About 18 years ago, members of the GSDCA who were alarmed by the increasing number of diseases they were seeing in the breed began sharing health information in online communities and chatrooms. Their driving concern was the welfare of the breed, and openly discussing genetics and bloodlines brought to light serious health problems inherent in excessive inbreeding. For some of us, the choice was clear: sacrifice winning in the show ring for healthier progeny. The course a brave cadre of breeders chose was to incorporate bloodlines from other countries into their breeding program thus providing a larger gene pool and hopefully the "hybrid vigor" that generations of inbreeding had compromised. Now, after several generations of "outcrossing" American bloodlines with imported bloodlines, this experiment has indeed shown to produce healthier puppies with more stable temperaments. The added bonus has been that structurally our dogs are correctly balanced and conform to the Standard far better than dogs bred for the extreme fashion of whatever craze is currently popular in the show ring.
We are proud to be among those pioneering GSD breeders willing to invest the large amount of time and money necessary to save the breed we love. If you think "save" is an exaggeration, just talk to long time breeders honest enough to admit what they were seeing in their litters. The situation had become so dire many breeders of showline GSDs had resigned themselves to losing puppies to a laundry list of life threatening genetic diseases including megaesophagus, down pasterns, pancreatic insufficiency, epilepsy, and heart abnormalities. For breeders practicing intense linebreeding, their pedigrees were becoming a death sentence, and an unsuspecting "pet" buying public would suffer the consequences. Not only had health suffered, but temperaments were becoming a disgrace. Temperaments were becoming so soft it took intensive socialization and training to get the dogs to stand for exam in the conformation ring let alone be dependable companions. Additionally, the conformation observed at specialty shows had reached bizarre extremes. Winners were becoming so overly angulated they were walking on their hocks instead of the pads of their hind feet and being applauded for it!
An unfortunate number of judges turned a blind eye to the predominance of weak pasterns and splayed toes, males with snipey heads, fine boned animals with increasingly narrow bodies, soft or low earsets, incorrect bites, and spooky temperaments rewarding championships based solely on "movement". The many years of breeding dogs for the sole purpose of winning in a specialty show ring had brought much of the breed to the verge of uselessness. Many of the the top rung breeders; the guardians of the breed; the people with the knowledge, expertise, and resources to improve the breed had lost sight of their obligation to place health and function above ego and had gotten caught up in the madness of competition. Breeding for the "flying trot" had become an addiction that required immediate intervention.
Likewise, breeders of West German showlines had so distorted their animals' toplines the poor dogs' spines were more dromedary-like than canine. Even after German veterinarians warned of the harm to the breed perpetrated by ever more extreme roaching of the backs, German judges continued to reward those breeding practices with VA ratings. In addition, an apparent kneejerk reaction to American angulation caused Germans to breed dogs that had to lift in a bizaar hackneyed gait when trotting because they had lost the ability to extend their legs much beyond their bodies. And finally, it's difficult to know the extent of health issues plaguing German breeders because they weren't as likely to share that information as American breeders (and that's not much at all).
While we're at it, let's not overlook what was going on with "working" lines. With the public increasingly turning away from showlines, a surge in the sport of SchutzHund was seen, and with it came the associated extremes in breeding. Especially in working lines, breeder ethics are of the utmost importance. Whereas poor breeding of showlines may produce conformation abnormalities and cowardly temperaments, unless scrupulous attention is paid to working lines, the result can be dangerously unpredictable. "Hobby" working line breeders and breeders overly consumed by a desire to breed dogs solely for SchutzHund competition can and often do produce the most dangerous dogs for American families.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, previously isolated breeders now had access to selling their dogs on the world market. German Shepherds that had been bred for police and military work were now being sold as breeding stock for novice SchutzHund competitors. The problems arose from the fact that breeding and health records were poorly kept, if kept at all, for much of the old Soviet bloc countries, and military and police dogs bred for use under a totalitarian government certainly didn't have the temperament easily adapted to the average American family. When John Q. Public and all the little Publics suddenly had an aggressive, hard dog on their hands instead of Rin Tin Tin, it was a quick trip to the vet for euthanasia or worse, the dog pound. It's no wonder so many Americans turned away from the breed entirely and bought Labs or Goldens.
