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by Ricardo E. Carbajal

© Copyright May, 2000 -

I once had a dog, an expensive dog, she was. An import, yes siree. Superb specimen she was, with an immaculate family tree, starting with a famous father and a mother who in turn was a daughter of another famous one. How could one go wrong? SchH2 KKL1 for life, fertile, beautiful, good hips. I remember I asked Why are you selling Sally? The reply: Too many dogs, I must give room to the new mothers. Of course, what a silly question, I thought blushing a bit as I stood before the commanding figure of an old time German breeder. Deal done, doggy in car, all happy, especially the German fellow who put the money envelope in one of his front trouser pockets as his broad, reddish face widened further with a smile that I had not seen in the previous two days of negotiations.

Sally would be my first brood bitch, I had looked long and hard. I had paid my dues researching the field. I even got referrals and recommendations from several sources. Most of all I had depleted my savings account completely, but, I was sure I had hit the jackpot. Her first litter at home (her fourth overall) had six puppies, two girls and four boys. The sire was a son of a renowned Sieger, everything was going great. I found one of the puppies dead in the whelping box at two weeks of age. It was a big, red female whom I thought was the best of the two. Two of the boys were longhair, the only female left was small and light colored. At six weeks I realized that three of the males had no testicles, and one had only one. The little female was not very promising.

I sold Sally's litter as pets, heart broken, but hey, I still had the mother. I rationalized the incident as a bad genetic click (a favorite term among us.) I know who not to breed to again, now don't I, I said to myself with a Barny Fife type attitude as I pulled my chin in, straightened my back to appear taller, and lifted my pants by the belt in a defiant attitude of I'll show you next time. Next time she got pregnant with one puppy, a female. Well I got my female, she looks good, I would say to myself hiding the anguish of wondering if her fertility days were over, now approaching six years old. The answer came soon. Her next pregnancy produced only three, two males, both monorchids, and a long coated female. It was time to say good-bye to Sally. All the questions were answered. A family with two beautiful kids drove away one autumn afternoon with Sally, now spayed, who looked back at me one last time through the back window of their brand new car. Must make room for the new female, I said to myself as I wiped a tear. I thought I had heard that phrase before, I just could not remember where.

Sounds like a story you once heard? Sounds like something you went through? Over the years I met several Sally's in the homes of so many folks I visited during my seminars or going to shows or trials. Other times I get calls from friends or strangers who would like an opinion on a specific female that is sitting in some kennel thousands of miles away awaiting a world-wide destination point that can range from Japan, to Indonesia, South America or the United States. I often tell them that I am the worse one to ask, since my life story is made up of some better or worse version of Sally. But over the years, the Sherlock Holmes in me took over Barny Fife, hence this imperfect attempt at giving shape to some kind of methodology to try to keep the Sally's from invading our shores.

Pedigrees, Titles, Breed Surveys, and Show Cards

Everyone has them. Although a prerequisite for breeding it is not exactly a guarantee of success, but only a starting point for consideration. The paperwork does, however, give vital information on the dog, and can serve to read between the lines. The first piece of information is the female's age. Many times breeders sell young females who have never had litters before but have been put through the process to become breed worthy. Usually these are females who did not realize the owner's expectations but who may still make a good foundation bitch for someone. However, the decision of packaging the female for sale, may have come early in life, and the breeder or owner never had the intention of keeping her for any personal purposes. This can often be suspected when the dog had little or no exposure to the normal competition events at an early age.

Promising puppies start as young dogs with exposure to conformation circles. By the time they are a year of age they will have participated in the young classes with VP ratings and good placings. What the owner thinks of his prospect is often reflected not only in the number of times the young female participates but in the magnitude of the event they felt confident to tackle. An SG12 position in a large regional show with over 700 dogs means not only that the puppy was good enough to warrant this rating under strong competition, but that the breeder, or owner is sure of the quality they have and are willing to go all out shaping the future of their prospect. At some point in time, though, some of these animals find themselves in the national or international market.

