Picking stud dogs is hard. When I was first starting I would call Kendall or Carol Heidl and ask who I should breed to, and they would never tell me. They would make me work for it, asking me questions like, what does your bitch need? What do you need to improve in your lines? I would have to go back and look more. But frankly that was the wisest thing they could do, because that is how I learned.
I was fortunate to work at a school that took a project week trip to Washington, DC every April, and my parents lived there at the time. My dad was reading the paper one morning and said—there’s a big Labrador show in Leesburg. So I have literally been going to Potomac since about 1987. Being able to see really beautiful dogs trained my eye and has absolutely had a huge impact on my breeding program. For years and years my philosophy was simple: I bred to the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. Tababtha’s Drifter at Dickendall, Dickendall Arnold, Morraine’s Malcolm at Zinfndel, Raintree’s Slippery When Wet, Rocheby Joseph’s Coat. Those were the stud dogs I used in my first ten or so years, and was so fortunate I did, because it turned out they were also some the great producers of our time.
Those breedings were not easy. For some, shipped semen wasn’t even possible. But I never once just bred to a local dog because it was easy. I did what I needed to do to make those breedings happen. (I was seven months pregnant myself and my bitch just happened to come in season just before I travelled to the east coast to a cousin’s wedding. I brought my UD bitch, met Martha Lee Voshell on the side of the road and she took her for the weekend and bred her to Drifter. She had seven puppies, including my Archie, who was BISS at six specialties, RWD and Best BBE at Potomac 1997.) Many would have skipped that breeding as just too difficult at the time, but it absolutely change my life and set my breeding program on fire.
It became clear to me back then and still is today that beautiful litters are produced not just by beautiful dogs, but by great producers. I don’t care how nice a dog is if there aren’t other nice dogs behind him and being produced by him, I don’t want that in my pedigrees. I mentioned before my philosophy at Potomac is to watch for patterns. I want to see the breeder or the stud dog that consistently produces well.
Another thing I look for in a stud dog is a great mother. Horse people know that a great mother makes for a great producing stallion. I think this is true in dogs, too, although sometimes bitches are retired to the whelping box before they can set the show ring on fire, but they darn sure should be nice bitches who have produced well for me to be interested in breeding to their son.
I am fortunate to be in a place now where I can mostly breed to my own dogs, and in those situations my criteria can be a little different. I can focus more on fixing parts and pieces. For example if one girl has a plainer head I’ll breed to one who is very dominant for producing a nicer head, or a bit smaller bitch I’ll breed to a bigger dog, etc. Doing that is easier for me because I know my type will stay the same, and I can pick puppies based on what I was hoping to improve.
As far as keeping stud dogs that are used by the public—well that is just an honor. I, personally love being in that position. But I also think it requires a little different type of dog than if I were just keeping one to show. Georgia Gooch taught me long ago stud dogs need a little more of everything, because many people are coming to them with a bitch who needs help in one area or another. So I typically like my boys to be big dogs. I like them to have really good structure, and strong angulation front and rear. Occasionally there are dogs who aren’t real strong in one part or another but their pedigree allows them to produce well regardless. You just have to either know that, be willing to take that chance, or understand that the dog is strong enough everywhere else and it will work with your bitch. Ask the stud dog owner, they should be able to tell you honestly.
The GSD people have a great expression: They want to see a stallion of a dog. I love that, and I agree. I want a dog with presence. I want a dog that there is just no question he thinks he is the best of the best, or at least the best on that piece of ground where he is standing that moment. Hahaha. What I mean by that is the same kind of thing horse people feel when they see a great racehorse--they take your breath away. I don’t mean one that has to be wagging like crazy and jumping all over. Some dogs just have a little “more” of everything, and they can’t help but catch your eye. Those are the dogs I like, because it often means they also have a confident, biddable temperament, and that is every bit as important as great structure.
Clearances aren’t controversial, they’re just a part of breeding, I do them and work with the results I get. The DNA tests are cheap and easy and really pretty amazing. I have no problem breeding to carrier dogs because I know for a couple hundred bucks I can test all the puppies and know immediately what I have. Great dogs should never be disregarded because they are carriers, every bitch should be tested, too, so decisions are simply made accordingly. If your main goal is to only be breeding dogs 100% clear of every DNA test that is fine, but you will have to acknowledge that some other traits and characteristics will then become less of a priority and may suffer. Dogs have no problems having one copy of a gene, just test and breed accordingly. My goal is to always breed the best dogs I possibly can that are sound, healthy, beautiful, are trainable and have great temperaments. It is not easy! We are fortunate to have all the tools we do these days.
I never do a breeding just as a test, or for pets, or to see if one is fertile. I always try to do the best breeding I possibly can. I think anything else just trains you to accept mediocre, and the excuses start to pile up, and the kennels fill up with dogs not good enough to be shown but who you are waiting to grow up and get better or whatever. Don’t do that. It’s the surest way to kill quality in your kennel. Only breed the best and keep the best. It’s not fair to the dogs, anyway.
Another sure way to maintain mediocrity is to do breedings for emotional reasons. Sometimes you have a dog from the past you are trying to replicate, or you don't want to breed to a dog because everyone else is using him, or you don't want to breed to a dog or kennel because you compete against them and hold some resentment. You can do whatever you want, of course, but if you want to improve your kennel you need to breed to the best producing dog you can find. If you need a lot of improving, I wouldn't even worry about "matching," as in strengths and weaknesses. Just breed to a great dog and your quality will surely improve. Or come up with excuses and continue to struggle, it is your choice.
One final note is to consider if the dog you choose is owned by an experienced stud dog manager. If not, you run the risk that the semen won't arrive in good condition, or the dog can't be collected at all. Stud dogs need to be trained, because most often there is not a bitch in standing season readily available. If that is the only way the dog can be collected, that will mean shipping semen may not be possible on the days it is needed.
Picking stud dogs comes back to your ability to see quality and evaluate structure. Hopefully some of these articles can help you with that, but nothing takes the place of a good mentor. Choosing stud dogs from pictures on the internet isn't always reliable, either, as many talented photographers can make any dog look good. Look at win records. Breed to dogs who have won under judges you respect at shows with the best competition. If you still feel like you are struggling, don't wing it. Go to a breeder who consistently has good producing stud dogs and use them, they will be happy to help you.