Thursday, March 29, 2012

Genetic Diversity

We've been spending a lot of time discussing the effects of the health checks at Crufts, which will also be extended to other KC shows.
The Canine Alliance in the UK has voiced support of health testing for show dogs. It's clear that dog lovers want to breed healthy and fit dogs, but are veterinary exams at dog shows an effective method to improve breeding practices?
Science tells us that genetic diversity is needed for health. How will we achieve the goal of promoting diversity for health? This is an important area, and one that cannot be "judged" visually.
Austrian canine expert Dr. Hellmuth Wachtel has given permission to share this statement, in which he shares his opinion about the state of dog breeding today:
It is somewhat strange that nobody seems to know the basic reasons of
defect breeding, too much inbreeding and overly use of champion sires.
All of that is due to a breeding system that is not commensurate with
longtime breeding of healthy animals, though a main reason for this was already
recognized in 1965 by John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller, that wrote: "Thus
current dog breeding practices can be described as an ideal system for the
spread and preservation of injurious recessive genes."
It began in showbred pedigree dogs with the origin of the British KC
when standards where introduced. At this time, population genetics was
unknown and no changes introduced after 1930 when it was known. The
standards were based originally on a breed anatomy enabling the dog to
fulfill its then breed-specific function, called soundness. This definition
 can be found as late as  in 1982 (Harold R. Spira, Canine Terminology,)
but at this time many working breeds had already lost their occupation.
So soundness lost its original meaning and judges became free to assess
dogs according to their own taste, specifically in the breeds that had never
been working dogs before.
This opened the door to fashionable preferences and changing
appearances. As a result, inbreeding and sire overused increased
and in several breeds even defect breeding appeared.  All this happened
in spite of forums like especially cangen and other endeavours for
breeding according to the rules of populations genetics.
Yes, it took me long to understand the fundamental reasons of
this decline, for the main underlying cause are not the breeders,
but the judges acting in absence of vets, and this in a confusing show atmosphere
within 5 minutes or less so.
In order to try to stop the present bad direction dog breeding is taking,
I would suggest using a team of three specialists, a vet, a judge and an
experienced owner/breeder outside of a show, or the vet checks the
dogs first of all. Anyway, shows still remain important for information on dogs
 and dog breeding of every kind. Besides, vitality tests must become
Otherwise, I am afraid, no thorough change of the present decline can ever
be expected, for all endeavours for showdog breeding as a whole so far are
 in vain when judges continue to determine alone the destiny of breeds, and the
decline will increase.
Hellmuth Wachtel    

There is good reason for concern about the current state of the health of many of our breeds. Many health problems are breed-specific, like high uric acid in Dalmatians and retinal dysplasia in Collies. These problems became entrenched within breeds due to the established systems of breeding to popular sires and inbreeding to create "lines" with consistent type. When dogs of a less popular "type" are excluded from the gene pool, so are many of their beneficial genes as well!
Even if we can escape doubling up on recessive disease genes, through narrowing the gene pool to few individuals, we also tend to double up on genes for the immune system. This predisposes our dogs to all sorts of problems....autoimmune disease, poor tolerance to vaccines, and susceptibility to infectious disease. Diversity in the genes for the immune system is essential to maintain health, but our current system does not encourage variety and only rewards breeding to a narrow definition of "type" as delineated in a standard. Further narrowing of the gene pool happens due to the selection of a few "noteworthy" individuals in a breed in each generation...and many of them are already related to each other. The gene pool continues to shrink!
 AKC delineates the purpose for dog shows:
"Dog shows (conformation events) are intended to evaluate breeding stock.....The dog's conformation (overall appearance and structure), an indication of the dog's ability to produce quality puppies, is judged."

Is it a good idea to tighten up the requirements for a championship in the various kennel club systems? On the surface it seems wonderful; almost necessary. After all, the dogs who win the most are inevitably bred the most.
Probably, requiring a dog to pass not only a conformation exam but also various health exams as well as functional exams to become lauded or certified as a "champion" (and therefore ideal breeding material) would definitely narrow down the number of titlists from what we now see.

Then we would be breeding mostly desirable typy, functional dogs with good health.

Or would we?
Would we instead be narrowing down the gene pool to fewer and fewer individuals? This will eventually lead to poor health due to genetic impoverishment...pretty much the same undesirable system that we currently use.

Of course individual breeders would still be free to go outside the system and use their own discretion in selecting individuals to use in their breeding programs. They could still select mates to complement each others' weaknesses, regardless of their show-ring success.

It seems logical to want to breed the very best dogs, no? Can you envision the day when not only kennel clubs, but the government also will insist that only those individuals who pass a battery of conformation, health and functional challenges can be bred? Believe me, working on the legislative front I can say with certainty that this is exactly where we are heading. Iif it is decreed that dogs with weaknesses cannot be shown, or bred, we have a real problem. This requirement will start within Kennel Clubs and then the government will pick up the banner and extend such breeding requirments into law.

