The basic tool kit for responsible breeders – Malcolm B. Willis

Our most grateful thanks to George Packard who allowed us to publish this interview.

DC (Institute for Genetic Disease Control)

[GDC Copyright 2003. For permission to reprint this article contact]

GDC Interview
June 2001 [Updated 4/12]

Interview by George Packard
NOTE: Dr. Willis died in 2011.

Malcolm B. Willis, BSc, PhD:
“The basic tool kit for responsible breeders”

Dr. Willis was a visiting senior lecturer (semi-retired) in Animal Breeding and  Genetics, Faculty of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, The University,  Newcastle upon Tyne. He died in 2011. He was involved with German Shepherds since 1953  as a fancier and a breeder, and his wife Helen breeds Bernese Mtn. Dogs.  He judged German Shepherds since 1959 and Bernese Mtn. Dogs since1991.  He served as chairman of the German Shepherd Council and president of the  Northern Bernese Mtn. Dog Club. He was made an Honorary Associate of the Royal  College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1996 and analyzed hip score data for the British  Veterinary Association.
Dr. Willis’ books include:

The German Shepherd Dog, a genetic history; 1991 (HF & G Witherbys, London) ISBN 0-85493-207-0

The Bernese Mtn. Dog Today 1998 Ringpress, Lydney ISBN 1-86054-084-8

Practical Genetics for Dog Breeders.1992. HF & G Witherbys, London ISBN 0-85493-218-6

“Genetics of the Dog” (H.F.& G. Witherby Ltd,) ISBN 0-85493-176-7.

GDC: In the U.K. you publish hip and elbow evaluations openly, and provide  that data on a sire’s progeny so that breeders can make decisions based on  the quality of his puppies. How does that work? 

Willis: In the UK and in other European countries there are evaluation schemes,  usually run by the kennel club, a veterinary group and/or breed clubs. In  Britain the British Veterinary Association/Kennel Club hip scoring scheme  allows any dog aged 12 months or more to have its hips “scored.” Scoring  involves eight radiographic features on a scale of zero to six and one on a  scale of zero to five so that a dog can score from 0/0 (ideal) to 53/53  (worst). The worst breed average is the Cumber spaniel at about 42, and the  best is the Siberian Husky at about six. A similar scheme exists for testing  elbows (scale 0-3) and also for testing for various eye diseases, but I am involved  officially only in the hip scheme.

We publish sire figures, and, when a breed asks me, I publish records of  what is happening in the breed. As soon as a dog through our scheme has ten  progeny that we have scored, we publish data showing: (1) how many progeny he  got; (2) how many mothers they were out of (the more the better); (3) what  the best and worst progeny were; (4) the mean progeny score and how the scores were distributed in  the progeny.
When I’ve got a dog I’m interested in, I would look at siblings, and I would  get as many of them scored as possible. But once I start having enough progeny, I  can throw away the siblings, I can throw away the dog’s own score, and I can  throw away the pedigree. If the progeny are poor, end of story. If they are  good, carry on. I find a lot of good-hipped dogs who produce poor progeny,  but I have never yet found a bad-hipped dog whose progeny record was  wonderful. In other words if the dog is bad, stop using him now.

If we take a breed like Newfoundlands, for example, in the last 20   years  they’ve made an improvement of about 0.73 points per year. Now that may not seem  like a lot, but it means they’ve gone down from an average score of 37 to an  average score of 22. When we publish sire data in that breed we have some  who are producing mean hip scores for their progeny of around 8 compared with the  breed average in the 20s. And we have also sires who are producing averages of  around 43.

Q: So a sire who is producing poor quality hips in progeny will be known to everybody?

A: That’s how it works. Peer pressure forces many breeders to hip score and  take note of the results. And there is no question that once I publish those  progeny data, the stud careers of some of these dogs are markedly affected.  And there’s not much a stud owner can do about it. Because even if he stops  sending his own results in, he cannot stop people who’ve used his dog from  sending in their results.

Now for example, one top winning German Shepherd has a hip score of 13 which  is better than breed average. But the average in his progeny is  30-something. As soon as that became obvious, his stud career has gone down  the tube. Now, he’s still being used, because people say “I don’t give a damn,  such a lovely dog, I’m going to use him anyway.” But he isn’t getting used  like he would have been if he were producing good hips.

Of course, you’ve got to weigh hip and elbow status alongside the other  merits of the dog. A Bernese Mtn. Dog with excellent hips and elbows but  with a very poor character may not be worth using for breeding. In contrast,  a dog with less than excellent hips, but with outstanding merit and  character may be worth using if mated to a carefully chosen mate.

Q: Your book, “Genetics of the Dog,” seems to be on the must-read list of  many responsible breeders. So, in addition to buying your book, what does a  person need to know to become a good dog breeder? 

