Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

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Side Effects

Selection factors you may not have considered

by C.A. Sharp

First published in Double Helix Network News, Winter 2011


The success or failure of any breeder’s efforts hinges on the selection criteria she uses. A good breeder pays close attention to physical and behavioral traits important to her goals.  These primary selection criteria are regular topics of discussion, not only between owners of the prospective sire and dam, but at shows, trials and almost anywhere breeders get together.

But there a number of factors surrounding individual breedings—and the practice of breeding in general—which can cause side effects to your breeding plan, for good or for ill.  These factors may seem peripheral.  They may even be things you don’t think much about at all.

There are a variety of decisions a breeder makes that aren’t related to the qualities of the dogs involved.  Even so, these decisions can have a very real influence on which stud you select for your bitch.  Cumulatively, they can impact the genetic future of your breed.  You might not think of these things have an influence because they have more to do with business, economics and marketing than with dogs.

 Secondary selection criteria

Geography matters, though perhaps not as much as it did a few decades ago.  Today, we can ship semen to the bitch, eliminating the risk and expense involved with sending her great distances and into an unfamiliar environment.   Even so, there are still costs involved and sometimes that will tip the scales in favor of a more local stud.  You are also more likely to be familiar with a dog in your area, as well as his family and his get, leading you to choose the local boy.

Personalities can enter into the mix.  All of us know people we really like and a few we really don’t.  It’s human nature to want to do business with someone we like, or even someone for whom our feelings are neutral, rather than one who makes us uncomfortable.  While this may sometimes have a direct bearing on the dogs involved – as in the case of someone known to be particularly honest (or not!) in his approach to health issues – sometimes the desire or reluctance to deal with a particular person boils down to whether or not the two of you get along. 

A dog with a winning show or performance career or one bearing a major kennel name can be a useful marketing tool for your litter.  Accomplished dogs and successful breeders can have enormous positive impact on a breed.  But a kennel name, no matter how revered, is only as good as the dog who carries it.  Not every puppy produced, even by the most esteemed kennel, will be of breeding quality.  Even a top winner might require second thoughts if he is siring large numbers of litters; his reproductive success can limit your future breeding options.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  Before any mating can take place, owners of stud and bitch need to come to an agreement on the terms and conditions relative to the breeding.  A high stud fee may be too much for your budget, closing the door on a potential litter before serious discussions ever take place.  The stud owner is the one who presents a contract to the owner of the bitch.  If you, as the bitch owner, want to change something, the stud owner is free to agree to an amendment or not.  If the two of you can’t come to terms, the breeding won’t take place.

Environmental impact

Breeding decisions don’t take place in a vacuum containing only the people and dogs directly concerned.  All of us operate in a wider environment which can shape our decisions as breeders.  What is or is not acceptable in dogs is colored by our human cultures, whether of the country in which we live or the smaller “dog culture” in which we operate.

Geography also has its role here.  The nature of the place you live cannot help but influence breeding decisions.  Someone who operates in an intensely urban area may have a different idea of the suitability of one dog over another than someone who lives in the middle of 10,000 acres.  What works in cultivated farmland may not work in near-wilderness.  Climate and topography impact the way we—and our dogs—live. 

Locale aside, we in dogs have our own varied cultures.  What is the primary purpose for which you breed?  It may be for the conformation ring, any of various competitive events, real world work, or for family companions.  Each area of human/canine activity has different requirements.  Our views of what is or isn’t acceptable in a dog will be colored by the dictates of that particular discipline and the sub-culture in which it operates.

Our registries and clubs also influence a breeder’s choices not only through their specific rules and regulations, but by the nature of each organization’s unique “corporate culture.”  National kennel clubs wield enormous influence on canine activities within their respective countries, impacting not only those breeds which they register, but often the practices of groups or organizations of breeders and dog enthusiasts that operate out from under the kennel club umbrella.  A national breed club will have a similar influence on its breed; if it is one of the few that also operate a registry, the influence can be even greater.  Even regional clubs can have an impact, as the members of these groups often mentor newcomers, shaping their attitudes and helping develop their goals.  

