Never Say Never
The Most Important Concept I Learned As A New Breeder
By Kristi Green, Knockout Chihuahuas
"Breed dogs", they said. "It will be fun", they said. 8 years into the start of working to build my own line, I've experienced highs and lows and wish I knew when I started some of what I know now (most of what I "knew" when I started was to be honest, useless...If anyone 30 years in would like to write me an article with similar information, I would greatly appreciate the cheat sheet, by the way!).
This is a note to all those just starting...things I wish people had shared with me.
They say that most newbies are 'in and out' of dogs in 5 years or less. I would conjecture that the reasons are rooted in the difficulty of actually producing good dogs that are competitive, compounded by the number of times you will have your heart broken as a tradeoff. From the failed health test on your nicest dog, to the puppy dying in your hands after you've labored to keep her alive for 2 sleepless weeks...disappointments are certainly not in short supply.
We've all seen it happen. Newbie shows up. Full of stars in their eyes; hopes and dreams by the dozens. The list of goals is huge and the list of "I will never's..." Is LONG. Google has taught them a LOT; they often know it all. I was one of them not too long ago and still am in some ways (you will learn that for some, the only thing they respect is time passed in the sport, rather than actual achievements...get used to it. Keep your head down and work HARD.).
Every single conversation you have with someone as a newbie will consist of someone who's going to tell you they would "never do X". Walk around a room, talk to a dozen people, and if you listen to each and every one of them while you build your doggy worldview, I promise you, you will NEVER breed a single animal with a clear conscience. "I'd never breed a dog with a bad bite." "I'd never breed a dog who didn't love everyone." "I'd never breed a dog with feet that ugly." "I'd never breed a dog with a mismark like that." "I'd never breed a dog missing a tooth." "I'd never breed a dog lacking pigment like that." "I'd never breed a dog with a grade 1 patella." "I ONLY breed 'excellent' hips!" "I'd never breed a dog that..." You get the idea. And it's going to vary by breed, because each breed has its own unique issues. In toy breeds, our litters are small which provides its own unique challenges.
The list could go on, and on, and on. This leads me to the single most important thing I have learned in the last decade; ALL DOGS HAVE 'SOMETHING' wrong with them! Every. Single. One. And for every single fault, someone will tell you...they’d NEVER breed it. Choosing which animals you eliminate from a fledgling program is daunting. Everyone has their 2 cents and google is not necessarily your friend. And unfortunately, I'll let you in on a little secret; most people aren't going to be all that up front with you, because they know you're going to judge them with your brand new overly exuberant list of "never's". Open, honest conversations are tough because the challenges presented to create happy living breathing animal are not cut and dry. Those with the longest list of "never's" always seem to have the worst dogs and be the most frustrated they are unable to win in the ring.
As a side note here; your veterinarian is your veterinarian. He/she is NOT a breeder 99% of the time, nor could he/she possibly know what is important in your breed. Many are anti-breeder due to the sheer number of irresponsible people they see with animals on a daily basis. Your vet doesn't decide which animals should be bred; you do (hopefully in conjunction with the help of experienced mentors). Sadly, many veterinarians WILL try to tell someone who simply doesn't know any better, that "x" shouldn't be bred. A chihuahua missing premolars? The horror! Spay / neuter. Stat! Hint: most chihuahuas are missing premolars. It doesn't matter. Know your breed and what is 'normal'; your veterinarian is your surgeon and can do some basic health testing for you. That's it. They are not your breeding adviser. Period.
My suggestion for your "NEVER" list as a new breeder is that it should be guided by three main questions 1) does this issue/fault potentially cause the animal pain that is not easily repairable on a normal budget, 2) what excellent virtues are present in this animal that make him/her worth breeding in spite of the faults he/she will inevitably have, and 3) what happens if these are all pets – can they be good pets?
I have seen newbies throw dogs back that truly would've been an asset to them because of perhaps a less than perfect bite, size, or one bad structural element and watched them in turn start with an animal lacking any real virtue in exchange for no alleged major fault. It is absolutely essential to remember, if you want to be successful; the greatest fault of all is the absence of virtue. One of my mentors bred dogs with (as an example) small umbilical hernias yet has been unbelievably successful. I remember one newbie haughtily proclaiming, "I WOULD NEVER BREED A DOG WITH A HERNIA like so-and-so,"… well, they may not, but their dogs are pretty darn ugly at this time, have little breed type, and are not winning worth anything in the show ring. Obviously, their list of 'never's' is MUCH longer than that...but you get the idea.
Be careful where you draw your line in the sand and remember; it's just sand. Keep it in perspective; fluidity is your friend as you learn and grow. Never be afraid to admit you were wrong. Sometimes the worst thing that will happen is you produced a litter of pets.
Understanding the concept of virtue goes far beyond the tangible elements of a dog and it takes time to learn what makes your breed special, and how to weigh those qualities appropriately so that they affect your decisions accordingly. Memorize your standard. Pour over your illustrated standard. Find at least one mentor who has had true success in your breed and sit at their feet, every chance you get. LISTEN. Train your eye to seek out your breed's specific virtues.
