Owner to Breeder, Part 3

"You don't have to breed your dogs," says Janina Laurin. This may seem puzzling, coming from someone who has been involved with dogs since childhood, has been breeding Belgian Tervurens for 35 years, and in 2002 was recognized as the AKC's Herding Breeder of the Year. But Ms. Laurin says she regularly poses this simple statement for all breeders, including herself, no matter how many champions she can list.
  • Belgian Tervurens
  • breeding
  • Dandie Dinmont Terriers
  • education
  • Manchester Terriers
  • Norfolk Terriers
Dog World in January 2008

On any given weekend, an owner can head out to shows and see beautiful dogs prancing around the ring, earning blue ribbons and respect. At every show, there are people quietly watching those dogs and deciding they are ready to establish their own breeding program. Ken Stickney, who has been breeding Manchester Terriers for about 40 years, says dog breeding is like many other social comparisons. "It's like seeing someone with a higher salary or a better job, and you think it's easy to do the same thing. But you often don't realize what's involved."

Why Do It?

What is involved, experienced breeders report, are numerous challenges. There is the steep financial reality of retaining veterinarians to care for your dogs, examine all your puppies, and administer several health checks. There are the frustrations of dealing with buyers who want a dog but have no understanding or appreciation of your breed, or your lofty goals. There are the risks to your reputation if something were to go wrong with a whelping.

Ms. Laurin says that dog breeding, "Is not a hobby. It's not a business. It's a lifestyle. It consumes you seven days a week." As you become more committed to this lifestyle, your non-dog friends fade out, and your entire circle of acquaintances becomes dog people.

What motivates people to embark on this complicated, expensive, often frustrating lifestyle?

Barbara Miller, chosen in 2002 for the AKC Breeder of the Year award, has been breeding Norfolk Terriers since 1975. She poses basic questions to new and established breeders, and to herself: "What are you trying to do with your dogs? Are you going to keep them? Are you going to show them? Are you trying to produce pets or show dogs? Are you trying to prove something?"

No one expects simple answers. Even experienced breeders wander as they struggle with these questions. Their musings do provide a wide-angled view of motivations, helpful for someone considering the transition from dog owner to dog breeder.

Ego and Healthy Pride

Responsible breeders openly admit that they are trying to prove something – that they are moving towards physical or behavioral perfection. To many inexperienced breeders, or those considering becoming breeders, these motivations feel too egotistical, so they push it aside.

Ms. Miller says breeders should instead engage with their ego in a healthy way. "When I breed, I'm trying to prove that I can produce beautiful, well-constructed, alert, happy, well-tempered animals, and I want my puppies to do well in the show ring."

Winning in the ring is Ms. Miller's test of healthy ego. "When I see my dogs do well, there is pleasure, a thrill. My dogs have won tons of best in shows, but every time it happens, I cry. I just think, 'Wow, look at that dog. Look at what I was able to do through good breeding and concentrating on my goals.' You think of how to create dogs that will be 15 years old and still have a great disposition and terrific structure. You're proud of that. It's your ego that pushes you to believe you can do it. Your pleasure, your love of dogs, and your ego mesh."

Catherine Nelson has been breeding Dandie Dinmont Terriers since 1972, and was selected as AKC's 2004 Breeder of the Year. Like Ms. Miller, she believes that getting involved in a sport is essential to testing what you are trying to accomplish, of visualizing your goals of improving the stamina and intelligence of your dogs. Her sport is showing in the ring. But there are many other possibilities. "Choose something appropriate for your breed," Ms. Nelson advises. "Challenge yourself to see if what you produced, lovingly cared for, trained, and raised is succeeding. Breeding becomes a natural extension of the sport. You're doing it together with the dogs."

Meshing with your dogs is part of the beauty of breeding, but it also makes you more vulnerable as your self worth gets tied up with what you create. Ms. Miller says breeders must have a strong enough ego to succeed with their dogs, yet know how to separate the dog from themselves. "Your ego gets connected with this non-vocal animal. Not everyone is going to love your dogs. When someone criticizes your dog, it becomes a personal attack on this poor, defenseless animal. And that animal represents your thoughts and plans and dreams. You have to have enough confidence to love what you're doing, but you need to let in enough criticism to always rethink your plans."

Clear Vision

Over time, a breeder's goals evolve, but Ms. Laurin says that it should be possible to state what motivates each particular breeding. "Every time, you have specific things you're trying to improve. Name those things. Once you have the big traits taken care of, look at smaller and smaller ones. After I've bred a few litters and my dogs have good movement and they are structurally sound, now I'm on a journey to improve ear size or eye shape. Keep what you've accomplished and move forward. Always breed for the future."

But do not ignore the past. "A lot of people come into breeding with this idea of a grand plan," Ms. Laurin says. "But they have no idea whether someone else has already tried what they are trying to do. They don't know who the big players are in their breed."

