How We Select Our Breeding Dogs and Why it Works
In 1998, under guidance from the veterinarians at the OFA, we instituted an aggressive program to lower the incidence of hip dysplasia in the dogs we produce. We had previously achieved results that were considerably better than average for hunting setters, but we were not satisfied with our overall rate of dysplasia. Based on our conversations with the OFA we realized that more substantial and rapid progress would require knowing the hip status of ALL the dogs we produce, not just potential breeding dogs, so at that time we began requiring preliminary OFA evaluations from our puppy buyers. This gives us critical information that allows us to select breeding dogs that produce better hips. The data also shows that we have been able to reduce our rate of dysplasia to an exceptionally low level.
Selecting for Polygenic Characteristics
Like most characteristics, hip dysplasia is inherited through multiple genes, which makes controlling it seem more complicated than it is. In reality the approach that works is straightforward, although not necessarily easy to do, and it’s based on sound genetic principles.
The challenge for the breeder is knowing how to select breeding dogs that have a high probability of improving the overall quality of the dogs he produces.
Typically breeding dogs are chosen based on their individual performance- pointing, retrieving, range, conformation, OFA certified hips, etc. Progress can be made this way, especially if their ancestors’ records are good, but it is not unusual for a very fine dog to produce mediocre offspring. An OFA certified dog that throws a high rate of dysplasia is a common example of this.
Evaluating a dog’s offspring is obviously the most reliable test of what it will produce, but until offspring information is available the most effective approach is to consider the qualities of its littermates and all close relatives. For virtually all characteristics that are desirable in a hunting dog, consistent quality is much more achievable if those close relatives, particularly the littermates, also exhibit these desired characteristics. This approach is not foolproof, nothing is, but it will greatly increase a breeder’s chances of improving the quality of his dogs. Improvement can often be made quickly this way, sometimes in only a few generations.
This selection process is easy to illustrate by looking at how to reduce hip dysplasia in a breeding program, but the principles apply to any characteristic that is inherited through more than one gene. As an example, if a particular dog is the only one from its litter that points birds, chances are at least a few of it’s pups will not point. If all its littermates have strong pointing instincts then its pups most likely will too.
Every breeding will produce a range of hip ratings in the pups. There may be outliers, but the majority of the pups will usually group mainly within a spread of one or two ratings. Exactly where that group lies along the spectrum of OFA ratings tells you a lot about the genetic makeup of dogs in the litter. For instance, if the ratings group mostly toward the middle of the spectrum they have been pulled that direction by dysplasia genes passed on by the sire and dam. On the other hand, if most of the pups are good or excellent they probably aren’t carrying many of the genes that cause dysplasia. The more pups you have evaluated, the more reliable this information is.
Looking at the hip ratings from a few hypothetical litters will help to illustrate this. As an example consider this graph of a litter of 8 pups with the following ratings:
|Litter #1- 2 Good, 4 Fair , 1 Borderline, 1 Mild
The ratings in this litter are centered around Fair, which indicates the dogs are carrying a number of dysplasia genes. Although the passing dogs would fall into the OFA’s general recommendation to choose breeding dogs from litters that produce at least 75% normal dogs, even the two with Good ratings are likely to be carrying a number of the genes that cause dysplasia. Lines that throw a lot of dysplasia typically also have a higher percentage of fairs among the OFA certified dogs. We would consider all of the dogs from this litter to be mediocre breeding prospects at best.
The following litter would be a vast improvement:
|Litter #2- 2 Excellent, 5 Good, 1 Fair
The ratings from this litter are centered around Good, and the dogs are unlikely to be carrying many dysplasia genes. This is the type of litter you want to choose breeding dogs out of. The dogs with Good and Excellent ratings are preferable, but even the Fair has a better chance of throwing a higher percentage of normal hips than the dogs from litter #1.
Consider this litter now:
|Litter #3- 3 Excellent, 4 Good, 1 Moderate
Despite the dysplastic dog this litter is far better than average. The Moderate is an outlier from the majority of the litter. Having a dysplastic dog in the litter is certainly a concern, but it doesn’t affect the breeding potential of the littermates as strongly in this case. The Good and Excellent rated dogs are likely to be good producers.
|Litter #4: 1 Excellent, 4 Fair, 2 Mild, 1 Moderate
In this case the Excellent dog is the outlier. Because the ratings in the litter group so far toward the dysplastic side, all of the passing dogs, including the one Excellent, are very likely to be poor producers. If you only x-rayed one dog from this litter odds are it would pass. Since you wouldn’t know the hip status of it’s littermates you might think you have a good breeding dog, especially if there were some OFA’s in it’s ancestry. This is an all too frequent situation. People often make the mistake of assuming that because a dog is OFA certified it won’t produce dysplasia in it’s offspring. A litter like this illustrates why OFA certified dogs can throw disappointing rates of dysplasia.
