Friday, April 23, 2010

Reversing the Trend: Proposing The Rule of 6s

Many golden retriever breeders raise their litters using Pat Hasting’s Rule of 7s, a set of guidelines that encourage breeders to stimulate puppies during their first seven weeks. For example, the Rule of 7 has breeders introducing puppies to seven different footings, objects, environments, people, feeding containers, etc. For years now, the Rule of 7s has provided breeders an easy mechanism with which to think about puppy socialization.

Following in Ms Hasting’s footsteps, we would like to propose the Rule of 6s, a set of breeding guidelines for golden retrievers. These guidelines do not focus on puppy rearing but instead on increasing the lifespan of the puppies we produce. It is commonly accepted that golden retrievers are living shorter lives, down to 10 ½ years for dogs according to the 1998-99 Golden Retriever Health Study sponsored by the Golden Retriever Club of America. We think it’s time to reverse this trend! There is no reason that goldens shouldn't live 12-13 years.

Why goldens are living shorter lives is unknown but there are three common breeding decisions that likely contribute to the problem: inbreeding, ignoring longevity as a trait, and overuse of popular sires.

1) Inbreeding. For the purposes of this blog, "in-breeding" refers to the breeding of dogs related to each other and therefore includes line-breeding. Although inbreeding has long been the norm in dog breeding, recent research indicates that inbreeding also reduces longevity, along with contributing to other health problems. As with most purebred dog breeders, golden retriever breeders often use inbreeding in order to maintain or improve sought after physical or performance traits. However, the price of these improvements is a statistically significant decrease in longevity.

2) Ignoring Longevity. Longevity is a trait similar to the many other traits that dog breeders pursue in their dogs. In fact, reputable breeding is all about seeking good traits while minimizing or avoiding bad ones. Some traits are simple to select for—they are visible in the dogs we are breeding, they are controlled by a single gene, and their distribution among puppies can be easily predicted. However, other traits, such as longevity, are more complex. In fact, longevity may be one of the most complex traits: we cannot know how long an animal will live when we breed it (unless we are using frozen semen from a deceased sire), longevity likely consists of interactions between many genes, and at this stage we know little about how longevity is inherited.

However, just because longevity is difficult to breed for does not excuse us for overlooking it. In fact, we think it is one of the most important issues that we should tackle as reputable breeders. Thus, longevity must be included in the list of traits we use to select breeding stock and combinations.

3) Overuse of Popular Sires. Dr Jerry Bell highlights the issues with the popular-sire syndrome, which occurs when a stud is used extensively for breeding, spreading his genes quickly throughout the gene pool. Dr Bell says "there are two problems caused by the popular-sire syndrome. One is that any detrimental genes which the sire carries will significantly increase in frequency - possibly establishing new breed-related genetic disorders. Second, as there are only a certain number of bitches bred each year, overuse of a popular sire excludes the use of other quality males, thus narrowing the diversity of the gene pool."

A European study found that the golden retriever has one of the biggest problems with Popular Sire Syndrome, with only 5% of golden males being used for breeding. This means that the genetic material of 95% of male goldens is lost to the breed's future. Who knows what those genes contain but it is likely that at least some of them are important to the breed's future health.

So, how do we turn this situation around in hopes of increasing the lifespan of the average golden retriever? We can start by using four simple breeding guidelines to reduce inbreeding, select for a reasonable lifespan and increase the breed’s gene pool. These breeding decisions will improve the odds that a puppy from these breedings will live past 12 years.

Breed litters:

1) With 10- and 12-generation coefficients of inbreeding (COIs) of 6.25% or less.
2) With at least one parent, typically a sire, that is at least 6 years old.
3) Whose grandparents all lived longer than 6 years.

And, for breeders:

4) At least some of the time, use sires that have been bred fewer than 6 times.

So what can you do to help if you think these proposals are a good idea? If you are a buyer, you can ask breeders if their breeding or puppies meet at least the first three, if not all, of these guidelines. You can also confirm the information yourself at There are more details below.

If you are a breeder, you can commit to following these guidelines in most if not all of your breedings.

Finally, you can help spread the word about this effort to reverse the trend by forwarding this page to other golden retriever lovers. We can take action to improve the longevity of our beloved dogs but we need to act now. Will you help?

Buyers can determine if a breeding meets these criteria by asking the breeder to post their breedings on Dates of birth for the sire and dam can be found on their individual pages. COIs are found under the "View Genetic Information" link at the bottom of the page.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Times They Are A'Changin'

I was reading the AKC Gazette this morning and had a strong reaction to the Silky Terrier column. In fact, so strong a reaction that I decided to write this blog. The column's author, Vicki Bratton was writing "Questions About Breeding" and in this short piece captured many of the old-time beliefs about dog breeding that I believe have been the demise of purebred dogs. If my breed, golden retrievers, are any indication, purebred dogs face declining lifespan, increasing numbers of inherited diseases and more extreme characteristics that make some breed members difficult to maintain over a lifetime.

