Do breeders need to change?

The face of breeding, as I’ve known it, has changed considerably since I first joined the ranks of Gordon Setter breeders in the 70’s. So much more information is readily available, resources for every question can be found at the touch of a keyboard, cross-country breeding is accomplished without shuffling the bitch off to the airport, and the availability of genetic tests is growing quickly to theoretically help us breed healthier dogs. But are we, the breeders, utilizing the results of those tests with a consciousness that will improve the overall health of the breed or could misguided perception and dwindling numbers cause the downfall of the breed instead?

Photo by Susan Roy Nelson
Photo by Susan Roy Nelson “Four Ladies in a Row”

I just read, and then reread an article written by a Corgi breeder Joanna Kimball – “How We Must Change as Breeders and Why – A Football Field of Dogs”  published in Best In Show Daily (point and click on the bold title to link to the article). Joanna raised some valid points regarding breeding that I believe bear discussion among Gordon Setter breeders. I hope you’ll join me here in considering some of those points and then by sharing your own perceptions, agreements or disagreements as they be.

First the assumption that as a breeder we should all agree that only a very few dogs should ever be bred – is this true? The breeder’s thought process as Joanna wrote is “I should be as picky as possible, first health-test everybody, prove that each dog is healthy, make sure that only the ones who are incredibly high-quality in terms of conformation and show success are allowed to breed. I should build the next ten thousand dogs from the most elite pool of this one.” That’s the conventional wisdom, the way “good breeders” do everything, right?

In fact, Joanna says we should bear in mind thatEVERY DOG WHO IS REMOVED FROM THE POPULATION HURTS THAT POPULATION.” To maintain health in any breed we need to understand the need for genetic variation, and to retain genetic variation we need to be breeding from many lines, to many sires not only the one or two most popular sires and so on.

crufts 2
Photo by Silvia Timmermann

I often want to go back to when I was younger, just starting out, and in this case I’m talking about the days when breeding wasn’t a four letter word and the propaganda of animal rights activists hadn’t put us all under their spell. The spell that makes breeders feel self-righteous for eliminating as many dogs as we can from the breeding pool because breeding is, after all, a very bad word. As the battery of DNA tests for genetic disorders continues to rise breeders are feeling satisfied as we believe we are gaining ground on health issues. But, should we also be considering that we might be losing ground on genetic diversity as we eliminate more and more dogs from the breeding pool with those tests?

Joanna states in another  point “SINCE EVERY DOG THAT IS REMOVED FROM THE POPULATION HURTS THE POPULATION, WE MUST REMOVE ONLY THOSE WHOSE PRESENCE WOULD HURT IT EVEN MORE.” To me this is like saying “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”. A common sense approach would include knowing what health condition could cause the death of our Gordon Setters, or what health condition would ruin the quality of life for our dogs, before making breeding choices based primarily on health testing, testing that if used incorrectly could eliminate other necessary qualities from the breed’s gene pool. Using testing to learn what, if any, health condition might be passed from one generation to the next is a wonderful tool, but it is not the only tool that a breeder should be using. Utilizing health testing to obtain the appropriate result in breeding requires very judicious application on the part of the breeder, who must also keep in mind the continued genetic diversity of the gene pool, as well as the overall soundness of the breed both physically and mentally.

Why, for example, would one choose to breed an OFA fair bitch to a dog because he had OFA good or excellent hips but also carried an unsound front, instead of breeding her to an OFA fair dog who is sound and beautifully moving both front and rear? In this case the breeder might get one or two additional puppies with better hip ratings (might) but the breeder will also be adding some puppies with those unsound fronts? Did the breeder really improve the breed or the gene pool with that breeding? Or, what about choosing to breed the Rcd4 carrier bitch to the Rcd4 clear dog whose parents both died of cancer at age 7, instead of breeding to the Rcd4 carrier dog whose parents died of old age at 13. We don’t have DNA tests for cancer available for Gordon Setters, but we do know that cancer causes the death of many Gordon Setters before their time, and we know the history of certain cancers can be prevalent in families. By theory, 25% of the puppies in the Rcd4 carrier to carrier litter could be affected, and at age 10 there may be one, perhaps even two of those affected dogs who might (there’s that word might again)  go blind from late onset PRA. Doesn’t the carrier to carrier litter – as a whole – have a better chance of living a healthy, happy life until old age takes them from us? Which choice does a breeder make and how does it affect the diversity of the gene pool? What if the breeder decides not to do either breeding because they don’t like the health choices? Can the diversity and size of the gene pool continue to be maintained if this were to be the constant decision?

