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Filtering by Tag: Genetics

Where did the Weim get its color?

Craig Koshyk

All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Weimaraner has a unique grey coat inherited from the Grey Dogs of King Louis. Right?


The Weim's coat is not grey, it is not unique, and it didn't come from any 'Grey Dogs of King Louis'.

OK, I can practically hear the bloomers bunching up right now and you are probably doing this:
but please,  hear me out.

The Weimaraner's coat is not grey. It is brown. However, a mutation in the MLPH (Melanophilin) gene causes an uneven distribution of the brown pigment that leads to the formation of large granules (macromelanosomes) in the hair follicles and shafts. So instead of looking similar to a solid brown GSP type coat, the Weim coat appears as a 'diluted' brown which Weim folks call "grey" or "silver-grey". If a dog with a black coat has the same mutation, the uneven distribution of pigment leads to a similarly diluted appearance. In Weim circles, dilute black is called 'blue'.

Ok, so if the Weim's coat is brown (or black) but is diluted by a mutation, where did that mutation come from?

Short answer: no one really knows.

Long answer: While it is possible that a spontaneous mutation occurred in hunting dogs in the area around Weimar sometime in the mid to late 1800s, it is far more likely that a mutation occurred centuries before the Weim was even on the drawing board and was then brought in by one or more of the types of dogs used to create the Weimarner in the mid 1800s. But what kinds of dogs could have brought it in ?

One of the most oft repeated theories is that it came from the Chiens Gris (grey dogs) of Saint Louis of France. But as I explained in a previous post, King Louis’ dogs weren't actually grey. They were tri-colour black, brown and red.

Saint Louis' Chiens Gris (grey dogs)
Another theory is that the grey came from crossing a "lemon" (orange and white) Pointer bitch to an old style German "Leithund" (tracking dog). However, the lighter pigment in lemon Pointers is caused by a mutation in the the MC1R gene, not the MLPH gene. Could the dilution mutation come from the Leithund? Maybe, but we don't really know what color the old Leithunds were and none of the old literature says anything about 'grey' ones. The closest thing we have to Liethunds today are breeds like the Bayerischer Gebirgsschweißhund (Bavarian Mountain Hound), and they are a reddish brown color.
Bavarian Mountain Hound
Lemon Pointer
So what we need to find is a breed or type of dog that a) had a grey coat, b) was relatively common in the area around Weimar before the 1800s and c) was owned by people ready and able to undertake a breeding program that could eventually lead to a new 'pure' breed of hunting dog.

If you read the old literature and look at old paintings and sculptures, one breed stands out. It had a grey coat, it was relatively common in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in the 1800s and it was popular among the nobility. The breed is the Italian Greyhound.

A reenactor as Frederick the Great with two grey Italian Greyhounds
Now that is not to say that the Italian Greyhound was specifically used in the creation of the Weimaraner as a hunting dog. But at a time when 'pure' breeds of dogs did not really exist and cross breeding was widely practiced, it is entirely possible that somehow, the dilution gene that was already in the Italian Greyhound somehow made its way into the dogs that were eventually used to create the Weim. After all, in an article entitled One coat color — one breed? Wanda M. Gerding & Jörg T. Epplen, Human Genetics, Ruhr-University Bochum, German state that "...the b-gene version  found in the Italian Greyhound is virtually identical to one of the three b-alleles found in the Weimaraner".

Italian Greyhounds were also relatively popular in Germany just before the development of the Weim and among people who had the means to undertake a breeding program. The Italian Greyhound was in fact the favorite dog of Germany's Frederick the Great (1712 – 1786). However, Frederick the Great was not a hunter, but actually one of the earliest supporters of animal rights. So he was probably not involved in any efforts to create a new breed of gundog. But other nobles in Germany who had Italian Greyhounds and enjoyed hunting may have been. Could their dogs have been the source of the dilution gene that made its way into Weim lines?

Could it have even been the dogs owned by good old Grand Duke Karl August? He was a great hunter, he had the ways and means of keeping many dogs of all types in his kennels and there are several works of art showing him with what are obviously greyhounds. And he is the guy that is usually credited with creating the Weim.

