Should You Breed Your Bitch?

by Pat Randall 

The decision of whether to breed a bitch is obviously one of the most fundamental we have to make. It is the essence of “selective breeding”—which dogs will contribute to the next generation and which will not. It’s one thing to deal in platitudes: “the only reason to breed is to improve the breed,” and another to actually deal with the practical decisions about flesh and blood dogs, each of which has strengths and shortcomings.

In short, we could avoid producing any problems by never breeding anyone—a solution that would be welcomed by many activist groups. We subject our bitches to considerable risk every time we breed them—a risk that can be avoided— again, by never breeding. In order to subject the bitch to the risks involved and put in the time, work, money, and energy to do a breeding, we have to be very convinced, indeed, that having Newfoundlands in the world is much better than not having Newfoundlands in the world.

Genetic Diversity Versus Selectivity

Given that we want to breed, and are willing to put in the time and work necessary, we have to deal with a basic conflict: genetic diversity versus selectivity. In the last 10-15 years it has become very fashionable to worry about genetic diversity within purebred dogs. There are constant complaints about “inbreeding,” which is usually equated with breeding for show without regard to health. On the other hand, we are asked to “breed only the very best” and “breed only to improve the breed.”

The more we work to maintain diversity, the less selective we can be. In theory, by breeding only the best, we would only use one stud dog, and breed him once to only 10 percent or so of the bitches—just enough to replace the high quality specimens in the breed. At the other extreme, we would breed everything with the idea that we need to avoid losing any alleles at all in the population. Clearly, both of these extremes are absurd—so there must be some compromise between them that approaches an optimum.

In this respect, the most obvious thing distinguishing bitch from dog selection is that we can afford to be much more selective with dogs than bitches. Far from meaning that any bitch will do, it is clear that the reproductive lifespan of the dog is greater as is his reproductive capacity during the lifespan. It takes far fewer males than females to maintain the population. We might expect a theoretical selection differential possibly as great as ten females to every male. Even in practice we might expect something like an overall ratio of 3:1, i.e. three times as many bitches required to produce the next generation as males.

With bitches, then, we are more likely to be dealing with the nuts and bolts of prioritizing faults and breeding in spite of some shortcomings. We are faced squarely with the decision of what faults we are willing to live with (or at least put off to a later breeding) and which we are not.”

Interestingly, examination of several Annual of Titlists and several National catalogues suggests a real practice of something like 1.2-1.3:1 (bitches to dogs) in that, admittedly very selective population of Newfoundlands. We probably are either being more selective than necessary with bitches or less selective than we might be with dogs. I would suspect the latter. On the other hand, we could consider it to be a healthy respect for maintaining diversity.

The second factor that is asymmetric between male and female strategies is that as an individual breeder you obviously have a much greater choice of males than females.

You must own or lease a bitch to make decisions about its reproductive life. On the other hand, with an acceptable bitch you can, in theory, go to dogs across the country or even the world, a solemn thought for anyone thinking they are going to “put their dog out to stud.” With shipment of chilled semen and more definitive timing tests, the likelihood of successful breedings with distant dogs is that much greater. Even in the face of this choice, we are constantly amazed at how narrow that choice becomes when we start contemplating a breeding, meaning that the effective population size that most breeders work with is probably much smaller than you would expect from AKC statistics.

Progeny Testing

Because of the differences in reproductive capacity and lifespan we can make much more use of progeny testing with dogs than with bitches. It is much easier to make decisions about which male to go to based on previous get than it is to decide about future breedings of a bitch based on previous get. With the male, you obviously have the potential of seeing a much greater number of previous offspring with a much wider variety of mates. Since information on previous get is the only information that is actually more reliable than information about the dog itself, this is not an inconsequential difference.

Unfortunately, the first screening of bitches is usually done at an early age. Unless you have the resources to keep a lot of bitches, you often don’t have the luxury of comparing them as adults and making decisions between them at that point. If you can keep many, you have your work cut out for you to make sure that they don’t suffer from lack of socialization or lack of attention. You will be responsible for raising and training many bitches who you will eventually place in “pet” homes. Instead, you’ve already made a preliminary selection when you decided who to keep (or put in a reliable co-breeders care) and the decision later becomes whether to breed a particular bitch or not rather than which one to breed.

Bottom line: it is easier to decide to prioritize than to honestly do it. The main considerations that we have are: 1) we have particular things that we want to get out of breeding a bitch when we do it and it has to be important enough to us that we want to keep something from the breeding, and 2) we have to be able to, at least in a general way, plan the breedings we would eventually like to do with the resulting puppies. It’s clear that the pool of available mates may be different by the time the planned puppies are ready to breed, but if we can’t figure out what we would do with them now, it’s unlikely we will be able to figure it out when the time comes.

Absolute Priorities

We do have a couple of absolute priorities that can immediately eliminate dogs from breeding plans, hearts (SAS), temperament, and severe orthopedic problems that are likely to have a strong genetic component (predominantly hips and elbows) or that make breeding a greater risk to the bitch than normal (we have had a bitch with a congenital malformation of the pelvis), and any serious structural problem. Any severe shortcoming in type becomes an elimination factor simply because there is little compelling reason to do the breeding—she does not represent the direction we want our breeding program to go.

There are several things that we pay a great deal of attention to: skin problems, shoulder layback and upper arm length, attitude, bone, topline, balanced gait, angulation, coat, cystinuria status. These are things that often determine who the bitch gets bred to. We spend a lot of time looking at movement at both stages of selection, i.e. as a puppy and later as an adult.

I think that this “two-tiered” selection procedure is the most common one for breeders with modest resources. One other situation is the novice that decides (or someone urges them) to breed a bitch originally purchased as a companion dog. Ninety-nine times out of a 100 the answer is “don’t do it.” Occasionally this happens successfully, but it should be at an experienced breeder’s urging (hopefully the breeder of the bitch in question) and that breeder must be willing to help and take some of the responsibility for the breeding.

I’ve heard it said a number of times that the future of the breed lies in the quality of the bitches. To some extent this is true, since we will be breeding more females than males and we must have considerable depth of quality in the population of bitches in order to make progress in future generations.

reprinted from Newf Tide 2Q 2001