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Selective Breeding In Dogs: Definition, Ethics & More

Nicole Cosgrove

Today, there are nearly 400 official breeds recognized by various organizations, and that doesn’t even include all designer dogs, mutts, or dogs on the street. Where did all these dogs come from?

Most of these purebred breeds and designer dogs came about from selective breeding, but what exactly does this mean? Do we still do it today? Why or why not? Is it ethical?

In this article, we are going to answer all those questions and more. Let’s get started.

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Key Terms to Know

Before we jump into the science of selective breeding, here is a list of important terms to know. These terms will be referred to at different points in this article. We will recap what these words mean when they are first introduced, but you can always scroll back up here if you need further explanation.

  • Bloodline: A set of dogs that all share some blood and similar traits over more than one generation.
  • Fix traits: Pick two parents with complementary traits for breeding so that future generations have those same traits.
  • Gene pool: All the potential genetic material for an entire population or breed.
  • Inbreeding: Breeding two dogs that are too closely related.
  • Inheritable conditions: Conditions that can be passed from the parent to the puppy via genetics; hip dysplasia, allergies, etc.
  • Natural breeding: Dogs choose to mate without any human intervention.
  • Popular sire effect: When a single sire is requested by many breeders, resulting in future generations with similar genetics.
  • Remove traits: Pick two parents with complementary traits for breeding so that a certain unwanted trait is removed from the gene pool.
  • Reinforcement: Pick two parents with similar skills for breeding so that the skillset is reinforced in the puppy; often used for police dogs, hunting dogs, etc.
  • Selective breeding: Dogs breed or mate with human intervention; this can be done through physical mating or artificial insemination.
  • True breeding: Breeding two purebred dogs to create purebred puppies.
French White and Black Hound dogs
Image Credit: slowmotiongli, Shutterstock

Selective Breeding in Dogs: Explained

Selective breeding is when people selectively choose which dogs will mate to produce puppies that meet their expected desires or wants. In other words, the human dictates the breeding so that certain traits, diseases, or characteristics are fixed or removed in the offspring. Selective breeding contrasts to natural breeding, which is when the dogs choose when, where, and with whom they mate.

Dogs naturally breed to fulfill an instinctual desire to produce, but selective breeding is normally done for a different purpose. As a result, selective breeding includes selecting a mate and controlling the timing with a particular purpose or trait in mind.

Reasons People Choose Selective Breeding in Dogs

There are quite a few reasons why people opt for selectively breeding dogs.

To Breed Purebreds

Some people practice true breeding, which is when the breeder mates two purebreds to create purebred puppies. True breeding normally happens when a buyer is either a fan of a specific breed or wants to show the dog at competitions.

Border collie family
Image Credit: Eric Isselee, Shutterstock

To Add or Remove Traits from the Population

More so, another breeder might try to fix traits or remove traits to produce the healthiest or most capable dog. On the one hand, fixing traits is whenever you mate two dogs with the same genes so that its descendants are likely to have those genes as well. On the other hand, removing traits is whenever you breed two dogs without a certain trait so that the generations after don’t have it either.

As you would expect, traits are often removed whenever they are harmful or not ideal for a specific purpose. For example, a breeder might remove traits that relate to inheritable conditions.

To Reinforce Certain Traits

People selectively breed dogs to reinforce certain traits too. As you likely know, certain dogs are bred for particular reasons, such as hunting, herding, or other purposes. For these sorts of dogs, they are bred so that the ideal traits remain.

Here are some examples of traits that are often reinforced through selective breeding:

  • Speed
  • Reflexes
  • Stamina
  • Strong senses
  • Trainability
  • Size
  • Strength
  • Low gravity
  • Agreeableness

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How Does Selective Breeding Work?

Understanding what selective breeding is and why people do it is rather straightforward, but how exactly does it work? We will have to take a brief biology lesson to find out. If you have ever taken a biology course, some of these words and phrases may sound familiar.

Genes Encode Certain Information

As you probably know, our genes are what make us who we are in a lot of ways. For example, your hair color, eye color, and certain health conditions are all determined by your genes, which you get from your parents.

The same is true for your dog and all other animals. All dogs will receive one set of DNA from each parent. Breeders use this information to their advantage by breeding dogs based on the genes they carry.

Dominant vs Recessive Genes

Scientists classify genes as being either dominant or recessive. The dominant traits are those that will win out and show themselves in the offspring. Recessive traits, in contrast, are those that remain within the offspring, but they don’t show themselves. Even though the dominant trait is what you will see in the dog, the dog can still pass off recessive genes in its genetic profile.

Often, breeders will selectively breed dogs with particular dominant and recessive traits in mind. For example, two dogs with the same recessive trait will likely be bred if that trait is desirable. The reason for this is that breeding two dogs with recessive traits makes the offspring more likely to demonstrate the same trait. If the trait is mixed with a dominant trait, the recessive one will be overshadowed.

Control the Parents to Control the Outcomes

Even though there are a lot of variables at play, experienced breeders know how to control the parents to control the outcome of their offspring. In other words, they know what to look for in their parent dogs to create desirable offspring that sells.

To do this, most breeders will get a DNA test or other similar scientific tools to learn about the DNA of the dogs in question. This ensures that the dogs being bred actually meet their standards and do not have any unknown illnesses and other issues.

german shepherd dogs sitting on grass
Image Credit: YamaBSM, Pixabay

It’s Not an Exact Science

It’s important to note that even though selective breeding increases the chances of the ideal offspring being born, it does not guarantee it. That’s because genetics is not an exact science.

You never fully know which traits will be passed on from parent to offspring. Furthermore, all the traits impact each other. Hence, the expression of certain traits may look different in the offspring than the parent, even if the same traits are expressed.