Ask yourself what happened in historic experiments with coat color, temperament, size, gait, or other traits. Were they successful, and how can those past experiments be instructive?

Ms. Laurin says a breed's history can help guide you in answering the basic questions of why you are doing this: "My breed, Belgians, are herding dogs. I should at least be interested in herding if I'm going to breed them. Mine don't herd, but one of my breeding goals is to have dogs that could do it, if they were asked."

A Desire to Teach

No matter how high their goals, breeders are brought back to the reality that the public does not fully understand, or appreciate, their breed. The reputation of responsible breeders is based in many ways on how accurately they explain to potential buyers what it means to own and care for one of their dogs. All responsible breeders emphasize that a primary motivation for becoming a breeder must be a desire to educate.

The enterprise of dog breeding has received a lot of criticism in recent years, with the general consensus being that the world does not need more breeders. Ms. Nelson offers a twist. "Tens of millions of people buy dogs in this country. We know a high percentage don't understand how to be good owners. We need more responsible breeders who believe in providing better pets and teaching people. If that happens, we'll have more owners attending to dogs' care and welfare for a lifetime."

Opportunities to educate may come when there is no personal benefit. "Sometimes, people call asking for a puppy," Ms. Miller explains. "I might not have any puppies available. They'll say, 'OK, thanks.' But I've got them on the phone, so I jump in and ask questions, teach them something about Norfolks, even if they aren't buying from me. Sometimes, we'll talk for 25 minutes and they realize Norfolks aren't for them."

Ms. Miller's efforts to educate do not end with potential puppy buyers. She also challenges experienced breeders. "If people call me and say they want to breed one of my dogs, I ask, 'which one, and why.' This tells me whether they know what they are trying to achieve, or just want to breed. My reputation relies on who I choose to breed my dogs with."

Mr. Stickney challenges new breeders with this question: "Are you in this to help others, or just for yourself?" He refers not only to creating healthier dogs, but also to sharing details of your efforts with other people. Mr. Stickney likens dog breeding to being an inventor. "When you're successful, you can't act like you've found some secret formula you won't let other people use. You need to explain to other breeders, especially new breeders, what you've learned. If you don't do that, valuable information is lost."

It may take years for a breeder to be in a position to offer anything valuable, but Mr. Stickney says asking yourself whether you would be willing to share the secrets of your hard-earned success may reveal some of the true motivations behind your interest in breeding.

Playing Out a Chapter in Natural History?

Dr. Colin Allen, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive science and a member of the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior at Indiana University, often examines the psychology and history of human-animal connections. His work offers potential hints about what is behind the basic motivations of dog breeders.

Modern breeders may be playing out an ancient, subtle interplay that began when humans and wolves first met. Dr. Allen cites a study by scientists in Budapest comparing domesticated and wild wolves. The wolves were given the task of getting an object out of a box. "The domesticated wolves turned around and looked at their owners every few seconds, as if seeking some kind of social cues from the humans that said, 'keep doing what you're doing.' The wild wolves just went at it without looking back."

This experiment reveals the special way that canines reach for human connection. "Right from the beginning, people selected animals that are attentive to humans. People who breed may not be specifically trying to create more attentive dogs – it's usually focused on specific tasks such as herding – but on a very basic level, there's this cognitive ability that we like and select for."

There is an old joke about how people start to look like their dogs. Perhaps it is not such joke. Dr. Allen refers to Sally Boysen, who lived among, and studied, chimpanzees. "She was famous for saying, 'I am a chimp,' The chimps were doing what she did; she was doing what the chimps did. In the photos, she and the chimps have the same facial expressions."

Dr. Allen says this is even more relevant to dogs. "Dogs actually do better than chimpanzees on some social cognition tests – they are more sensitive to our cues. In the background, we have the long history of humans and dogs, and all along we've had this subtle selection for dogs whom we can form this kind of relationship with. It operates on a subconscious level, this responsiveness on both sides. There is this dance. Breeders may be seeking levels of interaction with dogs that we cannot get with other animal."

While most breeders are too rational to believe that dogs understand such things as breeding goals or winning in the ring, many do admit an inescapable sensation that, at some level, dogs comprehend the plan. Dr. Allen suggests there might be something to such folk wisdom. "It gets back to that social coupling that occurred between humans and dogs. Dogs are so attentive to us, they understand at some level what we're trying to accomplish and they are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen."

Again, Why Do It?

There are no easy answers to what motivates breeders, but a good self-test that helps keep breeders on a path of continued success is to challenge themselves regularly. Ms. Nelson welcomes that challenge. By the end of our discussion, she admits with a laugh, "Now that I'm thinking of all this, I'm asking myself, 'Why am I doing this?'"