The reasons behind these decisions vary widely. However, you must assume (to keep yourself on the safer side) that in spite of what the seller tells you, you may never know the true reason why the dog was sold. This is why you must do your own homework and never accept face value explanations of lack of money, broken marriages, moving to smaller kennel, etc. In fact I would almost tell you not to bother to ask, unless you are willing to take someone's word. But even then, his or her story must match the evidence that you should discover on your own. Some of the better dogs come out of owners and breeders who have a very competitive spirit and high level goals and expectations. The same dog that took the SG12 position at the Regional Championship in a class of 150 may not be a good enough option for someone who has three others placing consistently higher. Maybe the SG12 female begins to place in the mid range once she moves on to the working class, and that alone may be sufficient reason for the owner to let go. This is a very different picture than the obscure breeder or broker who is in the habit of putting minimal titles on females, showing them once to get a V rating and KKL1 at the smallest local show he can find, and then placing them in the global market as a young prospect of decent lines.

However, even if the female was packaged to sell putting together the minimum requirements to satisfy market demands (SchH1, KKL1, a stamp, and V rating) she may still be a viable option for breeding, although this determination requires intelligent research. The value of the genetic power of an individual dog does not lie exclusively in the quality and achievements of that particular specimen, but also in the qualities of its siblings. It is a well known fact that a mediocre specimen from an excellent family, (meaning not only mother and father, but brothers and sisters) may be a better producer than an excellent specimen who happened to inherit the best traits from two mediocre parents and who's brothers and sisters are mediocre themselves. (In a future article I will discuss inheritance and pedigree evaluations) Therefore, in selecting our foundation bitches we must be extremely mindful of the quality and achievements of this female's siblings. For example suppose you are considering a young maiden female packaged for sale. She is out of a family of dogs where the father is a well known sire, the dam is not well known and has a mediocre breeding, and after investigation, you find that none of the siblings of this female are pursuing a breeding career (no titles, no breed surveys, etc.) You should suspect that perhaps not only is this female just mediocre herself, but she also is the best thing the litter had to offer! The genetic baggage that a dog like this may bring into your kennel could be quite detrimental, and the likelihood of this bitch leaving a long line of outstanding males and females, is very minute. On the other hand you may find out that this same female is indeed not a very good option for a show career but, it turns out that all her siblings are titled and breed surveyed, most have an a normal stamp, and one is in the high V's or VA category. What a different scenario that is! What you may be getting is the ugly duckling out of an excellent family, just like Palme Wildsteiger Land once was.

The front of the pedigree has a list of brothers and sisters of your future Queen. Take time to search through the Koer Books and Breed Books in Germany and find out who these dogs are and what they have achieved. I mentioned Breed Books as well because it would be very advantageous for you to follow the breeding career of one or more of your candidate's siblings.

If what you are about to buy is an older female with some breedings under her belt, then the breeding books become an even more important research item. Many people believe that a good brood bitch must be one that has been bred a few times so that fertility and good mother instincts are guaranteed. This may very well be the case but if you are buying a female that has several litters on the ground, you have no one but yourself to blame if you do not find out A) who this bitch was bred to before, B) what the outcome of those breedings was in terms of numbers and quality, and C) how many of those puppies went on to pursue a breeding career and with what results.

It is often difficult to have access to these books. But this is a problem of distance and expense, not of availability. Most breeders in Germany have access to these records by simply walking over to their club house! It would be invaluable for you to have some type of connection in Germany that can help you get this vital information on dogs you are considering to buy. Another very important piece of information that can help you read between the lines is the section on the back of the pedigree dedicated to the transfer of ownership. If things were done properly everyone that ever owned the female will have signed on the back as the new owner in order to register litters with their own kennel names. Many times however, females are leased for a breeding and this would not be apparent by just looking at the ownership section (this is why you must refer to the Breeding Books). Some females display a list of owners that looks like the German telephone book. This type of scenario often spells trouble. Think about how protective you would be of a female that it having great success with her litters. The most you would do, if you were approached by old friends and breeding partners about purchasing, would be to grant them breeding rights over a lease agreement so the female could have puppies that could carry the kennel name of your associates (like Palme was when she produced Uran under the Wildsteiger Land name and Quando under the Arminius name), but selling? No way!

