BREEDING BETTER DOGS: Breeding For The New Millennium
by   David Hancock

Breeding Companions
What do most dog-owners in England want in their pet dogs? Surely companionability, backed by health, vigour and longevity. But how little both serious innovation and enlightened enterprise feature in the breeding programmes of our pedigree dogs. Pure breeding is fine when strong healthy dogs result from it. But in so many of our pedigree breeds, there is a small gene pool and in all of them there is a closed gene pool. Our ancestors bred for results on legs not on paper and most of our revered pedigree breeds have a very mixed ancestry. Many scientists consider there is a proven case for producing healthy hybrids for the pet market and retaining pure breeds for show and breeding stock. In his most informative book If Dogs Could Talk - Exploring the Canine Mind, (Sutton, 2006), the Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csanyi, makes a compelling case for it.

Knowledgeable breeders will of course point out that these so-called "healthy hybrids" could themselves produce any old stock and that there would be no assurance of type or quality beyond the F1 hybrid, or first generation. This I accept, but most dog-owners don't breed from their dogs; they would just be strong, healthy, long-lived pets costing little at the vets. Artisan hunters, with their "bobbery packs" of lurchers and terriers, don't care much which pure breeds their dogs come from but will not tolerate a dog that can't function or costs a fortune at the vets. Cross-breeding is no magic answer, there has to be quality behind both dam and sire as well as the skill in knowing how to blend the two.

Roy Robinson, in his 'Genetics for Dog Breeders' (Pergamon Press, 1990), wrote: "If the outcross is wisely undertaken, it ought to be possible to preserve most of the better qualities of the strain, or at least not to lose too many. The first-cross progeny are often remarkably hardy and vigorous." But what is 'hybrid vigour'? Strictly speaking a hybrid is the result of a cross between different species, e.g. a sheep and a goat. But three types of crossing are possible: that between species, that between breeds and that between an animal pure for breed and one impure for that breed - a process known in farm animals as 'grading'. Livestock breeding always seems to be well ahead of dog breeding in utilising new scientific techniques; the BLUP (Best Linear Unbiased Prediction) system is available for farm livestock improvement in the UK but I believe has only been used in dog breeding in Germany. 

In the world of the pure-bred dog, the use of Greyhound blood could improve the hips of many breeds. The racing Greyhound has the most perfect canine hips and could be used to improve the hips of other breeds so that the pet market doesn't have the agony of hip dysplasia manifesting itself in precious companion dogs. Such a cross could also be used with a Rottweiler to counter the predisposition of young Rottweilers to cranial cruciate ligament rupture. Other pedigree breeds could of course also benefit from such an outcross, but despite the clear benefits to dogs they claim to love, no pedigree dog breeder would consider such a step. If we want to breed healthier dogs for people who don't want to show a purebred dog, then F1 hybrids from crossing two different pedigree breeds are a definite option.

Bloodhound breeders revere the name of Brough, but ignore his advice to seek an outcross in every fifth generation. Setter breeders revere the name of Laverack, but never use his advice that "a change of colour is as good as a change of blood". If today's breeders of a pedigree setter breed won't themselves resort to this, then someone seeking  a healthy setter as a country companion, would be well advised to buy an inter-bred one. Pet owners want healthy pets that live a long time and don't need costly veterinary attention. This would be the great benefit of hybrid vigour in dog breeding. The skill required by a show breeder to utilise outside blood is something else.

Malcolm Willis, the eminent geneticist, in his 'Practical Genetics for Dog Breeders' (Witherby,1992), wrote: "...it is just as dangerous to overestimate pedigrees. Ancestors a long way back in the pedigree are not normally likely to be very influential even if those ancestors were outstanding specimens...a breeder who 'gets excited' about famous names in generation 20 would be deluding himself because most of them would be there in name only." But show-dog breeders are conformists, often buried in their personal interests. The great historian Friedrich Meinecke had a theory that man soon became blinded by his narrow 'specialisms', whatever the field of interest.    

Most pedigree dog breeders practise inbreeding, often unthinkingly. Davies, in his valuable book, 'Breeding for Type' over half a century ago, wrote that: "Inbreeding creates nothing new. It merely ensures the perpetuation of qualities already present. Therefore it is as fatal a policy to inbreed indifferent specimens in the hope of improving the race as it is folly to cross a good race which shows no sign of deterioration...A common fallacy of the present day is to assume that inbreeding will to some extent do away with the need for selection...the exact opposite is the case...If eye and judgement be lacking no amount of theoretical knowledge can make the successful breeder." I have never come across a professional geneticist who was also an outstanding breeder of livestock of any kind. Outstanding parents don't always produce outstanding offspring; selection is the key skill.

Recycling genes within a breed is not always the best answer in attempting to improve the health and vigour of that breed. In their 'Genetics of the Dog', (Oliver & Boyd, 1966), Burns and Fraser make my point for me: "This suggestion of crossing with another breed will of course rather shock the pedigree purist. It was however used during the formative period of almost every breed and it is entirely unscientific to refuse to utilise the simplest method of attaining what is required. The important thing is to know exactly what is wanted from the crossing and to make only such matings as are necessary to attain that end."

