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Jessica Hekman: Hi friends. I am pleased to have Sara Reusche, she/her, back on the podcast. Sara is a CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CVT, and she owns Paws Abilities Dog Training LLC, which has two locations, in southeast Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro. Sara is back to update us on her multigen mixed breed breeding program and her new litter. She’s going to talk with us about transparency in breeding, making hard decisions, and tells us all about her latest litter of dogs bred to be excellent companions and sports-lite partners. Sara, welcome to the podcast. I’m so glad to have you back.
Sara Reusche: Yeah, thanks for having me, I’m excited!
JH: Me too. So for those who didn’t listen, Sara was one of the very first people that I interviewed back when I was nervous about convincing people to come be on the podcast and she was someone that I knew pretty well, so I was confident that she would come and talk about her breeding program then, and there have been changes since then. So we, and she has a nice new litter out there. And so we thought we would do a talk about that. So let’s start off, tell us about your dogs Sara, who do you live with?
SR: So currently we have four dogs in our household, and two of them I actually introduced last time and then there’s two new additions. So just briefly, the two that I introduced last time, Pan is a purpose-bred sport mix. He’s seven years old, and he’s a mix of Border collie, Jack Russell, Staffordshire bull terrier, and whippet primarily. He is 24 pounds and 15 inches. And then I have his daughter Biz, and Biz is three years old. She’s 18 pounds, she’s 13 and a half inches at her shoulders and she is Pan’s daughter and then the mom is a Staffordshire bull terrier/rat terrier cross. And then for the new additions, Morrigan, Rig, is a 14 month-old, I’m calling her a spicy Border/whippet. So she’s mostly Border collie and whippet but she’s got a little bit of Malinois and a little bit of Border Terrier just for flair. And she definitely has a lot of flair. She’s a lot of dog, but she’s also a lot of fun. She’s kind of one of those dogs that as a trainer makes you look really good. But then living with her day to day, part of it is her age, but she’s also just a very busy dog. So she’s a dog who needs a little bit more than my other dogs. And then the newest addition was actually not planned. We ended up keeping one of the puppies from this recent litter that we’re going to be talking about. So Iroh is 13 weeks old, and he is Biz’s son out of a Cavalier stud. And he’s actually a dog that, again, we weren’t planning to keep him, but my husband fell in love. So now one of our four dogs is his fault, which is really nice for me. And he’s delightful, he’s a really nice little dog. He’s very easygoing, he’s very happy, just fit. We’ve said that his theme song is “Walking On Sunshine”. I mean, that’s just his personality.
JH: He sounds like with Cavalier, so much Cavalier in there, he might be a little less spicy.
SR: He’s definitely yeah very vanilla.
JH: So, when we talked last, we talked about how you bred Pan and produced Biz. So, and I guess you’ve already mentioned which of these dogs are in your breeding program. But do you want to tell us more about what your program’s goals are, and how long you’ve been doing this, and how long you hope to do it?
SR: Sure. So, I’d like to summarize my breeding program goals as ‘gateway dog sports dogs’, and what I mean by that is that my dogs are first and foremost pets, and they’re going to pet homes. You know, I want them to be a member of the family, I want them to be very sociable, very easy to take into public, very stable, just kind of very simple dogs to own. Not a lot of complicated management or training needed, they’re just kind of good to go. But then also dogs that enjoy doing things with their people, that are going to be very trainable and very fun to do activities with. So if somebody wants to get into barn hunt, or dock diving, or disk, or rally obedience, or agility, or lure coursing… I’m trying to think of all of the things that dogs that I produce have done, and they’re happy to do that. Right, they like doing things with their people, they’re going to be, you know, functionally sound. So they’re going to physically be able to do these activities for long careers, and then just mentally sound where they’re going to be happy and stable and sociable and trainable. So that’s kind of my base goal. As far as how long I’ve been doing this, I’m fairly new to the breeding world, I’m not new to raising puppies. I’ve been doing that for about 20 years through various shelters and rescues. But as far as the front end work for breeding, that’s very new to me. So, making matches instead of just having a pregnant bitch show up at my house and being like, “We don’t know when she’s due, but here, good luck!” That’s very new. (Laughter)
JH: That sounds hair-raising.
SR: You know, one thing that I didn’t really realize is how much more difficult whelping is in the rescue community and how much you learn. And it’s something that I’d recommend if people are thinking about breeding and they’re thinking that that may be something that they want to do in the future, raising some litters for your favorite local rescue or foster-based organization. You’re going to learn so, so much, and it’s nice to have then those, you know, support networks in place, so if you have a medically complicated puppy you’ve got the resources of the shelter rescue, you’ve got people who are experienced with that. Because it is a lot harder whelping a dog when you don’t know the due date, and you don’t know the health status, and mom comes to you very stressed, and the puppies might have genetic issues crop up. The last litter that I whelped for rescue, we did an Embark on one of the puppies, and we had already kind of suspected it was a hoarding case that maybe the sire and dam were related, and yeah, they were brother/sister. So that litter was, you know, 25% COI. And unfortunately, we lost two of the four puppies to pretty serious genetic issues. One of them had a severe cleft palate, and one of them had atlantoaxial luxation and laryngeal collapse, so he just wasn’t wasn’t able to make it. But that’s something to consider, that you definitely get a lot of experience that way. And then whelping a dog that has been in your home since a puppy, that’s had the appropriate medical care, that’s not stressed, where you’ve chosen a good mate, the dog is fit, you know when they’re due. That was really easy. I was like, wow, this is really easy.
JH: Comparatively easy.
SR: Comparatively, yes, exactly.
JH: Yeah, for sure. Wow. So after you’d been doing raising puppies for shelters for that long, why did you decide to jump into breeding yourself?
SR: So that last litter I talked about is actually one big part of it. Right? So dealing with so many health issues and temperament issues, and we know that, for example, maternal stress in utero changes how puppies brains develop. And certainly I’ve seen that in some of the litters I’ve raised that have had a very, very stressed mom. Definitely, we’ve seen those puppies have very early onset behavioral issues, even with the very best puppy raising program we could give them and then honestly, here in Minnesota, there just aren’t enough dogs. So I actually… you know I’m a geek, and I’m going to get really, really geeky.
