Why we are not progressing in breeding Working Labradors

Reflections on breeding strategies and the way dealt with "background knowledge" or how my co-breeders create "black boxes"

When I bred my A-liiter in 1991 I did not have the choice of stud dogs from working lines as I have it today.

Yet, in the meantime I wonder if I really do have such a wide choice of stud dogs as the list of names would suggest.

There are lots of names, DNA-results, too – yes, there are even stud dogs that have a whole list of working test results up to Winner’s class to show, and others that have a whole range of gundog trial results – however, unfortunately no field trials (English style)!

Where are there stud dogs close enough to travel to (up to 1’000km), who have really proven the original qualities of a retriever, namely that the sit quietly through a drive (not only a BLP- or RGP-drive! (both cold game gundog tests with very short mock drives)) without whining; that have proven to have a soft mouth (cannot really be tested on cold game, except if the dog is so hard-mouthed that he will even crack a defrosted duck!); that they are hard in cover (they will also go into nettles!); that they are biddable; that they have a sound temperament (no tails between their legs, not nervous with people, no hyperactivity); that they do not get overexcited panting around and virtually walking on their toes before things start even at a working test...

Yes, and further they should be sound and look like a Labrador...

I look at the list of stud dogs and only a handful remain, because either they themselves or at least their parents have run and qualified at field trials (the English style), and most of all, as they are not too closely related to my own bitches.

Thus I have these few dogs I look at more closely: phenotypical health results, then the search for litter mates, health results of parents and their litter mates, grandparents and their litter mates, progeny of the stud dog, progeny of the ancestors... and the hours fly - and in the end I have a pedigree in front of me, of which I can say: I can dare to do it, however, only with the one bitch, because the other bitch might have a weakness in her pedigree which I would double up on.

BUT: unfortunately I have to rely on the information available and that is, as I have had to realize, presented in a such a way as to give the best possible picture of a kennel and its dogs. If I look at the various website of Labrador breeders, I cannot but ask why there are not only a fair number of results missing, not just in their own litters, but also on the stud dog’s page, why even entire litters that seem to have been "forgotten"... why is it not published that certain stud dogs, who are themselves phenotypically perfect, have produced offspring that have been operated on for ED?

Whom would it hurt, if all of us as breeders could spare each other such sad experiences? Why does it say on one webpage that a dog has been x-rayed for HD, however not scored? This is quite true, yet it might look slightly less good, if it had been added that this dog had undergone a TPO  (triple pelvis osteotomy) because of its poor hips.

Why can we not openly declare that there is a D- or even an E-hip in the litter?

Who are these breeders kidding?

Then a litter mate of this dog is used for breeding and the newcomer breeder, who has studied all the data available, cannot believe his eyes when, a year and a half later, he finds a bad hip in his litter!

The cases of ED swept under the carpet are even worse, as these dogs very often go lame under the age of a year and in some cases have already undergone arthroscopy. These Labradors that have been operated on for ED are the ones I fear most, because nobody talks about them. They simply appear as "not x-rayed", but the genes present in the family are, alas, carried on genotypically through phenotypically sound litter mates.

It is not enough to have 4 out of 8 dogs from a litter scored! In order to get a really reliable picture of a producer we would have to have ALL the litter mates’ scores, as it may well be the last dog scored that has the bad hips or elbows! There are litters where 5 of 6 puppies have A-hips and the sixth dog turns out to be a D-hip! Who am I cheating if I then publish only the five A-hips?

Breeders claiming that everything is perfect with them and that they have never had a problem with hips or elbows, if their puppies are not scored, are simply kidding themselves and the puppy buyers – only if we have ALL the results can we make such a statement!

What do I conclude: quite simply that there is a tremendous message in the missing results! Thus in researching and collecting as many results as possible I find myself with a lot of "black boxes"; "black boxes", which may contain exactly the information I would so urgently require in order to get on with my breeding aims.

For the above reason I can but smile if somebody would like to use a dog from my L-litter, but that, unfortunately, two litter mates of the dog had been operated on for an OCD of the shoulder; a fact that can be seen on my website. Now a stud dog will be used that has not been shoulder-x-rayed at all, neither have any of his litter mates, nor, for that matter, have either of the parents. The breeder in question is of the opinion that, should there be a case of shoulder-OCD in the litter, at least no-one could blame him for having had any knowledge of such a problem. That is also a breeding strategy. (By the way, there are breeders in our clubs, who breed from dogs operated for shoulder-OCD... (it is not in the rules that shoulder have to be examined) ... another "black box".

