Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What It Takes to Be a Breeding Dog at SSD

As you know, we have a breeding program here at Susquehanna Service Dogs. (Please see Why Do We Breed Service Dogs.) Our goal is to create successful service dogs, so we put a lot of consideration into selecting the dogs that enter our breeding program. Let’s follow the journey of SSD General George Meade to see what requirements the dogs need to meet before they can become breeders.

Each of our litters are carefully planned, and we always hope to produce a female or a very exceptional male so that we can continue to improve the genetic line and create more high quality service dogs. Some litters have special parents, and Meade was from such a litter, the Civil War Litter. His father was our founding stud dog, SSD Sweet William. Will had some great qualities that we wanted to bring back into our lines. Will was also a great balance dog, which is a type of service dog that is in great demand.   

Once Meade and his siblings were eight weeks old, they took a serious temperament test based on C.A.R.A.T., developed bySuzanne Clothier. Meade did well on his test and he entered the puppy raising program with high hopes of success. The entire litter also visited the veterinarian ophthalmologist for an eye exam to make sure there aren’t any issues and that they didn’t have any heritable eye diseases. Meade had normal eyes, according to CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation).

Throughout the first nine months of his life, Meade attended puppy classes with the other dogs in the program and went through several formal evaluations. Each month, his puppy raisers completed a report on his successes and challenges, as well as his raisers’ training ability. On the one hand, he had some small issues, but on the other, he had an experienced puppy raiser to work with him.

At six months, Meade’s puppy raiser completed the C-BARQ, the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire. The C-BARQ provides standardized evaluations of the dog’s temperament and behavior. Each question describes the ways a dog would typically respond to every day events and situations. The dog can then be compared to other dogs in the database. The C-BARQ gives the SSD staff more information about the dog, allowing us to make better decisions about each dog’s future in the program.

When Meade was between 9 and 11 months old, his hips and elbows were x-rayed. All of our dogs must meet certain hip and elbow requirements in order to remain in our program. We do a preliminary OFA (OrthopedicFoundation for Animals) test for hips and elbows. We also use PennHIP to evaluate hips. In order to become a breeding dog for SSD, the dog must receive a good or excellent on the OFA hips test and have normal elbows. The results of the PennHIP evaluation must show that the dog is in the top 50% of the breed.

SSD Meade had no elbow dysplasia, OFA excellent hips, and was in the top 70% according to PennHIP.

We usually wait until the dogs are at least 12 months old before neutering them. This can correspond with the 12-month evaluation that we do for all of our dogs. Meade went to the kennel overnight with his siblings and other dogs close to his age. There, he went through an even more intensive evaluation, similar to C.A.R.A.T., as well as some special SSD evaluations. He also had to meet and train around the kennel cats. The 12-month evaluation can determine the future of the dog, but we always consider their entire history, the history of his siblings, and more. After his 12-month evaluation, we began to seriously consider Meade for our breeding program.

From the 12-month evaluation until he entered advanced training, Meade continued attending puppy classes and public outings with his puppy raiser. Each month, his puppy raiser submitted her monthly report, including both the good and bad behaviors. When Meade was 12 months old, his puppy raiser completed another C-BARQ. Things still looked good.

Meade went for his second visit to the veterinarian ophthalmologist for another eye exam. Again, it came back normal, with a clear CERF. All of the dogs in our breeding program and the ones we are considering have an annual eye exam. 

When he was between 16 and 18 months old, Meade entered advanced training at the kennel. Advanced training is where the dogs learn the advanced skills they’ll use a working service dogs. During this time, we look at how the dog handles the stress of the kennel, works with a variety of people, rides in the Sprinter van, and handles being around other, often stressed, dogs. We want a dog that can quietly handle this life. A potential breeding dog must spend a minimum of two weeks at the kennel, but it can be a month or longer, depending on kennel space, training staff time, and scheduling.

While he was in advanced training, Meade got to participate in the “Meet the Dogs” process, where people have the opportunity to meet several dogs, one of which could become their future service dog. We often have our potential breeding dogs go to “Meet the Dogs” to see how they react.

Meade made it that far. Although he isn’t perfect, he’s still being considered as a breeding dog. The next step is for Meade to have genetic tests and a heart screening performed. Some of this information is readily available. Based on his parentage, he is clear for progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). With PRA, a dog can be normal, a carrier, or affected. Meade is normal. We want our studs to be normal rather than carriers because then the dog has more breeding options. (i.e. A carrier cannot be bred to another carrier, but a normal dog could.)

Meade was also tested for retinal dysplasia and oculoskeletal dysplasia and exercise induced collapse, and he is normal for both. He then had an echocardiogram performed by the veterinarians at Palmyra Animal Clinic. The results were sent out to be read, and Meade was again declared normal.

We also look at any other physical issues the dog may have had throughout his life. Meade has had no other physical problems, such as allergies, ear infections, broken bones, torn ligaments, seizures, or other problems.

The next thing to do was find a good match for Meade. Once a bitch (female breeding dog) was found, Meade had to be tested yet again, this time for brucellosis, an infectious disease that would cause the dog to be eliminated from the breeding program. Meade’s test came back negative, and when the bitch was ready, they were successfully bred.

Then the entire process starts all over, only this time we look at his litter. Meade now has a history based on the successes and problems with his litters.

At any point, if a stud exhibits any significant issues or even lots of small ones, he can be neutered.

Each of our studs and bitches live at home with volunteers, called breeder caretakers. These volunteers may be the dog’s puppy raisers or someone else who stepped in. We encourage all of our breeder caretakers to continue training their dog as a demo/therapy/interview dog. These dogs give demonstrations to various groups about what service dogs can do, accompany staff and volunteers to interview potential partners, and visit hospitals and other clinics. Meade has been training to become a demo/therapy/interview dog, and has some experience in this area, which makes his handler proud. He is a loving, joyful, and exuberant dog who enriches the lives of his raisers and the many people he meets.