So You Want To Be A Breeder?
By Rebecca Wingler
Puppies are so adorable. Who doesn’t relish the thought of sitting down in the midst of a litter of pups and being mobbed with puppy kisses? Yet the reality of breeding and raising a litter involves quite a bit more than this Norman Rockwell-ian image. You have often heard that “location, location, location” is important when you are looking to buy or sell your home. Before you seriously think about breeding, “research, research, research” is what you will need to decide whether or not breeding is the right path for you and your English Shepherds.
One of the best things that a new or potential breeder can do is find a mentor within the English Shepherd community. I was fortunate enough to find several established breeders willing to be my mentors when I first began to entertain thoughts about breeding years ago. A mentor should be willing to be honest with you about your dogs, your long-range breeding plans and whether or not you are heading down the right path for the English Shepherd breed. Sometimes an honest assessment of a situation may not be what you want to hear, but it is necessary to keep the breed healthy and/or preserve the breed’s integrity. To this day, I still have folks with whom I talk over potential breeding plans and get input, whether it be positive or negative.
Before you step out into breeding, it is best if you have thought things through enough to have some sort of breeding goals in mind. Such long-range plans may include but are not limited to helping to preserve a certain family line of English Shepherds, looking for and possibly bringing in unregistered, purebred lines into your breeding program, and breeding for working ability, temperament, and health. Having long-range breeding plans will help you focus shorter-term decisions to reach those goals as well. I have found that over the years, even though my short-range breeding plans might change, they change in order to help me attain those long-range goals. Without a plan, you might be breeding on a whim, just because you happen to have access to two dogs, and never move forward in your breeding program.
Whether you are planning on using your current adult male, looking to use an outside stud, or even considering to purchasing a male pup as a future stud, research needs to be done before the breeding takes place. Read the breed standard, and see how your dogs compare to it. Research pedigrees. This is especially important if you are looking to preserve a family line of English Shepherds or to see if you think that pedigree-wise, certain dogs might complement one another. Pedigrees will also give you insight on whether or not the dogs are too closely related. Next, evaluate your own breeding stock. Do an honest, objective appraisal of your dogs. List their strengths and their weaknesses in all areas. Remember that there are no perfect dogs out there. Look at work ability and work ethic, body conformation, temperament, biddability, maturity/age of the dog, etc. Keep in mind that English Shepherds do not tend to mature until around 2 years in age. It would be better to wait for the dog to mature than to breed young without truly knowing your dog’s health and temperament. If you are planning on using your own stud, make sure, that he complements your female and doesn’t double up on any undesirable traits. Have your mentors or someone who will give you an honest assessment evaluate your dogs. Just because it is convenient to breed to your own male doesn’t necessarily mean he is the best match for your female.
Plan to have the pertinent health tests done on your breeding stock prior to breeding. Even though the English Shepherd breed is a relatively healthy breed, there are a few health clearances that you should consider having done on your dogs. Hip Dysplasia is a known problem within the breed. The only way to determine whether or not your breeding stock is affected by Hip Dysplasia is to have the dog(s) x-rayed. Most vets can perform the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) x-ray. Some vets can even do this type of x-ray without sedating the dogs. For an official rating to be recorded, the dog must be at least 2 years in age at the time of the x-ray. Otherwise, it will be noted that this is a preliminary reading prior to age 2. Three OFA vets evaluate the x-rays and assign the final rating, which can range from Excellent all the way down to Severely Dysplastic. I tend to think of an OFA x-ray as being a “snapshot in time” of the dog’s hips. The alternative PennHIP x-ray procedure requires the vet to undergo special training. You may have to look a little harder to find a vet who can perform this type of x-ray. PennHIP x-rays may be done prior to age 2. Since they measure the laxity between the ball and socket of the hip, this reading should stay pretty constant over the life of the dog. More information may be obtained at OFA’s website and at PennHIP’s website.
The MDR1 gene test will determine if your dog carries the mutant multi-drug resistant gene. Those that do are genetically predisposed to have adverse drug reactions to certain types of drugs. If both parents are MDR1 normal/normal, then the offspring will be as well, and there should not be a problem. If one parent is MDR1 mutant/normal, then some of the pups may carry the mutant gene. If one parent is MDR1 mutant/mutant, than all of the pups will carry the mutant gene. If you know that your dog is MDR1 mutant/normal or mutant/mutant, then you may want to make sure that the potential mate is MDR1 normal/normal. This test is available through Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. More information may be obtained here.
Another health test you may want to consider is the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) to verify that your dog is free of heritable eye diseases. CERF recommends an annual exam so the certification will stay current. More information may be obtained here.
Sometimes after you have finished all the health tests and done an honest assessment of your own male and female, you may decide that it will be best to go outside your kennel for breeding. With the relatively small population of English Shepherds, it is a good idea to occasionally breed your female to an outside male to help increase the number of genetic possibilities within the breed. So, what about using an outside stud? He needs to be evaluated as well, so you can make an informed decision regarding a potential breeding. Talk not only to his owner but also to others who may have seen the dog up close and personal. If you are told he has had some health testing, ask to see a copy of the results and be willing to provide copies of any results for your female. Some other things you might want to take into consideration would include the age of the male, whether or not he has been used extensively as a stud and how common his pedigree may be. Also consider how the use of an outside male will fit into your long-range breeding plan.
Once you decide to proceed with an outside male, you will need to arrange the breeding. Call and talk with the owner ahead of time to see if the male is available to stand stud. Let the owner know when your female might be cycling in to see if the timing will be okay. Some stud owners are able to board your female; others may need for her to only come to visit for the actual breeding. Discuss ahead of time whether a brucellosis test will be required of both dogs, whether a breeding contract is needed and how and when the stud fee will be paid.
So, what happens to your plans when, for whatever reason, a natural breeding just won’t work? At this point, you may have to consider having the breeding done by Artificial Insemination (AI). An AI can be done (1) by collecting semen from the male and immediately inseminating the female in a fresh, side-by-side breeding, (2) by collecting the semen and shipping it chilled to the female for immediate use, or (3) by collecting the semen and freezing it for later use. No matter which option is chosen, this will involve multiple trips to the vet to perform progesterone tests on the female to make sure she is inseminated on the best possible day. Collecting and freezing semen from your male might also be an option to consider for your long-range plans, especially if he is from a hard-to-find line or is getting older. Then you know that you have a fallback option, if needed, for the future.
Keep in mind that many veterinaries deal mainly with pets, not with breeding dogs. I tend to use a couple of different veterinary practices, depending on what the situation may be. I do have a dedicated veterinary practice that I utilize for any reproductive work. I have found that they are knowledgeable and have the tools to help me through any pregnancy or delivery issues, or just when I need advice. Even if you find a veterinary with this much expertise, it is still a very good idea for you to educate yourself about what to expect and/or what can go wrong during a breeding, pregnancy, delivery and the following eight weeks of puppy rearing.
One other thing I would like to address in this article is the cost involved in breeding and raising a litter. On more than one occasion I have heard people state that they believe raising puppies to be a moneymaking venture or that they figure they can recoup the cost of their dog by having a litter. Please do not breed if this is what you believe. Many times a breeder is lucky to break even, and other times, money is lost during the process due to unforeseen problems that occur. The time and effort that the breeder expends raising and properly socializing the litter will never be repaid monetarily. That repayment only comes from the satisfaction of knowing that he/she has given the pups the best possible start to their new life. This includes the careful selection of the new owners, making sure that the new owners understand the challenges and demands of the breed and the careful placement of pups with the best possible home.