Working border collies depend on a performance standard and an open registry.
When pressed about the poor genetic quality of today's "pure bred" dogs, most Kennel Club breeders parrot the Kennel Club apologia: "We only register dogs, we don't breed them."
In fact, the line is pure bunk. The Kennel Club does far more than register dogs -- it sets the rules that guarantee more and more dogs will suffer serious (and often painful) genetic problems.
The problem, in a nutshell, is the closed registry system. With all Kennel Club breeds, the "founding stock" has always been small in number, and often fairly inbred going in, since breed creation is a product of inbreeding and line breeding to "set" the look of a dog. Because a closed registry never adds new blood, it becomes progressively more inbred over time.
Genetic diversity is never increased in the Kennel Club -- it is only reduced. In practice, it is often reduced quite rapidly due to the fact that show-winning males are in great demand to "cover" as many bitches as possible -- the so-called "popular sire effect."
The result, to be clearly seen by simply comparing 10-generation pedigrees for most breeds, is that many dogs have common male ancestors.
After 25 generations, the genetic overlap within all members of a breed may be complete or nearly complete with every member of the breed traced back to the same root stock.
What is wrong with this? Simple: In the world of genetics, most health-related negative characteristics are recessive. This is true because most dominant negative characteristics result in quick mortality or culling. A negative recessive gene, however, remains hidden and only becomes expressed (i.e. self-evident) when both parents carry the negative gene.
When dog populations are relatively heterogeneous (i.e. genetically diverse) the chance that any two negative genes will combine is low. Result: a dog with a very high chance of being healthy.
In a dog population that is very homogeneous (i.e., not genetically diverse), the chance of two negative recessive genes combining rises in direct relationship to the degree of homogeneity.
The result of two negative recessive genes combining is a real health problem -- the kind of problems we are increasingly seeing in Kennel Club dogs: epilepsy, dysplasia, deafness, congenital skin conditions, heart murmurs, cataracts, polyarthritis, progressive renal atrophy, allergies, hypothyroidism, and Cushing's Syndrome, to name a few.
A closed registry with a small gene pool undergoing a further tightening due to sire selection and overuse guarantees inbreeding and a steady increase in the occurrence of negative genetic issues. There is no getting around this.
The graph, appended below, shows the slow but steady rise in the coefficient of inbreeding among shelties. Similar rising graphs could be produced for most AKC breeds.
Coefficient of inbreeding, 1930-1993, for Shelties, showing trend line.
No population of animals is entirely absent negative recessive genes. Every population of animals contains at least two or three -- bits of fatal code that are "hard wired" into the makeup of the animal. A population of animals that appears to be "clean" is simply one that is still diverse enough that negative genes are not yet combining very often. If a small population is inbred long enough, negative genes will begin to express themselves.
The results of inbreeding are not a closely-held secret. Deuteronomy 27:22 reads: "Cursed be he that lieth with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of this mother..." Leviticus offers a similar admonition.
Human history too is a guide. Pick up any book about European royalty, and you can read about the idiot King Charles II of Spain, the product of generations of inbreeding by the Hapsburg family. This is a man whose face and chin were so distorted by the "Hapsburg Lip" that he could not eat without assistance. If his picture (appended below) makes you think of a Bulldog, Pekingese, Pug or Boston Terrier, you are not alone.
King Charles II of Spain -- a product of inbreeding in the Hapsburg line.
And yet inbreeding is not an option with the Kennel Club -- it is required. The option of outcrossing a Lakeland Terrier to a Fox Terrier is not possible within the confines of a closed registry, nor is the crossing of a Curly-coated retriever to a Flat-coated Retriever, or a Greyhound to a Saluki.
Along with an increase in the incidence of serious genetic problems within a closed-registry population, you have other problems that may not be clear to an individual pet owner, but which become obvious to those studying canine demographics: increased neo-natal mortality, shortened lifespans, and increased infecundity (dogs that are sterile or barren). All of these characteristics are endemic to deeply inbred populations, and are showing up with increased frequency in the Kennel Club.
In sled dogs, performance is king, and an open registry has proven critical to preserving honest pulling dogs with stamina, good feet, and heart.