Photo by Silvia Timmermann
Photo by Silvia Timmermann

So, why all this fuss about the gene pool, and gene pool diversity, and strength and size of the gene pool? A relatively simple example to help us understand is to look at the mixed breed population, and their reputation for being “healthier” than their purebred counterparts. Why is that? Genetic diversity is solidly at play. Odds are there are no common ancestors for generations in the pedigree of any mixed breed dog. A huge and diverse gene pool lies behind the mixed breed.

Before you decide I might be plumb crazy talking here about an issue with the size of gene pool let me ask you if you’ve read and absorbed, yes absorbed to the point where it makes perfect sense to you, the article at the Institute of Canine Biology by Carol Beachat PhD “Is your breed drifting?” (point and click on the bold printed title to link to this article)

As I look at the Gordon Setter in general, comparing them to other purebred dog breeds, I believe that Gordon Setters have relatively few genetic health issues that occur regularly. We are lucky in that respect. However, we cannot hope to improve the health characteristics we’d like to change, if our gene pool continues to shrink to the point where the majority of dogs are related, where there is not sufficient diversity to enact change. We need a diverse and a large population and we need responsible breeders who understand how to accomplish those health driven goals while maintaining the integrity of the breed.

by show ring
Photo by Bob Segal

As I look at dog show entries, where the rubber meets the road when it comes to proving the merit of our breeding stock, I find an ever decreasing number of Gordon Setter entries along with a decreasing number of new faces joining the ranks of breeders. Those who are showing today find ourselves scrambling to locate shows where there will be points, majors are difficult if not impossible to find unless sometimes you can bring your own entry – which accomplishes what exactly as far as improving the breed when you’ve finished a dog simply by winning over your own breeding? Specialties are struggling to build 5 point majors and many are no longer able to do so, despite offering two shows in one day. Our National Specialty entries have dropped from all time highs of between 450 to 550 dogs in ’93, ’94, and ’95 to approximately 220 entries for 2015, half the number that were participating 20 years ago.  Fewer entries, fewer breeders, fewer litters equals a smaller gene pool and thus loss of genetic diversity. To me this issue is two-fold; as breeders we need to appropriately and wisely utilize health testing without the elimination of too many dogs from the gene pool, and secondly we need to address the shrinking gene pool by understanding that we need to bring new breeder/exhibitors on to follow in our footsteps, to pick up the reins and drive on.

Many of you have been at this breeding/exhibiting thing for a while now. I’m curious how you feel about these concerns or better yet do you even believe there are such concerns? What would you change if you believe change is needed? How would you drive change? What do you think could be utilized to bring about improvement? Who do you believe is responsible for leading change in the breed? Can or should breeders accept responsibility for driving change?  How can breeders mentor others? So many questions and opinions, let’s start a discussion by sharing them, discussion is the first step. Your thoughts and comments are very welcome here, do remember to be respectful of others please.

For those of you who are Gordon owners but perhaps not involved in breeding and showing, what might entice you to change your focus, what would drive your interest in showing/breeding Gordon Setters? How would you want to learn? Who would you want to learn from? As above, your respectful thoughts and comments are welcome here.

To share your thoughts you may use the reply field at the very bottom of this article or click “Leave a Comment” at the very top of this article.

I’d like us to talk to each other people, as I believe change is needed and that is why I write this blog for you…to bring change through the sharing of information, common goals, and a love for our breed, the Gordon Setter.

Sally Gift, Mesa AZ


Part 2 – Do Breeders Need to Change?

9 thoughts on “Do breeders need to change?”

  1. The gene pool is one of the fundamental areas of concern. Breeders should always take this into account and try to expand the gene pool. This does not mean breeding with Tom, Dick and Harry.


  2. From our Facebook reader

    Kathy Lirette – Excellent points. Appreciate your frank discussion. My goal as a breeder has always been to improve the overall quality of my Gordon Setters. As I have gained knowledge and experience, I have raised the bar with additional clearances always seeking to breed a sound dog in both confirmation and temperament. I have learned that my values vary from others, and accept this. Your article and references validate many of my own beliefs. Thanks for sharing.


