E225: Jessica Hekman, PhD - "Where will the good dogs come from?"

The state of the rescue world and the breeding fancy have changed significantly in the last 50 years... Dr. Hekman and I chat about what those changes are, and what they mean for pet and sports dogs in the future.  


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Jessica Hekman here with me. Hi Jessica, welcome back to the podcast!

Jessica Hekman: Thanks Melissa. I am so glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you want to remind listeners who you are, who your dogs are, and share a bit about your background?

Jessica Hekman: Sure. I am Jessica Hekman. I am a veterinary genetics researcher. While most of the people that you have on your podcast are actual professional dog trainers, I am not. I study the genetics of dog behavior. But I do dog sports for fun, so I do understand that end of it. I'm just not the person that you should come to to ask for advice on how to train your dogs.

I have three dogs. My eldest child is Jenny, who's a 35-pound mix-y mix who I got from a shelter. I got her knowing she was very behaviorally challenged and she will never be able to compete. Did I say already that she's 11? But these days she's been harassing me when I train my other two to be like, "I want to do it, I want to do it." So we are doing a little bit of treiball training, and we will just see how far that goes. I have this fantasy that if we got to the point where I actually wanted to do video competition with her, I don't even know if I could take her to a field property and have her work, but maybe. Who knows? I don't think she'll ever compete, but we're having fun and she likes the food.

Melissa Breau: That's the important part.

Jessica Hekman: Yes. She's more Lab than anything else, and you can tell. My middle child is Dashel, or Dash. He is an English Shepherd, and I got him from a breeder as an 8-week-old puppy. I got him to do agility with, but he had a bunch of orthopedic issues. There's no problem with his genetics. It was just trauma. As I've been trying recently to get back into agility with him, I've been realizing that it's just not his thing. He's a very calm, quiet, handler-focused dog who I think is going to enjoy rally a lot more, just being next to me, being told exactly what to do near me. So we've been switching to that.

I was just starting to get back into teaching him to heel when I broke my ankle. We were talking before this about what things I can do on my Kneelie Wheelie, and I don't think I can teach him to heel next to the Kneelie Wheelie. But I'm starting to fantasize. I have a walker. That makes me look like I'm 70, but I have the walker, and I wonder if I could teach him how to heel next to the walker. So that's that.

My youngest child is Fitz. He is a 3-year-old Border Collie who I got a year and a half ago from a shelter. I got him to do agility with, so ongoing story of the attempts to get into agility. He was good for the first couple of months and then behaviorally collapsed and was a real mess of sound sensitivity, and inability to settle, and inability to handle his arousal levels, and things like that. The dog has so far given me a concussion and a broken ankle while I've been working with him. So he's been a challenge, but I've had a lot of help from the community.

I feel like at this point he's where I thought he would be when I first adopted him. He still has a lot of work to go, and we continue to play around with agility when he's up for it. I feel like in the last week or so, or the week before my I broke my ankle, so three weeks ago, he was just coming around to where he was really interested in working with me again. So he's another one that I'm like, "What can I do while I'm on the Kneelie Wheelie?" We did a little fitness thing yesterday.

Oh, and Dash competes in nosework. My one dog who's actually competing. Dash competes in nosework. So those are my dogs.

Melissa Breau: All the things. A little bit of all the things, which is good. Despite the broken ankle, the reason I wanted you to join me today was because for Lemonade Conference you did this awesome talk all about the future of dogs, where will good dogs come from. I thought it was such an important conversation for those of us in the sports world to have. To start us off, do you want to share the premise behind the talk?

Jessica Hekman: We all have this idea of this list of places that you can go that are good, ethical, appropriate places to get a good dog: shelters, responsible breeders, rescues. But gradually, without us all really noticing, the supply of dogs from those places has started to have some real problems, and there's some changes that society is going through just with the supply of dogs.

I hate making it sound like an industry, because we love dogs. We don't think of them as commodities. But there is an issue with where you go to get them these days. And so I wanted to both talk about what those issues were and the troubles that people are having as they are going to try to find a dog that's right for them. I also wanted to talk about potentials that I see for how we as a society can come together to make some changes to try and make this start being better in the future.

Melissa Breau: What got you interested in all of that?

Jessica Hekman: That's a hard question. It's been growing for a long time.

