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.