Monday, November 22, 2010

The Importance of Genetic Diversity

Purebred dog breeding is a study in genetic restriction.  The idea being, each created breed is to be held to a unifying standard of type (i.e. physical appearance), personality, and specific working ability.  When a person wants a rough collie, they have a reason for choosing a rough collie over a border collie, australian shepherd, or other herding dog.  Each breed has specifics that make them unique and worth preserving.

However, by restricting breeding to a specific gene pool, you have the elements of disaster at your fingertips if breeding isn't planned out appropriately.  When you look at the astonishing number of genetic health problems associated with purebred dogs today, small gene pools, bottle necking, and inbreeding are to blame.  When you restrict breeding to "enhance type" you're obviously going to come across bizarre mutations that can be detrimental down the road.  There's a reason we don't marry our cousins.

Unfortunately, with breeds that were established and over bred in a time when we didn't understand such things in genetics, problems are cropping up that quite possibly won't ever be able to be fixed.  Even with reputable breeders testing for and breeding against problems common in their breed, with some issues (like heart problems in cavalier king charles spaniels) it's just a band-aid that will never really get rid of the problem all together.  You can go to such breeders to reduce the risk of getting an unhealthy pet, but in the end, statistically speaking, the breed would still be doomed.
Virtually all cavaliers will be affected by Mitral Valve Disease by age 10.

The only solution for breeds that are this far gone is to bring in new genetics by outcrossing from different breeds.  This creates a panic with some breeders who are too concerned with "tradition" and "purity" to take their blinders off and see the benefits of outcrossing.  It's already been proven that with careful, insightful breeding, and a fantastic eye for dogs, you can outcross with a different breed and produce puppies in a few generations that will breed true to the original standard.  Take the Dalmation/Pointer outcross as example:

"The Dalmatian Backcross Project commenced in 1973 with the original outcross of an AKC registered Champion Pointer sire CH Shandown's Rapid Transit bred to an AKC registered Dalmatian dam Lady Godiva Dr. Robert Schaible conducted the breeding in an effort to address the Dalmatian fixed genetic defect that affects uric acid metabolism and that may lead to increased urinary uric acid, urate crystals, urinary bladder aggregate formation, stones, urinary tract obstruction and even death."

Despite the fact that the products of this outcross are dogs that are indistinguishable from purebred dalmations, breeders are still fighting their recognition into the AKC.  These dogs, and future outcrossing, would help save a breed that is on a downward slope into oblivion, but instead people fight and cling to a past that has failed the breed miserably.

Obviously, not all breeds are so far gone that outcrossing to other breeds is necessary.  Some breeds still have only minor issues that can be avoided through careful observation of lines and testing of the breeding pair.  What can we do now, though, to avoid the mistakes of the past?  Knowing what we now know about genetics, what can we do to preserve breeds for the future?

The answer is simple: stop inbreeding!  We know that by breeding close dogs we limit an already small gene pool.  Despite the fact that doing so supposedly "locks in" positive traits in a line, it's undeniable that it causes a major blow to the offspring in the genetics department.  We've learned that you want as few common ancestors in a dog's pedigree as possible and close inbreeding cuts that diversity in half.  Even without breeding dogs that are "related" in the sense that they are father/daughter, grandparent/grandchild, cousins, etc, we've found that by looking back in a pedigree, a loss of diverse ancestry causes major genetic issues down the road.  In breeds with rampant health issues, it's a certainty that if you look at the breed's history you will find areas of bottlenecking, often caused by popular stud dogs who may be ideal and high winning, but through over breeding show up in virtually every pedigreed dog.

We need to take a look at the proof these statistics have shown us and make a unanimous decision that when breeding, genetic diversity and health should come first, even before the ideal set forth by the standard.  Breeding is an art that takes time.  The idea is to create a line and improve upon it over the course of numerous generations.  There is no reason to take shortcuts on the road to this perfection if the cost is detrimental health issues down the road.  Breeders need to stop being so short sighted with breeding "perfect" show dogs or sport dogs and do something valuable for the breed as a whole.  It might take a hell of a lot longer, but it will be worth it in the end.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Choosing a Dog Breed

All puppies are cute!  But they are not all equal.
I often hear about people looking to get a dog that don't know where to start.  It is all too common for people to gravitate towards certain breeds based on appearance alone (which is only natural) but when that is the your main goal in your search, you'll wind up all over the board in terms of temperament, activity level, and grooming requirements.  At best, you'll make your search take 20 times as long because as you research each breed, you'll come across aspects that won't fit with your lifestyle.  At worst, you'll jump the gun and get a cute dog or puppy that is completely wrong for you.

