Overview of how to get started
Once you have identified the breed that’s right for you, don’t be tempted to rush off and buy dogs until you have thought things through. Before you set out you must plan your breeding enterprise.
Ideally, you would start off with sexually mature dogs and circumvent the long wait otherwise faced before puppies become productive breeding animals. However, it is unusual to find high quality, adult breeding dogs on the market. Those that are available may be animals which have developed breeding problems, hidden defects or do not correspond to the desired breed standard.
If you do come across a quality adult male dog, it is prudent to begin by checking the quality of its semen, particularly if it is an adolescent that has never been a proven sire. The fertility of adult bitches is less easy to verify – though she may have had several litters, she may now be past her best as a breeder through disease, exhaustion or age. Fully 50% of all bitches of 7 or more years of age have ceased fertile cycling. You may be better off with a puppy with a lifetime of breeding ahead of her.
However, selecting a puppy also necessitates placing a wager on the puppy’s future, since its conformity to its breed standard and its fertility cannot be confirmed until later.
Are you going to keep a male dog, or use someone else’s? If you have very limited space or want to maximize your returns for each dog you have, then it makes sense to own all bitches, and use an outside male to stud them. However, you will find that many established breeders out there will do their best to dissuade you from embarking on your dog breeding enterprise, and may refuse outright to ever allow you to use their male dogs, or to even buy registered pedigree pups from them that you will be able to breed with. Many proudly proclaim that they are protecting the quality of their breed by insisting that puppy buyers sign a “non-breeding agreement” – the assumption is that they have retained the best pups for their own use, and only substandard pups unworthy of breeding are sold. More to the truth is that such breeders have worked very hard to make their place in the show world, and may have also invested considerable sums on imported dogs and genetic testing. Naturally they don’t want to just give all that away.
So, you may need to make enquiries with several (even dozens of) breeders before you find one that is willing to work with you. This is why it makes good sense to establish your relationship with a few amenable breeders before you get your first pup. You may find it nigh impossible, at first, to find someone you can work with. If you have your heart set on becoming an ethical dog breeder I encourage you to persevere and keep trying until you do. The world needs more of us!
An alternative route to a relationship with other breeders is to set out from the beginning to show your dogs. Serious show breeders are often thrilled if they can sell to someone who will go to the trouble of showing the animal, as, since all registered dogs bear the kennel name of their original breeder, the kudos rubs off on them. They will also happily assist and instruct you in how to prepare your dog and yourself for the show ring. If you are keen to show then the going will be easier as far as sourcing registered pedigree stock. Bear in mind also, that some breeds are easier to prepare for show than others. Preparation of the miniature schnauzer, for example, requires staged stripping (plucking out) of its coat starting six weeks before a show. However, this doesn’t suit us all. If you decide that showing is definitely not an option, then simply be prepared to have the door slammed in your face more times than not and persevere until you find a breeder you can work with! Sometimes this may even mean enquiring interstate or overseas.
If you will be needing to use their male dogs, explain this up front. This will mean a regular income for them – the usual stud fee is the equivalent of the value of the “pick of the litter” that results. If no pups result, no fee is payable. However, each breeder may have their own terms and conditions. Some will insist on holding the papers and retaining the breeding rights of any registered pup they sell – which means, you raise the dog and they keep any income resulting from breeding it! So, shop around for a fair deal. Assuming you find someone you can form a business relationship with, have a look at their dogs, and if you like them, ask for a copy of the pedigree papers of the available males.
If you decide to keep your own male dog, it is often better to get him first, and bring the females in when he is at least 3 months old. The reason for this is that male puppies raised among adult females become accustomed to being subordinate to them from the start – and the bitches used to looking down on him! It may mean that one of your bitches refuses to accept him for mating, or that he is too shy to do the deed to the willing. I have committed this error myself, and it ties you to years of having to assist the process or to resort to using Artificial Insemination or an outside stud male.
Equally important is to make sure that your puppy is a full eight weeks of age before he or she leaves the breeder. This may be part of the Code of Conduct for registered breeders where you live, as it is for my state, and there is good reason for it. Very crucial socialization between dogs happens between the ages of 5 and 8 weeks. It’s when they learn how to relate healthily with other dogs. If snatched away from the learning environment of their littermates and mum too young, many dogs will fail to develop their social skills at this crucial time, which may mean a lifetime of social dislocation. What it may mean for you is a dog or bitch that won’t display normal sexual behavior, including refusing to mate naturally! My very first schnauzer was sold to me when she was only 5 weeks old and required artificial insemination each and every time I bred her. You are very lucky – you can profit from my mistakes!
Another problem with puppies taken too early from their littermates is overbonding with their owners, setting them up for separation anxiety down the track.
