AKC eNewsletter

Filling the Knowledge Gap:
It takes more than good luck to produce exquisite show dogs.

By Mara Bovsun

Basset Hound/Courtesy of Claudia Orlandi
Claudia Orlandi and one of her Toppsfield Bassets.

Breeding quality dogs is among the most challenging of human endeavors, combining several scientific disciplines—genetics, nutrition, and biomechanics—with aesthetics, that innate “eye” for a dog that comes close to the image of perfection that is described in the breed standard.

While some luck is involved, being a good breeder is more than a matter of putting two animals together and hoping for the best. Nevertheless, there is no school, no licensing, no certification programs for people interested in meeting the challenge.

Where can breeders go for advice? Good mentors are essential, but even the best mentors—master breeders with decades of experience—acknowledge that there is always something new to learn. A wealth of knowledge can be found in books, but many volumes, especially those on genetics and nutrition, are written for scientists and may be beyond the grasp of those not schooled in the specialty. Also, some of the best books are out of print and hard to find.

In 2004, the AKC and the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) took an important step toward filling the knowledge gap by establishing a series of breeders’ symposia. Hosted by the AKC and CHF and often held at the nation’s most prestigious veterinary colleges, these meetings bring breeders of all levels together with experts from key areas of canine health, behavior, and reproduction.

More than 100 people attended the first AKC breeder symposium for 2007, held in January at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. It featured presentations on genetics, assisted reproduction, nutrition, heart disease, behavior, and vaccination.


Following is a sampling of highlights.

“ABCs of Dog Breeding,” speaker Claudia Orlandi
The booming young science of genetics can be particularly valuable when choosing mating systems, says Claudia Orlandi, Ph.D., author of the book ABCs of Dog Breeding.

In the symposium’s opening presentation, Orlandi said, “Breeding is an art and a science.” She then described several tools for building a solid program. Some of the most important are:

“Genetics gives us rules,” Orlandi said. “If we break these rules we increase our chances of producing inferior dogs, with the possibility of more health problems, and we waste time and resources.” Her presentation explained such concepts as dominant and recessive genes, polygenic traits, additive and threshold traits, and heritability.

Breeding Systems
“If you only take away one thing from this presentation, I would like it to be an understanding of definition of inbreeding/linebreeding because there is still a lot of confusion in this area,” Orlandi said.

For a dog to be inbred (or linebred), there must be an ancestor common to the sire and the dam in the first three or four generations, she explained. A common ancestor behind both parents increases the chances that a higher percentage of genes from this ancestor will be duplicated in the offspring.

When the offspring, in turn, are bred, they will have a higher likelihood of passing on traits that are influenced by genes inherited from this common ancestor. Many breeders use this system of mating to help establish specific traits in their breeding programs.

Orlandi warned, however, that inbreeding can be a double-edged sword, bringing hidden, harmful recessive genes to the surface: “Novices should not attempt close inbreeding or linebreeding, and breeders should always be aware of the importance of genetic variation and the size of their breed’s gene pool before using this mating system.”

“The list of a dog’s ancestors is important, especially when it comes to knowing which ancestors are carriers or are affected with specific canine defects.

“But when it comes to planning matings from a conformation point of view, many breeders place more emphasis on the pedigree than on the dog itself. I call them ‘kitchen-table breeders’ because they often pore over numerous pedigrees while the dogs in question are not even in sight.

“Although a beautiful pedigree may have produced one or two good dogs, we must also remember there were probably four or five pet-quality littermates produced as well!

“We have good research in animal breeding that indicates that pedigree information is never more important than information on the dog itself as far as predicting how an animal is likely to produce.”

Orlandi recently added a new section on anatomy to her presentation, to help breeders hone their “eye for a dog,” the natural ability to size up a dog’s quality and correctness. She offered tips on recognizing quality, soundness, and structural balance, as well as hands-on evaluation methods.

“Advanced Reproductive Techniques,” speaker Anne Traas, DVM, DACVT, University of Pennsylvania

Fresh, chilled, or frozen?
Progesterone tests, luteinizing hormones, or vaginal smears? Advances in artificial insemination (AI) and other reproductive techniques have given breeders more options than ever before.

And there will be more to come, said Traas. Some methods on the horizon include oocyte harvest, “eggsicles” or ovarian cryopreservation, and embryo transfer to surrogate bitches.

In the “age of DNA,” she said, genetic tests exist to help breeders avoid some hereditary diseases. They have become an important part of pre-breeding evaluations, which include detailed backgrounds on the dam and sire. These evaluations should include in-depth reviews of health records, breeding history, and a physical exam. “We’ll ask you a ton of questions,” Traas said.

She also stressed the value of carefully monitoring the pregnancy and directed breeders to the WhelpWise Service. This fetal-monitoring company provides a uterine-contraction monitor and an ultrasound Doppler. The equipment hooks into a regular phone line and transmits information about labor from a monitor on the bitch to a round-the-clock monitoring center.

“Canine Cardiac Disease,” speaker Mark Oyama, DVM, DiplACVIM-Cardiology, University of Pennsylvania

Blood tests may soon play an important role in screening for heart diseases in dogs, said Oyama, one of the leaders in the field of canine cardiac research.

Functional tests, such as echocardiograms, are the standard, but they are expensive and sometimes miss subtle signs of disease. Blood tests offer a less costly and minimally invasive method of detecting abnormal heart function.

The tests measure molecules produced by damaged heart muscle, known as natriuretic peptides. In one study of 118 clinically normal dogs, Oyama and his team found that 17 percent had an “occult,” or hidden, form of heart disease known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). In dogs with DCM, blood concentrations of one of these markers, known as B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP), were two to three times higher than in normal dogs.

Oyama said the study results suggest that testing for BNP would identify 95.2 percent of dogs with DCM. The research was published in the January 2007 issue of the American Journal of Veterinary Research. Such tests could make it possible to perform wide-scale screening, which could detect disease before symptoms appear, allowing veterinarians to start early treatment and disease management.


August 4–5    Knoxville, Tennessee
August 4    Gainesville, Florida
August 11–12   Springfield, Missouri
August 25–26   Dallas, Texas
September 13–14   Sturbridge, Massachusetts
September 22–23    Corvallis, Oregon
November 17–18   Ames, Iowa

For more information, consult the AKC events calendar, visit the AKC Seminar Listings, or e-mail Ron Rella at rnr@akc.org.

Mara Bovsun is AKC Publications features editor.

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

© The American Kennel Club 2007