Dog Breeding, A Struggle Against Mediocrity

                                             Richard G. Beauchamp 




                                       Today’s challenges

“Mediocre,” “too plain,” “just ordinary.” We hear those criticisms all too often in purebred dogs. How can it be that the litter sired by a handsome multiple Best In Show winner, out of an exquisitely beautiful Champion bitch can best be described as completely uneventful? Is it the sire’s fault? The dam’s?

We always have great expectations when we breed a litter. No one should be breeding just to have puppies in this day and age! Even with all the study and care given by a responsible breeder, why do we have so few superior individuals in any given breed?

In my mind, the overriding challenge in dog breeding is Mother Nature herself. Breeding toward goals set by man attempts not only to harness the capricious lady, but also asks that she accede to what we have decided is best.

Those who have had much experience with her know full well that if you ever want to hear Mother Nature laugh, just tell her what you have “planned.”

You can take all the AAbb’s along with the Cbi’s and XYZ’s known to modern genetics, put them together exactly as outlined by the most advanced formulas, and if you think for a solitary minute the result will be as you have decided it should work - well, obviously you haven’t bred many litters of anything!

These wonderful little equations would work perfectly if all purebred dog breeders had to do was breed white dogs, or dogs with short hair, or long-legged dogs. However, what we are attempting to do is breed all three of the characteristics like those, plus a thousand others that add up to a specific preordained picture.

On top of that, even the time-proven formulas won’t work for us unless we have the genetic material present in the stock we put together to work with in the first place.

In my book, Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type, I tell the story of a seminar I attended where the instructor presented formulas for successful dog breeding based upon success achieved by Thoroughbred horse breeders. The ultimate goal of Thoroughbred breeders is, of course, to produce winning racehorses.

The formulas were entirely sound, but the seminar fell short in my mind because of two important factors.

First, our task as dog breeders includes an entire network of phenotype qualities that must be achieved before success is accomplished. Secondly, there wasn’t enough emphasis placed on the fact that the formulas presented simply wouldn’t work if the necessary genetic content weren’t there in the first place.

For example, if the goal in breeding American Pit Bull Terriers were to produce a dog capable of pulling a load of a specific but realistic number of pounds, the task wouldn’t be unreasonable.

I’m not saying every dog bred would be able to succeed in the goal, but over a few generations, I do believe that a line of dogs of the size and strength necessary to perform the task could be achieved.

If our singular goal was speed - to produce dogs that got to the finish line first - we could concentrate on whatever it took to create that single aspect.

However, our selfimposed goal as purebred dog breeders is to produce an animal who looks a certain way, acts a certain way, and moves in a certain prescribed manner.

In other words, what we breed must have high scores in all five of the elements of breed type: breed character, silhouette, head, movement, and coat. 

Thoroughbred breeders know that the odds of their winners ever coming from a family of plow horses are next to none.

However, should their Triple Crown winner look like something that should be hitched to a plow, so be it - breed character, correct silhouette, a typical expression, and color are not a priorities. You can spend the money a plow horse look-alike earns just as easily as you can a reflection of Ruffian.

We on the other hand have to care about an overwhelming number of characteristics, and that was the point the seminar presenter failed to point out. Formulas work for breeding show dogs only when all the genetic content for the complex arrangement of qualities we seek exist somewhere within the bloodlines we use. And those odds are greatly exacerbated by the proximity and frequency with which the qualities do exist.

Overhearing those who attended the seminar made me fear their take on the seminar’s material was that it was the formulas that accomplished the goals rather than what is required - i.e., the genetic content - for the formulas to work successfully. I suspect this is the kind of thinking that inspires breeding to a winning dog simply because he is a winner.

As fine an example of the breed as the dog might be, he has to have the genetic makeup to produce the qualities that result in winners. The equation is not winner X winner = more winners, but rather genes carrying winning qualities X genes carrying winning qualities = may result in winning qualities.

To further complicate the issue, we go back a step. Where to? You guessed it - Mother Nature!