When you get your female(s) you will need to ensure that they are not closely related to the male(s) you will use. Use the internet to find breeders in other states and email or call them up. Ask to see photographs and bloodlines of their stock before putting your name down for a puppy.
Ask to see the pedigrees of sire and dam of any pups you are considering purchasing. They will go as far back four generations – as far as the eight great grandparents – and show ancestors’ registered names, achievements in the show-ring, if any, as well as each dog’s color, and whether the dog was imported from another country or not.
If you are interested in show quality stock, selecting a dog with a lot of show winners in its ancestry is reassuring. However, many quality dogs never make it to the show ring. Also, it is not easy to pick a winner at the puppy stage. Depending on how far back the champions were, show-winning ancestors give you some confidence on whether the pup is likely to grow up to conform to breed standards. If there are lots of champions or titled dogs in the pedigree, the puppies are most likely good physical examples of the breed.
Some breeders may advertise that their puppies come with “Papers” but it is important to establish if this refers to a limited register pedigree (pet only status) or to an authentic main registration certificate that allows showing and official recognition of any progeny.
If you have some knowledge of the genetic disorders of individual dogs in the ancestry, a pedigree could theoretically help you ascertain if the puppy may be a carrier or a potential victim. Sometimes, from highly responsible breeders of particular (usually strongly afflicted) breeds the pedigree will show hip or elbow soundness scores (e.g. Orthopedic Foundation of America [OFA] numbers), or results of other genetic testing (e.g. eye tests). These clinical examination results are extremely useful in helping you to choose a sound breeding dog. Chances of genetic soundness in the progeny are higher with parents rated good than with those rated fair, and are even better with parents rated excellent for the particular parameter being scored.
These days breeders can also genetically test their dogs for a rather limited but growing range of disorders. Unlike clinical tests which detect affected dogs but not genetic carriers of disease, genetic (DNA) tests tell you if the dog is carrying a particular gene or not.
However, for many defects you are unlikely to know such facts – breeders naturally do not advertise the genetic problems their lines suffer from, and any information gleaned from their competitors is apt to be pure bitching! I make it a rule to never gossip about other breeders and you should too.
Avoid problems by avoiding closely bred animals, and insist on a pup-replacement guarantee that the pup is free of debilitating genetic disorders – find out the disorders common to the breed and state them on your purchase agreement.
What will be useful in the pedigree is color information – with your basic understanding of genetics you can get an idea if your dog is homozygous or heterozygous for its color. Using Labradors as an example again, if you want to breed brown labs, and are offered a black pup with a brown parent, you’ll know that the pup is a heterozygous black and will throw 50% brown pups if mated with a brown dog. If your market research reveals that a particular color in your breed is becoming very popular or is in relatively short supply (for example, recently in Perth where I live everyone has started asking for black miniature schnauzers puppies which led me to get my black boy Jet) you need to study the heritability of that color and select dogs that are likely to produce puppies colored accordingly.
A Main Registration certificate allows the puppy’s owner to register it with the presiding canine registration association (e.g. the American Kennel Club, the United Kennel Club, a rare breed registry, or an independent kennel club or breed registry). Eligibility for registration confirms that the puppy comes from registered parents of that breed but does not endorse the health, temperament or genetic fitness of the puppy. However, as a breeder, you must establish from the beginning that the puppy you buy is eligible for registration, that the breeder you buy from is willing to register it on your behalf at a pre-established price, and that there are no strings attached to prevent or limit your breeding from the dog.
Checking the parents
When your search has narrowed down to consideration of a particular litter, ask to see the parents, if at all possible. Young puppies are hard to assess accurately, so examining the parents will help you a lot.
Assess each parent for temperament – you will be, more likely than not, selling most of your pups to the pet market, so it is wise to steer towards lines with a sociable temperament and an even disposition.
Check their size and color – both should be within the breed standard.
Make a check of all other attributes referred to in the breed standards including if the body is nicely proportioned, the legs are straight and strong, appearance and set of the ears, etc.
Open their mouths and assess how well the bottom and top teeth scissor together – this is referred to as the ‘bite’. In most Breed Standards, a good bite is highly desirable, though in many squash faced chondrodystrophoid breeds, it has been abandoned.
Check their naval for umbilical hernias (the belly button will stick out in hernia affected dogs) as it is highly heritable and if severe can lead to intestinal strangulation requiring emergency surgery.
Check the nipples – there should be four to five pairs of evenly spaced teats. A bitch with uneven, or even doubled up nipples can still make a good breeding dog, but it is still a fault.