JH: We welcome that here. This is the place for that.
SR: So we’re really going to do a deep dive into numbers just because that’s one thing that I did. And I think there’s a lot of prevalent myths about the availability of dogs right now. And they’re, they were true 20 years ago. And they’re no longer true but we’re kind of holding on to those myths as a community. And certainly, they are still true in some areas of the country. So if you live in North Carolina, or California, or Florida, or Texas, those myths are still true in your area. But in areas like where I live in Minnesota, my clients are really struggling to find puppies when they decide that their family is ready. And the puppies that we’re seeing coming through our puppy classes at Paws Abilities are just more complicated than the puppies we were seeing a decade ago or two decades ago. So as far as numbers, the best estimates I can find, there’s somewhere between 83 and 108 million dogs in the US right now. And I know that’s a really wide range. So the AVMA did a 2020 pet ownership and demographics survey that put that number somewhere between 83 and 89 million. The American Pet Products Association’s 2021 to 2022 survey was a little bit higher, they’re saying up to 100 million dogs in the US. And then Best Friends didn’t have a date on the data that they had on their website, but they were estimating somewhere around 108 million dogs in the US. So there’s a lot of dogs in the US right now. If we’re looking at like the average life expectancy of dogs, the most recent number I could find was actually a UK based study. But I think it’s probably pretty applicable to the US population because we have similar lifestyles, right, and we have similar reasons for acquiring pets, we keep our pets in pretty similar conditions. But that study was saying that the average dog lives around 11.23 years. So when we look at those numbers, what that means is that the annual replacement rate for dogs in the US is probably somewhere around like 7.4 to 9.6 million dogs per year. So if, and these are big assumptions, but if everybody when they lose a dog gets another dog, and the number of new people getting dogs is pretty similar to the number of people that are maybe not getting another dog for whatever reason, that’s a lot of dogs that we need to replace every year. So then we have to ask, like, where did those dogs come from? Where are people getting dogs? Right now, around 3.1 million dogs enter shelters annually, but about 23% of those are returned to their owners. And that’s based on the most recent data I could find, which was from the ASPCA, and that was in 2019. So, and then, the ASPCA data also said that around 13% are euthanized for various reasons. Some of those may be due to space or due to lack of homes. From being in the shelter and rescue world for so long, I can say that a lot are probably health related, untreatable, issues like that.
JH: Yeah there are, I think Best Friends does actually have statistics on how many dogs are euthanized. Dogs coming into shelters are euthanized for being basically unhealthy, untreatable.
JH: And it’s a surprisingly large percent of the euthanasia statistic, right? So if you sort of are cutting the euthanasia statistic into, some of these dogs really are not appropriate to adopt to adopt, out a lot of them are dogs that are coming in where the owners are basically saying, “I’m surrendering to the shelter with the expectation that the shelter will do, will perform the euthanasia.”. A lot of the owners actively request that, right? So there’s, you know, dogs who are very, very sick or sort of otherwise end of life, versus the dogs that are euthanized for space.
JH: Right, and the numbers used to be hugely skewed to the number of dogs being euthanized for space. And there are statistics showing that that’s skewing back the other way now, that space is, I mean, it’s definitely as you said, it’s definitely still an issue some places, but it’s really not an issue a lot of other places.
SR: Right. Well, and we know that a lot of the dogs that would have been euthanized for space, now we have programs in place where we’re getting them where they need to go to find homes. So the local rescue that I foster for, the vast majority of their dogs, you know, probably I would guess at least 95% of their dogs, are dogs that are coming from out of state. So we’re shipping dogs up to Minnesota, to provide dogs for people who want them because we don’t have enough dogs in Minnesota being produced to kind of replace the dogs that are being lost.
JH: Is that where the puppies that you were raising, were those coming in from out of state?
SR: Yeah. Like the last litter, that hoarding case mama that I took in, she was from Texas.
SR: So the vast majority of those dogs are coming up from down south, some from other countries. But it’s pretty rare that we’re seeing euthanasia for space anymore in most areas of the US. So if we look at that, you know, 3.1 million dogs coming into shelters in the US, if we subtract out that 23% of dogs returned to owners that 13% of dogs euthanized, that leaves us about 2 million, a little under 2 million adoptable dogs each year. And remember that the replacement number for dogs in the US is around 7.4 to 9.6 million dogs a year. So we can’t just replace dogs with adoptable dogs anymore. 20 years ago, absolutely. 20 years ago, we did have so many dogs in shelters that that was the best place to send people because you could find that perfect pet in shelters but that is no longer the case, at least here in Minnesota. So then I said I was gonna get geeky. I’ve got other numbers too. (Laughter)
JH: Go for it!
SR: So what about breeders? So I looked at AKC statistics and based on the 2021 numbers, and I got those from the January 2022 Board of Director meeting minutes, the AKC registered over 800,000 dogs in 2021. And that was actually the highest number of registrations that they’ve had in 14 years. Just so that we have conservative estimates, if we assume that every single AKC breeder is responsible, and is breeding dogs with a focus on health and temperament, and that any AKC registered dog is going to be a good fit for the average pet home, that means that purebred, responsibly AKC registered dogs would account for 8.3% to 10.8% of the replacement dogs we need each year.
SR: So it’s a pretty little drop in the bucket. As far as irresponsible breeders, looking at the HSUS’s 2021 data, they’re saying that about 1.3 million puppies are produced by USDA licensed facilities each year. So those are puppy mills, generally, right? And they’re thinking that if you take into account non-licensed puppy mills, that might be closer to double that, so 2.6 million. So irresponsibly bred, kind of factory farmed puppies are probably making up, you know, 27 to 35% of our replacement dogs in the US each year. And a lot of that is education, people just don’t know, and then I think a lot of that is also availability. If you want a puppy, here in Minnesota, it’s hard to get a puppy from a shelter or rescue. They get adopted really, really quickly. And if you’re trying to get a puppy from a responsible breeder, you’re probably looking at a several year wait. And you kind of have to know people in the community. With a lot of good breeders who are doing all the health testing and titling their dogs and things like that, they’re not necessarily just placing dogs with anybody who asks. You kind of have to already have a base of knowledge that the average pet owner might not have.
