Achieving Genetic Health for Our Dogs – Part 2

The Demise of Typological Thinking

DNA RESEARCH has radically changed zoological concepts of species, subspecies and varieties. In the nineteenth century and the first half of this century it was thought that a species could be represented by a type specimen, that the vast majority of individuals of a species were virtual photocopies of the type specimen, genetically speaking, and that the genetic norm for most species was homozygous at most loci. In the mid-1960s the credibility of that idea was shattered as electrophoresis protein studies revealed extensive protein polymorphism that had not been previously suspected (Carson, 1983). Today the concept of a species in a satisfactory state of genetic health invokes a state of “dynamic balance” in which the species genome contains an array of genotypes with a high degree of heterozygosity, with multiple alleles at many gene loci. Natural selection is now thought to favour heterozygotes in a way which tends toward a high state of natural variability, preserving the greatest variety of possibilities with which a species can meet new environmental challenges. Conversely, species which have lost most of their genetic diversity, often through accidental population “bottlenecks” similar to those which regularly occur in purebred dogs, are held to be in high risk of extinction through the loss of adaptive capability. (The most notorious example is the cheetah, which is almost totally homozygous and is thought to have undergone at some time a bottleneck reducing its population to a tiny handful of specimens.)

There is no reason why dog breeds also cannot be maintained in a balanced state of heterozygosity, analogous to that of healthy wild animal species, if typological thinking in the dog fancy could somehow be replaced (or at least tempered) with population thinking. Fanciers will generally admit that no dog conforms perfectly to its breed standard. Thus the concept of the perfect type specimen, to which an entire breed ought to conform as closely as possible, is really as foreign to dog breeds as it is to animal species in the wild.

THE FANATICAL PURSUIT of breed type to the exclusion of other more important factors (more important to the dog, to his owner, and to his veterinarian) has led to a distinctly unhealthy situation in most breeds. Since the majority of breeders within CKC seem to direct their efforts toward the production of a winning exhibition specimen, and since many breeders therefore breed their females to the males that do the most winning at dog shows, a situation has arisen in which continued effort to produce show winners leads consistently to greater and greater exaggerations of “type,” that being the factor most susceptible to the off-the-cuff three-minute analysis of the breed ring. It is an accepted fact that strong incest breeding is the fastest route to this kind of “success”; here is one successful show breeder’s recipe for “excellence” (de Boer and de Boer, DOGS in Canada, April 1994):

“My approach would be to identify an outstanding, dominant stud dog. Let’s call him ‘Shadrack.’ To improve the odds, I’d buy or lease three bitches whose grandsire on the dam’s side was the same as Shadrack’s sire. Let’s call the grandsire ‘Fashion Hint.’ I would breed the Fashion Hint bitches to Shadrack.

“Assume, in this first generation, that I get three nice bitches. For the second generation, I’d breed them to a half-brother of these three bitches (Shadrack’s son, also a dominant sire). For the third generation, several ‘mix and match’ options include going back to Fashion Hint or Shadrack. I could also do brother-to-sister or father-to-daughter breeding.”

Thus the quest for more and more refined breed type leads directly to a state of advanced homozygosity, rising inbreeding coefficient, low effective breeding population and consequent impoverishment of the gene pool in most CKC breeds, through rampant uncontrolled incest breeding.

THE SHOW RING has also been largely responsible for the decline of breed purpose, working ability and temperament in a great many breeds, notably sporting breeds, herding breeds and sleddog breeds. The quick and easy gratification of blue ribbons and gilt trophies all too readily supplants the hard work necessary to preserve and advance canine working abilities. If our dog breeds are to conform to the ideal of “a sound mind in a sound body” (as advocated by the proponents of the Advanced Registry), the fancy must find some way of ensuring that less dog-breeding takes place along the lines of least resistance and cheap gratification, so that greater attention is paid to working characteristics, temperament and trainability. A balanced outlook on breed identity must be restored by integrating canine function with the ideals of conformation, beauty and “type.” All kinds of dogs, toy breeds not excepted, can perform useful functions and respond to training. Those aspects of the fancy should be accorded an importance at least fully equal to that of type and conformation instead of being regarded as merely optional. For example, breeding and exhibition of utility breeds such as gundogs and sleddogs merely for sale as pets and for dog shows, with no effort made to maintain and advance their working capabilities, is an obvious abuse which must lead inevitably to mental and physical degeneracy in those breeds.

