Jessica Hekman: Welcome to the Functional Breeding Podcast. I’m Jessica Hekman, and I’m here interviewing folks about how to breed dogs for function and for health: behavioral and physical. This podcast is brought to you by the Functional Dog Collaborative, an organization founded to support the ethical breeding of healthy, behaviorally sound dogs. FDC’s goals include providing educational, social, and technical resources to breeders of both purebred and mixed breed dogs. You can find out more at www.functionalbreeding.org, or at the Functional Breeding Facebook Group, which is a friendly and inclusive community. I hope you have fun and learn something.
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Jessica Hekman: Hi, friends. Today I’m talking to Jane Russenberger. Jane is the Senior Director of Genetics and Breeding at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of the largest guide dog schools in the United States. Over her decades working at Guiding Eyes for the Blin,d Jane has shepherded a population of hundreds of guide dogs, mainly Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds, in the direction of increasingly solid genetic foundations for doing their jobs. Her depth of knowledge is incredible so I hope you get as much out of this conversation as I did.
JH: So thanks so much, Jane. I really appreciate your coming on the podcast. To start out, why don’t you tell everybody about just what dogs you live with?
Jane Russenberger: Sure. Right by my feet I have two of them: Lucy who’s a yellow lab. And we got her because a friend died, and Lucy came to live with us. And she just spends all her time within inches of me and she’s great. She’s about nine years old. And then over to my right is Roo. She’s a German shepherd who is Guiding Eyes for the Blind brood. And upstairs we have Mabel who is a black Labrador. She’s about five years old and Roo’s about two and a half.
JH: So you have good energy levels at your house then.
JR: Oh, they’re all really pleasant. And I can’t even imagine life without a dog. And I need to have at least one or two by my feet. (laughter)
JH: And I should say that I’ve been to Jane’s house and the dogs make you feel very welcome and not overwhelmed at all. They’re really, really lovely dogs. And so Jane mentioned Guiding Eyes for the Blind. That’s where you work, so you want to tell us a little bit about what it is and what it does.
JR: Sure, Guiding Eyes for the Blind is kind of the love of my life. I’ve been at Guiding Eyes for 30…I’m going into my 33rd year now. I started as the manager of the entire Canine Development Center, which is in Patterson, New York. Our headquarters are located about a half hour south of that near the Westchester, New York area. And that would be in Yorktown Heights, New York, as I mentioned.
We place about 160 Guide Dogs a year with people who are blind and visually impaired in the US and Canada, and occasionally to other countries. And what I, or what the job of the Canine Development Center has been and continues to be – well right now with the COVID, of course, it’s a little challenging – but is to produce the puppies, mostly German shepherds and Labradors. And I’d say it’s really mostly Labradors, and a few German Shepherds, who are going to be raised and trained and then placed. The follow up for the lifetime of the dogs is through the training department. We produce the puppies, and make sure the dogs are really well managed through their lifetime, and the biggest job is selecting the breeders.
JH: Yes, which is definitely what I want to be talking to you about today for sure. And that’s and so you said what your job title was, but sort of day to day, a lot of what you do is select the breeders, yeah.
JR: Yeah, my focus now, over the years, managing the whole process of getting the puppies up to training period has been split up and is now under the direction of different people because of what you can do in genetics now versus what we had way back when we didn’t even have computers.
So in 1988 the facility, anywhere in Guiding Eyes, had no computer, just a typewriter, a fax machine and a phone. So everything was kept on paper. And paper is not a way to make great breeding decisions because you’re trying to keep it all in your head. And I had index cards and everything else, and charts and, and so forth. And I really felt for any private breeder who’s out there trying to make better dogs because I went all over the US looking for really great Labradors. And there were wonderful breeders who helped me out and I got the insights as to really how they have to struggle to keep the best dogs at their fingertips so they can go back and select the best for breeding. The best is usually because you’ve done progeny testing. So all the dog shows, the working tests, and all the things that everybody spends their time gathering information for, is no different than a guide dog school.
So what we would be doing is collecting data, trying to figure out what makes a good guide dog. Back then we didn’t have very many analytics because there weren’t computers. So you talk to everybody, you try to figure it out. And I can tell breeders out there that there’s far better ways now that are available, and you don’t have to be in the 80s. You can move ahead. And those are actually coming to be available for even private breeders, but certainly in the guide and service dog field.