JH: Hard to get your first dog, right?
SR: It is, yeah, you have to kind of know the secret handshake.
SR: Right? Because if you ask like, “Do you have puppies available, how much are they?”, most responsible breeders aren’t even going to respond to you.
SR: And it’s oftentimes an educational issue, it’s just that people don’t know what to ask and they don’t know the right way to ask these questions.
JH: Right, right.
SR: So we’ve talked about shelters and rescues, we’ve talked about Kennel Club registered dogs, we’ve talked about USDA licensed facilities, and then the other big category of dogs I could find numbers on was private rehoming. And according to Best Friends, about 35% of people get their dogs via private rehoming. So that’s, your dog is from a friend or relative or coworker or neighbor, you know somebody who’s getting rid of their dog and you think that dog is going to be a good fit for your household so you get the dog that way, you know. Or your coworker had an oops litter because the neighbor’s dog jumped the fence and the puppies are really cute so you get a puppy that way. So that’s about 35% of the dogs, which would be about 2.6 to 3.4 million dogs per year.
JH: Yeah, and I do want to weigh in that a lot of the private rehoming that we’re talking about is adult dogs, not puppies.
SR: Yes, exactly.
JH: And those, technically, when we’re talking about replacement dogs, those dogs, they’re not new dogs coming into the population to replace dogs that have died, right? They’re moving from someone. I know you know this, but I’m sort of explaining for the audience.
SR: No, it’s a great point.
JH: Yeah, they’re moving from someone who has a dog to someone who didn’t have a dog, right, but they’re not adding to the dog population.
JH: I would note that I gave a talk similar to this at one point and it was pointed out to me that the other group is who we would sort of characterize as backyard breeders. People who are selling dogs, more or less to make money. They may be doing it sort of more for fun, or for a hobby, or they may be doing it to make money but they’re not producing the volume of what we’d call a puppy mill. And they’re producing the dogs out of their house, but they’re maybe not focusing on health testing the way we might like, they’re not thinking through carefully pairing dogs. It’s more haphazard. And so that’s sort of another group that’s in there, it’s so hard to get numbers for any of these things. I’m really impressed at how many numbers you came up with, by the way.
SR: Yeah, thank you. (Laughter) I really like nerding out about things.
JH: You like the numbers, that’s good.
SR: I feel I get to share it with a community that also likes to get nerdy. But I think that, like I said, there’s a lot of prevalent myths about the availability of dogs, and where you can get a dog, and where you can get a nice dog that’s going to be a good fit for you. And what I’ve seen being in the field, being a professional dog trainer and seeing, you know, thousands of dogs every year is that that’s no longer the case. It’s not easy to find a good match and it’s especially difficult if you’re a first time pet owner, or you have small children, or you live in an apartment, or you know, all of these things that that’s where most of us started.
JH: Or you want a small dog.
SR: Yeah, maybe you want a small dog.
JH: Or a dog that doesn’t, you know, that’s sort of lower shedding because you have allergies.
SR: Right! Or perhaps you have had some health issues with your previous dogs and you really want a dog that has health testing in their background, and you know how long that dog’s relatives have lived and what they’ve died of. It’s really hard to find that. So that’s a big part of why I’ve kind of entered the breeding world is that there’s this need, and I have nice dogs.
JH: And let me just pause to say by the way that I do get, not a massive number, but some number of comments on the Functional Dog Collaborative page with people basically saying, “You know, everyone who breeds dogs is evil.” and you know, “More dogs is bad, we have too many dogs to begin with.” And I do want to emphasize that when I’m talking to people like Sara and when I’m talking to other breeders, we’re not talking about having there be more dogs in the country. We’re talking about having the same number of dogs, but having a larger proportion of them come from really good starts.
JH: Which is what Sara’s describing here.
SR: Yeah, my goal would be that, you know, 35% of dogs, replacement dogs coming from puppy mills? Let’s get that number lower because we know that those are the dogs that are ending up in our shelters and rescues. What we’re seeing ending up in shelters and rescues are not dogs from good breeders, because the dogs from good breeders have a safety net. If something happens they’re going back to their breeders, they’re not ending up in the shelter rescue pipeline. And so the more responsible breeders we have, and the more available responsibly bred, nice dogs we have that are going to stay in their first home for their entire life, the less we’re going to have issues with homeless dogs, and the less we’re going to have issues with dogs being kept in really poor welfare for the purpose of breeding.
JH: Yes. And I also want to note that Sara is not saying that there is a problem with the dogs who are in shelters, right?
SR: Oh God, no! (Laughter)
JH: But that’s what some people hear so I just want to be careful.
SR: Right, yes, I appreciate it.
JH: She’s talking about a safety net that does exist. You know, breeders who are really responsible breeders always say one of the things that they are contracting to do is to manage any dog that loses its home, so take it back or find another appropriate home for it, but they don’t want their dogs ending up in shelters. And so there may be dogs that are finding their way to shelters to no fault of their own, and they lack that safety net. But the other thing I’d like to point out is that dogs who have no behavior problems typically move through shelters, even in high population areas, very quickly. Dogs who do have behavior problems tend to be stuck there and then they start to fill up the shelters. So the more dogs we produce without behavior problems, if they do end up in the shelter, as happens, right? Like someone can lose their home or something like that, they will move through quickly, which is another really important goal.
SR: It is! We know that length of stay in the shelter has been directly correlated with outcome. And so the sooner that we can get those dogs in good placement, so not just out the doors, but in good placements that are going to be permanent placements, the better for the dog and the better for the community.
JH: So given all of that, you thought one of the ways that you could help the situation was by producing more dogs who would be good pets?
