Seeking a Consistent Breeding Theory

We try to breed the perfect working dog, and we are rather successful, but the resulting dogs are heterogeneous, often despised by those who like the beautiful dog and a homogeneous breed. We try to breed the perfect standard dog and we sometimes nearly obtain it, but its working qualities are not the very best to lousy (yes, I know and recognize there are so many exceptions to these rules , so please hopefully you do not get inflamed as before at the long beauty versus working ability debate)

And dog health pays for it because we have not found a health and diversity sustaining breeding system yet.

But how come nature can breed wolves, jackals, foxes, nearly each one a perfect prey catcher and survival artist but each also a potential award winner in a fictitious wolf (jackal, fox) champion show?

I will try to give an (anyway unsatisfactory) answer to this enigma: selection is severe as can be, 80% of progeny do not reach adulthood, and only perhaps 10% are able to procreate. All those affected in the least by lack of resistance, ability to adapt, to be socially integrated etc. are the losers. The same must apparently apply to “wolf standard conformity”: While there is variation, no wolf that is in the least “untypical” (e.g. showing curly or piebald coat, overbite, pendulous ears, small eyes, entropion, cowhocks, etc) gets a chance to reproduce.

And all this is achieved without any close inbreeding and possibly with very little “line inbreeding” (linebreeding), as far as we know. At least under “normal” conditions as before man started to eradicate these carnivores. Today they partly live under “sexual emergency” conditions that regionally oblige to inbreed or even crossbreed (e.g. wolf and coyote). Animals form “demes” (big regional populations that prevailingly reproduce among themselves), while part of the offspring disperse and look for genetically distant partners, linking neighbouring demes genetically to some extent. In wolves, alpha females

on average are longer “in power” than alpha males what favors a “consecutive polyandric (more than one male per female) regime” as opposed to our disastrous polygynic “the top super male on possibly all females” breeding ideology. No doubt, however, alpha males are also “carefully selected”!

So we can summarize the wild canid situation: a population of many thousands (at least), so practically no drift (inbreeding effect by mere small population size), there is inbreeding avoidance and mate selection (for social status and “manners”, vitality, MHC too?), gender proportion tending to polyandry, severe selection for health, anatomical soundness – and for “standard conformity”!

What are the conclusions for dog breeding? We never can do without selection, and this selection must focus very much on health and performance (or functionality, this is the only form of selection that in part maintains and favors heterozygous loci). We should possibly avoid all “close breeding” (popular sire breeding, close and line inbreeding). We loose genetic diversity in every generation also by mere drift in small absolute and particular genetically effective populations). Under these conditions, standard conformity selection, unlike in wild carnivores, tends to exacerbate diversity loss. But we are handicapped, because our conformity selection (partly except selection for soundness, but what is soundness in a Peke?) overrides efforts for health selection.

Only real working dogs escape this impasse to some extent. But at least pet dogs have to be “beautiful”, so we cannot avoid it, if a market for the breed and thus a necessary population size can be maintained. Relicts of natural selection rapidly dwindle by ever-advancing veterinary standards, scientific food, reduced exposure to nature etc. Genetic defects produce ever-increasing additional losses of genetic diversity and reduce our remaining selecting potential.

We don’t have yet all the necessary knowledge to put up a 100% working consistent breeding theory and scheme as a tool to solve the problem, but we must try to begin thinking along new guidelines. However, the present defect situation, a result of a century of faulty breeding makes everything so much more complex and ambiguous.

About Dr Hellmuth Wachtel

A Viennese, near 80 (as at Feb 2005), graduated in agronomy specially animal breeding at the Vienna Agricultral University, working now twenty years as free consultant of the Austrian Kennel Club (ÖKV), member of the Scientific Advisory Board Vienna Schönbrunn Zoo, writer of articles and books on canine issues particularly on dog breeding.

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