A: In my view, the first need is to know history. If one does not know  history one is forced to repeat it. Read all you can on your breed. That  will include some books that are rubbish and some that are good. You have to  learn to sort wheat from chaff, and you also have to start to put facts and  figures to dogs. Breed surveys , if you’re lucky enough to find one that has  been done on your breed, are also a very valuable source of information.
Then you have to start putting flesh on the names in your dog’s pedigree or  in the pedigrees of dogs you are seeing at shows and other events . You need  to go to events and sit at the feet of some expert (if you can find one) to  learn about the breed as it is. Going to a show is not enough if you spend  it in the bar or just watching dogs go around without seeing what makes one  better than another.

Ask questions and listen to answers, trying always to sort the relevant from  the useless. Do not become hidebound by specific ideas; question everything,  even what I’m saying and what I write in my books. Think about everything,  digest it, discuss it and ask more questions. Always try to learn and  advance your understanding of the breed.

More than anything, what breeders have to do is breed for themselves and to  further the breed in general. They should only breed a litter when they want  to carry on the line, and not because they need to update their car, etc.  And from that first litter forward, a breeder also has to keep complete  records on his dogs, and make contracts with his puppy buyers so that he  will look after the dogs he brings into the world. A breeder who has no  interest in rescue of what he has produced is of no value to anyone, and of  even less value to his breed.

As a responsible breeder you need to work with others, you need to  collaborate towards the same ideal, so that the number of good quality  breeding animals is increased. You also have an obligation to learn as much  as possible about the genetics of animal breeding because that is what you  are going to indulge in. You need to know basic genetics because you must  put your dogs through the necessary schemes (screening and evaluation of  hips/eyes/elbows, etc.) as appropriate.

Breeders need to understand how to select for simple recessive (single gene)  traits and polygenic traits like hip dysplasia. They also need to understand  the concept of heritability. With polygenic traits, if the heritability is  very low (litter size, for example, has low heritability), then little  progress results from direct selection because the performance of an  individual is not a good guide to his breeding merit. With high  heritabilities (hip dysplasia has a relatively high heritability), progress  is better because the animal’s performance is a good guide to breeding  merit.

Even so, you must not breed only by the numbers. A good breeder goes about  the job with a set aim of trying to produce functional dogs that approximate  to the ideal. I see breeders who cannot see beyond a head or a light eye or  a good set of hips. Such breeders are doomed to failure because they do not  look at the whole dog.

And you’ve always got to try to select stock that is not only much better  than the breed average, but much better than your kennel average. If you  breed from parents that are better than average, their progeny will be  better than average, but not, on average, as good as their parents. If you  breed from parents that are worse than average, their progeny will also be  worse than average, but not, on average, as poor as the parents. There is,  in effect, a pull towards the mean. And that’s why it can be so hard to  improve the breed.

Finally, all breeders will produce defects if they breed long enough. Those  who tell you that they do not produce defects have either stopped breeding,  breed hardly at all or are being economical with the truth. There is no  crime in producing a defect. The crime, if any, lies in what you do about a  defect. If you bury yours quickly and keep quiet about it, and I do the same  with mine, then sooner or later we may use each other’s dogs and pay the  penalty for not having been honest with one another and with the breed we  probably profess to love.

In simple terms, breeding is all about selecting the best and then mating  the best to the best. “Best” is a relative term and to a great many breeders  best is what they happen to own. Sometimes they are correct in that  assumption but more often than not they are wrong because they are not  critical enough of their own stock.

You have to distinguish clearly between the pick of the litter and the best  breeding material. Many breeders are quite capable of deciding which is the  best puppy in a litter. Things can certainly go wrong with hips, mouths or  other features between 8 weeks and adulthood but nonetheless pick of the  litter is not very difficult to find given some experience of the breed and the  bloodlines. The difficulty is in deciding whether pick of litter is an  outstanding dog in breed terms. The pick in a litter may be little more than  an ordinary dog when assessed against the breed standard. Breeding, if it is  to be successful, requires the breeder to be able to distinguish between  ordinary dogs and outstanding ones and, ideally, to be able to do this quite  early in the dog’s life.

Mating dogs is not dog breeding. It is the reproduction of dogs. A breeder should be seeking to mate the right dogs in the right way so that he  produces the ideal (or as near to it as possible) in his kennels. That is  only feasible if the breeder knows what the ideal is.


Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals (GDC)


In 1990 a group including veterinarians, scientists, dog breeders and owners created the Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals (GDC) as the first national and international open registry for canine genetic diseases. The GDC registry was modeled after the Swedish open registry for canine hip dysplasia that contributed to a significant reduction in that disease in Sweden during the 1980s.

GDC expanded its registries to include nearly 30 genetic diseases. In 2002 GDC merged all of its data bases with OFA except the Eye and Tumor registries. Like GDC, OFA now encourages owners to choose to openly share information about affected dogs and unaffected dogs on their website to give breeders the best information possible for making good breeding decisions.

George Packard is director of GDC, a non-profit organization devoted to providing information and special open registry services to help reduce the prevalence of canine genetic disease. In 2002 GDC closed its open registry and merged its databases with the online databases at Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.