JH: So tell us about it. So you knew a lot about raising puppies, and presumably a fair amount about whelping, but you had to learn how to take a dog and find a good match for that dog and how to health test, and how to interpret the health test. So where did you learn and how hard was it?
SR: So honestly, the FDC has been a really helpful resource.
JH: Aww. (Laughter)
SR: And that’s the Facebook community. Social media communities can be difficult, right? There’s no really like, healthy, 100% positive social community, it doesn’t exist.
SR: But the FDC does a good job with moderation, and there are a lot of, I think, potentially charged topics that are discussed in the group really well. Where disparate viewpoints are not necessarily immediately shot down, but explored. And some of those kind of sacred cows of dog breeding are maybe picked apart and looked at with a thought to the science and what we actually know versus, you know, how we feel about things. And so that’s been a really good resource. I’ve done quite a bit of reading, I’ve done quite a bit of online continuing education. And it’s great because I’m also a certified vet tech so I can get my CEs to keep my vet tech license here at the same time.
SR: Good Dog has some really good resources. So Good Dog is an online breeder listing, and if you’re a breeder listed with them they have a lot of free educational resources and they’ve got a lot of quality content. They’re the ones that have taken over the Avidog puppy raising program, after Gail Watkins retired. And then Embark has also had a lot of really good free educational resources. I’ve attended their conferences, they have online conferences that are recorded that are really good. So there is a lot of good information out there, it’s just kind of sourcing it. And then just being willing to geek out and follow that information up by looking up the studies and reading through the papers and talking to people. So the other thing that I found really, really helpful is that there have been a good number of experienced breeders who’ve been phenomenal about mentoring me and answering all of my questions. And there’s a lot. So there have been a lot of questions.
JH: I’m trying to think where to go next, but I’m tempted to say, can you think of any of those questions off the top of your head just to give us a flavor?
SR: I’ve had a lot of questions about specifics. So I know we’re going to talk about that momentarily. I had one health testing result that was not expected with my girl and kind of talking through that with multiple breeders, and then geneticists and veterinarians, and basically everybody I could ask about it was really helpful. So asking about specific situations. Asking about, you know, if you were in this situation, what would you do?
SR: And then also asking questions about, looking forward does this seem reasonable? So talking about, like, breeding goals. Is this a reasonable goal? Is this something that we can achieve through breeding? Because I think sometimes we… and I’m talking just for myself, I don’t want to talk about breeders in general, because I’m very, very new. But I know I like to think that I can control everything and that it’s possible to breed a perfect dog, and it’s not, right? Genetics are really complicated and dogs are autonomous beings with their own thoughts and their own wants and desires and environment does play a big role in a lot-
JH: And biology is messy and complicated.
SR: Exactly, exactly. So I’d like to think that I’m perfect and I can breed the perfect dog, and we all know that none of that is true at all.
JH: Right. No, and no one can, there’s always going to be issues, and I think the way the dog community has dealt with that so far is by just carefully not talking about it if there’s an issue in a particular dog, which makes it look like there are perfect litters out there, and that’s more just sort of a veneer that when there’s more transparency you start seeing what the various issues are.
SR: Yes. And that’s something that I’ve definitely dealt with firsthand, and again, we can talk about that more in a little bit. But I’ve definitely dealt with the dog community really being uncomfortable and judgmental about my transparency about things. And I can see where it’s very easy to get punished into silence if you’re part of those communities.
JH: Yeah. Facebook is very good at punishing people into silence.
JH: Yes, so I guess the big question to start with before we get to some of the interesting decisions that we’ve been talking about, is what health tests you did. Because you aren’t breeding purebred dogs. And when people are breeding purebreds, there’s, you know, there’s a relatively straightforward process for figuring out what health tests to do. Usually, the breed club has a list and then you might want to add a couple based on your lines or particular concerns. But with mixed breeds it’s really unclear. There’s, on the one hand, some people advocate for everything that could be potentially relevant in any breed that’s in the mix. Which is what a lot of people do, I think mostly so that they don’t get yelled at on social media.
JH: Because in a lot of cases, if the dog is not a purebred of that breed the test is much less relevant. And so it’s probably the case that mixed breed dogs actually need less health testing, but not having the evidence for that, most people just sort of play it safe and go for more. Where did you come down in the middle of all of that?
SR: Yeah, so with Biz when I was looking at breeding her, her parents both have health testing. And so for her dad, for Pan, we did his hips, elbows, eyes, and patellas and then hearing. And so with him he has some white headed dogs in his background and he had some white spotting on one ear, so just to make sure, even though there were no signs that he had any deafness, we also did a BAER. Her dam had hips and elbows and eyes done, and then both parents also had a full Embark panel. And for both of them, it came up as clear, so no at-risk and no carrier.
SR: So that’s kind of the information I was starting with. And then for Biz, I also did kind of the baseline, what I feel like is responsible for, you know, any mixed breed, which would be an Embark panel, and then hips, elbows and eyes. So her hips came back as excellent, her elbows and eyes were both normal, and then her Embark panel was clear, so no at risk and no carrier. And her COI, her coefficient of inbreeding on Embark, so her genetic COI is 1%.
JH: That is very low.
SR: It is! Which her litter actually ended up being 0%, which is what we anticipated because of the cross, which we’ll talk about more in a minute. And then I also did patellas on her, and that was the health test that came up as abnormal. And so I’ll talk about that, I haven’t been punished into silence yet.
JH: We’ll see if we can work on that. (Laughter)
SR: Right. So with her patellar exam, her right knee is normal and her left knee came back as a Grade 1 out of 4. And what that means is that she’s asymptomatic. So she’s very active, she competes in disc dog, she competes in lure coursing, she was actually at a disc dog trial this last weekend where we were doing combination games. So it’s a combination of disk and agility. So she was jumping and catching discs. She doesn’t show any symptoms of patellar luxation. She doesn’t skip, she doesn’t have any pain, she doesn’t have any arthritis. But if we push, she does have a slightly shallow patellar groove and so it would be possible to get her kneecap out. I see a sports medicine and rehabilitation vet for all of my dogs on a regular basis just because I’m asking them to be very active and I want to make sure that that’s comfortable for them, and that they’re able to have long careers and long lives where they’re comfortable and functional. And her comment has been that, you know, yes, I can get it out but I’d have to work fairly hard to get that kneecap out. It’s not something that’s just going to pop out on its own. And so that did come back as abnormal. And then based on the sire that I chose for her I also did a basic cardiac, so I also had the heart clearances. I didn’t do a full cardiac because there’s no known heart issues in her lines, but because I was breeding her to a breed that has known heart issues I wanted to make sure that at least our baseline looked good before I went any further.