Not only must we have all the qualities in the genetic makeup of our breeding stock, but it is ultimately up to her to arrange all the qualities we desire in a breed to come out in a prescribed manner in a single package.

All this takes place with nature’s draw to take the canine world to the center - not too long, not too short, not too big, and not too small. Left to her own devices, Mother Nature wouldn’t give us the incapacitating extremes that man has developed throughout the canine world. 




Urbanization has relegated the large and successful breeding kennels of the past to the pages of our breed history books. Zoning laws and property values limit even country dwellers to three or four dogs. (Keep as many pigs as you want but dogs - only three!)

Those prolific kennels of the past were able to import the best from around the world, house enough dogs and breed enough litters to establish a line that consistently produced that certain “look” or “style” desirable in a breed. They were able to produce and maintain the type of qualities that distinguish a respective breed, but are so hard to obtain since they oppose the natural course that Mother Nature would take.

By and large, theirs were quality dogs and excellent representatives of the breed standard. Because of their quality and resultant success in the show rings of the day, they influenced the majority of local breeders to breed dogs of a similar style.

In many cases Breeder A’s dogs would excel in some respect, where Breeder B in another part of the country might fall a bit short. Conversely, Breeder B might have the corner on some quality that his competitor wouldn’t have. Both were successful for different reasons.

Along would come an astute breeder who was clever enough to see the respective qualities of both lines, and develop Line C, combining the best of what Breeders A and B had produced. Sometimes this necessitated a good many dogs to accomplish, but the breed would take a great stride forward and then await what just might be Breeder D’s take on it all.

Today, dog folk would look at all that in shock and call all these efforts puppy mills. My dear friend, the late breeder and judge, Robin Hernandez, once said something that I feel is profoundly applicable here: “You know, when people brought the dogs up from the kennel and made them members of the family, dog breeding and the dog game changed forever.”

Call them what you might, the large kennels of the past was how many breeds developed and thrived in the past. They were able to obtain the best stock from around the world - dogs who carried the genetic potential to produce what they, the breeders, were looking for. They then had the wherewithal to try their formulas often enough so that in the end Mother Nature relented and gave them that “one-in-a-million” specimen they were working toward.

This is not to say that everyone who bred dogs did so in a mega-kennel operation, but, generally speaking, independently owned kennels with their own take on breeds were the most influential. The smart little guy benefited in that he could see the value in each of the lines and combine them effectively for himself. He had a place to breed away from or go to for help. He didn’t have to do it all himself.

This is not written to defend large breeding programs, but rather to illustrate how and why breeders of the past did have a distinct advantage and were so influential in the development of our many breeds. Today, average breeders must to do it all, and on a drastically reduced scale.

But that does not mean it is impossible. Outstanding dogs, and even though small, kennels do achieve reputations for top-notch quality. Evidently the breeders of those lines are aware that the age old adage, “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best”, still applies today. (And they do their best to keep Mother Nature as happy as they possibly can!)




                                                   Part II

We previously discussed the difficulties that face today’s potential breeders, from those imposed by Mother Nature to the ones levied by state and community restrictions. Some of you, however, may have moved on past the “Thinking About It” stage to actually having the opportunity to make all those initial mistakes that everyone makes in their early years.

The most common mistake, of course, is attempting to show that first dog you thought was sheer perfection, only to find that he was barely able to take second place in a class of two. On top of that, at some point you realized that starting with a he instead of a she was a big mistake in the first place.

No one wanted to breed to him, and, after a while and some studying, you found you didn’t either! Thus, your breeding program came to a screeching halt before it even really got under way.


                            The “Shop ‘Til You Drop” Stage

The next phase most of us enter is what I call the bitchbuying period. It comes after the beginner realizes it is the distaff side of the pedigree that carries the small breeding program forward. So, this time around, a bitch is purchased - maybe two, maybe more than that. One from this guy, one from another. And, of course, the one imported from another country - that has to be the ticket!

