A lovely talk with Dr Meg Howe who has been breeding Miniature Schnauzers for over two decades. Because she also is a vet, she brings in an interesting point of you on what dog breeding is and should be, and how to produce healthy puppies in order to diminish hereditary conditions. A very interesting interview, enjoy every word of it!
Q: Please introduce yourself and your dog breeding activity
I’m Dr Meg Howe and have been a registered breeder of Miniature Schnauzers since 1991. Though I was already a qualified veterinarian back then, I was still studying for my post graduate degree (I researched the relationship between people and dogs) and suddenly found myself separated with three small children under my wing and little income. When my oldest son was bullied at school, I decided to move him to a private school, and started as a dog breeder to finance his school fees. It is an easy venture to finance. All you need is the money for your first girl. If all goes well, her puppies will pay for the acquisition of more. And so I began, with just one bitch.
As I didn’t know better at the time, I allowed her to be handed over way too young – just 5 weeks old – so she was poorly socialised to other dogs and was a nightmare to mate. However, I persevered and gradually expanded to two girls and a boy which suited my then suburban environment. To be sure they get the early socialisation they need to be great dogs I prefer to start with puppies. However my current boy, Jet, was a two year old rescue, and has turned out to be a fantastic stud boy who has lovely babies with beautiful temperaments. When I choose a new stud dog, I look for a pedigree free of inbreeding (or line breeding – same thing), and if that’s fine, try to get a puppy from as large a litter as possible. Fertility, litter size and longevity are all good indicators of vigour in a line, strengths I want to perpetuate in my own lines.
Q: Dr Meg Howe, do you see dog breeding as a business, a hobby or both?
Today the money derived from dog breeding is no longer as important, but I adore dogs and puppies and the joy they bring into people’s lives, so I’ve been hooked on it ever since.
Some breeders say that if you are making money out of breeding dogs, then you aren’t doing it right. That makes me laugh! Even with genetic testing and screening costs, you’d have to be consistently unlucky to make a loss if you are being sensible: choose a healthy breed in the first place, exercise your dogs daily, and feed them a natural, raw meaty bone-based diet. Such a diet is not only healthier than the expensive, over-processed (and over-priced) dry biscuits out there, but also much cheaper. It’s not rocket science folks. In all the years as a breeder my dogs have shown great fertility and vigour, and I’ve never had even one caesarean – and that speaks for itself. And you don’t need to worry about keeping costs down if you focus on raising the value of your puppies to your buyers, which I will talk about more a bit later.
My partner Graeme and I only have four to five dogs – a stud and three to four girls – so didn’t really consider it more than a hobby until recently. However, the care and preparation we put into the puppies has placed them in heavy demand, so they are priced accordingly with a long waiting list, and we do make a healthy income even out of these few (and it’s so much fun too!). We have another part time business we run from home which makes us ideally placed to raise puppies.
Q: Why falling in love with Mini Schnauzers and not with an other breed?
Why Mini Schnauzers? Well, as a veterinarian I am keenly aware of the health issues that can plague dogs. Some breeds are inherently unhealthy simply by design – the squashed-faced dogs have trouble with exercise tolerance, coping with heat, and can’t even chew their food properly. Those with short wonky legs are predisposed to orthopaedic problems like slipped discs and torn cruciate ligaments. Dogs like these often have trouble even mating and giving birth naturally, which is another good reason not to choose to breed them. So when I was deciding on which breed it had to first and foremost be mechanically sound, which ruled out a lot.
The large breeds have short lives and are prone to bone cancer. The tiny breeds are just too delicate to suit the average robust family with kids. So it had to be a small to medium sized breed. With current environmental pressures and so many people hungry in the world, smaller is more ethical – they eat less and thus have less impact on the planet. They make smaller messes, need smaller doses of medication, and can be picked up to get them out of trouble. That narrowed it down to a dog around 20 pounds.
The final deciding factor was shedding. A lot of people are sensitive to dog dander and no-one likes cleaning dog hair off car upholstery. The Miniature Schnauzer ticked all the boxes. Plus I like the way it looks and the cheeky character. They are not for everyone, but still enjoy pretty good popularity and therefore demand for puppies.
Q: What improvements do you want to bring in the breed?
Like every pure breed, they have their share of genetic diseases. Every week I hear of someone with a Miniature Schnauzer whose life was cut short by a serious and debilitating inherited disease. It’s bad for the dog and it’s devastating for their owners, both emotionally and financially. All my puppies are sold with a lifetime 100% money back guarantee against the development of serious heritable illnesses. Steering clear of inbreeding is what gives me the confidence to do that, and that in turn makes people confident about buying one of my puppies.