I started thinking about issues with purebred dogs during veterinary school. I would learn about genetic diseases and I'd be like, "But that's fixable," so I had frustrations then about issues with the societal resistance to outcrossing. I've been thinking about that a lot for years, and then I was at this conference and ran into Joyce Briggs, who is the president of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs. This is a nonprofit that works on non-surgical spay/neuter alternatives for dogs and cats with the hopes of making spay and neuter easier, so it's a very shelter-focused and free-roaming-focused nonprofit. But she had started seeing that we're getting to this point where the supply of shelter dogs is a problem as well, so she had some insights about that.

I also have been talking with and watching the work of Trish McMillan, who has a lot of interesting things to say about the state of behavior issues in dogs coming out of shelters in the U.S. Obviously when I say that, I do not by any means mean 100 percent of the dogs coming out of shelters, but that she's seeing an increase in the number of really severe behavior cases. So she does a lot of work around behavioral euthanasia, particularly with dogs coming out of shelters and rescues. All of that started coming together in my head into one thing: the problems with finding a good dog, basically.

Melissa Breau: If we're talking about a good dog here and the problems with finding one, let's figure out our definition. What are we talking about when we say a "good dog" in this context?

Jessica Hekman: You want to operationalize that, Melissa?

Melissa Breau: A little bit, a little bit.

Jessica Hekman: To me, for my definition, that's a dog who does his job really well and who enjoys his job and enjoys his life. For most of us, that job is primarily being a good pet. Being a good pet is a job. It's a dog who fits into our lives comfortably. Some do, and are happy doing that, and some don't, and are not happy doing that. It is really the most important job that dogs do.

For a lot of us listening to this podcast, our dogs have a secondary job, which is doing well in sports. Also very important. But I think for most of us, that being a good pet, a good companion, fitting into our lives, not biting our family members, not biting the postal service worker, all that kind of stuff is the most important job that they can do.

Melissa Breau: If that's us defining a good dog … you mentioned the shelters, you mentioned the breeding world. Can you elaborate on that a little bit, giving us the lay of the land, what the options really are when somebody is looking to add that new dog to their life?

Jessica Hekman: As I said before, most of us who are coming from the space where we know about the dog world and we know about the options for getting dogs, we mostly think about going to a shelter or a rescue, or going to a responsible purebred breeder, or there's some specific mixed breeds, like in the sports world we consider Border Whippets.

As I was answering this question I suddenly remembered about this dream that I had two nights ago where I adopted two Border Whippet puppies, which was just the best dream. I think I had seen them on Facebook or something. I dreamed that I adopted them. It was great. And I woke up and I was like, "You cannot have puppies with a broken ankle." Anyway … So mixed breeds like Border Whippets and a variety of others in the sports world, Doodles in the pet world, we think about going to a responsible breeder that either breeds a purebred or something like that.

So those are the sources: shelters or breeders. And if you are, of course, less responsible or perhaps less knowledgeable about the options, then there are other places that you might go: high-volume breeders who don't socialize their puppies as well, and who don't do careful work to really think about what their genetics are, who might breed two dogs with hip dysplasia to each other, something like that.

My hope is that if the better options become easier for people, then fewer people will end up going to the worst options, if that makes sense. People don't want to purchase a dog from a breeder who's not doing their absolute best. They want to go to a good breeder. But when the good breeders aren't available, and when the information isn't out there about how to find them, then people are going to end up going elsewhere.

Melissa Breau: To explore this just a little bit further, let's go back to the rescue piece for a second. How has that world changed in the last, I don't know, fifty years or so?

Jessica Hekman: It's changed a lot. We are saving so many more animals. In my Lemonade talk I have all the numbers, and I'm not going to torture you guys with numbers here. But I do have numbers, and if you want them, then you should go check out the talk, if you have access to that. But we are saving so many more animals.

Euthanasia for lack of space: let's differentiate. Euthanasia for lack of space is the real problem. If an animal comes in that is not behaviorally appropriate for adoption or that is too sick, then euthanasia for those reasons is going to continue to happen in shelters and that's appropriate. But euthanasia for lack of space is what we really want to get rid of.

Euthanasia for lack of space was just rampant fifty years ago. We were killing back then many millions of animals a year, simply because shelters were full, good animals that could have could have fit into homes very well. Today that has really changed. There are still regions that are killing for space. There are many, many fewer of them and they are continuing to disappear, so there's this ongoing trend.

I think the best way of summing it up that I found is that Best Friends, which is a large shelter and advocacy organization, has a goal of eliminating killing for space in the U.S. by 2025, which is just four years from now. When I read that, I almost couldn't deal with how soon that was, and how they thought that that was something reasonable that there would be no … I think they do it by county … there would be no counties in the U.S. that were killing for space, possibly no shelters killing for space. I was like, "That's really soon."