So what does it tell you when you see that your candidate is a five year old bitch who was sold as a puppy, then someone put her through the motions and got her minimal requirements, then sold her to another fellow who had a litter from her, and in turn sold her to another who bred her once and sent her to a broker/breeder in the U.S. who then proceeded to get two litters from her and now has her up for sale in this magazine? The price tag may be right, especially due to the age, but you probably would be better off taking your chances with a maiden female with her bag of genetic questions and surprises than with a well known non-producer (although fertile and with good maternal instincts.)

The same general rules apply to the rest of the dog's information. Many breeding females have scorebooks with very meager scores. An AD, a B, and the proverbial SchH1 with 81, 78, and 84. This is not always an indication that the owner meant to just slap a one on to later sell her, since many of the keepers and foundation brood bitches that are not for sale also have similar meager score books. Poor scores are often not an indication of the dog's character or innate ability, but rather of the low value placed on high performance by people who are interested mainly in the sporting aspect of showing dogs. It is not uncommon to find that many of these dogs actually have very nice drives and courage, and display excellent gripping ability and a good overall nature in spite of such poor scores. However, unless proven otherwise, your assumption should be that a poor score denotes character deficiencies. This position, although it may seem harsh, is the least risky, since assuming that every dog with a low score is a victim of poor training will open you up to great disappointments. It is an established fact that mothers account for the greater portion of the offspring's character. This is due to the mother's influence through socialization. The primary characteristic of a good foundation bitch should be an outstanding character, indicative of soundness, strength and courage with an very high desire to please and the ability to bond deeply with its master. If at all possible, always have someone you know and trust give you an unbiased evaluation of the prospective purchase. Any owner of a dog that is for sale should allow someone who is acting in your name, to see all of the dog's papers and to witness the dog's performance in protection work. An ill-deserved working degree put on a flaky female with a weak nervous system and lack of strength will only invade your kennel like a virus on a computer. Soon, your better stock will be gone and your current line-up will all be affected overtly or covertly by the weakness of your new blood.

Your candidate's Breed Survey should also be scrutinized to learn more about the potential purchase. When the survey was done and when it expires (in the case of a young bitch) are important details. A young female with her first survey under her belt will have to appear again before a Körmeister to be evaluated one more time before she receives the final survey “for life”. Here is where good character comes into play. I have seen several females that pass their first survey under “ideal conditions” in Germany, only to be sold to our country and literally flunk all other attempts, or be demoted to KKL2 due to a variety of problems such as gun shyness, lack of courage and fighting drive, or incorrect measurements.

The wording of the breed survey in modern times has lost some of the original intention by becoming a little bit “common place” and little too general. It is often difficult to picture the true nature of the dog by referring to the words on the Breed Survey, however, some things can be rescued and added to your body of information. The size of the female should give you an indication of what she really is like. When you find measurements right at 60 cm three times, you are probably dealing with a very large female who might even be a bit over the limit, but of enough quality to warrant “creative measurements”. Ideally you will be seeing measurements in the mid-range of 57 or 58 cm and about 28 kgs. Also, the polite wording of surveys often gloss over things that may not be quite ideal in your female. The words “good” and “very good” used in reference to things like angulation or movement are degrees of quality and should be read properly. A term like “good angulation in the front” means really that the angulation is somewhat lacking, otherwise it would read “very good angulation in the front.” The term “almost straight front” means the front is not straight. The term “the upper arm could be longer” means that it is not of ideal length, therefore is short. Terms like “normal proportions” or “normal position” means usually that the trait is unremarkable, perhaps not extraordinary, but also not faulty, and so on.