  3. I think quite a lot about these issues; I love this breed and I would hate to see it go away due to “lack of interest.” I consider my wife and I the type of people GSCA should be encouraging and mentoring; we do not breed a lot, something like 4 litters since 1999 when we started in Gordons. It is unlikely that we will breed again because we got into it late in life; if we have a litter now and we kept a puppy (otherwise, why breed?), the puppy would likely still be bouncing around while we are getting slower and slower.

    So people like us should be encouraged and helped, to both breed and show. People like us need information and we need mentors. We have had the best mentors I can think of, in big and small ways, as well as advice and help from handlers and hangers-on. As in any situation, there are a few at the top, the top being the number of litters, the quality of litters, the success of their dogs, and so on, but the world (and the dogs!) needs us semi-pros as well.

    Four generations ago we got our first show girl; we had no idea of what to do and how to do it. We had what we had, and since our fur kids are as precious as our real kids, we loved her and showed her. We were grateful for the trust placed in us by the breeder, and we turned to her often for help and advice. We got a male show puppy from the same breeder, and once again we got what we got (perfect in our minds) and showed them both to their championships. Along the way we learned more and more about the breed, we saw more and more dogs at all breed and specialty shows, and eventually we decide to breed the two we had.

    No offense to anyone, but they were not “perfect” in the eyes of some judges and some bystanders, but they were good solid dogs from good backgrounds. We knew what we wanted to see in future generations, and we set about to try and reach that goal. We kept two girls from that first litter, the “pick bitch” as decided upon after a thorough examination by breeder and handler friends, and the second girl, picked mostly by me. She had some faults in the topline, but had a perfect head for a Gordon (some called her “doggy”) but I loved her head structure, and movement.

    The pick bitch finished quickly, the second, not so quickly. She finished after she had a litter and her puppies were several months old, two weekends two majors. We decided not to breed the pick bitch, but went with the second because of her head, movement, and structure. It was with this girl that we discovered judges don’t always know the breeds they are judging as well as we would like them to. Some do, of course, and there are always different styles that judges will go for or not go for, but some judges are just not very aware of the breed standards. We looked at some get from potential stud dogs, and were impressed with some offspring we competed against from one dog in particular. Again we were fortunate that a breeder took a chance on us and allowed us to breed to the stud dog.

    The girl we kept from this litter is special; she has the features we liked from our original pair, added features from the new stud dog (balance, topline), and she eventually won best bred-by at nationals. We have bred her twice, first to a dog we thought would help with substance, balance, and topline, and not detract from any of the great features we already had – again thanks to a breeder who took a chance on us semi-pros. The second breeding went back to the original line we started with. We kept one from each of these litters, a male from the first and a female from the second. Both have done us proud, we could not ask for anything more. Both are improvements over their parents and grandparents, in other words, we have improved at least one small corner of the breed. Their siblings have also done well.

    To sum up, we are small time amateur (well, semi-pro!) Gordon Setter breeders, we have had fun, we have improved the breed, we have raised some wonderful companions, helped puppies into the world and watched them grow, we have met some wonderful people, we spent our children’s inheritance, and we could not have done any of it without the help of wonderful mentors and sources of information, as well as people who were willing to take a chance on us. GSCA needs more people like us, so take a chance on someone, offer advice, and welcome them to the breed!
    Jerry Nelson

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yours is a success story Jerry, and I so loved reading it! Success in that you joined us in this huge Gordon Setter circle and you stayed, and you succeeded and most of all it sounds like you’ve enjoyed the journey. I hope you’ll join me in my quest to bring more, as you call them, “semi-pro” breeders into the fold. Not everyone finds mentors like yours and that is where we all want to be stepping up to the plate, encouraging, helping, teaching, and holding hands. In the 70’s I was told that the mission of a good breeder should be to improve the breed, as you’ve mentioned. Today that mission is still used as the mark of a good breeder. What I’ve come to realize though, is that we are not improving the breed when we bring out those positive attributes in our get, we are instead preserving those qualities that have always been there but are so rarely, if ever, all found in one specimen. Preservation of the best of our breed’s genetic makeup is what we are accomplishing and that mission, to me, is the noble model we need to follow and preach to our new breeders. Will the breeding you’re planning, will the sire and dam you’re mating, produce puppies that will preserve more of the better qualities of the breed than qualities we’re hoping to leave behind? That’s how we improve the breed, by carrying it forward. Thank you for your part!


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