1. MAKING THE COMMITMENT
What are you planning to do with the next fifteen years of your life?
I ask this question at the outset because I believe it really is one of the most important questions a would-be breeder should consider. If you have made the decision to become a breeder, then I believe it is also incumbent upon you to make a commitment to the dogs that will be born as a result of your decision. For me, that means you must be prepared to assume responsibility for each and every puppy born from a litter you bred -- from birth to death.
Today, with good vets care and proper housing and nutrition, it is not at all uncommon for whippets to live to be 15 years of age or more. Indeed, I have a friend who had an entire litter live to be fourteen and a half before the first one died so the question I ask is not rhetorical.
Being a responsible breeder means that you never consider that responsibility simply ceases with the placement of a puppy in a new home at 8 or 12 weeks of age. This means you must therefore be exceedingly careful about where your puppies are placed, before they ever leave your premises.
Some homes simply do not work out. Too often, living circumstances change, leaving puppy the odd dog out. There are a myriad of reasons why puppies you breed may, even years later, find themselves needing to be rehomed. For me, this realization has been translated into a commitment which my son and I make clear each and every time we place an Avalonia puppy: if the puppy cannot be kept -- whether it be 6 months or 8 years from now – call us, contact us and we will arrange to get it back home to us and rehome it ourselves.
We make it clear that we do not expect our puppy to be abandoned on some country lane with the dream that some kindly rural resident will take it in and love it like its owner couldn't, as sadly happens fairly frequently in the rural area where we live. Kindly individuals -- ourselves included -- have taken in as many of these poor unfortunates -- dogs and cats -- as we can. Less kindly people here treat all strays as unwanted vermin and exterminate them on sight.
Nor do we consider animal shelters an acceptable solution. We make it clear that this alternative is only marginally more palatable to us than outright abandonment in the countryside. In this case at least, we do count on the fact that by microchipping all our puppies, if turned in to a shelter, at least they can be traced to us.
This said, I think my point is clear.
For those really more interested in short term goals -- getting and exhibiting a good show prospect for the next couple of seasons --, then the right and responsible decision might be to purchase rather than breed. That way, at least the 15 years of commitment hanging over your head is for one dog -- not seven or eight, which is what you will end up with when you breed basically looking for one likely show prospect!
And contrary to the notion that breeders keep the best for themselves, offering would-be purchasers the leavings, I believe the reverse to be true. We acquired our first whippet in 1982, a rescue whippet who gave us insight into the qualities and personality of the breed and spurred our interest in becoming more involved with whippets. Tiffany was followed by several more rescues before our thinking on whippets was well enough informed, in our minds, to begin acquiring dogs that we might want to include as part of a show kennel and breeding program.
All our foundation dogs were acquired from top English and American breeders who entrusted us with their best because they knew by that point that we were seriously committed to the breed. If you are able to convey a similar message of comforting commitment when you approach a breeder looking for a good dog, you should not be surprised to be offered the best of one of their litters. And yes, we practice what we preach as is evident from the many Avalonia dogs you may have seen across North America, Europe and now in Australia.
2. IDENTIFYING WHAT YOU LIKE
Before you do breed, please get to know your breed well first. Well bred dogs are not accidents. They are the result of careful planning and often years of commitment on the part of their breeders to their breed who know the breed and its bloodlines intimately.
Take your time. Go slow. Get to know what the breed is about, familiarize yourself with the standard, get to know what you like and do not like about the specimens you see being exhibited, come to some clear understanding of what your long term goals would be were you to launch a breeding program, long before you take the plunge and make the firm commitment to embark on a breeding program.
Put your hands on every whippet you can find to put your hands on, and watch them everywhere you get a chance to watch them. Look beyond your own backyard and study the breed in your area, your country, and in other parts of the world. Take advantage of the internet to see precisely where the breed is going, and to assess what you like and what you don’t like. When I started out the internet wasn’t around to do this. But I put huge amounts of mileage on my car in Canada and in the United States, and I traveled abroad yearly to shows in England and the continent too.
Get to know the breed characteristics you like and don’t like.
As time progresses you will realize more precisely what you prefer especially if you add extensive pedigree research to your continued observation of the breed in action. I recommend this approach to anyone who is seriously contemplating a breeding program.
