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.