JH: Yeah, we’re definitely going to talk a lot about that. But I don’t want to forget to ask the question that was in my mind as you were talking about this, which is what exactly were you looking for when you were looking for Labs, and I presume German Shepherds as well? Like, what characteristics were you looking for at that point?
JR: Yeah, so the qualities of a guide dog are dogs who are confident. They can handle anywhere from New York City to seeing a horse or cow. And it could be any kind of surprise or noise or stress. And the stress of working… if you ever were a guide to a blind person, and we do that just to give people practice to kind of get a feel for the responsibility that a dog has by having another person blindfolded. So for the fun of it, do that and walk for five minutes through a house and outside and you’ll realize what the dog’s role is. It is to keep the person safe, not be distracted, be very attentive, and be very confident. So you need a steady dog, you need one that’s friendly, not afraid, but you don’t want them jumping on people and getting too excited. And certainly not chasing the squirrels and so forth as things happen. And a dog who can have a change in environment, that they’re the same guy or girl wherever they are, whether they go to the vet’s, or they go somewhere else. So those are not usually the average dog. There are some great Labradors, but what we’d have to do, no matter the finest breeder we got them from, we’d need to select for the traits that really are what I just mentioned.
JH: Yeah. So did you call up breeders and ask them and they knew about those traits for their dogs? Or were you going to shows or field trials and looking? Or how did you find them?
JR: All of the above (laughter). And, of course, we had our own breeding colony. It was fairly small at the time, and we needed to increase. So the best way we were successful was to collaborate. So way, way back in 1991, we did the first collaboration in the U.S. with another school in California, and our brood went to go visit their stud and we split the litter in half. And the success rate was tremendous. Because for generations, just like if you’re trying to create a gun dog or whatever the field you’re trying to create your dogs for, you worked at that. And a school that has been working on it for many, many generations is going to be far more of a match in what you’re trying to produce. So yeah, data, data, data, data. That’s that’s how you do it. And, you know, I knew initially I had to gather it, like I said, on paper, but going to the right sources where the dogs are genetically more alike to what you’re looking for is key.
JH: Yes. So you mentioned success rate. What was your success rate like at the time, back in the 80s?
JR: One dog out of five would make it.
JH: Wow, that is not very many! And you’re doing better now, though.
JR: Oh, far better. So the success rate really soared when we started to use estimated breeding values. The difference between doing what’s called progeny testing, that means you’re breeding the breeders and waiting for the puppies to grow up. In our field, it takes two years. So you have to wait for your hip and elbow x-rays, you’ve got to get enough data on the skin and whatever other health traits, but we also need to know that they can guide a person successfully. And that means we have to put them through training and actually put them out.
So by the time you have, what I learned was about 21 puppies, once you get past, well let’s just call it 20, the data for the dog I’m progeny testing tends to be pretty consistent. But if you are getting just one litter’s worth, and that’s maybe going to take you two years to get that. If you think that one match might have worked out good, but if you get data from three different litters, you’re getting a pretty good range of what that dog’s producing.
And if you think timewise, you’re talking about now a four year old dog or maybe a little older, and you’ve got to save dogs, puppies, from this individual along the way, or at least from somebody, and you don’t really know how good they’re going to produce until they’re almost done with a career.
So, progeny testing was the way, well pretty much the way, most people do their work. They look at the outcomes, and then hope that they’ve saved enough of the children along the way, the progeny as breeders, so they can go on. So the big difference is, you can actually predict from data by using statistics, which dogs are genetically likely to produce the best, before they even have puppies. So that’s really how the selection changed for us. And when we did that, the success rate went up considerably. So we stayed pretty much at that 20%, five to one, then we got to four to one. And then now, these days, we go between 2.1, so a little over two dogs to each dog successful, up to about 2.8. So we keep driving it down each few years, you can see the trend downward. I think probably two to one may be the max, I don’t know. It’s possible, we could do even better than that.
JH: Yeah, it’s definitely hard to get that solid phenotype that you want when it’s a behavioral phenotype and just stick with it over time and have it not change.
JR: Yeah, and what’s really interesting, if you’re a guide dog user, you yourself, and then think of three people you know, they’re probably gonna need different dogs. So one size does not fit all. So we’re breeding for a variety of types, not only in working speed, so how fast do they walk, what environment they’re going to work in. Some people like an independent dog, other people want a dog who’s a little more close by and is more sensitive, where other people might be a little more gruff, not in their handling, but just their nature, so they can’t take a sensitive dog. So in general, it’s a range that we have to choose. But they all have to be those traits I mentioned before, not distracted, etc.
