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October 2014

Responsible Breeding

How we must change as breeders – and why.

A football field of dogs.

OK, sports fans, imagine standing on the 50-yard line and looking at an entire football field full of Cardigan Corgis.  Thousands of dogs, representing the entire worldwide population of the breed.

It is your job to get the breed from this football field to the next field, the field twenty years from now. You can use any of the thousands of dogs in this field, and success will be measured by whether you have a result pool (the twenty-years-from-now field) that is at least as long-lived, healthy, athletic, sound, happy, and sane as your current pool. Bonus points will be awarded if you can improve on at least one of those categories without hurting any of the others.

So how do you do it?  Stop for a minute and really plan it out before you read on.


I would guess that most people thought to themselves “I should be as picky as possible, first health-test everybody, prove that each dog is healthy, make sure that only the ones who are incredibly high-quality in terms of conformation and show success are allowed to breed. I should build the next ten thousand dogs from the most elite pool of this one.” That’s the conventional wisdom, the way “good breeders” do everything, right?

I want to suggest to you that a strategy like that will bring most breeds swiftly and inevitably to the grave.

Because here’s what is NOT being taught as conventional wisdom, and the entire breeding community needs to be smacked upside the head with it.


That is FACT. It’s population ecology 101. A huge preponderance of all animal behavior is designed to create a population that is the most unrelated it can be–where the genes are as much UNlike each other as possible. That’s why bachelor males are kicked out of packs and herds; it’s a main reason that animals try to get away from each other and form territories; it’s why we evolved different genders and all the millions of behaviors that govern breeding.

Maximum genetic variation is essential to a population that can withstand stress. If you lose genetic variation, you end up with substantially lower resistance to disease and you stand a good chance of concentrating deleterious genes. Loss of genetic variation is why we have such huge problems with cancers in Flatcoats, or epilepsy in Poodles, or Fanconi in Basenjis.

One of the ways that breeders continually shoot themselves in the foot is by eliminating founding lines–if there were ten founding stud dogs of the breed, back in 1930, and they together produced ten thousand dogs that are living in 2008, are they evenly represented? Or are eight thousand of the puppies the descendants of just two of the founding dogs, two other dogs have disappeared entirely and their genetic material is now gone forever, and the other six have just a few hundred puppies in the entire world that are now living?

Because of what is winning and what is in fashion in terms of hot kennels and top stud dogs, the entire world will rush to just a few dogs, like people running to the side of a sailing ship. This overweights the gene pool and it decreases the ability of the population to respond to threats and diseases.

If, for example, Cardigans start turning up with a ton of heart disease, and Cadno and his descendants represent a pool of dogs with no heart disease, even if Cadno Cardigans have longer legs than we’d like we’ll find them extremely valuable. If that line was abandoned in 1970 because the Golden Arrow (or whatever) descendants were tearing up the green carpet and had such glorious short legs, we’re going to be stuck.

So – if this is such an accepted truth in science, why is the conventional wisdom so different from this? Well, one HUGE problem is that we have a collective guilty conscience, and we’ve bought a certain amount of conventional wisdom that comes from other breeds, and we’re under the thumb of a lot of groupthink that is actually coming from animal rights, so we have made it a virtue to remove every single dog from the gene pool that we possibly can.

That’s where you get the “I know it isn’t perfect, but it’s SOMETHING” line that is used to justify neutering dogs based on everything from the DM test to the fluff test. In the back of that is a thought, however subconscious, that it’s good to neuter and iffy to breed, so the more stringent, even nonsensical, we make the requirements the more moral we are as a group of breeders.

We in Cardigans have a wonderful, healthy breed with very few issues. One of the best ways to KEEP it that way is to breed toward maximum genetic variation–in real-world terms, that means breeding as many individuals as possible to as many individuals as possible, spreading the genetic material as far as we can. Sharing the wealth. It’s not good to neuter but iffy to breed; it’s BAD to neuter and GOOD to breed.

I know this is already making people itchy, but I challenge you to prove me wrong. It’s supported in every population study I have ever read–loss of breeding animals is a bad thing.

So the question is NOT how to choose the best from this football field. The question is how to REMOVE the weakest.


After all, that’s what happens in nature; it’s how all living things evolved. The term “survival of the fittest” is a little misleading; evolutionary pressure doesn’t choose which animals survive. It’s “death of the weakest.” Nature kills those that are not strong, leaving behind every single individual that WAS strong enough to make it. Those are primed to breed as widely as is practical for the population, keeping the population at its maximum level of genetic richness.

So how does this apply to our field of dogs? It’s our job to wisely remove the weakest. It’s not plucking the very “best” out and elevating them–if you do, in just a few generations your population will lose the great majority of its genetic material. It’s deciding who “dies” in the population, who does not get to reproduce. Thankfully we can do it by sterilizing or separating, and we don’t have to actually kill them, but the effect on the population is the same.