How did the Kennel Club come to embrace a closed registry, and why does it maintain this system?
The adoption of a "closed registry" by the Kennel Club is an artifact of its history, while the continuation of this practice is driven by the economics of dog breeding and the political construct of the Kennel Club.
The Kennel Club was created in Victorian England in 1873, at a time when new theories about genetics were being promulgated by learned men who did not yet have a very good idea of what was going on in the natural world.
As noted in American Working Terriers, the "speciation" of domestic breeds of livestock began with the work of Robert Bakewell in the 18th Century, and the control of sires. Bakewell's work helped speed the rise of the Enclosure Movement, which in turn led to large estates, fox hunting, and the rise of terrier work.
Bakewell had no real knowledge of scientific genetics, and his breeding program was largely limited to the control of sires (made easier by enclosures) and the admonition that "like begats like" and that success was to be found by "breeding the best to the best".
The first stud book to document the breeding of animals was the General Stud Book of 1791 which tracked a small pool of racing horses. A stud book for Shorthorn Cattle was produced in 1822.
As more and more farmers followed the tenets of Robert Bakewell, sire selection became increasingly prevalent and inbreeding and line breeding more common. By selecting the best beef and milk producers, and pairing them, rapid improvements in cattle breeds were made.
When Charles Darwin returned from his five-year voyage on the Beagle in 1836, he discovered new breeds of cattle, sheep and pigeons displayed at livestock bench shows.
Over the next 23 years, Darwin ruminated about the aggressive livestock breeding he saw going on around him, and what isolation (enclosure) and selection (the frequent use of popular sires) might mean if some natural version of this phenomenon were driving the diversity of wildlife he had seen on his travels.
In 1859, after more than two decades of thought on the subject, Darwin published The Origin of Species -- the very year the first formal dog show was held in England.
Formal dog shows grew out of the livestock bench shows held by Robert Bakewell and his followers to display their new stock. With dogs, as with farm animals, it was soon discovered that by selecting types of dogs and genetically isolating them in kennels, homes or yards, and then inbreeding and line breeding them, a great deal of variety could be expressed.
In 1800, there were only 15 designated breeds of dogs, but by 1865 that number had grown to more than 50 and over the next 40 years it tripled yet again.
The rapid speciation of dogs that began in 1859 occurred just as Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, was taking Darwin's work and attempting to generalize it to man.
Both Darwin and Galton had noticed how many people in their own family were smart. Along with Charles Darwin and his biologist father, Erasmus Darwin, there was another grandfather who was a member of the Royal Society, and then there was Galton's own father, who was a banker. As for Galton, by the time he was four years old he could write, read any book in the English language, knew basic math (including the times tables), and had a passing hand in the basic rudiments of both Latin and French.
While at Cambridge, Galton noticed that intelligence seemed to run in other families as well. Students that did well at college had parents and sibling that also did well. From this observation Galton postulated that human intelligence was inherited, and he went to great lengths to test his theory, going so far as to invent important new statistical methods such as regression analysis and mathematical correlation.
Galton was an intellectual whirlwind responsible for advances in meteorology, psychology, and statistics (as well as inventing the silent dog whistle), but like all people he was fallible.
Galton's chief failure was that he did not understand that the elements used to create a breed could, if taken too far, lead to the breed's destruction. With an imperfect knowledge of genetics, Galton argued that "What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly," by a system he called "eugenics".
Galton postulated that if novel organisms, or "sports of nature" could be found, these sports could be enlisted to create a new breed through genetic isolation and inbreeding.
By engaging in a "positive" system of eugenics, superior individuals could be encouraged to breed more, and by engaging in a system of "negative" eugenics, inferior types could be culled from the line.
This was, to put it simply, Darwin' theory of evolution put into hyper-drive. Surely the direction would be forward, and the road forward would be without end?
Galton's theory of improvement-without-end was embraced by the early Kennel Club. The patina of science -- and a short track record of success on the farm -- lent credibility to the idea of a closed registry of "pure" stock.
