Thankfully Ben Holt of HighHolt Labradors, Pugs & French Bulldogs and owner of Highlands Kennels Ltd (Horam) agreed for me to interview him as part of gaining HomeScan Master Breeder status. The interview took much longer than I had imagined in this bustling reception of the boarding kennel that he owns and managed for the last eight years and a reason why his breeding programme evolved so quickly. Ben shared some great information that any breeder would benefit from!

Ben was bought up with dogs, working Labradors and farm Collies. He had always bred animals including rabbits, guinea pigs and at one point had over 400 birds! Showing Parrot-like birds, Lovebirds, budgies, cockatiels all over the country.

He owned his first dog, a Collie cross New Zealand Hunterway when he was 11 years old, but decided intentionally to breed a family Dalmatian with his parents’ consent at just 13 years old, this was Ben first experience of being responsible for rearing a litter. His first independent litter was in his mid-twenties, a Black Labrador called Jess. She whelped 8 of which Ben hoped to keep a puppy, but due to work commitments he was unable too. Ben had a second litter from Jess and he as hoping to keep a black bitch puppy, so true to form she produced three bitches, all chocolate! Ben decided to have a final litter from Jess and that’s where his steps to considering himself a breeder began.

“That's where the breeding took off from. It was never meant for us to become breeders. We were only breeding for ourselves, and it's just taken off.”

Ben felt that his success in Labradors had exceeded his expectations, having exported puppies to south of France, South Africa and Austria plus having a two year waiting list with inquiries from America, Germany, Northern France, and New Zealand.

“People see our dogs. They know they're capable of doing a day’s work in the field or other activities like flyball, if people want them to. Recently two of our puppies went to be assistance dogs. The lady from the assistance dog charity said they were ‘the Best puppies we've ever had’ and booked a whole litter for next year.”

Ben felt he had achieved this success because he had found a niche of breeding the traditional type of Labrador (not as heavy as ‘Show Labs’ or light as ‘Working Labs’ with good heads, tails, nice ear sets) with excellent temperament making them the ideal family pet, due to these pups having a versatile mind set. Ben expressed picking key studs had been the success producing puppies that fit this type. He only uses dogs that are fully health tested with fantastic temperaments. He has a preference to using other people studs then keep his own, giving him the flexibility of choice and more variety by researching and finding better bloodlines, or lines to compliment his own.

“We always hip and elbow score our breeding dogs. I would never breed a dog with a high hip score and they have to completely clear elbows and they would have to have a current eye certificate. We use very good stud dogs, and the people's dogs that we use, they wouldn't let you use their dogs anyway unless your bitches are health tested. That's to the minimum, because we always use DNA tested dogs that are clear for all the diseases so we don't need to DNA test our bitches.”

Ben elaborated on why he felt health testing was so important, over the year the Breed Hip Scores have fallen, as a Kennel owner Ben has seen this reduction have a direct collation with the health issues he has seen reflected in his client’s dogs. Their health conditions are decreasing and the dogs are living longer up to 16 years old.

I asked Ben how he gained his breeding knowledge:

“I think one of the worst things you can do is go on Google. Absolute worst. You've been amazing (Sara). I think the best thing to do is talk to someone like you. I don't hold many vets in high regard in respect to breeding, because a lot of the young vets we see nowadays have never even owned a dog, let alone had a litter. I don't feel that anyone can give someone advice that they've learned from a textbook.”

I strongly agree with Ben, it’s great to see other experienced breeders agreeing with me on this issue. Going to your local vet about breeding is like asking your GP to do a c-section it’s not comparable to a specialised midwife or medical consultants in a maternity ward. No wonder there can be confusion and blunders.

Anyway back to Ben, I asked him how he best prepared his females for breeding. He put a large emphasis on them being fit and healthy all year round not just the season of breeding and he had even suspended breeding a Pug bitch who had gained just under 1kg of weight during his 2 week holiday aboard. Ben felt this was too much for a dog that only weighed 6kg, and that she needed to lose them pounds before being bred. Ben keeps up-to-date with annual vaccinations, worming every 3 months but doesn’t use any flea treatment unless fleas are observed.

I asked Ben, what advice would you give to somebody breeding for the first time?
“If they've never bred before, would be to find someone like you. Or me. Or a very good, experienced breeder, but preferably in their breed. There's no point asking a Labrador breeder what to do delivering a litter of pugs, they’re a different kettle of fish. Once you've delivered a litter of pugs, you can deliver anything. Or bulldogs as well. You can deliver anything.”

Ben expressed his dislike to Google, because all it seems to do is induce panic. We all want the best of our dogs and you don’t want to think they are suffering or need medical attention. You can overthink these situations, the best thing to do when they go into labour is to try and remain as calm as possible and have someone at the end of the phone who’s done it before.

“Don't put too much out on the internet, on Facebook forums and stuff like that, asking for advice. Go to one person who's done it for years, who's experienced, who knows what they're talking about and will give you sensible advice.“

So I asked Ben what he’s future breeding plans where and he voiced his concerns about the future of some breeds:

“Nearly every litter we've ever produced is to keep a puppy ourselves. I don't think we'll really be breeding much more of the Pugs. Just because there's too many people out there breeding them now. They've saturated the market, so many are unhealthy that they've given all Pugs, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs etc a bad reputation. We know people that have struggled to sell them and they've all been tarred with the same brush.  I think that kind of needs to die down, which I think it has. It's waning now.”

And my final question to Ben, What do you feel is your biggest achievement or success when breeding?

People coming to us saying, "I've seen one of your dogs. I want one", the fact that they've gone abroad with no advertising. One of our puppies is going to be trained as a bomb detection dog for the U.N, another that's going to start his career as a stud dog in South Africa (health results dependant) for a top trialling owner over there, as a working chocolate Labrador. Same with another one in this country with Di Stevens. Plus the autistic charity had two puppies off us this year, and then come back to book a whole litter for next year. So I class them all as an achievement.

It's quite an achievement when we're not in the show ring, we're not in the working world, we’re not winning medals and trophies and accolades all over the place yet we are highly regarded and recommended by word of mouth.”

An extended interview with more essential information on pregnancy supplements, utilising Facebook groups and group chats for puppy owners and ways to improve your puppy vetting process will be published in the Home Breeders Hub.