JH: Yes, you have to maintain variation in some traits while still trying to push hard on the other traits that you want. So it’s a lot of stuff to balance. So you mentioned estimated breeding values, which is sort of the heart of what you do, right? So do you want to try to give an overview of what that is for folks?
JR: Sure. Estimated breeding values are estimates, or an idea. I think of it like you look under the hood, and you can see what’s there. So it’s kind of like an inside picture of what the genes are, that are present in that dog, which will give you an idea how will that dog produce compared to another dog in the group that you’re looking at.
So you estimate these from the data. So in general, you’re collecting, for us it would be (data on) skin allergy, hip quality, confidence with noise, body sensitivity. So you’d have all the data and you put it all together, and you’ll end up with a number. And that’s literally what an EBV is. It’s a number that tells you about the genetic merit. It’s ranked from highest to lowest, so the dogs at… In most cases if your scores are high scores, meaning that good is a high score, the dogs at the top are going to be your best dogs genetically. So you think of an EBV as just a way of seeing which dogs are the genetically best dogs among the dogs that you’re considering for breeding around the time you’re getting the data from everybody from screening.
JH: And how’s that different from progeny testing, because you were talking about progeny testing and looking specifically at direct offspring before?
JR: The biggest difference is the timing of it. The fact that you can direct the change, and you can make it much more quickly. So if you think of progeny testing, you’re waiting for data to accumulate from multiple litters. I mentioned, for us, it was about three litters worth of data. And you have to wait for that, then you look at the resulting offspring and decide which parent, looking at all the data, is actually producing better and which children, or progeny, actually look better than the others based on the data. So the ones that are not only parents producing the best hips, but who has the best hips among the dogs that you are actually considering?
But you’re not just trying to balance hips. So I feel for any breeder who has to stay with phenotype breeding, because you’re waiting for the progeny. You’re trying to balance however many traits, and you can’t, there’s no dog, there’s no perfect dog that has everything you’re looking for. And if they do, there’s no guarantee they’re going to produce it. So that’s your progeny testing and your phenotype selection. Whereas the EBVs, you have this group of dogs, you get the data, and you can say these dogs have the best chance. Now I’ll screen them and see, you know, further, which ones have the best semen, which ones are whatever else you’re looking for, maybe conformation or something else that that matters. Among this pool of dogs, which are the best?
JH: Yeah, and so basically, what it comes down to is that you can have a dog who is very much the thing that you’re looking for, so maybe super, super resilient. But what you don’t know by looking at that dog is how good he’s going to be at passing it on. So it might be that he, and I’ve had these conversations before, it might be that he had a really fantastic puppy raiser. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with his genetics.
JR: Right, totally. There’s two parts to what you observe in a phenotype. There’s the genetic aspect, you know, what is in their genes that are giving you kind of the potential, and then the environment. So the environment plays, in most of the traits that we look at, the majority of the role. So many of our, let’s say, skin allergies, that’s between about 30 to 33% heritable. So we can explain heritability in a minute. But the 33% heritable means that there’s a lot of either noise, unknown or it’s the environment. So the exposure to allergens, the diet, you name it. There could be many, many factors. Same thing with behavior. So in our colony, the fear of noises is about 20% heritable. Yet thunderstorm fear is much higher, it’s in the 60% heritable range. So if a dog has thunderstorm fear, you can do things with the environment, you can’t do as much as you could with noise. So everybody kind of knows that if you can give early socialization, pups will be more confident than they would have been otherwise with noise.
JH: And building these things up also is not just about getting the offspring. It’s about having all this data from the parents and the other relatives, right? And so that’s part of why you can do it faster without having to wait for progeny.
JR: Yeah, yeah.
JH: But then how hard is it to do that? How hard is it to collect that data and put it all together?
JR: So we’ve learned all the methods from Dr. Eldin Leighton in the sense of how to use EBVs. And Guiding Eyes for the Blind has worked on how to most efficiently collect behavior data and store that and learn what tests are good and, and so forth. So as far as health things go, just to mention those quickly, there are certain kinds of tests that are better than others. And so the PennHIP, for instance, is far more heritable than the OFA or FCI hip measure. So you can get a good result that you can rely on, or measure that you can rely on, even after six months old. Whereas everyone knows that the OFA, or any extended view hip, is not so good until later. And it still is not as heritable because you’re only looking at one aspect of the hip joint, not the laxity.
