.


There is a statistical measure for the amount of inbreeding in a pedigree, the most common is Wright's Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI) which is calculated using a formula developed by Sewell Wright in 1922. In his analysis of Retriever Field Trial National Finalists from 1941 through 2000, the late Richard Halstead determined that the average COI for all finalists was 6.83% which "seems to be higher than the average Labrador population." (Richard Halstead in The Finalists, 2005, pg 2). He noted that the COI increased by decade in the 70's, 80's to 8.27% in the 90's, probably owing to more complete pedigree information and thus the ability to include more generations in the calculation of the COI. Additionally, Halstead suggests that 72.5% of the finalists have a parent and/or grandparent who was a finalist themselves. Some of the analysis I have undertaken suggests that there are some relationships in certain families that are reflected in a large percentage of finalists even extending to the period of 2000 to the present. I am currently, looking at this data to attempt to elucidate these relationships.


Certainly, there are many things that motivate people to become involved in breeding dogs. In the case of dogs, sometimes a person has a good dog, and they are just interested in producing a pup that brings the attachment to that dog after it is deceased. Sometimes, they are motivated by to chance of making some extra cash. Certainly there are many more things that motivate breeders. A commitment to the long-term improvement of a breed spans a lifetime and is replete with heartbreak and joyfulness, not for the faint of heart.



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