How are we as breeders supposed to break out of the vicious circle of recurring cases of ED or serious HD, not to mention shoulder-OCD, if we try to find new lines in order not to turn in circles when it comes to inbreeding, and we come up against mountains of "black boxes"?

If I imagine how much further we would be with our breeding, if ALL BREEDERS WERE OPEN ABOUT THE PROBLEMS THEY HAVE ENCOUNTERED, how much pain we could have spared or could spare ourselves and so many a puppy-buyer in doing so, then I get angry and at the same time very, very sad.

What do I do, if I do not even know how many litter mates there were in the litter, not to mention how many have been through any health checks? When I see wonderful lines and I really like the dog, because he fulfils all the requirements I have set and has all the qualities sought after, and he himself has perfect scores (even the shoulders done!), but I know virtually nothing about his litter mates, about his parents and their litter mates, because there are no results available, or at least there is nothing know officially?

Unfortunately I cannot be so naïve as some new breeders may be in thinking that if the meadow is so beautifully green there must be good ground underneath, if they want to build a house – unfortunately I have learnt to query, to collect and put together... and thus I stand there with my entire collection of data and my knowledge of the poor hip producer in the background, of the great-grandmother that had a cataract, etc.

As much as I try to minimize the rist in collecting all the data published, trying to get the picture of the genotype not only the phenotype of the stud dog, as little can I assess what influence the many "black boxes"  lurking in the background will have...

I, as a breeder, follow the policy of dealing openly with the data found and receive a message beginning as follows:
Wenn man es schon nötig hat andere Rüden schlecht zu machen und seine eigenen Linien (in denen genug zu finden ist) zu "Lobhudeln",
sollte gerade einer so zur Selbstdarstellung neigende, vermeindliche "Englandkennerin" wissen,...
(literal quotation)

In English it might read as follows: "If you do feel the necessity of talking badly about other stud dogs and praising your own lines (in which there is enough to be found), it is exactly a person tending to such a self-portrayal, a would-be "England lover", that should know, ... "

Is it really a question of "talking badly", if the data available shows that the dog or bitch is a bad hip or elbow producer, which may advisably better not be used on a weak hip or elbow line? Is it really a question of talking badly about a dog or a bitch if we are open about the health results of their offspring?

Why must insinuations be made, such as "in which there is enough to be found"? Would it not be more suitable to write openly what it is that "is to be found" in "my lines"? I had considered myself sufficiently open and self-critical to be able to deal with information that would help me progress as a breeder. (Note: interestingly enough the person writing has bred no fewer than 5 litters with a bitch whose grandsire is Conneywarren Spike and whose granddam is Haredale Cinta. Now, are these "my lines" or "his/her lines"?)

What is meant with "my lines"? Or for that matter, what are the lines of the other breeders? Looking at the breeding in Germany, Austria, and in Switzerland we will find at least one the following names in nearly every pedigree: Tibea Tosh (sire of the A-litter Keien Fenn). Lafayette Tolley (sire of Saxthorpe Buzzard of Brindlebay and Loughbrook Goldcharm of Lafayette), Brindlebay Brigg, Aughacasla Sam of Drakeshead (sire of Craighorn Bracken & Conneywarren Spike, and grandsire of Starcreek Efinegan & Starcreek Eager), Garendon Captain and his litter brother, Garendon Chubb, etc.

Are we not turning in circles? Are not all of us soon going to have more or less the same lines in our pedigrees?

... And then I want to get out of these lines in order to maintain a genetic diversity and I stand in front of these many "black boxes", in front of these never ending  questions, what genotype may be hidden behind my phenotype. I look at the pile of data and finally I have to make a decision from the heart, as I want to continue to breed Labrador retrievers, not merely hips or elbows or prcd-PRA clear, CNM-clear, EIC-clear, RS/OSD-clear dogs – and maybe further gene tests that will be released onto the market very soon.

Verena Ommerli, February 2010