A perfect example of this stage is going on right now in the U.S. where, if you’re in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, it seems the rage is to buy one bitch from every breeder in England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and all other parts north, south, east and west. Relationship seems irrelevant, as does style. To what purpose, only time will reveal.

At any rate, after a few litters with no wonder dogs emerging, the dawn seems to come (at least for some!). It’s found that producing ability involves a bit more than a registration certificate, a pedigree or some famous names. To the disbelief of many, it appears that even breeding to the latest winner does not guarantee results.

Well, this isn’t as easy as it appeared!


                                  The “Now What?” Stage

This is the point where many become discouraged and move on to something totally different - some sure thing where wanting and having are obtainable at a preordained price. There are those tenacious few, though, who finally give up hoping that their sow’s ears (don’t tell them I called them that!) will eventually come around and start producing silk purses.

They then find out that it just simply isn’t going to happen that way.

Those who emerge from this comprehensive stage finally face facts and realize the next step is to invest in a bit of spaying and neutering. The good old boy who never won a blue ribbon and the matrons of questionable heritage will simply have to be content with being loved and kept well. That is, if we ever hope to make any real progress.

It doesn’t take the observant neophyte breeder long to realize that even when all the pieces of the breeding puzzle seem to fit together on paper, the end results – living, breathing offspring of the kind we’re looking for - are what actually prove all the theories.

It’s hard enough getting the very best to produce the next step for you, but expecting mediocrity, or even quality produced from less than top-notch bloodlines to turn the trick for you is being absolutely naive.

The stock you begin with provides the foundation upon which your entire breeding structure will be built. The last thing in the world you need is some rickety base that will require all kinds of heroic measures to keep from toppling over.

Starting with a weak foundation and hoping lady luck will stand by you and not allow things to keep falling apart is a gamble only the very foolish would want to take. Since the choice of breeding stock is yours to make, doesn’t it make sense to stack the odds in your favor?


                                            Careful planning

What you want to launch your breeding program with is stock that is as well-bred as possible - stock that comes from a carefully planned family whose individual members all register at the high end of the quality scale. You have to be wary of the stock that comes from what I call a “shored up” background.

By this, I mean offspring who are produced by a female of mediocre quality and heritage who has been bred to a prepotent male. In some quarters this is called “breeding up” and is resorted to frequently by those who have no other choice but to begin low and hope to breed their way to the top.

Longtime, successful breeders are reluctant to resort to this method or use stock from breedings of that kind. The reason they avoid doing so is because they know all too well the undesirable factors carried by the lesser parent are dumped into the gene pool and hang around to haunt breeding programs for generations to come.

Learning who in one’s breed has done a conscientious job of keeping their lines free of these flawed individuals is best told in successful, long-surviving breeding programs. These are programs in which the winning dogs are of a consistent basic style.

The pedigrees of the dogs from these bloodlines stand apart from the helter-skelter programs that regularly produce winners, but of which even the best lack consistency of type nor are they able to produce themselves with any consistency.

Everyone who shows dogs would like to see them win in the ring - no one shows to lose - but a breeder must never confuse winning dogs with producing dogs. We would like them to be one and the same, but this is not always the case.

Some lines frequently found in the winner’s circle are there because they epitomize the elements required of a winner.

Type fluctuates wildly from one generation to the next, and often between individuals from even the same litter.

What they do have in common are the characteristics that appeal to ringside observers, and the judge who has not fully grasped what correct type really is in the breed at hand.

These characteristics represent frosting on the cake to the careful breeder. This is not to say the astute breeder may not try to obtain them in breeding. On the contrary, these elements put a bow on the package, so to speak.

However, the clever breeder knows well that there has to be something good enough in the package to warrant putting a bow on it.


                                       The Learner’s Guide

All this means educating yourself as best you can so that you are able to determine who is doing a good job of breeding, and who isn’t. You owe it to yourself to know as much as possible about the breed that you’re going to specialize in, but when push comes to a shove, there’s no substitute for putting yourself into the hands of a veteran, respected and successful breeder of well-bred dogs of the breed you have chosen.

