Tom Wilson on Breeding Top Dogs

The following is a reprint of an article by Tom first published in the AKC Gazette in October 2002. Some of Tom's thoughts on how to breed generation after generation of winning dogs. In his own words…

Writing this article may be one of the most difficult projects involving dogs I have ever undertaken. The difficulty is not in the writing part, but rather in trying to put into words all of the elements that go into breeding successful, winning dogs - in my case, Weimaraners – generation after generation. It is primarily a story about commitment and philosophies that developed early in my relationship with this wonderful breed. Even though some of the philosophies have changed with education and experience over these 40-plus years, the commitment has never wavered.

My introduction to Weimaraners took place in 1959 and involved an inbreed (back then I didn’t know what that meant) product of a mother-to-son breeding. The dam had been sired by one of this breed’s foundation dogs. The field talents and obedience abilities of the dog I bought were outstanding. We had a great time Weimaraner Puppiescompeting in both types of events, and he always made me look good. Most of the time, we won in spite of me.

I decided to enter him in a specialty show hosted by the New England Weimaraner Region, convinced that he and I could do anything. In a class of eight Open dogs, we came in dead last and I got a serious lesson about the difference between “back yard bred” and “show quality dogs”.

I watched in awe as an exhibitor (one of the all time greats as I was to learn later) won Winners Dog, Reserve Winners Bitch and Best of Breed with three great dogs. Right then I made a commitment to myself to do what ever it took to reach that level of competence as a breeder. It was a pivotal moment in my life, and I drove home fully aware that the wonderful dog lying on the seat beside me was not going to get me where I wanted to go in the sport. I realized that I did not know the difference between my dog and the dogs who won that day. I had to find someone to teach me that distinction and went on a mission to define and understand what was correct and what was not.

To understand what constitutes correctness, you must first accept the premise that there is indeed an indisputable interpretation of what is correct. I am not referring to the variations allowable in the standard concerning trends or preferences, such as color, size length of tail, and so on. What I am describing is a vivid picture of the breed’s proper soundness and structure, type, general appearance and most importantly, correct movement. You can never achieve success in a breeding program until you are crystal clear on what true correctness is. Education is the first and foremost aspect of this pursuit. Information is available in print, but the most reliable sources are through mentors and conversations with already successful breeders and exhibitors. I am referring to those folks who have proven time and again that they know how to breed top-winning dogs – ones who consistently win under a majority of judges. In other words, the dogs you hate to see show up! Occasional wins under random judges are meaningless in the true pursuit of the superior specimen.

Armed with your knowledge of correctness, you can begin what will undoubtedly be the hardest part of the quest: evaluating your present breeding stock, objectively and honestly. You must be without emotion in this assessment. If you rationalize or make excuses for what you’ve got, you will derail the project and make the goal impossible to reach. It is never easy to make the decision to remove from the program a dog that does not measure up- especially if it’s a really wonderful dog that you love. Starting with a bitch or dog displaying major faults and planning to breed them out is a foolish venture - if you truly want to breed a top-winning dog let alone generations of winners.This goal requires beginning with a bitch who not only demonstrates as much proven physical correctness as possible, but is also mentally correct. Of course, health considerations are a given because there is no future for beautiful dogs with serious health or soundness issues. Another misuse of time is purchasing a bitch puppy with the intention of breeding her to a certain stud dog, either your own or someone else’s. Arranged marriages do not produce successful dogs without a very high percentage of luck thrown in.

Select your bitch from a line with a high percentage of winning dogs in the pedigree, not just champions. Beginners talk about starting their own “line” when actually that’s impossible unless you begin with someone else’s great dogs. You won’t find the necessary qualities in weak pedigrees of unproven dogs just because they have a Ch in front of their names.

Even if you got lucky and produced a big winner from a scattered or unlikely pedigree, this dog would probably be useless in producing your next generation of top winners of equal or greater quality. If you do not feel confident or qualified to do this evaluation on your own dogs, have a few judges or breeders do it for you and listen to what they tell you.

