The Fun of Finding a Good Performance Dog Breeder

I've always loved both corgi breeds and when I originally set out to get my first corgi it was suggested I get a Cardigan as they are typically more laid-back. I wanted to go full-throttle so I got a Pembroke. Bernie was quite an adventure for a first-time dog owner. She still keeps me on my toes thinking ahead and taught me a lot as a dog trainer.

My second corgi came from the same breeder and we got a gorgeous male tri-color. He is laid-back but loves to play. He makes the perfect combination for a consistent agility dog. He learns things pretty quickly and loves to play agility even when he's tired. I'm lucky he also likes water so much that we've had some fun learning dock diving too.

The last month or so, while preparing Basil for competition later this year, the inkling of a Cardigan puppy has kept popping into my mind. One Sunday afternoon on a whim I did a bit of research and e-mailed a few breeders to get some feelers out there. I found a good one that fit way more than my usual criteria and may end up getting a puppy from her later this year if the breeding goes as planned.

I wanted to share what my process is for finding a good performance dog breeder since it is a bit more robust than the typical pet dog owner looking for a breeder.
  • I will only go with a breeder that does extensive health and genetic checks.
    • This will include checks on hips, elbows, eyes, knees, thyroid, cardiac, spine and degenerative myelopathy. For some people this may be complete overkill but I want my agility dog to have the potential to run with me for years and be very sound. For hips, elbows and knees I prefer a breeder to do both an OFA check and a PENN-HIP check as one seems to catch things that the other might miss since they are tested differently.
    • Dogs must test OFA Good or Excellent in the breeding program for me to consider getting puppies from that litter. I don't agree with breeders that breed dogs that rate OFA fair or worse, especially for performance dogs.
  • I will only go with a breeder that understands the importance of socialization at an early age.
    • The Early Neurological Simulation program is very important and useful for agility dogs that need to learn how to deal with walking on different surfaces, hearing different sounds and coping with stressful situations.
    • Socialization needs to begin at the breeders home before the puppy even goes to the owner. The puppy should come into contact with as many strange men, women and children as safely possible prior to arriving at the new owners home. Puppies should be exposed to new situations on a daily basis (sheep, loud cars, men shouting during a football game, bicycles, playing children, cats, horses, grocery stores, etc.). Breeders that take the time to do this are giving new owners an INVALUABLE asset in the new puppy that can never be trained later in life. Puppies socialized at an early age have an easier time dealing with new or scary situations than puppies that were kept in sterile environments the first 8 weeks of life.
  • I will only go with a breeder that understands the disposition needed for a good agility (or other performance event) dog
    • Attitude is everything. If the puppy isn't motivated to tug or take food it is going to be difficult to train agility. You need lots of drive in the puppy to keep going on a course. Performance dogs tend to be very smart and want to explore everything. They typically tend to be one of the more outgoing dogs of the litter.
    • You want to make sure the breeder has a temperament testing program in place so she can decide which puppy would be more suited towards performance in the venue you want to compete in. A puppy for agility may rate completely differently on a temperament test than a puppy for obedience. A good breeder will be able to observe the puppies and tell the difference.
    • Some breeders use the Volhard Temperament Test to assess the dogs.
  • I will only go with a breeder that shows her own breeding stock in conformation or another venue
    • A breeder that understands good conformation is important. If the breeder doesn't show her dogs that should always be a warning sign for a buyer looking for a performance dog.
    • Bonus points to breeders that do conformation along with other sports like obedience, herding, agility, tracking, etc.
    • As far as agility goes, titles are not as important as course run times. You should ask for course run times and compare them to other Cardigans that regularly place highly in national and invitational competitions to get an idea where their breeding stock is. Titles come in second after speed. Ultimately you want the combination of a fast, consistent dog and not all dogs have both.
  • I will only go with a breeder that understands the build necessary for a healthy performance dog
    • Agility dogs are usually built a bit differently than conformation dogs. You want a sleek, fast dog. Some conformation dogs are heavier boned and muscled than what would be safe for a performance dog. Angulation and layback are important for a breeder to understand and recognize in a puppy what will be healthy in the long-term and what will not.
  • I will only go with a breeder that I have a good dialogue and rapport with.
    • This may seem obvious but situations crop up during breeding and sometimes you may have to take a puppy on a co-ownership contract with a breeder if it turns out the puppy is excellent. Breeders generally keep the best dogs of the litter for themselves. Occasionally they will sell the puppy and request that the owner keep the dog or bitch intact so they can look at it as it gets a bit older and see if it looks good enough to continue in their breeding program. If you have a good relationship with a breeder this will be a great opportunity for you. Co-ownership comes with it's own set of challenges so I would caution that you should only do this if you really trust the breeder you are co-owning with in case decisions have to be made to neuter a dog due to behavioral or health problems.
A great article was written detailing what to look for in an agility Cardigan. It has pictures so you can visualize what to get and what to avoid. :)

