“How Many Puppies Did You Breed?”

The other day I was speaking to a breeder friend, someone who has been around for many years and been very successful. We were talking about the beautiful dogs she had bred, how many litters she thought she had produced since the first one long ago, what champions and performance winners these litters resulted in, and so on. Since I maintain a lot of historical data for my breed club I was happy to inform her that according to the information I had collected from various sources she had bred a grand total of 71 champions. That’s a number anyone could be proud of, but my friend remonstrated, saying she was SURE she had bred over a hundred champions — but she had no data to back this up.

Keeping organized Records is a must

Let me say right away that nobody in their right mind breeds dogs just to produce as many champions as possible. Serious hobby breeders may set other goals as their priority: primarily, one hopes, that all the dogs that result from the breedings they have planned can live healthy, happy lives and are capable of fulfilling the important job of being wonderful pets. An ambitious breeder may aim higher than that, however, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to breed dogs that can win in the show ring, as long as you don’t compromise on the health and temperament issues. The fact is that no active breeder, however conscientious, will know what he or she did in past years unless they keep records of some kind. For a few famous kennels these may have consisted of a few scribbled notes on a note pad on the kitchen table, but today it’s pretty easy to maintain the records on your home computer or laptop.

In the old days I believed, naively, that all serious breeders kept careful records of every litter and every puppy they bred. In fact, I believe the American Kennel Club requires us to do so: when we register a litter we receive an official-looking form that can be used for our personal record keeping. However, now I know that the level of record keeping varies a lot from one breeder to the next. Often it’s a little like when a young couple have their first child: every step is recorded on tape and in photographs, there’s a thick scrap book where you can follow the baby’s development almost day by day — but by the time the family has a second or third child there’s just not as much urgency to write everything down. (As they say, when you’re a fourth or fifth child you’re lucky if there are any snapshots of you as a baby at all…)

The First Litter
Dog breeders seem to be the same way. Every detail is recorded for the first litter you breed, every puppy weighed daily and every minute change saved for posterity. Most of us can probably recall our first homebred puppies, even many years later: what happened to them, how they turned out, if any of them achieved fame and recognition beyond the immediate family circle. For the litters after that, not so much. As they say, you always remember your “first time,” and that’s true about breeding dogs as much as about everything else.

And yet, what we do in the privacy of the whelping room may have a profound importance for future generations. If a long-term, dedicated breeder keeps records of all whelpings (problematic or easy), newborn puppies (thriving or otherwise), and any problems that may occur later, this can be of great help, not only to that breeder in his or her future litters, but also to others if we’re willing to share our kennel secrets.

Weighing the puppies will help you know what to expect in future litters: you can compare your old puppy records with the new ones and predict their adult size. “Stacked” snapshots taken every week once the puppies are big enough to stand can eventually, when you have a few litters and a couple of generations under your belt, help you more accurately guess your new puppies’ future conformation. And keeping careful notes of each puppy’s new home address or contact information makes it possible to stay in touch and find out how that puppy develops as an adult.

Most of us naturally maintain contact with those puppy buyers who go to shows or trials, and we often have the pleasure of seeing those puppies from time to time as they grow up. Too often we lose touch with many of those who go to “pet homes,” however. (That’s such a terrible phrase, by the way. All dogs should live in pet homes. That some of these pet owners also show and breed is just an added bonus.)

Knowing someting about those dogs we bred and never see again is important for a breeder: it helps if you know how they turned out when you are breeding from their famous champion brothers and sisters. You know that expression about having skeletons in the closet? That’s what’s implied when a handsome top winner produces offspring with faults you may not have seen in the parents. It’s when you meet their unshown siblings that you may experience an “Aha!” moment and know exactly where that problem came from…

Records Start Before Birth!
Here’s how I maintained my “kennel” records over the years. In addition to the registered names (and call names) of the sire and dam, with AKC registration numbers and full titles, I write something about their temperament and conformation. I add date(s) of breeding, date of whelping, and if there were any problems with either. Each puppy has its own entry where I record sex, color, weight at birth and anything that’s out of the ordinary. (Fortunately, with Whippets there’s usually no need for those colored pieces of strings that a breeder of e.g. black Labrador Retrievers needs to separate the littermates.)

Usually puppies are weighed daily during the first week, then weekly, so it’s possible to track growth. Later on I add each puppy’s registered name, and also details of the new owners with contact information (plus, if possible, the puppy’s call name). As the puppy grows into an adult I can add anything of interest, bad or good: any problems or illnesses, major show wins, performance titles, hopefully a champion title, etc.

