What's Makes a Good Breeder and How Do you Find One?
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
The more I learn about breeding and talk with other breeders, the more I realize how entirely opaque the process good breeders follow is to the general public. I've talked to so many people in rescue about how I build emotional resiliency in my puppies and how good breeders do similarly through protocols like Avidog, Puppy Culture, a mix of the two, or their own tailored protocols built over decades of breeding or built from a variety of protocols including the above as well as procedures from experts like Pat Hastings, Leslie McDevitt, and Ian Dunbar. I myself have a puppy Foundations Series designed to help get your puppy off on the right paw, so to speak. And if you're interested in buying a puppy, I always encourage potential new owners to look into the various puppy raising protocols to learn not only which breeders are extensively socializing their litters, but to also understand what breeders are doing and why.
How did I get from a Adopt, Don't Shop, mixed designer breed rescue dog owner to someone embarking on a journey breeding dogs? I got lucky and had some great first dogs to start. And I really do stress that I got lucky. Argos had been in the rescue for under two weeks. They didn't know his true temperament and had very limited knowledge about his background. He ended up being a wonderful starter dog for me as an adult. Ash, on the other hand, had some truly wonderful rescuers and foster homes, but several plane flights and a number of different foster homes in a short time was hard on him and it took him a very long time to rebound. Not to mention I had to deal with extensive health issues and vet bills for both Argos and Ash. Were they worth it? Yes, absolutely, but there were also many struggles that were not terribly enjoyable for me to work through.
When I started looking for an Azawakh, I looked at rescue options first. I wasn't in a hurry and had connections in sighthound rescue, so while Azawakh rescues are rare, they do occasionally happen. The first rescue that became available was a very good fit actually, but I learned that both I and my husband needed surgery, so the timing was off. The next chance was actually the same rescue boy being rehomed for reasons beyond his control. I chatted with the owner, who was very devoted to her Azawakh and she eventually ended up keeping him. My last chance at a rescue was from the big Azawakh rescue in California over three years ago. It was eventually decided that I lived too busy a life for one of those rescues and that decision was likely true.
About a year into my search for the right Azawakh, I started researching breeders and learning about the various options available to me. At the same time that the Azawakh rescue was happening in California, I saw a breeder who was open and honest. She took the time to answer questions and I loved the look of her Azawakh. I reached out and corresponded quite frequently with her. She answered all my questions and was very kind to someone talking to a breeder for the first time. I ended up getting Anubi from Cecile Roland (Azawakh du Haras de Crouz) and I never looked back.
Buying a puppy for the first time was a big learning curve. I had researched extensively (I get a bit obsessive about research) and knew the questions to ask: health testing, pedigree, puppy raising protocols, etc. But I worried that I would make a mistake and the process was slow. I reached out to Cecile more than a month before the puppies were born and then had to wait until Anu was four months to pick him up from France. That meant I ended up waiting well over five months total, which was a wait time I'd never experience before with a dog (keep in mind this was after almost three years looking for a good fit). With Ami, I waited for over six months before bringing her home. I reached out to her breeder, before Ami's mother was even bred. I don't mind waiting, but it is very different from my other experiences where I saw a dog posted online, contacted the shelter/rescue about them and then had my dog a couple of days to weeks later. It's something that has helped me understand what the general buyer is going to be expecting when they go looking for a dog. It's why I will always refer an owner looking for a puppy immediately to other breeders who might be breeding sooner than me.
Once I had Anubi and discovered showing him was hard, but rewarding work, realized he was an eager worker, saw his love and skill at lure coursing, and noted that despite being a spooky teenager, he still had a phenomenal temperament. That was when I started to consider breeding. While I was part of the Adopt, don't Shop crowd forever, I've never truly been anti-breeder. I admired purebred show dogs immensely, but considered them rather out of my league. Throughout my journey showing Anubi, I got the chance to talk to a huge number of breeders and that was when I really started to learn what good breeding is about.
I brought home Amidi knowing that her pedigree was different than Anubi's, had good genetic diversity, included individuals who aren't common in every pedigree, and had lovely, moderate dogs. I got lucky that she matches Anubi as well as she does. Looking back, I would have made the same choice about bringing her home, but even with extensive research, there was still so much I didn't know.
Good breeding is all the things you don't see:
Learning a dog's pedigree, because if you don't know what's behind your dog, you don't know what traits might appear that aren't present in your personal dog.
Showing and trialing your dog - plus building that bond with your dog is more important than any Champion or individual title. And while most sports will never be a complete substitute for judging how well a dog fulfills their original purpose, it's a good facsimile and useful tool in the toolbox.
Understanding the male dogs (studs) available within your breed population. It is understanding which is a fit for your dog. Which isn't. And which dogs might just need some more time to respond. It is understanding that just because your bought a bitch hopefully to fit with your dog, that doesn't mean she'll be a good match when she's fully grown up. It is understanding that breeding the same pairing over and over isn't contributing to the genepool in an impactful and meaningful way.