Now, what I've said here may be somewhat of an over generalization, but not too much of one. I love German Shepherds and have deep respect for many breeders, but I have related an honest assessment of the downhill direction much of the breed was headed. As I've said before, there are certainly ethical, conscientious breeders in every country and venue actively fulfilling their role as guardians of the breed, but there are also the breeders I've been discussing in this forum. However, through open communication, improvements have been undertaken to preserve the breed's future, and I'm encouraged by what I've seen.
It's been over a decade since we took action to make health, temperament, and conformation equal considerations in our breeding. We knew if we were going to succeed, we wanted to have the best possible foundation. We decided all of our breeding stock would have American champions or Select Champions and/or German V or VA dogs within the first 2 generations because health and temperament information was more readily available for those dogs. We began purchasing highly regarded American and German showlines then made a bad decision and added a German working line male from a woman we later discovered was an unethical and disreputable breeder. Immediately upon learning more about the woman and assessing the health and temperament of the working line male, we eliminated the working line from our breeding until we could learn more about the bloodlines and locate a conscientious breeder. Recently, we purchased the working line dog we've been searching for and look forward to adding his "joie de vivre" to our breeding.
Because we had amassed a great deal of health information regarding American showlines, we made a determination not to breed 100% American litters from the outset. We have found that maintaining as close as possible to a 50-50 ratio of American and European bloodlines produces our healthiest and most dependable puppies. Correspondence with other breeders confirms this ratio has been successful for them as well. Diversity and knowledge are the keystones of our breeding.
Sadly, some of the "biggest name" breeders in dog sport continue inbreeding to such an extent that the average person would be astounded, and the health of their puppies is suffering for it. I have taken an actual pedigree from a current litter advertised by a breeder of winning show German Shepherds for analysis. I have removed the names and replaced them with a color for every dog that appears more than once in the pedigree. By using color, it is easier to instantly see the unbelievable lack of genetic diversity in the litter. The pedigree includes 6 generations and is so large, I have made a smaller GIF to make the entire pedigree easier to see:
Notice how frequently the same dogs (colors) appear!
Now, to use an analogy that makes it even easier to understand, I'll illustrate using a simple story. Let's say your daughter meets a young man and falls in love. Naturally you want to know more about your future son in law and his family, and you listen in stunned silence as he tells you that on his father's side, his grandfather married his half sister, so his father's mother is also his aunt. On his mother's side, his grandfather married one of his greatgrandfather's daughters, and he can't figure out what that makes everyone especially since his mother's father is also his father's grandfather on both sides. All he knows is it makes Christmas shopping easy because he's only got about half as many relatives as other people.
Since people have long recognized the health risks of incest (which is why it is illegal), I'm sure you'd be grabbing your daughter and getting her out of there as quickly as possible. There is no doubt that bringing that unfortunate young man into your family would only lead to heartache down the line. If he himself doesn't already have serious health problems (both mental and physical), you know it's only a matter of time until either he or his children will.
As someone bringing another member into your family, albeit a canine one, doesn't it make as much sense to avoid a puppy with that much incest in it's pedigree? It's not only common sense, but there is plenty of scientifc evidence to clearly show that excessive inbreeding leads to a myriad of serious health issues. Now, I'm not saying that the litter whose pedigree I used to illustrate inbreeding will suffer health problems, but since there are so many better choices, why would I want to take a chance on buying one?
Since I wrote the above analysis of a showline pedigree, I was looking at another breeding that was being advertised by a well known GSD judge. In the pedigree that the judge has certified as correct, it states linebreeding Ch Rohan's Glass Palace (2-2). In other words, Rohan's Glass Palace is the only dog claimed to be linebred on and appears in the second generation on the sire's side and also in the second generation on the dam's side. To a novice eye, this wouldn't appear to be much linebreeding. However, let's take a closer look at what happens when this pedigree is taken to the fifth generation:
Once again, all the dogs who appear in the pedigree more than once are in colors, and you can see that by the 5th generation, one dog, Sel Ch Stuttgart's Sundance Kid, appears NINE times. This pedigree is an example of both linebreeding taken to an absurd degree and popular sire syndrome. By the way, the above breeding was NOT done by the Kindys of Rohan kennel.
