A football field of dogs (health testing…yeah, you know I’m going to stir this pot)

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

It is your job to get from this football field to the next field, the field ten 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 ten-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 axes 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.

My instinct is that most people thought to themselves “I should be as picky as possible, 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 proponderance 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 huge 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, we end 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, for example, 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.

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 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. Ditto with ingrained reactivity and willingness to ignore the bite-humans taboo. Environment is ALWAYS king of behavior, but you know what I’m talking about here. That bitch who bites 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 too much leg is quite possibly still sound enough to  breed, but it’s a genuine fault. 

Markings, on the other hand, or coatedness. 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 really bad tails (we’ve probably left in the tails with hooks, but we’ve taken out the tails that go way up over the back because they’re a sign that the dog can’t move the way a working dog should). 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. 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.

So, for example, because Danes have cardiomyopathy, a disease that typically begins to show between the ages of two and four, and because cardiomyopathy is reliably genetic but there’s no DNA test yet, I did serial echocardiograms on my stud dog, to the tune of $400 each time, and his prospective mates got echoes too. Because I was working with a line that had clear GENETIC hypothyroidism (where you can trace it down the pedigree very reliably), everybody got full thyroid panels; because hips are at least somewhat genetic in Danes everybody got PennHIP tested. I routinely had to put over a thousand dollars into each breeding partner before the breeding. It hurt a huge amount, financially, but tough for me. If I wanted an “in” to that breed, that was what I was buying. If I wanted to get into Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, I would feel that I had to do an MRI on each breeding dog to check for syringomyelia. No matter what it cost, it would be absolutely necessary.

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) I think 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 positive 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 positive 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 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. 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 ten-years-from-now field. And every single breeding decision changes that result. We should be doing so very, very thoughtfully.


7 thoughts on “A football field of dogs (health testing…yeah, you know I’m going to stir this pot)

  1. I mostly agree. I certainly went about the football field problem similarly, although I didn’t put as much thought into it as you have before I read on.

    I think that the main reason to do tests like the one for DM is to try to minimize the number of affected puppies we produce. If my bitch comes back as a carrier or at risk I will probably limit her potential mates to clear dogs, as I’m not comfortable with producing at risk puppies in my first litter, even though I know most at risk dogs do not eventually develop the disease. Perhaps down the road I will have the confidence to produce those puppies – I certainly don’t fault anyone who does it as long as they put thought into the decision and are open about it to the puppy buyers.

    The main purpose of testing (IMO) is so that we can make more informed breeding decisions – not so that we can ruled dogs out but so that we can try to ensure that the next generation does not suffer unnecessarily. We cannot be sure of producing healthy puppies, but the more we know about their parents the better the chances are.

  2. I don’t know. Your posts along these lines always give me a lot to think about, and I certainly agree on some levels. For instance, the fact that every dog that is sound, mentally fit, & healthy has a place in a breeding program if so desired. And I think it takes a trained eye to be able to tell what faults will eventually cause unsoundness. But I am nonjudgmental when someone breeds a dog that isn’t “typey” or has some glaring faults, as long as the dog is sound. I could care less about a dog having the CH in front of their name. Some of the best Cardigans in history have come out of less than stellar parents, and I think that is a lesson worth studying.

    To a certain extent I think this mindset follows down to “fault judging” versus finding the virtues of a dog. Many people fault judge and will decide that so-and-so shouldn’t be bred because of xx fault. I also think that what you should consider for the whelping box is vastly different than what you should consider for the show ring.

    And, of course, the issue with trying to do only the “valid” and relevant tests is that it’s not always clear which are which. I’ve heard many arguments that hips are not a relevant test in Cardis, but having lived with an OFA “mild” who DID show symptoms (while his OFA “moderate” dam did not), it’s hard for me to accept those arguments. Like above, I don’t get judgmental of those who choose to breed borderline hips when the dog seems very sound, as long as they do so thoughtfully. But I also can’t accept that idea that we should give up on trying to improve hips just because the tools are flawed. And I also feel that because of the AR activists, we need to be very careful about differentiating ourselves in as many ways as possible from mass-market breeders. That’s a tricky line to walk.

