The Importance of Lines

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From this candid shot of the late Bea Knight sitting quietly with one of her dogs at some long past National, you might not appreciate that she was one of the giants of Saint breeder history. Her Sanctuary Woods line of dogs ranks in the top five of National Breed winners and the genes she assembled during the 50's, 60's, and 70's still influence some breeders down to the present day. In fact, our own Benbaron dogs are based on Bea's foundation.

However, this isn't a story about Bea. Rather we want to talk here about the importance of lines in general. When we started in the breed in the early 70's, it was the beginning of the end of the big kennels. We travelled down from Canada to visit a number of the larger kennels in the North East. Many of these breeders still kept 50 or more dogs. What struck us about a number of them was that most of the dogs in a given kennel tended to look alike and, on the other hand, they were distinct from other kennels' dogs. We started to play a game at the big dog shows where we would watch a class of dogs and see if we could pick out the kennels the dogs came from before checking the catalog. That one (Buddy) must be from Shagg-Bark; the next one (Honor) from Beau Cheval; the third (Titan) from Mallen, we'd guess. After a year or two, we got pretty good at it.

At first we didn't really understand why certain dogs looked a certain way and distinct from other dogs, but as we learned to study pedigrees we came to also understand about certain breeding practices. The concept of "lines" started to dawn on us. These breeders were selecting the dogs that had the look they liked and breeding them to similar dogs. But they were doing this generation after generation and mostly with related animals. 

Since the kennels were big in those days, they often bred dogs that were already in their own yard. In the case of Bea Knight, she lived on a mountaintop in a remote area of Oregon and kept over 100 Saints. In effect, this became an isolated breeding colony. As she worked over the years with her own dogs, the pedigrees became more closely related (resulting in a high Co-efficient Of Inbreeding or COI) and the Sanctuary Woods "type" or "look" was strongly set. We also noticed that many of these old-time breeders were very careful about adding dogs from outside their line. Was this a case of "kennel blindness" or was it because they wanted to guard against introducing wildcard genes to their program?

We came to understand (not without some stumbling around first) that the value of these lines lay in their ability to reproduce themselves. If you needed to improve the bodies of your dogs and add muscle, you could breed to a Shagg-Bark stud. If you wanted the rich color and better heads, you could go to Mallen. If you needed better shorthairs one could do well with Sanctuary Woods. More often than not, you would get the improvements you sought by using such lines. 

In far too many cases, however, new breeders would breed to one of these linebred dogs then immediately go off in another direction for the next generation. Such random breedings almost always resulted in "Chop Suey" pedigrees. Such dogs rarely could reproduce themselves. Is it any surprise then that these breeders always seem to have different looking dogs every two years or so?

When we look back over our own time in the breed, we see that there have been relatively few true lines established by modern breeders. It takes decades to build a line where the litters are consistent generation after generation. It takes great attention to detail and discipline to build a true line. One cannot simply go chasing off after the latest "Best In Show" sensation. There are no shortcuts. Sometimes you have to keep and use dogs that are not show quality because they have certain essential breeding characteristics. When you encounter problems - and you will - you have to be able to work your way through them without abandoning all that has been carefully built before. This all requires great personal conviction and realistic self-assessment.

We dog show fanciers are a competitive lot. We all like to win. And there are no bigger wins than at the Nationals. To win once in a lifetime is such a trill. Yet some few breeders do well consistently. Among them are our worthy contemporaries Opdyke, Van Rijn, High Chateau, and Cache Retreat.

Driver, Castor, Gero, and Host are all gorgeous dogs and a credit to their breeders who worked so hard to build their lines. The point is: such dogs do not happen by accident. None of these dogs were from a "lucky" breeding. None of them are "sports". Their pedigrees were carefully built over many generations, not thrown together willy-nilly. They come from true lines.

We can only hope that the next generation of breeders will learn from the successful breeders of the past. We are concerned that most will find this approach of building unique lines too daunting. It is becoming increasingly more difficult and costly to keep the necessary number of dogs to effect such a program. As well, far too many people now seem more interested in winning than breeding. Why not just buy what you want and win right away?

However, if you are willing and able to do what is necessary, we say you will find no greater satisfaction than breeding your own quality line. Good luck and God bless you if you try!