Seven Foundations of a Successful Dog Breeder


By Charlotte Clem McGowan

The science of genetics eludes most dog breeders. Books on the subject are bountiful and happily detail information about fairly basic practical concepts. You can read about Mendel and his peas and the concepts for breeding tall peas or short peas, wrinkled peas or smooth peas. Some of this begins to sink in. With a little study, the average person comprehends the very basic idea of simple dominants and recessives. Knowing these concepts may give a brave sense of empowerment, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t ensure that we can breed good dogs, great dogs or dogs that can consistently produce any particular wanted quality. After breeding dogs for the last 40 years, perhaps a few things have been learned. Some of them were learned from books, some from conversation, some from observation and some from making mistakes. The hardest way to learn is by making mistakes, but the mistakes do tend to stay with you! Let me tell you about part of my journey as a breeder in the form of useful precepts learned.


This is very important to learn. You have a dog. You love it, so you want to breed it. Stop. That isn’t much of a reason. Ok, so you are a really serious person and want to breed a champion. Stop. Before anyone thinks about breeding anything for any reason, they should understand that when you start out, you know nothing. Even people who are successful, intelligent people in other parts of their lives who get a dog start out knowing nothing, or worse, very little. Very little is worse because they don’t know how little they know. The first question that has to be answered is whether or not the dog in question is worth breeding. Nowadays, people tend to skip right over this very basic idea.

Starting out as a young person, I read books and pamphlets on breeding animals. I learned about line breeding, inbreeding, outcrossing. I read literature my grandfather had at his farm on breeding cows, sheep, pigs. All this good theory was laid out to help farmers breed better livestock. I read everything else I could find. So my first litter was going to be from my first bitch (this was a Sheltie). The book said it was a good idea to breed to the best grandfather. I didn’t know a lot of things. First, I didn’t know my bitch was a pretty average little animal with a pretty average pedigree. But I had this nice elderly lady who had been breeding them for a gazillion years and she had had most of the ancestors, and the one grandfather, Red Ranger, was, to my eyes, one of the best dogs she had. So since he was the grandsire of my bitch, I bred her to him. Now of course after the second generation, the dogs in the pedigree were a bunch of interesting names about which I knew absolutely nothing. Never mind. This was a proven formula. Can I ever forget sitting on the kitchen floor watching Minx deliver four puppies, three of which were marked just like Papillons? (Perhaps this was an omen and I just missed it.) My conclusion was that somehow, without my knowledge, my bitch had mated with a mutt passing through. When I spoke to my mentor, the elderly lady, she said, oh I guess that’s just a visit from Snow Princess. Snow Princess? Well, it seems in the sixth generation (my pedigree had one less generation) here is this name on the pedigree “Snow Princess O’Wellesley.” Seems Snow Princess was white. No other dog in the pedigree was white, but by breeding Minx to her grandfather, I summoned the recessive gene, and it arrived in my kitchen with a vengeance. This was my mistake. Conclusion: I was not ready to breed dogs. I bred my next litter 5 years later. The conclusion for the newcomer: don’t be in such a rush! It takes a long time to figure this out.


So many people believe they can start out breeding dogs with anything that is female and breed “up” by breeding to A. the top winner B. the top sire C. any old dog as long as its male. Stop! First of all, there is a very basic principle that should be grasped. Every dog is really two dogs when it comes to breeding. First, the dog is what you see with your eyes. What you see is his phenotype. To be what you see, your dog has to have the genetic components for what he is. What you don’t see is the second dog your dog is – his genotype. His genotype includes the other half of his genetic material. He may look fine but he may have some nasty recessive genes you can’t see. Remember Snow Princess? That recessive was hidden a long time. Sometimes a dog can be a big winner, be really handsome, and then have a genotype that makes him a mediocre producer at best. If you see a dog you like, he might be incapable of making puppies that look like him. Or he might be able to produce pups with only some of his good features. A dog is a whole lot more than what you see when you look at him. Sometimes the best producers are not the dogs with the big show records. Just look at the situation in race horses. Sometimes the best race horse does not produce winners. Sometimes the horse he always beat turns out to be the sire of great champions. Remember Alydar and Affirmed? In horses they say “Blood will Tell.” The big question is how do we figure out who got the blood and the right genotype to go with it?