The key is to learn about TYPES of dogs, as opposed to specific breeds early on in your search. Breed selector quizes that you'll commonly find on-line on websites such as Animal Planet are pretty bogus because they condense the breeds' characteristics down to about 4 or 5 categories without taking into account specifics. Primitive breeds (such as huskies, akitas, and shiba inu) and Herding breeds (such as border collies, australian shepherds, and corgis) are all super smart, but in completely different ways.  Where Herding dogs will listen well and want to obey, Primitive dogs will learn what you want, but only obey if it's in their best interest.  Both breeds are smart, but must be handled differently.  Even when talking about Primitive breeds, Sledding breeds are still going to differ greatly from Japanese breeds, since the former are bred to work well together so are naturally friendly, but the later are more aloof and more likely to be dog aggressive. What you need to do is critically think about what you're looking for in a dog, COMPLETELY ignoring what said dog is going to look like. That is the LAST thing you tackle on the list.

The absolute best thing you can do for yourself if you're contemplating getting a dog is to critically think about your lifestyle, routine, experience, and what you feel you can handle.  The following questions are meant to give you a starting point that you can work off of to figure out what breeds will meet your needs.  Once you discover that, you can take more aesthetic things into account.

*What do you want your dog to be like around the house? Do you want a dog that's in your face and raring to go all the time, or do you want a dog that's just going to want to lay on the couch? Or do you want a dog in the middle that'll be happy to play a round of fetch but will just chill after that?

*Do you want a dog that's going to constantly follow you from room to room, or do you want your dog to give you more space?

*Do you want a dog that's going to be friendly and outgoing with everyone it meets, or do you want more of a one-person/family type dog? (I should note that you need to be careful with "one-person dogs" because a lot of them can easily turn aggressive with strangers if not properly trained and socialized.)

*How much time do you have to exercise your dog? Do you want to go for multiple daily walks/runs/trips to the dog park? Or do you want to be able to get away with only walking your dog once or twice a day?

*What sort of training do you feel you can handle? Have you owned dogs, on your own, not family pets, and what breeds are you accustomed to dealing with? Do you want a highly biddable dog, or can you handle your dog choosing when to listen? Do you want a dog that trains quickly, or can you handle a dog that will take a few repetitions to get it right? I think this is one of the most important aspects to consider, and why you should get first hand experience with a lot of dogs before getting one of your own, so you know you'll get a personality you can mesh with. It's a good idea to volunteer at a shelter for awhile so you can get more experience.

*What level of grooming can you manage? Do you want a dog that you don't have to brush often, or can you deal not only with mounds of hair, but the dedication it takes to brush and comb your dog at least once a week while not blowing coat, and multiple times a week when it is? Would you be ok (financially and time-wise) bringing your dog to the groomer if necessary? The larger the dog, and the more coat it has, the more expensive grooming is going to be.

It's my hope that people seriously consider these things before jumping in to getting a dog (no one word answers, the more detailed you get, the better).  If nothing else, doing so will give you a better understanding of what to look for, and what questions to ask about a breed when doing your research.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Welcome to A Balanced Dog!

Welcome to the launch of my site!  Lets get a few things straight right off the bat:

  1. I am not a pet expert, although I do work with dogs as a groomer.
  2. I am in absolutely no way shape or form a professional writer.  I took ONE writing class in college.  Cut me some slack.
  3. I have been studying dogs pretty much day in, day out, for the past 5 years or so.
  4. I'm a proponent of positive reinforcement training as opposed to old adage dominance theories.  Dominance training has been proven less effective, and positive training less harmful overall, no matter the dog.
  5. I've attended a seminar on wolf and dog behavior at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, IN.  They confirmed the theories that positive training is more natural; they train their wolves using methods similar to clicker training.
  6. I feel very strongly that all dogs should be crate trained and that any accidents in the home, be it soiling, destruction, or thievery, could all be avoided with a crated dog.  Freedom is earned, not given out right.  Dogs love to den, and will love their crate in turn if it is introduced correctly.
  7. I feel out of all the breeders in the world, possibly only .001% of them should actually be breeding their dogs.  I feel that if a dog isn't going to be used for a specific job where a solid background is required, or if health isn't such an issue where you're better off going with a breeder that carefully tests and monitors the lines of his or her stock, you're much better off going with a rescue dog.  You'll pay a lot less for a dog of the exact same quality as you would get from a sub-par breeder.
  8. I'm very opinionated when it comes to dogs and the issues surrounding them.  You've been warned.
This page is pretty much going to be an outlet for my thoughts and feelings on issues related to our canine companions, including selecting a dog/breed to fit your life, training, nutrition, breeding, and dog/pet related laws.  In addition, I'll occasionally post links I've found to be interesting and helpful in my own research and articles I've written.  As a teaser, I already have some set to go on a few different breeds as well as a great step by step guide to getting your dog ready for grooming.

Thank you so much for stopping by, I hope you like what you find!