JH: So what does that mean, that you went to a cardiologist and had a basic cardio exam?
SR: So basic cardiac is just your general practitioner listening to the heart, saying that there’s no murmurs, there’s no abnormalities, there’s synchronous pulses on both sides. Just you know, all of the kind of basic heart screenings that they would do in an exam. All of that looks normal. So she didn’t have a Holter monitor, she didn’t have an echocardiogram.
SR: Just because she doesn’t have any known heart issues in her lines. And actually, her sire had a toxin exposure. Six years ago now, five years ago? Quite a while ago he was poisoned. Unintentionally, I don’t think this was on purpose. But he at some point got into something and so did my inlaw’s dog. And they were both hospitalized for a while, and that caused some heart issues with him that have since resolved, but that means that we did have Holter monitors and echocardiograms on him from treating that toxin exposure and so we kind of knew what was going on with him.
JH: And just to be clear, that was that he looked fairly normal.
SR: Yes, yes. So he initially did have some issues with his heart after the toxin exposure but those have since resolved. He also had some liver issues and those have since resolved.
JH: Phew, man, that must have been scary.
SR: It was very scary, yeah.
JH: All right. So and, and just to be clear, going into this. You know, if someone came to me asking for a genetics consult and said I have a dog with a patella that’s a 1 out of 4, would it be acceptable to breed this dog? I’d say if, you know, if everything else is clear, yeah, just make sure to breed to someone else who has really, really good knees. Just because, I don’t want people to have sort of doubts going into this, as we go into this conversation. But I also recognize that on social media, people really want the dog to look perfect.
SR: Right. And a lot of the comments I got were interesting because I know, for example, my veterinarian also has a client who’s a Pomeranian breeder, who’s a AKC Pomeranian Breeder of Merit, and produces really nice show winning Pomeranians and is really comfortable breeding any dog in her program who has a Grade 2 or lower. But that’s Pomeranians, and this is a mixed breed and the way that we talk about those two are very different on social media. So a lot of the comments I got were, you know, you can get a nice mutt at any shelter, why would you breed a mutt who has a failed health test?
JH: That’s an interesting question, “You can get a nice mutt at any shelter,” sort of assuming that all mutts are the same.
SR: Right, right.
JH: And that what you’re breeding is… I mean, mutts are so diverse, which is one of the things I really love about them. I have a mutt in my house and she is nothing like your dogs. I love her, she’s perfect for me. But she looks nothing like your dogs, she’s a different size, weight, shape, personality. You know, if you’re looking for a specific kind of sport mix, a dog who’s coming from a really good home where they were carefully socialized, that’s just different. And again, you know, not throwing shade on shelter dogs, but going to a breeder is not always because that breed is not available in the shelter. It’s also because you really like the knowledge of what the breeder is doing.
SR: Right, there’s a big difference between one of my foster fails who I don’t have any known health history on, and say my new puppy Rig, the 14 month old, who when I went out to pick her up from her breeders, I was able to meet her sire and her dam, and aunts and uncles, and grandmas, and great grandmas, and great great grandpa’s and dogs who were really, really fit and happy and functional at advanced ages. So they had dogs as old as 18 years old on the property that were related to Rig, that I got to meet, that were still really functional. We met a couple, a 14 year old and a 15 year old that I would not have believed their ages if they weren’t known. Because they were acting like they were Pan’s age, 7, you know, they were still very playful and able to run around, and really happy functional dogs.
SR: And that’s very different than bringing in a dog who doesn’t have a known health history. And that’s not to say that that dog without a known health history isn’t an amazing dog. Because my foster fail dogs have been amazing dogs, and I will probably always also foster and adopt dogs. But they’re two different things.
JH: Right. Right, and just calling back to what we said earlier, which is that, you know, we’d really like to, both of us would really love to see more dogs in this country coming from really excellent beginnings. And that’s why Sara is doing what she’s doing. There may be mixed breed dogs in shelters, there certainly are mixed breed dogs in shelters, but she’s trying to produce a certain kind of thing and a dog that has a really great start, and not to take a home away from a shelter dog. But hopefully to produce dogs that will not end up in shelters is sort of a better way of thinking about it.
SR: Yeah, exactly.
JH: Yeah, and God it’s funny, like the 1 out of 4 patellar result. I’m like, well that is a perfect dog though. Like I wouldn’t breed her to another dog who had a 1 out of 4, but that’s not hard to find.
JH: So all right, so you thought through and decided you were gonna go ahead with her. So how did you find a match for her, a sire for her puppies?
SR: Well, so first I obsessed about it for a year.
JH: Sure. I mean, that’s a necessary first step. (Laughter)
SR: Right, right. And, I mean, I talked to geneticists, and I talked to other breeders, and the breeder that I got Rig from met Biz and watched her move around and gave me some really good things to think about. And then I talked to veterinarians and theriogenologists, and the big thing that kept coming back was that, you know, this is a dog that is probably worth breeding because this issue is something that we can test for, it’s not impacting her quality of life, and if we make good decisions it’s unlikely to impact the quality of life of her offspring.
SR: So there’s a big difference between breeding a dog where, say they have severe GI issues that impact their quality of life, and we don’t have good tests for every GI issue, and so we can’t know how GI issues are inherited, necessarily, and we can’t necessarily know whether their offspring’s going to have those same GI issues. That’s very different than something like patellas, where we can test and we can make informed decisions.