So if you think of the measures, and so forth, we at Guiding Eyes have been able to teach other people the systems that we’ve used for behavioral scoring across the world. So how hard is it? It’s not that hard if you have good systems, you have methods to teach others, videos, if you have guidelines on health about what’s the right stuff. There is an expense, of course, to getting those data for a private breeder, or even a guide dog school, but it’s well worth it if you think of the investment you’re going to have in the dogs in the future, to do the tests that are necessary.
JH: So it’s two parts. So first of all, you have to have a good test. And so for the health data, as you say there’s understanding which tests are the best tests. Then there’s behavioral tests, which are a whole ‘nother beast, which we should definitely talk about. And then there’s what you do with the data once you’ve collected it. We should definitely also talk about that. So what do you think, behavioral tests next?
JR: Sure. So we spent years— I’ve been doing behavior tests since about 1983, trying to figure out what we can learn early and longitudinally. So I was working at another guide dog school prior to Guiding Eyes and carried over what I had learned and played around with and so forth. Behavioral tests can be very good. We have on the International Working Dog Breeding Association site, which is www.iwdr.org, a section on behavior and it does have the adult test. We’re going to be putting a puppy test on there as well, and it’s free to access and so forth.
But you need to have very consistent measures that actually measure what the traits are that you need to know about. And you need to not only conduct them consistently, but record the data in a manner that is telling you something by the data scale, and also with definitions. So the tests themselves are critical.
We at Guiding Eyes use a puppy test at around seven and a half weeks, and we use early socialization information as well, to score the dogs, because one measure when they’re young, they’re changing so much, is not that great. At four months and eight months and 13 months are ideal ages to also collect measures, but that would be with the puppy raiser. And we use one scoring system called the Behavior Checklist, which we can talk about later. But throughout we’re scoring the dogs in a similar way, the same definitions. But the observation situation is changing, of course, between a puppy test that’s inside a room and taking a dog for a walk with the puppy raiser in an appropriate environment.
And then we do another test. And that’s a test, I was mentioning again, is on the IWDR site, called the GDBart test. And these tests give us information about their reaction to all the things we’re looking for that you can do inside a building, obviously, some limitations there. And then we get observations while the dog’s working, so the trainers fill out observations. So all of these can be called tests or observations.
JH: Yeah, one of the things I love about the way you guys do it is that you combine the two different approaches. So you both have the expert, trained person who knows how to do the test, assessing the dog. And obviously, the problem with that is that the dog may be different on different days. And so you fill in that data by also asking whoever knows the dog, right? Either the staff who’s been in there while the puppy’s being raised on site, or the puppy raiser, or the trainer, whoever.
JR: Yeah, other than the GDBart test. That’s the only one where we’ll score just what we see that day. But as far as all the other observations, it’s really important to realize that you should use multiple observations at that time period, within a month or so what’s going on with the dog.
JH: So you’re both using those tests to make immediate decisions, right? So you use the seven and a half week old test to make an immediate decision about, “Are we gonna, this puppy is really not suited for this program and we’re gonna downgrade them to maybe an assistance dog program or even a pet home.” But you’re also using the tests to hang on to that information later for breeding decisions.
JH: Yeah. And so one of the things that I found really interesting was when you and I talked in the past about the heritability of these same measures at different points in a dog’s life. And I know heritability can be a really hard concept for people to grasp. And it’s something that I struggled with, for I think, several years before I felt really comfortable with it. (laughter) And it’s still really hard for me to explain it to other people. But maybe having this exact example will be helpful. So if you measured, so what do you want to say like, body sensitivity, right? So maybe you can tell us a little bit about what body sensitivity is. And then if you measure it at different stages, then if the heritability is different at different stages, then what does that mean? Because I think a lot of people will be like, well, if there’s a genetic component, then how can that change at different parts of the dog’s life? Because the genes aren’t changing, right?
JR: Right. So first, I’ll explain that heritability is the amount of variance or differences you can observe between individuals that’s due to genes. So if you think of that as the definition, you’re trying to parse out, statistically, what do you see in that? We’ll go through body sensitivity. So if you put a little harness on a puppy, a little baby-sized harness, and they circle around and roll…
JH: You guys do that by the way (laughter).