So maybe the real story is that the Grand Duke didn't actually create the Weim (as I speculate here) but somehow, his dogs managed to contribute a dilution gene to the ancestors of the Weim back when cross breeding and uncontrolled breeding was practiced just about everywhere.

Grand Duke Karl August with Corena Schroeter, Goethe and two Greyhounds

'Whitemaraners' Cross-bred or Pure?

Craig Koshyk

I’ve previously written about Weimaraner pups being born with unusually large amounts of white in their coats, I called them ‘Whitemaraners’.  I noted that when photos of such pups are posted, most people automatically assume that the pups are cross-bred, the results of breeding a Weim to a Pointer or to a GSP. And they could be right…sort of. Weim crosses can produce pups with grey and white coats or even solid grey coats but only if they are done for at least two generations.

I don't think that there is any question that such crosses sometimes occur, either by accident or deliberately. But I had never really heard of anyone declaring them publicly...until now. Recently, on the Facebook page of a talented German photographer named Anja Voss, an album of photos appeared showing "Weimaranermix" pups. They are said to be 75% Weim, 25% GSP, ie: the offspring of a Weim and a Weim x GSP cross. The mix of coat colors in the litter is quite interesting. There are solid liver pups, solid grey pups, a liver and white pup and a grey and white pup.

So the bottom line as far as Weim crosses are concerned is that the DNA in both parents must include a copy of the dilution factor responsible for the Weim grey coat color.  In other words, if a pure GSP and pure Weim are crossed, the coats of all the pups simply cannot be grey. They will be brown or black depending on the color of the GSP parent. None will be grey. However, if the GSP parent was not quite as pure as the driven snow, if for example it's a GSP x Weim cross, then it could indeed produce pups with solid grey or grey and white coats if it is bred to a pure Weim, or even if it is bred to another GSP x Weim cross, since both parents can contribute a copy of the dilution factor.

But what about those grey and white pups from other litters that the breeders swore up and down were from purebred parents? Are those breeders lying? Are Weim pups with white coats always the result of cross-breeding no matter what the breeders say?  Or is it in fact possible that pure Weim parents can produce such pups?

As mentioned in a previous post, it has long been suspected that, yes, under certain circumstances, solid grey parents can indeed produce white and grey coated pups. Some geneticists have speculated that if the migration of melanocytes, cells that regulate coat color, is delayed or interrupted during the pups development in the uterus, the pup can end up having a lot of white in its coat at birth. But no one had been able to conclusively prove that theory. There was no smoking gun as it were. That is, until now. 

I can now report that conclusive proof has finally been established for pups with white and grey coats being produced by two solid grey parents. And it is now clear that the theory about disrupted melanocyte migration and proliferation is correct. 

In a recently published paper entitled Spotted Weimaraner Dog Due to De Novo KIT Mutation W.M. Gerding, D.A. Akkad & J.T. Epplen, the same team that examined the molecular genetics of the so-called Blue Weimaraner, describe their investigation into the case of a Weim puppy with white spots born in Germany in a litter of otherwise normal-colored siblings.  I recently interviewed Dr. Epplen about the investigation and the results.

Q: Dr. Epplen, tell me about how the project started.
A: About 2 years ago, a pup with a white spotted coat appeared in a litter of Weimaraners bred in Germany, not far from where I live. It was that breeder’s first litter and, as you can imagine, he was very surprised to see such a pup. His first thought was that it must be due to Pointer blood getting into the line somehow. But he had personally witnessed the mating of the two parents and was certain that his bitch had never been with a Pointer.  So he contacted some more experienced members of the club and the breed warden, Mr. Giesemann and asked them for their opinion and advice. But when they saw the pup and the rest of the litter, they could not understand how it could have such a coat either so they contacted us to see if we could get to the bottom of it.

Q: So what sort of tests did you perform?

A: After collecting DNA samples from the pup, its parents and its siblings, the first thing we wanted to determine was the paternity and maternity of the litter. We wanted to know if the two dogs listed on the breeding documents were in fact the parents of all the pups. Within a week, we had the answer. The DNA clearly proved that the pups were indeed out of the two animals listed as parents.