Another environmental factor is kennel management – not only on the gross scale of good or bad, but even in such differences as the size and nature of your facilities and how many dogs are typically resident.  Effects on breeding decisions will be subtle, but you are most likely to keep an animal for breeding that suits your particular management style. 

Some management decisions may, in excess, have a negative impact on the long-term viability of the breeder’s line, or even the entire breed.  For instance, the use of artificial insemination (AI) and c-sections have relatively common.  AI has only been in general use by dog breeders for a handful of canine generations.  The technology has advanced dramatically, enabling a breeder on one side of the world to import frozen semen from a dog on the other.  Likewise, surgical techniques have improved so that c-section, while still a major surgery, is highly successful in the vast majority of cases.  But overuse of these technologies can have a down side.

The classic example is seen in those breeds, like the bulldogs, where c-section has become routine for delivery.  Breeders don’t select for bitches that can free whelp because surgical delivery has come to be considered “normal.” 

Using AI won’t affect an individual animal’s ability to breed naturally, but the convenience it offers may distract us from consideration of a dog’s breeding behavior.  A stud with little or no libido might make his contribution with collected semen.  Likewise, a bitch that refuses to accept any stud can be impregnated at no risk to the dog. 

However, nothing is more basic to biology than reproduction.  No species can exist without it.  Before resorting to artificial or assisted breeding practices you need to be sure both dog and bitch can get the job done Nature’s way.

And the winner is…   

Big wins and competitive titles are something to brag about, but how valid are they as guides to selection?  No dog becomes a major competitor in any venue without a lot of time, effort and training on the part of its handler and others who support its career.  The environment provided is “nurture” to the dog’s genetic “nature.”   A great show dog may have the genes to endow his puppies with a perfect coat, but it is up to those who feed and groom to develop that potential.  Those human talents can also help a less-than-ideal coat pass muster.  Similarly, in performance events a dog’s innate talent must be developed and guided by trainers and handlers.  A genetically excellent dog with poor training or management can lose to a less talented one with the benefit of partnership with skilled people.   Putting too much emphasis on wins or titles may not get you where you want to go with your breeding program – environmental factors (the training, handling, etc.) aren’t coded in the dog’s DNA.


Working environment

Training and handling aside, performance event titles may or may not indicate a strong genetic predisposition for the behavioral traits typical of a breed’s original purpose.   How true-to-life is your chosen competitive arena?  The more true the better it serves as a test of the innate behaviors required to fulfill the breed’s purpose.  The Border Collie’s open field sheepdog trials are very like the actual work the dogs were first bred to do. 

In contrast, in a Schutzhund blind search the dog needs to find the guy with the stick and the padded sleeve, just as a police dog needs to find the bad guy.  Any well-trained Schutzhund dog is smart enough to know that the guy is always behind the 6th blind but it’s his job to search the other five first.  On the other hand, police dogs, whose daily task is the real work upon which Schutzhund and similar sports are based, must think for itself and ignore the handler’s commands if it knows the handler is wrong.  Real bad guys are often armed with more than a stick and won’t hold fire while the dog searches “empty blinds.” 

Alaskan Huskies are the breed of dog that dominates competitive sledding events.  They are bred solely for their racing ability and are not restricted to a closed breeding pool; breeders occasionally employ crossbreeding to improve performance.  This practice was typical in purpose-bred dogs before the era of studbooks and kennel clubs.  A genetic study of Alaskan Husky performance in both short- and long-distance races published last July revealed that researchers could distinguish sprint dogs from distance runners by their genetic profiles.  Admixture of genes from dogs of the hunting group could be found in successful sprint teams while dogs whose profiles revealed arctic heritage were better at the endurance events. 


