Tuesday 23 October 2018

Red Flags

As usual, people are enquiring about puppies and I don’t have puppies available now. I also seem to have had a lot of recent requests asking me what I know about this or that breed, or what I think of some other breeder, and I get occasional questions from people in other countries asking how to find a local breeder. If you want one of my puppies, you’re more likely to be able to have one if you’re prepared to go on the waiting list until the next litter is born. This post is for those people who can’t wait, or who after researching have decided another breed is more suitable.

When I was a child (and I don’t know if my memory has embroidered this story), my mother had a friend who was a salt-of-the-earth sort of person and who circumstances hadn’t exactly been kind to. She worked hard to support an adult child with pretty severe physical and intellectual disabilities whom she was also the main carer of. She owned a Labrador Retriever bitch, which probably wasn’t the best choice for someone with her lifestyle. If I’d met her today I’d have pegged her as a Papillon person as she was a smart lady with a sense of humour. However, in those days the Internet hadn’t been invented and Papillons were something you read about in books and if you had a dog it was probably either a Labrador Retriever, a German Shepherd (which was often euphemistically called an Alsatian because anything German was apparently still too close to comfort to the Nazis), a Yorkshire Terrier, Jack Russell, or if you were a bit more exotic perhaps a Westie or a Whippet. This bitch I remember being like a wild animal and having to be shut in another room when guests came to the house. Once a year the lady went on a cruise as her break from her hardworking life, and the bitch went to stay at a local boarding facility. One time when this happened, the bitch was in season, because in those days dogs weren’t routinely spayed and neutered. When the owner came back, she was told that the boarding facility had put her in with a Labrador Retriever puppy dog they owned because they thought he was too young to do anything, and he had mated her, and they were sorry, but the dog was a trendy colour and the puppies might fetch a good price and it might help the bitch to ‘calm down’.

9 weeks later, there were no puppies. The mating hadn’t worked. But, having planned for puppies not originally wanted, and disappointed when there were none, the lady took the bitch back to the boarding facility and paid for the same dog to mate the bitch again on her next season. This time she did have puppies, but they weren’t the trendy colour the sire was, and sadly, whether it was because of the bitch’s poor temperament or the owner’s lack of experience, or a combination of both, the puppies all died save for one bitch, which the owner could not then part with, and kept. And the dam didn’t ‘calm down’ after all and she and her puppy were both crazy together.

This was my first experience of a dog breeder, and probably these sorts of reasons for breeding are not uncommon among a lot of people selling puppies. The lady who bred this bitch was by no means a bad person, and probably most people aren’t. But her reasons for breeding were not the right ones, and it’s unlikely even had she had any pups to sell in the end, that she would be the sort of breeder an owner could rely on for support. If you’d bought a pup from her and four years later developed a serious illness that meant you could no longer keep your dog, it’s unlikely she would have been in a position to take back the dog and find it a new home. If you had behavioural problems with your puppy, or a health issue, I don’t think she’d be much help or have a great deal of knowledge about a pedigree she chose because of an accident and the prospect of pups being a trendy colour. How do you make sure if you are buying a puppy, that your money is going to someone who is doing the best they can to conserve the breed and will give you lifetime support?

Breeders who care about their breed will register all their pups with the Kennel Club, and you will get papers with your pup (or soon after if the breeder hasn’t received the papers yet). It’s a red flag if someone doesn’t register all their pups, or if they are registered with a bogus registry, or on the Kennel Club’s Activity Register (which is so mutts and rescue dogs can compete in agility and suchlike). Someone who is offering pups under the table for cash with no papers on the cheap is likely a tax dodger making too much money out of their breeding. Breed registries are not perfect but they are there to serve as a permanent record for births in a breed for posterity and so we can have statistics and information on a breed. It also enables health conditions to be reported accurately and help researchers who are trying to understand them. It goes without saying that someone who cares about a breed does not disrespect it by using their dogs to produce novelty mix-breed puppies with degrading marketing names like Cockpinscher Bullshitz. Every pregnancy carries a risk to the bitch which has to be weighed against the benefit of the litter to the conservation of the breed. With an educated and vigilant owner, this risk is hopefully small, but it is a risk that a bitch should not be subjected to without a good reason. There is no benefit to any breed when someone is simply fooling around in order to line their pockets. Exceptions to registration are traditional working-strain dogs such as Border Collies, lurchers, and JRTs which often have their own registries.

Sculpture by Patricia Piccinini

Decent breeders will usually carry out health tests of some sort on their dogs. Some common sense has to be applied here because there isn’t always a great deal of choice in stud dogs, and a breeder who has chosen to use a previously unused 10-year-old male in good health with no test results has probably made a better decision for the breed than someone who’s used a two-year-old dog just because he’s had a lot of tests and has already sired 15 litters. There are a few old farts around who refuse to do tests but are very experienced and know their bloodlines like the backs of their hands. Most of those people are dead or no longer breeding now, though. If the breed is known to have recessive genetic conditions in it, at least one parent should have a ‘clear’ DNA test result for each condition. If a breeder talks about COI (coefficient of inbreeding) in most breeds the Kennel Club's COI calculator is not reliable and there are better breed-specific tools available (for my breed, this tool is the Standard Poodle Database/PHR). Particularly COIs generated by the KC's tool should be viewed with extreme suspicion if there are imported dogs in the pedigree.

