We Need to Focus on Breeding Healthy Dogs While We Await Technological Advances
This blog is stimulated by, but is not really a review of this paper:
Advancing Genetic Selection and Behavioral Genomics of Working Dogs Through Collaborative Science, Frances L. Chen, Madeline Zimmermann, Elinor K. Karlsson, et.al. Front. Vet. Sci., 06 September 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2021.662429.
The authors make it clear that their focus is on working dogs, and the need to increase the supply of dogs that are fit for the desired functions. The paper highlights collaborative work, something IPFD certainly applauds. The goal is to work towards development of a technical, genomic, science-based approach to dog breeding. They describe the potential for massive data collection efforts to support analyses that will achieve this. It is an ambitious project, and they are to be recognized for their efforts. However, I will leave the discussion of the application of these advancements to working dogs to those more experienced in this area.
Here I wish to pick up on some of the comments in the paper that can be applied to the wider breeding of dogs. For example:
“The ancient partnership between people and dogs is struggling to meet modern day needs, with demand exceeding our capacity to safely breed high-performing and healthy dogs.”
This is certainly true.
“New statistical genetic approaches and genomic technology have the potential to revolutionize dog breeding, by transitioning from problematic phenotypic selection to methods that can preserve genetic diversity while increasing the proportion of successful dogs.”
Also probably true.
However, the limit to application of this potential relates not to science, or genetics, or genomics, or to the availability of data, but to human behaviour change. Breeders supplying the recent increase in demand have focused on a quick increase in the supply to benefit from the sudden desire for more pets. Their priority for creating healthy puppies and supporting breed level issues like genetic diversity have likely dropped off – even among those breeders who might have once focused on these things. For those breeding for the popular market or for dog shows focus is specifically on phenotypic selection – they do not consider that as being ‘problematic’. Even in breeds where phenotype/conformation/appearance has been increasingly associated with health and welfare problems there is strong opposition to moving away from breeding for those attributes or to changing the breed standards (or their application in the ring) that ask for them. So, without a strategy to change either the attitudes of show breeders, judges, and commercial breeders or revolutionizing the consumer demand away from a focus on appearance, the achievements of the science will fall short.
The authors go on to say:
“Today, dog breeders struggle to apply even the tools available now, stymied by the need for sophisticated data storage infrastructure and expertise in statistical genetics.”
No doubt this is true.
But again, for the majority of dog breeders this is the major stumbling block.
“The goal of selective breeding is to increase the average genetic merit of a population, thereby increasing the likelihood that, in the next generation, more dogs will be higher-performing than dogs in the current generation.”
How far does this statement apply across all dog breeders?
Consider the authors’ preceding statement: “Modern dog breeding started in the mid 1800s, and historical records and genomic studies suggest modern dog breeders predominantly favored form and pedigree over function”. One must question whether increasing ‘the average genetic merit’ of their breed is really the primary goal of most breeders, especially those breeding to satisfy demand or for success at shows. And one might also question whether modern selective breeding, in many breeds, even has the goal to maintain and sustain the current genetic merit of breeds. Even where stated goals might reflect these high standards, breeders and breed clubs need to determine the extent to which actions taken in breeding and showing dogs work to support those goals.
The paper offers a detailed description of the use of Estimated Breeding Values and proposes a plan to use these and other technical calculations to improve selection of dog for mating. In the short term, this approach will be impossible for most breeders to either comprehend or apply. But there is much that can be done now!
We will be coming out soon with a simple format for breeders to consider their own goals and the techniques and tools they are using to achieve them. With links to existing breed-specific tools breeders can assess how well their practices reflect their priorities. These tools focus on the Big Picture of breeding and encourage breeders to contemplate how what they do relates to the health and welfare of their puppies and impacts their breed.