In my own case, I discovered that the whippets I liked most -- both in North America and in England --- shared a number of common characteristics that I determined would be necessary for my breeding program. Over time, I was able to identify specific elements in a number of bloodlines that I decided I would like to try to capture and integrate in to a single breeding program.
I should make the point here that all the bloodlines I considered were without exception line-bred bloodlines, with a minimum of 4 generations of careful linebreeding behind them. I think sound line bred dogs offer the best prospects for sound, consistent litters.
I am afraid I find little hope of consistent quality in breedings where outcrosses to the dog I call "flavour of the month" determines the pedigree of the next generation. After just three or four similar crosses to top-winning flavour of the month show dogs you stand the potential of ending up with a pedigree with 8 different genetic lines going back from the grandparents, Nobody is related to anybody because the bloodline is reliant on Mr. Popular Show Dog, who may have been a popular show dog (many show dogs are better exhibition specialists than they are dogs you seriously want in the pedigree of your bloodline) but may not be the dog to offer the quality and consistency needed to support a breeding program. Perhaps some can claim this route has proved successful for them, but my own observation is those whose success comes this way are usually using dog politics rather than well bred dogs to make their mark. Since we are most interested in well bred dogs rather than having everyone in the breed beholden to us politically, we are content to occupy ourselves with breeding each generation a bit better than the one before, and let the quality of our dogs speak for itself.
I am a pedigree expert (some would say fanatic with my personal data base of 90,000+ mostly English whippets) and my work with The Whippet Archives gives me a world view I think in this time of easy mobility is equally important.
And my son Mick has the most wonderful eye to visualize what a breeding will likely produce, thanks to his art background. He conceptualizes the results first then breeds and whelps the litters, and socializes and raises the puppies from birth till they leave for their new homes. If I could pick one person on earth to pick and grade a litter, it would be Mick. He has an eye that sees not just the young newborn whelp, but that whelp as a year old dog – good points and bad.
Over a period of time we gradually identified the bloodlines we thought should be used as the basis of the Avalonia breeding program We had a check list which took into account all our observations and preferences and in the end we narrowed down our choice of foundation dogs to elements that included such considerations as the following:
We like a balanced whippet of average size, with a touch of elegance, with bitches to be between 46 and 48 cms and dogs to be 50 cms or a little less though that has gotten harder with time to ensure, so yes, we have a couple who are 51 to 52 cms. We can accept a cm or two deviation either way from those ideals but we do not like extremes in any form. The first thing people who visit our kennel say is “They all look the same, how do you tell them apart?” Exactly. We are breeding for a consistent type so those comments are music to our ears.
Elegance should not come with form and function sacrificed. Whippets are not pretty statues. We want a dog that will be able to perform the function for which it was bred. In the case of the whippet, this means that it must have the physical equipment to be able to run and course down small game. This means the shoulders must be well laid back, the upper arm must be of correct length, and there must be spring to pastern. There must be plenty of brisket and heart room, and bone should be good. This combination will allow good front reach without unnecessary risk of injury, a necessity in a running breed.
In terms of the rest of the body, we like a dog with a body of moderate length. We are topline fanatics and keep wondering where and why people are now breeding dogs with as many humps across the back as the Loch Ness Monster? Have we missed something?
In our view the topline should not be entirely flat (or this will be a greyhound, won't it?) but should enjoy a gentle rise over loin then an almost imperceptible drop off in rear. The dog should be adequately, but not over, angulated and it must have good muscling and good second thigh. We like hocks well let down. Assembled together in one package, we know this combination will ensure good drive in rear, an essential element of any sound moving whippet.
Then there is the head -- in our view, a particularly critical feature for those dogs destined for the show ring where initial eye appeal is important. Whippets are not head breeds but good heads are, nonetheless important and in fact desirable.
We like a whippet with space between the ears for brains, which means the skull must be rather wider than some of the long-headed snipey faced specimens we have occasionally seen being exhibited in recent years. As this is a sighthound, we expect a good large eye, and while colour may be immaterial for show purposes here in Canada (though this is harder to get by the large number of American judges who come looking for a dark eye – we do wish they would consider the fact that it was the English, not them who developed the breed and the original standard), we prefer, and breed for, a dark eye but our love of blue fawns and blue fawn brindles ensures we have eyes genetically linked to those colours too.