Q: So you eliminated the possibility of the litter being a result of crossing to Pointers or GSPs?
A: Yes. The pup is a pure-bred Weimaraner, there is no question. Is is not the result of any cross breeding. Its parents are pure-bred Weimaraners from fully tested, recognized lines, approved for breeding by the club.

Purebred Weim pups. The white coat is the result of a 'de novo' gene mutation.

Q: So what tests did you run next? 
A: The next step was to see if there were any mutations in the pup's genetic code that could be responsible for the white in its coat. So we ran DNA sequencing tests on a number of candidate genes that we know are associated with spotting in dogs. Eventually, we found a mutation. We identified it in a gene known as the KIT gene*. Specifically, we found what is known as a gene deletion, a missing portion of the DNA sequence in one very small area. And since the DNA of the parents and the solid-colored grey littermates did not have that deletion, we therefore concluded that the piebalding in the pup’s coat was due to a de novo (new) mutational event that occurred in that one pup’s DNA.

Q: So now that the pup has this new mutation, what would happen if it were bred? Would it produce pups with similar coats?
A: The trait would be transmitted in an autosomal dominant manner as we geneticists say. That means that if she were bred to another pure Weimaraner with a normal coat, any offspring would have a 50% chance of having a spotted coat and a 50% chance of having a normal Weimaraner coat as defined by the official standard.  

Q: What about the parents of the white spotted pup? If they had another litter, would they have more pups with similar coats? The risk for the same breeding pair to produce another white coated pup would be negligible. In fact, they would have the same odds of producing more white pups as any other Weim in the world, less than one in a million.

Q: Have Weim pups with white coats ever been seen before in Germany?
A: The only evidence we have is anecdotal, but I am sure it has happened in the past. However, since white coats were thought to be evidence of cross breeding, or, at the very least a throw-back to Pointers in the Weim’s ancestry, they were hushed up. But in reality, there is always a certain statistical probability that this sort of thing can happen. If you breed enough dogs, you will eventually get this type of mutation. After all, every pup is born with several new mutations in its DNA. But since those mutations rarely result in something that is so highly visible, we don’t really notice them.

Q: What was the reaction of the breeder and of the club?
A: Obviously the breeder was relieved. He was ‘off the hook’ as it were and no longer suspected of allowing his bitch to be bred by a Pointer. It was somewhat of a hot-button issue in the official club since there are some members who would like to see any and all white markings eliminated from the breed, even the small white patches on the chest or toes which have always been in the breed and still occur from time to time today. But in the end it was decided that the affected pup would be registered and accepted as a pure Weimaraner, but not be allowed to breed. Her siblings on the other hand, provided they pass all the breeding tests, will not be forbidden to breed since they are pure Weimaraners and absolutely not affected by the same mutation.

* A gene that plays a role in the development of certain cell types, including the melanocytes that produce the pigment melanin found in the hair, eye, and skin. Mutations to the KIT gene can disrupt melanocyte migration and proliferation during development, resulting in a patterned lack of pigment knowns as piebaldism.

Update on the Curious Case of the "Whitemaraner"

Craig Koshyk

I've received a surprising number of emails and comments regarding the mystery of the "Whitemaraner". In fact, my blog post has had nearly 500 visitors in less than 24 hours. So I thought I would make another post with some new information I have gathered.

First of all, a couple of people have written to shed some light on the dog in the photo that appeared in the previous post. Apparently it is from a breeding of a Weimaraner and a GSP that has some Weim blood. So that would explain the grey color; both parents were able to transmit the dilution factor to the pup. And that seems to confirm the idea that you simply cannot get the dilute grey color in any first generation cross to a Weim. The recessive dilution factor has to be found on both sides of the pedigree.

US bred dog. Pedigree unknown.
But I also received reports from other folks telling me about white Weims in the US and in Germany. In the US, they are called "piebald" and there are reports of entire litters having the same sort of white and grey coat and even some grey "ticking" on the white background color. I am not sure what the Germans call them, but as indicated in the previous post, they would not be allowed to breed even when they come from pure grey parents.

