Being a good breeder is something that we work hard to do. And while that sounds great and checks the moral box, what does that actually look like?
When it comes to breeding, ’good’ means different things to different people, but I would describe it as conscientious, thorough, sincere, focused, and especially, sacrificial.
Breeding dogs is expensive, and there are ways to do this cheaper, no doubt, but I’m not sure I know how to do it better. There are always consequences to every choice that we make. When we try to economize by cutting a corner here and skipping a protocol there, it’s not we who have to live with the results, but an average of 10 dogs and 10 families – 20 lives, minimum – per litter that can be affected by the day in day out consequences of our choices, so I’m not super anxious to wing it and “just breed a litter”.
Most people have no idea what is entailed in dog breeding. There are a few popular misconceptions that breeders are only in it for the money (though some are), and that all you have to do is put two dogs together and nine weeks later, out pops the money! (I think those peeps are actually thinking of an ATM). If you’ve known or followed our farm for any length of time, you won’t be surprised to hear that we don’t think that way.
Good Breeder or Bottom Feeder?
But would you be surprised to hear that it cost well over $10,000 to produce our first litter? And I didn’t even get every single thing on my list (I was pretty sick at the time). From acquiring, caring for, and health testing their parents, to nutrition, whelping, and raising the litter, which includes DNA testing the puppies, food, litter box pellets, vaccinations, worming, vet exams, microchips, puppy starter kits, and so much more.
So. Much. More.
For example: Everyone loves buying a puppy from throughly health-tested parents, especially when it comes to hip testing, and with good reason. We’ve lived the reality of severe Hip Dysplasia with our dear Newf, Tess, which is another story for another time. But what does “hip testing” really mean? For us, that means over $800, for one set of films – and no guarantees. This means that we will have to wait until next month for some other projects that need doing, like upgrading the coop. We taught our children that you can’t spend the same dollar in two different places, and boy is that true! One of our priorities is to maintain a debt-free farm and breeding program, which means that we are constantly prioritizing and making choices. And in the middle of a pandemic, every choice is that much bigger. And the cold splash of water is that we’re not paying for a good outcome, but for an accurate x-ray, evaluation, and report, regardless of the results. It can go either way.
“So go some place cheaper.”
The thing with hip testing is that not all tests are the same. The two big players in this area are OFA and PennHip. They both require x-rays, and they both depend mightily upon the skill of the person taking the x-rays. I’m not talking about pressing the button that fires the machine, but specifically the *positioning* of the dog, which is easier said than done. It requires precise alignment of the spine and tail, pelvis, hips, and knees. If any one of these is off, even just a little bit, it’s impossible to accurately measure the dog’s true hip structure, which can give skewed results.
But PennHip doesn’t accept films from any vet like OFA does. A PennHip vet receives specialized training and is certified by Antech to ensure that precise films are being captured, as PennHip measures various points within the hip joint itself, from three different angles. We chose PennHip over OFA as our primary hip evaluation tool, as research has shown that this test is effective in helping breeders to make better breeding decisions that improve the rate of Hip Dysplasia over time. We chose this particular vet because he is known to do a good job of positioning dogs; since dogs have to be sedated for PennHip (hello MDR1), we would rather pay a bit more to get it right the first time as well as minimize a dog’s exposure to sedation and anesthesia.
The bigger picture is that it’s not an x-ray for an injury or a short-term need. We’re looking to assess the fitness of a breeding animal, which can directly affect the dogs’ lives and their families’ lives, and indirectly, every other breeder, puppy, and owner that is downstream from this dog. $800 starts to sound like a bargain when you really think about it.
There are soooo many moving pieces to breeding dogs, and hip testing is just one of them. DNA testing adds an easy $300 per dog, not to mention vet exams and expenses to breed a litter once we clear a dog for our program. And this doesn’t cover time, effort, travel and transportation, emergency c-sections, high hopes, dashed hopes, the time and expense to provide the website you’re reading right now, a camera or smartphone to capture the story and share it, the time to write about it, or even a silly thing like the time and expense getting bias tape for newborn puppy identification but oh wait I chose the wrong colors these are all too much alike so gotta go back to the store and rebuy now that I know better. Travel to town and back home, plus time to gather better colors is about an hour shot on just that one teeny, tiny detail that is actually a very big deal when raising a litter. And so many things happen just like that. Fortunately, Avidog has my back on most of it, but some things you just have to learn by trial and error (and error).
I’m in the gathering stages now for our next litter. The list is long and includes some bigger ticket things that we just couldn’t swing the first time because of timing, such as a new whelping box, Wonder Fleece, medical equipment, the go bag for ER trips (just in case), and the dream big items such as a Rover enclosure for the weaning pen, ultrasound device, and a few other things. It’s breathtaking. But every time I see Bixby work with the birds, with her attention to the sky, her surroundings, and the birds themselves, I am only more convinced that other people would benefit greatly from her genetics as well, and that it would be a shame to lose them forever.
I hope that when all is said and done, and my life is just a memory, that this work will have helped people and dogs to live happier and healthier lives together, and maybe even make the world a little bit better. If I can do that, I think I will have been a good breeder.
“Dogs are good people.”
– Dad (1934 – 2017)