Where should you get your next puppy from? Think before you breed your own

It’s a conversation anyone who has travelled in a gun bus will be familiar with. “That’s a nice-looking bitch you’ve got there. Are you planning to breed from her?”
“Funny you should ask. My wife and I were discussing when we should take a litter from her over breakfast this morning.”
I suspect more shooting men source their puppies from shooting friends than anywhere else. It’s a time-honoured system that works well, as the breeder has an almost guaranteed market and the buyer has a pretty good idea of the sort of dog he will be getting.
Last season I went on a farmers’ shoot where, unusually, all the guns had dogs. All 10 were black labradors, and all were related – brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, fathers and mothers. What made it amusing was that they all looked very much like each other, causing constant confusion as to ownership. It didn’t really matter as the dogs knew who their master or mistress was, even if the latter wasn’t too sure.
Inbreeding is as much a problem with homebred shooting dogs as it is with line-bred field-trial champions, so if you are thinking of breeding from your bitch, it pays to check pedigrees with care. Most of the major health problems that beset our gundogs today are due to lack of genetic diversity. I would always avoid the same sire’s name appearing on both sides of a dog’s pedigree. A friend with a sussex spaniel was shocked when she looked at his pedigree. “Over five generations there should be 64 different dogs, but he had 31. The same dogs popped up frequently on both the mother’s and the father’s side.”
If you are a first-time breeder, or simply looking for a Kennel Club-registered sire, then check Mate Select on The Kennel Club’s website. When it was launched in May 2011, it was claimed to be a revolutionary tool that would transform the health of pedigree dogs. That claim has proved to be a little over-ambitious, but there’s no doubt that Mate Select is an invaluable aid to anyone planning to breed a litter. On it you can check the COI (coefficient of inbreeding) of any registered sire and what health checks it has undergone. It is simple to do and (unusually for The Kennel Club) costs nothing.
With the COI, the lower the figure the better. Mate Select gives the average COI for each breed. For labradors, for example, it is 6.4%, while for an English springer spaniel it’s 9% and a cocker 9.2%. However, these figures should be treated with caution as Mate Select makes no attempt to differentiate between show- and working-bred dogs. The figures for our minority breeds are generally much higher, with the average for sussex spaniels 18.8% and clumber spaniels 20.6%.
If looking for a sire, then it’s sensible to choose one with a COI below the breed average. Mate Select not only allows you to check whether a certain dog has been health checked, but what tests it has undergone and the results, as well as tests for its sire and dam and siblings. If your own bitch hasn’t been health tested, then the onus is on you
to ensure that she is suitable to breed from. Different breeds require different tests, but for a labrador the basics are hips, elbows and eyes. An animal that appears healthy may well be anything but.
Even if your bitch is fit and you have found a suitable sire, think twice before committing yourself to producing puppies. Rescue centres are full of unwanted animals, and you don’t want to add to that. Make sure you have plenty of firm advance orders. Finding good homes for one or two shouldn’t be a problem, but for nine or 10 it’s another matter. Some years ago a friend bred a litter of springer puppies. As he didn’t approve of any of the prospective buyers, he kept the lot.
If you decide to go ahead, be prepared for traumas and upsets. With the first litter I bred, three healthy puppies were born, then no more. The mother was rushed to the vet for an emergency Caesarean. Five more puppies were delivered and none was lost, but keeping the first three in the airing cupboard on a hot-water bottle for six hours was a real worry.
If all goes well, the first three weeks are relatively easy – it’s simply a matter of ensuring the bitch is well fed so she can produce enough milk. The excitement begins with weaning at three weeks, when you become responsible for keeping the puppy-pen clean, a challenge with eight or nine pups. Summer litters are best, as you can put them outside in a pen if the weather is fine. If all goes well, the next five weeks will be fun. But it will still be a relief when they go to their new homes.