Remember the good old days of high school, when you studied things like US History, Geometry, and German? Remember how it sucked because these were things you had to learn about and not things you wanted to learn about? One of the best things about being an adult is that learning becomes a choice! Now you can learn about crocheting kitten boots or speaking Mandarin Chinese or starting a hydroponic lettuce business in your basement. Whatever gets your motor purring, you can pursue that passion.
Obviously one of my biggest passions is dogs and after spending much of my life learning anything and everything about them, I’ve reached a point where my learning has a purpose. I want to be a master breeder, but just as you can’t wake up one morning and call yourself a karate sensei you also can’t spontaneously label yourself a master breeder. Mastery requires practice and knowledge, which in turn becomes instinct and wisdom.
Like any teacher worth their salt you need to draw up a learning plan, and it’s always best to start with the basics and build from there. Here’s what I’ve come up with for myself.
1. Pick a breed. For years I had a hard time with this — there are so many beautiful breeds out there! But then I spent time working in grooming, visiting dog shows, and just watching friends in obedience class. Now I have selected the Border Terrier and (eventually) the German Shorthaired Pointer.
2. Set a goal and think big! This was the easy part for me and I have some pretty big dreams. Don’t limit yourself because of your current knowledge or background. Wally is my first show dog ever and I’m going to ride this train as far as it will go for the rest of my life!
3. Find multiple, excellent mentors. A good breeder will mentor you, so keep that in mind when shopping for one. But you don’t have to limit yourself to your breeder. Make friends with everyone you meet so you can take advantage of their hard-earned wisdom. If your mentors have a combined knowledge of 80 years you just saved yourself a lifetime of learning!
4. Learn the standard for your breed. This one seems obvious but the standard is often boring and sometimes cryptic. My life was saved with the discovery of the illustrated Border Terrier standard from the BTCA. Not only is it illustrated, it also explains what each statement means in practical terms. Maybe there’s something like this for your breed?
5. Know the history of your breed. This can be key to understanding the standard. For example, the BT standard states that “the body should be capable of being spanned by a man’s hands behind the shoulder.” Without explanation this seems like a mysterious throwback to jolly old England. But then you learn that a BT must be spannable because it means they can fit into fox burrows without getting stuck, and it all makes sense.
6. Learn about anatomy & physiology. We’re talking skeletal, muscular, connective tissue, nervous system, metabolic system…the whole enchilada! This is the most daunting due to the breadth, but it’s by far the most necessary for understanding the standard and what makes a well-made dog.
7. Understand basic genetics. You can’t breed good dogs without understanding things like basic inheritance, sex-linked traits, and hidden genes. You’ll also need to know the benefits and drawbacks of inbreeding, line-breeding, and out-crossing since all three are necessary to some extent.
8. Determine the key traits for your breed. What makes a BT a BT? Or a Boxer a Boxer? How are those traits passed down? Which ones are you better off having nailed down from the start? For instance, if you began with bad bites in your line chances are you’ll have to scrap it and start anew since it’s very difficult to improve bad bites. But if you started with good bites and decent heads, you can always improve head type.
9. Be willing to think outside the box. Don’t limit yourself in any fashion! Being open minded can give you an edge by allowing you to cross-train, as it were. Jimmy Wofford is a world renowned trainer for Olympic level riders and he wrote a small book called “Gymnastics: Systematic Training for Jumping Horses.” I’m using the concepts and jump patterns in this book to improve Wally’s movement, and one day will use it for agility training. Racehorse breeders are a great resource because they have hundreds of years of pedigrees and thousands of horses to analyze for breeding strategies.