Can it Really Work? Picture

I can hear someone objecting, after having thought about the idea of a breeding and registry system in which outcross breeding was actually encouraged, "Surely this system will produce some dogs which are not even recognisable representatives of their breeds! What happens then?" Typological thinking dies hard. I used to worry lest my Siberian breeding programme should one day produce a dog or dogs whose ears were not fully erect. It never happened. Instead something much worse happened when I found that I was producing some dogs who ran a high risk of being unable to lead a healthy, normal canine existence, through endocrine malfunctions, immune system weakness, and the risk of blindness. To think I had worried about the possibility of a tipped ear, something which would not handicap or bother the dog in the least! Let me say the following, then, to those who worry that a balanced-heterozygote breed will engender "untypical" examples. It is far better that our breeding occasionally engender a dog deficient in breed type, than that we should consistently produce large numbers of dogs guaranteed to lead lives of suffering, creating anxiety, large veterinary bills, frustration and unhappiness for their owners. That is what we are doing now. Over sixty percent of Golden Retrievers, for example, will suffer from hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis or osteochondritis in their lifetimes. Is that to be preferred to the possibility of producing an occasional robust "mutt" lacking in breed type but who will nonetheless still make someone an excellent, happy, healthy companion? I am sure that it would take awhile for all of us to learn how to breed in this new and different way; I suppose we might produce occasional oddities in the process. Yet I am absolutely convinced that the good results we would quickly achieve would more than make up for the embarrassment of our failures. At the very least we should all have clean consciences once again, knowing that we were making our best efforts, using up-to-date genetic knowledge, to produce sane, healthy, robust canine companions. Let us not forget that as DNA mapping procedures advance (there are at least two canine genome mapping projects now underway) our tools are going to improve and our ability to predict what our breedings may produce will be greatly enhanced.

As things now stand, the dog fancy is in a position which is frankly untenable. The CKC Board of Directors has unilaterally committed "reputable breeders" to the proposition of guaranteeing the "future genetic good health" of the dogs they sell. Yet those same breeders have no means of protecting themselves from the looming spectre of financial ruin should they be held to such a guarantee, otherwise to the loss of public credibility. Other than the continued elaboration of screening programmes and the Advanced Registry proposal, both of which are somewhat like applying an adhesive bandage to a severed artery, nothing is being done about making guarantees of genetic health a workable proposition. At present, purebred breeds -- all breeds -- show levels of genetic defects totally inconsistent with the practical maintenance of the Board's policy. Many honest, caring breeders are racked by torments of guilt and self-reproach brought on by the sufferings of defective dogs, yet it is really no fault of the breeders themselves! The fault, as has been demonstrated in this brief, lies with the closed studbook and the inbreeding system. If the consensus of the Club is truly that purchasers of purebred dogs have a right to expect genetically healthy animals, then the Board has no choice other than to do everything in its power to change the existing system so that healthy animals may once again be reliably produced! That will never happen just through Advanced Registries, higher Championship point requirements, more screening programmes, and Board policy pronouncements. The Club must take to heart the lessons of population genetics. It must open its studbooks to outcross stock on a permanent basis. It must take measures against the obsessive pursuit of breed type and the worship of breed purity, measures which will increase the health, utility, trainability and sanity of purebred dogs, measures which will balance the elements of breed identity. There are no credible "soft options" left.

One unfortunate reality which must be faced, however, in order to bring about any major changes involving the CKC will be the conservatism and resistance to change of the Board and of the "old hands" -- the ruling oligarchy of the Club. The CEO and the Board will almost certainly aggressively defend the status quo no matter how urgent the need for change. At present, for example, they turn down requests for the registration of new foundation animals with statements such as this one: "The CKC takes pride in registering dogs based on accurate and complete information and we will continue to strive for these high standards." Yet when that statement was written, the Club was still registering Canadian-bred litters whose parentage information was supported only by a signed registration application form filled out by the owners of the dam and sire. Under that system of information gathering it is regularly necessary for the Board to cancel litter registrations when it becomes evident that the parents of some litters are not both of the same breed. No one knows how many litters go unchallenged which, although purebred with both parents of the same breed, have their parentage misrepresented because the actual sire of the litter is not the dog entered on the application form. In the absence of DNA testing, how can the substitution of sires be detected?