Abandoning Natural Selection

THE BREEDER of domestic stock often assumes that he has abandoned the realm of natural selection and that only artificial selection plays a significant role in his breeding programme. Nothing could be further from the truth. The breeder may attempt to abandon natural selection; natural selection, however, will not abandon his stock. As one geneticist puts it:

. . . Man-imposed characteristics, however, like the flower colours and forms selected by the plant breeder, usually do not perturb the deep-set genetic variability systems of the species. Most such changes are reversible when a less restricted gene pool is restored. The ‘balance’ system appears to be retained by natural selection, which, perhaps paradoxically, pervades most systems of artificial selection.

–Hampton L. Carson, The Genetics of the Founder Effect, 1983

Those who attempt to set aside the balanced genomes arrived at by natural selection must struggle thereafter to attain and to maintain fitness in their stock. There is more to this than mouthing platitudes about “soundness.” Artificial selection alone, such as that used to produce winning exhibition dogs, involves breeding in a way which flagrantly disregards most of the gene loci in the canine genome. Since genes assort in groups on chromosomes (a phenomenon known as “linkage”), inbreeding and selection for desired traits of superficial appearance unavoidably affect many other genes which are inadvertently selected and often fixed in a homozygous state in total ignorance of what is happening. This may be a major factor in the current prevalence of genetic diseases. Thus natural selection, baulked for a season by artificial selection, high-level nutrition, and advanced veterinary care, reasserts its primacy at a deeper and more serious level when the new genome as set up by the breeder proves flawed through genetic unsoundness, so that healthy and hardy animals can no longer be produced, however typey and attractive to the eyes of the judges the result may be.

Declining vigour caused by the inadvertent fixation of sublethal and subvital alleles will not be made up for by breed points. Fitness criteria may not be replaced with impunity by aesthetic criteria. The animal’s environment is the ultimate arbiter of its fitness and will not be denied its say. You may vaccinate the dog and dose him with antibiotics, feed him with vitamins and minerals as you like, enclose him in a sterile pathogen-free laboratory environment if it comes to that! Still natural selection may not be avoided; it only emerges at a deeper level. In a sense the dog’s environment includes his own physical body; if the genes which blueprint his physiology are flawed, then the dog is doomed regardless of his beauty and classic breed type. The truth is that the “superior strain” cannot be produced by manmade breeding programmes and artificial selection; the breeder’s decisions are subject to nature’s veto at all times.

WITH WHAT, THEN, will the breeder replace natural selection? If he replaces it with profit, the degeneracy of his stock will in the end put him out of business as veterinary costs and death eat up his profit margin. If he replaces it with beauty contests, in the end his beautiful contest winners will engender weaklings and degenerates. If he replaces it with screening programmes for the “elimination of genetic defects,” in the end his stock will succumb to inbreeding depression as bitches fail to whelp naturally and puppies die in the nest. If he replaces it with veterinary care, in the end his stock will die prematurely of incurable cancer, or the young will fall prey to viral diseases despite repeated polyvalent vaccinations. If he replaces it with work and austerity, his stock may endure awhile longer, but in the end it will turn out to be afflicted with genetic ills that slipped through his demanding programme, or its performance will mysteriously decline as the inbreeding coefficient creeps upward. In the end, natural selection cannot truly be replaced with artificial criteria. The breeder must find a way to work with natural selection, within the framework of what is now known about the biological operation of the natural world. We in the canine fancy must begin to take lessons from wildlife biologists, from evolutionary biologists, from population geneticists.

In our quest for breed purity, the superior strain, and classic type, we have made a sad mess of our dogs — with unhappy, neurotic temperaments, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, immune system weakness, skin diseases, blood disorders, endocrine system malfunctions, crippling bone disorders, deliberate deformity, and often even the inability to reproduce their kind without breeder and veterinary intervention. How clever we have been!

Can we not now take a clear-sighted view, as the millennium turns slowly over, of what we have done — of our own pitifully-flawed creation in our world of purebred dogs and, like mature, intelligent people, clear away the mess and try to do better? Can we not learn from bad experience? If we would be truly clever, we might attempt to imitate more closely the methods of nature, to work within the natural system, albeit for our own ends. That would indeed be clever. I think that that is now possible, if we would but step outside our own incestuous little purebred world and learn something of what people working in other zoological fields of endeavour have already learnt.

