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.