On the surface, there was no reason to suspect the seeds of destruction were contained in the closed registry system itself. The work of Gregor Mendel was still undiscovered, and even when it was discovered (around 1900) a true understanding of the nature of negative recessive genes was many decades away.
A winning greyhound is never a bad or boring color.
Conformation dog shows, of course, simply speeded up the drive to homogeneity. The goal of the conformation show is conformity -- an entire class of cookie-cutter dogs that look as much alike as possible. This is most easily achieved by breeding champion to champion, culling the nonconforming, and then inbreeding and linebreeding to further distill the "type".
As a direct consequence of conformation shows, and the over-use of championship sires, the genetic bottleneck that began with the creation of every dog breed was further reduced.
In the beginning, it was hard for dog breeders to see what was going on. Breeders occasionally had a few health problems in their kennels, of course, but it was hard to see a pattern with so few animals tracked over a relatively few generations. If hip dysplasia, skin infections and cataracts "popped out," it was "just one of those things" and chalked up to a "bad cross" and bad luck.
The idea that the Kennel Club's closed registry system itself was to blame was a deeper thought than most folks were prepared to consider.
On the farm, things took a different turn. The inbreeding of farm stock began earlier than with dogs, but was no less intense.
Because farm herds are large and often kept by families for generations, farmers were able to "tease out" data indicating drops in production, increases in mortality, declining fecundity, and a steady rise in disease and illness.
Inbreeding, which had initially boosted production, now appeared to be reducing it.
Because farmers had a clear "steak and eggs" axis for evaluation of stock, they were ready and willing to outcross to achieve the best results for their needs and their land. Consumers, after all, do not much care what breed of chicken their eggs come from, or what "champion" bull sired their steak.
Through experimentation, farmers discovered that outcrosses and hybrids of two "pure" types produce as well or better, while remaining more disease resistant, more fecund, and longer-lived than deeply homogeneous stock.
What may appear to be a pure Angus (the most common breed of beef cattle in the world) is likely to have a wide variety of cattle genes coursing through its system. In fact, entire breeds of cattle are now kept solely for their outcross potential. On today's farms the cattle in the field may be Brangus (Brahman-Angus crosses), Braford (Brahmam-Hereford crosses), Beefmasters (a cross of Hereford, Shorthorn and Brahman), or any other combination or mix.
Farmers are not alone in favoring a certain degree of heterogeneity. In top winning race horses, a 5% coefficient of inbreeding is considered high. Though much is made of the stud fees paid for the services of retired winners, most of the offspring of these champion horses are not all that distinguished, and lighting is rarely caught twice in a bottle by the same breeder.
Genetic diversity is similarly valued by breeders of performance dogs such as racing greyhounds, working border collies, sled dogs, and working terriers. All of the working versions of these breeds, or types of dogs, are maintained with open registries. It is not an accident that Kennel Club greyhounds are not found at the track, that Kennel Club terriers are not found in the field, that Kennel Club sled dogs are not found on the Iditarod, or that Kennel Club border collies are not found on working sheep farms.
Ironically, it turns out that maintaining a breed and keeping it more-or-less heterogeneous is neither a contradiction nor a difficulty. The trick is simply to follow Mother Nature and to occasionally do true outcrosses to animals that are entirely outside of the gene pool being crossed into. In the case of cattle and chickens, this is commonly achieved by crossing in an animal of similar size and traits, but with a very different genetic history.
It surprises people to find out that Mother Nature does much the same thing. Most people assume a Mallard duck is a Mallard duck. Aren't all Mallards simply clones of each other?
Well, No. You see, ducks hybridize all the time. What appears to be a Mallard may, in fact, have a little Gadwall crossed into it, or a little Black Duck, or even a bit of Greenwinged duck tucked into its double-helix.
In the duck world, where success is defined in Darwinian terms, there are no closed registries. While animals within a species tend to mate with others of the species in the same area, new blood flies, walks or swims in all the time. In the case of ducks, it may even come from across the ocean -- or from an entirely different duck species.
The same effect occurs when young male fox, lions, and wolves are forced out of their natal territories, causing them to travel great distances to find unoccupied territories. A young male wolf sired in Wyoming may travel as far as Oregon before it "settles down" to rear its own family.
