Breeding dogs with a purpose

By Amy Fast (2003)

Most Americans think of dogs as being pets. People who become involved in dog sports very soon realize that when working with an animal, all of its talent and genetic attributes are vitally important to the job it is capable of doing. Because the emphasis can be on producing the companion rather than the competitor, there is a distinctive difference between dogs purposely bred for the pet market, and those bred for competition.

Breeding dogs for field or show is like breeding racehorses. Because your goal is to produce the fastest colt, you pick the stud that either has produced or comes from a family of known producers of fast horses to breed to your mare. The same principal applies to dogs. Horse people aren’t afraid of line breeding, inbreeding or out-crossing; they just keep all the traits of the ‘family’ in mind when doing so. They breed horses for perfect or near perfect conformation because a horse with crooked knees, shallow angulation, bad feet or a sway back is more likely to break down on the track which is the end, literally, for a racehorse. Horse people invest a lot of money in their stock so they can’t afford to make poor choices.

Unfortunately with dogs it’s not as clear-cut as to which one could ‘stop the clock’ at the racetrack. Because the methods of evaluation aren’t as universally accepted, and people are often emotional in their decisions, there is a great deal more subjectivity in what constitutes a well bred dog.

Physical conformation of a dog which will be trained to hunt is essential because the better the conformation, the more ground the dog can cover effortlessly without tiring. Faults like roached backs, cowhocks, pigeon toes, under/over angulated rears, shallow/heavy fronts, among others, obstruct proper and effortless movement. Breeding for a conformationally correct dog with the proper temperament and instinct enhances the dog’s ability to move and act properly while doing its job. Judging a dog physically against the standard is also the purpose of show competition. To the untrained eye, all gray dogs may appear similar, but there are very specific and important points judges and breeders are aware of when putting together the puzzle pieces of a well-built dog.

Dogs bred without these basic physical and instinctual considerations are just dogs; they might as well be mixed breed dogs for the amount of effort put forth in their production. They may have some of the characteristics of their breed, but are unlikely to be true and sound representations of the breed as measured against the standard.

The pet market is a unique problem breeders in the US have to deal with. Unless you are breeding a completely obscure and therefore unobtainable breed of dog, people are going to want one of your breed’s puppies sooner or later. Americans have the opportunity to own larger parcels of land and are encouraged to operate businesses and accrue wealth. Capitalism is a sound economic structure, but it has its consequences. The pet market is one of those consequences.

Experience has proven that any breed in the US that has the misfortune of becoming popular will also befall a laundry list of health, behavioral and temperament problems. People see a dog in a TV commercial, series or movie, they want one. Then every Tom, Dick and Harry decides they’re going to produce these particular dogs to take advantage of the opportunity to profit from this demand. People become compelled to purchase puppies like the latest version of Microsoft Windows. They feel they need the puppy and don’t question whether it might have bugs, quirks or problems that are overlooked when it is something is produced hastily for the consumer market.

If all Weims were bred from pets for the pet market only, they would stop having the traits that make them unique; namely the things that make them most undesirable as pets (stubbornness, fur instinct, bird instinct, high energy, high emotional maintenance, not liking everyone they meet, sometimes eating the neighbors cat, digging, escaping, barking, the list goes on…). A really good example of this would be the ad that reads “generations of calm, healthy Weimaraners”. If they’re breeding for calmness, they’re not breeding true Weimaraners. Any person who has seen their dog strike a beautiful, intelligently sought out point ought to shudder at the assertion of “breeding for calmness”. Weimaraners were not meant to be lap-dogs, it is breed-standard blasphemy.

People who show and trial their dogs think of their animals much differently than those producing dogs as a consumer product. Breeders have very strong opinions about what makes a ‘proper’ dog in their breed. Is correct movement more important than type? What is the ideal size? The list, unquestionably, goes on. The average pet person or pet producer isn’t privy to this subculture. People have feuds, dynasties, arguments, seminars, and standards that they study and believe in.

To show or trial a dog can cost thousands in mostly unrecoverable money. These people can be accused of being snobs and exclusionists and causing the breed to be too expensive for the average person to own. Most who compete in dog sports would be the first to say they don’t consider their animals, or their effort to prove their dogs, to be ‘average’. Understanding why people would take thousands of dollars to trial and show dogs, when they could actually make a profit by cranking out puppies for consumers requires a different way of thinking.

It has become the case that most of our ‘best’ Weimaraners are either specifically bred to win field trials or in the show ring. There are a lot of dogs who can cross over, but our breed has not been as successful at producing dual-purpose dogs as the English Pointers or even GSPs have been. Dogs bred to win field trials obviously have different temperament considerations than those bred to win in the show ring, however, they both must display confidence, fearlessness and many of the traits recognized in our standard.