  3. “EVERY DOG WHO IS REMOVED FROM THE POPULATION HURTS THAT POPULATION.” – No, I won’t go there. And then you don’t go there either as you go on to talk about eliminating dogs with unsound structure or temperament from the gene pool. However, structurally sound dogs with cosmetic problems (such as mismarked or coat length) need not be eliminated in my opinion as well. And color? Well, most know how I feel on that issue.

    I strongly agree with Jeri’s statement about needing to be careful in today’s political AR climate. We need to be the guardians of our breeds and do our best to raise the bar, not lower it.

  4. Wild animal population theory has it’s limitations where domestic populations are involved. You have illustrated how few dogs actually get the opportunity to reproduce (given that so many are neutered/sterilized or owners not interested in breeding). In the wild if an animal is fit enough to survive it very likely reproduces. But the limitations in the wild (availability of food, habitat, predation, etc.) are vastly different than the limitations placed on dogs. Much of what you are promoting has been how breeders have operated for decades – removing the weakest/most unsound dogs from breeding programs with an emphasis on using the best. Yes, some healthy dogs get left out (the kill analogy was a bit much, being neutered/spayed is not the same as being dead) but it is inevitable because there are limiting factors on every breed that have to be considered. There are only so many breeders who can own/breed so many dogs and only so many homes to place the resulting puppies in. We will never reach a point that nearly every fit example of a breed gets used. We can do a better job of using more dogs in a breed (especially more of the males) and this seems to be happening in many if not most breeds, but we will never ever reach a point where every member of a breed gets to reproduce the way a member of a wild species does if it survives to sexual maturity. The limitations need to be recognized and worked with. There are people trying to force wild population theory on dog breeders and realistically it just can’t be done. Breeders are getting bad press for not doing the impossible. More breeds have gone extinct from a lack or breeders/folk interested in the breed than from inbreeding (due to small numbers in the population) but there are people who would like you to think it’s the other way around – that inbreeding led to the breed’s extinction. Just look at the popular breeds out there – Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers – why are there such huge numbers of those two breeds? Because people want them – they are popular. It takes interested and committed people to resurrect a rare breed or keep a breed alive. The Irish Red and hite Setter is an example of a breed that has been successfully resurrected in recent years, and it is proving to be quite a healthy breed despite being brought back from so few dogs. If there is enough breeding after a bottleneck or after a drastic drop in population it is possible to bring a population back provided the population increases relatively quickly – this have happened in nature for centuries. There are people who are dooming breeds for having gone through bottlenecks who do not seem to realize that the negative consequences of a bottleneck can be counteracted by a quick increase in population following the bottleneck. It’s not the end of a species just because the population drops in numbers. Extinction is defined as more deaths than births, as long as more young are being produced than deaths inj a population the population will not go extinct. Using healthy animals will lead to producing more healthy animals on average. The past is the past and can’t be undone, those of us who live in the now and the future and who care about our respective breeds have been and will continue to do the best we can under the limitations we are constricted by – which seem to be getting tighter and tighter with municipal restrictions on the numbers of dogs a person can own and ever increasing mandatory spay/neuter legislation. All this negativity towards breeders with respect to how they select breeding animals (health tested, best examples) is not helping the situation any. More legislation and more breeding restrictions will lead to fewer breeders and purebred dog owners and eventual breed extinction way faster than all the inbreeding breeders are accused of. The ER extremists certainly seem to have figured that out. I wish the sanctimonious folk who are so hell bent on “outing” breeders supposedly under the pretense “for the sake of purebred dogs” would see that, or is it that they are really ER extremists in disguise, despite all their protests? Makes one wonder.

  5. I wanted to respond even though this thread is from a fair bit back.

    1) I’m not worried about post-bottleneck breeds being hurt by numbers – populations of dogs in structured breeding programs can increase dramatically in just a few years. The danger is in whether the specific bottlenecking event left genetically fit dogs behind or genetically unfit dogs behind. In some breeds it’s the former, so they can recover from the lower population without harm. If it’s the latter, you can end up with an entire breed with major issues. Because of the fact that we work with a closed studbook (which is just a fact; I’m not making a statement about the practice), we can’t bring good genes back in to the population.

    2) This is not an argument about breeding restrictions. I want there to be MORE breeding, across all breeds, within the group of careful and thoughtful breeders. It’s the very opposite of what you’re talking about. Insisting that every good breeder does X or every responsible breeder does Y WILL start to restrict breeding choices.

