The brave new playground of dog breeding

The world of visual images is becoming more and more overpowering: we are persistently bombarded by images in advertising, TV, and the Internet – all of which create a virtual (as opposed to real) world by which we unconsciously tend to measure or compare ourselves. Appearances and presenting an appealing image are becoming more and more important to be successful in job interviews or selling a house, not to mention in our own personal relationships. The image of a dog, in a similar way, is becoming more and more important in the game of dog breeding: at shows, in mate selection, and sales of puppies.

Image and anatomical construction 

Breeders have a number of aims and depending on the breeder, they will have different priorities. Some want to improve their respective breed and breed dogs to their own vision of how the breed should look. Others are motivated by winning in the show ring, whilst for others the priority is to make a living. Of course, in order to breed successfully, whichever the priority of the breeder may be, they ultimately need to sell the puppies they do not keep from the litters they breed so they need to attract buyers) be they members of the general public or other breeders. So if I now step into the shoes of the puppy buyers who start ‘shopping’ for a much desired dog. They will have already formed an image of their ideal in their minds, and in order to find it, begin by browsing breeder web pages. Usually they will be attracted by images presented there; only if these are appealing enough, will they take the time to go over the text as well. However images come first. 

A webpage tells a great deal about breeders, their interests and goals. Often the top players in the game of pedigree dogs present standardised images of dogs with their titles and achievements together with a pedigree of names (sometimes supplemented with corresponding images), mandatory health tests of hereditary diseases depending on the breed (in Golden Retrievers usually positive results of eye checks, hip and perhaps elbow dysplasia). Sometimes the dog's birth date is not mentioned, and as to the image, it is often only of the dog in profile, groomed (and trimmed) to perfection, choreographed to stand in the most appealing stance that in normal life the dogs rarely take. Sometimes that image is coupled with a portrait, but all these will normally be shot in appealing or suitable surroundings. There is usually only a little text, a few photos, if any of the dog in its regular life and practically nothing about the dog's personality, even though personality traits are just as hereditary as physical traits. 

Fig.1. Here are two images of the same dog. The first image was offered for a Golden Retriever 

Champion book, but was refused. The second image was found more suitable. For me the first depicts more of the

dog's personality than the second – especially as I know the dog.

I would like to emphasise that many of these images do not really represent the dogs fully. Even if the images haven’t been manipulated using photo shop (for instance images can be cut and pasted together), dogs are often posed to create a more impressive image, and the photos in turn are often enhanced in various ways. It is interesting to study the images of the same dogs in photos taken at random, and those that are presented by the breeder – the differences can be telling!

These randomly taken photos or images, usually taken from a less than ideal angle, are one of the reasons why owners or breeders tend to become very concerned about them appearing on the Net without their knowledge and prior agreement, and why in some countries it is prohibited to take photos at a dog show without the owner's agreement. The dog's “market value” may be negatively affected by the appearance of these “unsuitable” images.

One can often overhear people discussing dogs as if they were inanimate objects, rather than living, breathing beings. “Nice angles” may mean manipulating the dog in a way that the “angles” present the desired effect, though in actual life the angle is different.

Fig.2. Hind angulation variation of the same dog. Is the angulation good or not?

Fig. 3. The same dog. On the right side, though stacked, standing in a quite relaxed way, on the left side, the dog is 

“sitting” or “crouching” on the hindquarters, making the angle very sharp. This, however, is becoming more and more

 accepted as an ideal angulation; however, if the dog would really have this angle, he would be a cripple.

Fig. 4. Front angulation and view is much less noticed and discussed, despite the fact that 60% of the dog's weight is on the front. Below left: the dog standing freely. Right: the same dog as stacked up.

Fig. 5. Different front: sideways much less “desired” image than the image on the right of Figure 4, but with stronger pasterns.

Even more often, people have forgotten the reason a breed's angulation is desired to be a particular way, and often it is the image that counts. To provide an example I refer to the only scientific book on dog movement, Curtis M. Brown's “Dog Locomotion and Gait Analysis” (Hoflin Publishing 1986) in which the author claims that excessive angulation, though it is seen as a desirable feature at dog shows, is usually detrimental to efficient locomotion, and that for the majority of breeds (including that of Golden Retriever) correct angulation means that the front edge of the hind paw is directly under the rear of the buttock at the time the rear pastern is vertical, however, we can see that in show images the hind paw is much farther behind.

Fig. 6. The dog below is pictured in the show ring at the time being judged – this is the moment the owner attempts to give the most positive impression of the dog, and thus the dog is at its supposed “best”. It shows weak hindquarters and a narrow rear end as well as sloping topline. If the leg were pulled further back, one would see how far the paw would reach.

