Sunday, February 3, 2013

The New Normal

There has been a lot of chatter lately, in my breed anyway, about new breeders. It's a huge and hotly discussed topic so I hope not to diverge too much into rants and personal asides. Let's face it, the dog world needs new people in breeding to carry on the genetics of purebred dogs. The 'old guard' is fading away and without new people to replace them it's a short road to the extinction of something to which many people have dedicated their lives.

There is nothing wrong with being new at something. You are not an expert right away and without at least trying, you will never become good at anything. When a person crosses over from 'newbie' to 'experienced' is based upon the individual and their relative ability to pick up the 'trade'. And let's be honest, there are people who have been breeding for decades who know less than they should! Conversely, some new breeders pick up things easily and are able to understand the dynamics of the purebred dog world with relative ease. Even truly experienced breeders still encounter things they've never seen before so issues with whelping or showing or training that new breeders run into aren't necessarily because they're new, problems can arise anytime and don't care what your experience level might be.

My own experience level lies in the mist.  While I am relatively new to Ridgebacks, I am not new to purebred dogs. I'm sure I ruffled a few feathers when I got Halo and it was assumed I thought I 'knew it all' but I understood that I didn't, and still don't. What I did know was a lot about purebred dogs and although my specific breed experience was not at the level of established breeders, I knew when I was being bullshitted and some people don't like being called out on it - especially by a 'newbie'. Now that I've had a few litters, learned a lot from my Ridgeback breed mentor Erin, I am better able to see the Big Picture and the Finer Details.

I got Halo, showed her, bred her and had 3 litters - although not all in a row (because we've already established no excuse is good enough for that). I did this because, with Erin's guidance of course, after my lifetime of being in purebred dogs, I felt I knew how to do it 'right'. I had a plan (which subsequently changed for various reasons) and I understood what I was trying to accomplish, what my 'vision' was and how to get there. I was also in an educated enough position to know if it was too much for Halo, to keep her in optimum shape, how to evaluate her structure against the boy's, what to say no to, how to whelp a litter, how to choose puppies. I also knew all the stuff that you simply learn over time, the things that new people don't have the benefit of and need to learn over time as well.

There are some things a mentor can't tell you, some things you have to pick up as you go. I just know stuff that isn't really in a book, or online, and often times common sense, a decent set of morals and some ethical responsibility are the only things guiding you. Those may seem simple enough but I have learned the hard way they are a rare commodity when several thousands of dollars is a possibility with a litter. I also had the benefit of a single trusted source of breed information who understood my own experience level and knew that when I disagreed with her I could explain my point of view. I knew the lingo, I knew the shortcuts to information and a lot of things you can't know unless you've been in the dog world for several years.

And when I say world, I mean World. It does no good to skim the surface or ride on coattails, you will never understand the intricacies of anything if you think you only have to learn the bare minimum to be successful. The purebred dog world is truly filled with depth and scope that cannot be completely understood by any one person, it is made up of so much diversity and layers it cannot be explained. There are Breed Worlds within All Breed Worlds and within those are Health Worlds, Training Worlds, Feeding, Grooming, Structure, Handling, Whelping, Performance ... the list is almost endless. To attempt to know it all is impossible, but whether you are new or experienced, you must take it upon yourself to learn more than just how hire a handler to get the wins and how two dogs have sex.

But really, how hard can it be? There are new breeders who are winning right out of the gate, but their success often comes because the experienced people guiding them established the groundwork. That is certainly true for me and Halo - I'll never forget Erin saying that in her spare time she liked to research dog health records and pedigrees because she enjoyed it - now that's commitment. Even with a mentor, in time all new people must pay their dues, just like everyone else that came before them. Eventually you have to stand or fall on your own and the short cuts to success have a price.