That's when we may really find ourselves in a worse genetic pickle.
This is not "paranoia"; it is already happening. Just check the laws in Los Angeles County if you don't believe me.
In LA County, one cannot get a breeding permit unless your dog is actively being shown or has a title. The dog must be registered within a registry approved by the county. The owner must belong to a breed club with an enforced code of ethics. Only one litter per household per year, as well.
This essentially means no cross-breeding and very limited breeding of only approved purebred dogs, by a very few approved breeders.

We need a system in place that embraces MORE individual dogs for recognition...not fewer. That allows breeders the creative license to crossbreed judiciously if necessary. And this is just how most all modern breeds were created in the first place....through creativity, not restriction.
And, the more restrictions placed on breeding by kennel clubs, the more restrictive laws we will see as a result.  HSUS is setting up a "Dog Breeders Advisory Council" to try to delineate breeding practices. You can be sure, they will continue to support severe restrictions based on any parameters they can come up with.

For the gene pools of the dogs, this would be disastrous! We need to use MORE of the dogs in each breed's gene pools. Not fewer. We need MORE people to breed and show dogs, not fewer.
Perhaps we could start to use a system more like the IABCA....where the strengths and weaknesses of the dogs are written on an evaluation form, and all dogs who fit the standard pass the conformation muster test. Then include the health checks as needed and the functional tests on a breed-by-breed basis. Any good dog can pass all these areas, not just "the best". With standards and judges less apt to reward only the so-called "best", we become more inclusive. More dogs will be bred, and gene pools will not narrow to produce disease as readily in the population.

I am scratching my head as to why so-called "welfarists" are promoting policies that would likely make our current dog show system worse. Rather than add to the numbers of dogs bred and shown, they wish to harshly restrict the playing field.
PETA and HSUS also claim to promote what is "best" for animals by actually killing them and pushing for legislative policies that result in decimation of domestic animal populations.

Actions speak louder than words. If we wish to promote health and diversity, then we need to work toward a playing field that is broader and more inclusive. While breed standards that encourage moderation are a great step, I don't see how vet checks at dog shows will change the current system to one that will broaden the gene pools, or stave off the attacks in the popular media against dog breeding in general.


  1. Both of these problems could be solved through outcrossing. You could breed Clumbers to Welsh springers and red and white cockers. Genetic diversity would go up. Eyes would get tighter. Two birds dead with one stone. No big effin' deal.

    You need to be careful of calling people animal rights activists.

    Some of the people you're calling animal rights activists hunt, fish, and readily eat meat and wear fur.

    This you're either with me or against me, zero sum game, is a losing strategy.

    1. Outcrossing should be allowed in current breeding systems, but in general, it is not. Education on the need for diversity needs to come first so that acceptance will follow. The Kennel Club can grant permission for an outcross program, but AKC leaves that to the individual clubs whose members are dead-set against outcrossing of any sort. Education in this area is sorely lacking.
      I need to be careful? That sounds rather like a threat. My evoloving opinion is that there is no clear divide between what we perceive as "welfare" concerns and the notion of "animal rights". It's all simply a matter of degree, not kind.
      I actually tagged myself as an animal rights activist because of my stance against unnecessary spay-neuter. In that, I am similar to those who oppose unnecessary crop-dock. Funny, eh?

    2. You can't buy in to the AR = AW = ethical treatment of animals. If you do then you give up all ground to AR regarding any and all issues of little w welfare. That's a losing strategy. That's giving them the high ground and the middle ground. It's vital to propose a system of ethical treatment of animals that is NOT based upon AR absolutism and granting animals rights and then turning those rights over to AR lawyers.

      We need to carve out a position that can stand apart from wack job AR fundies who think that dogs are tortured slaves by their mere existence and they need to be extinct, and the sort of empty "they are healthy because they are pure and I'm rich" arguments coming from the Fancy.

  2. Personally, I agree with the health checks that the UK has started to do at the shows. I believe that all dogs deserve a comfortable life and shouldn't have to have breathing difficulties or other problems. If the dogs without these problems are the ones who are winning, then I think it will do the breeds good. Just my own opinion

  3. FWIW I don't see that the KC approach offers any benefit in hindering the progressive restriction of gene pools, which is maybe the biggest but certainly at least one of the several elephants in the living room when it comes to breeding "purebred" dogs .

  4. There's a clear flaw in your argument. Dogs that go to shows aren't the ones that are in any way under-bred and thus under represented in the gene pool. There will be no loss of diversity what-so-ever by having a BOB dog not move on to group.