This excessive angulation often means that the dog has weak hocks, slanting inwards, and more and more images of Golden Retrievers present a sloping topline that is becoming more and more similar to that of the German Shepherd. The problems that the breed has with movement, were discussed at length in the BBC program “Pedigree Dogs Exposed”.

Even more so – what do we know of the realities behind these images? We may have seen some of the dogs in person (usually at shows when they either are at repose or taken quickly to the ring) conveying a completely different image to that presented in the show ring. We stack our dogs in supposedly picturesque poses – often in an exaggerated way which denies the reality of their everyday existence, we admire the moving images – ultra fast moving, flashy dogs. Brown emphasises that dogs with decreased angulation compared to those that appear in idealised show images have greater endurance while working. During the trot (by which movement is judged in the show ring) excessive forward reach at the moment the paw is set down causes an increase in energy consumption, and when we consider that the idea of a Golden Retriever is to be able to work in a field as a pick up dog for hours and days in a row, energy conservation is much more important than long stride. But it certainly presents a different image.

Fig.7. The first picture presents an image similar to that presented on web pages and in Champion books suggesting wonderful movers. The second image presents an energy saving, efficient type of movement that the dog in question can utilise for hours on end. It presents, however, a less desired image and has been penalised in the show ring for not moving so well as the dog in the first picture.

Where emphasis is placed only on exterior image-based breeding, what this may lead to is portrayed in the controversial BBC documentaries “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” (You can view this on YouTube at the followingURL’s: or

Even though many of the claims may be over exaggerated and distorted, it still hold up a mirror of sorts. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that tendencies do exist which, if they become fully realised, would become a much worse nightmare than the programs suggest.

Health screening 

Another aspect of “images” is health screening. Many puppy buyers nowadays have been conditioned to check the results of health tests. Hips and elbows are diagnosed via X-ray pictures, not via assessing the dog's movement. It is naturally, laudable that hereditary diseases can be traced and hopefully reduced (if not eliminated) via health testing and selective breeding, but the danger is reducing “health” to “clear” results of health tests. We are pleased when under a lovely profile picture of a dog we see the brief text: “eyes clear, free of hip and elbow dysplasia” (or HD (hip dysplasia) A/A; ED (elbow dysplasia) 0/0) but can health and hereditary diseases be reduced only to these?

One of the problems is that the results of the images presented to vets are very much dependent or the correct positioning of the dog under general anaesthesia, as well as the quality of the image itself.

Therefore bad positioning or an image that is not clear enough may result in a diagnosis of some degree of hip or elbow dysplasia. Another problem is that it is very subjective, and depends much on the vet’s personal judgement. In the UK the British Veterinary Association who provide hip scores for X-rays submitted to them, have a judging panel. The results are often subjective and it is not rare to hear breeders complain that they have had unexpected hip scores that make little sense when compared to previously submitted hip scores for other dogs they have bred. In fact, a fellow breeder, Raymon Moonilall has suggested that hip and elbow scores submitted to the BVA in the last ten years could be computerised and entered into a computer software program that would analyze and categorise them taking total averages so that future hip and elbow scoring submissions could simply be scanned into the system and the X-rays would be automatically compared to previously programmed X-rays giving computer generated results and therefore eliminating any subjectivity in hip and elbow scoring decisions. 

In Estonia (though probably not just limited to this country) we have the example of a dog that has been diagnosed with “severe hip dysplasia” (degree E/E), has then repeated the test and the score has improved by two degrees to C/C - equivalent to “slight hip dysplasia”. However, one must ask, which of these diagnoses is the correct one? Is the dog healthy or not? Can one expect that the puppies bred from that dog will be healthy? 

I have for a long time considered dysplasia to be over-emphasised in breeding programs. I ask - why only hips (and now elbows) and not other joints? There are plenty of breeds that suffer more from other dysplasia forms that are not taken into account in breeding programs or regulated. In Great Danes, the Swedish breed club recently withdrew the requirement to carry out hip dysplasia testing: they stated that during the 30+ years that the scheme had been running allowing breeding from only A, B or C hips had not lowered the population's hip scores and they believe it is not the most important health issue in the breed. Very few Great Danes have been put down due to bad hips whereas the incidence of Great Danes dying from heart attacks when still very young (under 3 years old) is far too high. 

During Soviet rule no health checks existed, but there was no question of breeding from badly or incorrectly moving dogs. Nowadays it seems that the X-ray has gained far too much importance: if the dog has A hips it is considered suitable for breeding even if it cannot walk properly (for other reasons, that have nothing to do with hips), and vice versa – a bad X-ray is far too influential even if the dog moves with ease. My own Great Dane with D hips moved with no problems until his death when he was almost 10 years old whereas another Dane with B hips was very narrow from behind and had movement problems even as a puppy. He died because he fell down the stairs and tore his spleen – the fall being a direct consequence of his weak rear end. 