Remember, every loss to the population is a negative. It is NOT a neutral decision, ever. That means that the benefit to the population of removing that dog must outweigh the negative effects of removing him or her. If it does not, you are hurting the population and sending your breed to the pit.

So, for a moment, forget anything to do with health testing and let’s just try to choose which dogs to “kill.” It’s honestly better to think of it as killing than neutering, because it correctly communicates the gravity of the decision. It is a great and terrible responsibility to remove dogs from a breeding population and you SHOULD do it with no little fear and trembling.

If you’re going to kill a dog, you need to make sure that you’re doing so based on two criteria: The “fault” needs to hurt that individual dog AND that fault needs to be reliably communicated to the next generation. If the faulty dog won’t pass on that fault, he or she should not automatically be removed.

I would say that the first dogs we remove are those that have broad issues of unsoundness. We are absolutely sure that major issues with body shape a) hurt that individual dog, and b) are reliably communicated to the next generation and therefore hurt that generation.

So if a dog cannot run freely, walk without pain, eat its food, and live to a normal old age, its genes should be killed off. Very unsound bites, fronts that end up painful and arthritic, swaybacks, terribly unsound movement, etc. I would also add congenital shyness to this list; a dog who is born so shy that it cannot be happy in normal society would never survive if it had to live in a community of dogs or run down game. Watch out closely for issues with ingrained reactivity and willingness to ignore the bite-humans taboo. Environment is ALWAYS king of behavior, so there are many dogs that I will excuse for biting, but you know what I’m talking about here. That bitch who had to be carefully restrained during her entire career because she bit judges, and you know that three of her puppies also bite people? Don’t be blaming the owners; look in the mirror for that one. Perpetuating what is in effect a mental illness is bad for the population.

If we’ve killed off the unsound dogs–please note that I did NOT say the “untypey” dogs–we should be left with a group of dogs that is basically able to make a next generation that will succeed. They all have strong, sound bodies and would be considered at least average to good in conformation and movement. We now start applying the kill criteria that are much, much more slippery. These are health testing and selecting for “type.”

I want to talk about type first because I am terribly worried about the fact that so many dogs are “killed” for totally superficial reasons. Jon Kimes got here first, but maybe he’ll allow me to expand on this.

The proper Cardigan head is called proper because it is a SOUND head, a healthy, long-living head that allows the dog to do its job. So if a dog has a tremendously clunky head, a Lab head on a Cardi body, that’s not a superficial fault. It goes to soundness and, while it is nowhere near as unsound as a very forward front or a straight shoulder or cowhocks, there are good valid reasons to try to remove it from our healthy population.

Similarly, the extremely foreshortened radius and ulna in the front legs are sound. Thick, short dwarfed bones are actually healthier than longer, thinner dwarfed bones. So, as with heads, a dog up on light, thin bone is quite possibly still sound enough to  breed, but it’s a genuine fault.

Markings, on the other hand, or coatedness, are NOT worth killing a dog over. Let’s examine them according to our two criteria. Does having white around one eye hurt the individual dog? It MAY, to a very marginal extent, if the dog does not have good pigment otherwise. But clearly white in and of itself doesn’t hurt working dogs; every livestock guard dog, the big hounds, the big sporting dogs–they all have a ton of white around the eyes. So it certainly isn’t a slam dunk. Now #2: Does having white around one eye hurt the next generation? Since white-headed dogs can clearly produce lots of color when bred wisely, the answer to that is no, unless you breed stupidly.

The “off” colors are even more superficial. They have no detriment to the individual dog and are not passed along unless, again, you don’t understand color genetics or how to breed the standard colors.

Coat is similar. A long coat is NOT disadvantageous automatically–the long coat we call “poor” is no longer, softer, or more open than many breeds with distinguished working records have. And coated dogs can clearly produce dogs with standard coats.

Both of those–markings and coats–are part of the “game” of showing dogs. If you want to show dogs, you follow some rules just because they’re part of the game. So Labs can’t have any white, but Tollers need it. Rotties can’t, but Berners must. All of them are just part of the stuff we accept when we decide to show. They are NOT reasons, and I’d challenge you to prove me wrong, to kill off dogs from the population. If a dog is sound, healthy, built to live a long and good life, has working conformation and a sane temperament, it’s really not very defensible to kill it when it can clearly produce worthy contributors to the next generations.

So back we go to our football field. We’ve taken out some ugly heads and the hocky rears. We’ve taken out long, weak legs, and a few other un-typey dogs.

It is only NOW that we’re at the place where many breeders begin–at health testing. You do not start health testing before this point. That is VERY deliberate. The dogs who were going to hurt the population because they were so unsound were “killed” long before we’d even consider winnowing them via health testing.

