Thursday, December 28, 2006

Breeding dogs for looks has consequences

There's a good article in today's New York Times about how dog "fads" in Japan have led to a huge increase in crippling and fatal genetic defects including "puppies born with missing paws or faces lacking eyes and a nose" or "dogs with brain disorders so severe that they spent all day running in circles, and others with bones so frail they dissolved in their bodies."

Although the article makes it sound like The American Kennel Club has "rules" that prevent anything of the sort from ever happening here, the truth is that they are not, nor do they claim to be, a regulatory organization. The AKC is merely one of several breed registries through which breeders can register puppies as "purebred," and they only enforce their own definitions and standards of "purity." The NYT aricle cites an AKC "rule" that dogs must conform to a list of acceptable colors for each breed, but these rules really only apply to dogs who compete in AKC show rings. Any breeder can take two AKC-registered dogs of a particular breed, regardless of their genetics, and breed a litter of puppies who are themselves then eligible for AKC registration. All AKC registration means is that the parent dogs were registered, period. Registration itself is not a guarantee or indication of quality, health or genetic soundness. Although the AKC does contribute a money toward genetic research and encourages dog buyers to find breeders who test for genetic problems, they do not enforce any standards of genetic health on breeders. And the truth is, one doesn't have to look very far in most contemporary breeds to find genetically transmitted health problems

The issue of rampant genetic problems in purebred dogs is too complex to dissect in a simple blog entry, but I think much of it can be attributed to the "fancy" of breeding dogs solely for looks--which is what conformation shows are all about. Aficionados of working and sporting dogs have long held that breeding for physical traits results in dogs that can't do the work they were once bred for. It's why some working-dog breed clubs, most notably the American Border Collie Association and the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America prohibit dogs in their registries from being registered with the AKC. In fact, the JRTCA was so successful in preventing the AKC from recognizing their breed that the AKC had to make up a new name for the little JRT-like terrier it recognizes, calling it the "Parson Russell Terrier" instead. I predict that in 10 years or so, the Parson Russells will be quite noticeably different from JRTs as various fads in the show ring entice breeders to emphasize one physical trait or another. Quite likely the result will be a little dog that's afraid of rats rather than one willing to go-to-ground after its quarry.

As I said, one blog entry isn't sufficient for a thorough discussion of my views on this topic, so I'll just leave you with a few links I like in case you'd like to read more:
Breeding Frenzy: Why "pure breed" dogs can't fetch: An interview with James Serpell.
Purebred Dog Breeds into the Twenty-First Century: Achieving Genetic Health for Our Dogs by Jeffrey Bragg
The Price of Popularity: Popular Sires and Population Genetics by C.A. Sharp
Population Genetics And Breeding by John Armstrong
Westminster Eugenics Show: Repugnant thinking that’s died out for humans is thriving at the Westminster Kennel Club by Jonah Goldberg


Justin said...

A nice thorough study on dogs.

keep blogging

Lisa B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JB said...

I had a thought the other day after watching "Dogs That Changed The World" on Nature that reported on health problems of purebreds due to breeding to looks rather than function. The article you link to Jeffrey Bragg argues the same point. Breeding shows should include physical events as well as show.

Horse breeders, and as you mention working dog breed organizations, have recognized that an animal with health issues cannot succeed physically in their work function. If to win one of those ribbons they had to show the dog could excel at a function similar to if not actually the breed's original work function then all breeders would have to pay more attention to genetic issues.