JR: It’s really cute. (laughter) And so you do that, and what does that mean? Is it genetically the same genes that are controlling that same type of observation that you see when they’re, let’s say, 10 months old? If you put a guide dog harness on the dog, and then you do it again, when you’re testing the dog during our GDBart test, what you can find…
Well, first of all, what are you going to observe? You’re going to observe for a dog who is very comfortable, pretty much nothing. They notice that you put it on just as any dog would if you put a leash on the dog, or collar, they just go on and do their thing. That’s a dog who has absolutely no sensitivity towards it.
However, there are other dogs who have body harness sensitivity. So there are two different traits here: body and harness. Some dogs you put the harness handle on their back, and they drop down, crouching very low in their rear quarters, because they don’t like the feel of the harness. So obviously, we wouldn’t make the dog do that. We just test them and see.
And then there are dogs who have what we call body sensitivity in general. Where harness sensitivity is like a subset, I guess you could say, is a very specific thing. We’re looking for dogs, who you put the harness on, they just kind of freeze, or they walk a little sideways, or they do a lot of stress-related body language like tongue flicking, and their ears will go back and they’ll start panting and slowing down, changing their state, their emotional state. So it can be so severe, like I mentioned, that some dogs literally freeze, if you have the most severe cases.
So with baby puppies what we’ve learned from looking at them is they change. Dogs who are showing, let’s say, a moderate amount might not be moderate when they’re older. It does not seem, it’s also not that highly genetically correlated. So what we’ve learned over time is by getting measures at multiple time periods you can see which is the best age, because of the dog’s physical and mental development. What tells you the most about genes, about the genetic contribution of the genes, I should say, as to the variation that you see.
So what we did learn is that the “In For Training” test… The time that they’re about 15 months old, they come in, that’s what we called the GDBart test earlier. That one’s been the ideal time period to get a very consistent measure and the dogs seem to stick with that behavior that we see with some behavior modification and training. So it’s the most heritable.
JH: Right, exactly. So you would say that the heritability of that particular trait that you’re interested in is lower at eight weeks of age.
JH: It’s higher at 15 months.
JR: It’s much higher, yes. So what you can observe is that the variation between dogs is higher. So the estimated heritability is higher, because you can actually measure that. When they’re younger, it seems like it’s a developmental aspect or we’re not measuring it right. There’s so many things that can mess up your measures. Like we mentioned, the hip x-rays, if the vets aren’t reading the hips right, they could be giving you wrong answers and it’s not going to be very heritable either. So some of it could be the dog’s development. Or it could be how you’re doing the measure.
JH: Yeah, but it’s definitely a relevant question for a lot of people who have these dogs at eight weeks of age. And I mean, you have the same problem, as you want to know which one to hang on to, to keep in your breeding program. And when you send them out, you can’t necessarily get them back. And it’s tough that at seven and a half or eight weeks, you want to be able to do the test and know, this is the dog that I want to keep.
JR: Yeah. What we did find, though, is certain traits are highly heritable, or more heritable, when the pups are younger. So something we call “activated with stress.” So if you think about a pup or a dog that is at the vets, and they’re stressed, they’re bouncing all around, they’re panting, their ears are back, they don’t want to be there. And there are a few others that go in the corner and shake and or they want to be in their owner’s lap. But I always when I go to the vet, you can count on one of the dogs being activated with stress. So I think it’s familiar to everybody. That trait, if you place the pup under some level of stress, just being in a new room could be stressful, or making a noise that’s appropriate but might bother the dog, you can see those signs and that is about 35 or so 33-35% heritable. And it’s a great time because the environment hasn’t had that much impact on the dog.
So there are traits that you can see at a young age. But like I said, everything can change in time because of the environment, but if you’re trying to select genetically the best puppies, there is some value in puppy tests if you have enough data. And of course, remember, all breeds are different, all colonies are different. Just because I’ve stated these observations in our analysis at Guiding Eyes does not mean it’s going to be the same in your colony or with your tests.