And here’s where I make my big pot-stirring statement:

I think that many people get the whole motivation behind health testing completely backwards. They feel that they’re doing it to “prove” that their  bitch or their dog “is healthy.”

If you go that route, then there is no end of testing that you can and should do. In fact, there is no end to the testing you MUST do. After all, just because I know that his hips are healthy doesn’t mean his heart is healthy, and doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have one or more factors for von Willebrands, and doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have autoimmune thyroiditis, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a rare storage disease, doesn’t mean he has healthy patellas, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have elbow dysplasia, and on and on and on it goes. If proving that a dog is healthy is what breeders are supposed to do, then you need to line up a hundred or more tests and you can’t be making any excuses.

Others will say that they are doing it to prove that their dog or bitch is healthy, but only until and up to a certain dollar amount. Again, bad idea. That encourages you to do a lot of cheap tests rather than better, more expensive tests; it also sets up a false expectation of, among other things, puppy prices (at least to a certain extent, health testing is passed along to the puppy buyer; that’s just reality, so if we have to get expensive testing done we should just do it and charge more for puppies rather than whining that we can’t do it because we don’t make it back in the puppy sales).

The only reason that makes ANY sense is that health testing is to remove the right individuals from the breeding population. It MUST be a removal process is because that keeps the focus on what actually WORKS. If a health test protects the integrity of the population by reliably removing dogs who will hurt that population, it is worth it and not only worth it but mandatory. No matter how much it costs or what kind of trouble it is or what we have to pass on to puppy buyers.

Now here’s the part that people get mad about: the opposite also applies. If a test does not improve the population more than it hurts it, then we shouldn’t be doing it, or if we do it we shouldn’t be removing dogs based on its results, because we’re skewing the population–running to the side of the sailboat–for no reason; we are hurting our future generations.

Because Cardigans are so healthy and don’t have the huge issues that other breeds have, we’re in that situation with the majority of our health tests. The stuff we see as health problems are only somewhat genetic and the tests are very unreliable, but the tests exist and they will multiply. I’d put money on the fact that in 15 years we’ll be able to test for twenty or thirty disorders that are only weakly connected to the gene test.

I believe in testing, believe strongly in it, but for those disorders where there is no clear link between the result and the life of the dog (DM is a great example of this) we need to be ignoring the results of the test for a long time, breeding as usual, until we can say “Yes, we now know that dogs with at risk DM tests live, on average, four years less than dogs with a negative DM test.” That’s a real reason to start killing those dogs off. If, as I suspect, the line is more like “Dogs with at risk DM tests live, on average, three months less than dogs with a negative test,” then we are REALLY foolish to be chucking thousands of dogs from the gene pool–if we “kill” carriers and at-risk dogs, probably more than half the population of the breed–for that.

So now we come to where the rubber meets the road:

1) If you’re looking at your potential breeding stock, and your potential breeding decisions, you should add a very important criterion: Genetic “otherness.” We all know the mantra – breed for temperament, health, conformation. But we must – MUST – add non-relatedness to our list. This takes two forms: First, if a dog is substantially non-related to a bitch, their puppies will be more valuable to the breed than the puppies of a closely related dog and bitch. Second, families are best used widely, not narrowly. If there are four breedings to be done, using four sisters once is better for the breed than using one sister four times.

2) We need more people breeding their dogs. If we’re going to make wider breeding happen, we need buy-in and breeding on a much wider scale. Please note that I don’t mean we necessarily need more puppies – we need more mothers and fathers being used, more dogs left intact, more bitches making the babies. WE NEED MORE BREEDERS. We must critically examine how we sell our puppies, how we restrict our buyers’ breeding choices, and how we determine which dogs are breedable. The current model is NOT SUSTAINABLE. Going on as we are doing now is 100% doomed to fail, as our human numbers dwindle and the dogs being shown and bred become more and more closely related. They are two converging lines, and where they meet (where our breed reaches a point at which it is no longer capable of being sustained in a healthy way) is visible. So this is not a choice we have. We MUST change enough to carry our breed forward.

3)  If you are looking at the available battery of tests for your dog, please first be serious about whether the dog is sound and can live a normal life, is safe and sane and happy. Please, for heaven’s sake, do not forget HAPPY. If the answer is yes, then by all means do the testing, gather information. But don’t be a slave to the tests if they do not clearly pass the two criteria: They must affect your individual dog and they must reliably change the next generation for the better. Do whatever research you have to do to make sure you really know, genuinely UNDERSTAND, the answers to those criteria. Because we really do, as a community of breeders, have to fill that twenty-years-from-now field. And every single breeding decision changes that result. We should be doing so very, very thoughtfully.

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