And then they gave these numbers, and the numbers are … there are regions that are still not adopting out as many animals as we would like to see, but the numbers are actually not as bad as you would think. Not that many years ago, I did a shelter medicine internship in 2012-2013, so it's not quite ten years ago, and there were still places that were killing half of their animals. That is a thing of the past. That 50 percent kill rate is not happening anymore.

There are still places that are struggling, but they are all improving. In New England, where I live, there are almost no shelter pets available for adoption, which is ironic, because in New England we have really deeply absorbed the mantra of "Go to a shelter first." I do certainly have friends here, particularly my sports friends, who go to purebred breeders, but a lot of my other friends would never consider that. A shelter is where you go. That is where you go to get a pet. And yet, when you go, the kennels are mostly empty, and the ones that do have animals in them, frequently the animals have been transported up typically from southern states.

That transport has filled that gap for years, but transport is now starting to become a problem, because when you do transport right, you're helping that source shelter learn how to deal with its population locally without having to transport out forever. You're putting spay/neuter into place, and better policies for adoption into place, and just helping them fix up their protocols, and if you're doing it right, they're going to be providing you with less and less.

There's a lot more issues with transport as well, not the least of which is that it's clearly not great for the welfare of the animals to be put onto a truck and shipped up across the country. And those are frequently young animals as well. So now we have these shelters in many parts of the country that have very few adoptable animals, and in other parts of the country it's really headed that way.

Melissa Breau: First of all, four years. Even a fairly short-lived dog, that's less than half the dog's lifespan.

Jessica Hekman: I don't think I buy that they'll do it in four years. I just think it's very interesting that they would think it's even remotely reasonable to say four years. I'm thinking more like ten or twenty. But the thing is that we have to address it now because the torrent becomes a stream becomes a trickle. It's this gradual thing.

We haven't talked about what the issues with this are yet, but we're losing the good dogs. We're spaying and neutering all of the good dogs now, which is going to leave us in trouble. We can't wait until we get to that nobody is killing any animals; now we're going to start thinking about where animals come from. That's way too late.

Melissa Breau: Let's go into that. Why is this a concern? Why is this a worry at all?

Jessica Hekman: On the one hand, I certainly think we should be partying in the streets about it. It's great, so I don't want to frame it entirely as a concern, although you're right, I do see that there are issues with it. I think the word hasn't gotten out quite that widely that we are so close to solving the problem. It's been so gradual, a lot of us haven't noticed. I think that's why we're not all out partying in the streets with confetti and horns and all of that, but I think we should be.

This is amazing. It is an amazing cultural change. We have, as a society, identified a problem, identified a solution to the problem, stuck with that solution, changed the way that we get dogs and cats. We've done a great job. The problem is where are we supposed to get dogs from? As there's fewer and fewer of them in shelters, the remaining dogs are more and more likely to have behavioral issues, because the ones that are going to make good pets get adopted so quickly.

Looking at my Border Collie, one person said, "You've got to be a special kind of crazy to adopt a rescue Border Collie out of the shelter," which probably is true. But I wanted an adult dog because I didn't think a puppy would do well in my home for a lot of reasons that are not worth going into in this podcast. I was like, "If I get an adult, I'll already know what he's like." I saw him in the shelter and it was a New England shelter. I was like, "Oh my God, it's not a pit bull-type dog, it doesn't have any behavioral problems, and it's only three hours from me." It was a unicorn.

I called them. There were all these people who also wanted the dog. He was having no problems getting a home. And it was hilarious, actually. They went, "You're involved with FDSA? You can have him." They were so enthused that anyone who even knew the term FDSA would adopt a dog out of their shelter. They were like, "Come take this dog." They were like, "He's a great dog."

But when I got him home, I discovered all these behavior problems that hadn't shown up in the shelter, and it occurred to me, if he really had been, as the shelter had suspected, a really, really easy-to-live-with dog, I suspect he would never have ended up in a shelter. His owners may have kept him, or if they legitimately couldn't keep him, they probably would have pretty easily been able to find some friends who wanted him, because there's such a demand for good dogs. The fact that he went to a shelter at all, that they didn't want to just hand him off to a friend or a family member, actually says a lot in New England.

