Let's dive into the first part of the process in producing purpose-bred Labrador Retriever puppies specifically for service dog work—breeding. While we breed our puppies specifically to become service dogs, this is useful information to consider when purchasing a dog of any breed for your family, even as a pet.
At Project 2 Heal, our breeding process begins with a review of the pedigrees of our male and female breeding partners. While we know the parents of all of our dogs, we dig even deeper into the pedigrees by reviewing the genetics of dogs from previous generations.
Before we go too far though, let's look at some key terms with which you'll need to be familiar.
Dog Breeding Vocabulary:
Fixing traits: Mating two dogs carrying a certain gene so that descendants are likely to possess the gene as well.
Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI): The probability that two copies of a gene variant have been inherited by a puppy from a dog in the pedigrees of both the mother and father.
Pedigree: The family tree of a dog, including genetic history regarding desirable traits or disorders within the lineage.
Now let's look at the types of breeding processes you may encounter when considering a puppy to purchase.
What Is Inbreeding?
Most people have probably heard of the concept of inbreeding. In this type of dog breeding, dogs are bred to immediate relatives. (E.g. a father dog to daughter, mother dog to daughter, or sibling to sibling.)
Inbreeding dogs will quickly fix desirable traits in the puppies produced. (Temperament or many different physical traits, for example.) However, while it can fix those very good traits you want to reproduce in future litters, it also fixes undesirable traits. (Aggression or disobedience, for example.) Because inbreeding can result in the perpetuation of undesirable traits, Project 2 Heal never utilizes inbreeding to produce a litter or puppies.
What Is Line Breeding?
Line breeding is a type of breeding through which the breeder attempts to capture a very desirable trait of a dog or bitch that has been shown to reproduce in many of their puppies. For example, many service dog organizations that train dogs for veterans—especially veterans that have lost a limb in combat—want large dogs. Male Labrador Retrievers typically weigh 80 to 85 pounds, however we can line breed on a very large Labrador male that has proved to produce very large puppies in order to produce the largest adult dogs as possible.
Unlike inbreeding which looks to perpetuate desirable traits by crossing a dog with an immediate relative, line breeding typically looks to accentuate desirable traits by crossing one dog with another that is two or three lines back in pedigree. (E.g. the grandparent or great-grandparent.) An uncle could also be crossed with a niece or aunt and nephew.
Let's say we have analyzed the pedigree of the girl we will be breeding. It becomes clear to us upon further analysis that the paternal grandfather of this bitch consistently produces puppies that mature into larger than average adults. We then look at his health clearances on the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals to review all of the health data on the grandfather himself, as well as any health data that is available on those puppies he produced. We're looking to see if he and his "get"—the pups he has sired—appear to have good hips, elbows, eyes clear for cataracts and other disorders and no signs of Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia (TVD), which is a growing health concern among Labrador retriever breeders.
At the same time we are doing this we can determine the COI, or Coefficient of Inbreeding. When the COI is determined we will know how likely the line breed will be to capture the trait we are looking to produce. (An average COI for purebred dogs is approximately 20%, meaning there is a 20% probability that a puppy may receive two copies of a gene variant from a dog in the pedigrees of both the mother and father.)
In the case of breeding for size, a higher COI increases the likelihood that offspring will mature into larger-than-average adult dogs. The flip-side however, is that a higher COI in this case also increases the likelihood that any health issues from generations back may rear their ugly head.
The final element of the line breeding process would be conferring with mentors. Project 2 Heal is blessed to have fantastic mentors in the breeding world, who have helped establish our breeding lines through their many years of experience.
In the world of breeding, there are many people—particularly judges—that have been assessing show dogs for years. Our mentors know very well the Labrador Retriever pedigrees prevalent across the country. If we inquire about a dog we'd like to line breed on, our mentors can usually inform us whether or not there were any dogs further back in the pedigree that may have had unusual health issues uncommon to the breed.
If everything looks good after our analysis then we can go ahead and do the breeding.
What Is Outcross Breeding?
The last type of breeding we can perform is an outcross. Outcross breeding takes place when there is no commonality in the pedigree of the dog or the bitch. Let me take a moment to say that if we go all the way back, every dog we call a Labrador Retriever originally came from a small group of dogs. Thus, there is going to be some cross over in pedigrees—at least way back. For our purposes however, once we look back four or five generations and discover no crossover in pedigree, it is very unlikely we'll need to concern ourselves with the impact of the COI.
