The importance of good data to good breeding
by C.A. Sharp
First published in Double Helix Network News Winter 2010
Some breeders excel at producing quality dogs over the course of decades while others have only a brief flash of success or none at all. The thing that separates those with long-term success from everyone else is the knowledge base they draw upon to make breeding decisions. Some people develop an incredible mental storehouse of information on dogs present and past. If you are fortunate enough to have a capacious and razor sharp memory you are doubly blessed. For most of us, diligent record-keeping is advised.
Even if you do have a great memory, maintaining a comprehensive set of data is a good idea. Age can play games with recall even for the sharpest elder and if nothing is ever recorded, a senior breeder’s knowledge can be lost to subsequent generations. For your own sake and the sakes of those who follow you, gather as much information as you can on your breed and store it in an easily retrievable fashion.
Where to begin?
The first step is knowing what kind of data to collect. Details will vary depending on your breeding goals. A show breeder will have different concerns and priorities than someone managing a guide dog breeding program or breeding competitive performance dogs. But whatever the specifics, information worth storing will fall into three general areas:
- What a dog is
- What it has produced
- What its relatives are and have produced
What the dog is includes its appearance, behavior, skills and accomplishments in competitive events. When using this information keep in mind that some things are highly influenced by environment: The best dog may not win consistently if its preparation and handling aren’t equally impeccable. Even for traits that are entirely a matter of genetics, the appearance or behavior of the dog itself may not reveal its genetic makeup: You can see that a dog is black, but if you could look at its genes you might also know that it carries liver, tan trim and yellow.
The best information you can gather for health is results from DNA screening tests. They aren’t available for all health issues, but where they are they will tell you the genetic make-up of the dog. It doesn’t matter what its ancestors or other siblings were, with these tests you know exactly what the dog can pass along to its offspring.
That brings us to the production record. The more you know about what a particular dog has produced, the better idea you have of its genetic makeup. A dog that consistently produces traits you want is likely to do so again. Hence the old breeders saying, “If you like the son, breed to the father.”
Finally, knowledge of a dog’s extended family will further enhance your understanding of his genetic potential, both for good and for ill. Consider hip dysplasia; breeding the highest scoring dogs to each other will not significantly reduce the amount of HD. However, if you combine hip scores (what the dog is) and information about the hip status of its offspring, predecessors, and collateral relatives (those just off the printed pedigree) you are in a much better position to reduce the risk of producing dogs with HD.
The search begins
Knowing what kind of data you need is only a start. You also need to know where to find it. A lot of useful information can be gathered by personal observation. Watch dogs at events; not just in the ring or arena, but out of it as well. If possible, speak to the owners or handlers and interact with the dogs themselves. If you have the opportunity to observe dogs in their homes or in casual environments, all the better. This is a great way to learn about a dog’s movement, structure, and behavior.
Where available, hard facts are best, but some things aren’t apparent to the eye or a dog that interests you may live somewhere you aren’t able to observe it. Sometimes breeders will share video clips, but these are marketing tools and therefore will be edited to reveal the dog in the most positive light. Networking with fellow breeders and other breed enthusiasts will help fill in the gaps in your data and provide new information. Another breeder may live close enough to a stud that interests you to give you her personal impressions of that dog.
Gathering data through others has its drawbacks; it can take a while before you know someone well enough to determine whether he is an honest and reliable source. You need to develop a filtering system that helps you decide which bits of information you glean from others are trustworthy and which are not. Part of this is learning to become a good judge of human nature, but a simple rule to follow if you have doubts is not to accept something as fact until it is independently confirmed by a second person in a position to know who has no close ties to the first one.
Most breeders maintain a website. These are also marketing tools. Even so, the pictures and other information offered can give you valuable insights into the breeder’s dogs and breeding goals. Some breeders will also post significant health information but this is by no means a regular practice.
For health information, online databases like those offered by OFA and a number of European kennel clubs can tell you about health test results on numerous dogs in your breed. Some health information can be gleaned from breed magazines and newsletters, along with things like titles earned, event results, competitive rankings, and upcoming litters.