In the days when the information was typed on a sheet of paper and put into a binder the records eventually got rather messy, with lots of scribbled notes for those dogs that were “active” in competition. In later years it all looks much neater and is much easier to compile on my computer. I would imagine most of us have a “Kennel” folder, which in my case includes a “Litters” sub-folder with one page for each litter.

Of course there’s also a sales contract for each litter — a very simple one. I don’t believe in complicated contracts; mostly they just confirm that puppy so-and-so has been transferred to its new owner, with payment received, and the important proviso that if a problem should arise the new owner promises to contact me immediately. (Co-owner and co-breeder contracts would be the subject for a whole different article, so we’ll leave them out of this.)

Health Taken for Granted
In the past, health was more or less taken for granted, at least in the breeds I’ve been involved in, and therefore didn’t seem worth recording unless something exceptional cropped up. That’s very different now. I’m not sure why; perhaps attitudes just changed. I wish I had been much more careful about writing down e.g. how long each dog I bred lived, and what the cause of death was, but in those days — pre-1990s – hardly anyone did, at least that I knew of. We seemed to just accept that dogs “got old and died” without asking too many questions, but it would be interesting to have more data. (I am currently working on an age study for my own breed. Did they live longer in the past? Were they healthier? It’s not easy to find reliable records from long ago.)

Sometimes you lose touch with a puppy that turns out to be more important than you thought at first. Case in point: Years ago I bred a litter of four male puppies. Three finished their championships, and two of these went on to become important stud dogs. I never saw the fourth brother except as a young adult and have not been able to find out anything about him later. Emails bounce back, the phone number doesn’t work. Is he still alive? Is (or was) he healthy? In view of the fact that he’s now got so many nephews and nieces it would be interesting to know. (Veronica Thielmann, if you read this, please drop me a line about “Austin”!)

In general, though, I have kept pretty careful records of the dogs I bred. Some of all this information is now dated, but it’s still a useful reminder to go through it once in a while and remember that the wonderful puppies you bred didn’t all become champions, and that there are dogs in most of the litters where I don’t know much, or anything, about how they turned out as adults. Some puppy buyers want privacy, and you have to respect that. Many send cute puppy pictures and Christmas cards, but as the years pass the communications become more infrequent. If something terrible happens you usually hear about it, but I like to believe that no news is good news. And nothing is more encouraging, in a bittersweet sort of way, than the letters a breeder sometimes gets from someone who tells you they bought a puppy from you 15 or 17 years ago: it just died, and this dog meant so much to them and their family. The kids may be grown now, but that puppy was a part of the family’s life for a long time. If there’s anything meaningful in breeding dogs it’s hearing how much a puppy you once sold to a “pet” family has meant to them.

What Top Kennels Do
I was curious to find out what kind of records successful breeders today keep, so I contacted a few. Thanks to those who responded at short notice.

Sylvia Hammarstrom’s Skansen kennel is one of the most successful in America, regardless of breed. Best known for Giant Schnauzers, Skansen has bred over 1,000 champions, reportedly a world record, and produced innumerable Best in Show winners. Sylvia is a strong believer in record-keeping and writes:

“I keep records on each pup and each buyer. I still have records from 30-plus years ago. About half of our puppy buyers stay in touch, and we send them updates on feeding, training, etc. via a bi-monthly newsletter that I write. Each litter has a file, where we keep track of photos, health profiles, etc. I’m too old-fashioned for computer records!”

Lori Lawrence, of the Starline Whippets, writes:

“When my pups are sold, I record all the info for the puppy and the owners on the record sheet provided by AKC. Additionally, I file individual contracts with more detailed information in file folders distinguished by the dam’s name. I also keep a record of all my owners and their contracts on my computer, and I have their contact information in folders created under the dam’s name in my email program. Thanks to our very limited breeding program, I am able to keep in touch with most on a very regular basis.

“I keep detailed records on my computer of any health issues, or puppies that do not survive so that I can track any genetic issues that may arise. I also keep records of the AKC championships and major accomplishments of the progeny of each one of our sire and dams.

“Phew! I keep a lot of records!”

Obviously, it works: Starline has bred scores of big winners and the breed’s all-time top sire of AKC champions, Ch. Starline’s Reign On. They also own the all-time top BIS Whippet, GCh. Starline’s Chanel, winner of over 80 all-breed Bests.