What we do need to ensure is that if we desire an outcross, there must be no cross over in at least the first five generations back. (If we're able to obtain information on generations even further back, even better.)
Line Breeding vs. Outcross Breeding
A line breed will produce a homozygous litter—meaning the puppies should all express the traits of the dog upon which the line breed was done. Outcross breeding tends to produce a more heterozygous litter—meaning the puppies may express very different physical traits from one another. When all dogs used in the breeding program are outstanding dogs—such as the mother dogs in our Chaperone Program—an outcross may still produce a heterozygous litter, but from the litter can come an extraordinary puppy upon which the foundation of a new breeding line can be built.
Line breeding is used to fix traits. Outcross breeding is used to produce phenomenal puppies that can produce a brand new line of great dogs. Project 2 Heal may line breed sometimes, but we'll then outcross using a dog with no commonality to the pedigrees we've produced.
Great breeders are always trying to produce a litter of puppies from their bitch that was better than what she produced in the last litter. These breeding techniques are the methods through which they produce the best puppies possible. Reputable breeders do health testing on all of the dogs used for breeding. Cumulatively, these tests cost thousands of dollars but significantly reduce the chance that a puppy will have major health issues.
Buying a Puppy to Suit Your Lifestyle.
How can you use this information when you decide you want to purchase a puppy for yourself of a particular breed? The most important thing to do prior to purchasing any breed of dog is gaining an in-depth understanding of the breed. Becoming familiar in this way will help you understand health factors to be aware of when evaluating a puppy's pedigree.
Another major factor to keep in mind is that you should not purchase a breed of dog simply because you think it's a breed of dog no one else has. (You are just asking for trouble.) To extend this further—do not purchase a breed of dog because of the way it looks, either. It's fine to have a preference for a breed's appearance, but you should purchase a specific breed of dog because its temperament and physical abilities or tendencies suit your family and lifestyle.
Finding a Breed Club Near You.
Once you determine what breed of dog you wish to make a part of your family, look online for breed clubs in your state. For example, if you are looking to purchase a Labrador Retriever and live in North Carolina, search Labrador Retriever clubs in North Carolina. You'll find websites providing the names of breeders and kennels, many of whom also have websites. On breeder-specific websites, you'll learn about traits for which a breeder is breeding their dogs. (Breeders will produce puppies for many reasons, including conformation shows, obedience, hunt tests, etc.)
Looks at the male and female dogs on the site and review their pedigrees. Look for the letters "Ch." in front of the dog’s names in their pedigrees.) This means the dog is a champion in conformation.) There are many other titles a dog can hold and you can visit the American Kennel Club website to determine what the letters after a dog's pedigree name mean. (These titles can range from Working dog, to obedience titles, agility, hunting, etc.)
Go to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals website. Search the whole pedigree name of a couple of the boys on the website and review health certifications. There are different health tests for each breed of dog, but the common ones for large breed dogs are hips, elbows, eyes and heart. On this page you will see if a dog has been health tested. (If a breeder is not health testing their dogs that is a major red flag.)
What to Look for When Visiting a Kennel.
If you are happy with what you see, contact the breeder. Prior to purchasing any puppies, you want to visit the kennel to make sure it is well kept, does not smell, and is bright and well-ventilated to provide fresh air for the dogs and puppies. When looking to purchase a puppy, you should be allowed to visit kennels. (If you're not allowed to visit, this is another red flag.)
Regardless of what a breeder may say, you want to see and evaluate the condition and temperament of the bitch.
Many times the sire of an upcoming liter of puppies will not be on site with the mother of the pups. This is because in order to produce outcross litters, a breeder may need to use a stud dog from another kennel. (The same may be true for a line breed.) Cooled, fresh, shipped semen is common among reputable breeders today. A good breeder will not always limit their breeding decisions to their own dogs, unless they are breeding just to make money.
In that case, there is a good chance they don't do all of the necessary health test that should be done for a specific breed. (This of course, is another red flag.)
Final Thoughts On Finding a Quality Breeder.
Breeding quality puppies is an expensive business. Caring for them in the way that allows them to become the best adult version of themselves also includes a well-structured process of nurturing, socialization and early training.
One third of what a puppy becomes as an adult is a reflection of its genetics, parentage or pedigree. Two thirds of what a puppy becomes is a reflection of its experiences during the critical or sensitive phase of its life. Some define this as four to twelve weeks others describe it as the first sixteen weeks.