The following is a shocking and controversial documentary from the BBC. Please watch it. Obviously, we breed purebred dogs; however, we have seen the damage caused by callous and ignorant breeding practices by purebred breeders for many, many years. What we fight so hard against is finally being recognized by the public. Intense inbreeding is cruel and frankly, insane. It is possible to breed dogs without the health problems associated with purebred dogs, and it is our mission to do so.
The following article, The Downside of Inbreeding: It's Time For A New Approach, addresses the pitfalls associated with the dwindling gene pool of purebred dogs. I hope prospective puppy buyers will read the article and research the use of limited bloodlines practiced by many breeders of show, schutzhund, and working dogs. Among much of the fancy participating in each of those venues, breeding dogs from other countries to increase genetic diversity is considered heresy. In fact, there is a movement to further isolate the breeding population of German Shepherd Dogs by classifying German bloodlines as a separate breed from American bloodlines. Frankly, it is politics rather than the welfare of the breed motivating those breeders, and we are determined to stand fast against such folly. Our philosophy that health, temperament, and companionship are more important than winning a ribbon or title guides our breeding, and we are very proud of what we've accomplished. For further information about breeding practices, please read this site: The Canine Diversity Project, but for a start, the following article is interesting and informative.
The Downside of Inbreeding: It's Time For A New Approach
"Inbreeding was once a valuable tool in shaping today’s breeds. As these have now reached a high degree of homogeneity, it has lost its importance and turned into a fatal and disastrous habit."
Hellmuth Wachtel, PhD
Inbreeding (which, for the purposes of this article, includes "linebreeding") has been the rule in dog breeding for the better part of two centuries. Before that, breeders bred "like-to-like." Records may or may not have been kept, depending on the literacy, social status or interest of the breeder. Pedigrees were of marginal interest, if they were considered at all. Registries, as we know them now, did not exist. New individuals might be introduced to the breeding pool at any time, so long as they displayed characteristics that the breeder wanted to perpetuate. Even an unplanned mating with a dog that would never have been deliberately selected might be shrugged off so long as some of the offspring proved useful.
In the nineteenth century, prominent European breeders of various domestic species, including dogs, became interested in maintaining the "purity" of their bloodlines. They had no knowledge of genetics, indeed the science had yet to be born. Their breeding theories were a reflection of social attitudes of the times. It should also be kept in mind that these individuals were mostly wealthy men whose human pedigrees were considered better than those of "common" people. As pedigrees became more important, so did the regular appearance of significant names in those pedigrees. Eventually registries were established to keep official records. At some point, virtually all dog registries became closed. Most of this occurred before breeders had even a rudimentary knowledge of genetic science.
At first, inbreeding proved beneficial. Breeders learned that by mating related individuals of the desired type, the resulting quality and uniformity of the offspring improved As people began to learn basic genetics in the early part of this century, they deliberately sought to fix desired traits, particularly in production livestock, by breeding near relatives. This practice continues to the present day. A sire will be "progeny-tested" by being bred to a group of his daughters. If the offspring measure up, he will be kept for stud. If they don’t, everybody goes to market. This drastic culling serves its purpose in livestock, but it is impractical and unacceptable in companion animals such as dogs.
Nature goes to great lengths to discourage inbreeding. Related animals rarely mate, which prevents genes for diseases and defects from coming together with any great frequency. Wild animals have a variety of behaviors which will eliminate or severely restrict inbreeding. In wolves, the species most closely related to dogs, only the alpha pair will breed. Pups stay with the pack for their first year. After that time they must find a place, often low-ranking, within the adult hierarchy. If a yearling cannot accept this or it becomes the brunt of too much negative social interaction, it will disperse. Dispersers may have to travel many miles before they can find an available territory and a mate, if they can find them at all. Those individuals which do not disperse will not be breeders unless they should someday attain alpha status, so the breeding of relatives is unlikely.
