This post is for people who are thinking about breeding their dog, but aren’t really sure whether that’s a great idea or how to get started if it is.
If you’re already deeply involved in a breed club or working endeavor, have two bowls’ worth of alphabet soup surrounding your dog’s name, know his five-generation pedigree and health test results inside and out, understand the tradeoffs in planning prospective matches, and have homes lined up three times around the block waiting for your puppies, this post ain’t for you. You don’t need to hear from me. Carry on with what you’re doing, godspeed and good luck.
If none of that previous paragraph made much sense to you… then sit down and get comfy, because we are gonna have a talk.
I’m going to start, as I often do, by laying my cards on the table. Like a lot of dog people, I’ve got a foot in both worlds. I’m heavily involved in rescue, strongly advocate adoption as a first choice for most pet homes (and many sport homes, for that matter, if you have the ability and connections to find a diamond in the rough), and believe that there are many, many wonderful dogs in rescue that are every bit as loving, sweet, and smart as any purebred in the world. Moreover, I hold a strong conviction that indiscriminate, ignorant, and commercially motivated breeders are actual evils in society. Such breeders produce unhealthy and unsound puppies whose lives are crippled by poor breeding, they cause grief to the families that buy those puppies, and they actually do, in fact, cause shelter dogs to die.
But I also have tremendous respect and appreciation for knowledgeable, ethical breeding programs that produce healthy, structurally sound, solid-tempered dogs with the character, instincts, and drives that make their breeds so special. I love well-bred purebred dogs. I really do. My next dog will be a carefully chosen performance purebred from the very best breeder I can find.
For me, these two positions are not in conflict. A well-bred show or performance puppy is not “taking the spot” of a mixed-breed shelter puppy (they’re aimed at entirely different types of homes), and a good breeder is not filling shelters with unsold puppies and cast-off breeding dogs.
What this means is that if you are reading this post, I am not going to automatically try to talk you out of breeding your dog. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your dog. Maybe your dog is awesome. Maybe she deserves to be bred, for the betterment of her breed and for dogdom as a whole.
But if she doesn’t, then I implore you to be brutally honest with yourself about that, because otherwise you run a very real risk of producing less-than-stellar puppies, being forced to consign some of them to less-than-stellar homes, and contributing to the preventable deaths of shelter dogs, some of whom may be your own pups.
Not all dogs — not even all good dogs — need to be bred. The point of this post is to talk about how to differentiate those that do from those that don’t — not only for your own knowledge, but as part of the system of signals that will tell other responsible owners and breeders that you’ve put due consideration into the decision, and that will inform educated puppy buyers (i.e., the ones you want) that this is a litter worth a look.
So let’s talk about some of the things you should consider when deciding whether to breed your dog.
1. Why Are You Breeding?
What is the goal of the proposed breeding? What are you trying to produce that is so special that it can’t be found in a sweet, healthy, adoptable shelter dog?
If the answer is that you don’t have a clearly defined goal — if you are thinking of breeding your dog because you want your children to witness the miracle of birth, or because you believe that a female dog needs to have a litter before spaying (which is a complete myth, by the way) — STOP. Don’t breed your dog. It’s not going to accomplish anything besides filling the world with another litter of puppies that doesn’t have any particular reason to be there, and you will be contributing to shelter overpopulation and the killing of adoptable dogs. Sorry to be so blunt, but if you’re breeding without a good reason that this particular dog, out of all the 70 million owned dogs in the U.S., needs to produce something special, that’s the truth.
Are you breeding to produce a dog that will be truly exceptional? If you are, go forth to glory!
If you want your kids to watch puppies (or kittens!) being born and growing up for two months, foster a pregnant dog (or cat!) and raise those puppies. Rescues are always looking for foster homes that have the capacity to handle pregnant mothers. They’ll be glad for the help, you’ll do a good deed, and the kids will get to witness the miracle guilt-free.
“I love Fluffy and she’s the nicest dog in the world” is not a valid reason for breeding, by the way. It is a valid reason to love your dog, absolutely. But there are tens of thousands of equally nice dogs dying in shelters every day. As long as “niceness” is not enough to save a dog, it’s certainly not enough to breed one.
Having said that, if you do have an answer to this question, move on to the next step. Note that I’m agnostic about what your answer might be; I don’t particularly care if you’re choosing to breed your dog because of his exceptional scent trailing abilities, because she has a supernatural death grip on the bite sleeve, or because his ear set and coat colors are the most beautiful you’ve ever seen. The specifics of the reason are much less important than that you have a reason that this individual dog contributes something special, distinctive, and clearly defined to the gene pool for her breed.
2. What Are You Breeding?
What I mean by this is: have you tested your dog appropriately for all relevant considerations in her breed? Have you had her hips checked? Elbows? Eyes? Heart? Markers for genetic ailments?