Personally I have been soundly disappointed with a few new breeders which is why the most recent puppy I sold to a 'newbie' (who wants to breed) will be the last. Thankfully that person is keen, earnest and wants to learn how to do it right, instead of how to do it fast. I have been wildly impressed with still others who have taken it upon themselves to learn, and learn properly. They aren't looking for short cuts or 'fast tracks' to success. They have grounded themselves in knowledge, researched their own lines, and made decisions about what they want to do in the breed. They maintain contact with their breeders, have established a working relationship and know who to turn to if they have questions. There is little more important in breeding than knowing your lines because what is behind your dogs is paramount to what the future holds. If you lose contact with the breeder of your foundation dogs, genetically, you are going to be in trouble one day. 

You have to start somewhere though and usually it's a bitch. Many people get a purebred dog, try to show, realise perhaps their dog doesn't have the quality required, and after doing some research, get another that is better quality. Sometimes the first dog was always intended to be a pet and they thought they'd like to try showing; sometimes that first dog was sold to them as show quality but was 3rd or 4th pick - whichever it may be, it's a start. I think this is the most common introduction to showing and breeding I've heard although it's obviously not the only way. The point is; people will get a dog, show it, enjoy some success and the natural progression is to want to breed.

Most new people start with a mediocre bitch. Established breeders are seriously unlikely to sell you the pick bitch puppy if you are new to showing or the breed. Unless you can provide outstanding references or have proven your commitment to the breed in some way, you are unlikely to start with anything other than a mediocre to good dog. And there is nothing wrong with that because for one thing - most dogs out there are mediocre to good. Outstanding dogs are rare and do not get sold to newbies. People are constantly describing dogs that, to my eye, are no better than good as "stunning" and thus they have ignored, and sullied, the word and done a disservice to the dog: stunning means exceptional and not everything can be exceptional (not even 5 day old puppies so please do not go advertising your ignorance by saying so on a public forum). Is it okay to breed a mediocre to good bitch? Of course it is, as long as she has been shown to her championship, has her health testing, has a decent pedigree, demonstrates a good temperament and is otherwise a nice dog. Oh, and is bred to a dog that compliments her structure with a view to improve not just her, but the boy as well. It's not all up to the bitch to 'get better', he has faults that need correcting too so don't be afraid to turn away a stud that you think is not right for your girl or who might introduce a fault that you think your girl can't correct or overcome based on her pedigree. It's okay to breed your first purebred dog, really it is, but there is a benefit to doing it with caution.

Being a successful dog breeder is not only about producing puppies. Anyone can throw two dogs together and produce puppies; just look at the full rescues, shelters and pounds across the nation. Success is also not measured by wins at the shows or how many ribbons you can display on your wall; it's measured by your connections, your ability to maintain relationships, networking, and being able to establish lasting friendships within your breed. It's about getting deep into the genetics of the dogs, learning pedigrees, knowing what faults are prevalent and working away from them. It's sinking your teeth into as much information as you can about this crazy purebred dog world. And it's also knowing when you shouldn't breed.

Puppies are cute, there is no question. But they are only cute puppies for a few weeks. After that they turn into little Hell Demon Dogs and only get worse from there. Without the proper support from a breeder who knows what they're doing (and can answer some of the weirdest questions I've ever been asked) those puppies are in trouble. It is not okay to breed just because you love your girl so much or because you love puppies, or you want grand-puppies (which is one of the most pathetic reasons I've heard for a stud dog's prolific use) or you think you'll make a lot of money (yes, we can all do math) or even because your breeder demands a puppy back in your contract. Breed when you are ready, when the bitch is ready, and when you understand the gravity of what you are doing.

Take it seriously, you are producing life. Without taking it seriously, and without doing all the 'right' things', you are no better than a backyard breeder or a puppy mill churning out puppies to make money. The way some new breeders are producing puppies has the words puppy factory on the tip of my tongue.  Take the time to whelp the litter properly. When I see photos of a litter whelped on a couch or a bed I want to reach through the computer screen and shake the breeder. If it starts on the bed move them to the whelping box immediately. If you do not have a whelping box, for doG's sake get one. Put it in another room, shut the door and for the love of all things, do not allow any other dogs access to the litter for at least the first few days. A new mom is stressed, anxious and protective. Do not count on your girl's 'wonderful temperament' to come shining through a whelping - they change into different dogs when they have puppies. That is a Universal Truth. Learn to read your bitch's body language - that 'smile' on her face is actually a grimace of anxiety. Puppies (and dams) have been killed or badly hurt in dog fights over the whelping box. Even if she is allowing other dogs near her litter, please consider the stress she has just been through and give her some damn privacy.

