Friday 3 December 2010

"We don't want a bunch of scientists telling us what to do"

Cesky Terrier: dying for some new blood?
Kennel Club Chairman Ronnie Irving was criticised for saying this in Pedigree Dogs Exposed, but it's how a lot of dog breeders feel.  This week, Cesky Terrier breeder Sheila Atter says pretty much the same thing in her Dog World column.

She writes:

Take for example the latest big idea – the Advisory Council that is headed by Professor Sheila Crispin. I have to confess that when it was first announced that the members of this council would include ‘ordinary’ people whose qualification was simply that they had practical experience as dog breeders I was most impressed. The many different qualifications that were asked for from people who were actually being sought to serve on the council were refreshing and gave us hope that here was indeed a body that would understand the viewpoint of breeders and exhibitors.

Instead, what do we have? The answer is, sadly, more of the same. The names are depressingly familiar, as are their areas of expertise. True there is the token dog breeder – I hope she is a strong and determined lady as I fear she will have great difficulty in getting her point of view across. She will have to battle against the academics, the RSPCA representatives and the scientists. 

Ah yes, the scientists! That’s where the parallel universe comes in. I wonder if anyone has ever told them (not that they would believe it) that dog breeding is not an exact science. An honours degree in genetics does not make you a good dog-breeder. 

Understanding and making use of COIs, EBVs, AVKs may help you to produce healthier puppies but all of these are just tools, and there is absolutely nothing that can take the place of years of experience, an in-depth knowledge of the bloodlines within a breed and the instinctive gut-feeling that a particular mating is ‘right’ that marks out the great breeder from the rest. 

As it happens, I agree in principle. And  I am pretty sure that every scientist on the new Dog Advisory Council would, too. As Paul McGreevy, from the University of Sydney, once said to me: "Dog breeders are very good at what they do. The problem is that what they do is often not very good."  He then went on to say that if you could channel all that skill and expertise into doing the right thing, dog breeders would be an unassailable force.

Of course dog breeders are happy-enough to run to the scientists when they want a DNA for a problem that is plaguing their breed. So why this deep distrust?

There's a clue from Sheila a little later in the article:

Yes, genetic diversity is important. No-one knows that more than I do – my breed has none and it’s a constant battle for responsible breeders to maintain what diversity we do have.

Here, I think, lies the root of Sheila's fear about scientists. Deep-down, she knows they will tell her that her beloved Cesky Terriers are so inbred that the breed needs to consider an outcross.  And athough the scientists are of course not there to force an outcross on this and other very inbred breeds, the idea of mongrelising their beloved breeds by bringing in new blood makes many dog breeders recoil in horror.

But Cesky Terriers really are extremely inbred. A brother/sister mating, for instance would produce puppies with a co-efficient of inbreeding (COI) of 25 per cent. But many Cesky Terriers have COIs of 80 per cent and higher.  This makes them virtual clones of each other.

Thanks to careful selection and a bit of luck, the Cesky is a breed that is not plagued with many obvious inherited disorders. But cancer is an issue (a condition that may be more prevalent in the breed because of inbreeding) and the Cesky has not escaped one of the other costs of inbreeding: reduced fertility and smaller litter sizes. Longevity too, is compromised. Although the sample size was extremely low, the 2004 KC/BSAVA health survey results for the Cesky found a median age of death of 8yrs 5months - the lowest of all the terrier breeds according to Dr Kelly Cassidy's Dog Longevity website (the border terrier, in comparison, on average lives to 14).

A careful outcross programme has the potential to fix these issues. Usefully in this case, the breed's parent breeds (the Scottie and the Sealhyam) are still there to outcross to. Yes, these breeds have their own problems, but the alternative, surely, is even more scary?

I hope that the attitude towards outcrossing changes. Success stories like Bruce Cattanach's Bobtail Boxer project and the Dalmatian Backcross Project are trail-blazing and should inspire, rather than scare dog-breeders.

The scientists are there to help, not hinder. Really.


  1. I'm afraid I'm simply baffled that anyone would put so much emotion into preserving a "breed" which was created by cross-breeding less than a hundred years ago.