Sometimes circumstances give animals no choice but to mate with relatives. If those conditions persist for any length of time they create a "genetic bottleneck." The wolves of Isle Royale in Lake Michigan descend from a very small number of animals which crossed from the mainland decades ago during a hard winter when the lake froze over. Their present-day descendants have proved more than usually vulnerable to an assortment of diseases and parasites. When canine parvovirus reached Isle Royale, the wolf population plummeted so badly that some observers at the time feared the wolves would die out entirely.
In recent years, purebred dogs have experienced increasing problems with hereditary diseases and defects. The causes are complex, including genetic load, the presence of lethal equivalents in all individuals, genetic bottlenecks, closed gene pools, gene pool fragmentation, and genetic drift, but all are attributable to inbreeding.
Thanks to closed registries, breeds form exclusive gene pools. All gene pools, no matter how large or diverse, will have a genetic load — the difference between the fittest possible genotype and the average fitness of the population. "Fitness" is the individual’s over-all health, vigor and ability. It may or may not directly relate to traits breeders select for. (The English Bulldog, for instance, has an "ideal" physical form which virtually precludes females from being able to naturally whelp their young.) The greater the genetic load, the more genetic difficulties members of a breed are likely to suffer. In a closed gene pool, the situation may remain stable or deteriorate. It cannot get better.
Each individual within a breed also carries it’s own kind of load — four or five genes for potentially fatal diseases or defects. These are called "lethal equivalents." In most cases they will not affect the individual carrying them because a single allele, or form of the gene, will be insufficient to cause the problem. But when relatives are mated, the odds of matching up those alleles increases and as does the frequency the disease.
Every population must deal with genetic load and lethal equivalents, but when the population is prevented having genetic exchange with other similar populations, genetic diversity within the population begins to diminish. Some of this may be beyond anyone’s control. A breed’s function may have become obsolete, resulting in only a few surviving members. This was the case with the Portuguese Water Dog. All present-day PWDs descend from a handful of dogs. Social, political or environmental difficulties may also preclude breeding, causing populations to crash. Many breeds experienced a genetic bottleneck at the time of World War II. With much of the world at war, dog breeding was not a high priority and populations in areas of military action were often wiped out or severely depleted. In such a situation, breeders can only make do with what remains. It’s a tough row to hoe for the truly rare breeds, especially since the prevailing attitude that breeds must be kept "pure" prevents supplementing with fresh genetic material from similar, less impacted, populations.
Breed gene pools can fragmented into so many gene puddles when they are arbitrarily split along size, color or coat-type lines, with dogs of one color or variety prohibited from mating with those of another. No matter how diverse a breed may have been before such distinctions were made, afterwards breeders have fewer options when choosing mates and the eventual result will be increased inbreeding because there isn’t anywhere else to go. One striking example of this is the Belgian Sheepdog in the United States. Outside the US this breed contains four varieties, all of which might occur in a single litter. The American Kennel Club lists three of varieties as entirely separate breeds. The fourth isn’t even recognized. In the US they cannot be interbred though throughout the rest of the world, they can.
Changes in social conditions may also fragment breed gene pools. The Australian Shepherd was originally a working ranch and farm dog. Today there are far more Aussies than there are "jobs" on farms and ranches; so most are companion animals. Over the past three decades, the breed has clearly split between working and conformation strains with a third, smaller, category of "versatility" animals whose breeders work toward a multi-purpose animal .There is also a population of "mini" Aussies—dogs whose size is below the breed norm. They are often registered as Australian Shepherds along with listing in a registry for minis. There is very little breeding between these various sub-groups though all trace back to more-or-less overlapping sets of founder animals.
