When I decided I wanted to add a puppy to the household, I knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy job to find one.
“But it’s a Labrador! They’re everywhere!”, I heard people cry.
Indeed. I could look on my local ads website and find a plethora of cute puppies wanting homes. In fact, out of interest, I’ve just brought up the succinctly-named Pets4Homes website and searched for Labrador Retrievers. The results span thirty pages. At ten adverts a page, that’s three hundred entries, all selling at least one Labrador, many selling a whole litter of puppies. I could have my pick of colour, age, sex and walk away with my pup in a matter of minutes.
The thing is, that’s not how I do things. For those of you who don’t know the story of how I ended up with Willow and Shadow, let’s just say, they weren’t planned in the slightest, and I did something completely out of character, leaping into an impulse decision that was all heart and little head. How very, very glad I am that I did, because I ended up with two fabulous, faithful companions that have enriched my world no end. I have somehow scrabbled through the last two years, reading and learning as I’ve gone, to bring up a wonderful couple of pet dogs. Man, how I’ve read. And how I’ve learnt!
With a huge amount of help from the knowledgable folks over at The Labrador Forum, my eyes have been opened to the vast world of dogginess that consumes me. In my spare time, I read books and websites about dogs; training, behaviour, health, everything. Where most people’s Kindles may be loaded for holidays with the likes of JK Rowling, Stieg Larsson and perhaps even EL James, if you’re feeling a bit fruity, mine has titles by Leslie McDevitt, Turid Rugaas and Patricia McConnell, to name only three. “Who?!“, I hear you cry. Get a dog. Be me. Then you’ll know.
So, when it came to finding a new puppy, I thought long and hard about what I wanted. The “big” questions were easy. I want a chocolate, to complete my tricolor, and I’d like it to be a girl. The next question that any Labrador enthusiast will ask is, “from show or working lines?”. Herein lies the first difficulty. Most Labradors are arguably from neither, they are from pet lines, having no recent ancestors who were either tested in the field or competed in the show ring. And there is nothing wrong with that at all; breeding animals that make perfect family companions is arguably the most important “type” of all. It’s just not for me. Why? Because owning two field-bred Labs has opened up the world of gun dog work, which we all absolutely adore, and I would like to pursue the same with my new puppy. I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s not possible to train a pet bred Lab to do the same, but you have to remember, this is still a new world to me. I’m no expert dog handler, so I need all the help I can get, and dogs bred from lines that have been doing this sort of work for generations tend to be hard-wired for it.
“It’s easy, then. Get another working Lab.”
Ah. Well. Again, we have a problem here. You see, I really don’t like the split there is between the show world and the working world of Labradors. The dogs can look like completely different creatures. Take my two, for example. They have longer legs, narrower rib cages and finer features than the breed standard would dictate. They have a certain hound-like look about them, which is very common in working lines.
“Who cares about the breed standard? Working line dogs are built better than that, to make them fit to work!”
Yet, this isn’t true. The breed standard for Labradors, that dogs are measured against in the show ring, actually states that the dog should be built in a way that makes them fit for purpose. It is misinterpretation of the standard by certain show-line breeders (and judges) that has led to, in some cases, what we commonly term “the Flabrador”. For a detailed analysis of the breed standard and how it applies to our dogs, read this hugely interesting article by Joy Venturi Rose of Leospring Labradors: Construction as Related to Enhanced Performance and Health in the Working Labrador.
Because so many of the characteristics described in the breed standard are designed to make the Labrador more suited to work, with fewer injuries and potential skeletal problems, then surely I should be looking for a purely show-lines dog?
Ah. We find ourselves presented with yet another problem. Again, we’re somewhat back to the issue of temperament. Generations-deep pedigrees of show line dogs that have been bred with the perfect temperament for the show ring doesn’t necessarily give us a dog with the temperament for the field, even if they are physically designed for it! More-so, we still have to keep in mind that misinterpretation I mentioned. There are many Labradors that are being bred for the ring with over-emphasised characteristics. Sometimes, this may simply be that they’re carrying too much weight to make them appear heavy, but other times, you can see that the underlying conformation is off kilter. Overly long backs, too straight legs, incorrect proportion of front to back, top to bottom… the list goes on.
Suddenly, this significantly diminishes my pool of dogs to choose from.
What I’m after is a moderately-built dog that has strong conformation, meaning it has responsibly-bred show lines in its pedigree, coupled with a good working temperament, which really needs to be demonstrated by having parents that are worked regularly throughout the season.