I don't want to tell people not to go to shelters, but it is getting harder and harder. You have to be more and more careful because the good dogs get adopted out so fast because there's so few of them coming through. The ones that are problematic that not so many people can handle, they sit there and so that's what's in the shelter when you come in, for the most part, which is a problem. It's not good for the shelters and it's really not good for people.

So then people, if they can't find what they want in a shelter, because then the other story is, "They're all pit bull-type dogs, and I really want a Retriever or a Border Collie or a small dog." There's no small dogs in New England shelters at all, so people want to go somewhere else. If they're looking to get a dog in a short timeframe, then it may be really hard for them to find a dog from a responsible breeder, and then they end up going to breeders of a type we don't really want to see people supporting, people who are breeding really large numbers of dogs every year, dogs who don't live in their home, who don't live in really well-managed kennels, puppies aren't socialized, genetics are not managed well, that kind of thing.

Some people adopt from shelters, but they end up with a dog who doesn't fit well into their home. A lot of behavior consultants and trainers are saying that they're seeing more and more serious behavior problems now compared to ten years ago and that it's just becoming really hard to find a good pet.

Melissa Breau: I didn't include this in my pre-questions, but I do just want to touch on it because I know you touched on it in your talk. At least locally, we have so many rescues, which are separate from shelters in that they have foster homes. How do those fit into this picture?

Jessica Hekman: Rescues are interesting because they can be just about anything. A rescue can be an individual adopting dogs out of her home. An individual could go pick up dogs on Craigslist and turn them around and try to find them good homes and could call themselves a rescue, and sure, that's a rescue. Or a rescue could be a really well-run, multi-person, could even have a storefront property, could be some place that has great protocols and assesses the dogs really, really well and you can really trust them. In that spectrum there are rescues that are doing a fantastic job of assessing dogs that are going to make good pets and placing them into homes.

There's other rescues that are doing a less-good job and having this mindset of "Every dog can be saved and all they need is love." And so we take these dogs that are surrendered because they bite, because they've killed other dogs, and we say, "Well, it'll be fine so long as the people do a good job of managing them."

Then typically, the story goes, these dogs end up going to first-time dog owners because other people know better, and people who don't know better are like, "Oh, what a sad story. We'd really love to save this dog." Of course they feel that way. They take the dog in, they come to really love the dog, the dog kills somebody else's dog, badly, badly bites them, they go back to the rescue, the rescue tells them that it's their fault.

This is really what Trish McMillan is grappling with. This is a lot of the work that she's doing right now, just talking about … she calls it "outsourcing behavioral euthanasia" that she feels that a lot of rescues are not willing to do the hard work of saying, "These animals are not appropriate to place into pet homes and actually there isn't a place for them." That euthanasia part is so hard, and I hate talking about it because it sounds like I'm saying we need to kill more dogs.

I tend to have a very preventative long-term viewpoint. My approach to all of this, as we've been talking about today, is where are dogs with these problems coming from, and how can we prevent the creation of these dogs in the first place? Because I do agree with Trish that there are some dogs that we cannot reasonably expect to find a home for.

So how can we prevent the creation of dogs like that? I would say it comes back to all of these things: discouraging people from going to breeders who are not doing a good job, and then making sure that we are managing the shelter population well.

That's another problem with transport. The dogs come up on transport into rescue, and the rescue doesn't have a good chance of assessing them from the source shelter. They show up, they are not as advertised, they are problematic, then what do you do? And/or we are transporting 8-week-old puppies and perhaps causing trauma to them when we do that.

My take on it is how can we have a better source of dogs to prevent this from happening, rather than focusing on the individual dogs? Which is why I am not a dog trainer and not a vet who practices who practices medicine. But I do research because I really like thinking about the origins of things.

Melissa Breau: The other place that you mentioned that people go to get good dogs is from responsible … they're looking for responsible breeders, purebred, or you've got these mixed-breed breeders. Are there problems there too?

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, I think so. In many breeds, not all breeds. In breeding — I'm talking about purebreds specifically now — inbreeding is becoming a pretty big issue. We closed the studbooks on dog breeds about 150 years ago, and since then we've been, in some breeds, intensively selectively breeding on particular traits, often characteristics that are not the most important things, characteristics like head shape or coat color, things like that. We've been intensively breeding for those things.