SR: So that was kind of the process. And then our sports medicine vet gave me some really good specific criteria to look for in a stud, which was angulation. So her thought was that if we could improve hind end angulation, Biz is very terrier so she’s fairly straight, then we would greatly reduce the chance of patellar issues. So she suggested that I look for a stud that had at least 140 degrees standing angulation on their knees.
JH: Interesting, cool.
SR: So that was helpful, because then I had a really specific metric to look at when I was looking at potential studs.
JH: Yeah numbers are nice.
SR: Yes. (Laughter) As a nerd, numbers made me feel much, much better about the whole thing. And so one of her suggestions was, have you considered spaniels? I know they’re not generally used a lot in sport mixes but they tend to have really complementary structure to what Biz has. And then as I was thinking about it more, one of my concerns was that if I was placing Biz’s offspring with really serious sports competitors, then if there were patellar issues that was likely to be a big problem. But if, say, some of her puppies ended up with a Grade 1 patellar issue, and they were placed in homes that wanted pets first and foremost, which again, is what my breeding program is focused on, that’s less of an issue, right? It’s not going to be a quality of life issue, it’s not going to be something that’s going to impact that dog’s relationship and ability to do things with their person.
SR: So kind of while all this was happening, I’d been talking a lot with some people who are in the Cavalier King Charles spaniel world and talking about some of the issues that Cavaliers are facing, and how difficult it’s been to breed Cavaliers responsibly right now with the lack of healthy heart genes in the population.
SR: And so I ended up breeding Biz to a Cavalier King Charles spaniel stud.
JH: So where did you find him?
SR: So he is from a program that does both purebred Cavaliers and some Cavalier crosses, and the Cavalier crosses in this program are fairly recent. And talking to the breeder, it’s because she was concerned that she can’t responsibly breed purebreds within the structure of the breed club anymore because those dogs are going to have heart issues and that’s not fair to the dogs and it’s not fair to the families.
JH: And just to be clear, when Sara says that the dogs are going to have heart issues, it is an amazing percentage of Cavaliers will develop a very specific heart issue. And I think I learned in vet school it’s like 90% of them, which basically means that some of them will die before the heart issue manifests but it seems to pretty much be fixed in the breed.
SR: Right. And unfortunately, that’s not the only problem. There’s also problems, other problems with syringomyelia and Chiari malformation, and so it’s kind of like Whack-A-Mole with health issues, right? If you’re focusing on maybe reducing your coefficient of inbreeding, so getting more diversity into your lines, then you’re probably going to be crossing two dogs that have one of those two very serious issues. And if you’re focusing on avoiding one of those issues, you’re probably going to have to look for a dog who has the other issue, right? You can’t necessarily find dogs who are clear of all the issues, they just aren’t out there in the population. Or if they are, they’re probably really closely related. And so she had already started doing outcrosses.
JH: What was she outcrossing to, I’m curious?
SR: She’s outcrossing to poodles and bichons. So, she’s definitely not well liked by her breed club anymore for that.
JH: Yeah, I can imagine that.
SR: But the dogs he’s producing are much healthier than, necessarily, some of the purebred Cavaliers. And I’m not saying ‘every Cavalier,’ like I don’t want to come across that way, but just in general the Cavalier mixes from health tested and responsibly planned litters are less likely to have these health issues than purebred Cavaliers.
SR: So I knew she was already open to mixed breeding, and we knew each other from online communities going way back, and she had some really good breeding advice and thoughts. So I ended up crossing Biz to one of her boys, with the thought that his structure was really complimentary. His health testing results were really good, the health testing in his lines and the longevity in his lines is really good for a Cavalier, and I knew that temperament-wise, these were going to be very social, easy pets.
JH: That sounds lovely. So you made this decision, and were you public about it on social media as you were setting up the breeding? Or did you wait until you had puppies on the ground? Or how did you handle that?
SR: It depended on the community. So people definitely knew. People who knew me, who were maybe like Facebook friends with me, knew that this was what I was planning to do and I was happy to answer questions. But I wasn’t necessarily going out to dog groups and saying, “Hey, this is what we’re doing. We’re driving to Maryland from Minnesota to do this breeding.” So it definitely was community-specific.
JH: So you traveled, that was quite a ways to travel. And so you brought, you waited for Biz to come into heat and then you traveled out to meet the stud?
SR: Yes. I did that because I wanted to meet the stud in person. And I wanted to do a live coverage just because I felt that that was the kind of best chance, since it was a maiden bitch and this was actually the studs first litter as well. So we had the best chance for puppies with a live cover.
JH: Fair. She’s probably used to traveling if she’s a sport dog.
SR: She’s an amazing traveler. So one of the things I do with my dogs is they all have their own personal crate and we get stickers from every, like, national park we visit with them or all the places.
JH: That’s adorable. (Laughter)
SR: Yeah, so they’ve got like their little travelogue on their crates, and her crate is actually running out of space. She’s been so many places with me so she loves to travel and she’s the perfect little traveling companion.
JH: Oh, that’s great, that’s great.
SR: Quiet and relaxed in hotels, and happy to be in the car for 15 hours if we have to be, with potty breaks, and able to eat anything so I don’t necessarily have to pack special food for her I can just kind of feed her what we’re eating on the road that’s dog safe and know she’s going to be fine.
JH: That’s awesome, yeah, so talking about, again, about the welfare of the parents as we’re producing nice puppies. That’s nice that she can, that the whole process could be good for her. So then when she… she took first first time it sounds like?
SR: She did, yep.
JH: Congratulations. That is awesome.
JH: And so, any problems in the whelping or was that smooth?
SR: So this is where I go back to, you know, my whelping experience is primarily with shelter rescue dogs, and oh my goodness, this was easy. And I’m not saying every whelping is, because it’s not, and we know it’s not but because she was so fit she didn’t really lose a lot of conditioning during her pregnancy. She got big, but she was still very, very active. Her delivery for… she had five puppies. And the time from the birth of the first puppy to the birth of the last puppy was an hour and 15 minutes.
SR: So it was… I’ve never attended a whelping that was that fast. It was very, very fast. She was a phenomenal mother right from the start. And it was just, the puppies were all born very active and vital, and nobody needed anything special. It was a very uncomplicated whelping.