Every breed has its own unique health problems — some more than others, but every breed has something. (This is true of mixed breeds and crossbreeds too, incidentally. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of doodle and poo breeders tell their puppy buyers that they don’t need to do OFA hip checks on their breeding stock because “hybrid vigor” means that labradoodles can’t be dysplastic. This is, bluntly, false. Any breeder who tells you otherwise is either ignorant or dishonest, and in neither case is that someone I’d want a puppy from.)
If you have not gotten appropriate health tests for your dog, do not breed until — at an absolute minimum — you have those results in hand.
I got OFA hip certifications on my neutered pound mutts just for the sake of planning their futures. There is NO EXCUSE not to have certs on actual breeding stock.
Even then, do you know what her relatives have produced? If you have one dog that tests OFA Excellent, but both of her parents, all her aunts and uncles, and all her nieces and nephews came out as dysplastic, then that is probably not a dog that ought to be bred, because the chances of her reproducing her one outlier good result are much, much lower than the odds that her puppies will revert to the family’s average. If her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all died of the same type of cancer at age 5, again, that probably isn’t a dog you want to breed.
It’s unlikely that such an extreme hypothetical would ever exist in the real world, of course, but the point stands: if you don’t have any idea what’s lurking elsewhere in the family tree, it might not be a great idea to breed until you do.
Do you know the temperament traits that your dog is likely to pass on? Do you know what traits her relatives share, and what their progeny might have produced? Fear issues are highly heritable and are probably the number-one temperament reason I would suggest knocking a dog out of consideration for breeding, but they are hardly unique. Reactivity, aggression, environmental stability, even things like jumping style and fullness of bite — these all have genetic components.
Unless you have thoroughly tested your dog for a wide variety of character traits under a wide range of circumstances, and really know that dog inside and out, I would not recommend breeding. Again, this is where pedigree analysis can also be important.
3. The Value of Registries
I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on this one because I think the value of having a dog with “reputable” registry papers (AKC, UKC, FCI, etc., — in other words, NOT garbage puppy mill registries) is pretty easily defined and black-and-white.
Having AKC (or UKC, FCI, etc.) papers does not mean that your dog is automatically a well-bred dog, much less a breedworthy one. There are any number of poorly bred BYB and mill dogs who “have papers.” So just having an AKC registration on your dog does not inherently serve as a stamp of good quality.
However, not having AKC registration closes a whole lot of doors. Most educated puppy buyers will stop there and go no further, because the lack of those papers is an obvious red flag that often indicates a particularly egregious puppy mill or BYB. Virtually all show and performance breeders will refuse to use your dog, or any dog descended from your dog, in their programs, because if they do, those doors will close for them, too. This pretty much forces your dog’s genetic contribution out of the mainstream pool.
If you are breeding and selling exclusively to working homes and sport homes that don’t care at all about AKC registration — military and police brokers, flyball homes, ranchers or farmers, and so on — then this need not be a concern. But if you’re already established in those markets, I don’t know why you’d be reading this blog post anyway, so I’m going to assume that you are not, in fact, already semi-famous as the best producer of flyball mixes across half the United States. And if you are not in that position, then the lack of good registry papers is effectively a slow death sentence for your dog’s legacy.
Personally I think that’s pretty crappy for a lot of reasons, but that is the world in which we live, so until the AKC and/or breed clubs change their rules and open their registry books, it is generally not worthwhile for the average person to breed an unregistered dog.
4. The Value of Training and Titling
Fundamentally, I think the value of training and titling a dog that you intend to breed is threefold: one, it gives you an opportunity to thoroughly evaluate and get to know your dog; two, it operates as a check against personal bias and kennel blindness by submitting your dog to the scrutiny of an objective, external judge (more or less); three, it signals to other people that you are serious and committed about whatever it is you’re doing, and that your dog is capable of achieving a certain amount of success in that endeavor.
Training a dog from zero to competition-ready is a long process, during which you will get to know your dog very, very well. You will learn what motivates her, what worries her, what demoralizes her, where her natural talents lie, where her innate weaknesses are, how she works under different types of stress in different environments. If you are honest with yourself, by the time you get to the end of that road, you should have a pretty clear idea of whether or not your dog is genuinely of a quality that makes her breedworthy. The more different sports you do, and the harder they are, the more you’ll learn.
Trialing forces a certain amount of honesty on you. If you think your dog is awesome, but you’re consistently bombing out in competition, then either something is profoundly wrong with your training and handling (or, possibly, the venue you’ve chosen, if you’ve done something as foolish as entering a working-line GSD in AKC conformation shows), or it’s time for a cold slap of reality. Maybe your dog isn’t all that. Maybe you need to step back and reassess whether you’re really being completely candid in your judgments.
And, finally, titling (or earning working certifications, which is pretty much the same thing for purposes of this discussion) proves to the world that your dog can do whatever it is you’re asking him to do. A lot of people will claim, either ignorantly or dishonestly, that their dog could totally do XYZ “if I wanted to.” But they have no proof.