People go out, buy a dog, and set out to breed it. They look at the pedigree and see the names of the ancestors, some of whom are champions. They are happy, seeing those champions, for surely those champions mean the dog they bought is worth something and will make more champions. Stop. The dog that owns the pedigree represents genes from those ancestors, for better or for worse. Of course if the dog came from a litter, all the litter mates own the same pedigree, but strangely enough, all of them are different. Question: which puppy in the litter took which genes from which ancestor? Say there are four puppies – Moose, Tiny Tim, Superboy, and Mediocreboy. Each puppy has the same pedigree. Will each one produce the same? Will any one of them produce really well? And with consistency? An important part of trying to answer any of those questions is knowing what each and every one of those ancestors looked like (knowing the phenotype.) Then too, it is also helpful if you happen to know what all the siblings of all those ancestors looked like and what each one of them has produced. If you have as much of that information as possible, you can make a better educated guess (sorry, that’s the best we can do) as to whether any of these pups will be worthwhile for breeding. Of course this presumes you know what a good one looks like in the first place. And that brings us to another important point.


There are people who have been in dogs for ever so long and have bred ever so many dogs and have not bred any significant dogs, or if they have, they might have done it by accident. In large part, observation is that to breed a really good one there are only two ways: A. knowing what they look like and knowing how to do it and having just a little luck, or B. by accident. Certainly there have been breeders in many breeds who have operated on the assumption that by breeding bunches and countless dozens of litters the law of averages will give them a good one here and there. That kind of thinking has been the ruination of some breeds. Breeding theories have not been studied for ever so long for no reason. It is possible to breed high quality dogs if you do your homework and have just a teeny bit of luck. If you know how to do it, you can do it in any breed. One of the most important parts of doing your homework is figuring out what they are supposed to look like in the ideal form. That mental picture is your goal. If you don’t have a real picture of the end product you want, how will you know if you are close to where you should be? Then too, if you are new, maybe your idea of the ideal Papillon is going to change over time. So do you just go merrily along breeding this way and that until you figure out what they are supposed to look like or do you first spend a really great effort trying to picture the ideal?


Some people are highly visual and some people aren’t. People who are highly visual look at things with something of an artistic eye. They look at form, line, balance, shape and they make sharp pictures in their minds. Some people can remember numbers and names, but can’t remember visually. Why is this important? Well, when anyone starts out with the idea of breeding dogs, they don’t know a lot and they have not trained themselves to make their visual memory highly accurate. Even if you have a highly visual memory, as you go along and see more and learn more, the ideal picture you are developing in your mind may change. When it does, can you still remember exactly what the grandsire of your dog looked like in relation to that ideal picture when you haven’t seen him for four years? If you come to understand that patterned breeding (line breeding, and other doubling) is one of the strongest tools we have to breed good dogs that are capable of reproducing their quality, it is imperative that you know what phenotype you are doubling. If you can’t remember, how can you make an informed decision? These questions bring up another important detail.


In my first breed, there was a lady who went to all the important shows and specialties with a camera or two hung around her neck. Everyone knew Mary. A lot of people thought she was eccentric because she was taking pictures of every dog everywhere. In reality, she was a walking encyclopedia of the phenotype of the dogs of the breed. She could recite in minute detail what dogs looked like, past and present. She could tell you that such a dog got its feet from its grandam who had the same feet. She was also one of the greatest breeders the breed has ever known. From a very small number of litters, her kennel produced numerous incredibly significant and prepotent dogs in a breed that did not breed true to type. Mary also walked around with a collection of little notebooks and took notes on dogs.

How many times have you gone to a show, seen a dog you liked and thought you’d like to have the dog in your pedigree? Have you ever taken a photo of it? Have you ever watched it gait from all angles? Have you ever been privileged to examine it? What exactly do you know about it, other than from 30 feet back? And of course, what do you know about its ancestors, siblings, and all their offspring?