Terry Miller, of the Deja Vu Briards, has a long and mixed history with kennel records. She writes:

“My practices on breeding records have evolved over 30-odd years. In the beginning, when there seemed like there was so much more time (was there really more time, or was I just that much younger, with more energy and less commitments?), I kept notes of each litter by hand (before computers). I still have those records in folders and spiral bounds notebooks.”

Eventually, Terry found that the notes didn’t really help her predict traits or enhance the learning process, so the process has changed: “Now, we take notes in the last couple of weeks before the puppies depart (10-11 weeks old) as final evaluations. We write by hand on paper or type into the notes on our phones the essentials of each individual puppy, identified by their ribbon color. We do it in order to keep everybody straight and clear in our minds and to aid in the art of puppy placements — that dance we all do, balancing the right puppies physically and temperamentally with the right homes.

“Almost all records, in the past as well as now, are taken while the puppies are moving around on and off leash. We NEVER look at them on a table and neither of us ever has. Both Dominique [Dube] and I, separately and together, have never gotten the value in table evaluations of Briard puppies. It is all about the synchronicity of the body in balance with itself, both physically and mentally. We augment notes with a few videos, but those are more for over-all evaluation of carriage and foot timing of the litter en masse than individual records.”

Deja Vu has bred over a hundred champions, including the top winning Briard of all time, Ch. Deja Vu In Like Flynn, who won BOB at Westminster four years in a row. They have won the national specialty several times, most recently in 2013 with GCh. Deja Vu Mia Cool As A Cucumber.

The Master Record Keeper
Katherine Kennedy Vigil writes that her mother Ann Kennedy is the MRK (Master Record Keeper) for their breeding program. The Clarion kennel is one of America’s top Poodle kennels and breeder of more than 160 AKC champions, mostly Miniatures. Katherine says that “In fact, the AKC records inspector that comes out to view the records has even brought trainees out and used my mom’s work as a template so that they can see a real world example.”

Here’s how the records are kept at Clarion, as submitted by Ann Kennedy:

“1. I use a date book for notes on breedings, whelping dates, number of puppies, vet appointments, and food purchased.

“2. The official AKC Individual Dog Breeding Records and Litter Records are kept in binders and each individual dog has a separate plastic sleeve. The records are separated into binders: ‘Individual Records’ and ‘Litter Records.’ The AKC forms for an individual dog are in alphabetical order. Included within the sleeves are the registration certificates, AKC title certificates, proof of testing, pedigree, and miscellaneous other records (e.g. import pedigrees, invitations to Westminster, AKC Eukanuba, etc.). The AKC litter forms are also alphabetized, and kept chronologically under the dam’s name. In addition, in the plastic sleeve we have the individual AKC Puppy Registration forms, sales contracts, copies of pedigree, lists of references, copies of 9-week vet exam, and any relevant correspondence.

“3. Having easy access to a pedigree program is also key for us. For years we did our own, but now our breedings are planned with the aid of the pedigree program at www.poodlepedigree.com. It is easy to use and very useful in constructing various pedigrees for planned breedings and printing them for closer study and notes. These are also in the binders for further study.

“4. We also keep detailed records on diet. Katherine is our ‘go to’ person for doing this. These records are kept on the computer under ‘My Documents’.”

Champions Titles Not Important
All the above is for the Clarion Poodles. Jay Hafford, finally, who has the Thaon Afghan Hounds in partnership with James Blanchard and Sally Davis, has a slightly different take on kennel records. He says:

“Yes, I do keep records and I do sales contracts on all my puppies. I rarely work with show homes. I am very selective. Pet homes are my choice, where the dogs get to be part of the family. I couldn’t care less about numbers of champions. How they develop is fairly unpredictable in this breed. I am more interested in balance, timing, and the type, all things I can see fairly early on. Do I keep records of development to help me evaluate in the future? No. I am not that keen on such in-depth records and I really cannot in my mind see the benefit for me.”

“I think everyone has their own hypothesis about breeding and choosing puppies. Mine has worked for me, but I am not saying that
another method might nor work equally well or better.”

You could say that whatever Jay does works for him: Thaon has breed the No. 1 Afghan Hound several times, won numerous all-breed Best in Shows, and won their breed’s national specialty seven times since 2001, including in 2013 — four times with GCh. Thaon’s Mowgli — and all of the wins were owner-handled by Jay.

It’s obvious that there are many ways to record your breeding activities, but I think most people would agree that some kind of consistent system is advisable. After a few years, or decades, they can constitute a historical record all on their own.