One of the great things about having a blog is that it provides a forum—and an unparalleled opportunity—to outrage and offend large numbers of people, which is what I am about to do. At least I certainly hope so.
We have had a concatenation of events (to use a phrase of Bertie Wooster’s) around here in the last couple of years, all having to do with dogs.
We rescued a German shepherd (an Alsatian for those of you in Great Britain) a few years ago after her owner died, and I won’t bore non-German shepherd people with a recitation of bloodlines, but factoring in both show and working lines, she made the Prince of Wales look like a parvenu, red-necked, blue collar, nouveau riche, social climbing wannabe. Her uncle was imported by a Texas oilman for more money than any other German shepherd (or possibly any other dog) in history. The accomplishments of her ancestors, close relatives and littermates, are comparable to the accomplishments of the Manning family in football or the Marsalis family in jazz. Ours was sweet and loving, and that was the end of her talents. We put her down last year, at the age of six, after the side effects of renal failure made her life insupportable. Hereditary chronic renal failure is common in German shepherds; it is one of fifty-one hereditable diseases the breed is prone to, according to the University of Cambridge database. (Other databases give different figures, some considerably higher, but I’m going with Cambridge primarily because it seems both rational and dispassionate.)
The German shepherd who proceeded her in our home, also a rescue, had to be euthanized at four because of degenerative myelopathy (think spinal cord, pain, and ultimate paralysis) which is also a hereditary disease common in shepherds (and forty-two other breeds).
We have a rescued Cardigan Welsh corgi who may have to be put down eventually because three surgeries have proven incapable of fixing a severely pronated foot. Pronated feet are common in Cardigans because they have been bred to have feet that turn out. Other than that, they’re fairly healthy, with only four hereditary diseases listed.
We recently rescued a young Boxer, a magnificent specimen about whose bloodlines we know absolutely nothing (he was found running loose in the mountains), and when we took him in for his shots, our vet told us to be prepared to lose him young. Boxers, it turns out, are subject to thirty-six hereditary diseases, including five different and fatal forms of heart disease, and multiple forms of cancer.
I could go on with other examples, personal or from any one of dozens of databases, but I think you can see where I’m going. The list of heritable and/or genetic diseases in all breeds of dogs is so long and depressing I’m not even going to try to count or list them.
One of the other concatenating links was an article by my friend Tom Davis about new evidence concerning the evolution of dogs, specifically the timeline. It used to be thought fifteen thousand years ago was when man and dog began to co-exist. Then it got pushed back to about thirty-three thousand years. The most recent thinking is that the relationship may go back as far as one hundred and twenty thousand years. Even more dramatic, more astounding, and harder for some people (non-dog lovers specifically) to believe is a new theory of co-evolution, a sort of symbiotic relationship between proto-humans and proto-dogs where both species evolved as they did at least in part because of the other. In other words, dogs are what they are today because of man’s influence, and man also is what he is today because of the dog’s influence. This is not as extraordinary as you might think. Another example of co-evolution would be man and cow: Europeans, who domesticated the bovine ancestors of the modern cow, have a far lower incidence of lactose-intolerance than non-Europeans. Actually, if you think about it, the only surprising thing about this theory is how much better a subject the dog was than man, and how much more adept he was at climbing up the evolutionary ladder.
There are, depending on how you count them, approximately four hundred different breeds of dogs, with greater variety across the spectrum (coat, size, temperament, etc.) than any other species, and over three quarters of those breeds have been created since the so-called Revolutions of 1848 which gave non-aristocrats and the emerging and newly affluent middleclass created by the industrial revolution, both the right to hunt and the financial means to own dogs. New breeds were created all across Europe, but both the British and the Germans in particular embraced the idea of tailoring the dog to meet man’s needs. Which brings me to the next concatenating link. Scientists believe the dog has a genetic component, something in his DNA, that allows him to evolve faster than any other species, specifically something that allows a given trait to be fixed in fewer generations than any other domestic animal. So if you wish to breed a dog for a certain kind of coat, or a certain color, or a certain attribute—for example, the ability to detect a specific cancer by smell, or a gift for herding, or a tendency to protect—you can fix that trait relatively quickly. The downside is that you will also almost certainly fix any number of traits you would rather not have. Hereditary chronic renal failure, for example. Or degenerative myelopathy. Or cancer. Or heart disease. Or hip dysplasia. Or…
One of the things the newly emancipated German dog owners did was institute testing programs for the breeds they were creating, breeding only those dogs that were able to perform the tasks for which they had been bred. Today, variations of this kind of testing exist around the world in many different genres: field trials, retriever trials, versatile hunting dog tests, hunting retriever tests, Schutzhund, herding trials… The list goes on. The idea was—and still is—that breeding the best to the best was good for the breed. In theory, it works. Unfortunately, it also, by definition, creates a closed gene pool and a concentration of fixed traits, both good and bad.
One of the breeds born out of the Revolutions of 1848 was the Deutsch Drahthaar, for years reviled in Germany as a bastard non-breed. It was Hermann Göring, an ardent hunter, who was responsible for the Drahthaar’s eventual popularity when he pronounced the breed, “Germany’s hunting dog.” But prior to that the dog was looked down on because Drahthaar breeders took as their motto: “Take the good where you find it; breed as you like, but be honest about it; let the results be your guide.” In other words, if you need to go outside your own creation to keep your creation viable, do so. Don’t close the gene pool. Were they right? Well, the Deutsch Drahthaar is now considered Germany’s premier and most popular hunting dog, and it’s worth noting that it is one of the healthiest purebred dogs in existence. I have no idea if the national club, the Verein Deutsch Drahthaar, still occasionally goes outside its own gene pool, but I tend to doubt it. However, I think it is time for all breeds and breeders to go back and heed their original advice.
There are countless thousands of breeders around the world who devote their lives to improving their particular breeds to the detriment of their bank accounts, and they deserve praise and credit, but their efforts are doomed by definition. A closed gene pool will concentrate the bad as well as the good, and the proof is in the results. There is not one single purebred breed that doesn’t have at least some heritable disease in its genetic makeup. Some—usually less common breeds like the Cardigan—are relatively healthy, but not completely so. But most—especially the more popular breeds, like the German shepherd, the Boxer, the Labrador, the Golden, and so on—are so riddled that the odds are slim you will ever own a specimen that lives out its full canine allotment of ten to thirteen years.
This doesn’t have to be taken to ridiculous extremes, crossing basset hound to Irish wolfhound, or Chihuahua to mastiff, but if you know some of the breeds that went into making up your particular favorite breed, why not go back to the source? The description by von Stephanitz of the randomly bred sheepdog that caught his eye back in 1889 is very close to the description of today’s Belgian Malinois. (It is also of note that von Stephanitz placed little emphasis on looks; to him intelligence, temperament, and soundness were paramount.) The Malinois is one of the healthiest breeds around, with only three heritable diseases. Today’s German shepherd, the original police and army dog, once considered the king of working dogs, has been largely surpassed by the Malinois for those tasks primarily because of health issues. Would more harm be done to the German shepherd by breeding back to a similar ancestral type and improving the overall health of the breed, or by keeping the gene pool closed and speeding the decline of a once magnificent dog? Would your Labrador be better or worse for having a small dose of healthier Curly Coated retriever blood? “Let the results be your guide.”