Dog Breeding: Mother Nature vs. Science

From "At Large: Killed by Kindness," Dogs in Review, January 2012

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Dogs in Review

You have no doubt heard about the stud dog who was so valuable that he was not allowed to breed bitches except through artificial insemination. It turned out later that he was not capable of breeding on his own at all, and neither were most of his sons. There was also a famous bitch who was not allowed to whelp naturally, because who knows what damage that could have done, so she gave birth to her first litter by C-section — then to three more, also via C-section. And, big surprise, some of her daughters proved unable to whelp naturally. And there was the Best in Show winner who was so precious her owners did an embryo transfer, so their beautiful bitch would be spared the travails of pregnancy — which, of course, means nobody knows what kind of mother she would have been.

When you mess with Mother Nature, as we dog breeders have been doing with varying degrees of success for 150 years now, eventually there’s a price to pay. I seem to hear more often than I used to about dogs who are not able to breed naturally, bitches who have difficult whelpings and don’t know the basics of motherhood. With the advances of veterinary care, somehow there are usually live puppies anyway in the end… but at what price for the future of the species? 

It was refreshing to read that one (but only one) of the seven finalists interviewed for AKC’s “Breeder of the Year” award mentioned a strong reproductive drive and good maternal instincts among the prime considerations when selecting breeding stock. How common are those priorities among show people these days, though? I overheard a couple of successful breeders at a show extolling the wonders of C-sections recently: just let the veterinarian take care of it! Much more practical than a messy natural whelping… but it’s not exactly how things were meant to be, is it?

We’re all a little guilty, I guess: we love our dogs, want to make things easy for them, are eager to make sure that even the weakest puppy of the litter survives. Who knows, after endless efforts that puppy may actually make it, grow up to become a beautiful champion — and continue to reproduce the species, with or without any immediate damage done to its breed.

No, I’m not advocating a return to the days of rough natural selection when a breeder basically peeked into the kennel and thought, “Hmm… Looks like Lizzie had her pups. We’ll see in a couple of weeks what she got!” I certainly don’t have the stomach to just “bucket” a weak puppy. But I am wondering if in the long run we’re doing ourselves and our dogs a disservice by not focusing more on their ability to reproduce naturally, with a minimum of human interference. There are no Best in Show awards for this, but perhaps there ought to be.

Oh, for the record: those dogs I mentioned at the beginning of this column are purely apocryphal: they don’t exist. Their counterparts do, though, and I bet you know at least some of them…

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