I do not know Ms Bratton and do not mean to single her out since she is simply identifying three key values that have been passed on by generations of breeders and national organizations like the AKC. However, I would posit that these values, established in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were as experimental as the concept of "closed registries" and "purebred dogs." They have been practiced in only a few other species and then not widely. The state of today's purebred dogs and these other species is revealing their fatal flaws.

First, she says "I believe that few dogs deserve to be bred--only the best, who possess traits that would benefit the breed, should be used for breeding." At first glance (and for me early in my breeding career), this seems to make perfect sense. Wouldn't we only want to breed the best? What could be wrong with this?

If you look at a singular breeding, this comment seems sensible but as you look at an entire population, like a dog breed, this belief causes a relenting decrease in genetic variety. This has also been called the Popular Sire Phenomenon and it is one that golden retrievers suffer from. Studies have found that goldens have the lowest number of males that are bred, only five percent. This approach consolidates a few dogs' bad genes into the breed and reduces the out-crossing opportunities for future generations.

If we had perfect genetic information and future knowledge for each dog, perhaps this wouldn't be such a dangerous practice, because we could see the deleterious genes that each dog carries, even the top winners, and where the breed would trend in the future. But at the present state of dog genetics and crystal balls, we do not have this information. As a result, as we reduce genetic variety, we consolidate the Popular Sires' bad genes, along with the good genes that we think we want and are selecting on. Typically, we do not see these problems until many generations later, at which time it may be too late if a Popular Sire has been spread throughout the gene pool. In goldens, the spread of diseases such as pigmentary uveitis and cricopharyngeal dysfunction (swallowing disorder) are likely the result of over-selection on popular sires.

And, of course, Ms Bratton's guidance assumes that breeders can define "the best." Is it defined in the conformation ring where only a dog's appearance is measured--no temperament, health, intelligence or performance assessment? Or is it in the performance field, where the breed's purpose is assessed? But again, this does not take into account any other characteristics, in particular temperament or health. It is human nature or at least American nature to compete so our historical breeding assessments have become competitions that have moved from evaluating the norm to the extreme. Good enough is not. As a result, we have breed "splits," where the dogs competing in conformation look and act completely differently than those competing in field trials. It takes an educated eye to know they are animals of the same breed. So, how does this help us select the best?

Or do we depend upon today's breeders to determine the best for the future? For me, this places far too much responsibility on people who live in a society has moved further and further from animal husbandry and breeding. No longer do dog people come from horse people/breeders, farmers or livestock producers. Today, people decide they like the way a breed looks, get involved and with little education become "breeders." The dog community they are involved in--conformation, performance or pet--describe the ideal and off they go to produce dogs that win. It's difficult for them to take a step back to get a broader or even historical perspective.

In Germany, dog breeds have breeding wardens who evaluate all breeding stock and deem which are appropriate to breed. Although an imperfect system, at least this method uses educated, experienced and responsible dog men and women to make critical breeding decisions. Alas, Americans have never tolerated this level of national control and except for a few breeds, such as the Shiloh shepherd, do not embrace such control.

In horses, regional, national and international breeding federations have established breeding standards and inspection programs to help breeders select their breeding stock. Longstanding, experienced and respected evaluators compare breeding stock against an established standard. Even in America, this process is accepted in horses though not in dogs, where breeding is left up to individual breeders regardless of their knowledge or experience.

Ms Bratton then went on to say "I believe that neutering is warranted if a dog does not have something the breed truly needs." Our society's focus on neutering dogs borders on obsession. Recent research is clearly showing that neutering is not the neutral action that we thought; it can cause numerous health issues that are more common and often as fatal as the two cancers (testicular and breast) that are limited by castration. (Additional research here.) Equally important, in my opinion, is that neutering removes that dog's genes from the gene pool and thus the future. Forever. (Unless the dog's semen has been collected and frozen. Alas no such option exists for bitches at the moment.)

Often the decision to neuter is made early in a dog's lifetime, sometimes at 8 weeks, before we know either what that dog will become OR "what the breed really needs." As I tell my buyers, just because a dog is intact does not mean he or she must be bred, it only means that he/she could be bred. It means that dog's genes could be added to the breed in the future, if only to offer diversity.

I am a student of golden retriever pedigrees so I spend hours going through old pedigrees and our wonderful online database (thank you, Amy!). Since I'm in a breed that is facing a declining lifespan and skyrocketing cancer rates, longevity is a trait that I look for. Time and time again, I find a wonderful pedigree filled with long-lived, rugged dogs that appear to be good hunting dogs. However, my excitement is short lived as I find that none of those dogs were bred and their genes have been lost to the breed forever. If this happened once or twice, I would be fine with it but in my breed, it has happened hundreds and hundreds of times as our gene pool shrinks more and more. It saddens me knowing how much we could use those genes today, even if the breeders of yesterday didn't realize it.