What is true for ducks is true for a lot of animals. Not only will individual animals often travel great distances to find unoccupied territories, they may also cross the species barrier as they do so. A wolf will mate with both a dog AND a coyote, while finches leap across the species barrier at the drop of a hat. A spotted owl will freely mate with a barred owl, while most amazon parrots freely cross breed. A lion can mate with a tiger and produce fertile offspring, and an African elephant can cross breed with an Asian elephant. A muskellunge will cross with a northern pike, and a sunfish will cross with a bluegill. Trout and salmon species readily hybridize. Many species of hawks and falcons will also cross the species line, while a buffalo will cross with a cow. Just last week a hunter in Alaska shot an animal that turned out to be a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly.
The point here is not that trans-species outcrosses are common, but that even between distinct species Mother Nature often runs her train "loose on the tracks," and a considerable amount of genetic wobble is allowed.
Mother Nature allows outcrosses because she values heterogeneous genes, while she punishes homogeneous genes by "culling" animals through a process of dwindling survivorship (neonatal mortality), shortened lifespans, and infecundity.
The facts outlined here are not closely held information and are supported by sound science. Why then has the Kennel Club not changed its policy?
The short answer is economics.
The Kennel Club is a huge money-making bureaucracy dependent upon selling people on the "exclusivity" of a closed registry and a scrap of paper that says a dog is a "pure breed". So long as people are willing to buy Kennel Club registered dogs that have predictably higher chances of serious physical impairments than cross-bred dogs, the Kennel Club (and Kennel Club breeders) have little motivation to change the way they do business.
Let me hasten to say that the Kennel Club is not filled with evil people intent on doing harm to dogs. It is, in fact, filled with regular people who are different from the rest of the world only in the degree (and the way) they seek ego-gratification and are status-seeking.
This last point is import: the Kennel Club is not primarily about dogs. Dogs do not care about ribbons, pedigrees, titles, and points. These are human obsessions. The reason a human will drive several hundred miles and stand around all day waiting for 10 minutes in the ring is not because of the dog, but because the human needs that ribbon, that title, and that little bit of extra status that comes from a win.
Each to his own, but let us be honest about what dog shows are about -- they are about ribbons for people. The dogs themselves could not give a damn.
It is unfair to fault individual breeders and breed clubs for the failures of the Kennel Club, as these smaller units are powerless to change the larger whole.
Breed clubs are small and largely impotent by design. Because the Kennel Club does not require breeders, pet owners, or even show ring ribbon-chasers to join a breed club as a condition of registration, these entities remain small, underfunded, and unrepresentative.
Breed clubs, like dog shows themselves, are also steeped in internecine politics and dominated by big breeders and people who over-value "conformation."
It is only by conforming to the AKC system for decades that anyone can hope to move up in the AKC hierarchy -- a situation that guarantees intellectual and bureaucratic inbreeding.
In the end, the AKC is a closed registry in every sense of that word. It continues to embrace the failed genetic theories of Victorian England because it is incapable of serious reform within the Club itself.
Is there a bright light anywhere? Yes and no.
Back in 1922, Sewell Wright, a famous early geneticist, devised a method of calculating a coefficient of inbreeding (COI). Under Wright's system, inbreeding coefficients ranging from 0% to 100% defined the percentage of a dog's genes that might be homozygous (note that this is a probability equation).
The equation was neat and discrete, as such things went, but incredibly complex and cumbersome in practice. Without mathematical training, an enormous stack of pedigrees, and at least a week's worth of hand calculation, a 10-generation coefficient of inbreeding was impossible to calculate. As a result, Wright's coefficient of inbreeding (COI) was not much used.
The good news is that in the modern era, thanks to the advent of the personal computer and the internet, it is now much easier to build a 10- or 20-generation pedigree using list-servs, email, and ready-made software.
Sadly, few breeders seem willing to do even this work -- and even fewer are willing to do what is right. Breeders hell-bent to make it in the show world continue to inbreed their dogs and consumers continue to buy their cast-offs, completely ignoring the fact that 25 percent of the time they are buying a heath care liability -- one that may cost them many thousands of dollars in veterinary care in a just a few years time.