JH: Oh, that’s fabulous.
SR: It was.
JH: That’s fabulous. So, and then you were talking about placing the puppies more in sort of more pet homes, or, there’s a big space between ‘pet home’ and ‘very high level competition home.’ So where did these puppies fall in what kind of homes they went to?
SR: So the homes that I was looking for specifically were homes that wanted a pet first, but were maybe dog sport curious. Two of Biz’s brothers are Junior-handled in their sports, and so I was excited for the prospect of placing some of the puppies with Junior handlers. I think from a community perspective, the more we can support Junior handlers and welcome them into the community and place fun, easy dogs with them, the better for our dog sports, right? Because I like playing these things with my dogs and I’d really like it if the communities continue to grow and survive. So that’s kind of who I was looking for, and the people who had maybe not had a lot of luck with finding responsible breeders because of other aspects of things. Like people who’ve maybe had to euthanize a dog for behavioral issues in the past can sometimes find themselves blacklisted from good breeders, or people who are first time pet owners. So that’s what I was kind of looking for in homes for this litter. It’s not what I got, and it was really surprising and almost a little alarming. So of these five puppies, every single one was placed with a professional dog trainer.
JH: (Laughter) Okay. How’d that happen?
SR: Um, and…
JH: Wait, let me guess, the professional dog trainers were sick of having dogs with behavior problems.
SR: You’ve got it, yep. So when I look at my puppy list right now, and some of that just might be kind of word of mouth and who I know so there’s definitely bias there, but my puppy list is 90% pet professionals. So it’s shelter and rescue workers, professional dog trainers, veterinarians, and especially veterinarians who specialize in behavior, and vet techs. That’s who’s on my waitlist. And it’s kind of telling, I think, that those are the people that are really specifically seeking out these easy pet dogs because they’ve had a difficult time with dogs in the past and they’re tired. Compassion fatigue is real.
JH: Yeah, I mean, the border collie that, a lot of people know my story with him, has me completely exhausted and I want something really easy next time. And you and I have talked about how I would love to have one of your dogs if you ever started moving away from the terrier direction. (Laugher)
JH: Which now you have, so…
SR: I have, yeah, and actually the Cavalier that I chose is a registered therapy dog. He works every week in the hospital, and he lives with chickens, which was something that… obviously spaniels can be kind of birdy, and I know that Biz is a very proficient hunter. She’s a very good terrier who does very helpful terrier tasks around our household of keeping vermin out of our house this time of year in the fall, when they’re all trying to move in.
JH: Yeah, I would take one of those.
SR: And so I did want to move away from that a little bit just because it can be more difficult for the average pet home to manage highly predatory dogs.
SR: And so choosing Benny as the stud, my hope was that we would move away from some of that prey drive and we, it’s too early to tell with the puppies but so far it’s looking promising. Obviously some predatory behaviors don’t show up until social maturity so we won’t know for sure until they’re like two.
JH: Well, what do you know so far? So first of all, what do they look like?
SR: So I’ve been joking that they’re like off-brand beagles. So they’re like Great Value beagles. They, two of them are tricolor and three of them are white with sable. And they definitely have the Cavalier expression. They have a little bit more muzzle than a Cavalier. They’ve got the Cavalier ears.
JH: Yeah, I was curious about the ears.
SR: They’re all short coated. Yeah, they all have those long. off-brand beagle ears.
JH: Interesting. Who knew that was dominant? Okay.
SR: Right? And then they, as puppies, they looked just like Cavaliers. And I was like, okay, so we all got the Cavalier body shape. And then they all hit about 10 weeks and their legs just started going. So they’re Cavaliers with longer legs.
JH: Yeah, nice.
SR: So what I had told people who were interested in this litter was that I was hoping that they would be pretty functional, dog-shaped dogs, and that’s definitely what they are. They’re dog-shaped dogs, there’s nothing exaggerated about any of their traits. They’re just kind of what you would think of as the average dog plus long ears.
JH: And how are they behaviorally? And you said it was too soon to really tell, and I concur that they’re certainly going to change as they mature, but what are you seeing so far?
SR: So what I can say so far, based on kind of comparing them to all the other litters I’ve raised, is that they are very social. They seek out children. And some of that might be socialization, you know, I was making sure that they were exposed to positive interactions with kids when they were with me. But I think a lot of it is also probably just kind of, genetic sociability. They really like people, they want to meet people, they want to connect with people, they want to be petted by people. So they seek out new people. They seek out novelty. So they’re very environmentally unconcerned about things like loud noises or new surfaces, or… I had little Iroh at a disc dog competition this last weekend, and he was just cock of the walk at the disc dog. He was just strutting around with his little sweater on because it’s Minnesota, and it was like, a ‘feels like’ temp of 30 degrees Fahrenheit. But you know, there were barking dogs, there were really active dogs playing disc, there was a loudspeaker, there was a inflatable blow up Jack Skellington because it’s Halloween themed.
JH: Nice, that’s terrifying, yeah.
SR: And he was just, all of it was great. He was like, “This is amazing, this is so much fun, I’m so excited to be here.”
SR: And every person and every dog he met, he was just a delightful, social little guy. So comparatively, those are the things I’ve seen that are maybe different from other litters I’ve raised. That there’s less sensitivity to novel environments. And that’s not to say that there is not, there’s definitely a range of the litter. So there’s some puppies that are more environmentally sensitive than others, just like in every litter, but even the ones who are more environmentally sensitive, maybe they’ll startle when they first see something new, and then within, you know, 30 to 60 seconds, they’re like, “Oh, okay, I’ve got this.” and they’re resilient and able to recover, versus some of the other puppies I’ve raised where maybe it might take several exposures and a lot of behavior modification to get to that same point.
JH: Right. So well, they sound fantastic. Do you have plans for them if they turn out well as adults, to end up making more babies?
SR: Yes. So there’s a couple of different directions that I’m kind of thinking with that. And obviously, this is all way too soon to know.
JH: Of course.
