Line Breeding: The Art Defined
Line- Breeding: The Art Defined
Saudjie Cross –Crook
I’ve always been a line- breeder. I fell in with them early on and within a short time line- breeding had become my lifelong passion. Having married one of the old time British line- breeders I can’t imagine what my marriage might have been like had I been a confirmed Outcrosser. Yikes!
But there aren’t many of us left and it seems a good time to talk about what has become a vastly misunderstood and perhaps non PC method of breeding. …an art which can produce near perfection or complete catastrophe depending on the breeder’s ability to be honest with themself and in no way indulge in kennel blindness. Line- breeding is not for the faint of heart nor should it be dabbled in without serious study of the dogs involved.
Knowing what YOU want is more than half the battle because if you don’t know what you’re after there’s no chance of getting it. I was fortunate to know early on what I wanted in a Labrador, and what I wanted to accomplish as a breeder. I wanted to breed my own recognizable kennel type accompanied by soundness and true Labrador temperament. I had an image in my mind’s eye that has evolved slightly, but has remained basically the same for the better part of 25 years. I am a breeder first and an exhibitor second. I love to win but I would rather lose with a top drawer dog than win with a second rate one. I can’t go into the ring with a dog I don’t believe in….it just doesn’t work for me.
Fashions come and go in dogs as in all else and breeding to the winner is a phenomenon common to all breeds. The problem is that some gorgeous specimens of the breed never breed down. But if a dog wins at Crufts (for instance) people will use him JUST because he won at Crufts. And all THAT really means is on that day one person, for reasons known only to him or herself, decided to give that dog top honours. One person’s opinion…that’s all it is. Maybe not even a good opinion. Maybe the dog is rubbish. But because it won at Crufts scores of people around the world decide to use that dog in their breeding program. This isn’t even type- to -type breeding. It’s breeding to the man of the moment and it isn’t usually very successful.
So what is line-breeding all about?
I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me that they are, “line breeding to such and such a kennel”. That is a dead give-away that the breeder in question has no understanding of what line- breeding means. One can’t line- breed to a kennel…one can only line-breed to a particular dog or dogs. In theory the more times a dog (or bitch) appears in the pedigree the more influence it has on the genetic makeup of the litter. ..for better or for worse…which is why a line-breeder must do their homework very carefully.
But breeding is an art not a science and there isn’t a magic formula. Some dogs produce themselves no matter which bitch they’re bred to and others seem to add nothing at all to the mix. This can be useful in itself if you have a fabulous bitch and want just more of the same. Then a dog that adds nothing but does no harm can be a very useful stud dog.
But the hard fast rule is that you line-breed to a dog not to a kennel.
We of the Balrion at Weathertop family are fortunate to have the both the facilities and the financial freedom it takes to keep the number of dogs required to have our own in-house breeding program. By this I mean that we mainly breed our own bitches to our own stud dogs and only outcross to bring in fresh blood when we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner. We then look for an outcross stud dog that we hope will give us a good puppy that will grow into a stud dog which we can use on our line-bred bitches. We close our eyes and say a prayer because by going out we are throwing ourselves on the mercy of another breeder, hoping that they are honest about the strengths and weaknesses of their dog and hoping that our lines will go magically together and produce something wonderful and useful for our breeding program.
It takes a fairly high number of dogs to create a large enough gene pool to have an in-house breeding program. People occasionally ask how much money we make in our “dog business”. I tell them that the dogs are where we SPEND the money that we make working , in my case, 10 to 18 hours a day 7 days a week. My husband is retired so he gets a few extra hours off to read his Daily Telegraph. Our breeding program is the big, black hole where all the money goes.
We are each allowed one pet that we keep only because we love the dog and can’t bear to be parted from it for any reason. After that each dog must have a reason for being in the kennel….although admittedly sometimes the reason a dog stays is that it can’t bear to be parted from US.
Once we’ve had what we need from a dog or bitch we rehome the ones that are rehome-able. Some dogs want nothing more than to be someone’s one and only so we find them a very special home and reward them for a job well done by letting them go to sleep on someone’s bed. But we’ve got more than one who want nothing to do with being a house dog. They are confirmed kennel dogs…they love the life… brothers in arms. Our Lone Ranger was a singleton, bottled fed from birth. His feet never touched un-sanitized ground until after his second jab at 10 weeks. I thought he’d be a house dog for life. But he became a finicky eater and pined all day in the house. John fed him elaborate meals of omelette for breakfast then rice pudding for 11ies, roast chicken for dinner…he’d sniff and nibble but was thin and unhappy. When Ranger was 4 months old John went abroad judging and left me in charge of Ranger’s meals. On the second day I tossed the menu and put Ranger out into the kennel. He began wolfing down plain dog food and before my eyes became the jolliest Labrador I’ve ever known. He won’t step foot in the house…wants nothing to do with it. He’s a kennel dog…as is his mother Jane Eyre. She’ll never rehome…the kennel is her life. She loves it. So she stays.