You can relate these words to the experience of the breeding manager to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. For several years the highest pass rate (86% in 1994) has been from Labrador cross Golden Retrievers. Against that evidence the forward plan of any commercial dog registry MUST embrace the registration of such cross-bred dogs, they are the future. A club like the Kennel Club, created in different times, reluctant to change with the times and reliant on the sluggish attitudes generated by committees, is going to look increasingly primitive as the next millennium unfolds. As more scientific evidence is presented to us in each decade we must have the vision to make good use of it - or waste it. Many artisan breeders knowingly blend the blood of breeds to ensure a more virile less exaggerated type; I see more sound fit cross-bred Staffies than I do in the purebred show dog rings.

Writing in 'Dogs in Canada' magazine in 1994, a professor in genetics, Dr RD Crawford  pointed out some valuable facts to breeders: "...the older the breed, the smaller will be the amount of genetic 'junk' that it contains; the younger the breed, the more defects will be present. For instance, very old breeds such as the Saluki, Pekingese and Basenji will only rarely express a severe genetic abnormality...the Standard Poodle has become the classic example of a dog breed which is highly inbred and as a result it now possesses a relatively 'clean' genotype." But those breeders inbreeding new breeds are going to have to demonstrate great skill if sound stock is to be produced. Most dog breeders breed on the phenotype (i.e. what the animal looks like), rather than the genotype (i.e. what genes the dog is carrying). 

Without the breeding of one breed to another, we would not have most of the pedigree breeds of today. Has the Field Spaniel not benefited from the approved cross with the English Springer? Has the Deerhound not been strengthened by the approved infusion of Greyhound blood? How was the Mastiff re-created in Britain after World War Two if it were not with outside blood - the use of Bullmastiff Tawny Lion, for example? Why did skilled breeders like Dobermann and Korthals need to fuse the blood of different breeds? What was the purpose of Southern African hunters in blending various hunting dogs to produce the Rhodesian Ridgeback? The answer is functional excellence, supported by robustness and virility.

Double standards allowed the surreptitious use of Pug blood in the Bulldog, Borzoi blood in the Collie, Dalmatian blood in the Bull Terrier and Great Dane and Bloodhound blood in the Mastiff. But try suggesting an overt cross to fanciers of these breeds, even to breed a healthier dog. If the FCI can officially recognise as a breed the Kromfohrlander, from a misalliance between a Fox Terrier and a Breton Griffon, both of unknown breeding, what price respect for pure-breeding anyway? The recognition by kennel clubs overseas of the powerful Chinook, from Husky and mixed St Bernard blood, the healthy Eurasier, a Chow-Keeshond mix, and the charming Kyi-Leo, a blend of Lhasa Apso, Shih-Tzu and Maltese, since the last war, shows what can be achieved. Our KC recognised Mastiffs coming from the outcross to the Bullmastiff Tawny Lion but won't recognise pied Mastiffs!

In his enlightening book, Vilmos Csanyi produces such phrases as: 'It is high time for breeders and their organisations to introduce, in their own self-interest, breeding criteria based on behaviour'...'Homozygous stocks pay a stiff price for genetic order. Whatever the species, its variability, resistance and performance are generally below that of heterozygous stocks'...'It is hardly possible to create a homozygous dog breed without damaging side effects.' He recommends the creation of uniform hybrids, by cross-breeding different existing breeds. But, as a scientist, he does point out that such hybrids should not be bred further. Their merit is not as breeding material, but as healthy stable companion dogs. This is after all, the main market for dogs.

I have in front of me an advertisement in a past Our Dogs Annual placed by a breeder of 'English Mastiffs'; he claims to have bred the largest and heaviest dog in Britain, boasting of a shoulder height of 35 inches and a weight of over 20 stones. He does not mention their longevity, their anatomical soundness or their temperament, surely a crucial element in any dog, let alone a huge one. Breeding for great size, encouraged in the KC-approved breed standard for the Mastiff, contributes little to canine welfare, perhaps more to the anti-dog fraternity. Most dogs ending up in rescue are there for temperament failings; if a dog is going to share your hearth its behaviour really does matter. One day, the advertisement for companion dogs might boast of stable temperaments, predictable behaviour and equable tempers, ahead of size and pedigree. One day, a more enlightened public might be actually seeking such dogs. And who wants to be committed to huge veterinary costs for faulty hips, elbows and a weak constitution?

A decade ago, there was a series of articles either advocating cross-breeding or disparaging it, in one of the national dog papers. The advocacy argument was convincing; the disparaging response very disappointing and intellectually quite lightweight. This is a debate worth conducting and of more value to the domestic dog than any wordy show report. It is a rather sad fact that the words of the few scientists I have read who support and defend pure-breeding are themselves involved in the showing and breeding of purebred dogs. It is all too apparent where they are coming from and why their case is disappointingly tendentious. For a scientist not to have an open mind is worrying. The eminent British scientist Sir James Jeans wrote, a century ago: 'Science should leave off making pronouncements; the river of knowledge has too often turned back on itself'. The wish to improve dogs has to be heartfelt.

Consumers generally have a higher expectation and an increased tendency to go to litigation these days. Pet insurance is becoming very big business. Veterinary bills continue to rise. A more sophisticated dog-owning public is just not going to tolerate sickly pets which die young even if they look roughly like their ancestors. If you add to this the strong moral conscience being increasingly applied in Western Europe nowadays then the intentional breeding from flawed stock is going to receive a more hostile response than in previous times. The general public is gradually getting to understand the emotional and financial penalties of short-lived, medically-expensive, physically-fragile dogs as pets. It is time for hybrid vigour to play a part in planned dog breeding. Who wouldn't welcome healthier dogs?