Do you want your pet dog to have puppies?

Biscuit, much loved'. But loving your dog isn't a good enough reason to breed from him or her. With German shepherds in particular, you need to carry out health tests on potential parents to make sure you don't create pups with health problems.'

Many owners love their pet dogs so much they would like them to have puppies. You may want to keep back a pup, and find good homes for the rest of the litter. Pups are cute, little roly-poly balls of fur, who can resist them? ...but before you get too sentimental, please do a little research.

Breeding for a good temperament

First, ask yourself 'What is so special about my dog'? We all think our own dogs are really special, but that doesn't mean they are all good breeding material. Little behavioural quirks that you can tolerate because you love your dog may get passed on, and whoever owns the pups may not be so tolerant. They may end up at the shelter, unwanted, when they are 18-months-old. So first get an honest assessment of your dog's temperament from someone who has a lot of experience of dogs, like a trainer. If your dog is a pedigree dog, find someone familiar with the breed to check him or her out.

Temperament is especially important if you plan the pups to be pets. People usually want pet dogs that are easy to house train, are tolerant of children and don't snap at them or nip them, are easy to take to the vets, will put up with being examined, and that come back when called. So if your dog is a bit deficient in any of these areas, think again about breeding from him or her. Yes, dogs can learn bad habits because they haven't been trained properly, but temperament is also partly inherited. A tendency to bark a lot is one characteristic that can be inherited. Most people want pet dogs that don't bark a lot, though some owners who live in the countryside may want a barky dog, to act as a watchdog.

Breeding healthy pups

People also want dogs that don't cost an arm and a leg in vets' bills. Has your dog always been healthy? Do you know anything about your dog's parents and grandparents? Have they always had good health until old age? How long did the grandparents live, if they are no longer alive? If you can't answer these questions, think again about breeding from your dog. There are many life-threatening and disabling inherited conditions that your dog could pass on, even if he or she looks healthy. Breed clubs can provide information on common inherited conditions like heart disease, deafness and canine hip dysplasia, that certain pedigree breeds are prone to. They can also tell you about health testing. You need to be very careful with breeds like King Charles Cavaliers that are especially prone to inherited problems. A knowledge of basic genetics is also essential if you want to match dogs well to produce healthy pups. 'Control of Canine Genetic Diseases' by George Padgett is well worth a read if you are thinking of breeding from your dog. Padgett explains genetics in a clear way, and gives help with analysing pedigrees.

But my dog's parents were champions...

That doesn't mean they were healthy dogs with nice temperaments. Dogs may win prizes because they look good, but still be quite horrible to live with, and develop crippling illnesses in middle age, after they were awarded their rosettes. Breeding dogs for looks alone will tend to mean that health and temperament are neglected. It's far more important for most owners that their pet is healthy and nice-natured than that he stands perfectly for a judge and looks like a book illustration of what the breed is meant to look like. Even if, and perhaps especially if your dog's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were champion good lookers, check out how healthy his or her ancestors were, how long they lived, and what diseases they may have suffered from. And meet your dog's parents if you can, to see if they have nice natures.

You may want the pups to grow into dogs that have special abilities, like sheep herding, or agility. Breeders and others who specialise in the field you are interested in can advise you on what to look for in a breeding pair. Just getting a champion pedigree dog isn't enough if you want a litter of herders, and the championship has been awarded for standing on a table and looking cute!

But my dog is healthy because he is a mongrel...

Mongrels do tend to suffer less from inherited diseases, it's true, but they can still inherit health problems from either parent, or both. Some conditions can be found in different breeds, and if you are unlucky, your crossbreed or mongrel could have the same health problem passed on from both parents. Other conditions can be passed on if just one parent suffers from them. So you need to do the same sorts of checks with a mongrel as with a pedigree dog - find out what you can about the health of your dog's ancestors. And if you don't know who they were, it's safer not to take risks.

Breeding involves risks

There's a risk to the dam, the bitch who gives birth. She may fall ill and even die as a result of having pups. The pups could be still-born, and could turn out to have problems despite your very best efforts, so it's only worth taking the risk if you think your dog has very special genes that ought to be passed on.

And it takes time and effort

Pups need to be socialized. They need one-to-one attention, to get them used to being with people. They also have a better start in life if you can get them used to common household sights and sounds, children, and other pets. All this takes time. Can you afford to take time off work for a litter of pups? Will there be anyone to care for them if you can't?

Finding owners for the pups: think ahead

Pups need homes quickly. Big litters of six-month-old pups can take up a lot of space! So it helps to have prospective owners ready to take on your pups even before they are conceived. Breed clubs and training clubs are two useful routes for contacting would-be owners. Find out the average size of litter for the breed, and see if you can find more would-be owners than the average litter size. You can let the hopefuls know that they are on a waiting list, rather than making definite promises.

How would you feel if you heard that one of 'your' pups had come to a sad end because the owners didn't know what they were taking on, or just didn't care? Or because the pup developed a health problem which the owner couldn't cope with, but which you could handle? If you want your pups to go to good homes, don't be afraid to ask questions to see if the would-be owner has enough commitment to your pup. Emphasise that they are very special pups. You have put a lot of effort into trying to make sure they are healthy and friendly, and you want to make sure they are going to people who deserve them. It's worth coming to an agreement about what should happen if things go wrong. A contract is a good way to safeguard the pup's future. You can stipulate that the owners should contact you if the pup develops problems. Responsible breeders will take back pups that owners can't handle. They will also take back pups with inherited health problems and give a refund, or provide a replacement pup instead of a refund. Owners may not want to give up pups with health problems, and breeders may agree to give them a healthy pup and let the owner keep the problem pup as well, provided the problem pup is neutered to protect the breed.

Rules, regulations and responsibilities

There are, then a lot of issues to think about even if you just want to breed from your own pet dog, and produce a litter of nice pets. Pet owners who have just one or two dogs may be exempt from many of the rules and regulations that govern dog breeding, but it can save you a lot of heartache if you are aware of the. responsibilities involved that affect anyone whose dogs has pups.

If you still long to hold little puppies

And you decide that breeding involves too many potential problems, then spay any bitches you own so you don’t end up with accidental litters! Spayed bitches will also live longer, and are easier to manage. Then go to your local shelter. Look at the pups there in need of a home. Ask the shelter staff about what sort of inheritance the pups may have, and the sorts of 'challenges' they may present to owners. Think about whether they would fit into your home with your existing dog(s). And see if you can become part of the solution.

The three articles below deal with the problem of inherited disorders in dogs in general, with some mentions of inherited problems in specific breeds. If you're thinking of breeding from a pedigree dog, it's also well worthwhile joining an online breed forum for more information. Experienced and conscientious breeders can tell you about inherited disorders common in that particular breed, as well as what can be done to reduce the risks, for example, what health tests potential breeders should undertake.

Further Reading

Asher L, Diesel G, Summers JF, McGreevy PD, Collins LM. (2009). Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 1: disorders related to breed standards. Vet J. 2009 Dec;182(3):402-11.

Lindsay L Farrell*, Jeffrey J Schoenebeck, Pamela Wiener, Dylan N Clements and Kim M Summers The Challenges of Pedigree Dog Health: approaches to combating inherited disease, Canine Genetics and Epidemiology 2015, 2:3

Summers JF1, Diesel G, Asher L, McGreevy PD, Collins LM. Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 2: Disorders that are not related to breed standards. Vet J. 2010 Jan;183(1):39-45. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.11.002. Epub 2009 Dec 5.