One of the terms I always look for in evaluating females has to do with their overall strength. Much of the type in German Shepherd Dogs depends on the appearance of physical strength, which in most Breed Surveys is discussed at the beginning of the critique. Two words usually sum up this concept, one word refers to size, the other to constitution. The categories of size are: medium, over medium, and large (notice the absence of the term “small”.) The categories of constitution or substance are: strong and medium strong (with some additional reference to the fatty tissue such as the words “dry” and “hard”, or to the overall look like “somewhat coarse” or “somewhat refined”). Ideally you want your brood bitches to be of medium to over medium size and strong, rather than medium strong (without being coarse). This denotes a female of proper size but with very good bone and muscle mass to be able to produce good males and yet strong females. The term medium strong usually denotes smaller or more refined bone structure, something that in my estimation has become a real problem in our breed today, especially with females that compete at conformation shows.

The last piece of advise in relation to paperwork has to do with the quality of joints. If you have a choice, hips should always be “normal”. Any degree below this means that the hip joint is less than desirable. “Almost normal” (Fast normal) may be acceptable for a brood bitch only when her other qualities are above average, especially in regards to temperament and working ability. The rating of “still acceptable” (Noch Zugelassen) should not be acceptable for a foundation bitch in my analysis, unless you can do a new evaluation prior to purchase after the age of two (especially if the female is already in the U.S.) In addition to hips, I would require elbow films on foundation dogs. The Germans may frown at the request, for they are still not convinced ( in the most part) that elbow dysplasia is indeed an endemic breed problem. I have seen too many problems out of the very best bloodlines to avoid the topic in this article.

“She will pay for herself” and other favorite myths

How many times have you heard the phrase “this bitch was bred to so and will recover her purchase price with her first litter and then you have a ‘free' female to keep on breeding.” With all due respect to dog brokers, it hardly ever works so smoothly. The world of breeding is riddled with the “unexpected.” “The bitch only got pregnant with three puppies.” “A few puppies died at birth.” “She had a good size litter, its just that half of them were longhair.” “Well, she ended up having a C section since the last puppy could not come out even with oxytocin.” Or worse yet, “The C section did not go so well and we lost the mother too.” Although this seems like a grim scenario, it happens, and more often than you would like to think. The idea of buying an imported female to have a little “business on the side” just does not work very well in most cases. Do not expect to make money on a pregnant import. Do not even expect to break even. In fact if you are thinking about making money breeding German Shepherd Dogs and you are approaching this endeavor as a business rather than an expensive hobby, then this article is not for you at all. The expectation should be to bring to your kennel a valuable source of new blood, a foundation female that can set the course of your breeding program in the direction of excellence, even when you may not see the results immediately, or even when, in the final analysis you end up in the red financially.

Another favorite myth of mine is “she was bred to VA so and so, therefore the litter will be of extraordinary quality.” I once had a litter out of a very prominent sire. I wanted to make sure I got the dog I wanted, so I kept three puppies. The litter seemed good at first but as they grew older every one of the dogs ended up being either given away as pets, or euthanized due to serious problems of different natures. As far as the sire is concerned, this outcome means little. I am still convinced that he earned the prestige he had, but the point is, that there is no magic in breeding, even when you improve your odds by using a well known producer.

In a conversation with a well known judge, breeder and Körmeister, I once asked the question: “At what point do you consider yourself successful as a breeder?” to which he responded “If you are producing one top puppy every other litter you are doing very, very well.” This estimate is coming from a German who is in the thick of things breeding constantly and seeing others do the same. This is coming from someone who has many of the top males and some top females available to create the product he seeks. Yet, the best estimate he could give me was of about 8% success rate, that is, “if you are doing very, very well.” The goal for a foundation bitch should simply be that in her lifetime, she will leave behind one or two daughters who are better than herself in most areas, and in the areas they are not, they at least should represent the breed's average.

