dogs had an especially lively comments section and it got me thinking - again- about the topic of how we, as breeders, decide whether a particular dog is worthy of breeding.
The Companion Dog Project agrees with GANA that traditional titles are not the best way to prove the quality of dogs for a pet breeding program. We also agree that traditional conformation shows, which are, fundamentally, a competitive sport, can be counter productive. When the goal of breeding is to produce conformation champions who meet a specific aesthetic standard, it can actually hurt the health and behavior of dogs over time. How does that happen? To truly understand this we need to understand two things:
There are no perfect dogs. I have five dogs living in my home currently. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Now, my dogs are mixes and my program is relatively young, so its likely that I may see less consistency than some other breeders. But - this reality is true with any group of dogs. For example, even in the same litter, some dogs will be bolder, some more cautious. They may have different arousal levels in the same environment. Some may have more rear angulation, some less. The range of differences between dogs may be smaller in a well established purebred line, but every breeder knows that all dogs are slightly different. This inevitable variety is WHY we have to be very deliberate about evaluating dogs and making pairings. If every AKC registered dog of a certain breed with a champion in in its pedigree was exactly the same quality, breeding would be easy and no choices would be needed.
Dog breeding is a form of artificial selection. Domesticated dogs, just like livestock, are subject to the decisions of humans, rather than nature, to determine which individuals have the privilege of passing on their DNA to the next generation. Natural selection means animals that are unhealthy or aren't well adapted to their environment die young or fail to attract a mate, and this results in the stronger animals' DNA being passed on. We prevent our dogs from being subject to this process. We keep them confined, we de-sex most of them, and we decide for them who they will mate with on the rare occasion that they are allowed to mate. Humans have taken over the role of selector for Canis Lupis Familiaris. We have fundamentally altered nearly everything about them to suit our desires from appearance to behavior to health.
Unless we stop selectively breeding, humans will continue to decide the future of dogs. This is a big responsibility. I believe all good breeders know this. Even if we don't think about it as an interference in the natural selection process, all good breeders recognize this power we have to influence the future of dogs, and we want to make the right choices. How do we choose which dogs to breed? Breed standards and conformation dog shows that judge a dogs adherence to that standard have traditionally been considered an important part of making these breeding choices.
There are some problems with that.
Breed standards don't always promote good health. Written by the founders of modern breeds, their authors reflect the current thinking at the time, which strongly associated form with function and defined the differences in breeds by specific appearance like size, color, tail set, angulation, shape of eyes, and many others. The specific look of a breed that results from carefully selecting for these traits is called "type". Temperament and working ability is included in breed standards but is usually a smaller percentage of the language. Specific modern science informed health requirements, like hip distraction index, or absence or harmful mutations, are not mentioned. Unfortunately many breed standards actually include deformities as a requirement. Chondrodystrophy is an example of this. The short legs of many breeds are caused by a genetic defect that we now know, through modern DNA testing and research on affected dogs, puts dogs at risk of back pain and sometimes disc herniation. Because the short legs are required by breed standards, and in some breeds, virtually all the dogs have two copies of the gene, it seems virtually impossible, within the traditional guidelines, for show breeders of affected breeds to rid their lines of this harmful gene. There are many other examples.
Perfect type DOES NOT always equate to the best temperament either. Think again about that litter of puppies with the champion ancestor. When the breeder is evaluating that litter to decide who to keep as a breeding prospect they are going to look at the overall dog. If they know that they must "prove" their breeding dogs in conformation they HAVE TO prioritize appearance. They cant keep the puppy with the standout most highly social confident temperament if that puppy happens to have a disqualifying flaw (like being too large or too small, among other things) . Is there likely to be a puppy who meets the breed standard for size and also has a nice temperament. Yes. Am I saying that all purebred breeders breed dogs with bad temperaments? NO. But every single time a breeder makes a decision about which dogs are allowed to pass on their DNA it has an impact on the future of dogs. Every breeder is adding their small piece of the big puzzle of this experiment humans are running on dogs and although each decision may seem small, the impact over many generations is huge. If ALL breeders follow a very specific aesthetic standard we inevitably sacrifice some health and temperament along the way.
We have been breeding this way for only a very short time in relation to the whole history of domestic dogs. Most modern breeds were created within the last 150 years. Trainers and behaviorists tell us that severe behavior cases are increasing, that dogs are more anxious, and laid back family pets are harder and harder to find. Is it possible that selecting for appearance as the highest priority over all these generations is having an unintended consequence? My guess is that the issue is multifactorial and the pandemic played a big role, but its worth considering the ways in which our chosen methods of artificial selection are impacting dogs as a whole.
Many modern breeders looks at traditional breed standards and conformation shows and we say- No thanks. We would like the freedom to choose that confident social puppy even if he's got a goofy expression or is too big, too small, or is mismarked. Appearance isn't our primary goal.
So- if we don't follow aesthetic standards and prove stock by showing- how DO we decide which dogs are worthy of breeding? Online forums are filled with accusations about mixed breeders just "slapping together any two dogs" and not "doing anything with their dogs" to prove them worthy. I wholeheartedly agree with GANAs recent post that we need new and better ways to help breeders evaluate and select stock for pet breeding programs, and we, along with others like the Functional Dog Collaborative, are actively working on developing infrastructure to accomplish this. In the meantime, we have set very specific temperament requirements for the Companion Dog Registry that can help breeders make good choices. Therapy and facility dog certifications are a great way to demonstrate the type of temperament most pet seekers are looking for. Ultimately though, the proof of a pet dog breeding program comes from the satisfied pet owners who can tell us about how well the dogs they own fit into their lives. CDP is working to collect this data and use it to help breeders improve their selection process.
Lastly, a sidenote. Use caution about puppy temperament testing claims. Puppy temperament testing by breeders has not been shown to be effective in predicting adult behavior. While I don't doubt it has some value when performed by an experienced evaluator, puppy seekers would be wise to be skeptical about breeders who put a great deal of emphasis on matching puppies with homes based on 7 or 8 week temperament tests. For some perspective on what is really needed to evaluate puppies and young dogs for suitability in service dog work, check out the amazing work done by International Working Dog Registry on this. Midwoofery also has a great blog post about this topic .
To read more:
Why Breed Standards Dont Work. Jane Brackman, PhD, 2013
Therapy Dogs International
IWDR, Behavior Checklist