Peculiar colours: this is a complicated area. In some ways, coat colour is very superficial and easily corrected, and in other ways it’s a serious problem. As a general rule, people who care about their breed try to produce puppies in correct colours according to the breed standard. However, many breeds can sometimes produce ‘wild type’ colours or other harmless faults due to recessive genes or genetic combinations. On the other hand, there are some colours associated with health problems that don’t occur naturally in most breeds, and should be considered aberrations and diseases where there is no precedent for them, such as merle. There are a small number of people who attempt to breed dogs in colours that occur naturally in the breed that are considered incorrect by breeding to correct-coloured dogs and using DNA tests to follow the gene, something which can’t really be argued against from an ethical standpoint, but unfortunately I can probably count the people I’ve encountered doing this worldwide on one hand. All too often when trendy colours are involved, care and restraint go out the window, and with so few dogs existing able to produce the colours, breeders tend to choose dogs based on colour with little regard to more important factors, or resort to strategies like inbreeding. It isn’t necessarily a red flag if a litter has a puppy in it with a colour fault. It also isn’t necessarily a red flag if a breeder keeps and uses in their programme a dog that might not be perfect in terms of its colouration, as the idea is to improve by selecting dogs closest to the standard, and the dog might have been the best puppy in other respects. However, if someone is deliberately breeding incorrect colours, particularly if they are charging excessive prices that far exceed the price of a correct-coloured puppy, and especially if the colours are described as ‘rare’, this is a red flag. Going back to the trendy-coloured dog in the anecdote, it’s also worth being aware that colours that are correct for a breed, used to be unpopular, but have become flavour-of-the-month can be victims of their own success if they’re bred in a way that puts colour before other factors, and the more traditional colours of the breed often have better type. One time while attending an obedience class I commented on the dog standing next to me, which I assumed was a Ridgeback without a ridge. The owner informed me it was in fact a Labrador Retriever in a funky new colour, which they’d likely paid a lot of money for.

Eye deformity caused by the merle gene in a breed where it naturally occurs. Image credit:luvlethalwhites

A good breeder will take back the puppy they bred later in life and care for it until they find it a suitable new home if ever its owner can no longer keep it. Breeders should care about their pups and won’t want them to end up dumped in shelters or sold on to third parties. If puppies were only ever bought from breeders like this, shelters would disappear and the only rescue dogs would likely come from breed rescues because their breeders had passed away or become too elderly or unwell to honour their return commitment.

A true conservation breeder is honest and transparent about health conditions. Don't confuse this with health testing, as many such conditions can't be tested for. This breeder wants to know if the dog they bred develops a problem, because problems can be genetic and this knowledge will affect breeding decisions they make going forward with the affected dog’s relatives. If your dog develops a condition, the breeder will be knowledgeable and supportive. The breeder will probably ask you to help with research into the condition and will help you to report it to someone in the breed club and to other places where information about disease incidence in pedigrees is collated. I have bred many different animals and I can say with experience that it is unrealistic to expect any species, breed, or bloodline not to have some sort of problem crop up in it from time to time. Living things do that. Health issues have to be weighed against overall breed health and maintaining the gene pool, which is why experienced breeders won’t kill off a bloodline because a relative develops a problem, but they won’t try to hide it and carry on regardless, and will take measures to work away from it and prevent genetics that might be involved with disease spreading uncontrollably. A breeder who claims there are no health conditions whatsoever in their bloodline is likely to be ignorant or lying, and someone to avoid, and a breeder who is more interested in health conditions in other people’s bloodlines than in their own is seriously bad news.

Not a safe and stimulating environment for puppies to grow in
The environment: most of this should probably be common sense. You should see the puppies with their littermates and with the dam. If you’ve reserved a pup and visit at 4 weeks, you should be able to see the dam feeding the pups. If you visit for the first time after 8 weeks, the pups will be weaned and you might not be able to see littermates if they’ve already gone. Don’t be surprised if the bitch just nuzzles the pup’s ears and moves away or growls when it tries to feed from her. Most bitches who have been properly cared for during pregnancy and lactation do not look like a trainwreck afterwards. She might have a bit of a loose undercarriage, have lost a bit of weight, and have a slightly dull coat. On the other hand, some cope better than others and if she isn’t in great condition it’s not necessarily a red flag. The pups and the dogs should be in a house and as there are probably a lot of dogs in the house, there will probably be some signs of wear and tear like chewed-up furniture and grubby walls and doors in the rooms the dogs use. It’s a concern if it’s either pristine or if it’s filthy. A house with several adult dogs and a litter of pups in it will probably not smell like a bed of roses, but there shouldn’t be an overpowering stench and it should never smell of ammonia. Pups being displayed on white lacy pillows surrounded by impossible-to-machine-wash toys in a room looking like a human infant’s bedroom probably means the display is a front and the pups go back out in a shed down the garden once the visitors have left.

"My bitches whelp right here on this seat!" Image: Allan Warren

The breeder should ask questions to determine if this breed is right for you, you’re suitable to have one of their puppies, and which puppy will be the best fit. Even if the breeder doesn’t do a formal temperament assessment, they should have a good idea of the pups’ personalities and strengths and weaknesses from watching and interacting with them. The breeder will suggest a few pups that would be suitable for your needs and explain why, rather than let you pick any pup from the litter on a whim. If you have very specific needs (or other people higher up the waiting list do), don’t be surprised if the breeder doesn’t know which puppy/puppies are suitable for you until 4, 6, or even 8 weeks old. It takes time for their personalities to develop. Please understand that this is for the new owners’ best interests in matching them with the right pup, and do not be demanding and/or mardy about this. If you go to visit the pups and say you want the pup with the pink collar because your kid decided they like that one from seeing a picture on the website, the breeder is probably likely to reconsider if they really want to take your deposit and if the pup they put a little piece of their heart and soul into might be better off with someone else.

No comments:

Post a Comment