Musing on the difference between breeding a litter of Irish Wolfhound puppies in 2013 compared to the litter I first bred in 1973. In those days the Club, the owner of the stud dog and the breeder of my first wolfhound councelled new breeders heavily. They had memories of the Second World War shortages followed by twenty years of breeding purely for themselves and the ( usually landowning) afficianadoes of this giant, and had gone through hard times to keep the breed. The idea that “ordinary people” might own wolfhounds did not have much attraction at this time. Accordingly, new breeders were told they should cull their litters if their bitch conceived more than six puppies on the grounds that puppies were extremely hard to sell to the right sort of homes, and that even with six puppies a new breeder should be prepared to keep most of the litter for six or seven months in case these good homes didnt materialise.
My first litter by Ch Caio of Eaglescrag ex Buckhurst Theresa was therefore culled from nine down to six. The wise people in the breed were right, the puppies were hard to sell to the right sorts of homes as we were new and in those pre internet days advertising in the newspapers ( apart from perhaps Horse and Hound) was frowned upon. Commercially prepared foods were in their infancy, we fed on hound meal biscuits, meat and lots of milk plus virol and later, Collocal D calcium supplementation ( until we realised this was overdoing it).
Now to 2013. The Kennel Club and other leading bodies decry the culling of healthy puppies. The internet is everywhere, its never been easier to publicise the arrival of a litter. Commercially made and comparatively cheap methods of dog feeding are ubiquitous, ordinary people ( like me!) are by far in the majority as wolfhound owners. So, why has it been the best part of eight years since I bred an Irish Wolfhound litter?
Time has been part of it. I was used to achieving all my targets at work within 9 or ten months and saving up all my leave in order to manage a litter every second or third year together with working full time. As I moved up the career ladder, absences of two or three months were out of the question, and saving up the necessary thousands to pay a stud fee and prepare for those first weeks of life became less of a priority than taking occasional holidays, building a new house to accomodate dogs, and so on.
Knowing too much has been another part of it. One becomes wary of breeding “this way” as an admired family line has too much cancer, or ” that way” as another has too much heart disease. Wolfhounds have never been the easiest breed to rear to adulthood, its depressing to work with the lovely person who has bought a puppy and finds it has developed a bone growth disorder in its first year, so how one deals with disappointment and disease has to be factored in. When your puppies are as close to your heart as they are for most ” hobby breeders” you feel for the dog and its owners, and spend hours trying to discover the best courses of treatment.
Then there are the advances in vetinerary medicine and the testing regimes to which the good breeders subscribe. If you breed a puppy with PSS ( liver shunt) its now possible to have the puppy operated upon, and at a substantial cost to the breeder.Its very rare indeed for a novice owner to buy a UK bred puppy which will need the thousands spending on it to save its life. Some insurers will pay out, but not all, and hardly any support the breeder with a payout. You cant predict PSS, but you can ask stud dog owners if their male has produced it and avoid using them if you think there may be cases in your bitch’s background. Its an expense to be born in mind – as if you cant raise the funds to do the shunt operation, the honourable alternative is for the breeder to have the puppy put down. Most of us cant bring ourselves to do this without giving the puppy a chance.
Heart testing, another worthy advance – but at what cost? My hounds have been in the scheme for over 25 years. Stud dogs have been tested annually and withdrawn from stud if they develop dilated cardiomyopathy, as some have. Checking all hounds for heart health has to be the right thing to do, particularly where a bitch may be put into whelp appearing normal but then die as the full range of tests didnt pick up the enlarged heart which carrying a litter will tip over the edge – it has happened, fortunately not here. Yet such a high proportion of the breed seems to carry the risk of heart disease. I’ve spent over forty years hunting down the long lived family lines, and even so have sadly ceased breeding from three families developed over generations as they failed in one health related department or another.The saddest time was having three female littermates living between 9 and 12 years and none of which were bred from because of the perceived PRA risk at that time.
My personal decision around heart disease ( stating the obvious) has been to try to steer towards lines where this problem is less prevalent.To only work with people who are honest and open and have long and knowledgeable careers within the breed. There are breeders, admittedly a handful, who wont breed a bitch until she is over five – as by middle age a dog not having DCM will probably not develop it for rather longer, if at all. Rather this than breed a bitch at two and have her develop something at four which a percentage of her progeny will have to deal with in their turn. Using A.I. from males which lived long and healthy lives must be a better idea than using this years top sire or top winner. Pernille Monberg in Denmark was probably the first breeder to mark up her hounds’ pedigrees with ages and causes of death, plus their siblings and ancestors, and breed actively for longelivity. She has scoured the world for A.I. from long lived sires and used it on the healthiest of female lines with long lived histories. She can point out rapid advances of health and lifespan as a result of concentrating on increasing lifespans of her hounds first, and ahead of show wins ( see Kennel Wolfhouse for some further information).
Breeders in 2013 can look at the Kennel Club’s website to ensure they arent breeding any more closely ( inbreeding) than the breed norm. Find this under ” mate select”. The last breed bottleneck was as a result of breeders world wide focussing upon Quincy of Kilmara and his superb siblings. I suspect the UK may be heading for another one as a result of the dominance of the sons of Am Ch Carrickaneena Slieve Gullion within the breeding community here. Yet this American only had three litters here! Fortunately the dog has long lived lines behind him, but breeders need to forget about the show wins and look around for other families to keep up the genetic variation. Some other breeders are too prone to inbreed within the family they like and trust – nowadays the KC Health advisers would tell them to cease, as its not healthy for a breed which is already a closed population stemming from a tiny handful of hounds. Across all pedigree breeds the results of the closest matings ( brother/ sister, father/daughter) cannot be registered. Its a start.
Looking at my two eight year old ( castrated) dogs and the only possible bitch I have to go on with, Ruby who will be five in June, I still wonder whether I should breed. Keener and younger breeders are producing more than enough for the “market” to bear. I hear its as hard as ever to find good homes for puppies – one breeder reports she turned down six and accepted just one she thought had the right facilities and time for a puppy. There are some disgusting puppy farms masquerading as caring breeders. Their websites look marvellous, they have a huge web presence. They make no secret that they dont particularly love the breed, their interest is purely commercial. They churn out nondescript litters from over used sires and sell to anybody, sometimes paying lip service to health testing and usually being uncontactable as soon as the money has changed hands. No doubt they sell to people the hobby breeders would reject – but its still one marketplace, they will also sell wolfhounds to the nice homes the hobby breeders who have occasional litters would like to find.
Looking back to that generation of breeders in the 70s, often with farms and space to spare, with staff as often as not and with leisure time to enjoy dog shows….. it seems a different world. Looking forward, many of the hobby breeders of my age group and older are thinking of retiring, the demographics arent in favour of the ( mainly ageing) group of people breeding for themselves, the show ring and in pursuit of the beautiful well made healthy hound – with no notion of making a profit from them. If too many of us are discouraged, will the breed have much of a future with the commercial breeders as the only ones prepared to supply a market – while there is a profit in it for them? I do hope this is a pessimistic outlook.
Will I breed from Ruby? its still a maybe. As she will be five and a half, it may be nature will decide for me and she wont conceive.
Looking for a puppy? Try the link to irishwolfhoundpuppies.co.uk – as these are the ” good guys”, the site does not accept commercial breeders.