While both camps have criticisms of each other, they do have a common goal in preserving the breed. Our breed is often lost among those just producing gray dogs for the pet market; they will more often display aggressiveness, shyness or many of the common problems people encounter in poorly bred dogs. This is why competing is important; your dog must be able to withstand the scrutiny of judges, perform under pressure and show its good character along with physical soundness.

All this being said, making breeding decisions with a multitude of considerations in mind is not an easy or cavalier decision. For example, you have a beautiful champion female who, unfortunately, has a softer temperament than you’d like. She didn’t have the mental stamina to be a top-winning dog. She needed more confidence. Questions to ask might be: Is she such a coward you don’t want to breed her at all? Is she healthy otherwise? What does she bring to the table as positives and negatives? Obviously, all dogs have their shortcomings in one area or another. If we eliminated every seemingly imperfect dog, none would be left to breed. No breeder should be narcissistic enough to assert that their dogs are flawless. The goal of “breeding ethics” is determining where the line is drawn for physical, mental or health related shortcomings, never crossing it yourself and encouraging others to do the same.

Let’s say your girl is healthy, good with kids and dogs, has good hips, cleared thyroid, and though she wasn’t a dynamo, finished quickly in the show ring. These are traits you appreciate, but you tried her with birds and she just wasn’t confident to run out there by herself. You like your dogs to be personal hunting companions and to be able to function in that capacity so this was disappointing. You’re lucky enough, though, to know the littermates of your girl and they are more confident than she is; you just happened to get the shrinking violet. You know genetically she has a background that indicates she may not reproduce her lack of confidence.

On the surface you’d say, “Find the most confident, outgoing, birdy dog and breed her to him”. That would be the easiest solution and it might even work, but without more specific genetic information you really don’t have the facts you need to find that perfect male. This is where pedigrees, titles, OFA’s and all of the other things breeders do become vitally important.

How could anyone make informed decisions for their breeding program without knowledge of at least several generations of pedigrees and the accomplishments/titles earned? Granted, every stud dog must get his start from someone willing to take a chance and that’s where genotype becomes important.

Genotype, simply put, is the genetic tendencies and expressions on a dog’s pedigree. For example, a dog can have a genotype for producing a certain type of head shape, because the majority of the dogs on the pedigree have a predisposition to produce those heads. Phenotype is the actual physical and temperamental characteristics of the dog itself. A dog could have a genotype for really ugly long toes, but the dog himself a phenotype of (actual) nice feet. Making informed breeding decisions means knowing what is in the “woodpile” of both genotype and phenotype.

So you’ve narrowed it down to three males for your worthy breeding candidate. One is unproven but has a great pedigree of champions, is a top winning dog himself and even has a JH to prove his natural bird ability. Male number two is just a show champion, but he comes from a line of dual dogs. His get are mildly unattractive but his pedigree might work well with your girl’s. His conformation isn’t as nice as dog #1 but you know the pedigree has a lot of natural ability to offer. And then dog #3 is fairly average, finished quickly, has a few ratings titles and has produced puppies who are winning in both the field and show arenas.

There is no right answer. Even experienced breeders sometimes have to use a ‘gut feeling’ to make that final decision. But, making all of the check marks in the plus and minus categories, dog number three might be your best choice because you know he’s produced the kind of dogs with the traits that will improve on your female making up for her shortcomings. In reciprocation, your girl has an especially pretty type and might offer some grace to this dog’s physical appearance. You can’t entirely predict what is going to happen, but you can control what you know. How you use what you do know about the dogs is what is vital.

Granted, 100% of the litter will not end up the way you wanted it, but you get the confident, correct puppy you were looking for. The rest are very close to your goal with some variations, but the one you choose is exceptional and will hopefully turn into a worthy addition to your breeding program.

This demonstrates the importance of researching genetics, backgrounds and lines and objectively evaluating the information. For the sake of our breed, knowing and directing your lines toward the standard can only happen if you have proven dogs available for breeding purposes. Breeders who remove themselves from this process are creating dogs that will exhibit a potpourri of characteristics that may or may not fit another person’s ideal of the breed. Even people wanting a pet choose a purebred because of the list of characteristics described in the standard. Weimaraners bred without these things in mind often become bad ambassadors and damage the reputation of our breed.

If you’re interested in learning more about the purposeful breeding of dogs, here are a few books you should check out:

Breeding Better Dogs by Dr.Carmelo Battaglia – This book covers dog breeding in an insightful and clear-cut way. Topics include inbreeding, line breeding, out crossing, basic rules of heredity, common misconceptions among many subjects useful for dog breeders. This is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in breeding dogs. or .

Weimaraner Ways by Virginia Alexander and Jackie Isabel. The multitude of breed information in this book cannot be underestimated. Along with Weimaraner info, there is also a section on basic genetics and heredity. The illustrated standard of the Weimaraner is also invaluable to those wanting to learn why proper structure and movement is important. .