DEVELOPING YOUR EYE

Remember that other breeders have nothing at stake by being honest with you, but you have a lot at stake by being dishonest with yourself. Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau put aptly when he said: Nature never deceives us, it is we who deceive ourselves.

Getting that first great puppy or dog may be difficult because most proven breeders will not sell you a really extraordinary prospect for you to experiment and learn on. It’s just not in their best interest to live with the results of your experiments with a dog that has their name and pedigree behind it. Compromise is the only way to get that first good dog. These successful breeders control the very limited supply of hot prospects, and you must be willing to do whatever it takes to obtain one. It will most likely require a co-ownership or a relinquishing of a large part of the decision-making regarding the dog, especially concerning future breedings. You must be willing to accept this person as a mentor and learn all that you can from them. They did not achieve their present status easily and without enduring pitfalls or making concessions.

You will never breed great dogs if you don’t know what they look like. Watch all of the judging you possibly can. At shows, sit on the diagonal and watch each dog come and go. Don’t leave as soon as your class is over or the breed is finished. Watch other breeds of similar structure and find out who at ringside are the experts in that breed. Listen to their comments. Get their interpretation of what is going on in the ring. The benefit of watching other breeds is that you are not prejudiced by knowing the dogs’ breeders or pedigrees. Eventually patterns will begin to emerge about the dogs that win the majority of the time. You will begin to recognize these traits as those of a winner.

SELECTION OF THE BITCH AND SIRES

By now, you must have some idea of which winning dogs appeal to you. Go to that breeder for your foundation animal, and do what you must to get a great prospect. Your breeding program can never be about today. If that’s all the time you have, don’t even get started. It should reflect plans for years and generations down the road. Recognize that you will never reach perfection. If you ever think you have, your days as a breeder are numbered and you will soon be taking up a new hobby. Select a bitch whose breeding reflects a history of proven extraordinary ancestors. The better her pedigree, the easier it will be to match up exactly the right sire for her first litter – after her worth has been proven in competition. Be very picky and critical when selecting a bitch, because she will have a profound influence on your accomplishments and the future generations of your program. The right bitch gives you flexibility in choosing different sires later but will always remain the foundation and strength of your entire long term project.

Once the requirements for your foundation bitch has been met, you will come to the point of choosing the sire to produce her first litter. In purebred dogs, the top 10 percent or so of stud dogs get most of the breedings, and rightfully so. Someone else has spent their resources to prove their value and quality as a competitor, and if they are promoting the dog properly, they have done some breedings of their own to prove his reproductive prowess. Being a top show dog and being a top producer are not necessarily synonymous. Some top dogs never reproduce well, and occasionally, some not-so-top-dogs do produce very well. That experiment is best left to established breeders with enough flexibility to take some chances. Your future and your reputation are on the line, so stick with a proven producer whose every aspect complements your bitch.

SELECTING PUPPIES AND GRADING THE LITTER

This process will use every skill you have developed so far. You must also have knowledgeable assistance to ensure the most accurate assessment you can possibly get. Your will require a grooming table with a non-slip surface. I find that the higher, smaller folding tables seen in the toy rings are perfect. The smaller top keeps puppies from wandering around and from feeling too insecure to cooperate. I start out with the table pushed against a wall and a mirror behind it so I can see how they look set up. Start at 51/2 to six weeks. It will be too early for much to be revealed about the puppies’ structure, but beginning now will teach them to stack, and by the time they are 8 weeks old, they will be relaxed enough that you can get the necessary photos. You can’t photograph the puppy correctly if it won’t cooperate, and you can’t evaluate the puppy accurately without a good photo. It is an extremely critical part of the grading process.