We've had other breeding practices which are not fantastic, like popular sire syndrome, where one boy dog wins big and then ends up siring half of the puppies of the next generation. That's an exaggeration, but 25 percent of the puppies of the next generation may not be an exaggeration, things like that. And so 150 years of these practices means that a lot of breeds, either entirely because of these practices, or also partly chance weighs in, have gotten into this place where they are heavily genetically loaded with risk factors for some pretty terrible diseases — heart disease, cancer, hip dysplasia — and the breeder's stuck in the situation.

It's not the fault of any individual now. It's the fault of how we, as a group, have gone about this. The individuals are handed this situation of "Here's your population you can select from," and they all are heavy with genetic risk. Good luck, try to breed a dog without hip dysplasia out of this problem, or a dog without heart disease out of this. And by the way, while you're struggling and trying to do your best to do that, also breed a good family pet. But also you need to have these dogs have titles, or no one else will breed to you.

So while you're trying to produce good family pets who don't have hip dysplasia, you're also trying to produce dogs that will place in the show ring and/or place in sports or something like that, field trials. It's just too much to do all of that. And again, not a problem with the individual breeders, but they are in this box that they don't have a way out of, and it's just really hard for many of them to reliably produce.

And again, it's not every breed, but in a lot of breeds you just have to accept 70 percent chance of cancer or 50 percent chance of heart disease or death at age 6 being normal, and that's not okay. I think we've normalized it to some extent to say these breeders are doing their best and they're trying to turn things around, and they are. That still doesn't make it okay, though.

What that means is that if you look at how we breed dogs, breeding dogs responsibly is this huge undertaking. You have to prove that the dog is worth breeding, so you have to get conformation titles or sports titles. For a lot of people who have some really nice dogs who actually could produce really nice pets, they're not interested in that. They might be interested in breeding their dog, but they're not interested in doing all of the work to prove that the dog has not just good conformation, but the correct type for the breed, which is again not important.

The good conformation thing, important for pets, a veterinarian can tell you that. Proper type for the breed, not important for pets. Or proving that the dog can win an obedience title or win an agility title, again not important for pets. There's people who are told that if you want to breed, you have to do all of this stuff and spend your weekends competing and spend all this money and all this time training your dogs, and that's not what they're about. But they do have good stock, which, if we weren't spaying and neutering these dogs, could contribute to the breeding population.

Melissa Breau: It's a whole lot of bad compromises. It's like, which bad compromise do you want to pick?

Jennifer Hekman: I guess that's my question is why can't we breed dogs that are the kinds of dogs that the average pet owner wants? I want to tell the story of my friend who has a lovely show Doberman, really nice dog, seems to be very healthy for a Doberman. She's still young, so we don't know, but that's a big deal. She wanted to breed her dog, and she looked at other show Dobermans, and she could not find a good match that she was confident was going to produce puppies that were not going to die extremely young of heart disease. And so she looked at working lines.

It's interesting. I tried to convince her to breed to a non-Doberman. I was like, "If you want to produce puppies that aren't going to die at age 6 of DCM, your best shot at doing that is to breed to a non-Doberman. I'm sorry, that's just the way it is." She was not willing to do that, and interestingly it was because, she said, "If I do that, no one will ever give me another Doberman for as long as I live." So it wasn't that she wouldn't have done it, but it was that she was in a situation, and she was quite correct about that.

So then she went as far outside of her lines as she could, which was going to working Dobermans. The community will tolerate that, but she says that people are just like, "What are you doing?" They're not mean to her about it, but they are perplexed. They're like, "Why would you do it?"

She's in the show world and they're all like, "The puppies are going to be so ugly." I've looked at pictures of the puppies and I'm not just saying this: I think they're super-handsome. But I can see when I look at them how they're not type-y show-line Doberman handsome. They're a different kind of handsome. She shows me the picture of her keeper puppy and I'm like, "I love him," but I see how he wouldn't win in the show ring. The show people are also worried that they're going to be too drive-y because they have the working lines, but that has turned out so far not to be as much of an issue as people were worried it would be.

She said to me at one point, we were talking about her keeper puppy and she was saying people think he's ugly. I was like, "He has a very handsome head, I think." She said, "But you know what? I just bred the dog that I wanted. I bred the dog for me, and that makes me really happy." And I was like, "Why can't more people do that?" Why do breeders have to be so constrained to breed a dog that is type-y or that has to be within the studbooks? You cannot outcross to another breed or you won't get another dog to breed. Well, who cares what you do with your dogs? There's just a lot of these societal issues that we're struggling with basically.

Melissa Breau: And of course you can see where some of that came from. Breeders don't want to give a dog that is intact to somebody who's then going to go become a backyard breeder.