Without the title, claims about what a dog could do are meaningless (and may even serve as a signal that lowers your dog’s credibility in the eyes of some, since that kind of empty boasting is commonly found among the least educated and least ethical BYBs). Even videos purporting to show your dog’s skills won’t convince a skeptical eye. It’s not hard to make a dog look better than he is if you can make the video on your own familiar training grounds, with your own familiar assistants in place of a strange judge, and with unlimited takes if your dog doesn’t put in a good showing the first time.
With the title, however, you have concrete proof to back up your assessments. Thus, titles primarily serve as a signal to owners of prospective mates that your dog is breedworthy, and to knowledgeable puppy buyers that this litter is of proven quality.
5. How Do You Find a Mate?
Unfortunately this is not a topic that I can really discuss in a general blog post, because I don’t know your goals and I don’t know your dog and I don’t know the spectrum of possible matches available in your breed. All I can really say here is that if you have the appropriate health tests in hand, you are active on the show or performance circuit for whatever it is your dog does, and you’re known to other people in the same breed, you should be able to get some decent guidance from sources better able to evaluate your options and goals.
If you don’t have the tests, aren’t on the competition circuit, and don’t have any real-life contacts in the breed, then that’s a pretty good sign that you need to step back and take care of those things before looking for a prospective mate. Responsible owners of desirable breeding dogs do not, in general, rush out to pair their dogs to whatever other dog in the same breed happens to own a functioning pair of complementary genitalia.
6. Are You Prepared For Complications?
Breeding is not a risk-free proposition. It doesn’t happen often, but dogs do get injured while mating sometimes. There are canine STDs. Pregnant mothers can have complications in carrying or labor; sometimes they die. Puppies may be born malformed, sickly, or just plain wired wrong in the head. They may get hurt in accidents, crushed if their mother rolls over on them, infected by communicable diseases, ill-treated by owners down the road.
If you are not financially and emotionally prepared to face all of the many, many things that can go wrong during the breeding, pregnancy, puppy rearing, and placements, then do not breed your dog.
7. Where Will You Place The Puppies?
I’m grossly overgeneralizing, but there are basically three types of puppy buyers in the world: (1) pet and casual sport homes who would be perfectly happy with either a purchased dog or a shelter dog that fits the general profile of what they want in terms of personality, size, energy, etc.; (2) pet homes who only want a specific breed, and might have preferences relating to size, color, or personality, but are not tremendously demanding about the quality of their puppy; and (3) specialized, highly selective homes who are looking for very specific traits and qualities (these are your Seriously Serious sport and show homes, working buyers, etc. If the dog cannot do a particular job at a very high level, these homes are not interested).
Again: if you’re not breeding for excellence, why are you breeding?
If you are marketing primarily toward homes in the first group, then you’re in direct competition with shelter dogs, and in my opinion you shouldn’t be breeding, because you are needlessly taking homes away from dogs and puppies who will die without them, and those owners would have been just as happy with a nice shelter or rescue dog.
If you’re breeding with an eye toward the second group, then it’s more of a gray area. Your puppies may still be in competition with shelter and rescue dogs; Labrador Retrievers, Beagles, Chihuahuas, and many other purebreds inundate shelters across the country. The world’s not hard up for more of those. Unless you are producing special dogs in those breeds, rather than average pet-quality dogs, I don’t personally see a need to add to their number — and, on a more practical than moral point, it may be difficult to find enough homes for your puppies. On one end, you’ll lose some puppy placements to adoptable shelter and rescue dogs. On the other, breeders aiming for specialized goals will almost certainly have “overflow” puppies better suited to pet life than work, show, or sport, and you’ll probably lose some placements to those.
If you are marketing primarily toward the third group — which, in my view, is what any good breeding program should be aiming to do, since the goal is to produce dogs that truly excel in some endeavor — then it helps a whole lot to have spent some time establishing yourself and your dog in your region’s breed and training scene. It helps to have those registry papers and to have the titles and certifications verifying whatever claims you want to make about your dog’s conformation, athleticism, working aptitude, or whatever else. Without those things, it is likely that you will not attract as many prospective puppy buyers, and the ones you do get will not be as good.
Do you have a plan in place to connect your puppies to good prospective buyers? Do you have contacts in the local dog world who might be able to help? Do you feel comfortable screening buyers and deciding how to match individual puppies to homes that want specific traits? Do you have (or do you plan to use) a contract? Do you feel equipped to take back any puppy, at any time, for any reason? Do you have any safeguards (such as pre-purchase microchipping) that will enable you to find your puppies if a buyer breaks your contract and dumps your puppy at the pound?
If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then it might be best to hold off until you can get a little closer to “yes.”
…and that, all together, is my list of points to consider before deciding whether to breed your dog. It’s long, I know that. It involves a lot of work.
But the decision to bring new lives into this world — lives for which you will be responsible, and which have the potential to influence many, many others — is a weighty one, and not one to be undertaken without due consideration. If you’re not prepared for that, you definitely shouldn’t breed.