On Dog Breeding: There Is No Crystal Ball

We, the friends of the West Highland White Terrier, can be proud to be a breeding fancy. Listen in on a conversation between any group of Westie show folks, and the conversation gets around to breeding sooner than later. What dog we will breed to. How the puppies look, at whatever age. Someone’s best brood matron contracted pyometra and was spayed; tough luck. There are many conversations we have about all aspects of breeding Westies.

One intriguing phase of the breeding discourse is when to grade a litter. Many will insist that the right time is at birth. However, if that’s true, what about eye color? Hmmm? Relaxed newborns can show aspects of angulation, proportion, some head properties, and coat. However, these are only possible indicators, not solid features to rely on.

Westie puppies, like the puppies of many other breeds, change constantly from birth until they can be realistically evaluated. It takes patience, honesty, and self-control to observe a litter to know what you have—to really know what you have. The good thing is that with every litter and every puppy, we have the chance to learn—if we want to.

OK, your new litter is on the ground, and you will spend many hours watching and studying these babies before any will ever walk into a show ring. And it’s the time spent studying a litter that is the breeder’s real crystal ball. Will any of these snuffling newborns grow up to be your fondest dream realized?

This is where optimism and doubt are important parts of the breeder’s toolbox. The wise breeder always looks for the positive, but she also acknowledges that blemishes will also surface. It’s part of breeding, and if someone ever breeds the perfect dog, we can all go home.

It has been said that disappointment is often the reward for the breeder who sees too much too fast. It is also unwise to invest your best hopes in one or two puppies. In the era of the large kennels, when breeders produced many dogs and were more dispassionate than we, the elimination process was more stringent than what we are accustomed to. We need to be more demanding in the dogs we breed, and especially in the dogs we keep.

It also helps to hark back to earlier litters and earlier “keepers” as useful points of reference. If you find yourself being reminded of a dog you bred who made your heart beat faster, that’s a good thing. However, always have a good reason for keeping a new puppy and seek to identify his own virtues, and always give the promising puppy the time he needs to develop his own set of pluses and minuses.

In observing a litter, if you are fortunate enough to come across the puppy who “has it,” and you know it, you have cause to celebrate. Just be sure you are in the presence of the quality you are striving for.

A crystal ball may be okay for a fortuneteller, but not for you, the wise breeder.

Seymour N. Weiss, West Highland White Terrier Club of America, from the August 2015 AKC Gazette