One of the results of gene pool fragmentation is loss of alleles that may exist in the breed but didn’t happen to occur in the founders for that variety. Genetic drift can cause further loss. Genes not being specifically selected for tend to "drift" out of the gene pool. Many of these will be for things so subtle they might never come to a breeder’s direct attention. A dog has some 100,000 genes, only a relative few of which are for things we can readily observe or measure. Many of these genes cause minor variations in form or bodily function. Cumulative losses of such genes through genetic drift can reduce overall health and fitness without presenting consistent or identifiable signs; a dog may seem to be a poor keeper, unusually subject to minor ailments, or lacking in endurance. Even "typical" breed behaviors, such as herding ability, can be diminished in this manner, if breeders are not using the behavior as part of their selection criteria.
The use of popular sires, particularly multiple generations of them, can accelerate loss of alleles. A dog can only have a maximum of two alleles for any given gene. Excessive use of a single individual will skew the gene pool toward the alleles that dog happened to carry. Obviously, such a dog gets heavy use because he has desirable traits. Genes for those traits will become more common, but so will those for his lethal equivalents and more subtle ills. And if a deleterious gene is "linked" (sits close on the chromosome) to a desired gene the sire carries, the breed may suddenly find itself riddled with the problem that bad gene causes. It won’t be easy to eliminate unless breeders are also willing to give up the linked desired trait.
Proponents of inbreeding often point out that mongrels have more genetic problems than purebreds. While it is true that mongrels, as a group, have more individual kinds of diseases and defects than any single pure breed, it must be remembered that each breed represents only a portion of the canine gene pool, whereas mongrels encompass all of it. If mongrels’ defects are compared to those found among all pure breeds, the discrepancy disappears. Since mongrels usually are the result of random, unplanned breeding, the incidence of defects is low in the overall population. In pure breeds many of those same defects are common. For instance, progressive retinal atrophy and collie eye anomaly are rare in mongrels. Incidence of both is high in Collies.
It is becoming more and more apparent that the short-term gains of inbreeding are outweighed by its long-term costs. Present-day breeders need to re-think their strategy. Assortative mating—the mating of phenotypically similar but unrelated or less-related individuals—will allow breeders to reach their breeding goals while reducing the loss of alleles in the over-all population. To accomplish this it is vital that each breeder has a thorough knowledge of breed pedigrees. The typical three to five generation pedigree may indicate few, if any, common ancestors. But what happens if the pedigree is extended a few more generations? If two dogs share no ancestors for four generations, but share many in the 5th, 6th and so on, breeding them would be inbreeding.
All members of a single breed are, of course, related to some degree, though how much varies from breed to breed. Somewhere back in each breed’s history there is a group of founders from whom all present-day dogs descend. Portuguese Water Dogs have very few, Australian Shepherds have quite a number, though not every Aussie goes back to all of them. It is important to know who the founder individuals were, particularly if the breed is rare, split into varieties or experienced a significant bottleneck at some point in its history. A large number of founders allows for greater diversity (assuming those founders were, themselves, unrelated), but if some are heavily represented in comparison to others due to inbreeding on their descendents, diversity is at risk. Breeders should strive to increase the representation of the neglected founders whenever possible.
Calculation of inbreeding coefficients will give an indication of how inbred a dog or a prospective cross is. Knowing these numbers enables the breeder to make choices that will reduce inbreeding. Good books on animal breeding will have a section explaining how this is done, but calculating them by hand becomes cumbersome when working with a full pedigree. There are pedigree programs on the market which will perform these calculations.
Perhaps the most important issue is making health a top priority. It is obvious even to those who promote inbreeding that screening for genetic diseases and not breeding affected individuals is important. As tests become available which will detect carriers of genetic problems, they should be put to use. However, carrier status should not automatically preclude breeding of otherwise good individuals. Care should be taken that they aren’t bred to other carriers and those who buy puppies from a carrier parent should be advised to screen the pup if they want to breed it. But eliminating proven carriers as breeding stock is throwing our their many good genes while avoiding one bad one.