And it turns out that DNA tests have been indeed indicated that some of the dogs in the US and in Germany are in fact from the all-grey purebred parents listed on the pedigree.

US bred dog from two
pure grey parents.
Of course, that does not eliminated the possibility of cross breeding further back in the family tree. It only proves that the parents are who the breeder says they are. Cross breeding may have happened further back, perhaps in the grandparents' generation or great grandparents' generation. And it could have happened even further back, so far back that it could be a case of atavism.

Atavism is a biological tendency for organisms to revert to an ancestral type or to suddenly manifest traits have not been seen in many generations. In humans there are cases of babies being born with vestigial tails or with larger than normal canine teeth. Horses can sometimes have extra toes and there have been cases of dolphins and whales with vestigial hind legs.

And there are a number of things that can cause atavism. Genetic mutations may trigger traits that have been dormant in the DNA for many generations, to suddenly re-appear. A significant change in the timeline of fetal development can also lead to atavistic traits; if the development period is cut short or goes on too long, atavism can occur.

US bred "piebald" Weim.
This dog's parents are both AKC registered pure grey Weims.
No one knows the exact makeup of the Weimaraner. There are many theories about how it came to be and I explore some of them here and here. But no matter what the exact recipe was, I think everyone agrees that at some point in time, Pointers and Setters must have been included in the list of ingredients. So maybe the white comes from way back in the early days when the breed was first being created.

Same dog as in the photo above. From all reports, she is a fantastic
hunter and a real sweetheart.  Personally, I think she is a great looking dog!
So what exactly are we seeing when we see a white Weim?  Is it the result of some shady cross breedings in the recent past? Is it a fluke of nature; the result of a viral illness during gestation? Or is it a throwback to the very beginnings of the breed?

My guess is: "all of the above".  I believe that there has been some cross breeding done in the last 40 years and breeders certainly cross bred to create the breed in the late 1800s. But given the huge numbers of Weims born every year -- more than 20 thousand pups per year world wide -- the chances of other more 'fluke of nature' causes are probably high enough to explain at least some of the white Weims out there.

Another Weim in the US with a similar coat. Its pedigree is not known.
And it turns out that white coat issues don't just apply to Weims. In response to my last blog post, a friendly reader sent me a link to a very interesting and article about white in another self-colored gundog breed, the Vizsla.  It is called "Understanding White" and it was published in the Vizsla Canada Newsletter, Vol.7, No.4, September/October 2001. Here are a couple of passages that are about Viszlas but could just as easily be about Weimaraners:

When discussing white, it is important to keep in mind that the presence and extent of white markings are not entirely under genetic control. As early as 1957, referring to experiments done by Sewall Wright nearly four decades earlier, Clarence Little cautioned that: “an appreciable amount of variation in the extent of body-surface pigmentation is usually non-genetic in nature.” Without discounting the primary role of genes, it seems reasonable to think that various factors other than genetic can influence the distribution of pigmentation cells or perhaps, even interrupt it at times. We know that some factors may delay the normal pigmentation process as happened with the puppy mentioned earlier and there will no doubt be cases where the process is not only delayed but interrupted altogether. These factors could be anything from environmental to nutritional. 

Being aware of (this) might assist in avoiding hasty conclusions about the parentage of some Vizslas, often from field bred strains, that exhibit a considerable amount of white. In those cases, casual observers are sometimes quick to conclude that a dog is of impure breeding and whispered accusations of crossbreeding to Pointers follow suit. Such breedings, accidental or deliberate, may indeed have taken place but we should always keep in mind that dogs with considerable amounts of white might also be produced from the breeding of two purebred Vizslas.

Breeders whose primary selection criterion is field performance may not select against white... as rigorously as breeders whose primary focus is the show bench or may not select against it at all. If selection against (white) is not a priority with a particular breeder, it can be expected that this breeder may produce more dogs with white markings and with larger white markings than a breeder who makes selection against white markings a priority.  It would be my suggestion that not a few cases of rumoured crossbreeding simply involve a purebred Vizsla...

A Whitemaraner?

Craig Koshyk

I came across a very interesting photo today. It is of a really cool looking dog with a mainly white coat and a grey …as in Weimaraner grey… head. It also has a grey spot on its back near the tail.