A Century of Nineteenth-Century Dog Breeding

HOW, THEN, may we set about correcting the accumulated errors of over a century of what we might call nineteenth-century dog breeding? First of all it might be wise to attempt a short-list cataloguing the errors and abuses of which we are aware, the areas known to be deficient in one way or another.

— Dog shows must come high on the list. They began as an arena for the evaluation of breeding stock, they continued in the form of the “bench show” as a public showcase for purebred dogs. Both functions are now ill-served if not virtually abandoned. Championship shows are now just that, mills for the production of Champions, Best in Show and Group winners, little more. They contribute almost nothing to the true welfare of dog breeds; they have few lasting positive values to offer breeders, only ephemeral fads and fashions.

— Breed purpose and the cultivation of canine utility have a low status in the fancy, compared to what one author called “the glitz and hype of the show world.” Those who concern themselves with the working ability of their dogs exist mostly in ghettos where little communication takes place with other branches of the fancy.

— Obedience work, begun as a way of initiating dog owners into the fascination and technique of training one’s pet to be a pleasant, well-behaved companion, has become largely ritualised and sterile. The pursuit of “Club 200” (the perfect point score) has become an obsession. Intelligent and useful training on the owner’s part, intelligent obedience on the dog’s part, are now beside the point. What matters all too frequently now is the minutely-perfect performance of a set ritual. Here again we find a canine ghetto.

— The worship and exaggeration of type, as already noted, is responsible for a multitude of ills.

— Modern registries based on a rigidly-closed studbook are throttling the genetic health of all registered dog breeds. Genetic impoverishent is now a real and present threat. Many breeds now bear a genetic load of defects which has grown totally unmanageable as their respective gene pools have become more and more narrow through imprudent breeding and selection practices.

— Incest breeding, once a convenient tool for the rapid fixation of type in newly-registered breeds, has become virtually standard practice for those who seek success in dog breeding. The net effect has been the decimation of gene pools, widespread homozygosity and the unintended fixation of unknown scores, hundreds or thousands of alleles, many of which are proving to be harmful or lethal to the animals that bear them.

— The CKC, born in the height of the Victorian era, seems to cling to cumbersome structures, making it difficult for the Club to respond in a timely fashion to external challenges or internal needs. The entire By-Law and Amendment structure could do with modernisation. Many members feel there is little justification for such practices (for example) as the three-year member apprenticeship proviso, under which new members (or old ones who for whatever reason have let their membership lapse for a year or more) are completely disenfranchised for anywhere from three to five-plus years (inasmuch as elections and referenda are triennial), costing the Club dearly in lost members and wasted talent. Many members also feel that Board of Directors initiatives are frequently arbitrary and undertaken hastily with insufficient grass-roots consultation, while initiatives from the general membership must go through a slow and cumbersome multi-stage routine before they can be acted upon. One feels a general atmosphere within the Club of elitism and ultra-conservatism, as if those in power felt that only they themselves, the “old hands,” knew what is good for purebred dogs and the fancy, and that newer members should not be entrusted with the franchise.

— Breed clubs seem to possess little real power to represent breeders or their breeds effectively. Special measures which they may feel essential for the health, development, and protection of the breeds whose breeders they represent must be put through the centralist CKC system and approved by the Board before they become effective; often such measures have little chance of approval because they are felt to conflict with the rigid all-breed norms of the Club. Since breed clubs have relatively little real power, they often tend to be less than fully representative of all breeders of a particular breed. Frequently they are more or less run by cliques; they waste much time and effort in wrangling and personalities, being perhaps inadequately supervised and not taken terribly seriously.

— Breeders, as well, are sometimes far from free to make their own responsible decisions for the best interests of their own dogs and bloodlines, being closely constrained by CKC By-laws and by the Animal Pedigree Act. Little discretion is given them regarding matters such as the withholding of registration papers, delaying registration of stock until it reaches physical maturity, the introduction of new genetic material when in their judgment it is needed for genetic health, etc.

MANY OF THE ABUSES and deficiencies not rooted in outmoded attitudes such as racism and elitism arise from misunderstandings of genetic realities. Let us, in Part 3, now examine briefly a few points of up-to-date genetic theory as they relate to purebred dog populations.

About Jeffrey Bragg

Jeffrey Bragg is Chair of The Working Canine Association of Canada , breeds Seppala Siberian Sleddogs and resides in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Speak Your Mind

*