So you want to be a Preservation Breeder? “Best of Health” article August 2020 in Our Dogs

Over the past few months, I’ve heard a few conversations and seen online discussions where the term “Preservation Breeder” has been used. This seems to have originated from the USA and there’s a useful YouTube video on the AKC Channel from the 2019 American Kennel Club Delegate Meeting. The presentation defines Preservation(ist) Breeders as those who are preserving breed type and chronicling their heritage and history over the decades and centuries through their individual AKC parent clubs.

The presentation describes “purposefully bred purebred dogs” that are “intentionally bred for predictable type, health and welfare” as opposed to randomly bred dogs that are “brought into this world with no predicated welfare for their existence”. There’s a strong emphasis on the fact that preservationists carry out health testing and a claim that research and the development of DNA markers make purebred dogs on track to be the healthiest colony in the world. I don’t intend to debate that point here, but I have previously written about why “health-tested” is not the same as “healthy”.

Preservationist breeders are also described as being accountable because they carefully vet potential puppy-buyers and will, invariably, take dogs back at any stage of life. The fact that breed clubs also run a network of rescue organisations is a further demonstration of the accountability for their breed. Here in the UK, Kennel Club Breed Rescue organisations re-home approximately 10,000 dogs each year and for over 25 years the KC has published a rescue directory to list the many general and breed rescue organisations that exist around the country. KC Breed Rescue is certainly up there with the more well-known organisations but probably doesn’t get the same publicity and recognition for the work of so many volunteers. 

Some of the challenges described in the AKC video are equally relevant in the UK. “A sub-culture focused on exhibiting dogs, rather than breeding them” is interesting because I have also written about the negative consequences of breeder/exhibitors placing endorsements on their puppies. If show-breeders do not encourage others to breed, even if they are just for “pet homes”, the registered gene-pool will get smaller. Not only that, but none of us are getting any younger and an ageing population of exhibitors risks cutting off the next generation of enthusiasts and preservation breeders. We no longer have the big breeding kennels and the days of the many knowledgeable stockmen and women are surely long gone. The AKC video talks about a lack of breed club and breeder education; without a good understanding of canine genetics and breeding strategies, how can clubs make decisions or recommendations that will actually enable the preservation of their breeds?

Scientific no-brainers

Recently, the Chihuahua breed clubs presented a case to the KC for allowing cross-variety matings (Smooth and Long-coated). There is one allele difference between the smooth and long-coated varieties but this decision has the potential to avoid genetic bottlenecks in the breed and creates more options to improve health for future generations. Scientifically, this is a no-brainer decision for any preservation breeder and it was approved by the KC. Decisions to subdivide breeds into varieties does inevitably mean the gene pool will be narrower and breed preservation will be more challenging than if all varieties were considered to be part of one breed. The Chihuahuas will, of course, continue to be judged as 2 separate varieties at shows.

I’ve also written previously about breeds as genetic pools and this is a way of thinking that is particularly relevant for someone who wants to be considered as a preservation breeder. Bloodlines and varieties within a breed may be useful additional sources of genetic diversity. Bloodlines are usually linked to a particular breeder or kennel and may be historically distinct or exhibit a distinct type within an overall breed. The risk, of course, is that certain bloodlines become “flavour of the month”, maybe as a result of show success and this can lead to the genetically unhelpful strategy of breeders flocking to use a so-called Popular Sire. The genetic diversity of a breed then becomes swamped by a particular bloodline and little or nothing of other bloodlines may survive.

Preservation in other species

In my research for this article, I read one of Carol Beuchat’s blog posts where she described preservation and conservation programmes in other species. Notably, she said that there are preservation programmes for every species of domestic animal except dogs. She asked how many breeds of dogs are sliding down the slope towards extinction as a result of small population size, inbreeding and genetic disease? She concluded that we don’t really know but also noted that there are many breeds for which their original purpose no longer exists but they may simply remain as pets and companions. Carol said “we haven’t been thinking about them as having “genetic value”, as a resource that we should be managing and protecting like other natural resources”. To do this, we will need thousands of preservation breeders; it’s a task that goes far beyond the current scale of show breeders and breed clubs. The main task for preservation breeders, therefore, is genetic management and they will need to take a long-term view of what’s best for their breed. There may even be an argument for using the term conservation breeders and drawing on the many lessons we can learn from programmes in other species.

In another blog post, Carol says: “If we start with a population of healthy dogs and want to keep them that way, there’s one critical thing we need to do – make sure every single one of the “dog” genes – the ones necessary to build a healthy dog – is passed on to dogs in the next generation, generation after generation after generation. ​​Fiddle with the genes for type all you want, but you have to protect that original collection of “dog” genes that are necessary for building dogs that are healthy and fit to do what they were bred for”.

So, if you want to be a Preservation Breeder, it’s clear that preserving the status quo is the wrong mindset. Your focus must be on preserving type, health and temperament by clever population management. We can take advantage of genes from other sub-populations such as working dogs that could contribute to show populations (and vice versa), or by importing non-UK dogs, or by looking at genetic diversity that could come from different varieties of the same breed.

Protect the genes you have, and replace the ones that are lost, and you can breed healthy dogs forever.” – Carol Beuchat

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