The goal of the breeder is to move the hip ratings in his litters so they group more and more consistently around Good and Excellent, which will result in fewer dysplastic pups. Selecting breeding dogs from litters like #2 and #3, would help achieve that goal. So would eliminating all dogs out of litters similar to #1 and #4 from the breeding program. Sires and dams that produce litters like these two are also questionable unless their record is much better when bred to different dogs.
It is impossible for a breeder to make informed decisions like this without knowing the hip status of a high percentage of his pups. If a breeder simply OFA certifies his individual dogs he may unwittingly select them from poor litters like #1 and #4, which could actually increase the rate of hip dysplasia he produces.
Examples Of Breedings
A study of the breedings behind October Prairie Smoke (below) shows how this approach has worked for us. She is out of our Sage x Bess breeding, which has a record for producing normal hips that as far as we are aware is unmatched in hunting English Setters. Having three plus generations of OFA certified ancestors in Smoke’s pedigree is helpful, but the strength of the breedings that produced her parents contributes much more to the hip strength in the Sage x Bess breeding. The combination of these two dogs was also particularly successful.
There is another breeding you can see in Smoke’s pedigree that does an even better job of demonstrating the effectiveness of sibling evaluation. The foundation female in our breeding program was October Mountain Holly, out of Ryman’s Blue Return x Ryman’s Orange Heather. Although none of Holly’s ancestors were OFA’d, she and 13 of her siblings were x-rayed and none were dysplastic, which identified Blue Return x Orange Heather as an exceptional breeding for hips. At that time there were very few OFA evaluated field English Setters, yet it was still possible to recognize the strength of those dogs by evaluating so many siblings. Multiple breeders had consistent results centering their programs around Ryman’s Blue Return x Ryman’s Orange Heather, proving how valuable sibling testing can be. Holly and her sister Ryman’s Blue Girl appear in Smoke’s pedigree, and two more of Holly’s sisters are ancestors of our current dogs.
October Prairie Smoke Pedigree
Sage’s breeding, October Mountain Cedar x Pine Coble Lacy, was a good outcross for us. There is one outlier, but the rest of the litter is solidly centered at Good. We used three dogs from the breeding with good hip results.
Bess’s breeding, October Holly’s Comet x October Wild Rose, was the first breeding of ours that was particularly strong for hips. 14 dogs from it were OFA evaluated and the only non-passing rating was a preliminary borderline. At that time there were very few breedings of hunting English Setters known to have a comparable record. Bess and two of her littermates appear in our current breeding dogs’ pedigrees.
The grouping of the hip ratings out of Sage x Bess was an obvious, substantial improvement, and dogs out of it were excellent breeding prospects.
Our Hip Record
Prior to 2002 we tried a number of breedings out of OFA certified dogs from various bloodlines, with inconsistent results. Some of the breedings were fine and we used dogs out of them, but many of them proved unsatisfactory and were eliminated. They either produced an unacceptable rate of hip dysplasia and/or other health problems, or we were not satisfied with the field performance. An example is October Mountain Cedar x October Amber. 8 dogs from the breeding had OFA evaluations- 1 Excellent, 3 Good, 2 Fair, and 2 Dysplastic. These dogs possessed many of the qualities we find desirable in a setter, but we chose not to use them due to the marginal hip results. All of our breedings from before 2002 that we felt were superior are represented in Smoke’s pedigree.
Litters born since 2002
Since 2002 we have been able to use breeding dogs selected from litters with hip ratings grouped well into the normal range. These dogs have either come from our own litters or from other breeders’ litters with similar sibling records. The results confirm the effectiveness of this selection process.
Hip results from October Setters litters born from 2002 to 2022
378 dogs from the litters have preliminary or final OFA evaluations:
365 normal, 9 dysplastic, 4 borderline
OFA ratings from the litters:
Final evaluations: 33 Excellent, 22 Good, 1 Fair, 2 HD
Preliminary evaluations*: 72 Excellent, 212 Good, 25 Fair, 4 Borderline, 7 HD
*Dogs must be at least 2 years old for final OFA evaluations. Depending on the rating and the age, preliminary OFA’s are 80% to 100% reliable in predicting whether a dog will pass or fail a final OFA. In our experience the final rating will usually be the same as the preliminary, however it is not uncommon for it to go up or down one rating. Borderlines are unclear and need to be re-evaluated later. They are slightly more likely to eventually pass than they are to fail. We have not yet had a dog pass a preliminary evaluation and fail later but it can happen, most likely with a Fair. The biggest change we have seen in our dogs is a preliminary Mild that later passed with a final Good.
Preliminary results from dogs under 12 months of age are not made available to the public on the OFA’s web site. We are happy to provide a complete list that includes the names of the dogs from all of our litters listed above, their preliminary OFA study numbers, and all other orthopedic records. Please email a request if you would like to see it.