Note the litter size. While very young or senior bitches will often have smaller litters, a large litter is a great indicator of overall health and genetic vigor, and a good sign that the bitch puppies in the litter are themselves likely to be prolific breeders. One of my bitches, Chloe, comes from a litter of 8 and has herself had several litters of 8 puppies – despite being an unusually small example of the breed.
If your research shows a predilection for specific inherited disorders in your breed of choice, find out if testing of parents for the disorder is possible, and seek out breeders using dogs certified as free of the disorder. Common disorders have been discussed previously here in the Genetic Diseases section.
Choosing the perfect pup
You must make the same checks on the puppies as for the parents (see above). While you won’t be able to directly assess the adult size, it helps to compare each puppy to its litter mates – is it a lot smaller or bigger than the others? Was one parent unusually large or small? A standard sized puppy is most likely to grow into a standard sized adult. Bear in mind that smaller individuals are often highly sought after by buyers of the littler breeds, so you may even decide to go for the smaller pups, other things being equal. Just be sure that the pups in question are small by size, not by ill-thrift!
If you are selecting a male puppy, it is very important that the pup’s testicles are descended and palpable in the scrotum by the time it is 6 weeks old (at its first vaccination). If you hold the pup on its back on your lap and gently apply a little pressure on the tummy either side of the penis, in front of where the balls should be, you should be able to either feel or see the presence of both of the testicles. A pup with undescended testicles will not be able to produce puppies, aside from the fact that such a problem automatically disqualifies it from the show ring. A pup with only one descended testicle may be able to breed, but is still disqualified, and further, at risk of developing testicular cancer in the retained testicle later in life.
Overall, try to get a feel for the degree of socialization the litter has been exposed to. Are they kept in a run out the back and only visited for feeding and hosing the cage, or are they raised as part of the family and played with by the seller and their children regularly? Good socialization during the early, critical period from five to eight weeks of age will help ensure your puppy fits in well with your household and your friends!
Study the temperament of the puppies. You can tell a lot about adult temperament from the age of 5 weeks. However, a pup that’s a little shy at 5 weeks will often have come out of its shell by six weeks. Bear in mind that puppies, like babies, will have periods when they are very sleepy and subdued, and others when they want to play, socialize and gamble about. Ask the breeder about their respective temperaments. If they are raised as part of the family, the breeder will often have noticed differences among them already. Some will be great watch dogs, the first to bark if there’s a strange noise.
Ask the breeder to call them (she will usually have a particular call they will be familiar with). Notice which ones charge cheerfully straight to her, and which, if any, hang back fearfully or suspiciously. Avoid obviously shy or unsociable individuals. In the very first litter I ever bred, some 18 years ago, I noticed that of the five puppies, there was one that would hide in the ferns and stare sullenly, while the others joyfully gamboled around me. I warned the prospective owners about its temperament, but they had their heart set on their “Max”. Some time later I called them to see how they were going and they reported that Max loved the mother and daughter but had a running feud with the father, including claiming his favorite chair and growling if he came near. Some puppies will love children, and others shy away from them. This will often simply be a function of whether they have spent time with nice gentle kids or not. If they have, then you have a good indicator of what they’ll be like as adults. If not, then you’ll just have to wait and see.
During the limited time you are with them you can also get a good idea of puppy temperament by performing the Campbell Tests.
Reading the fine print
You need to ascertain at the start what conditions the breeder is willing to sell the puppy under. I recommend that you do your best to get registered dogs, so you need to check up front that the puppy you are buying will be registered by the owner and ownership transferred into your name as part of the purchase cost. Get it in writing i.e. stipulated on the receipt she gives you, that you are purchasing a fully (“main”) registered purebred dog.
Some breeders try to corner the market by either never selling registered dogs, or only doing so under conditions designed to stifle any attempts by you to breed your own litters. There are such things known as “Non-Breeding Agreements” and they are definitely not in your best interest! Sometimes you might find that virtually every breeder in your state no longer sells registered dogs without such strings attached. This is the case in my state with my breed. If you find yourself in this situation, enquire in other states, like I did, until you find someone who will work with you.
If you get really stuck, you may want to consider the only other alternatives: change breeds, or breed unregistered dogs. But if you follow the latter (desperate) course, ensure the breeder who supplies you with the dogs also gives you a copy of the pedigree registration of its parents, so at least you can show this to prospective buyers.
When to bring your pup home
As I have pointed out previously, it is absolutely essential to the normal sexual behavior of your breeding dogs, that they spend their first 8 weeks of life with their littermates and mother. This is a critical period when dogs learn through play with each other how to socialize and behave sexually with other dogs.
No reputable breeder would even allow their puppies to go to their adoptive homes before they are 8 weeks of age. In Western Australia, this is even written into the Codes of Practice for registered breeders. To thwart this rule is to risk having one’s registered breeder status revoked!