For the photo session, you need an experienced person setting up the puppies for the pictures. The puppies must be stacked in a perfect show pose. With Weimaraners, my mentor taught me years ago how important it is to have the handler wear a plain black shirt or sweater in order to get the maximum contrast with the puppies’ outline. This proves very helpful in comparing the puppies to each other. Be sure that a person with an experienced eye takes the pictures. Only a person who knows when the puppy is in the correct pose knows exactly when to snap the shot. If you are a capable photographer, you may want to take the photos yourself. Use a good digital camera since it is vital to be able to take several shots until you have just the right picture of each puppy.

Set your camera as close to the puppy as possible. Fill the camera’s view finder with the subject. Mark your spot and take all of the pictures from that same place. The photographer must serve as director, making certain that the puppies are identified by colored collars or numbers set on the table’s edge. You will coach the handler, telling them how to change the pose. Sometimes switching handlers will make a difference in how the pictures come out.

This process may sound very involved, but I cannot stress enough how important these pictures are for the most accurate assessment of each puppy in the quest for the next great one. I lay out the pictures, two across and three or four down, butt them together and tape them in place. It is much easier to compare them when they are all laid out, rather than shuffling through a stack, trying to remember each one. Do not rely solely on your own opinion. If people have other experts look at the puppies or at least the pictures, they get those impressions as well. Next, watch the puppies moving around, playing in a confined area without a lot of distraction. Judges do not try to evaluate large classes together, and neither will it be practical to watch all of the puppies at once. Split them into pairs, preferably by sex. Do not try to introduce them to collars now, as they will be completely distracted by them and will gait as though they have itches to scratch. Use a permanent marker to put symbols on each puppy’s belly for identification. Keep notes on each pair, evaluating and rating them and then comparing the favorites from the first cuts together.

It is wise not to concentrate on looking for correct movement at 8 weeks old since it will be next to impossible to see any more than quick glimpses of it. All things being equal, it is safe to assume that if the structure is correct, the puppy should move correctly as well. The thing to watch for is attitude. How a puppy handles itself is what is most important. Observe if he is intimidated or intimidating. Neither of these are desirable traits. Total confidence is the virtue to seek – it will be invaluable later in life as a competitor. Look for the puppy that moves around with class and style, with proper tail carriage. Do not misinterpret a gay tail as a sign of confidence although it may appear as that to some. Look for the puppy that is confidently inquisitive, a little independent, and quick to handle changes in conditions or unfamiliar articles placed in the test area. The most stable puppy will notice the object, carefully investigate and then dismiss it as unimportant and ignore it. You are searching for a superstar in all aspects, and you can assume that there is not a whole litter of them. In fact, chances are, there may not even be one. Remember that the prettiest one in the litter is not automatically the next big star.

This brings us to the last art of the equation. Like it or not, you will probably not be able to achieve the status of a top breeder or have consistently winning dogs without the support of OPM – other people’s money. The challenge is to produce such dazzling dogs that you attract those who share your desire but lack the time, knowledge, facility, or patience to embark on their own quest to breed them. They would much rather cut the process short and buy a great show prospect from you. Here is the hard part. You must be willing to sell some of your better prospects to others, who will in turn, promote them and you as the breeder. You must promote the first ones yourself to prove that your have the right stuff. Then, when the requests come in from those who recognize what you are up to, you will need to let go of some of the prospects you would otherwise want to keep. Lastly, the best advice is to not allow your enthusiasm to cloud your judgment and make you impatient. This will lead to decisions that will sidetrack your efforts or disappoint others. Don’t let desire overcome common sense and good judgment. There is also a place in this process for intuition. For me, those puppies who went on to achieve greatness in the breed came from what I call “neon” breedings. Certain puppies light up for me. After all the intellectual requirements of breeding are met, I still rely on this intuition to make my final evaluation. That’s the part I can’t tell you how to do. You can take lessons to learn to play the drums, but no one can tell you how to become a superstar drummer. That part is up to you!

Please click on the links below to read other articles Tom has written


History of Smokey City - WCA Nov '06

Breeding Top Dogs - AKC Oct '02