    What makes the Cesky not a "designer dog"?

  2. A number of Dalmatian fanciers reacted to the AKC's Health and Welfare Advisory Committee report with comments like "What do a bunch of veterinarians and geneticists know about breeding Dalmatians?"

  3. As you so rightly state, Jemima, the KC/BVA health survey covered a very small sample - in fact just 22 dogs. One problem of that survey was that people with dogs that had been healthy all their lives just didn't bother to reply. As a matter of record, this year I have heard of the deaths of Cesky Terriers at 16, 14 (2) and 13, and as part of our ongoing project with the AHT to determine whether the CT has inherited the mutant gene for PLL from his Sealyham ancestor (we think not, but we'd like to be certain) I have swabbed healthy 13, 14 and 15 year olds.

    Don't forget that Cesky Terrier breeders have actually faced this problem once already. An outcross to the Sealyham was done back in 1984 and 1985 - way before PDE told us all that we should consider outcrosses to save our breeds.

    I do hope you'll feel obliged to comment just as freely about my column next week.

  4. Cambstreasurer:
    Yes, the Cesky Terrier is essentially a 'designer dog'. It was created by a successful dog breeder and exhibitor who happened also to be a geneticist, and wanted a terrier that would be suitable for hunting in the forests of Bohemia, could be a glamorous show dog, and at the same time would fulfil the role of loyal family pet.

    Why do I want to preserve the breed? Well, if you lived with one (or probably more than one, they are very collectable) you wouldn't have to ask that question.

    1. I agree. I'm a Cesky owner, a bit by accident, and after having had a number of other terriers, this is the best. It doesn't have the spastic energy of the Jack Russells, but is intelligent. It doesn't have the ceaseless barking of "yippy" terrier breeds. (I'm looking at you, Yorky.) It doesn't shed. It has the most wonderfully calm yet playful personality and the most beautiful coat (in most lines). Unlike my recent experience with a Schnauzer, it doesn't latch on to one person to the exclusion of others, but sure has bonded with my family.

      I sure hope we get to keep him longer than ~8.5 years.

  5. Dijana from Sweden3 December 2010 at 19:23

    I was kind of put off by reading Shelia Atter's post. She seems to think that the only thing that geneticists look for when breeding pedigree dogs is pure data. This is really a silly assumption and I have never met a geneticist that thinks this way. To breed you have to see the big picture, the entire dogs' lineage and the prior health issues the family tree has been suffering, what health tests have been made a.s.o. Then you're supposed to look at temperament as well, what kind you want your puppies to inherit, what tests were made, how the dogs are mentally etc. This is all genetics, what phenotype the dogs have had will give a hint of the possible desired genotype. Especially in these kinds of issues, temperament, fertility etc. can be highly hereditary. And also what kind of mating would be appropriate. This is the big picture.

    But the difference between dog breeders and "the scientists" is that breeders look at other features that don't seem necessary for some dogs. Things such as height by the centimeter, nose length, shape of the eyes, length of the legs, curled or straight tail, colouration, coat type etc.
    To a geneticist that doesn't believe in showing dogs this might not be something they feel should be taken into consideration. Mental and physical health above all.

    This includes genetic variation in dogs. To be of the opinion that breeds of a large number don't need to breed on a lot of dogs, only the ones that fit the standard nicely, is really naive and wrong. Yes I said wrong. Mainly cause most dogs are inbred beyond recognition even in breeds with a large population. And if we were to select for those that have the right coat colour or the right curve on their tail then we would slowly (or quickly, it depends how you look at it) increase inbreeding thus risking depression. As an example; if you had about 100 bitches and 10 dogs in a population the inbreeding would be equal to about 35 individuals and their inbreeding. Over a period of time this would mean that every dog would be more or less closely related to each other, risking the enhancement of traits we do not want. Traits whose genetics are not as obvious as coat colour or head shape.

  6. "As you so rightly state, Jemima, the KC/BVA health survey covered a very small sample - in fact just 22 dogs. One problem of that survey was that people with dogs that had been healthy all their lives just didn't bother to reply."

    Did you participate Sheila? I would guess so as I know you are health-focused. So presumably your own long-lived dogs were included?

