Thursday, October 24, 2013

How many litters?

I was recently asked a question that led me to write out a bunch of thoughts that have been germinating for some time. After writing it all up for her, I thought it might be worth sharing with a larger audience.
In my job as a humane educator, I am often called on to promote the adoption of shelter dogs over anything else, and spend a fair amount of time teaching people the difference between a "puppy mill" and a "responsible breeder." I have a general list of things that I give people to think about, but I am always refining my own personal thoughts and feelings about such topics, so I thought I would throw it out there for more input in tweaking my list and counseling people who for whatever reason choose to purchase a dog rather than getting one from a sheltering situation, as obviously I have myself on several occasions. I can easily articulate my own reasoning and criteria, but I always like to add to the list of things to look for and things to avoid.

I have heard you should "never" breed a bitch more than once a year or certainly never back to back, and that a bitch should be never be bred more than 4 times etc... and I don't know that these "commandments" are necessarily all that black and white. How do you decide how often to breed a bitch and when to retire--even if she is an exceptional mother producing wonderful pups like Xita is? How much is too much? 

I don't think it's that clear-cut — a single number is not going to be the right answer for all cases, and I think it's a false premise to try to dictate one-size-fits-all rules. I have bred Xita back to back once already—after she went 8 months between heat cycles. So, I will breed two seasons in a row if the dog is in good shape and it's the right decision for many other reasons. However, one must always place great importance on the welfare and happiness of the dog. That can't be broken down into a simple rubric of A is right and B is wrong.

First off, the question arises: What is the objection to breeding? What is really the reason this is argued to be a bad thing?
1.       Is it overpopulation?
2.       Is it the fear of finding good homes for the puppies?
3.       Is it a concern for appeasing someone else's agenda?
4.       Is it concern for "oversaturating" the breed with a certain bloodline?
5.       Is it fear for the health of the female in the short or long term?

Blackthorn's Loch, RN, OFA Excellent, spent his first 4 years as an active companion.
His owner was unable to keep him, so he came back to me.
He is now training for his "second career" as a mobility service dog.
As far as overpopulation, I think of the following questions: Are the puppies being produced likely to end up in a shelter; are the people who would be interested in these puppies ones who would otherwise be getting a dog from rescue or a shelter; are the puppies able to contribute something that is hard to find elsewhere?  To reply, I look at what is happening with the puppies I am responsible for producing. These puppies come with lifetime support and also a “golden parachute”—any puppy of mine can come back to me at any time. The homes that are found are carefully selected and no pup should ever end up in a shelter or rescue situation (hasn't happened in 17 years as far as I know). The people getting puppies from me have considered and discarded the idea of rescue and shelter dogs for various reasons—but whenever it seems like that might be the better choice, I do mention it as an option. The reasons why they want a purebred GSD are varied—but in all cases, I know that it has been a thoroughly considered decision.

The second objection depends entirely on the breeder and the market--I have not had problems finding homes and I have the means and space to keep any dog until such time as it finds an appropriate home. 

Outlaw and Musket -- both stayed with me until they were young adults.
Outlaw is now titled in Rally and is working as a Therapy Dog in a VA hospital. Musket is working toward SAR certification.
The third objection, appeasing someone else's agenda, or making a decision just because it's "said" to be the right action, I discard out of hand--I refuse to make my decisions based on some generic dogma. I would rather base my decisions on facts, the dogs before me, and current best practice as determined both by years of experience and scientific research.

Blackthorns' Oda, RN, PT (OFA H&E)
As far as concern for "oversaturating" the breed--from Xita's first litter, one female (Oda) has been bred (in 3.5 years, so far), two more (Organa, herding titled, OFA Excellent, and Onyx, Int. Ch, RA, BN, TDI, OFA Good) may be bred but haven't yet been. In her 2nd litter, no puppies will reproduce--the females have all been spayed and the males have no plans to be bred (neutered, or in a non-breeding working home). In her 3rd litter, the dogs are too young (about 18 months), but only one of the females is unspayed; 2 of the males and 1 of the females are working toward titles and health certifications and *may* be bred. Her 4th litter is still younger.

In Xita's case, we are also starting with some rare bloodlines that are hard to find and even more rare to find where they are being bred with careful regard for health, temperament, and titles. (So many good DDR bloodlines are now most commonly found in the hands of breeders who pay no attention to titles, have little knowledge or regard for the breed standard, and all too often don't even x-ray hips or elbows on the dogs they breed.)

V Xita vom Ludwigseck, Sch1, Kk1a
Xita herself is V-rated (“Excellent” conformation evaluation), schutzhund titled, and breed surveyed (this entails hip and elbow x-rays, a dental exam, measurement of height and weight, two separate conformation evaluations, a 12-mile endurance test, and a working title in either IPO/schutzhund or herding), and she comes from generation upon generation of V-rated, breed surveyed, working titled dogs. (Not all of the dogs I breed are surveyed or schutzhund titled, but I still place great value on the genetic history that comes with a pedigree full of dogs who were screened carefully before breeding.) Xita’s breeder (and her family) have been in the breed for more than 50 years in Germany, so she was produced with those years of knowledge going into creating her. Her puppies are working as therapy and education dogs, SAR dogs, service dogs (in various areas), and in herding, obedience, agility, tracking, and schutzhund. They are versatile and generally healthy and very sane.  