Horse breeders pay a lot of attention to the top and bottom of a pedigree. The top line of the pedigree is referred to as the tail male line. In other words, it is the sire’s sire; the sire’s sire’s sire etc. Real students of pedigrees begin to see that certain male lines possess great strength, producing many of the top males. In thoroughbred horses all males descend tail male from but three original stallions. Of these, approximately 80% descend from a single important stallion. Branches of this family include sires of today’s best runners. There are cases where half brothers have been very influential and where, when the need has arisen, a more distant branch of the illustrious family has been used to consolidate gains while opening the relationship of sire and dam to introduce something akin to hybrid vigor. On the distaff side, horse breeders have always paid a lot of attention to the female families of the bottom line. This is the dam’s dam; the dam’s dam’s dam, etc. Strength on the bottom line is a very hard thing to accomplish since the really outstanding females are limited in quantity as opposed to the males. When a beginning breeder starts with a mediocre bitch of undistinguished parentage, especially on the female side, it just takes longer to breed something truly significant that can breed quality to its offspring.


Cross faulting is breeding dogs together that do not share common faults. In other words, don’t breed two dogs together if both have straight shoulders and big round feet. If a dog is deficient in one area, try to select a mate that excels in that area. Breeding type to type means breeding dogs with the same general appearance. In breeding type to type, ideally the dogs share a common ancestor of great quality with the same approximate appearance. By doubling this ancestor and cross faulting, the hope is to get something of the ancestor’s same superior appearance but with little improvements.


When I heard a terrier breeder tell me this, I thought it was possibly not that important. But it is. If you are involved in serious dog breeding and you are working toward an ideal picture with the idea that the end product is not only going to be an incredibly beautiful and correct animal but one that can reproduce it’s excellence, you have to be able to refine and improve what you breed. When you line breed and especially when you inbreed, you may be fixing traits in the puppies. If you continue to breed dogs with the same fault multiple generations you will be inclined to fix that fault along with the good you fix. If you make a breeding to improve ear size, for instance, don’t keep the puppy who has the same small ear as the mother! Some faults are harder to breed out than others. Markings are highly cosmetic and easily fixed. Light eyes and short necks are very persistent. As you go along, you begin to learn these things but if you already have three generations of light eyes, getting really dark eyes is going to take a lot of work and if you have short necks and upright shoulders for the last four generations, your work is really cut out for you.


After learning the great benefits of careful and thoughtful line breeding and inbreeding, if you fail to learn the pitfalls of too much of a good thing, you could develop what I like to call “Terminal Breeder’s Syndrome.” In my first breed, I observed the tendency of breeders who acquired , say, a really good stud dog to breed everything they had to this dog and then start to breed all of the dog’s various relatives together, sometimes with phenomenal success – initially. There were jokes about that sort of breeder to the effect that if they could breed the dog to himself, they would do it. However, at some point, the benefits turned to deficits. The deficits were the collection and fixing of the problems in the dog’s genotype and a diminishing of basic vigor. What is basic vigor? I like to think of it as a collection of traits. Among these traits are basic health; libido; ability to reproduce without human assistance; and robust quality of bone, body and coat; a full set of teeth, and a happy and stable disposition. Among the first things to go as basic vigor decreases is the ability to reproduce without valiant human interference. In such cases, males have a limited desire to breed and females may be structurally difficult to breed without the use of artificial insemination. Females may require c-sections to deliver live pups. When we make the decision to continue to force these dogs to reproduce, we are working against good breeding principles. Another problem which seems to arise in many different breeds is thyroid malfunction. Somehow thyroid problems often pop up when breeding gets too concentrated. Breeders who view this as a solvable problem are only kidding themselves. Sure, you can give a bitch or dog thyroid medication and often restore reproductive ability, but what about the puppies? All you are doing is sending the problem to the next generation. In fact, any problem you “fix” whether it is using rubber bands on teeth, pulling down testicles or giving hormones, is just not any kind of a fix. Doing these things goes against good breeding principles as it perpetuates problems for the future. Resorting to these measures is a sure sign of a Terminal Breeder’s Syndrome infection. The main point is that good breeders have to be capable of making hard decisions related to which dogs go forward to make the next generations. Good breeders also cannot delude themselves about medical interference of an essentially natural process. At every point, the signs of genetic deterioration have to be taken very seriously. Establishing a distinct bloodline is very difficult but the real trick is keeping it going into succeeding generations. When signs of deterioration occur, it’s time to open up the pedigree before you have to go back to square one and start all over from the beginning.