On the positive side, more and more breeders are testing their dogs for hip dysplasia (OFA), eye problems (CERF), and deafness (BAER). Unfortunately, testing and culling alone are not a curative for genetic problems. In fact, culling large numbers of dogs from a gene pool only serves to further reduce the size of the gene pool. So long as you are operating within a closed registry, the engine of disaster is still on the tracks ... and only increasing its speed.
Within the Kennel Club, two breeds of dogs stand at polar opposites when coefficients of inbreeding are examined, and both of them are terriers [Marsha Eggleston, report on "Genetic Diversity" to the AKC's DNA Committee, 2002].
The Bull Terrier may be the most inbred of Kennel Club breeds, having first entered the Club with relatively few individual members and having, since then, been split into two color phases (colored and white) and two sizes (miniature and standard).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the "Parson" Russell Terrier. The "Parson" is a new entry to the Kennel Club and has benefited greatly from the large and diverse gene pool (and open-registry) of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA) from which most of the AKC dogs were only recently drawn.
The JRTCA remains the largest Jack Russell terrier club in the world.
The genetic diversity of the JRTCA is not an accident -- it is mandated. Under JRTCA rules, a dog cannot be registered if it has a Coefficient of Inbreeding of 16% or greater.
This is not a particularly low coefficient; it is more than for first cousins (12.5%).
Out-crosses to non-Russells are quite rare in the JRTCA, but such outcrosses are technically possible -- a genetic parachute individual breeders can use if needs arise -- or if a particular cross may be salient in order to increase the working traits (size, nose, voice, gameness, tractability) in a particular line. The progeny of such an outcross may or may not be registered with the JRTCA, depending on the look of the dog.
Some controversy has arisen over whether the Parson Russell Terrier and the JRTCA dogs are, in fact, the same animal with different names. While some folks continue to quibble over the status of individual dogs that may have been dual-registered at the time of the split a few years back, there can be little doubt that there are now two distinct breeds. Not only are there two registries (one of which is closed and locked), but there are also two breed standards which only partly overlap. With the absence of small dogs, and an "ideal" AKC dog listed as 14" tall, the average Kennel Club animal is quickly getting larger, and as a consequence it is quickly losing utility in the field.
In closing, it is worth recounting where "race improvement," through eugenics, took Darwin and the rest of the world.
It seems Charles Darwin was interested in maintaining the 'genetic superiority' of his own bloodline and so he married his first cousin. From this marriage, Darwin produced ten children.
Of Darwin's four daughters, one girl, Mary, died shortly after birth; another girl, Anne, died at the age of ten years from Scarlet Fever; while his eldest daughter, Henrietta, had a serious and prolonged breakdown at age fifteen.
Of Darwin's six sons, three suffered such frequent illness that Darwin considered them semi-invalids, while his last son, Charles Jr., was born mentally retarded and died nineteen months after birth.
Of Darwin's adult children, neither William Darwin, Elizabeth Darwin, Leonard Darwin or Henrietta Darwin had children of their own -- a startling high incidence of infecundity.
Of the three children that grew up reasonably unafflicted physically and mentally, Leonard Darwin went on to serve as chairman of the Eugenics Society (serving from 1911 to 1928) where he used the value of his father's name to lecture the world about "good breeding."
He too married his first cousin.
It was the Eugenics Society, under Leonard Darwin, that popularized the "Great Idea" of improving man through selective breeding and encouraged a program of state-sponsored negative eugenics.
Model laws, popularized by the Eugenics Society, advocated the mandatory sterilization of the retarded and the feeble-minded. Within a few decades, Europe was rounding up of entire classes of "mongrel" people of "low breeding" and shipping them off to be disposed of in the ovens.
Through it all, the Kennel Club has held fast, never wavering from its closed registry system, and never doubting the value of an aggressive system of eugenics centered on looks and appearance alone.
Never mind that science, data, or experience has shown that a closed registry serves neither human utility nor canine health.
Never mind the dog.
The dog, after all, has never been what what the Kennel Club has been all about.