And don't be disappointed with a small litter. Hell, if I could guarantee three or four I'd be delighted. What a breeze that would be; fewer puppies to place, fewer homes to find, and a lot less poop to clean up and I could truly get to know the puppies as individuals before they went to their new homes. A successful litter is not based on quantity (truthfully a successful litter cannot be quantified until the puppies are at least two or three years old) and I would rather have a litter of four outstanding puppies than 10 mediocre ones. If you are looking for large numbers I can't help but think you are looking at the dollar amount affixed to that litter. Recouping the cost of the litter is great, and if you end up with more than you spent that is even better, but don't count on it. And certainly more puppies give you more choice, but if you've done your research and made the right guess (because, in fact, breeding is always an educated guess) you are more likely to end up with a litter of exceptional puppies - and if it's only three you better hope they are really good! Oh, and you don't make back any of the money you put into that small litter and in fact likely lose money. Be okay with that or quit now.

New breeders are allowed to win of course and sometimes win very well, but you can't know it all because of a win record or because you've produced a bunch of puppies. Some are making rash decisions, breeding too much too fast, don't understand their pedigrees, stepping on toes, pissing people off, demonstrating seriously questionable ethics and rationalizing behaviour and breeding practices that, if done by someone who knows what they're doing (*experienced*) would be fine (with caveats) - but done by someone with fewer than 3 years experience breeding pose a danger to not only the future of the breed, but also to the future of the puppies they are placing.

New people do not have a handle on the breed's temperament - there is no possible way someone who has only owned a Ridgeback for 2 years could understand what type of home is required for this breed. Having a mentor helps but ultimately the decision on where to place puppies is up to the breeder themselves. Your life with your dogs is not the life that the people who get your puppies will have - they will train differently, they will ask questions you won't know the answers to, they will feed differently, they WILL listen to their vet over you (despite constant and repeated advice from the breeder advising against certain practices), they will have weird things happen, they will let the dog get overweight, they won't train the way you'd train, and a whole host of other things that you never anticipated. Without understanding the breed very well you will be as lost as they are when they email you. Even with my most recent litter, I second guessed who would get a puppy and whether they would be a good home. Although I realize all breeders do that, likely up until their very last litter, I know my self-doubt comes from the understanding that I am still learning the ins and outs of this breed's temperament, traits, needs and the delicate balance that must be struck with their training. A new breeder, producing litter after litter, could be setting themselves up for a teary call demanding they take back a very badly behaved dog that no one wants to live with.

And this doesn't mean experienced breeders are off the hook - time served doesn't earn anyone a free pass to questionable practices. Don't forget, some of those new breeders are simply following their mentor's advice or example and that doesn't always translate into being a good breeder. We are all guided by our own moral compass but if the person you are relying on for advice is doing things, or making suggestions, that you are not comfortable with or don't agree with, then you are not obligated to blindly follow. I have always told the people who ask my advice to use the information I give them and apply it to their own life and philosophy. I would never expect anyone to blindly do as I say, we are all individuals but my advice, when asked for(and even when it's not), is always exactly what I think. No bullshit. No beating around the bush. I have a reputation for being straight forward and that will never change.

And since you didn't ask, my advice to new breeders is this - slow down. Go forward carefully. Take your time. The life cycle of a dog is so much shorter than our own, what's the rush? Learn about whatever you can at every opportunity. With the Internet and all the information out there you can have no excuse to not educate yourself. There are breed seminars, structure seminars, health clinics, mentorship programs, magazines, books, shows, Facebook groups(breed and all breed), puppy evaluation mentors, and breed clubs with dozens of members just itching to help. Choose a direction, know what you like and know what you don't like. If you don't know how to articulate your preferences, take the time to learn the lingo and be able to say no when you need to. Producing puppies is pretty much the easiest part about being a breeder, but experienced breeders understand that breeding is not just about producing puppies.

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