So I find the fear of oversaturation inapplicable in this case.
Blackthorn's Oda, RN, PT (OFA Good H&E)
The primary objection that I place value on, then, is concern for the health and welfare of the breeding female.
In and of itself, having puppies does not cut a bitch's life short, it doesn't "suck the life" out of her. It doesn't shorten her lifespan, either. Some research has found that females not spayed until after 5 years of age live an average of 3 years longer than females spayed in their first year. Nike had 7 litters, her last one born when she was 9 (her last litter was going to be the I litter, but she made no girls in that litter, so I tried one more time to get a Nike-Ash daughter--the J pups). She's now 15 and in better shape than any GSD I've ever seen at this age. Another friend of mine had a bitch live to be 16--that female had 4 or 5 litters in her lifetime. Breeding does *not* reduce a female's lifespan in and of itself.

Nike (Ike v Del U Haus, Sch2, KK2, OFA) at age 14
If proper nutritional support is given, a female will should recover quickly from her litter. In her last litter, Xita gained weight after giving birth and while nursing her pups. Breeding back to back is not inherently a problem for a female--in fact, many reproductive vets recommend breeding back to back to back while a female is young--they say it is harder on a female's uterus to go through heat cycles without getting pregnant.

Xita, after caring for a litter of 12 puppies (S litter) for 7 weeks
However, if a female is left to fend for herself in a rabbit hutch in the back yard or chained to a dog house in the mud, yes, of course she is going to go down in health with the nutritional drain of the puppies. But the problem there isn't that she is having puppies, it's that she's not given proper care or nutrition in the first place.

All that said, having puppies is inherently hazardous to your female. Bitches can die during or after labor. A c-section is major surgery—one that will risk her life. It is not a decision to be made lightly--for human or animal.

Hunter with one of the N puppies
When looking at how many litters a female has and at what age you stop breeding her, I think it’s as important to look at when a female starts having puppies. Hunter had 2 small litters at ages 4 and 5 and was done—not because of any decision of mine, but because she could never get pregnant again. Jubilee’s first litter was at age 4, and I think that was too late—I think her body would have been more receptive if she’d been bred younger (she had a more difficult time breeding and giving birth than I would have liked). Xita’s first litter was after she turned 3. Oda’s first litter was when she was 2.5. Nike’s first litter was born when she was nearly 3.5. These are adults who begin having puppies—they’ve been given the chance to mature fully both mentally and physically. They had time to demonstrate both their true personality and their general health—they’ve been evaluated as adults, not based on how they seemed at 8 months or 12 months or 18 months.

Nike age 13, surrounded by grandchildren
One thing I keep in mind, too, is the desirability of breeding for long-lived dogs—not dogs who die at age 2 or 3 or 5, but trying to breed for dogs who will live, as a matter of course, 10 years or 12 years or 15 years. It takes a very long-term outlook to try for this—because, of course, you pretty much can’t breed a bitch who has already demonstrated her longevity (although, there is some opportunity using frozen semen from males), because by the time she has demonstrated her healthy long-lived genes, she is too old to have puppies. But, at the minimum, in seeking to breed for longevity, there is much to be said for breeding an older female who has demonstrated her physical, genetic, hardiness and overall good physical and mental soundness well into maturity (as well as her ability to pass on those elements to her puppies), and much to be said against breeding a bitch or dog who is very young.

Xita and a couple of the U puppies
The other question I never hear brought up is whether a bitch likes having puppies. Danca was very clearly *done* at age 7--the pups hit 3 weeks, I started feeding them, and she pretty much walked away with hardly a glance back. She was bored with it and didn't want to take care of pups any more. Nike, at age 10, was still trying to convince me that she could take better care of Danca's puppies than Danca could and that I should just give them all to her. She felt that way until she was about 12--then she finally stopped trying to sneak into the whelping boxes. 

Is a bitch bored or fulfilled by having the pups? Do they enter into the endeavor happily and enjoy the process—breeding, pregnancy, tending puppies, feeding, weaning, and then playing with them? In Xita's case, she absolutely enjoys every part of the process--she especially seems to love hanging out with and teaching her puppies from the age of 4-8 weeks--she teaches them to nurse without biting her and lets them nurse up past 8 weeks! She teaches them how to play and how to read dog language. Even though Oda is 3 now, she still enjoy her daughter’s company in a very motherly way.

So, for me, in my decision process, I don't weight the number of litters very heavily. My general rule of thumb is that if I do a back-to-back breeding (which I very seldom have done), then I will make sure the mom gets a year off afterwards.

Jubilee and her son Storm (Reckless)
I try to make sure my females are happy and fulfilled and healthy. I try to make sure that they enjoy being bred, they enjoy being mothers, and that they enjoy living here whether or not they are pregnant. The pregnant girls get lots of extra attention, so they also tend to enjoy that aspect of motherhood.

One final aspect that I haven't mentioned so far, and that none of the propaganda talks about, is how are the puppies turning out? Are they healthy? Are they physically sound? Are they attractive physically--are they correct for the breed? Are they good at whatever their jobs may be? Are they capable of doing what they are bred to do? In the case of my dogs, I am breeding for versatility—not just for one sport or one job or just to be pets. And, then, are they better than most of the other GSDs out there? Are they an improvement on the breed? (Tens of thousands of GSDs are bred in the US every year. I haven't seen the more recent figures, but back around 1999, I think it was 65,000 AKC registered GSD pups in a year!)

So, I have come around to thinking that it is far better to produce healthy, sane, handsome, correct puppies, as long as there are people who are interested in them from me, than it is to try to bend to someone else's idea of what is OK or not OK to do.

Happy momma
If all the good, responsible, careful people who want to breed are deterred by all the rules and propaganda from breeding because they are trying to do what they are told is right, then we will be left with the vast majority of puppies being produced by those who don't care what others say is right, who don't care about the well-being of their females or their puppies, and who don't try to take a responsible and well-educated approach to breeding.

There's no way that can be a good result.