So what is more important, an X-ray image or the actual movement? In one veterinary conference health tests were questioned with “are we testing the conditions that really matter or are we testing the things that are easy to test?” 

So we get the hip/elbow letters and numbers but do we really understand what lies behind them? Do we understand well enough what these letters mean?

Fig.8. X-ray images of different degrees of hip dysplasia. (Pictures from the Finnish Golden Retriever Club. The first two on the left show “ideal” hips graded A/A followed by B/B and on the right C/C grade hips. Do we understand the difference, and even more so – what do these differences mean for the dogs quality of life?

One experienced Golden retriever breeder has said, “You can mate two low scoring Goldens together and produce a litter with all high scores, there don't seem to be any rules on this however hard you try You have to take the WHOLE dog not just its hips. Most dogs I have known of, having a higher hip score, never went lame and one I remember with a total score of 72 [in European scheme E/E-grade] was still showing at 12 years old and most judges remarked that he showed the youngsters how to move.”

Now there is an ichyosis (flaky skin) gene test developed for Golden Retrievers that is highly recommended to be carried out in some countries. However, there is little known about its relation to other skin conditions, for example according to my knowledge flaky skin and hot spots (wet eczema) do not occur in the same animal. So, while trying to outbreed ichyosis are we inadvertently encouraging the spread of the tendency for hot spots and perhaps other undesirable things because we have limited the gene pool too much?

Artificial insemination

Another “brave new means“ is artificial insemination. In many ways it is a remarkable thing (like most new brave things), since it opens up so many opportunities and in theory would also widen gene pool. The practice, however, is often somewhat more prosaic: what seems to be a good tool for expanding the gene pool is often becoming quite the opposite: people get attached to certain images (more than the real dog) and now the offspring of a dog with a positive image can be obtained even in cases when travelling is complicated. Leaving that aspect aside, there is another dimension that we often prefer not to think about. Mating is not just a mechanical matter but also reflects the general health of dogs, their mutual match (yes, dog do fall in love and form attachments, if they are given the chance), and even in case of healthy dogs in full peak of their sexual prowess, “mother nature“ can sometimes step in to stop certain combinations from being produced. Before going on, I provide couple of examples that I have experienced myself in my more than a quarter of century of being amongst dogs.

A young, inexperienced male was presented to an experienced female who at home had attracted other males and also indicated a willingness to mate. The young male had also demonstrated a normal interest in females in heat, but when meeting with the female he, even though excited, showed no inclination to mount the bitch. The latter also, though standing still, did nothing to provoke the male, and both owners then decided to call the mating off. The male has produced very well since, displaying perfectly normal behaviour and siring many average sized litters.

Another case is the complete opposite: a maiden bitch who was brought to an experienced male who had sired a nice, even litter a couple of months earlier. The male, though courting a bit, was not really interested (even though the bitch clearly encouraged him), while another male owned by the same owner was clearly very eager, and thus the owners decided to use the other male. The mating was immediate, both the male and the female eager and tender, resulting in a litter of 8.

What has caused these behavioural abnormalities, is not clear, but somehow it seemed that “mother nature“ did not approve of the combination. With AI we have no idea what is good or not, if the male is normally interested and able to perform, if the bitch is interested and willing to become a mother. The latter is also no joke. I have seen many bitches who are difficult to mate, and when mated have difficulties giving birth, producing small litters and/or weak puppies. There may be a valid reason why certain combinations don't produce offspring, why certain bitches may not be interested in males or vice versa. The brave new advances in medicine enable to give life to puppies who in the wild would perish and thus guarantee only the survival of the healthiest, smartest and most adaptable individuals. In dog breeding we follow the image in our minds and often disregard those very vital points.

Images – friends or foes

It is human nature to like to win – and by concentrating on the best images, the outline of a dog, X-rays in health testing, mere references to “temperament” (versus the more complex notion of “personality”) – we hope to become winners in the playground of dog breeding. There is the yearning for beauty and perfection, the yearning to be a creator and act as “God” within the limits our existence places on us. But if our “God role play games” reduce the full three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional playground of images, isn't it time to pause and consider the full implications of our games? To quote a a breeder who has “played the game” for several decades: “What we have to remember is that basically all breeding is a gamble - more for some than others. If you can remember most of the dogs on both sides of a pedigree then that is more of a help as you know what you are breeding back to (this is where experience comes in). Many superb Golden’s come from a virtually unshown bitch to a line bred dog who is not necessarily a champion or even a top winner.”

The danger of images is that they train us to see things in certain ways and disregard others. They “normalise” and often distort our view, and once a certain exaggeration or feature becomes normal, there is a wish to “improve on it”, and thus breeding for even greater exaggeration. Images are necessary when used with caution and the understanding that they never present the whole picture. In our battles for the perfect image and with single genetic conditions we may lose the war and with that the breed as a credible species.