I have seen Weims with a white "blaze" or spot on the chest and even one that had a couple of white toes, but this dog had far more white than grey in its coat.  I shared the photo on Facebook and remarked how cool it would be to hunt over him since he would be really easy to see and not blend into the forest like my all-grey dogs do.

I had no idea that this would be the start of a somewhat contentious debate (I was even 'de-friended' by one person who thought I was on a mission to destroy the purity of the breed!). In the comment section of the photo more than one person stated that the dog could not be a "pure" Weimaraner (others were less than polite, calling the dog a "mutt" and dropping  F bombs.)  And a few people wrote that the dog must be the result of a cross with a GSP or with a Pointer. And they may be correct. After all there is no genetic law that makes it impossible for dogs of different breeds to mate. All they need are testicles and ovaries.

But there are a couple of things that make me wonder if the dog might actually be as pure as any other all-grey Weim. First of all, the owner has stated that it is from two pure grey Weims. And apparently other similar dogs have had their DNA tested by Dr. Epplen at the University of Bochum and have been declared "100% pure".  I've heard from other folks that they have also seen this type of coat in litters of pure-bred all-grey Weims in the US. Here is a link to some photos and a discussion thread about one such dog.

The other thing that got me thinking was not really the white in the coat, but the grey. You see, the Weim coat is basically a brown (liver) colour that is "watered down" by a dilution factor that messes with the melanin in the hair shafts. The mechanism is a bit complicated but my friend Sheila Schmutz explains it very well here. What is important to remember is that the dilution factor is recessive. That means both parents must have the factor in order for their pups to express it. So if the Weims in the photos are in fact the results of cross breedings to GSPs or Pointers as has been suggested, then the Pointer or GSP parent must have had the dilution factor too.

Years ago, I actually saw some pups from a Weimaraner x Vizsla "oops" breeding. But they were all solid liver. None of them had any hint of grey... and that make sense. Only one parent (the Weim) would have had the dilution factor. The other (the Vizsla) did not have the dilution factor so the pups could never be grey.

Finally, there is the possibility of some kind of developmental problem occurring during the pup's gestation. Apparently, while pups are still in the womb, the migration of the pigments (melanocytes) that bring colour to the dog can sometimes be delayed or interrupted. Sheila Schmutz writes that:

Because melanocytes migrate down from the spinal column during embryogenesis not all animals complete this process by birth or thereafter. In dogs, it is therefore not uncommon to see white toes on an otherwise black or red dog. This is probably more a random event than the result of a specific allele. Another common "white spot" on dogs occurs on the chest. This must again be a site where melanocytoe migration occurs very late in fetal development and a cold or other developmental delay prevents the completion of melanocyte migration. It may be that the rate of melanocyte migration is itself inherited.

In some dogs… a white chest spot occurs. Some standards mention this as a fault. This is likely simply incomplete pigment migration in the particular individual, and not an inherited trait. Such small amounts of white on the chest or on the toes, do not seem to be caused by mutations…  More here.

In the most recent edition of the Weimaraner club of Germany's magazine Weimaraner Nachtrichten (Dec, 2011), there is an article written by  Dr. Ilka Schalwat. The title of the article is White markings in the Weimaraner Coat are multifactorial and not purely hereditary. Here are a few quotes (please excuse my less than ideal translation, my German really sucks....)

As breeders, we bear great responsibility for the quality of our breed, the Weimaraner. Our goal should be to follow the what the breed standard specifies. But we should also strive to meet the overall objectives of the Weimaraner Club which are: breeding to improve Weimaraner as a hunting dog, fight disease and ensure good health.

Several years ago with these objectives in mind I chose a promising athletic males from my A-litter. He was recognized as a top male that has been very successful especially for hunting wild boar. The VGP tested male had a small white patch on his chest, to which I never attributed any importance since he met the FCI standard. But during the physical breeding examination I learned for the first time that the size of the spot on the breast is a factor for breeding considerations. 

