For The Betterment of the Breed

Published in the Summer 2008 Dirty Beards Quarterly, Volume 18, Number 2

“For the betterment of the breed.” This phrase, so often voiced to explain the decision to plan a litter and the choice of sire and dam, is an overused and too frequently an inappropriate statement. Most often the motivation for planning a litter does not take into consideration the overall health of the breed population. Rather, it is based on much narrower objectives.

Before considering what breeding for the betterment of breed health entails, let’s first briefly consider some of these more limited objectives. What are they and, more importantly, do they really matter?

Is producing a litter simply to sell puppies acceptable in and of itself? If the breeding stock and puppies are kept in optimum conditions, if the choice of sire and dam is based on good health and temperament, and if the puppies are all placed in good homes, then the outcome can be a positive one. (Of course, if all those conditions are met, selling puppies is highly unlikely to be profitable; but, that discussion is for another time.) And, depending on the pedigree and genetics of the breeding stock the litter may, or may not, be of benefit to overall breed health.

What about the “show breeder” striving to produce an animal that will most closely embody the breed standard? Is breeding for the competitive advantage for the human owners in the show ring a desirable aspiration? If this is the primary goal, placed above health and temperament and without a view towards maintaining genetic diversity, breeding for competitive advantage may not necessarily be for the betterment of the breed as a whole.

What about having a litter so the kids can experience the miracle of life, or because a family member wants a puppy, or the case of an accidental breeding? There are many reasons expressed for producing a litter, but rarely do these fulfill the broader goal of maintaining breed health.

As it pertains to the larger concept of overall breed health, the intention behind producing a litter is not what really matters. Rather what matters most is the choice of breeding stock. And choice of breeding stock includes more than health testing of sire and dam. Under modern conditions potentially the most serious threat to many breeds, including the Bouvier, is the overuse of a limited number of stud dogs, often referred to as POPULAR SIRE SYNDROME.

Choosing to breed to an already overused popular sire does not serve the Betterment of the Breed regardless of the first generation conformation. Without delving into a scientific discussion of genetics, let’s use as an illustration an oversimplified scenario of considering the genetic material in terms of different hues of color. Consider the closed pool (in our case the AKC stud book) within a breed as a full palette of distinct colors, or hues.

For purposes of this illustration, first imagine there are 50 individual breeders who each breed within a different group of loosely related dogs. Presume that these 50 breeders are not breeding repeatedly to the same stud dog within the loosely related group but are fully utilizing all relatives that meet health and temperament requirements. Each of these 50 breeders is breeding within groups of stock that are NOT closely related to any of the other 49 breeders’ groups. This would allow each breeder to “go out” on occasion to a dog from one of the other 49 groups of animals without greatly altering their own group overall.

Now imagine the genetic material within each breeders “group” collectively as a slightly different hue of color from every other breeder’s group. This creates in your mind’s eye a full palette (i.e. breed-wide diversity) of many colors.

An occasional mixing (outcross) of a small percentage of another color on the palette will not be enough to dilute a given hue to the point that it will be transformed into one of the other distinct colors. Add to this the idea that the artist wants to keep each color balanced to remain distinct; thus, if a light color is added at one point, then the next time a dark color might be added so that the hue is not changed dramatically over time. You can see that the palette does not lose colors (diversity) under this system.

Now, conversely, imagine what happens if ALL 50 breeders choose to breed to one of the three or four top-winning and frequently used stud dogs. In time each of the 50 individual groups begin to converge to a common hue. If this pattern of breeding to the same few stud dogs prevails, in a few short generations the ENTIRE (we’re emphasizing for purposes of illustration, so remember not to take it literally) gene pool has now been narrowed tremendously – i.e. all the hues are mixed together and would eventually result in all groups being the same dark color.

While the dogs may be quite appealing to the eye, where can the 50 breeders go to reclaim lost hues in their populations all of the same dark color? When a serious genetic health threat occurs, where do the 50 breeders now go to find unrelated animals to breed to? (Or, to extend the metaphor, how can they lighten the hues if all available colors are dark?)

In our exaggerated scenario there would be no escape from the deleterious genetic health problems now revealed and spread breed-wide. Once all the hues are mixed together – when there is less genetic diversity – eradicating a problem becomes a much more difficult task in the narrowed gene pool than in the palette of hues we began with.

There is an excellent article titled “The Price of Popularity: Popular Sires and Population Genetic” by C. A Sharp. The article can be found at: http://www.canine-genetics.com/Popular_sires.htm The concluding paragraphs of the article are:

“We need a total re-thinking of how we utilize stud animals. No single dog, no matter how superior, should dominate the gene pool of its breed. Owners of such sires should give serious consideration to limiting how often that dog is used, annually, through its lifetime and on into the future, if frozen semen is stored. The stud owner should also look not only at the quality of the bitches being presented, but their pedigrees. How much will the level of inbreeding be increased by a particular mating?

“The bitch owner also needs to think twice about popular sires. If you breed to the stud of the moment and every one else is doing the same, where will you go when it comes time to make an outcross?

“Finally, the attitude toward genetic disease itself has to change. It must cease being everyone’s dirty little secret. It must cease being a brick with which we bludgeon those with the honesty to admit it happened to them. It must become a topic of open, reasoned discussion so owner of stud and bitch alike can make informed breeding decisions. Unless breeders and owners re-think their long-term goals and how they react to hereditary problems, the situation will only get worse.”

Perhaps, for the true betterment of the breed, it’s time that we consider more comprehensive objectives for our breeding programs. In the event of a genetic health crisis, we need to have the complete genetic heritage of the breed at our disposal.

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