Jessica Hekman: Right, for sure, absolutely. And it's interesting because when you look at how this whole system evolved, you're like, "Oh, yeah, I totally see how this happened and it makes perfect sense." However, we're in a different place right now.

Melissa Breau: I guess that's where the intentionally bred mixed breeds and sport breeds come in, right?

Jessica Hekman: Right. I forgot to mention them, but I just talked about the purebred. The intentionally bred crossbred dogs are another really interesting phenomenon, and I feel like the sport mixes are a bit better accepted. Border Whippets are not looked down upon the same way that Doodles are. Although there are certainly people, like when I talk to Border Whippet breeders, they will say that they still have trouble getting breeding stock. There are still people who are like, "No, I don't want you to breed a Border Collie to a Whippet, so I'm not going to give you a Border Collie, just because that's not what I want to see in the world."

I've had conversations with people who feel this way, and I still can't quite wrap my head around it. I guess I can get it that they're sculpting this perfect platonic ideal of Border Collie or Golden Retriever or whatever the breed is, and for them that any deviation from that is kind of gross. I'm not in that mindset, so it's hard for me to fully understand it. But I do understand that people do feel that way.

I guess what I feel like is if you have … I'm getting so off topic now, but I feel like if you have a breeding line and you don't want to sell one of your dogs to someone who's going to cross it outside of a breed, that's totally cool with me. But what I do see that I find really inappropriate is someone will see that somebody else, like another breeder in their breed, has sold a dog to someone who's going to crossbreed it, and they report that person to the breed club to get them kicked out of the breed club. That kind of thing — I don't understand it and it makes me really crazy. Those are the kinds of issues that crossbred breeders are facing.

I think in the sport world there's less of a concern that people breeding intentional sport mixes are backyard breeders. I'm sure there are some, but most people are less concerned about that because it's such a niche market. The issue then is in the pet world and Doodles are the thing. There's other mixes out there, but Doodles are the thing right now, so we can just talk about Doodles. It's an interesting situation where I feel like there's such a demand among pet owners for dogs that are bred to be good pets, and for dogs that are low-shedding, and dogs that have a certain kind of personality, a Retriever-ish personality, that we'll say the Golden Doodle particularly has become extremely popular.

Then there is the pressure against responsible breeders producing them, and the idea that if you're a responsible breeder, you're really much more interested in showing your dogs or doing sports with your dogs. Those are things that are difficult to do with Golden Doodles. You cannot do conformation showing with Golden Doodles. There's no option for it. You can compete with them in sports, but not with AKC if they're intact, if they're breeding animals. AKC won't let you do that, so that makes going to sports problematic. And I have had Doodle breeders tell me as well that they don't feel welcome when they go to sports competitions with their Doodles, that people can be rude to them sometimes because they have Doodles.

With all of that, it is difficult for responsible breeders to get into producing this type of dog that there is such a demand for. As a result, there are, I fully admit, a massive number of very irresponsible breeders producing Doodles. Then people see all the Doodles being produced by irresponsible breeders not being great dogs, being owned by people who are first-time dog owners who don't know what they're doing, and then people conclude all Doodles are crazy, and no one maintains their coats, and it's just all a big disaster, and therefore no one should ever breed mixed-breed dogs, which I think is missing how the whole situation came to be.

My point is that you can breed Doodles responsibly. They've been used as service dogs. They are used as service dogs frequently. It's not hard to breed a good Doodle. But we as a society are not supporting people in doing that, and that, I think, is the real problem there.

Melissa Breau: We happen to be lucky enough here in N.C. I know we have a couple of good Doodle breeders locally who are actually doing a nice job, because I've seen their dogs show up in local trainers' classes consistently with good, even, positive temperaments and all that good stuff. So there are some folks out there doing it and doing it well.

Jessica Hekman: It's a nice mix. There are certainly issues with it. People have to understand about the coat. They have to understand that the coat has to be groomed. It's funny too, because that's the other thing is I hear people being like, "The breeders never tell anybody about the coat."

I've talked to some of the responsible breeders and they'll be like, "I tell people six times about the coat. I make them sign something asserting that they will go to a groomer every four or six weeks," or whatever it is, "and they still come back to me three months later complaining about the coat." They're like, "People can't focus when you put a cute puppy in front of them." No matter how many times you tell them, "This is how you're going to have to manage this puppy," people just don't hear it. So it's hard.

