Thursday, April 24, 2014

Responsible Dog Breeding

What is 'responsible breeding'? If you want to buy a puppy, how do you choose a breeder who is 'ethical'? It may not be what you've been lead to think.

 Most people think that a responsible, ethical breeder only breeds purebred dogs that can be registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC) (in the US), or one of the other large breed clubs. Having "papers" is supposed to increase a dog's value, and ensure they're a healthy, typical specimen of the breed. It doesn't. This popular style of breeding is hurting dogs, and it's up to puppy buyers to stop it.

Although distinct dog breeds have been around for thousands, the current extremes in dog breeding became popular only about 150 years ago. That's when three things started to go wrong:

1) Closed studbooks leading to loss of genetic diversity
2) Increased genetic disease due to inbreeding
3) Breeding for extreme physical traits that affect dogs' quality of life

Unfortunately, many dog breeders don't think this is a problem. Many people are caught up in this fad of breeding and can't see that they're hurting the dogs they love. Other breeders simply don't care as long as it gets them a ribbon in the show ring and/or money from puppy sales.

Whether they're good people or not, whether they love dogs or not, whether they commit these crimes out of ignorance or not, these types of breeding practices should not be supported.

Here are some rough guidelines to choosing an ethical dog breeder. They are different from what you've probably read from the ASPCA or other animal welfare groups, and very different from what the AKC would have you believe. But, choosing a puppy based on these guidelines is one small step to ensuring that we have a healthy population of dogs for years to come.

How to Spot an Ethical Dog Breeder:

1) Their animals are housed, fed, and exercised appropriately based on individual needs
2) They use inbreeding sparingly, if at all
3) They support outcrossing/backcrossing
4) They avoid increasing obvious heritable disease in the population
5) They don't breed for extreme physical traits
6) They genuinely like dogs, and do things with them besides breed them
7) They take genuine interest in their puppies, and will always take them back if needed


1) Their animals are housed, fed, and exercised appropriately based on individual needs
There's no checklist for this. For example, dogs and puppies with "ribs showing" is normal on say, a Boxer, Saluki or German shorthair pointer. Likewise, many people think dogs should never live outdoors, but there are lots of dogs who are happy, or are actually meant to live outside 24/7. Having a large number of dogs on the property also isn't necessarily a bad thing: many breeding programs focused on genetic diversity, for example, require having lots of dogs around. It's also good for young puppies to socialize with adult dogs who aren't their parents. And some breeders just really like having a lot of dogs, which isn't bad if they're all cared for appropriately. Cleanliness is often misleading: some of the worst puppymills in the world are as sterile as a hospital room, while some of the best breeders, if caught on a bad day, will have puppies temporarily covered in their own poop.

Red flags: the dogs show signs of kennel insanity, (repetitive behaviors like spinning, ceaseless barking or lunging, etc); the breeders won't let you see the dogs "behind the barn"; they have small breed dogs that are never allowed inside; extreme matting on long-haired dogs; any dog that is housed with little to no human contact (with the rare possible exception of working livestock guardian dogs); puppies are listless, dull eyes, dull coats, bellies look bloated with worms, etc. or adult dogs are unhealthily fat; etc.

Good signs: they are happy to show you any and all animals on their property (not just dogs) and don't get offended by questions; even dogs that are kenneled/crated seem content (though they may be excited to see you);

2) They use inbreeding sparingly, if at all
Breeding close relatives on purpose is a tool that has been used for thousands of years in dog breeding. However, it is being over-used to the extreme today. Even healthy-looking dogs without obvious genetic disease are affected by a thing called "inbreeding depression". It causes immune system problems, difficulty conceiving, and small litter sizes, and shorter life spans. Inbreeding also reduces genetic diversity. Inbreeding is easy to avoid in this day and age, with most pedigrees available online, and so many ways to network and find mates for dogs. And we have so much knowledge about genetics now it's really a crime to ignore or deny it.

Red flags: they make excuses for why they "have to" breed close relatives; they claim that certain bad things are "normal for the breed" like small litter size, short life span, certain deformities or disease, etc;

Good signs: they are happy to explain their dogs' pedigree and breeding choices; they are outspoken about going out of there way to to avoid inbreeding even when it's difficult; they support outcrossing (see below);

3) They support outcrossing/backcrossing
Outcrossing is another tool that has been used in dog breeding for thousands of years (see below for more info). Unfortunately, (and inexplicably) many breeders and breed clubs like the AKC, are rabidly against backcrossing. They have been duped into believing a closed studbook is not only a good thing, it's the only way to breed dogs. Even though studbooks have only been closed for about 150 years or less (depending on the breed). They think that bringing in new blood somehow diminishes the breed, when in fact, when done thoughtfully, it only makes dogs healthier, happier, and longer-lived (see below for examples of outcrossing).

Red flags: they become angry at the mere mention of outcrossing; they claim outcrossing actually increases disease; they deny it's needed; they think it's possible to "breed out" disease within a closed studbook (this is a very common myth which simply isn't true: see below for more information).