You can do all this on your own, of course, and thereby learn by your mistakes. I'm certainly not trying to discourage innovation or entrepreneurial attempts to go “where no man has gone before,” but dog breeding is filled with enough disappointments even when you know what you’re doing.

I’d be inclined to advise you to wait until you’ve had a bit of background before you attempt to do what even the experienced breeder would be reluctant to attempt. It seems to make sense that the easiest path to follow might be that of the individual who has tried the many approaches and proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have chosen the most workable methods.

I’ve known some young breeders who have worked cooperatively with other beginners, and between themselves have figured their way out of pitfalls and errors. Despite this, I’ve wondered just how much more successful they would have been if they could have avoided some of those mistakes in the first place.

                                  Working With A Mentor


You can’t imagine how much time and money I’ve watched people spend on dog after mediocre dog, breeding one unsuccessful litter after the next. They do so because they’ve had no one to guide them in the right direction, or upon whom they could rely for sound advice on how to go about planning a breeding.

The most successful young breeders I know are those who, in their early years of breeding, simply followed the directions of their mentors. Only after they learned how it had all been done in the past did they feel equipped to try some well-thought-out experimenting on their own. Even then, they had been willing to have their mentors evaluate their efforts.

Good breeders are delighted to find someone genuinely interested in joining their ranks. Breeding outstanding dogs is one thing, putting the ones a breeder doesn’t keep is the other part of the equation. There are few kennels left today that are equipped to keep every good dog they produce.

Good breeders are always looking for people who will listen and learn and with whom they feel they can safely place a good one. This eliminates the worry that generations of good breeding will be flushed away in a single ill-chosen decision.

I think one of the greatest advantages beginning with an established and successful mentor provides is that they have already established that clear vision of what the breed should be. Time and testing in the ring have proven their vision pays homage to the origin and purpose of the breed.

Young breeders are giant steps ahead when they are introduced to that image and can learn to visualize and project it for themselves.

Is that vision unequivocally correct without any allowance for future amendment? No. As I spoke of in last month’s article, even the major kennels of the past had a vision, a style that was adhered to but then there were those who followed who found the bending of a stifle here or a better texture of a coat there could improve upon the original.

The important thing was that the major portion of the picture had been completed. It was the refinements that were being dealt with by the newer breeder.

Successful breeders have carefully refined the bottom line of their breeding program. Thus the beginning breeder will not have to flounder around through half a dozen experimental breedings to determine if their newly-conceived image of the breed is even obtainable.


                                              Advice On Offer

All this doesn’t necessarily imply that a mentor needs to be someone who is actively breeding. Even those individuals who have ceased breeding probably know where descendants of their line may be found. Perhaps a student who came along before you is carrying on the mentor’s line.

Personally speaking, when I was actively breeding, a good many of my own quality dogs and bitches went to different homes both here and abroad. I know who has done well by them, and who hasn’t.

I know who has taken what they got from me and gone on to improve what I had done. I also know who, in a single generation, was able to dissipate all the hard work and effort that had been invested in getting the line that far.

I still get inquiries from beginners, as do many who have retired from active breeding. All of us who profess a love and respect for our breed do our utmost to direct these inquiries to active breeders who test their stock for genetic problems and understand and appreciate the implications of the breed standard.

The people who first fashioned our breeds expected those of us who followed would maintain the respective breeds’ characteristics. Living up to those expectations has a high and mighty title called respecting the integrity of the breed.

In less lofty terms, this just means a current breeder respects what the founders had in mind for the breed physically and mentally and strives to maintain these characteristics. No attempt is made to refashion the breed or the breed standard to some fad or flight of fancy!



The information contained in Mr. Beauchamp’s “Solving the Mystery of Breed Type” series that appeared in BLOODLINES, can be found in his book, Solving the Mystery of Breed Type, published by Doral Publishing, Inc.