Australian Shepherd breeders are doing this with Pelger-Huet Anomaly. PHA is lethal to offspring that inherit two copies of the gene, resulting in reduced litter size and neonatal deaths. Carriers rarely suffer any effects. Knowledgeable breeders use a blood test to screen and carriers are bred to non-carriers.Less specific aspects of health must also be considered. A dog that is a "hard keeper, or repeatedly comes down with one minor ill or another should not be a breeding prospect. These individuals likely carry a surplus of genes which individually have only a small negative effect on health but cumulatively have produced an unthrifty individual.
A common result of inbreeding is "inbreeding depression," typified by small litter size or difficulty producing or rearing young. Bitches from families that consistently produce small litters may be suffering inbreeding depression. Animals which can only be bred or raise their puppies if they receive extraordinary human assistance are poor breeding candidates. This is not to say that people shouldn’t properly house and care for their animals, but if a dog is indifferent to bitches in standing heat or a bitch needs to be physically restrained to keep her from resorting to fight or flight in an attempt to prevent mating, or won’t settle without veterinary intervention, or is apt to kill or damage her puppies through intent or neglect, these are signs of inbreeding depression and that animal shouldn’t be bred. Breeders should not go to excessive, near surgical, lengths to control the environment for newborns, nor should they use heroic measures to keep failing whelps alive. (For those who find this too callous: Save them if you will, but don’t breed them.)
Inbreeding gave us the many breeds of dog we enjoy today, but its time is past. If purebred dogs are to remain viable into the next century breeders need to rethink their strategy and work toward their goals with more emphasis on over-all health and concerted efforts to reduce the level of inbreeding in their dogs.
C.A. Sharp is editor of the "Double Helix Network News". This article appeared in Vol. VII, No. 1 (Winter 1999). It may be reprinted providing it is not altered and appropriate credit is given.
Recently, I was looking with great interest at the National results on the GSDCA (German Shepherd Dog Club of America) website. As I looked at the Select dogs and bitches, an interesting fact struck me: an inordinate number of BoB bitches had the same sire. Since there were 46,046 German Shepherd Dogs registered in 2004 and nearly the same for 2003, it seems odd that of the 56 bitches entered in BoB competition 12 of them had the same sire. There are only 2 conclusions that readily come to mind for this phenomenon: there are either a very small number of breeders who participate in conformation or the "popular sire" syndrome is extremely prevalent in the breed ring on a national level. Now, you may wonder what the "popular sire" syndrome is and why it should be of concern to puppy buyers, so in explanation, I offer the following article:
The Price of Popularity: Popular Sires and Population Genetics
Consider the hypothetical case of Old Blue, Malthound extraordinaire. Blue was perfect: Sound, healthy and smart. On week days he retrieved malt balls from dawn to dusk. On weekends he sparkled in malt field and obedience trials as well as conformation shows, where he baited to--you guessed it--malt balls.
Everybody had a good reason to breed to Blue, so everybody did. His descendants trotted in his paw-prints on down through their generations. Blue died full of years and full of honor. But what people didn't know was that Old Blue, good as he was, carried a few bad genes. They didn't affect him, nor the vast majority of his immediate descendants. To complicate the matter further, some of those bad genes were linked to genes for important Malthound traits.
A few Malthounds with problems started showing up. They seemed isolated, so everyone assumed it was "just one of those things." A few declared them "no big deal." Those individuals usually had affected dogs. All in all, folks carried on as usual.
Time passed. More problem dogs turned up. People made a point not to mention the problems to others because everyone knows the stud owner always blames the bitch for the bad tings and takes credit for the good. Stud owners knew it best to keep quiet so as not to borrow trouble. Overall, nobody did anything to get to the bottom of the problems, because if they were really significant, everybody would be talking about it, right?
Years passed. Old Blue had long since moldered in his grave. By now, everyone was having problems, from big ones like cataracts, epilepsy or thyroid disease to less specific things like poor-keepers, lack of mothering ability and short life-span. "Where can I go to get away from this?" breeders wondered. The answer was nowhere.
People became angry. "The responsible parties should be punished!" Breeders who felt their programs might be implicated stonewalled. Some quietly decided to shoot, shovel and shut-up. A few brave souls stood up and admitted their dogs had a problem and were hounded out of the breed.
