AKC & the Gene Pool

By D. Caroline Coile, PhD

First published in Dog World September 2004

On September 17, 1884, a dozen men met in Philadelphia to form the American Kennel Club. In 1887 the AKC began to register dogs and maintain a stud book. In 1908 they declared as one of their official purposes “generally to do everything to advance the study, breeding, exhibiting, running, and maintenance of the purity of thoroughbred dogs.” By 1935 they had registered their one millionth dog. Now, millions of AKC registered dogs later, some breeders and geneticists are questioning whether the AKC’s basic tenant of maintaining the purity of breeds may be at odds with maintaining the health of breeds.

AKC has changed its registration criteria through the years. Initially any dog that looked like a certain breed could be registered as that breed. Later, the AKC made the criteria for being accepted as a pure breed more stringent. In general, only dogs from AKC registered parents or registered with other kennel clubs with similarly stringent criteria could be registered. The AKC guards the integrity of its studbook carefully, ensuring that pure breeds really are pure.

But this policy of genetic exclusion had some unforeseen effects. We now know that when any population is based on a handful of founders, then whatever genes chance to be present in those founders will be over-represented in their descendents compared to the gene frequency in the entire population. If these genes are for deleterious recessive traits, then in a closed population the descendents must eventually breed to one another, increasing the chance that their progeny will inherit recessive genes from both parents and thus develop a genetic disease. Such is the case with most dog breeds, the majority of which can trace their ancestry to fewer than 50 foundation animals—sometimes fewer than 10. The average dog is estimated to carry 4 to 5 such deleterious recessives, so it was almost a given that each breed would develop its own set of health problems.

Such genetic information wasn’t available to the AKC a century ago, although some breeders voiced their concern about closed gene pools and inbreeding. In 1906, Lewis Strong wrote in the American Kennel Gazette: “In spite of the invigorating effects of several outcrosses, the Bloodhound remains one of the scarcest and perhaps most inbred of English dogs. I should hardly think they can survive another half-century of inbreeding as close as the past 50 years, and I think that, unless Bloodhound breeders take the subject strongly in hand, there is danger that the Bloodhound may in time become extinct, exterminated by inbreeding. The only remedy I can think of, besides refraining from inbreeding, is for breeders to boldly make outcrosses, so as to get a liberal infusion of new blood.”

When presented with convincing evidence, the AKC has on rare occasions allowed new dogs into the stud book. In 1988 they approved the registration of offspring from tribal Basenjis imported directly from Zaire. At that time it was estimated that AKC Basenjis descended from fewer than a dozen foundation dogs, and approximately 70% of the current Basenjis were estimated to carry a gene for a serious condition called Fanconi syndrome. The African imports were free of this problem. With approval from the Basenji Club of America, the AKC approved the opening of the studbook to imports from two expeditions to Africa.

Like Basenjis, Salukis can still be found in their native lands. Their Bedouin owners can recite pedigrees for generations but have no registration papers to prove it. In 1945, the AKC allowed descendents of two Salukis bred by King Ibn Saud to be AKC registered, but in subsequent decades no further exceptions were made. Yet such imports were becoming increasingly popular with Saluki breeders interested in performance, as the “desert-breds” proved themselves formidable competitors at non-AKC coursing trials. The Saluki Club of America petitioned AKC to have salukis with three generations of ancestors accepted as Salukis by the Society for the Preservation of Desert Bred Salukis (SPDBS) accepted for recognition. The first of these dogs have now been registered and are competing—successfully—in the show ring.

The AKC recognizes several other domestic registries that can provide a needed influx of new genes for several breeds. Besides the SPDBS, the AKC registers dogs recognized by the Field Dog Stud Book (which is used by all sporting breeds except Irish Setters), the International Foxhunter’s Stud Book, the Masters of Foxhounds Association, the National Beagle Club of America, and the National Greyhound Association.

Not all breeds seek AKC recognition. In the case of Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Jack (now Parson) Russell Terriers, original non-AKC breed clubs have sometimes opposed AKC recognition so vehemently that only a small proportion of the breed are initially AKC registered. For example, when the AKC recognized Border Collies, most Border Collie people refused to register their dogs with AKC, choosing instead to continue registering them with the non-AKC American Border Collie Association (ABCA). Only about 6% of Border Collies are registered with the AKC, placing the AKC Border Collie at risk because of its extremely small gene pool. AKC will sometimes re-open the stud book to give breeders a second chance in such cases, but even then it is rarely utilized fully. Breeders opposed to AKC recognition may then look at the AKC population and accuse the AKC of ruining the breed, but in fact they themselves are partly to blame for promoting the splintering of the breed.

Allowing dogs of the same breed but from different registries is one thing; what about allowing crosses to dogs of a different breed? Early in the creation of breeds, crosses to other breeds were commonplace. For example, modern Shih Tzu descend from seven dogs and seven bitches, one of which was not a Shih Tzu, but a Pekingese. This cross occurred in 1952, long before AKC recognition of the breed.

Approved crosses to other breeds after AKC recognition are rare but possible. In 1988, at the request of the Dalmatian parent club, the AKC approved the introduction of a Pointer into the Dalmatian gene pool in an attempt to introduce the genes for normal uric acid metabolism. The plan was to breed the progeny back to Dalmatians for several generations until theoretically all that remained of the Pointer influence was the gene for normal metabolism. But by that time a new board was in control of the Dalmatian club and they objected to the registration of the crossbred progeny. AKC lifted the registration privileges for these dogs, so the pointer genes never made it into the Dalmatian gene pool.

The AKC now requires a full membership vote from the parent club before granting approval for such ventures. In the 1980s some Wirehaired Pointing Griffon breeders made crosses to Cesky Fouseks in an attempt to widen the Griffon gene pool. But without a priori parent club and AKC approval, they were not able to get AKC recognition of their stock.

The question may come down to the definition of a purebred dog. How many generations of closed breeding are necessary before a dog can be considered pure? How many generations are necessary before a breed can be considered at risk? When breed purity puts breed health at risk, compromises must be considered. The purest of breeds is worthless if it’s extinct.