This experience was a surprise to me, and enough reason to make me concerned about the "inheritance" of white markings. The mother and the father of that dog were both without white markings, so I was quite astonished that the some puppies in my A-litter had white and some did not. At the recent dog show in 2011 I saw an entire litter from a well-known kennel, where all the litter mates had "too much"white. 

For many it was incomprehensible. This really very dramatic experience guided my thoughts while I was planning my C-litter. I asked myself: How can I as the breeder reduce the risk for white markings in the selection of breeding partners? By what breeding methods can I use to limit the risk? I studied all
the stud books of the last 10 years and compared them with the litter registration. I quickly realized that the white markings were clearly not just an issue from 100 years ago when it was a typical Weimaraner phenomenon, but it was still an issue today. 

Every year at least 25% of our puppies are noted to have white markings. In the last 10 years the rates have fluctuated, from 20 to 30%.... and I realized from the study of breeding books and notes that there is no indication for a possible mode of inheritance, no way to predict if a puppy will or will not have white markings. 

I consulted with, Prof. Dr.Jörg Epplen at the Ruhr University in Bochum, the well-known Weimaraner supporter who has written numerous articles on inheritance in our club magazine. His reply surprised me. 
"White spots are caused by many factors, not exactly hereditary, and certainly not by a single feature. They stem from delayed melanocyte migration "
Apparently, the formation of white spots is not yet fully elucidated. But leading scientists looking into the question believe the following: In the embryonic stage, melanocytes come from the neural crest (embryonic precursor structure to the spinal cord) then, along with the skin stem cells migrate. But a developmental delay due to infection or other problem, even if it is only for a few days during the pregnancy, can mean that the migration of melanocytes to the most remote places such as chest and paws do not make it in time.

Therefore, white markings may, in my opinion, be tolerated in the breed standard if the spot is not too large. And not all spots remain visible for a lifetime, because the pigmented hair can continue to proliferate as the dog matures.  Excluding a dog from breeding because of a little white blaze is therefore unnecessary… such exclusion does not contribute to the improvement the race. 

Even Dr. Werner Petri pointed out in his widely acclaimed textbook "Weimaraner Heute" suggests that not only at the beginning of Weimaraner breeding more than 100 years ago but even well into the last century, almost all Weimaraners had white markings (Petri Weimaraner Heute, 2003). 

Due to increased breeding regulation in recent years, with regard to size and location of what are truly incidental white markings, an unfortunate negative selection pressure for breeding Weimaraners without white has emerged and some people want a "reinterpretation" of the standard.  

But compared to hunting performance, health and good hips, white markings should only play a minor role. Everyone now wants to keep his kennel completely free of "white". And if you now have potential puppy buyers prevented from buying a puppy because of some white, it is a senseless waste of valuable genetic variability.

EDIT: It looks like a similar thing can happen to Deer too! (unless of course it is cross bred to a Pointer :)

I've received a surprising number of emails and comments regarding the mystery of the "Whitemaraner". In fact, my blog post has had nearly 500 visitors in less than 24 hours. So I thought I would make another post with some new information I have gathered. Read more here.

Dog Breeds. What are they good for? Part 2.

Craig Koshyk

Félix wearing a camo neoprene vest in the Libau Marsh
If, as we've seen in part 1, dog breeds are nothing more than wobbly man-made creations, the question is: should we even have breeds?

For me, the answer is yes. But it is not because I think closed stud books and "pure" breeds are in and of themselves, good ideas, but because they are, for all their faults and frailties, all we have to work with.

We've learned to live with the quirky system that created our breeds in the past and maintains them now. For better or worse, breeds have become a part of our sporting heritage and represent personal, regional and national identities within the overall community of hunters and well beyond.

Breeds are not very practical entities, they are forever fighting against their very being and would disappear within a couple generations if we let them go. But they do provide a certain level of predictability (Labs produce litters of Lab puppies) and can be easy to understand (Pointers point, Springers spring etc.).

In fact, having breeds is actually a good idea...on paper. They are like having different brands of a consumer item, different flavors of ice cream as it were. But the way they are created, developed and maintained is inherently flawed. It is based on a bizarre mix of "blue blood" myth, magical thinking and misunderstood Darwinism. Instead of improving breeds, our systems actually sacrifices real progress on the alter of breed purity.

