AKC eNewsletter

The Sixth Sense

By Gayle Bontecue, longtime breeder of Gayleward Scottish Deerhounds and 2004 AKC Breeder of the Year Hound Group recipient

Two dogs + two months = breeder.

Gayle Bontecue. Courtesy of Gayle Bontecue.

It might seem as if that’s all it takes, but there’s much more to doing it right, producing puppies that will shine—whether they are destined for the show ring or a pet home.

Breeding is a combination of so many separate aspects. It’s similar to building a house from the foundation to the roof. Breeding is an art form, an engineering project—labor and time intensive and an emotional and financial commitment. It is not something to enter into lightly or without adequate preparation.

The best breeders seem to have a “sixth sense,” an intuitive understanding of the breed and of a “line.” It sometimes seems mystical, but there’s no magic involved. It does not happen overnight; nor does it come easy. Time, research, and observation are the only real ways to develop a sound knowledge of the breed, what appears to be a sixth-sense.

Prospective breeders must become students of the breed, absorbing everything they can from the written record, the master breeders and the dogs themselves.

Where should a novice start? Obviously, it would be with the written word — an in-depth knowledge of the very important AKC standard as well as the breed's purpose. If you have a good visual picture of what you want the finished product to look like, you stand a better chance of choosing the best possible parents. Read about the dogs, learn their history and, most importantly, their function, because in the best dogs, form follows function.

The next step would be to seek out the master breeders. Luckily, today there are many ways to find them. This was not the case years ago when I chose the Scottish Deerhound as my life’s passion. I first saw one in the 1940s, when a famous sculptress, and animal lover, imported 70 of them from Europe to save their lives. Like many large breeds, they had practically been wiped out during World War II.

Much time, research and observation help breeders develop a "sixth sense." (Scottish Deerhound; Mary Bloom ©AKC)

When I got my first Deerhound in 1960, it was very difficult to find people knowledgeable about the breed in the United States. I had to travel to England to find experts.

Today, most breed clubs have specialties or supported shows, and most of those shows will have a mentoring program. These mentors, breeders with decades of experience behind them, will discuss the dogs in the ring as they are being shown. There are mentoring programs for fanciers and judges; the process of education is never-ending. Call the show chairman and ask to participate; most will eagerly welcome a person who shows an interest in their breed.

In addition to formal programs, it’s important to watch the judging carefully. Scrutinize the dogs that go back into the ring, not just how they’re built but how they move and their attitude. Then seek out the leaders, the breeders with decades of experience. Look around. See who has been in it for awhile and who has the best dogs.

Then ask questions about a breed’s strengths and weaknesses, about the less obvious specific breed needs certain litters might require. Some more delicate babies, for example, need extra heat, more medical attention, bottle or tubing supplementing, or C-Section, for example.

This is the kind of knowledge you need before even considering the next step — choosing the mating pair. Each breeder may have a very different way to decide on parents. However, in all respects, health and temperament are of the utmost consideration. Research the siblings, parents and veterinary records of potential breeding stock.

Attend shows where your dog’s relatives are being shown. If the relatives do not do well in competition, think twice about breeding your dog. Using a “popular” stud dog can be a tricky decision. Really look carefully at the dog, not the grooming or the handling. Not every heavily campaigned dog makes a good choice for your bitch. Use your own judgment based on research, not a successful marketing campaign.

Once you’ve visually decided upon a combination, go over the pedigree in depth to assess which dogs are closely related or “doubled up” and which are unrelated or “out-crossed.” It is not difficult to find an out-crossed dog with the same physical traits. There is an old adage saying the difference between in-breeding and line-breeding is “...when it works it’s called line-breeding...” I personally think that out-crossing is in the best interest of my breed when it comes to health and temperament.

Do not be in a hurry to breed a litter. Develop an eye for what you like and want, and stick with the needs and purpose of the breed. Be certain to evaluate, and do not hesitate to make changes, as long as they are in the best interest of your breed.

Even if you’ve done your homework and have studied hard to learn as much as you can, there will be surprises. Breeders producing show dogs will always have pet quality puppies available as well.

Before considering breeding a litter, be sure you have planned for every pup’s future, whether they are Best in Show specimens or not. I keep a list of people who are interested in pet-quality puppies. Some of them are willing to wait, sometimes for years, for one of my Deerhounds. It is important to me that all my dogs, not just my champions, have good lives.

Finally, keep in mind that every problem you can think of will most likely arise. Your bitch may need a C-section or there will be health complications with the litter. If you can handle these and you have done your homework on the breed and on mom and dad, go for it. And save your Sunday’s Times.

  Ronald N. Rella, director, Breeder Services
Theresa Shea, editor | Email: AKCbreeder@akc.org
Customer Service | Phone: 919-233-9767 | Email: info@akc.org

© The American Kennel Club 2006