Let’s start with “Why?”

As we enter a New Year, it is timely to step back and reflect on what our aspirations are for our breed(s), not just in 2022 but in the longer term. Everyone in a canine leadership role or a position of influence has the potential to make a positive impact on their breed’s health and welfare.

Before you all rush off to “do something”, take 20 minutes to watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “How great leaders inspire action” (https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action).

Probably the most important take-away from this talk is Sinek’s “Golden Circles”. These are 3 concentric circles (like a bullseye target) with “Why?” at the centre, “How?” at the next layer out and “”What?” as the outer circle. This is really, really, important when I challenge you to think about what are your aspirations for your breed. You have to start by answering the “Why?” question, not by leaping to actions which are at the “What?” level.

I’ve written previously about the concept of Preservation Breeders who strive for “purposefully bred purebred dogs” that are “intentionally bred for predictable type, health and welfare” as opposed to randomly bred dogs that are “brought into this world with no predicated welfare for their existence”. These breeders probably have an overarching goal of securing a viable future for their breed. That’s a great starting point for thinking about possible answers to the “Why?” question for your breed. Answers to the “Why?” question need to be framed in terms of what you expect will be better at some point in the future.

There aren’t that many things most of us would want to include in our aspirations:

  • Reducing the loss of genetic diversity that comes from closed stud books
  • Improving health and welfare by reducing the prevalence and/or severity of diseases
  • Reducing exaggerated conformational traits that may adversely impact on a dog’s health or might drift away from what would be considered typical
  • Ensuring behaviour and temperament continues to reflect the breed’s original purpose

Breeds as genetic pools

When we start to think about “How” we might achieve any of these objectives, we must consider the population structure of our breed. Sponenberg’s book “Managing breeds for a secure future” describes 3 tiers in every population. Firstly, there is what Sponenberg calls an “elite” tier; this is a relatively small proportion of the total breed. Most readers will recognise this as the show population which contains the most prized dogs. Generally, this is a closed group as far as introduction of new genetic material is concerned. Breeders produce replacements (the next generation) with no introductions from the other tiers. Next up is what is known as the “multiplier tier” made up of dogs of more average quality, but still recognisable and typical members of the breed. This tier is larger than the elite tier and, typically, breeders here use males from the elite tier to breed with their bitches and to “upgrade” their puppies. So, genes flow from the elite tier into the multiplier tier. Finally, there is a “commercial” tier which tends to be larger than the other 2 where the motivation of breeders is to make money from dogs as a product, rather than any interest in the quality or sustainability of the breed. The commercial tier usually buys in males from the multiplier tier to add to their pool of stud dogs. Overall, there is a flow of genetic material from the elite tier down through the multiplier tier and then into the commercial tier. There is little or no flow back to the elite tier and, over time, the dogs in this population become less genetically diverse.

Dogs in all 3 tiers have “pedigrees” but breeders in the elite tier invariably look down on those in the commercial tier, both in terms of the value of the pedigree and the “quality” of the dogs. Around the world, registries take different views over what they will allow to be registered and, for many of the commercial breeders, they may see little value in a KC registration. Our UK Kennel Club also has the option to use the Unverified Pedigree route to bring dogs into the registry. This can be useful to add genetic diversity, for example to bring unregistered working lines into the gene pool.

It’s clear that where you draw the boundaries around what can and can’t be registered will impact on the size of the gene pool available and, therefore, the options available to preserve a viable breed for future generations.

Down in the weeds

In this article, I have focused on the “How?”, related to genetic diversity because it is so important and it impacts on many other issues we might want to address in pedigree dogs.

Eventually though, we have to get down into the weeds and identify specific actions that can be taken to move us towards our aspirations for our breed. Typically, this will include the development and use of a range of DNA or clinical screening programmes as well as advice for breeders on how to interpret their results. We have to be careful to avoid believing that “health tested means healthy” or arbitrarily removing a dog from the breeding population on the basis of a single screening result. From a buyer or owner’s perspective, other factors such as longevity and temperament are important, not to mention all the possible health conditions for which no screening programme exists.

Other actions might include revising Breed Standards but this should not be done simply to reflect current fashions for type or conformation. It’s also worth remembering the 3 tiers in the gene pool and the fact that Breed Standards probably only have much relevance for those in the elite tier (the show world). Of course, that’s not to say we shouldn’t be striving to educate buyers and breeders in the other tiers about what a typical, healthy specimen of our breed should look like or behave like.

Your New Year’s resolution

All of us should have a “Why?” for our breed if we are serious about its future. That “Why?” should describe what we want to improve before we even start discussing what we think needs to be done. What is the most important thing that needs to be improved in your breed? Then, what’s the single best action that you could take in 2022 that will be of benefit to your breed(s)? Remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao Tzu).