Good signs: they actively support outcrossing for any breed, especially within their own; if they're breeding crossbreeds like labrodoodles, for example, they do so just as thoughtfully as if they were "purebred" breeders (with a critical eye on each parent, basic health screening, etc).

4) They avoid increasing obvious heritable disease
Most genetic disease is "invisible" meaning you can't tell a dog is affected or an unaffected carrier just by looking at it. Some diseases are visible or can be tested for. Still others occur on a gradient, meaning some dogs are affected worse than others. Sadly, many breeders will still breed dogs even when they know have diseases they will pass on to their puppies. This is another negative effect of closed studbooks being considered "normal", and considering many inbred-caused diseases to be "normal for the breed" and "not a big deal".

Before looking for a puppy, find out what diseases the breed is prone, and what kind of tests are available/common for the breed. Ask questions of the breeder, like: are the parents affected? The grandparents or aunts and uncles? Try to choose breeders that are actively outcrossing to eliminate or or "dilute" the disease (for example, if you want a dalmatian, only choose a one that is a LUA dalmatian).

Red flags: They don't do any testing at all (though many things don't have a "test"); they make excuses for diseases "it's normal", "it's not that bad", or that it's impossible to avoid breeding a carrier .

Good signs: the breeder is open and honest about diseases in their breed and/or in their dogs; the breeder has changed their mind about breeding a litter based on known or possible heritable disease (and is happy to explain why); they are actively outcrossing/crossbreeding to improve genetic health.

5) They don't breed for extreme physical traits
This is sometimes the hardest to convince people about, but extreme traits make life miserable for many dogs, all in the name of "fashion".

We all think pugs are cute, for example. But unfortunately, the average pug suffers every day of its life because of its physical deformities (see below for more info).  Dogs are great at putting on a brave face even while suffering, so even though they seem happy, they would be so much happier if we stopped supporting breeders who make them so extreme, and instead choose puppies that are more moderate in appearance (they're still cute!).

Pictured: illustration c. 1900 of non-extreme pugs that still look like pugs

It's not just pugs of course. English bulldogs and pekes have noses too short to breath properly; a lot of German shepherds have crooked backs and legs; most basset hounds have too much skin and parts of them drag on the ground; most Neapolitan mastiffs have way too much skin and are prone to skin ear and eye infections/injury... the list goes on.

There's even a word for it: "Qualzucht" which means "torture breeding", and it's so widespread that there is legislation against it in some European countries.

None of them have to look this way, despite what many people think. And what's more, and up until about 150 years ago, they didn't. Over just a few generations breeders have gotten off track to the point that even the general public thinks certain breeds "always look like that". Dogs are suffering for it.

All the excuses for keeping extreme traits are wrong. They're wrong morally, ethically, historically, and biologically.

Finding ethical breeders is harder for some breeds than others. For example, currently people who breed English bulldogs are almost all unethically breeding dogs with extreme short muzzles, skin problems, inability to conceive or give birth naturally, and can't cool themselves properly. They may be nice people and even think they love their dogs, but it doesn't change that what they do is horrible. Ethical breeders are out there, you just have to look harder to find them.

Red flags: simply having lots of ribbons in the show ring is a red flag since right now judges for most breed clubs reward extreme traits; the look of their dogs should speak for themselves: if it can't run, can't breath, or some part of it drags on the ground, too many wrinkles, too short of a nose... odds are it's suffering needlessly; they make excuses for extreme traits: "it's not that bad", "if it doesn't look like that, it's not really a (insert breed name here)", "it's cuter that way", "it's meant to be that way"; another red flag is breeders who focus strongly on one or two physical things about their "special line" of dogs, color or ear shape, for example, it probably means they're losing sight of health and temperament.

Good signs: again, the shape of the dog (usually) speaks for itself. Currently a breeder who focuses on a healthy shape is sometimes considered an "outcast" in the mainstream breeding culture (depending on the breed: it's especially true of the breeds listed above). They often advertise the fact that they're breeding this way, often using words like "working strain", or "old fashioned" or "moderate" versions of the breed. Keep in mind there are many ethical breeders that don't go dog shows, and often their dogs aren't able to be registered with a breed club. Sometimes breeders who want to reform or stop the downslide of a breed end up changing the name, or give a new name to their particular strain. For example, compare the "Olde English Bulldogge" or a "Leavitt Bulldog" to the modern "English Bulldog".

6) They genuinely like dogs, and do things with them besides breed them
Working, hunting, herding, playing, hiking, sports, etc. This criteria eliminates puppymill breeders from the equation, and also some show ring breeders  Remember: just because it has a shiny coat and "papers", doesn't mean it's not being abused or neglected.

There's nothing wrong with a dog who's only job is to hang out with people, but we should expect a bit more from dog breeders than we do the average dog owner.

Red Flags: they only touch their dogs to breed them, or show them; especially if they breed dogs with a lot of drive and energy whose original purpose involved work in some way.

Good signs: they are happy to talk about all the activities their dogs do, even the ones they sold years ago; at least some of their dogs do breed-specific activities (border collies and agility or herding; retrievers and dock diving or hunting; pit bulls and weight pulling; lap dogs and service dog work; etc, the list goes on, but you should know it when you see it).