Miniature Schnauzers are also renown for being a pretty reactive breed. So we raise them in the house with us and give them a lot of handling, plus expose them to lots of visitors. Then we educate all our owners on the importance of continuing the socialisation from the moment they get them home. All our pups are conditioned to toilet outside, sleep in crates and chew Kong Toys, further benefiting our owners. According to our customers, our focus on the owner, and friendly, open and helpful approach, puts us way above most other breeders out there. Seems it’s not that hard to be the best. Because we have a long waiting list, people in a hurry for a puppy are sent our tips on how to safely buy from someone else. Many become frustrated by the difficulty of discussing their needs with other breeders and end up coming back to us.
Q: What about building yourself a solid reputation and finding the right clients?
Finding buyers is the easy bit. For many years I have had my own content-rich website about Miniature Schnauzers and it continues to bring in a lot of inquiries. We also get many word-of-mouth recommendations, as well as people coming back to us to get a second dog. It was all ticking along nicely until I started a Facebook page last year and things went ballistic! People get to see photos and updates about my puppies from my owners and its word-of-mouth on steroids. We are now hopelessly oversubscribed with buyers despite raising our prices to about double the industry norm.
I like Schnauzer people. One of the great things about Miniature Schnauzers is the quality of the owners they attract: thoughtful, intelligent people whose careful research has led them to the breed. Even so, before I allow anyone to join my list they must affirm their commitment to exercise their dog daily, as well as confirm their long term living situation is compatible with providing a stable home environment for the life of the dog.
In the early days I allowed my owners to choose their own puppies on a first in, first choice basis. I soon became dissatisfied with this because most people, I discovered, are terrible at choosing a puppy. For example, one lovely elderly couple who would have been best suited to a gentle, well balanced and quieter dog, chose the puppy that bowled up and bit the old man on the hand. Like many old people, his skin was paper thin and he bled all over its head, and said “I’ve marked that one, so we’ll take him!” Another mom with her little kids spent over an hour trying to choose on the basis of how curly the hair was, and whether it had a little white star on its chest or not, then phoned to change her mind on her way home. It was just too random and I lay awake worrying about the poor matches that sometimes resulted and my puppies’ prospects of enjoying a forever home with their owners.
The most important factor in every case should have been temperament. So I decided to allocate the puppies myself. After all, as breeders we get to see them when they’re awake and actively interacting with us, and each other, day in and day out for weeks. Every experienced breeder knows that puppies are born with their own individual personality that is part of the dog all its life: extrovert or introvert, bold or submissive, energetic or calm, social or independent. Because I aspire for all my puppies to be a great match for their new families, I do my best to place the bold, energetic, extroverts with the experienced, energetic owners who will enjoy the extra character that such dogs possess, and not with new owners or people with very small children who would be overwhelmed by it.
I’m aware that some studies suggest that puppy tests carried out at 7 weeks are not reliable predictors of adult personality. I think what they are really saying is some tests (fear based ones in particular) are less reliable than others, plus of course that subsequent rearing by its owner also exerts a significant influence on shaping how a dog will turn out. So it’s important to me that I educate my owners to pay great attention to their own role in their puppy’s development and carry on the good start I have given them. Over the years I’ve tried and tested various puppy personality tests and have now developed a suite of procedures that are easy to carry out and, based on owner feedback, appear to be good indicators of future temperament. This will be available publicly later in 2015.
Q: Any advice you would give to newcomers in the modern dog breeding industry?
The greatest advice I would give to aspiring dog breeders is set out to be the best you can be. Read all you can about breeding and keep an open mind! There are a lot of strong opinions out there, but not all are based on science and common sense. And start out by choosing an innately healthy breed with behaviours that suit modern society. I’ve put together a free breed quiz based on current scientific findings (not out-dated old breed books like the others out there), available at the link below. Leave the hyper-active, squished faced or wonky-legged breeds to their die-hard enthusiasts, not for populating the community with intrinsically maladjusted or disease-prone dogs.
When you breed puppies that will become people’s treasured pets, you have a huge responsibility to do all you can to ensure they will live long and healthy lives, be well suited to the homes they go to, and be mentally prepared for life with people. I know firsthand that there is a massive demand for puppies purposefully reared to be wonderful canine companions – not inbred or line bred – and reared as part of the family so their early socialisation is off to a good start. I believe all puppies should be raised with this level of attention to producing a happy, healthy and compatible pet and I’m on a crusade to lift the standard of dog breeding in general. Society’s expectations and perceptions of breeders is changing, and demanding that we too change. Any breeder or breed association that is unwilling to move with the times is destined to go the way of the dinosaur.
The right puppy can add infinite joy to the homes that adopt them; the wrong one can bring untold grief, stress and misery. I believe as breeders, for the welfare of dogs and their people, we need to raise the bar on what we do. Helping people find their perfect match in a dog is my passion and led me last year to interview the world’s best dog experts to produce “A Dogumentary” video to guide people toward their ideal canine companion. It will be released in April 2015. I am also currently developing tools to help people find their “Perfect Match Puppy”, available at http://www.PerfectMatchPuppy.com, and will be launching a puppy listing site for better breeders later in 2015.