Are breeding decisions being based too much on health checks?

Every responsible breeder wants the best for their breed. By  taking the time to ensure that dogs are selected on the basis of compatibility and of course clear health checks we believe that we are doing everything in our power to protect our breed’s future.

Now, I’m kind of old fashioned when it comes to choosing a stud dog. I like to see the ‘look’ of the dog first. Do his physical attributes fit with what my bitch can offer? His temperament must also be sound and he has to have working ability….if these three attributes tick all the boxes then I will look at pedigrees to confirm that the breeding is not too close. Finally, I will look at the health checks. Clear health checks are good and so far in my breeding decisions I have been lucky that the dogs’ I have wanted to use have fallen into this net.

A recent event, though, has left me wondering….Is the balance of choosing a mate for your dog being tipped in favour of clear health checks above everything else ? and if so, is this necessarily a good thing?

The following extract may go some way to explaining what could happen if we continue to focus on one aspect of breeding and forget to look at the whole picture. It’s taken from a book I read called ‘Dogs In Motion’ by  Fischer and Lilje:

The silver fox as an example of domestication.

“The study was carried out by a Russian geneticist Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyaev. He worked out the principle by which selective breeding brings about anatomical changes and identified the speed at which traits can change. He assumed that the key criterion in the selection of dogs for breeding was not an anatomical trait but a behavioural one: tameability. In 1959 he began to tame and domesticate silver foxes. After his death, his research was carried on by Lyudmila Trut.

In a breeding programme spanning 50 years, the team selected those individuals whose behaviour around humans was the most companiable and sociable. Selection began when the foxes were cubs and carried on until sexual maturity was reached. Only those animals which actively sought human company and which greeted humans in a similar way to dogs were selected to breed.

Within just four generations, cubs were produced which greeted humans by wagging their tails. In the sixth generation, just under 2% of the cubs displayed this behaviour. By the tenth generation, 18% of the cubs were tail waggers, after 20 generations 35%, after 30 generations 49% and by 2005/2006 almost all the foxes at the breeding station wagged their tails in greeting. This proved clearly that predisposition to the behavioural trait ‘tamability’ is inherited.”

What I found most interesting was the following:

” Over the course of the domestication project, changes in various anatomical traits were also observed in the foxes. Firstly, coats became dappled, then floppy ears and curly tails developed. Skulls became flatter and snouts shorter. After 20 generations, shorter tails and shorter limbs were observed, as was the appearance of overbites and underbites.”

I think it is imporatant for all involved in  dog breeding to remember that, if only one aspect of the dog is focussed on, it is to the detriment of something else. This holds through if the emphasis falls on anatomy and temperament as much as it does on health. It is important that the final decision to go forward with a mating should be left in the hands of the breeders who have the best interests of their breed at heart and not (as I have recently experienced) to an outside body that is looking only at paper results without seeing the entire picture.

I will always strive to breed healthy dogs but my first priority will be to breed a Chesapeake that fills the requirements of the job it was bred and developed to do. I think the above extract demonstrates how quickly traits are lost and gained in breeding. In a numerically small breed like chesapeakes it can be particularly detrimental to favour one aspect and neglect the  whole dog.

9 thoughts on “Are breeding decisions being based too much on health checks?

  1. Well Mary this is an old Chestnut!!!!! If we look at a dog or bitch to try to make a choice on who we should choose as its mate immediately so many things come into play and what seemed a easy idea like having the next litter turns into a logistical nightmare ,only solved when your pups are two years old and doing OK !!!

    One of the old sayings which more and more rings true is “Don’t throw the Baby out with the bathwater “”

    So I am with you on breeding a Chesapeake to do what the breed is cut out to do, first and foremost then for me its breeding to type, we can argue over type but I have my own views and so breed if possible to the type I like with the work ethic right up at the top of the list!!! To be able to work its construction and form need to be that of a Chesapeake and that I look for in the parentage back to grand and great grand ,i.e. the line ,and then as with you use the currant health checks ..but if say out of ten requirements a couple are not as good as one would like , that in itself would not stop me from a breeding ,like I said we need to keep our Chesapeake’s as Chesapeake’s by not throwing the baby out !

  2. You make an interesting contrast between the simplicity – the specificity – of the Silver Fox breeding programme and the complexity of what you are about: physical attributes, working attributes, pedigree and specific health scores.

    A paradox develops here. The dogs originate in deliberate breeding to produce a number of, in this instance, retriever breeds. Once any of the breeds is “complete” in terms of what those early breeders were about, what we have is a very specific type of dog but with a complex set of characteristics – in terms of appearance, ability, character etc. As soon as breeding begins to ignore any of these characteristics, the breed begins to become something else.

    Yes, you know where this comment is going. If these different working breeds are not tested for what originally set them apart, they will inevitably change to become like one another other than in appearance which is relatively specificied by the show standard. If – for example – Chesapeakes are not tested for that reserved and guarding part of their make up, or if my favourites, Flatcoats, are not tested for their exuberant independence and sociability, then they will inevitably become something else.

    Perhaps it is of some benefit that the minor breeds tend to to be rejected as unsuited to retriever working competitions because if breeding were conducted with an overriding emphasis on common tests for all retriever breeds, it is likely that the breeds would become increasingly similar with only their show standards guaranteeing that they remain different in appearance.

    Ok, so I’m a conservative in this matter but I find it a depressing thought that in a hundred years time your and my descendants will go out on the bogs together but will not experience our joy in seeing that Bertie and Stevie are very, very different.

    • I know it is a simplistic example Colum, but that was the reason I chose it. In its simplicity though I think it shows that foccussing on only a single aspect of breeding there is collateral damage. In this case, after fifty years of selective breeding they got a tame silver fox but could they then call it a silver fox?? Had it lost so much anatomically to have become a different type of fox?? I think the parallel between the fox breeding program and what could happen if only one aspect of dog breeding is focussed on is clear. yes, your concern is that of the retriever breeds that are being selected purely on the basis of their ability to run trials BUT at least the decision still rests with the breeders and sometimes they will dip back in to improve conformation. However, my concern, when I wrote this piece, stemmed from a recent experience dealing with the German Kennel Club stud commission where the decision as to whether a stud dog is used or not rests with a person behind a desk and therein lies the problem….

  3. I don’t understand why one would use this documentary and this experiment with the foxes to prove such a point as is done in this blog, sorry. The main point of this unexpected change in looks during this experiment is that there seems to be a correlation between the gene(s) for “tameness”/sociability and a certain type of looks typical for the domesticated dog; details like floppy ears, curly tail, a larger variety of coat colours etc. So the very exciting and interesting fact these researchers stumbled upon is how the dog/wolf might have been domesticated in the first place. It explains the “doggy look” of many of our four legged friends. That’s the “moral” to learn from this story.

    • Maybe so, but i think this study also shows that by concentrating on only ONE aspect of breeding there is collateral damage, so to speak…in this case they never intended for the anatomical changes that came with identifying a gene for tameability. So you have to ask if , by the end of the study, the foxes with different coats, heads, tails and ears could actually be called silver foxes?? In our efforts to breed for health we are continually loading more and more genetic tests when planning to breed dogs. If we continually concentrate on choosing dogs for breeding based solely on health test results we will surely lose the type of dog we were breeding for to begin with, as is what happened with the silver fox. By accident or intentionally.

      • I agree with your point, that it might be unwise to concentrate on one aspect only in breeding, like health tests. I just feel that the experiment with the silver foxes is not the best of examples to make such a point as the findings in the experiments had more to do with discovering the correlation between genes for sociability and domestic traits one find in dogs :-). A truly exciting discovery.

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