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Comment by Joanna Kimball on April 10, 2010 at 12:41am
I DO believe in health testing. Everything here is hip-checked, CERFed, I do thyroid, I've looked at spines, etc. I've taken dogs to UPenn for PennHIP; I've taken them to Tufts for OFA and PennHIP and heart echoes. I've had long discussions with at least three orthopedic surgeons while looking at my own dogs' x-rays, and I've discussed hips and spines and so on with many more GP vets. I'm a testing nut.

That's pretty much why I don't have any false expectations about what the tests mean. The heritability of the OFA-assessed hip conformation is not statistically much different from zero - meaning that parental influence on OFA-type hip evals is close to nil. Heritability of DI is a little better but we don't know what DI means in this breed (where the cut-off is between pain and no pain). Cardiac testing is really in its infancy in terms of usefulness - it can diagnose an existing condition but we're really kind of flailing around trying to connect what we can see (or not see) via echo, Holter, enzyme testing, etc. to either genetic or idiopathic future conditions.

You are absolutely within your rights as a buyer to insist on whatever tests make you comfortable. Some breeders agree with you; others do not. What I don't want you to do is think that the testing will do a whole heck of a lot to influence how your own puppy is going to turn out or live; that's the kind of thing that makes buyers get mad at breeders and breeders feel like failures when there's nothing they could have done. When we test we're putting data points on the wall; we aren't even to the point of seeing the picture yet, much less understanding how to influence it in the correct direction. You test to add to the data, not because it (yet) changes anything at all.

You're right that I don't request that buyers x-ray their puppies; for one thing, it's a huge amount of money (in this area probably $300 per view) and for another, I'm just not sure how useful it would be. If I see a puppy who is morbidly obese at six months and he fails his hips, all I've learned is what I already knew, which is that obesity causes major hip problems.

I do understand where you're coming from; I've bought a lot of puppies. When I was getting into the breeding end of things I really, really wanted to see those numbers. The hip numbers, the eye numbers, the temperament test numbers, speed numbers, number of champions produced, the height and weight and frick and frack. I love the numbers, I still do, I keep track of them all, but when I see a slow YPS on a dog being run by a 70-year-old with cancer it's a very different thing than a dog being run by a 22-year-old in $300 running spikes who just finished giving her dog a glycogen dose and has the maltodextrin shake waiting at the end of the course. This breed is not like BCs, where there are a TON to choose from and they're being run by the top trainers in the world, and their body type lends itself to agility almost automatically (they're very close in structure to a coyote, so their bodies actually want to grow the right way, unlike these little dwarfed dogs whose bodies want to grow the wrong way and it's really tough to breed them well). There are a lot of really great cardis being "ruined" by their handlers, who don't train well, don't handle well, are slow, etc., and there are many more who will never be run competitively at all.

I'll write to you privately about the breeder.
Comment by MagnoliaFly on April 9, 2010 at 9:37pm
I know you don't believe in extensive health testing, I read it in your other post about "bad websites for breeders". Personally I feel more comfortable going with a breeder that does a moderate to high amount of health checks on the breeding stock prior to breeding over the breeder that might do an OFA on the hips and that be it. It is important to me that the breeder keeps track of the puppies in the litter and request the new owners get a prelim and perm OFA rating in their new home so they can be registered in the records. You are right - an OFA Good to an OFA good can turn out pups with terrible hips but if they don't track the puppies after the breeding how do they know?

Course times AND consistency is what I said. If a person doesn't care about doing fast venues like NADAC then they can skip the speed portion and just go for consistency. For me, I know I may eventually compete in venues that post low qualifying times and will need a speedy dog to get through it to Q. Gotta beat those terriers for placement ribbons too. :)

I'm sure I'm picky and I certainly don't know everything about Cardigan breeding - still learning something new every day. Just trying to be as careful as possible. I do appreciate your imput though and I've learned a lot through your posts. Always useful to have food for thought and a different point of view based on experience (that I don't have yet).