Meanwhile the United Kennel Club, a "dissident registry" in Kalamazoo, MI, USA, which now registers about a quarter of a million dogs annually, has already instituted a process for the verification of parentage by DNA profiling! This is the first time that DNA profiling has been made routinely available to dog breeders, and UKC is the first canine registry in the world to offer such assurance of verified parentage. Innovations such as this make the Club's defensive statements about its high standards sound rather hollow.

Anyway, those of us who seek reform will have to contend with a Club establishment which will attempt to make a virtue of the very things which most threaten the genetic health of CKC dog breeds: the closed studbook, the breed purity concept, the endless inbreeding, the constant refinement of type, the pre-eminence of the Championship show, Those who dare to challenge the existing system will have to put up with being made to look foolish or even villainous by the solemn pronouncements of the old guard. We should all realise that the Club establishment is unlikely to initiate serious action for change in the absence of grass-roots pressure from the general membership. It is up to us to initiate serious dialogue along the lines outlined in this brief, to research ways and means to promote a different, healthier method of purebred dog breeding, and to raise the consciousness both of novices and of old hands regarding the genetic dilemma which now faces us.

Deep structural change cannot occur without widespread debate among fanciers, because new and different concepts sound threatening when they are first described. Once the reasoning behind them has been adequately discussed, the threat often disappears. Someone may ask, for example, "What about these open-ended Breed Standards? A Bell-curve statistical description of a breed's height standard may be an adequate formula, but what if the mean is set at 22.5 inches and you don't disqualify the 25-inch dogs. Then maybe in a few years the mean may drift upward to around 24 inches, with hardly a single dog under 22 inches. What then?" My answer would be that the whole point of the balanced-heterozygote system is its healthy flexibility. A stubborn insistence on narrow tolerances in matters such as height at withers usually involves the sacrifice of other worthwhile qualities anyway, as too many otherwise good animals must be discarded only because they are a shade over standard, In the balanced system described, nothing at all need be lost. If the height mean of a 22.5-inch breed should drift upward to 24 inches, it would be because most of the breeders wanted a taller dog! Since the breed club would be advising breeders, measuring and rating dogs, maybe even suggesting matings, this sort of gradual change would occur only with the knowledge and acquiescence of the breed club, representing all active breeders. Under a heterozygous plan with mainly assortative matings, nothing whatever is lost in such a gradual change. Should the height drift upwards and, later on, the breeders decide upon a return to the original mean, a simple shift in the emphasis of assortative mating will accomplish such a return easily, smoothly, with no genetic loss and no disturbance of other traits.

The whole idea of a dynamically balanced heterozygous breeding system is the retention of as much healthy genetic diversity as possible. Such diversity makes it easy for a breed to develop and progress in whatever direction its breeders wish. It also ensures that genetic problems are kept to a minimum no matter what changes of standard may occur. In the statically balanced homozygous system now in force, the more homozygosity increases with time and selective breeding, the harder it becomes for major change to occur naturally and easily, and the more pronounced genetic problems become. Once an allele has been "fixed" in homozygosity, no amount of selection can change that trait; only radical outcrossing can restore the lost alleles and such outcrosses will always upset the static balance completely, necessitating years of remedial inbreeding and selection, probably creating new genetic problems. I am convinced that a system based on a dynamic equilibrium of healthy dominant genes must inevitably be better than one which throws away most of the healthy genetic diversity in order to achieve static stability for homozygous recessive traits.

It is worth noting that the new system, if carried out at all conscientiously, would mean more work per dog for everyone. Breeders would necessarily invest more time and effort in their breeding stock in order for it to pass breed club requirements. This is by no means a negative factor. One ongoing problem in our society is that of large numbers of unwanted pets. Another related problem for the purebred fancy is substandard dogs produced by the non-serious "backyard" breeder and the puppy-mill profiteer. The suggested reform measures would discourage exploitative factions and reduce considerably the overall number of purebred dogs, while raising greatly the overall quality levels and ensuring that practically all purebred dogs were valuable, cherished, and wanted by their breeders and owners. The new system would greatly increase the inherent value of purebred canine stock. Purebred would then mean much more than just a paper certificate!

Next...
To this article's index page