The Canine Species dog "Canis familiaris" has been around for a very long time. Breeds have come and gone but some things always remain the same within the creation and longevity of each breed. There are many things that go into the breeding of dogs and include the mistakes of mankind on the general health of our breeds today.
What is a breed?
To put the question more precisely, what are the necessary conditions that let us say with conviction, "this group of animals are a distinct breed?" There are three separate thoughts that combine to constitute canine breeds.
In order for canine breeds to carry out what they were put here for effectively, all of the above must be considered. These three distinct targets must have equal importance otherwise serious problems arise. Breeds cannot be distinguished by ancestry alone, by purpose alone, or by breed standards alone. Unless these three targets of breed identity interrelate fully and cooperatively, the fullness of that identity is missing or marred. Unfortunately, this full and cooperative interrelationship is a rarity in today's world of dog breeds. In most instances the criteria of ancestry is applied strictly using pedigrees; the criteria of purpose and utility are often overlooked or not considered at all; the criteria of breed standards are generally applied in a highly exaggerated, obsessive fashion as when breeds turn into clones of one another and one is not accepted over another variation of the same type. The interaction of all three approaches is seldom carried out and almost never is there a long term effort made at integrating all three.
We hear more and more these days about genetic defects, and with good reason. Many breeds we used to think of as natural, hardy types - even tough Arctic animals like Samoyeds, Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes - are now routinely screened for four or five different genetically related problems. These include deep-seated, serious disorders: central-nervous-system problems such as epilepsy, and immune-system problems. In addition to hip dysplasia, we now worry about osteochondritis (shortened and bowed legs), elbow and patella dysplasia, half a dozen distinct eye problems, and more.
At first it was thought that x-rays, screening and selection would ensure genetic health for our dogs. But 30 years of hip x-rays have not wiped out HD, although progress has been made in some breeds. Now after three decades of the OVC program it has been pretty well established that "clear" animals with several generations of "clear" ancestry can nonetheless produce dysplastic progeny. The same is applied to many other defects which screening programs have been developed for. It is now widespread in breeds in which it was not a problem thirty years ago.
Screening and selection for one defect is fine. But what do you do when, suddenly, five or six different problems must be tested for? Veterinary costs soar. You must select against so many traits that your breeding program is turned upside down. You cannot manage a four- to six-way screening schedule and still select for working ability, breed type and conformation. In a small kennel on limited funds, breeding only two litters a year, it just isn't practical.
The books on dog breeding hold no real answers but are useful guides. They tell us how to use inbreeding, line breeding, out crossing, and teach us the basics of Mendelian genetics, but these help to manage one or two traits at a time. Genes don't sort themselves out one trait at a time! Genes are linked together in groups. The good the bad and the ugly. While we were all busy inbreeding and line breeding to 'fix' the desirable traits of breed type and conformation, something else happened along with it and now we are producing a steady increase in unwanted traits that we call genetic defects.
It is wonderful when you can lock in traits that are conducive to good look, health and temperament. Unfortunately a lot of times we see a great looking dog with a fair temperament but what they are carrying for health is less than perfect. The problem is that these traits can not be easily seen nor detected by tests or screening. So if you breed a dog like this with the same type of dog the bad traits come to the forefront. There is another problem with this too. There has been some mathematical equations done on harmful traits that are carried in dogs. For example: to reduce the expression of the albino gene in humans from one in ten thousand to one in one million, simply by not allowing albino individuals from having children, would require nine hundred generations of such selective breeding to accomplish! This is one of several reasons why screening programs, although perhaps profitable for the veterinary profession, are of questionable effectiveness, since they identify only the dogs that are actually affected by the defect.
There has been an upsurge in genetic problems. The media and government have stood at attention to it making it obvious that radical change is needed. Time-honored breeding practices are now labeled "genetic genocide." If we cannot breed healthy, hardy, happy dogs, there are those in our society who will question whether we have the right to breed at all.
To go a bit more into
detail about the whole issue there are several aspects to look at.
The breeder often assumes that he no longer in the realm of natural selection and that only artificial selection plays a significant role in his breeding program. Meaning that breeders select what is to be bred rather than nature taking its course and selecting who is bred to who regardless of the outcome or esthetic aspects. Nothing could be further from the truth. The breeder may attempt to
abandon natural selection; natural selection, however, will not abandon his breeding animals. As
one geneticist puts it:
"Man imposed characteristics, however, like the flowers colors and shapes selected by the plant breeder, they usually do not perturb the deep set genetic variability systems of the plants. Most changes that man made are reversible when a less restricted gene pool is used.
Those who attempt to
set aside the balanced gene that you get by natural selection must
struggle from then on to attain and to maintain fitness in their stock.
Artificial selection alone, which is commonly used to produce winning show
dogs, involves breeding in a way which absolutely
disregards most of the traits in the makeup of the dog. Since all these traits are lined up and linked together within the dogs overall makeup some good traits and some bad traits come along together. So if you are breeding strictly for looks, some bad traits that you may not be aware of are also being bred and locked into the dog too. This may be a major factor in the current prevalence of genetic diseases. The dogs may become attractive to the eyes of judges but healthy and hardy animals can no longer be produced. So even though they have been selected by what we see along with high level nutrition, and advanced veterinary care, at a deeper level the dogs become genetically unsound.
In our quest for breed purity, the superior strain, and classic type, in many breeds and in many instances 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 blood disorders, deliberate deformity, and often even the inability to reproduce their kind without breeder and veterinary intervention. How clever man has been!
Can we clear away the mess and try to do better? Can we not learn from bad experience and how history has repeated itself over and over in many many breeds? To imitate more closely the methods of nature and to work more within the natural system might be a better approach. It might be noted here that what happens in dogs also happens in all other domestic animals, plants and even humans.
In order for inbreeding and line breeding to be successful the breeder must develop at least two or three inbred bloodlines and then take those dogs and breed them together. This ensures that the best of the best is bred with less chances of harmful traits showing up. This allows the bloodline to gain the great traits yet leave enough variation to bring out the best health, looks and temperament of future generations. It leaves the animals with a balanced system leading to a higher degree of overall fitness. Another way to accomplish this is to look at the dogs you are breeding and breed similar to similar but with different background and unrelated history.
So what do we do now?
We must keep our genetic inflow diverse. The Rat Terrier is one of several breeds today that is genetically quite diverse. The different types and individuals that exist today are far reaching. There are many different avenues that one can go down to retain and maintain them in a healthy fashion.We
must recognize that dogs are unique individuals and that there is no positive value in trying to create groups of dogs which are all clones or photocopies of a type specimen represented by a breed standard in an overly exaggerated way. We must keep a perspective on creating a dog that is admired for it wonderful looks and to win ribbons alone. A great looking dog that is unhealthy is only heartbreaking for the owner. A dog loves to perform what it instinctually holds whether it be hunting, companionship, running or just being a dog. To take away what the dog likes to do best would be like taking our TV's away, not having that morning cup of coffee or not having a big bowl of ice cream when we feel like it.
Lets all take a deep breathe, read this article again and think about what we as owners, breeders, clubs, registries and humans really want for our beloved friend the "dog".