Melissa Breau: It is hard. This all sounds like a whole lot of bad news. Is there a sunny side, a silver lining? Is there anything we can do about all this stuff?

Jessica Hekman: I've always been a "fix it" person. I've never been a person who just wants to complain about things and say it sucks and then that's how it is and let's just bitch about it. So I do hope that we can find a solution.

I'm really hopeful for it, first of all, because we found a solution before and society did manage to make that change. And there's a lot of willpower out there, particularly among owners and trainers, and a lot of breeders, to see a change in how we handle the production of dogs. I'm focusing of course on the U.S. because that's where this is, but around the world.

The solution that I'm proposing comes from service dog organizations, which sometimes will get together into what they call breeding cooperatives. The idea is that likeminded breeders who have similar goals get together to provide each other support in breeding dogs for a particular purpose. I'm hoping that we'll get a lot of cooperatives where their purpose is breeding good pet dogs.

There could be a cooperative that wants to breed Golden Retrievers, or say Golden Retriever-like dogs, but they really want to decrease the rates of cancer and epilepsy and skin allergies and hip dysplasia, so they're going do some outcrossing, but they're all going to work together to produce this dog that looks a lot like a Golden Retriever, but it is healthier, hopefully, and longer-lived.

There might be a co-op that the purpose is breeding multi-generation mixes, and so they don't care what the breed is necessarily, but they are going to breed with the goal of producing dogs that say are medium-sized and very good dogs for being in the average pet home.

Then there may be cooperatives that are like, "We're going to breed dogs that are" — my favorite term — "sports-like dogs," the kind of dog that I want that is never going to make the agility world team. That is not my goal. My goal is to have a dog who fits well into my house, can go on off-leash walks with me, who is not going to bite other dogs on these off-leash walks, and is going to be confident enough to enjoy being in the agility ring and going to some competitions. That would be another unfulfilled need in our world right now.

So what would it look like? Co-ops can share stock. Once there's enough of them, this could be a partial solution to the problem of where's the breeding stock coming from. If people are refusing to give stock to breeders who want to cross, then if there were enough breeders in these co-ops, they could just share their own stock.

They could support each other by answering questions like, "One of my puppies is not putting on weight fast enough. What do you guys do? Is it time to go to the vet?" Just helping each other learn. If they're local, they can help each other with socialization, they can lend each other whelping beds, things like that.

A really big thing that they could do is they can take on people who have good breeding dogs, but they don't want to be breeders. Right now, being a breeder is this huge undertaking. You have to learn so much and just really be in dogs. But what about these people who have good pet dogs, and we know they're good pet dogs because they fit into the pet world really nicely, but they don't want to do all of that work. But the dog is a really good prospect for breeding for more pet dogs.

This person could hook up with a local co-op, the breeders and the co-op could assess the dog, decide what the match is, they could even take the dog on for whelping, socializing the puppies, or they could just be there in the house to help the person whelp and socialize the puppies, so that the breeding is responsible, well-managed breeding, but the person is not discouraged from becoming a breeder by how hard it is, or that we don't lose the genes, because breeding is difficult and should be difficult.

The other thing that a co-op can do, which a lot of breeders already do but I think we could see more of, a co-op can keep … if they have a prospect and they're not sure if the dog is going to be a good breeding prospect, they can put it into a pet home unsprayed/unneutered with a contract. We would call it a guardian home is how service dog organizations do it. Other people refer to this as a co-ownership. Just put it into a pet home, and if the time comes that the dog matures nicely and the genes fit into the program, then pull it back in, breed it, and send it back to the people that it's doing well with, again without requiring the people to put titles on it.

If this is going to be a pet dog, then look at how it's doing in the home, really sit down with those people and talk about how it's doing in their home, do a good assessment, make sure it is doing well. That is the proof of being a good pet dog is being a good pet dog, not getting obedience ribbons.

My hope is that we would see a bunch of different co-ops springing up and that when people are breeding more traditionally … say you're breeding Golden Retrievers and maybe the Golden Retriever Club Of America gets to a point where it's like, "We're ready to do some outcrossing." I'm hopeful this will happen in the next decade or two. So then what do you outcross to? There's these co-ops out here that have been breeding Golden Retriever-like dogs that are healthier and less inbred. You can start breeding those now back into the main Golden Retriever population without taking such a hit on type. Yes, you would have to breed a lot of them back in in order to actually bring the inbreeding down, but if you're not taking such a big hit on type, I think it would be a lot easier to do that.