SR: But my hope is that if they mature really well, they might be able to be used in Cavalier backcross programs.
JH: Oh, good.
SR: So all of them have that influence from Biz, of the healthy heart genes and the healthier skull shape, and they still have a lot of Cavalier traits. So you can tell that they’re half Cavalier when you meet them. You know, because they’re short coated they look like little off-brand beagles, but when I tell you that this is a Cavalier mix, you’re going to go, “Oh, of course it is. Yes, I see that.” So they would be dogs where it’d be fairly simple to return to type based on who they were matched with, and that would be something that I think would be really helpful for the community. So my hope is that there will be people who might be interested in that. And then, obviously I would like to continue with them, just with this goal of nice, easy pet/hobbyist sport level dogs.
JH: Yeah, I call it sport-lite.
SR: Yeah, sport-lite is a really good… you know, they’re not going to be podium level dogs at a national level. But if you want to go out there and play agility locally they’re going to love doing that and you’re going to be pretty successful with them.
JH: Yeah. So, but you only kept one of them and he’s a boy. So how does that work?
SR: Right, yeah, so we had four boys and one girl and this litter.
JH: Oh, bummer. (Laughter)
SR: Right. And a lot of the people who were interested were interested in girls. So I said, you know, that’s what happens, if you guys had all been interested in boys we would have the other way around, we would have had four girls.
SR: But I ended up placing all five of them as partner home dogs. And what that means is that they’re fully owned by their people. Um, I don’t want to dictate, you know, vaccine schedules, or diet, or training, or any of that stuff. They’re owned by their people, but I did retain breeding rights for them with an agreement that I will then cover the health testing costs when they are old enough, if we like how they’re maturing. And then if I do end up using them in my program, then their owners will get part of their purchase price back. So up to three litters, and they would get 30% of their purchase price back with each litter. Because I feel like there’s a lot of co-ownership or guardian homes or partner homes or whatever you want to call it that can sometimes be a little predatory towards the puppy buyers.
JH: Sure, yeah.
SR: And so I was trying to set things up in a way where if I was in the puppy buyer position, I would be really comfortable with my autonomy with my dog, and my ability to make choices for my dog, and feel like I had a say in how my dog was used.
JH: Yeah. Nice. I’m thinking that I should start talking to some people about what their perspectives are as puppy homes for different co-ownership situations. That could be an interesting future topic.
SR: That would be, yeah, I would love to listen to that!
JH: Well, so that was a lot. So you are, it sounds like you’re feeling good about where things stand now. You have some future breeding plans, you’re going to wait for these guys to grow up a bit more, you think you might breed Biz again at some point?
SR: Possibly, yes. So my plan with Biz at this point is to see how her puppies mature, and then potentially breed her in a year. So looking at like, fall of 2023 if I like how everything’s going. I’m certainly not in any rush. I have a lot of people who want puppies and so there’s a little bit of that external pressure of, I do want to be able to provide nice dogs to good homes, but I also want to make sure that I’m making good choices and making informed choices. And I feel like I’ll be able to do that better if we wait and see how these guys are maturing.
JH: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense, seeing what kind of genetic material she’s passing along.
JH: It’s gonna be so interesting to see how these guys turn out.
SR: It is, I’m really enjoying it, and I’m really enjoying the updates I’m getting, you know, having these puppies with professional trainers who’ve raised a lot of puppies and what they’re seeing has been really helpful. While it certainly wasn’t what I was planning on, I feel like I am getting a lot of really good information from it and they couldn’t have gone to better homes. They’re all in… I just love all of their homes so much.
JH: Well, I’m really glad it turned out so well. And thank you so much for all of this detail about what this whole experience has been like for you. I know you have a long waiting list. Do you want to give people information about how to get in touch with you if they’re interested in your program? Or are you feeling overwhelmed as things stand?
SR: Oh, don’t worry, I’m happy to share that information. Obviously, I do have a lot of people who are already interested, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to have the right litter for each person. So for example, my young dog Rig is a much higher drive dog than Biz or Pan, and if I choose to breed her, she’s, her puppies would be going to very different homes than Biz’s puppies because she is more dog and I’d want to make sure that they’re specifically going to people that want that, that welcome that. So my program is Puzzle Dogs, and it is on Facebook. So you can search for Puzzle Dogs on Facebook and find me there. I currently have a Good Dog profile. Good Dog has changed a few things so I don’t know if I’ll be on there forever, but for now I am, and there’s a lot of extra information there if people want to look at my dogs. I also have a lot of information on the Facebook page about titles and health testing and pedigrees, and I try to be really transparent about all of that. So there’s links to all of that. I generally tell people that it might not be right away, like if they reach out to me. Give me a little bit to respond. Just because there’s a lot going on, I’ve got a lot of balls in the air but I absolutely will respond. Just, it may be a few days or a week.
JH: Even without the secret handshake.
SR: Right, right. Even without the secret handshake. Especially without the secret handshake. If you ask me a really awkward question I’ll be like, oh, it’s one of my people. (Laughter)
JH: Well, thank you again, Sara. I really appreciate this.
SR: Yes, thank you so much for having me.
JH: No problem, it was my pleasure. Hey, friends. Some of you have asked how to support the podcast, so we’ve set up a Patreon page for it. For a small monthly pledge you help us pay for producing this podcast and in exchange, you get a chance to suggest questions for podcast guests and you get early access to podcast episodes. To find out more go to patreon.com/functionalbreeding. You can also help promote the podcast through subscribing to it through the podcast app of your choice and by leaving favorable reviews. If you’re interested in supporting the Functional Dog Collaborative more generally, or finding ways to get involved, go to the functionalbreeding.org website and click the support link. Thanks to everyone who has helped out, we could not do this without you.
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JH: Thanks so much for listening. The Functional Breeding Podcast is a product of the Functional Dog Collaborative and was produced by Attila Martin. Come join us at the Functional Breeding Facebook group to talk about this episode, or about responsible breeding practices in general. To learn more about the FDC, check out the functionalbreeding.org website. Enjoy your dogs!
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