 7) They take genuine interest in their puppies, and will take them back if needed
No ethical breeder wants any of their dogs to end up in an animal shelter, and they will take steps to make sure that doesn't happen. They may not have a written contract, but it should be clear that if a puppy buyer has to rehome a dog at any time, even if the dog is 15 years old, the breeder wants it back.

Red flags: they sell puppies to whoever comes with cash in hand, without giving out any information, business cards, signing a contract, getting contact information, etc. They don't show interest in puppies they've made in the past, or in who wants to buy their puppies or where they're going.

Good signs: a written contract that states clearly that they will take the dog back, no matter how much time as passed; the breeder microchips the puppies and lists themselves as a permanent secondary contact on the chip registry; the breeder wants to stay in contact, and wants occasional updates on how their dogs are doing, if they're good workers, if they've developed disease, etc.

There are many good, dog-loving people (who would be considered "responsible" by many) who are actually unethical dog breeders under these guidelines. The main culture of dog breeders have deeply held beliefs that they cling to with almost religious-like fervor, even as they're hurting dogs in both the short and long term.  As the saying goes, good intentions pave the way to hell. In the end, it doesn't matter if a breeder is a good person, or if they THINK they're doing the right thing. If Mother Teresa was breeding inbred pugs with no noses, I would criticize her, too.

Further Reading

Pedigreed Dogs Exposed - the documentary

The Canine Diversity Project

The Institute of Canine Biology

Canine Inherited Disorders Database


Why is science so important to dog breeding? 
Why closed stud books are bad and outcrossing is good
Why is inbreeding bad?
The Science of Inbreeding 
What is Popular Sire Syndrome?
What is Inbreeding Depression

How to breed dogs with stronger immune systems
Why is inbreeding wrong? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Why health testing in purebred dogs is limited and won't save us from too much inbreeding
Poodles are in trouble from inbreeding

What has closed stud book done to the Afghan Hound
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Episodic Falling Syndrome 


How Backcrossing Works
Are Mixed Breeds Healthier?

Crossbreeds generally live longer
Outcross example in German Pinschers
Outcross example in Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers
Outcross example in Dalmatians

Extreme Physical Traits

What is 'Torture Breeding'
Another example of torture breeding
True history of the pug

Pug snores aren't "cute", they're slow, life-long torture
How the West ruined the Shar-pei
Show vs. working strain Labradors
Deformed basset hounds winning awards in the show ring
Deformed mastiff won "Best of Breed" at a Club UK's Breed Open Show
Structural problems in Frenchies (and what breeders AREN'T doing about it)
English bulldogs are all handicapped
100 years of breed "improvement"

Cultural Problems

Ignoring history and biology, breeders freak out over minor things like coat color
Kennel clubs don't guarantee healthy animals nor stop puppy mills

I'd like to especially thank a few people who are far more knowledgeable on this subject than I am, have been writing about it longer than me, and are all-around inspiring and you should read their stuff:

Scott Westfall
Jess Ruffner
Christopher Landauer
Jemima Harrison
Heather Houlahan


Jess said...

One quibble:

A carrier (a dog carrying one copy of a gene for a recessive disease) should NEVER be eliminated from breeding just because it's a carrier. (Assuming there's a DNA test or the disease has been proven to be a simple recessive.) Remember that you are never eliminating just ONE gene, you are eliminating a whole passel of them when you do not breed a dog.

A proper breeding strategy using carriers would be to breed a carrier to a clear (dog with no copies of the gene.) This will produce a litter where each pup has a 50% chance of being a carrier. Usually the pups are tested and clear pups are chosen to continue breeding from, replacing carriers in the population with clears.

You can even use an AFFECTED dog (two copies of the recessive gene) to produce unaffected puppies. An affected dog bred to a clear will produce a litter where all the puppies are carriers, but NONE are affected. These puppies can then be bred to a clear. This would be a somewhat extreme thing to do, but it can be done and done safely.

Unknown said...

Great post! Keeping this for posterity...

Sarah Leeanna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
admin said...

Sarah, one of the AKC's man problems is that they want power and prestige as the biggest dog breed registry and purveyor of huge shows with big prizes, but refuse to take responsibility for the far-reaching effects of their policies.

One of those effects is they have a lot of control over pet dog fads. Even if, like oversized dobermans, are technically outside the breed standard, as long as they're "purebred", then the AKC has been teaching people for years that it's OK. Pureblood is first, looks are second, health is always last. The average pet buyer, if they try to educate themselves, finds a lot of propaganda from the AKC, and from AKC breeders.

Technically, there's nothing stopping individual breed clubs from opening their studbooks for outcrossing. It's not crazy, it's the way dog breeding has been done for thousands of years, but the AKC is steeped in 19th century ideals of "pureness", which goes against science and common sense. To "fix" dobermans, you'd have to get a lot of individual breeders to open their eyes and come into the 20th century (and eventually the 21st century). A good way to start is for the AKC to amend its policies.

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