For example, suppose you started with a nice V rated female with very good temperament and good structure and type. Her drawbacks were a certain softness when it came to accepting corrections, a steep croup, and lack of pronounced pigmentation. You took special interest in the character issues and bred to males that had very good working ability and were a bit harder in nature. These males also had correct croups and very good pigment. Now you have a good female out of your brood bitch. She is very much like the mother but displays the temperament you like for working—accepting corrections well and bouncing back easily. She has better pigment than the mother but not quite ideal yet. She has a correctly positioned croup but is short. She falls well within the V category, and if she could have gone up against the mother during her prime at a show you would predict that the daughter would come up in front. If you can achieve these few improvements in one generation, then you are doing very well! Again, the key is that the daughter is better than the mother in some key areas that need improvement (especially temperament) but more importantly, in the areas that she is not, she needs to remain within the breed's average. So if your new female was terribly cow-hocked, extremely roachy, or had missing teeth, then you are simply exchanging one set of problems for another, since these problems are the norm within the breed.

Breeding to top sires who are known producers can accelerate the process, however, do not expect miracles just because a dog has a VA title. Genes are genes and you will get poor quality out of a top male as well as you may get good quality out of a home bred male that has little international exposure. The final myth is one that is very prevalent in our country and comes from the notion that a person that produced a few top winners is a top breeder. It is very common to find lots of what I call “shooting starts” in every walk of life. The rock star that has a hit single that takes him to the top, only to disappear months later never to be remembered again. The boxing champion that beats the world title holder with a good punch only to loose the title on the first defense, and yes, the lucky breeder that hits the genetic jackpot with a single breeding (usually their first as beginner's luck would have it) and goes on to believe that the whole thing is a “piece of cake” realizing years down the road that litters like that first one don't happen every time. The true mark of a good breeder is not the winning product he or she can come up with while standing on the shoulders of foreign breeders, meaning while breeding their imported female to the latest fad male in Germany. Real breeders are those that after many generations of polishing and shaping a sound and powerful mother line, begin to consistently produce a good line of dogs that is genetically sound and of predictable quality. This depends on a foundation of several generations of carefully selected mothers going back to your foundation bitches. So the final myth is that one good bitch will establish you as a good breeder. One good bitch will mean the starting point of years of breeding with knowledge and purpose to finally establish your own line of maternal characteristics that will produce consistent results. It is fitting to remember that one of the most successful breeders in the world, Walter Martin, did not stand at the Sieger podium until he had been breeding for almost half a century.

Money vs. Knowledge

I often talk to people who are devastated because they went to a big show filled with hope for their young prospect only to find that a few breeders with great financial backing seemed to control the winning podium. Well there is not much you or I can do about that. If there are people who can afford to spend small fortunes on a single dog, it is quite possible that he or she will be of such quality that would be extremely hard to beat. If, in fact, they have money left over to purchase several more males and females with the same price tag, well it is quite possible that they will end up on the podium several times before the day is over. It happens in Japan, in Italy, in Argentina and everywhere you go. There is certainly nothing wrong with this. But even these type of competitors will have to have the knowledge to extract and retain the quality they started with (unless they just want to be known only as importers.) This, in some ways, is even more difficult than the task you and I have ahead of ourselves. Think about it, us “blue-collar breeders” will take a middle of the road foundation bitch that we bought for a few thousand dollars, and we embark on the exhilarating mission of creating excellence out of an above average dog. The “monetarily endowed” breeder (if that term even applies since many spend more money than they make) has the insurmountable task of mimicking what they already purchased, of retaining a quality which, at the highest levels, cannot be easily improved upon and is very elusive. This, to me is a very difficult position to be in, because the only place to go, if you cannot keep up with the quality breeding of those who excel in Germany, is nowhere but down. The pressure will always be on proving to the world that all that money and the fancy dogs actually were used wisely. I take my hat off to those that are equal to this task and are successful.

I don't know about you, but I like my mission better, it is more exciting to me since I am forced to attempt similar results but through the use of knowledge, research, craftiness, and by making my quest a life-long project I can enjoy.

A wild goose chase

We all want to find the goose that lays the golden egg. It is our right and privilege to attempt to do so, and if you find her, more power to you. I hope that these ideas and pointers help you in your quest. That you know what questions to ask yourself, before you ask the seller, and that the entire process does not end up being a wild goose chase. Future topics will include concepts of genetics like inbreeding and line-breeding, puppy selection, sire selection, health matters, and aspects of temperament and conformation.