    If you don't like the results of the one survey that there has been, then ask for some help from an epidimiologist like Vicki Adams - now freelance - and do another survey encouraging more people to participate. If online it could be international which would probably be even more useful.

  7. I would guess that some people, especially breeders, whose dogs died at a young age would also have elected not to respond. So maybe the two would cancel each other out--who knows.

  8. PS: it really does drive me mad that in some breeds people couldn't be bothered to fill in the forms of what was heralded as a ground-breaking and important health survey and then have the cheek to whinge when the findings are not what they hoped for.

    Sixty-four forms were sent out to Cesky owners/breeders and only 13 were returned.

    Still, that's better than for the German Shepherd - no forms for them returned at all...

  9. In fact Kate those who have had problems are usually the ones that participate in surveys such as this.

    Yes Jemima, I actually returned forms for 8 dogs, 3 of whom were dead. Yes, they died too young - all from cancer. In 2004 there were actually very few Cesky Terriers in this country that had reached double figures - the breed had not been in the country long enough.

    The breed club has since conducted two health surveys, the second earlier this year, and both have elicited a far better response (57 and 68 replies respectively). We have an on-going system for health reporting via our club website, with forms for detailing cases of cancer (the incidence seems to be less than it was a few years ago), breeding report and cause of death. In addition we conducted a survey on feeding five years ago, and encourage all members to eye, heart and patella test - even though we have had negligible problems in these areas.

    It is very frustrating when people don't bother to reply. All too often, though, when I have a go at owners who haven't sent in any results I get the response that the dog has never visited the vet and doesn't have any problems so they didn't think I would be interested.

  10. "I don't want anyone telling me what to do".

    And I pictured dog breeders as older matrons, not yob teenagers. Guess I'm wrong again.

  11. Well Sheila, generally speaking dog breeders will go to great lengths to hide any health problems in their lines from other dog breeders--understandably, since they can be so catty and back-stabbing when they get any "dirt" on each least that's how it is here in the States...maybe some people would be concerned as to whether a survey was truly anonymous or whether it would some how come back to haunt them if they were to report any health problems or shortened lifespans.

  12. Has anyone ever compared the lifespan of F1 crosses with the parent breeds? One obviously interesting case would be border collie and greyhound vs lurchers as all three have been around for a long time and both parent breeds have been selected for working ability rather than looks.

    Comparing with "shelter mutts" is probably not a proper test of the effects of inbreeding because an unknown proportion of the shelter dogs are likely to be the result of brother/sister or parent/offspring matings due to owner incompetence.

  13. There's also the issue of potentially life-shortening stress suffered by shelter dogs.

  14. Dear Ms. Atter, could I ask a question? Ms Harrison claims that many Cesky terriers have COI of 80% or even more. Is she correct? Yes or no?

    If so, how did your breed arrive at such levels?

  15. Because it seems to me, Ms Atter, that if Ms Harrison is accurate, that in-depth knowledge of the blood lines in your breed must be rather easy to obtain: there is just one. Right? And all those years of gut feeling about which mating is the right one did not tell you that each was perilous,viewed in the longer perspective of your breed´s survival?
    It does not take an honours degree in genetics to understand that. The man in the street does.

  16. Well Bodil, some CT do have a COI of around 80%. This was caused by a combination of the fact that the breed was created from just four dogs (three initially and another added in some 15 years later) and the tendency of the Czech breeders to follow what they call the 'English' method of breeding - ie. selecting one male as the best of his generation and mating him to every female, then choosing the 'best' of his sons and doing the same again. (It's a method suggested by geneticist Roy Robinson as a way of establishing a distinct line)

    I have a nine year old with a COI of a fraction over 80% (measured over 10 generations). Most people who meet her can't believe that she is even half that age. Her half-brother has a COI1% higher, he's 12 and has never been near a vet in his life. He is from a full brother sister mating - with parents who were half-sibs. All the parents and grand-parents of these two dogs, incidentally, lived healthy lives and all reached 14+ before they died.