Keep in touch with all your puppy people; they hold the best information about how your breeding program is progressing. Dr. Carmen Battaglia, a German Shepherd Dog breeder who writes and lectures extensively on dog breeding, holds an annual picnic for his puppy people and their dogs. This gives him an opportunity to talk to them and see and handle the dogs. He also takes pictures and video for future reference.
Information can be gathered in various forms. Keep a notebook to jot down phone notes and significant observations when you are out and about. Keep copies of correspondence. Collect health screening certificates and other important documents on other dogs as well as your own. Mark your event catalogues; they tell you not only who placed how but provide ownership and parentage information. Don’t neglect visual media. In this digital age collecting and storing stills and video is easy and relatively inexpensive.
The type of information you gather will be dictated by your breeding goals. If you breed your dogs for any type of competition, you will want as much information as you can get about how dogs have performed; not just your own but any dogs whose bloodlines you might someday tap. At any given event, did the dog win, place or was it out of the running? What dogs placed over it? If the event involves a scoring system, what were the scores? Who was the judge?
Environmental issues—weather, a change of handler, a rough trip to the event, etc.—can impact performance, so make note of anything that happened which might have influenced the result.
Once you have enough data on a particular dog, or a related group, you can look at the overall record to see what is consistently good or bad and what isn’t.
If your chosen area of competition is conformation, you need to evaluate and record details of structure and type on multiple generations of dogs. The best system I have come across for doing this is Dr. Carmen Battaglia’s “Stick Dog” concept: Make a 3-generation pedigree of stick-figure dogs – head, ears, neck, body, four legs, and, where applicable, a tail. Make a color coded grading system for excellent, good, fair, and poor. Color each part of the dog to reflect the level of quality. If there is something you don’t know, leave that section uncolored until such time as you are able to check it out. You can make notes about details adjacent to the stick-figures.
If your area of competition is a performance event, you can adapt the stick dog concept to feature color coded symbols for important aspects of performance. For example, if you compete in stockdog trials the outrun (the way the dog leaves the handler and approaches the livestock) is one important aspect of each run. You could use the letters OR, written in or highlighted by the appropriate color of ink. In this case you would not want to base your rating on a single performance. The color coding should reflect the most consistent level of quality for that particular aspect of the overall performance. Again, notes could be added to provide detail.
If your breeding program is aimed at producing dogs for real world function, which could range from family pets to highly trained working animals, the scheme could be tweaked to reflect the key aspects of behavior and physicality pertinent to your particular area of endeavor.
No matter what your major goals for your dogs, temperament, disposition and health should not be neglected. Temperament and disposition are often used interchangeably, but they are different aspects of behavior. The late Vicki Herne told a story that illustrates the difference. Once, while riding the New York subway, she temporarily commandeered an elderly lady’s ill-tempered Yorkshire Terrier to back down a couple of thugs who were harassing the passengers. The dog bit her thumb before he realized his job was to serve as a hand weapon, at which he acquitted himself admirably: The thugs exited the car at their first opportunity. As Vicki said, this dog had a lousy disposition but an excellent working temperament. Notes for this Yorkie might include words like “snappish,” “active dislike of strangers,” and “fearless.”
Health tracking can be complex. Make a list of your breed’s most common and most serious heath issues. Listings of common health concerns can often be found on breed club or breed health organization websites. Some issues with severe health impact may not occur frequently in your breed, but should be noted because you wouldn’t want to double up on genes for that type of trait. Gathering family history is key here. Dogs that have a disease often don’t appear in pedigrees (or their status may have been kept under wraps.) Make note of near relatives of affected dogs as those are far more likely to appear on a pedigree.
Getting Your Ducks In a Row
The best collection of information in the world is useless if you don’t have it stored and organized in a manner that allows you to retrieve it at need. Physical media (paper documents, photos, DVDs, tapes, etc.) should be kept together and organized in files, boxes or on shelves, depending on the media. The storage place should protect the items from incidental damage (weather, rodents, dogs, etc.) Digital records can be kept on your computer’s hard drive, but it is always wise to have a back-up on a flash drive or other storage medium that can be kept physically separate from the computer in case of theft, fire or other disaster.
