Is science overtaking the ‘art’ of breeding dogs?

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Some years ago I wrote a Speakers’ Corner which set out my ideas about ‘line-breeding’ and ‘in-breeding’.  As you probably know there is no formal definition of either of these terms for all ‘line-breeding’ is ‘in-breeding’ to some extent but for many decades they have been used by dedicated breeders to distinguish between breeding which is very close and that which is designed to retain the characteristics of specific dogs and bitches without causing what I suppose we could call ‘genetic damage’.  I subsequently posted the article on to my weblog ( which I have long used to publish articles on various subjects which I felt would be of longer-term interest and worth retaining rather than their being used, along with all the other pages of Our Dogs, to mop up puppies’ excreta.  There are now about 60 such articles and the website garners between 150 and 200 views every day, by far the most popular being that article titled a ‘A Beginners Guide to ‘Line-breeding’ and ‘In-breeding’.  As I write I can see that over 60 people accessed it yesterday and over the years it has been read by almost 30,000.

There is nothing complicated about breeding good dogs if there is a sufficiently wide genetic base and they are of a relatively normal conformation: my article simply sets out the way in which generations of dog breeders selected dogs and bitches to produce the puppies that they felt best represented their breed.  I explain that problems arise when the physical structure of the dog is stretched too far from the norm or dogs are bred too closely for too many generations.  The old rule of thumb used to be, ‘line breed for two generations then outcross for the next’ and this has been a generally reliable mantra for most breeds.  This does not mean those dogs are necessary spectacular champions, Group or Best in Show winners (you need long experience and a measure of honed instinct for that – Angela has it but I freely admit that I do not) but the dogs you breed ought to be consistent and generally healthy using this simple formula.

Has research changed our perception?

Since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the recognition of the amazing research of Gregor Mendel, the whole process of breeding dogs has benefited from advances in science and technology which has been built on the foundations which they established.  When Angela and I started to breed dogs at the end of the 1960s Malcolm Willis’ books had not been published and for us, genetics was a vague memory, poorly remembered, from school biology.  We were both teachers and so the concept of hereditability and the importance and impact of environmental factors in development of children were discussed in lectures on child psychology but there was no reason for us to connect that material which was entirely focused on our vocation to work with children and young people, with the breeding of dogs.  It was much later that we made such connections, partly as a result of experience and partly due to the research which I was beginning to do for my writing and being fortunate enough to meet experts such as Malcolm and other prominent geneticists.

And in the 40 years since much has been learned by us all, and many breeders are now reasonably confident in talking about coefficients of inbreeding, F1, F2 and F3 generations, commonly used techniques such as artificial insemination and tests for over 100 hidden genetic defects which enable us to avoid doubling up on damaging flaws which will affect our puppies.

The speed of development has been hastened by criticisms of pedigree dog breeding by the veterinary profession, the RSPCA and programmes such as Pedigree Dogs Exposed, for kennel clubs throughout the world have followed the lead of our KC and set up special programs and initiatives designed to educate breeders and give them the tools to enable them to breed healthy, long-lived puppies.

Invaluable tools

Such tools are invaluable as is the research upon which they are based, but it occurs to me that it is possible we may be coming almost too reliant on the ‘science’ rather than the ‘art’ of breeding dogs.   It is certainly true that if you want to become an expert in breeding specific colours in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels you need to educate yourself in some fairly detailed genetics and if you have a breed which is subject to genetic flaw or physical distortion it is essential that you are familiar with many of the tools for breeders which are now available.  But in a breed I know well and which is fundamentally healthy, breeders have become so obsessed with avoiding two specific, not particularly common defects that breed type and the working abilities of the dogs are being lost to the extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find dogs and bitches of quality even in the country of origin.

We see similar decisions being taken in other breeds where, although it has been shown quite clearly that where the sire or dam carry a specific but masked defect and testing can detect it so that the dog or bitch can be used safely so long as its partner does not carry the deleterious gene, passionate breeders will still seek to avoid using those dogs which are in all other respects of superb quality.

There will of course be important exceptions, but it seems to me that perhaps we should be concentrating much more on developing our understanding and knowledge of breeding patterns and our appreciation of breed type while keeping in mind the health and welfare of puppies.  This is not for a moment to suggest that we should ignore scientific evidence and conclusions, but we should at least put them in perspective bearing in mind the results of the recent research into Brachycephalic breeds which appears to indicate that rather than using a complex series of measurements and predictions we concentrate on the relatively simple series of decisions which any breeder can take into account by simply looking at the size of nostril opening of both the parents and puppies in breeds which are affected.

Another ‘rule of thumb’ which appears to be too often ignored by some breeders, is that when a ‘problem’ is identified, whether it be size, ear or tail carriage, eye shape. length of muzzle, steepness of stop, length of body or second thigh, angulation or coat quality, you simply breed away from it.  Look back at three generations to identify where that particular problem started and just avoid that line.  It sounds obvious and even trite but this is the way dogs have been bred by enthusiasts over many hundreds of years and it is a like babies and bathwater – if we reject all of those basic principles and rely entirely on the scientists, valuable although their contributions have undoubtedly been, we may not be doing ourselves or the quality of pedigree dogs any favours.

First published in Our Dogs in August 2017



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