You will see faults easily early on; this requires almost no skill. Yet, you'd be surprised how many people are very proud of their ability to find fault with animals in the ring, especially those who beat them. "But did you SEE the topline on that dog?" "Did you see those ugly front legs?" "Yuck, its head is awful!" "Did you see how it was moving it's front legs!?" Here's the deal guys; I could probably go to the pound and find a dog with flawless movement with no discernible recognizable breed behind it (it might have some ___ in there, maybe a little ___?...). “I’d never breed a dog with ____, how could the judge use it!?”...
Without type, you don't have what makes your breed special. If you're going to make more dogs in a world overpopulated with companion animals as it is; make them special! One book that I would adamantly recommend for any newcomer to the sport is "Solving the Mysteries of Breed Type" by the late Richard Beauchamp. He takes a somewhat illusive concept and breaks it down in such a way that pretty much anyone can understand it.
The pound is full of lovely potential companions, so use what makes your breed special (i.e. what you cannot find at the pound) as a guiding light. Try to keep the mindset that you are here to preserve your breed at its best all the while working to improve the issues that are present. Often in eliminating one issue, you will get another. It's either what will drive you away or the challenge is what will exhilarate you and keep you coming back. If you are breeding only to win in the ring, you probably won't be here for very long. I truly believe that you must have a passion for your breed and want to ensure that there are as many good ones out there as possible. You certainly are not going to make any money doing this if you do it right, so your motivation needs to lie elsewhere.
This leads me to another important point; not all champions are worthy of being bred. First a champion, then a health tested champion...then what? A LOT of dogs finish, especially in toy breeds, that truly shouldn't. "If you drag anything around long enough, it'll finish" is unfortunately, quite true. Sometimes that dog which measured out or weighed out of the standard is so excellent in breed type it may never set foot in the ring but be worth its weight in gold. Showing no longer really evaluates breeding stock (the original purpose of conformation showing); it is a fun competitive venue in which to connect with other breeders and enjoy your dogs. Some days, take it with a grain of salt, even though some days that will be at your own expense. I definitely have won when I shouldn't have and lost when I shouldn't have. The fact that showing is subjective is important to accept. Sometimes you'll have to finish a dog or two to prove yourself in order to get dogs worth being bred. It's just how it is.
You'll hear the phrase "having to pay one's dues"...and, you do. Once you have bred a few litters and understand how much work, heart and soul goes into them, you'll start to get why it's hard to trust someone brand new with something that's really good. You WILL start with very average and your choice on how to direct that average animal will directly correspond with your success trajectory.
Which leads to another really important point; don't run around asking everyone for their opinion. EVERYONE has opinions. Figure out two or three people you respect and average out their opinions in conjunction with what your gut tells you and what you're able to find in concrete research. Otherwise you will be lost along with your giant list of "never's". Asking directions from everyone and their brother will only confuse you.
Along the way, you WILL fail. You WILL produce dogs who have health issues or temperament issues. You WILL produce dogs so ugly they make you cringe (someone will find them beautiful, trust me). Remember to stand behind your dogs and make things right when you need to... But if you stick with it, you also will create beauty that will give you a sense of pride and purpose and hope for the future of your breed. Along the way, you WILL fail. You WILL produce dogs who have health issues or temperament issues. You WILL produce dogs so ugly they make you cringe (someone will find them beautiful, trust me). Remember to stand behind your dogs and make things right when you need to... But if you stick with it, you also will create beauty that will give you a sense of pride and purpose and hope for the future of your breed. The more successful you become, the more others will be happy to highlight your failures; ignore them.
Truly special dogs are in a way, a fluke of nature. A stroke of luck. But being intentional about your choices can dramatically increase your odds of getting 'lucky'. You will make mistakes along your journey. You will eliminate animals that you should not have, especially without the knowledge and assistance of those with more experience in your specific breed. You will have your heart broken and you will feel disappointed. But the rewards are great if you persist through the heartbreak and hard work. Truly special dogs are in a way, a fluke of nature. A stroke of luck. But being intentional about your choices can dramatically increase your odds of getting 'lucky'. You will make mistakes along your journey. You will eliminate animals that you should not have, especially without the knowledge and assistance of those with more experience in your specific breed. You will have your heart broken and you will feel disappointed. But the rewards are great if you persist through the heartbreak and hard work. No, the dogs will not make you rich, in fact they probably will make you poor...but they will add a richness to your life that is priceless. You will make friends; you will make enemies. But hopefully along the way you will also begin to be part of a worldwide team working together for the common purpose of preserving your chosen breed.
Don't be afraid to work hard; you WILL have to. And remember above all else that finding virtue and using it as your guide and accepting you probably can never say never, will be perhaps one of the most important things you can learn about breeding dogs.