Without a thought…

Sometimes we wind up making breeding decisions without any conscious consideration of what we are doing.  A number of years back a study of market hogs revealed that hog farmers who raised large numbers of animals inside barns and their colleagues who pasture-raised their stock inadvertently selected for different dispositions.  All hogs in the study were of the same breed, but the barn raised animals were much less aggressive.  Since excess aggression can be a management problem in a high-density environment, those farmers tended to keep less aggressive animals for breeding simply because they were easier to manage.  Over time and generations this had a measurable effect on the animals’ disposition as opposed to that of their more traditionally raised cousins.

It is very probable that dog breeders do the same thing.  A dog whose behavior does not suit your particular circumstance isn’t likely to remain in your home or kennel.  Similarly, in a wide variety of breeds the divergence we see, not only in behavior but in body morphology, between working/field and show strains is in part influenced by the differing circumstances surrounding each set of breeders’ approach to dogs and dog breeding.   For example, Australian Shepherds were once all ranch dogs whose ability to guard the home, ranch buildings and their owners’ pick-up trucks was as highly valued as their utility in managing livestock.  Today, most Aussies live in urban or suburban environments where a sharp-tempered guardian can be a liability – in the legal sense as well as in general.  This reality has shaped a shift in temperament in a large part of the breed, though the original character can still be found in stockdog lines.

An unconsciously selected benefit working/field strains may enjoy is better overall health.  Dogs which cannot withstand a highly active physical regimen wash out early and are never considered for breeding, not because the breeders are necessarily health-conscious but because meeting their selection goals requires that their dogs remain in superb physical condition.

The divergence in show and working lines has also contributed to the loss of the full suite of working behaviors in a variety of breeds.  This is not because show breeders deliberately select away from those behaviors, but because most are not making a conscious and consistent effort to maintain them.  Complex traits cannot be maintained without consistent selection, generation after generation.

A final example of “thoughtless” selection factors can be found in how some breeds dogs look.  Considerable research has indicated that humans, and especially females, are attracted to babyish features in animals.  Human nature, and perhaps the fact that the preponderance of people involved in dog breeding are female, has probably lead to the reduced size, larger eyes and shorter, blockier muzzles seen in several breeds today that did not exhibit these features a few decades past.       


Ties that bind

Some traits go hand-in-hand, either because they are genetically linked, arising from genes that close together on the same chromosome, or biologically linked, with changes in one thing impacting the other.  Not a great deal is known yet about genetic linkages for important breed traits, but examples of biological linkage between desired breed traits and undesirable things abound.

Many breed standards state that the dogs should have dark brown eyes, but in some of those breeds acceptable coat colors include brown (variously described as liver, chocolate or red) or dilute (as in blue or fawn Dobermans or any Weimeraner.)  However, neither brown nor dilute dogs can have dark brown eyes.  The pigment diluting effects of the genes involved (commonly referred to as “B” and “D” by dog breeders) also dilutes pigment in the eye, resulting in eyes that are light brown to amber in shade.

Recent study of the gene responsible for very small size in many breeds revealed that small dogs are genetically predisposed to excitability.  So, if you want a small dog but don’t like dogs that are yappy or hyper, you may not be able to find what you are looking for, at least in those breeds whose smallness stems from that particular gene.

Selecting for body structures that vary considerably from the canine norm can also have unintended side effects.  Some of these are well recognized and you can take steps to avoid them.  Others you may not even be aware of.  A recent study of short-faced breeds like Pugs and Boston terriers found that, because of their extremely short muzzles, the skull has altered to the point that their brains have rotated forward.  As a consequence, the olfactory lobe, which process the dog’s ability to scent, has migrated to the lowest portion of their brains, probably to remain in reasonable proximity to the nose.  At this time any effects this might have on these dogs’ behavior or sense to smell haven’t been determined.


While all of these secondary, environmental, and unconscious selection factors may not have a huge impact on any individual breeding, cumulatively they do influence the population genetics of a breed.  By being aware of what these factors are and how they influence not only your decisions but those of other breeders you will be able to make more informed decisions for your own dogs.