    I have been working hard on lowering these figures and my latest puppy has a COI of 58% a fraction higher than his sire but a considerable improvement on his dam's 70%

    You might find this bitch interesting. A quick glance at her pedigree might indicate that she too has a horrendously high COI, but in fact at 48% it is one of the lowest in the breed here in the UK. The litter that we plan from her next year will bring the COI down to 33% - so it can be done, and we are getting there slowly - without having to resort to an outcross to another breed.

  17. Dear Ms. Atter, I confess that when I read Ms Harrison´s figures, I assumed there was either a peculiar difference in the method for calculation of COI - or that she was simply mistaken. I have never seen anything near your figures and honestly could not understand how they could be achieved. Perhaps now I begin to see. I´m glad to hear that your own individual dogs are all right, but I believe that any modern geneticist will tell you that your breed is heading for disaster. Since you are doing what you can to lower the COI, perhaps you too know it.
    One single outcross to either of your parent breeds would solve this problem for you for a long time. Could I ask why this is an unthinkable?

  18. Why is it always the knee-jerk claim that some study or survey must be wrong because all the amazing perfect samples out there just didn't get counted.

    The fact that there were only 64 breeders to be sent forms in the first place is troubling all by itself. That number is just too small to maintain a healthy breed for long.

    Such small breeds become inbred despite all efforts against it. It's only a matter of time.

    But why should we assume ANYTHING about the unfilled out forms? We can only work with the data we do have.

    To make assumptions otherwise is poor thinking. For instance, you can't assume that this breed is healthy because we don't have as many documented inbred diseases for them. Lack of documentation is a side effect of being such a small population.

    What documentation we do have speaks poorly for them though. They don't live long at all, especially compared to dogs of their size and other close breeds. They've already had to have an influx of new blood only 40 years after founding. How bad must it have been then?

    Is this breed a good example of the "improvement" paradigm? Are they better now than 10 years ago? 20 years ago? How so?

    It's amusing to watch the circus go on and to still have people saying "without having to resort to an outcross to another breed" as if that's a fate worse than what they've already inflicted on their breed.

    Why was it perfectly allowable for the guy who stamped his name on the breed to play the mix game, but now we can't?

    It's silly.

  19. These dogs probably became bred not by choice. They were most likely inbred because breeding stock was hard to come by. The war had stopped dog breeding, and seeing as the breed was started one year after Czechoslovakia became communist, they were no longer connected to the Western countries. Those pure Scottish terriers and Sealyhams in the country were needed to build up their own breeds.

    The Cesky terriers probably did okay because of how they were selected in the first place, and they got lucky with their founding population. They do have some genetic disorders but fewer than one might expect.

    I agree with Christopher that a n=9 is not good for determining the exact incidence of genetic diseases in this breed.

    I would have expected these dogs to have really severe genetic disorders and live to be around 6, but that they do live to 8 years and that there are some around that are quite old and healthy with high COI's does make for some interesting research.

  20. Dear Jemima, I'm not sure, I've understand you correctly, do you rely suggest that Bobtail Boxer project should inspire? For what? For bringing in the breed a semi-lethal gene as a "humane" alternative of non-humane healthy tail amputation???

  21. So, does anybody can answer that: how Cattanach's experiment can inspire? Do you understand what kind of stuff is that bob-tail gene?

  22. Matus, yes, I do think the Bobtail Boxer project should inspire. It may have been done for cosmetic reasons, and I know BorderWars has highlighted the potential problems with the bobtail gene (in my opinion overstated). But it's important to remember that at the time the bobtail cross was done, the idea of outcrossing was an outrageous concept to almost everyone. Because it was done to thwart the docking ban, and because Bruce was on the KC's scientific committee at the time, permission was granted. Moreover, he crossed a Boxer with a Corgi - a totally different breed. And yet still got back to "type" within four generations. Very few people would have believed that was possible. So yes, I think the "experiment" served a really useful purpose.


    1. "Dog breeders are very good at what they do. The problem is that what they do is often not very good." So, Cattanach is the same, no-tail-no-anus dog breeder for appearance purpose.

    2. In short, this guy used good method to make the breed worse.

  23. "Very few people would have believed that was possible. So yes, I think the "experiment" served a really useful purpose."

    Hear hear.