    3) I agree that using healthy animals will make more healthy animals, but I object strongly to the idea that good hips (which tends to be what people use as an example) = healthy animal. All it equals is good hips, not even that the dog will produce good hips. That lovely-hipped dog can be on thyroid medication at age 2 and push an entire breed into hypothyroidism, but he sure has nice hips! Substitute any one of the things we test for. Testing is a sign that we are trying to do what we can, but it is not the goal or the symbol of success. The only real success is longevity and soundness.

  6. That is just the way things are though. There are different challenges with different breeds but they are not insurmountable if dealt with intelligently and with commonsense. What breeds have major issues stemming from bottlenecks that are in such peril? I would suggest that the use of unfit and unhealthy dogs has lead to such circumstances more than the bottleneck unless all that was left after the bottleneck were sick and unfit dogs and one would expect that if they were so sick and unfit that they wouldn’t have lived long enough to reproduce. You get what you put in.

    And as I said before “There are only so many breeders who can own/breed so many dogs and only so many homes to place the resulting puppies in. We will never reach a point that nearly every fit example of a breed gets used.” What you are proposing is an unachievable utopia. Those of us in the real world realize that there are only so many breedings that we can do and we make the best of each and every one of them. Not everyone makes the same choices and not everyone is working with the same genes so diversity is maintained on that basis (see what Bell has written on this). As I said earlier purebred dogs will never “will never ever reach a point where every member of a breed gets to reproduce the way a member of a wild species does if it survives to sexual maturity”. It’s not going to happen and there is no point pressuring breeders to breed on a wide scale for the sake of maximum diversity – it’s not achievable and purebred populations need to be looked at as uniquely different from other populations both in terms of their the structure and limitations.

    I don’t know anyone who would ignore other health problems and breed a dog solely for having OFA clear hips. OFA is but one piece of information and breeders are not just breeding hips. If there are other relevant tests to be done in a breed then most conscientious breeders will do them. But they also are looking at the whole dog, it’s phenotype. Lots of dogs are not used for breeding because they have allergies, or IBD, or a bad disposition, etc. Most of these dogs would not even be OFA’d because breeders have already eliminated them from consideration. I have never bred a dog myself that was hypothyroid but I know that some breeders do and that they breed to normal tested dogs from strong thyroid backgrounds. Hypothyroidism is not the worst problem out there. It is manageable and the supplememntation is not expensive. Thyroid results can change over the course of time and are subject to the health and stress level of a dog. I addition there are studies indicating that spaying and neutering are associated with ab increase in the incidence of hypothyroidism so there are some confounding factors. We are all dealing with different things in our breeding programs and hypothyrodidim would appear to be one that could be worked away with some diligent testing and commonsense decisions. An entire breed is not going to end up hypothyroid unless every breeder decides to no longer test nor care about the problem. Look at the CHIC registry and see all the breeders who are doing all the tests recommended by their respective breed clubs. They are including the fails too. We were coming into a time where breeders were being encouraged to open up and along came PDE to undo all the progress that was being made. Some recognition for the hard decisions, time expended, and perservence of breeders is long overdue. Instead they are continually bombarded with what they are doing wrong based on poorly designed or non-existent research. Enough is enough. The overwhelming majority of dogs are healthy, why must some continually harp on the small minority that are not?

    • Here are just a few of the breeds with major bottleneck-derived problems: Sussex Spaniels, Portuguese Water Dogs, Poodles (they created their own bottleneck even though they survived the war just fine – the average poodle COI is ridiculously high), Flatcoats, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Each of them has major health problems directly related to the individuals that were left in the population and which have been exclusively bred from. They can live long enough to reproduce but they are nowhere close to sound as breeds.

      What I am proposing is that breeders realize that there’s a better way to do it, and push in that direction even if they can’t get there 100%. What we are doing right now is pretty much the exact opposite and we are doing a great deal of harm in the incremental stages of single breeding decisions.

      I am glad that you’ve never met a breeder who thinks that passing tests makes the dog breedable, even if the dog is a crazy fear-biter or is critically unsound in body or anything else. I certainly have. And many will accept a pedigree with drastically shortened lifespans if all the tests were passed.

      I agree with you that the overwhelming majority of dogs are healthy. What I DISAGREE with is defining “healthy” as “passing health tests.”

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