The sled dog concept on the other hand is a far less dogmatic and more pragmatic approach to breeding the better canine mousetrap (for whatever purpose). It removes the burden of the closed stub book and allows breeders to focus on one goal only: create a better dog. Period. I wonder what would happen in pointing dog field trials and tests if the organizers opened up a category for "mixed" breeds. If breeders were allowed to breed to whatever they want and run their dogs against all others. My guess is that give enough resources, really smart, driven, dedicated breeders would come up with some fantastic dogs.

We tend to view the creators of our current breeds as brilliant men from a bygone era...and they were. But they were not supermen and most of them had the equivalent of about a 6th grade education and were completely in the dark regarding the science of genetics. Give the brilliant men and women of today the same freedom and resources as Korthals had in his day (imagine a genius level breeder working for Bill Gates) and what do you think we would get?

I think we would end up with a situation similar to what we already have, minus all the hand wringing about keeping breeds pure and all the fuss about DNA testing etc. There would be a type of dog that looks remarkably like the Pointer kicking ass in all age field trials, a dog that looks remarkably like the Lab dominating retriever trials and a bunch of wiry beasts with beards and moustaches along with GSP looking dogs at the top of the NAVHDA heap.

Because at the end of the day, the top performing breeds in the world today are those that have allowed a certain amount of wiggle room when it comes to being a pure breed. Their creators from the past and the people who breed them now focus (mainly) on one goal: creating a better dog....meanwhile all the others are still running around in circles, chasing their Victorian age shadows.

Dog breeds. What are they good for? Part 1.

Craig Koshyk

Recently someone asked me about dog breeds. Specifically, how and why the various breeds were created in the first place? and why do we still have them now? Here are my thoughts:

The concept of a breed of animal or plant is relatively new, only taking hold about a 150 years ago at a time when people were moving away from the idea that everything was controlled by the all-knowing sky wizard and towards the notion that through science (or at least science-y sounding systems) man could control nature and mold it to his tastes. The "sport" of pure breeding dogs came about when social, political, and scientific forces such as Darwinism (and its twisted off-shoot Eugenics) and the Victorian mania for classifying everything from insects to elements all sort of lined up.

Soon, all kinds of "pure" dog breeds were created synthetically by mixing general types of dogs or, in some cases, by distilling naturally occurring land races that had been around for centuries. Studbooks were opened for them, then slammed shut as soon as enough fathers were bred to their daughters and mothers to their sons. Next, the breed's back stories were written and greatly embellished or even pulled out of thin air.

And for a while it worked! Breeds flourished and seemed to pop up everywhere. They were declared independent and separate from the others over the flimsiest of excuses...a different shade of coat colour, a few centimeters of size, being on the wrong side (or right side depending on where you were) of some political border or river or mountain range. In fact, the divisions between breeds are the most artificial aspect of the entire system. They exist only in the overheated imaginations of breed supporters. Skin all the pointing breeds out for example, ignore a few inches of height and some aspects of head shape and they are all pretty much interchangeable.

But here we are in 2011, and we know all about the dangers of closed studbooks and the risks of shallow gene pools and breeds kept so "pure" that all the members are nearly clones of each other...and suffering terrible disease as a result.  So why do will still have "pure" breeds and why do we spend so much time, energy and money keeping the artificial divisions between them intact?

Because their very existence depends on people being people...sentimental, superstitious, silly, not nearly as bright as we think we are... people.

Dogs exist to please us and somehow we find pleasure in having so many different breeds. Somehow, knowing that on many levels it makes zero sense to keep breeds "pure", we recoil from the thought of "polluting" our breed with the unclean blood of another. Dog breeds still exist because we've all bought into an outdated, disproved Victorian fantasy about pureness of blood, royal families, breed improvement and social climbing. Basically, our forefathers brewed a batch of kool-aid and we are still eagerly sipping on it. 

Yet some people have managed to see past the smoke and mirrors. But they are not running pointing dogs. They are running "mutts" in the Iditarod. And their dogs would run circles around ours.

Continue reading in Part 2: Should we maintain the "pure" breeds or just mix them all up?