I’ve often thought of writing a book called “When Bad Genes Happen To Good Breeders.” Sometimes, no matter how thoughtful and careful you are, something nasty occurs in a litter. Breeders often look for reasons – was it a bad diet, lack of exercise in the dam, something toxic, the phase of the moon, the price of beans, something other than heredity? Sure, look at all these things but if nothing else is found, chalk it up to a bad combination of genes. Before you throw the litter and parents out of the gene pool, carefully consider the nature of the defect and understand that not every puppy in every litter has the same combination of specific hereditary material. However, when in doubt, err on the side of caution. And when discarding the problem from your breeding program, don’t hand it to someone else, especially some poor newcomer who is just starting out with a happy, smiley face and no idea of what he or she is getting into.


In Papillons we unfortunately have a few defects to deal with. PRA is one problem and it is late onset, probably an autosomal recessive, which is highly annoying. Why annoying? Because you can test a young dog and not pick it up. Nevertheless, you should check all your dogs, hopefully every year or two until they are well along in age. Breeding to older dogs under these conditions has a distinct advantage as hopefully you will at least be able to breed to a clear eyed dog. When a DNA marker is found and a test is developed, life will be much better.

Another problem we have is luxated patellas. Another good reason to breed to older dogs. Some dogs luxate after a year of age. Still, it helps to check every puppy and to check up on puppies you sell. Luxation is a problem with most toy dogs. It suggests itself as a polygenic (multiple gene involved) trait. One luxated dog in a litter does not mean you throw the sibs and parents out. It does mean you keep notes and if you start to get multiples, change course.

The Papillon has other problems to be concerned with, but no easy tests for them. These include epilepsy, liver shunts, etc. While tests are not available for these things, dogs with these problems should never be used for breeding, and it is helpful to desist from using dogs that produce such major health problems. Remember, when in doubt, presume it is hereditary. Dogs that develop epilepsy will have a hard life since they are often placed on Phenobarbital for the rest of their lives. Getting a perfect dosage that keeps the seizures in check and doesn’t turn the dog into a dozing zombie is the trick in treatment. My personal opinion is that dogs that produce epilepsy should not be used for breeding. The same is true with liver shunt. Another problem concerns open fontanels. Everyone knows this is acceptable in Chihuahuas and that most Chihuahuas live long and healthy lives with this condition. However, this is not happily accepted in Papillons. The open font tends to occur in the smaller dogs but may also occur in larger dogs. It is possible that a poor diet may exacerbate this condition, but again, notes should be kept on where open fonts occur, the size of the opening, and the frequency within the bloodline. Too many appearing is a wakeup call to change course.


Gee this is a tough one, but it needs to be said. You can’t believe everything you hear. If you hear a rumor about a dog, go first to the owner. With luck, the owner will be a person of character who believes truth is the best way to handle a problem. However, a lot of people look at their dogs as an extension of their own personalities and are incapable of dealing with problems that arise in their breeding programs in an open way. It really is important to know how many hands a rumor has passed through. The fifth hand telling may be like the game “Around The World” we used to play when we were kids. I have heard some really good dogs slammed by people who were really uninformed. At the same time, I have also tracked down some rumors that were more than true. The need to research information is important. If a dog is supposed to have produced something like PRA and it has not been openly published, ask the owner of the dog. Speak to the person whose dog is supposed to be affected. It is important to get the straight goods when your bloodline is involved.


After 40 years, one thing is abundantly clear: you never have all the answers. Mother Nature has a twisted sense of humor. Just when you begin to lull yourself into believing that you have it all figured out, she hands you some really annoying surprise. Or just when you thought you really knew every corner of the dog and what it was supposed to be, a little light comes on showing you a whole big set of knowledge that has hitherto totally escaped your notice. The process of learning to breed really good dogs is an ongoing challenge. The journey is certainly an ever changing and fascinating one for anyone who stays the course. Humility in the face of dealing with Mother Nature’s whims is probably advisable.

Copyright 2003, Charlotte Clem McGowan

Permission was granted by Charlotte Clem McGowan to place this article on the PCA Website.

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