The war raged on, with owners, breeders and rescue workers flinging accusations at each other. Meanwhile everybody carried on as always. After another decade or two the entire Malthound breed collapsed under the weight of its accumulated genetic debris and went extinct.
This drastic little fable is an exaggeration--but not much of one. Here's similar, though less drastic, example from real life: There once was a Quarter Horse stallion named Impressive. The name fit. He sired many foals who also exhibited his desired traits. But when they and their descendants were bred to each other, those offspring sometimes died. Impressive had been the carrier of a lethal single-gene recessive trait. No one knew it was there until they started in-breeding on him. The situation of a single sire having this kind of drastic genetic effect on a breed became known as the "Impressive Syndrome."
Many species and breeds of domestic animals, including dogs, have suffered "Impressive Syndromes" of their own. But cases like that of Impressive are only the tip of the iceberg. A single-gene recessive becomes obvious in just a few generations. But what about more complex traits?
This is not to say that those popular sires we so admire are bad breeding prospects. Their many excellent traits should be utilized, but even the best of them has genes for negative traits.
The problem is not the popular sires, but how we use them. For a century or more, in-breeding has been the name of the game. (For the purposes of this article, "in-breeding" refers to the breeding of dogs related to each other and therefore includes line-breeding.) By breeding related individuals, a breeder increased his odds of producing dogs homozygous for the traits he wanted. Homozygous individuals are much more likely to produce those traits in the next generation.
When a male exhibits a number of positive traits and then proves his ability to produce those traits he may become a popular sire, one that is used by almost everyone breeding during his lifetime, and maybe beyond, thanks to frozen semen.
Since the offspring and grand-offspring and so on are good, breeders start breeding them to each other. If the results continue to be good, additional back-crosses may be made for generations. Sometimes a sire will be so heavily used that, decades hence, breeders may not even be aware of how closely bred their animals are because the dog no longer appears on their pedigrees.
This is the case in Australian Shepherds. Most show-line Aussies trace back, repeatedly, to one or both of two full brothers: Wildhagen's Dutchman of Flintridge and Fieldmaster of Flintridge. These, products of a program of inbreeding, were quality individuals and top-producing sires. They are largely responsible for the over-all quality and uniformity we see in the breed ring today--a uniformity that did not exist before their birth nearly three decades ago.
Working lines have also seen prominent sires, but performance traits are far more complex, genetically and because of the significant impact of environment. They are therefore harder to fix. Performance breeders will in-breed, but are more likely to stress behavioral traits and general soundness than pedigree and conformational minutiae. The best working sires rarely become as ubiquitous as the best show-line sires.
Not every popular sire becomes so because of his ability to produce quality offspring. Some have won major events or are owned by individuals with a knack for promotion. Such dogs may prove to be wash-outs once their get is old enough to evaluate. But a lot of breeders have been using the animal for the few years it takes to figure that out, the damage may already have been done.
Use of even the best popular sires, by its very nature, limits the frequency of some genes in the breed gene pool while simultaneously increasing the frequency of others. Since sons and grandsons of popular sires tend to become popular sires the trend continues, resulting in further decrease and even extinction of some genes while others become homozygous throughout the breed. Some of these traits will be positive, but not all of them.
The owners of Old Blue, the Malthound in the opening fable, and those who owned his most immediate descendants had no idea what was happening under their noses. They were delighted to have superior studs and even more delighted to breed them to as many good bitches as possible.
Dog breeding and promoting is an expensive proposition. One usually winds up in the hole. But owning a popular sire can change that. The situation looks like a winner for everyone--the stud owner finds his financial burden reduced while breeders far and wide get to partake of his dog's golden genes.
No one breeding dogs wants to produce sick dogs. A small minority are callous and short-sighted enough to shrug genetic problems off as the price you pay to get winners, but even they do their best to avoid letting it come to general attention.
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 everyone 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.
C.A. Sharp is editor of the "Double Helix Network News". This article appeared in Vol. IV, No. 3 (Summer 1998). It may be reprinted providing it is not altered and appropriate credit is given.