In terms of what we do not like, top of the list is any whippet which drops 90 degrees down from shoulder to pastern straight as a ruler. We do not consider this to be either correct or functional, as it has been our observation that the debilitating effect of any combination of poor shoulders, too short upper arms, straight, inflexible pasterns will, over time, impair both the front and rear movement of the whippet unfortunate enough to enjoy this structure. Look carefully at the elbows of dogs with poor layback and straight shoulders and you will see that on the move they elbow slightly out, then look at the feet and you will see they toe in on the move. Not a pretty picture!
Front movement, already at a disadvantage because true and proper reach and spring cannot be achieved it the dog is genetically, incorrectly, conformed, becomes more wooden and terrier like as the dog matures. This is a purely physical response to its genetic imperfections. And without proper reach, rear drive is also severely impaired, even on a dog that was more or less properly constructed behind to begin with. The result, which develops over the course of several years as the promising puppy reaches full maturity, is that the unfortunate dog begins to move terrier-like not just in front, but in rear too, to compensate for (or is it in sympathy with?) the bad front.
General poor front construction, in my view still the biggest single failing of the American whippet (which is then disguised in the show ring by handlers madly racing the dog around at whirlwind speed so movement faults are disguised or at least blurred), and is why when it came time to assemble our gene pool we went shopping for shoulders in England.. The need for good underjaw was a second reason.
We also abhor the combination of steep drop off in rear - I call this the ski slope syndrome -, thin or non-existent second thigh and over-angulation -- a fairly recent and deplorable combination of abberations -- which has produced some wheel-back whippets which creep around the ring, their hocks sometimes sickled so far under they are virtually parallel to the ground. These are not whippets, they are cripples and we must treat them as such and not breed to them. This is not what this wonderful animal was originally bred to do.
3. PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE: OTHER IMPORTANT FACTORS
Having made the commitment and accepted the responsibilities that go with breeding, and having made clear in our own minds precisely what we liked and what exactly we hoped to achieve in our breeding program, we faced a series of further decisions.
Could what we hoped to accomplish be done in a relatively short time and a small number of litters, or would we require more time and a larger number of litters to create the line envisaged? And could we carry out our plans precisely as we intended if we were to keep only bitches and rely on access to appropriate outside stud dogs as we needed them?
Here in Canada we faced the complicating factor that we had decided to rely on English bloodstock and England's strict quarantine laws at the time we started buying our dogs made breeding to these lines a virtual impossibility. Ownership was, in this situation, the only practical solution though now, with the pet passport system breeding to dogs in England is finally easily possible for the first time.
WeI also have to admit to a prejudice and a preference for male dogs: we believe they are more important to a breeding program than are the bitches, and we are therefore dismayed at the number of excellent males that are discarded come placement time by breeders, going in to pet homes where they end up neutered and unusable. How can we ever improve the breed if we systematically continue to eliminate the best males from the process because we don't want them around our bitches?
In the end, we made the decision to assemble the gene pool we built our program around, all at one time and keep it intact throughout. We continue to have an almost equal balance of dogs and bitches. And I still greatly prefer the male for its sanity and sensibility over the smarter, more manipulative females!.
Finally, having made your plans, STICK TO THEM. If you are convinced that you have carefully planned your breeding program, do not let someone persuade you to deviate from the course you have set, and do not let yourself be distracted, even for "just one litter"! The apparent short-term gain to be had in such deviations may actually result in long term pain.
In this respect, I often think of a friend who took her exceptional English imported bitch that she had long planned to breed to a very specific dog, to another dog completely on a last-minute impulse.
She ended up with a litter of seven mostly white, cryptorchid and monorchid males, and her bitch ended up with complications from the whelping and required spaying to save her life. So the bitch became a pet, the pups all had to be neutered and placed as pets, and everything was lost by one simple decision to change her mind on an impluse.
Observe. Think. Plan. Prepare. And stay the course. Be prepared to think for yourself – avoid the herd mentality of breeding to the current most popular winning show dog -- and make decisions based on your own best judgment. If in doubt, don’t do it. There is usually a reason for doubt.
Above all, remember it is your breeding program, and its success or failure is entirely in your hands.
Avalonia Whippets, Canada