Some information you may not need to store yourself, at all. For example: All OFA open results are available on the organization’s website and can be accessed at need. It may be easier for you to simply check their website than transcribe the information into your own storage system.
Storage is only half the battle. You have to keep it organized. Maintain individual files on each of your dogs. Information on other dogs might be organized in a variety of different ways: By breeder, area of competition, subject or some combination of these. I’ve found that the easiest way to put data where I can quickly find it is through the use of a pedigree program with a “notes” feature. I jot important things about a dog within it’s record in the pedigree database. If I need to know something about that dog, either for itself or because I’m interested in a relative, I pull up the record and see what’s there. You may not be able to store large volumes of information this way, but a simple note – “MDR1 certificate on file” along with the test result – tells me what I am most likely to want and directs me to a paper file if I need something more.
Finally, no database is ever complete. New things happen every day. You need to continue your data gathering as long as you are breeding dogs. Try not to let the filing or data entry pile up too high. It will make things easier to find when you want them and keep you from becoming overwhelmed by piles of disorganized paper.
Putting it all to work
Once you have your database set up, you can utilize it as a research tool and as an aid to decision-making. In time, it can also help you review your past breedings to check your progress.
Pedigree analysis is the process of reviewing a pedigree to determine what traits – good or bad – you are apt to get in a given mating. The more you know about the dogs in the pedigree (hence the need for your database) the better your educated guesses will be.
For desirable traits, refer to your “stick dog” or equivalent pedigrees. Once you’ve completed this process you can tell at a glance what the strengths and weaknesses are in a given pedigree. Your goal, over time, is to have more and more good and excellent colors across the pedigree. Comparing “stick-dog” pedigrees of prospective mates indicates where they complement each other and what faults you might see in the litter.
“Stick dog” is best for analyzing the traits you want to see. But what about the undesired ones? Since full information on serious faults of conformation or behavior and health issues is virtually never available and because many of these traits are influenced by multiple genes, it is important to consider breadth of pedigree. Find a method of noting not only dogs that had the traits, but their parents and grandparents, as well. That way you can more readily connect the trait to a given pedigree and take it into account before you breed. Not every connection to an unwanted trait is equal. Having an affected dog in the pedigree is a greater problem than having its parent and a grandparent would be an even smaller issue. What generation the dog appears in is also an issue. The parent of a dog will be passing half of its genes to its offspring, but a much smaller number will come down from a great, great grandsire unless he is in the pedigree several times. Finally, the number of dogs in a pedigree that connect to an unwanted trait is important. A pedigree with a dozen connections is apt to be more risky than a pedigree with only one or two. Find a consistent way of scoring a pedigree that accounts for how many dogs with connections to the trait appear in the pedigree, where they appear and what degree of relationship those dogs have to an affected dog. An example of this type of system is explained in the article “Reflections on Pedigree Analysis” (http://www.ashgi.org/articles/breeding_pedigree_analysis.htm)
Not all traits are equal, so you need to setting priorities. What are the traits that are most important to your breeding goals? Which are less so? Health issues that can potentially impact the dog’s soundness or quality of life are a greater issue than something that is readily treated. Keep in mind that your priority list for the litter you plan to have this spring may be somewhat different than the list you will make for the litter that will come from one of these puppies a few years down the line. Your data base will help you track how well you are meeting your priorities and whether something needs to be moved up or down the list.
Pay it forward
Once you have gathered a good amount of data, make concrete plans for what will happen to it when you retire or when you are gone. Do this even if you are relatively young. Stuff happens. What you have learned can help the upcoming generations of breeders, but all your effort and hard work can be lost forever if you don’t get around to making provision for where it should go when the time comes.
It’s said that most people are in dogs for about five years before they move on to something else. Those are not the people who have a lasting positive impact on their breed. A breeder needs to be in for the long haul if she wants to make any real contribution, so planning for both the short and long term is vital. You can’t do this unless you have a supreme grasp of the qualities and drawbacks of a significant number of dogs. The more you know the better. A good, accessible database is key to putting it to use. While quality dogs will form the foundation of your breeding program, information forms the bricks out of which you build the structure and be part of the legacy you leave for those who come after.