The breeders producing these perfect dogs are, sadly, few and far between. Add in the requirement for chocolate, and there’s a phrase that springs to mind concerning the scarcity of excrement from a child’s undulating ligneous equine.
Then, there are health scores. Oh, did I not mention those yet? These are genetic tests that are performed on both the sire and the dam, by responsible breeders, to minimise (or, in some cases, nullify) the chances of puppies developing certain conditions. Hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, dwarfism, progressive retinal atrophy, centro-nuclear myopathy, exercise-induced collapse… another seemingly endless list. Some of these tests and their results are non-negotiable. Others, you have to consider the results and decide if they’re good enough for you. For example, I wouldn’t consider purchasing a puppy from parents who hadn’t been elbow scored. And those elbow scores must be 0 for both parents. It is irresponsible to breed from Labradors with elbow scores greater than zero. Hip scores, on the other hand, are more open to interpretation. The Breed Median Score (BMS) for Labradors is 14, where this number is the total of the individual scores for left and right hips. I would insist on the test being done, but it would be up to me to decide whether I accepted a 6:6 score, or would I insist on no greater than 4:4, and what level of asymmetry would I tolerate. Would a 4:4 be better than a 1:4? Of course, we’d all love the parents to both be 0:0, but that’s just not likely, especially with all the other criteria I have.
And still, the complications keep coming! A dog might have perfect scores, but then you plug it into the Kennel Club’s immensely useful EBV (Estimated Breeding Value) calculator, and it sets off the red flashing lights and klaxon sirens behind your bloodshot eyeballs. For this perfect-looking dog is producing a very scary EBV. How is this possible? It’s because the EBV doesn’t just take into account that individual dog’s scores, but also those of its parents, siblings and progeny. A single puppy that has an elbow score of 1 could send the sire’s EBV through the floor.
Even this isn’t the end of the story, though. There is some question as to the soundness of EBV scores. They can only take into account the data that has been submitted to the Kennel Club. Which means, if a dog has sired 200 puppies, and only one of them has been tested, the score of that puppy can have a huge impact on the sire’s EBV but can’t possibly be statistically relevant. Conversely, if people choose to have their dogs scanned but the X-rays clearly show dysplastic joints and so they choose not to have them tested for a score, then the EBV for related dogs will remain unaffected.
This doesn’t mean that the EBV should be dismissed out of hand, it just means that more time needs to be spent for each dog, working out what it actually means. Through it, I have found dogs that seem perfect, but have produced far too many dysplastic puppies for my liking, so I’ve had to reject them for that. I know that nothing I do can eradicate all risk of dysplasia in my puppy, but I can do my damnedest to minimise it.
Finally, there is one last thing to consider, and that is how inter-related the parents are. The more closely they are related, the higher the chance of two recessive genes coming together to give you a surprise. This surprise may be nothing of any interest whatsoever; a mis-mark on the coat, unusual eye colour, and so on. And yet, there is the chance that it could be something devastating. Luckily, the Kennel Club has a handy “kinship” tool which enables you to calculate the so-called “Coefficient of Inbreeding” (or CoI) for a pair of dogs. You can look up any potential mating and see how they compare to the breed average (6.5%) and then make your judgement from there. My initial reaction was, this is straightforward enough; I’ll only consider litters from a CoI of the breed average or below. And yet. There’s that word again. “Yet”, “However”, “But”, “Although”. It isn’t that simple. It never is. Because, when you’re looking at a very specific subset of dogs, being bred to make more of that specific type, it’s very easy to end up with sky-high CoIs, as popular sires are used again and again. I found several matings that were going to result in a CoI of 25% or greater. That is the genetic equivalent of breeding father to daughter. There’s a reason we don’t do that in the human world, and I believe the same reason should exist in the dog world, too. However, some breeders actually do this intentionally, calling it “line breeding”. It’s not for me, though. So, whilst those individual litters are very easy for me to reject without a second thought, the truth of the matter is that I’m unlikely to be able to find the quality of dog that I am after with a super-low CoI.
With all these things to consider, you can see why buying a chocolate puppy with strong conformation and a worker’s temperament, with good health scores, suddenly isn’t just a case of opening up your local ads website!
It has been months of excitement and frustration in equal measure. At times, utterly soul-destroying. The hopelessness of the search is completely forgotten once you’ve found that perfect litter, the one that ticks as many of the boxes as you know will be possible, to give you the best chance of ending up with the dog you want. For, remember, this isn’t really about finding a puppy. It’s about the dog – the lifelong companion – that puppy will be.