    How could there be? Group and BIS placements and wins only add to a dog being over bred. Failure to move on in no way prevents a dog from being bred at all, in fact the only thing it does is deny that dog a chance at two more ribbons. Big deal.

    The vet checks are a small hurdle, and it's pathetic that anyone would complain about having to jump it. Problem breeds where easy to spot issues are going to prevent them from passing these checks don't need to win ribbons at that level until they fix the problems. It's really that simple.

    The notion that there's a "genetic diversity" component here is a laugh. These dogs are already the least diverse and most over-bred dogs period.

    1. Chris, I think you are missing the larger picture here. Yes, show dogs generally lack diversity. We get that. But, declining numbers of registrations and more and more restrictions on the dogs that can be bred will eliminate even more options. The notion that only dogs that have passed a battery of trials should be bred, and throw all the rest away, is fast becoming not just kennel club philosophy but mainstream philosophy. Too many breeding (and showing) restrictions has caused problems stemming from lack of diversity, and increased restrictions that limit breeding options won't improve the situation.
      Just watch how fast the HSUS will push the recommendations from their Breeders Advisory Research Council into laws in the years ahead. We are already travelling down that road. This isn't just about a few winning dogs. It's about ALL dogs. How many breeders will there be in the years to come? Not many. Only those who are "responsible" will be permitted to breed, and to most people that means using purebred dogs with a winnowed gene pool, via a system that eliminates >99% of the dogs. It's quite frightening when you consider the ramifications.
      It's the law of unintended consequences. The more control we attempt to exert, the worse the situation will become. Breeders need creative freedom. That's the biggest problem with the attempt to produce conformation winners. That standard is a rather narrow concept to begin with, now let's narrow it even more with more rules. Hopefully people will begin to flee the current system and breed "outside the box" IF they will be allowed to do so, legally, in 5 or 10 years.
      I'm not optimisitic here. :(

    2. Declining registrations are a problem, the KCs are clearly not speaking to the wants and needs of breeders and buyers.

      But the only restrictions on which dogs can be bred are coming from the KCs. Closed stud books are the largest restriction.

      "only dogs that have passed a battery of trials should be bred" ... where is that logic coming from? Only the Fancy. There isn't a single BREEDING restriction on any of these failed dogs, so why are you pretending that there are?

      Such restrictions are the BREAD AND BUTTER of the "Responsible Breeder" mantra that comes from.... the Fancy.

      These tests in no way limit any breeding options at all.

      Don't put the "responsible" label off on the AR folks, it's the breeders who pushed that right along with them, hell, they probably started it and they certainly keep it alive today. I can find nonsense "responsible breeder" lists and must haves on fancy breeder sites and on purebred owners blogs... I doubt you can find any of that on a PeTA or HSUS website.

      That litmus test is part of the Fancy first and foremost.

      And these tests are not about ALL dogs at all, they are about the most over-bred dogs and the dogs most subject to abuses of population structure.

      Nor are these some HSUS ploy. These tests are clearly done to combat criticism that the KC has done nothing in response to the problems they have fostered in their system and to have some sort of argument against the claims of the AR types.

      The system that eliminates 99% of the dogs is the status quo. And you think that this minor change to that system is going to make it worse? I don't think so.

      I rather agree with Cynoanarchists take on Unintended Consequences versus your take.

      Unintended Consequences

      Denying ribbons is not control. And accentuating disease is a horrible way to claim "artistic license."

      These breeders are not being artistic, they are the exact opposite. They are derivative and degenerate, they do not create anew, heck I don't think you can even find many or any cases of people re-refining stock. I certainly don't see it in Border Collies.

      When the dogs were admitted for show in the US, no one took US dogs and refined them, they simply imported Australian stock (for the most part) and UK stock that had already been refined. Sort of lazy if you ask me.

      But again, you're acting as if this is a million times more than it is. It's a pathetic little health test and yet the fancy is responding like it's an atomic bomb. The public is not going to sympathize with people who claim to have the highest standards of health not being able to stomach even a little vet exam.

      Frankly your idea that this limits the gen pool is suspect. If dogs that have droopy eyes don't win any more, then the breeders are going to have to bring in more diverse stock to fix that problem. For some breeds that's going to require less popular dogs being bred and even outcrosses to other breeds.

      If breeders take this new challenge as a means to limit the pool to the few dogs they can find that are pure and don't have these issues, which is possible, then they are only doing so because they are indoctrinated to the point of suicide. The KC is willing to open the stud books for these dogs, so if the breeders choose to cut further, it's on them.

  5. When it becomes mainstream-accepted that certain breeds come with standard health issues, something has gone horribly wrong in the selective breeding process. If it were legal to create children with our idea of the perfect appearance, even if it meant that every green-eyed redhead would have respiratory problems or otherwise suffer, would you do it?

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