Are you good friends with the Pecan Valley kennel breeder? I put in an application with her and never heard back. I know some breeders won't contact you if you aren't referred directly to them by someone they know, was hoping that wasn't the case there.
Comment by Joanna Kimball on April 9, 2010 at 7:43pm
I know it's really tempting to think that a ton of health checks is going to get you a healthier puppy, but it doesn't work that way. Health tests are OBSERVATION, not PREDICTION, except in a very few cases.

About 30% of Cardigans are going to be absolutely flat-out dysplastic, and the others would fail if they were any other breed. The median DI in this breed (how far the hip moves out of the socket during the PennHIP exam) is .62 or close to it. That would be considered not just a fail but a complete disaster in a non-dwarfed breed. Based on that DI, the overwhelming majority of Cardigans "should" be clinically arthritic and painful. The fact that they're not means that we honestly don't understand even how to define dysplasia in this breed, much less where the cutoff for a healthy (non-painful) hip should be.

In terms of breeding Fairs - Cardi breeders sigh with huge relief and celebrate when they get a Fair.

I've never - NEVER - heard of a litter of Cardigans where everybody scored Good or Excellent, which is what you're talking about. You can get a Good dog and breed it to an Excellent (very rarely), but I guarantee you that at least one littermate of one or both partners either did get Fair or failed hips or would have gotten a Fair or failed if tested. If somebody actually had an entire litter (of six or eight, a normal-sized litter) where every grown dog was tested and everybody got a Fair or above they would be falling all over themselves and the rest of us would have our mouths open. Finding two such dogs? Who are actually good conformational partners for each other?

Thyroid and cardiac only reveal the state of the dog at that moment. They do NOT reveal whether the dog will drop dead the next day, and they do not tell whether the dog will pass along or produce a cardiac or thyroid illness. Using cardiac and thyroid tests requires a deep understanding of the health problems in the breed (Boxers have a completely different set of heart problems than Danes, for example) and even then you're giving your best guess. I knew a beautiful dog who had his heart ultrasounded every year or two for his entire life, never showed any problems, finished his championship, was a top agility dog, was bred to a lot of bitches, made the Hall of Fame, and then died of cardiomyopathy. He's one of MANY similar stories. Since in Cardigans we don't have known cardiac issues, most don't echo hearts and I agree that there's no real need to.

If you're going to ask for thyroid testing, you need to see a thyroid test done when the dog is young and you need a negative TgAA. "Passing" a circulating thyroid hormone test means nothing. You need a negative TgAA done in youth (under age two or three). Once you have that, the picture gets muddy again. TgAA leading to autoimmune hypothyroidism is not just genetic; it's linked to vaccination, the use of large-molecule insecticides (like ivermectin), stress, etc. Again, I don't know very many Cardi breeders who are routinely doing thyroid testing.

Spine - we don't have any way to assess spinal health in Cardigans, not really. Some people look to see if there's calcification, but we don't have any idea whether early calcification in the breed means a higher likelihood of IVDD or not, and we don't know if absence of calcification means the dog will last more than six minutes after they walk out of the clinic and then fall as they try to jump into the car.

You CAN get a beautifully socialized Cardigan who is built to work, and I am glad you're insisting on that. I am a nut about drivey puppies myself and I get them tugging at four weeks. I never correct tugging or herding and I'm thrilled when I am surrounded by a seething pack of six-week-old puppies who are all trying to turn me. So I totally applaud that goal.

Be careful about course times, though. The Cardis I know who are posting the fastest YPS are NOT the ones I'd be buying a puppy from. Training methods, contacts, and so on - we don't have a lot of the fastest trainers working with Cardigans and most of the breeders playing in agility are the middle-aged ones who don't want dogs to get too far ahead of them! Consistency and drive, and healthy construction, are what I'd personally look at.
Comment by MagnoliaFly on April 9, 2010 at 1:02pm
I agree it is not a guarantee. Some breeders are dishonest and will take many x-rays of the hips until they get a good one to submit to OFA. This is why I think a breeder than does both PENN-HIP and OFA is important because there are two different types of x-rays done so you get a comparison between ratings.

It stacks the odds in your favor but it is never a 100% guarantee.
Comment by Alice on April 9, 2010 at 12:09pm
It's always nice to hear that the breeding pair have great hip scores but in the long run this is not a guarantee. Finnigan's parents scored well, in fact his father had excellent hips, but Finn ended up with dysplasia none the less.

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