Finally, Ms Bratton's says "If each generation your produce is not better than the generation before, then you need to reevaluate your breeding program." Again, at first glance this seems like words to live by, doesn't it? Aren't we supposed to be making progress? We certainly can't embrace sliding backwards, can we?

Let's think further about this though. From my perspective, this belief is one of the causes of the extremes seen in my breed and there are breeds, such as bulldogs and bull terriers, that have far surpassed us in the extreme department. If your breed is in good shape and your job is to improve on it if you are to be a "good" breeder, then most likely you will pick one small but breed-defining characteristic and focus in on it. As a result, goldens today have more hair than any hunter, let alone a pet owner, wants. And you can purchase goldens in very specific and rare hues, such as British creme. Show ring Labradors have more of an otter tail than any hunting dog has ever needed.

But these are relatively benign examples. There are far more dangerous results from a single-minded obsession on a single trait. Bulldogs head size and bizarre body type has created an animal that can't breed or whelp naturally. The Shar-pei's wrinkles result in entropion and skin infections. Pekingese face serious breathing problems due to their flattened face. And the list goes on and on.

There is a touch of arrogance in this thinking as well. Who are we to say that the original golden retriever is not the ideal? Who are we to say we can improve on that animal? Well, if you compare the first goldens to today's conformation ring, you can see that someone thought they could make significant "improvement" since there is little resemblance between the breed's founders and today's champions.

Don't believe me? Here are two photos from Retrieverman, a great blog BTW. The first is CH Noranby Campfire, the first golden retriever conformation champion and the second is a typical example of today's champion golden. Same breed? An improved breed? If your response is "Yes" because the second dog is "prettier," ask yourself which dog looks like a working animal that you would like to hunt regularly in Scotland, the home of the golden?

I also wonder when it is in our breeding careers that we are prepared to produce better. Isn't it well into our careers that we know enough, have a broad enough perspective and are intellectually prepared to first define better and make breeding decisions that might get us there? So, what are we to do early in our careers? How do we develop experience before we have experience?

I would submit that the highest goal a breeder can aspire to is to reproduce and maintain a dog that represents a breed's earliest dogs, be they native dogs for regional breeds or the creators' choices for more clearly man-made breeds. The most obvious appropriate adjustment is to align dogs for the breed's work. Working breed variations based on terrain or venue may be appropriate but also may eventually result in the formation of a new breed.

There are a small number of breeders and geneticists who are going against the tide and questioning these old breeders' tales but if the AKC continues to present these fallacies as the way to success, I fear for the future of purebred dogs. Purebred dogs are at a critical point. If we do not question what we have done in the past, if we do not use the vast advancements in genetics to guide our selection decisions and if we cannot be honest about each breed's appropriate use, future generations of breeders and dog owners will place well-deserved blame on our shoulders.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Peggy Sue is Now Tessa!

I am still getting calls and emails about Peggy Sue so I wanted to give you an update. Peggy Sue left earlier this week to join the family of our good friends, Marit and Lars Kulleseid. Marit and Lars already have one of our dogs, Loki, from the Baseball litter. Marit had been looking for another buddy for nearly two years but we hadn't found the right match.

Although I didn't remember it, Marit claims she told me she'd take Peggy Sue when the pups were only a few days old. She reminded me of that a few weeks ago after my vet had approved Peggy Sue's placement, positing that she would not need surgery on the bad leg. So, the whole family came over in stages to meet Peggy. Both Lars and Loki were taken with her and she was happy to meet them.

Peggy is now Tessa, Gaylan's Steel Magnolia. She lives in the next town over so I get to see her often. She has her own lake to swim in and mountains, fields and more to play in. I often train my dogs for field work on Marit and Lars's property so perhaps I'll see if Tessa wants to join in.

Marit took Tessa to the vet's yesterday. She also uses Jim Zgoda at Otterkill Animal Hospital, a great vet for anyone in the Hudson Valley who might be looking! She called me afterwards to say she felt like she was with a rock star. The entire clinic welcomed Tessa back as if she had won Best in Show at Westminster. Jim pronounced her healthy and sound, reassuring Marit that Tessa will be able to hike, swim, play and do everything that four-legged dogs do. Guess that fourth leg is just for insurance :-).

So the all of the Southerners are in their new homes and Andy and I can settle down for a long winter's nap. You will be able to see the pups with their new families on their webpage, once I get it updated. After that, you'll need to get out to agility trials, hunt tests or obedience trials from Florida to California to New York to keep up with these youngsters.

2009 was unusually busy for us since we sent four litters home during the year--the two-puppy Jimmy Buffet litter in January, the Gamebirds in June, the 4th of July litter in September and, as you know, the Southerners during the last week of the year. We've never done that much breeding before and probably won't ever again but it sure was a fun year to look back on.

Our next litter isn't due until July 2010 so I don't know how much I'll be posting on the blog. I hope you have enjoyed getting to know our puppies and how we raise them. I hope to blog a little about my thoughts on dogs and breeding but I can't promise anything so take care and all the best in 2010.

P.S. There are a few new photos and a video posted under Week 9.