The way we tend to think about outcrossing is, "Oh my God, I'm going to have to breed it to something totally different, and then the puppies are going to be nothing like Golden Retrievers." So then you start breeding back to Goldens, but as soon as you breed back and get the type back, you're right back where you started because you bred it all out. It's just a whole thing. If we had things that looked like Goldens that you could more easily swap in and out, I think it would be a lot easier for breeders to get to the place of you have to outcross regularly, but it doesn't have to be that big a deal. And so I'm hoping that co-ops can help with that. That's the plan.

What I've been doing, I founded an organization called The Functional Dog Collaborative. You can go to FunctionalBreeding.org to learn more about it. We also have a Facebook group, Functional Breeding, which is quite active and a really good place to learn more about this stuff.

One of the project that the FDC is doing is trying to start breeding cooperatives. We have started our first pet-breeding cooperative. It's called the Copilot Pet Dog Breeding Cooperative. It has three litters on the grounds, which is lovely but is a drop in the ocean. So we are looking to have more likeminded breeders join that cooperative, or if there are breeders who are like, "This is not my cup of tea; I want to breed something more specific." The Copilot Cooperative is very much like, "Pet dogs, doesn't matter what they look like." Multi-gen mixes, purebreds, it doesn't matter. Pet dogs.

If you have a more specific goal than that, you certainly could go breed with the Copilot Cooperative and have your own goals, but if you wanted to start a new cooperative, we would be very enthusiastic about helping you with that. We would help you set up a database and some set up kind of a system for people to interact with each other, set up your rules, we would provide a website for you, all that sort of stuff.

So we're trying to make that happen, but it's very early days and we can use a lot of help, which is part of what I'm hoping I could get both from the Lemonade Conference and from this interview is to get the word out there that we can use more people coming and helping us do this stuff.

Melissa Breau: I've got one more question for you, but before I do that, do you want to repeat the website again and the name of the Facebook group again for folks that want to go stalk you?

Jessica Hekman: FunctionalBreeding.org is the website and it has a link to the Facebook group, but the Facebook group is Functional Breeding. It's very active, so I imagine that it would be one of the first hits, if you didn't quite remember the name.

Melissa Breau: You can always get a couple of the right words in there.

Jessica Hekman: Hopefully. It's the Functional Dog Collaborative, but for whatever reason all the other stuff is called Functional Breeding, so that's what you should search for.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To round out our conversation, if we were to drill it all down into one key piece of information you really want everybody listening to understand or take away from this, what would that be?

Jessica Hekman: I think it would be that the way that we handle dog breeding as a society is not keeping up with the changes of the 21st century, and that we need to change how we handle dog breeding. I don't think that the changes are actually that difficult. I think the most difficult thing will be overcoming the entrenched perspective in the culture of dog breeding about being what an ethical, responsible breeder looks like. If we can start changing what that picture of a responsible, ethical breeder is, or expanding it to include some new characters, that would be the message that I would want to get across to everybody.

Melissa Breau: I do think hopefully it's moving that way. You are, at least in the sports world, seeing more acceptance, I think, of sports mixes and some of that stuff, so there's some hope out there.

Jessica Hekman: Exactly. If I was trying to do this and there was no support at all, I wouldn't have tried. There is so much support and it's so great. There are so many people who are like, "I've needed something like this. I'm so glad there's an organization like this. This really needs to happen." A lot of people see it, so really what I wanted to do was to pull everybody together into one place and see what happened.

If nothing else, I will say that multiple people have come to me and said, "Before your Facebook group, I could not find good breeding prospects for crossing my dogs. And now, with your Facebook group, I have such better breeding prospects than I ever thought I'd have, because everybody who is likeminded is coming to this one place and we're able to find each other now," which almost made me cry.

I've had lots of other people say that the group is one of the nicest places to talk about dogs on Facebook. Some of us call that Dogbook. It's the nicest part of Dogbook. They feel able to talk about things that they are not able to talk about elsewhere. They are able to have a conversation about the pros and cons of Doodles without expecting that people will come in and start screaming at them. People do that, but our moderators come and clean it up, hopefully. The things that we say are not okay, like it's not okay to yell at people for saying that a Doodle can be a good pet, and that's not true in a lot of other places on Facebook. It's been a ride.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for sharing it with us and coming on the podcast.

Jessica Hekman: This has been a lot of fun. Thank you Melissa.

Melissa Breau: It has been fun. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training! 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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