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Pros of Selective Breeding in Dogs

Even though selective breeding may sound superfluous to many people, there are actually quite a few benefits of it, both for people and the dog.

Of course, most of the pros of selective breeding are dependent on the breeder being ethical and responsible. All these benefits can quickly be washed away by a breeder who is irresponsible and unethical towards the dogs.

two dalmatian dogs
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Reduces Inheritable Illnesses and Genes

Many diseases and illnesses are inherited from parents. Through selective breeding, breeders can help breed out inheritable illnesses in genes, creating healthier dogs and puppies.

This benefit is great for both dogs and people. Obviously, dogs don’t like feeling sick or unhealthy, and people don’t like seeing dogs this way or paying high vet bills.

Makes Dogs Better at Their Jobs

Because selective breeding can help reinforce certain traits, it can even make dogs better at their jobs. For example, selective breeding can really help hunting dogs, herding dogs, and police dogs by reinforcing stamina and other needed traits.

Having these ideal traits are good for the working dogs because, it not only helps the dog succeed, but it helps the dog survive as well.

At the same time, making dogs better at their jobs helps people. Herding dogs, for example, help shepherds and farmers keep their livestock protected and together without having to monitor them 24/7.

Even families benefit from selective breeding to increase certain traits. Things like temperaments and gentleness can be reinforced or increased through selective breeding. In other words, selective breeding helps dogs fill their role in the world, even if that role is to just bring you love and affection.

labrador service dogs
Image Credit: GS S, Pixabay

Create New Breeds

Of course, selective breeding also creates new breeds. Even though all dogs can technically mate with one another, it’s unlikely for certain breeds to do so, such as a Great Dane and a Chihuahua.

Through selective breeding, you can create offspring from two breeds that are unlikely to breed. As a result, their offspring are super unique and cute.

Whenever new and highly sought after breeds are created, organizations may feel the need to set guidelines about the breed. When this happens, the new breed will be set in stone by these organizations with a clear set of expectations. If the breed continues to be popular, an excellent bloodline can eventually be created too.


Cons of Selective Breeding in Dogs

Even though a lot of good can come from selective breeding, a lot of bad can come.

Unethical Breeders

The biggest worry you should have when discussing selective breeding is unethical and irresponsible breeders. Although many breeders love their dogs and treat them like family, others are just in it for the money and practically torture their dogs.

With unethical breeding comes a number of issues, such as abuse, death, unhealthy puppies, and other similar situations. For example, some unethical breeders may inbreed. Even some responsible breeders purposefully inbreed to create a very specific breed, leading to the same dangerous results.

When inbreeding happens, mated dogs will share much of the same genetic material, including illnesses and diseases. As a result, the offspring will often have the disease or illness, even if both parents are healthy. That’s because the offspring has an increased likelihood of getting the illness when both sets of their DNA express it.

Australian cattle dog sold by breeder to new owner
Image Credit: kukurund, Shutterstock

Gene Pool Closes

Selective breeding can have downsides even when the breeders are fully responsible and ethical. One such downside is that the gene pool closes. This happens a lot for purebreds because only a limited amount of genes can go into the pool for the dog to still be considered purebred.

The issue of a closed gene pool is that there is a higher chance that the dog will experience certain illnesses and diseases. For example, many dogs with flat faces are more prone to respiratory illnesses due to the nature of their face.

The only way to fix this problem is to insert new traits or genes into the gene pool. Although this is great for the dog’s health, it means that the dog won’t be purebred anymore.

Popular Sire Syndrome

A unique downside of selective breeding that many people are not aware of is popular sire syndrome. Popular sire syndrome or effect happens whenever one male is requested by many breeders. When this happens, many offspring share a lot of genetic material, resulting in a less diverse gene pool down the line.

Hence, ancestors of the sire may breed, resulting in a number of inherited diseases and illnesses from unintentional inbreeding. Unfortunately, even ethical breeders may not be able to avoid this issue down the line.

dogs sniffing eachother
Image Credit: Diederik Hoppenbrouwers, Shutterstock

Is Selective Breeding in Dogs Ethical?

One last question remains: is selective breeding in dogs ethical? This question cannot be answered definitively since ethicality is not a science. Whether or not selective dog breeding is ethical depends on who you ask and in what situation.

As you would likely expect, almost everyone agrees that selective dog breeding is unethical whenever the breeders are irresponsible, torturous, and abusive to the parent dogs. There isn’t much debate over this fact.

What about selective breeding that is done responsibly? Unfortunately, this is where the question gets a bit sticky. Many people are huge fans of selective breeding because it helps to keep dogs healthy, happy, and good at what they do. In our opinion, selective breeding is ethical so long as the breeder is ethical and responsible.

However, some people would disagree and say that it is unethical because it forces dogs to mate when they don’t have a choice. Although this is a fair argument, we view that dogs don’t have much of a choice anyways since they breed purely due to instincts, not the desire for children, love, etc. Nevertheless, it is completely up to you to decide whether selective breeding is ethical.

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Final Thoughts

Once again, selective breeding is the practice of intentionally selecting mates so that their offspring have desirable outcomes. Selective breeding is often done to create purebred, new breeds, superior dogs, and other desirable outcomes by human standards.

Even though selective breeding in dogs can run into several issues, it is largely a positive thing when taken on by a responsible breeder. It is up to you to decide whether or not you find selective breeding ethical.

In our opinion, and many others, selective breeding is ethical when the breeder takes full responsibility for the dogs and treats them with the respect and love they deserve. More so, it is only ethical when the breeder takes the time to do it correctly, resulting in less inbreeding and other dangerous situations for the dog.


Featured Image Credit: yykkaa, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.