You can’t line breed with 8 dogs…I think around 15 total is a good number with 5 of those being stud dogs. I always say 10 total dogs is my dream number but experience tells me that 15 is a more realistic number. It is a luxury to be able to keep that number of dogs and it is a lot of hard work. Those 15 must be of the highest quality in temperament, type and soundness or forget it, and this is where honesty comes into play.
My mother loved to say, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Some breeders are incapable of seeing their dogs as they really are either because of ignorance or because they think they have a dog so grand (because it’s winning) that it deserves its own set of rules. But rubbish begets rubbish and if you breed from rubbish in the end you will find that my mother was right.
Building a breeding program is like building a house. Breeding from unsound or dogs that lack breed type is like building a house from a pack of cards. Eventually it will come tumbling down and you will find your hard work has been for naught. It is just as much work to raise a litter of mediocre pups as it is to raise a litter of world beaters. This rule holds true for outcrossing as well as for line-breeding. But how does one breed a litter of lovely, cookie cutter pups…little clones that grow into lovely dogs with a recognizable kennel type? The answer for me is to Line-Breed.
Line- breeding distils the genetic composition of the line… condenses both the strengths and the weaknesses of the dogs being used. So if you intend to line breed you’d best breed to your own dogs and be honest with yourself or do your homework and use dogs that you are quite certain about including knowing about any skeletons in the closet. The dog itself may not be a great show dog , it doesn’t matter. You are breeding to the dog for what the dog produces.
Below is a pedigree of one of our Balrion at Weather top line-bred litters. Between us my husband, John, and I have about 65 years in the breed and we know most of the dogs in this pedigree personally.
Balrion Ring Round The World was littermate to Balrion Oceans Apart. Weather top El Nino and Weather top Storm Cloud have the same dam. We bred and lived with all four . Balrion Lorna Doone grew up on John’s lap and remained his special girl for life. Beechcrofts Trillium was littermate to Beechcrofts Regal Air. I was personally well acquainted with both.
A pedigree like this sings to a line-breeder. I know the dogs involved. I know what they produced and what happened two and three generations down
Balrion at Weathertop Line Bred litter
A few years ago we decided that we had to go out and so we bred to an older dog who had produced sound dogs oozing with breed type. We meant to keep a dog to mate to our bitches. In the pedigree below if you look at the first three generations it looks like we’ve gone out on a limb. But look back a bit further and you will find one of my favourite bitches of all time who already was well entrenched in my line and whom I wanted to double on while bringing in fresh blood. And it appears to have worked. Aramis, who was the first generation offspring of our outcross stud dog John Barleycorn, went Best Puppy at Crufts 2011
Balrion at Weathertop Outcross
Below is another of our litters and this one was a real outcross. It produced a lovely dog for us called Am Ch BW Pumpkin Pie (Pilgrim) . He went Best Puppy In Show shortly before we sent him to a close friend in the USA. He became the # 10 Labrador in the USA one year and has produced wonderfully. Now known as Sir Pilgrim to his friends he’s a lovely dog with great type but not EXACTLY the Balrion Weathertop type. So he didn’t stay. One of the reasons to line- breed is to produce a consistent breed type and you are on a slippery slope if you begin keeping dogs that are lovely and winning but not of your kennel type. So we sent him off to the Colonies to start a dynasty of his own.
For some unfathomable reason there seems to be a trend these days in breeding for genetic diversity…as if breeding to the great unknown will give you sound dogs. I know people who won’t breed to what we used to call Optigen B but will breed to an untested dog. That’s what I call the Ostrich method of breeding. And the general public seem to think that adopting a mixed breed gives you a better chance of getting a sound dog than if you buy a purebred dog from a breeder.
Being a line-breeder I am of the opinion that an honest line-breeder has the best chance of all to produce a sound dog full of breed type. It takes true dedication to the breed to eliminate a winning dog from a breeding program if it produces problems. If one can do that and can select for proper structure and consistent type then line-breeding can give you a kennel full of sound, world class dogs that all look like the dog of your dreams. And THAT is why I’m a line-breeder.
Graffoe Gamil Balrion Weather top Oliver Twist
Sh Ch Balrion King Frost Balrion Weather top John Barleycorn