It is reading about population genetics. It is understanding that Coefficient of Incest has value. It is understanding that pedigree COI is different than genetic COI. It is understanding that genetic COIs can vary by company and how they're measured. It's understanding that a high COI isn't always bad and a low COI isn't always good and a good pairing is going to vary by breed and the individuals involved.
It is continuing your education and furthering your learning. Pushing your boundaries. Attending or watching seminars. Listening to Pure Dog Talk and Good Dog Pod and other information podcasts on your commutes and long hauls to trials. It is reading every expert on the topic of breeding, whelping, and puppy raising.
It is being discerning and knowing which of the information you are going to prioritize, which of it you are going to weigh carefully, and which of it you're going to discard. It is knowing that with your next pairing or in a different breed that information might be handled completely differently.
It is finding mentors and friends and collaborators. It's bouncing ideas off of friends at 1am in the morning when you can't sleep. It's spending a day talking through population genetics and how they vary by breed. It's talking through every single intact male in the country to find a good match. It's traveling states away to attend your National Specialty to see all the dogs in your breed. It's visiting your breeder and fancier friends and meeting their dogs whenever you're in the area.
It is about being honest about your dog's faults. It's about getting the honest opinion of other people in your breed. It's about getting the honest opinion of professionals that should know your breed (and understand when they don't know your breed as well as they think). It's about saying "Thank you" with a smile on your face when your dog is torn to shreds. It's about thinking through that information carefully and deciding how much of it you agree with.
It's about learning the history of your breed and respecting it. It's about honoring and preserving a living piece of the past.
It's learning about the health issues within your particular breed, learning what lines those issues are present in, and taking whatever steps you can to prevent those issues from popping up in future puppies. It's about what health issues are and aren't prevalent.
It's about building emotional resiliency in your puppies - allowing them to learn how to cope with the world by themselves and being there for them every single step of the way when they struggle or fail. It's about setting them up for success but allowing them to fail and learn and try again harder and better.
It's about supporting your puppy owners. And finding good puppy owners. It's about being open and visible and transparent. It's about being honest when a placement isn't good and taking your puppy back if they need to find a new home.
None of that is obvious to the public. Not to other fanciers. Not to other breeders. None of it. All of that are things good breeders are doing quietly, behind the scenes. You know my opinions because I share them, unasked. You know my philosophy, my training methodology because I am archiving them in my blog. But that's not standard. And before you jump down my throat about other breeders being bad and not transparent, remember that this type of transparency isn't standard anywhere. When you attend a play, you don't know the intricacies of how the scenery moves, the precise ballet of finagling props and scenery into position so they can make their entrance as perfectly as every actor. It just happens. I don't know the technicalities of being a good plumber, but I know how to find a good one. I don't know how to repair a car, but again, I know how to source a mechanic. Learn how to find a good breeder, but understand that it has the same breadth of knowledge required as a full time profession.
I believe in transparency. If there is a health problem with one of my dogs, you can one hundred percent trust I am going to disclose that in a public forum, because the potentially affects the entire breed, not just my own dogs. And at the very very least, I am going to discuss this extensively with my puppy people, because it is directly relevant to their own dogs. But the level of information I share and present is at least a part-time (sometimes almost full-time) job. Other breeders aren't trying to hide this information from you. Reach out to them. Ask about their procedures. Make friends with them. Offer to help them whelp. Or socialize puppies. Or to proof a litter announcement.
If you are interested in sighthounds, go to a lure coursing trial or a race meet. Over the summer I got to sit in on a critique of several 8 week Pharaoh Hound puppies where no less than five breeders who breed four different sighthound breeds examined them and weighed in. It was an incredible opportunity and I learned an unbelievable amount and it's all because I've been attending coursing trials and race meets, made friends, and showed up. You want to learn how to show? Go to a dog show, typically (when it's not COVID) they're open to the public and often free admittance. You want to get a performance border collie? Go to a herding trial or agility or flyball. You want an awesome pet? Find a breeder of the breed you like (whether they're the right breeder for you or not) and get to know them. More than likely they can point you in the direction of a good fit for you.
I haven't bred a litter yet. But I have helped train and socialize literally hundreds of puppies, sometimes as young as six weeks on. I have spent literally hundreds of hours listening and reading everything I can find on ethical breeding. I have developed a network of breeder friends who I can turn to if I have a question (and I always do). I've come to understand that everything is just a tool in my tool box. Are hips and eyes a problem in Azawakh? No, not typically, but it gives me more information about the state of my own dogs. Is having the #1 LGRA Azawakh important? Not exactly, but it informs me what makes a fast Azawakh (which isn't always the one that conforms closest to the standard). I am not ever basing my decisions on one particular factor. Every decision, for me, is multi-faceted and I have found that true of most good breeders.
Might I breed an Azawakh that was equivocal on their thyroid panel (I know of a couple Azawakh who have had equivocal results)? If the line was rare, if the temperament and structure were sound, and if I had the right match with a strong history of healthy thyroid function then I absolutely would.
Am I new to breeding? Yes. Does that make me inherently unknowledgeable? I sure hope not after the time I've invested learning. And one thing I can assure you is that I am going to do things the best way I know how and as soon as I find a better way of doing things then I am going to adapt and change based on that new knowledge.