JH: Right. And so I just had a realization that maybe the way of saying it, because when we talk about heritability, everybody likes thinking about it in terms of, “This is the amount of the personality that’s controlled by genetics,” which is not the right way to think about it. And thinking about how heritability changes at different ages makes that clear. But maybe the way to think about it is that heritability is really partly about how well we can measure what’s going on genetically. Right? So…
JR: Hmm…well, yes, and no. I think, you know, heritability will be higher where you get very clear measures. But always remember that, so someone who is listening, knows that it’s really the measure of variation between the individuals. But if it’s really low, you need to verify, you know, look at literature and say, “Have others found higher heritability with this trait? Well, if I’m not getting something somewhat similar it could be my measure.” So what you’re saying is correct that the estimate of heritability, the actual calculation of how much a trait is heritable, can be messed up by bad measures.
JH: Yeah, for sure. Actually, maybe we should talk now about your tests. And so one of the things that I know that you’ve been trying to do is to put out there in the working dog world and the guide and assistance dog world, the ability for everybody to come together and use the same test, the same behavioral test, such that it’s easier for one client. Because as you just said, you have all these measurements for your colony. And what that measurement is, is not exactly about the genes. It’s also partly about the environment that the dog is raised in and it’s also partly about how you do the test. And so in order to be able to know, when you’re bringing in a dog from another colony into your breeding colony, what you’re getting, you would like for them to have been able to have done a test that is pretty similar to the kinds of tests that you do so that you’re comparing apples to apples. Although it really is kind of still apples to oranges a little bit. But do you want to talk a little bit about your efforts there?
JR: Sure. So there’s two real goals to… because Guiding Eyes is a very large program. We’re producing, you know, 500 puppies a year. We place some, as I mentioned, with service dog organizations, and the others are for our program. But you take a really small school, they can’t even do, and this would be like a private breeder, you can’t do any kinds of estimated breeding values, and calculate heritability on a trait without having lots of data. So in order for, like we just talked about. You built a great foundation, Jessica. That an understanding that the measures have to be good. And they do have to be pretty much the same test that you’re running in order to combine the data and make it be useful for analysis.
And the efforts that we’ve done are to create that website I mentioned, www.iwdr.org. The behavior section you’ll find, where there’s videos that describe the different scoring systems. There’s something called the Behavior Checklist, developed by Dr. James Serpell, to go along with the C-BARQ, that he also has developed a questionnaire on behavior. And the Behavior Checklist has a specific five point scale for most traits. And so we’ve got definitions and videos to go with that. The test itself was developed by a group of guide dog organizations over a few years and fine tuned and now adopted. So we go to different organizations, or do workshops to the world, by Zoom and also in person, as we mentioned, and we’ve got the online way of being able to have people download and get the protocols. So that’s been really helpful.
We also are working with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, the IAABC, to create a website where folks can actually become certified in that they were accurately scoring. So it’s not a certification of their quality, other than the fact that they do have the same score as a standard scorer or a gold standard scorer. That’s very helpful because you need people consistently scoring as well as running the test correctly.
JH: Nice. Yeah, I had heard a little bit about that. That is very cool that that’s moving forward. Do you think that the test would be useful to people breeding other types of dogs aside from guide/assistance dogs?
JR: Well, it’s been interesting. So we’ve been working a little bit with some of the military and detection, mostly detection fields, and rather than military, the police. And it’s been interesting that they have very, very common overlap in some traits. But clearly, the particular field of work you’re in, you must have additional tests, additional ways of looking at performance. So a guide dog, we do the same thing. We look for the core behaviors: the confidence, the body sensitivity, and many of the other aspects that are in the Behavior Checklist. I think there’s a lot of overlap that could be very useful to people.
JH: Cool. So we’ve talked about how you gather all this behavioral and health data. And then we’ve talked about how you generate an EBV. And I think at this stage, people are probably still feeling like an EBV is kind of a vague concept to them beyond that it is a number. So how do you go from the data to the EBV?
JR: Yes, so I remember, oh, it seemed like such a mystery thing. Well, first of all, when I was a kid, I would work at a dairy farm. And I would just pore through those, it was Eastern AI, for the Holstein cattle, and you’d have all these beautiful bulls and these numbers that ranked the bull. And I was just fascinated by this. I was probably 12 or so, and in that general age range where I was just like, “Wow, this is so cool.” And I was just passionate about wanting to become a part of that.
And you could see the qualities of the cattle. You could see the milk production, and you could see the topline, all these traits. Well, what the cattle did, and this was back in the 50s, is they started collecting the data. The different farms would send it into the universities and then statistically, someone was super smart, built these computer programs the USDA funded, to make estimated breeding values. And it’s just basically, give them the data, and they first estimate the heritability, how much is the trait heritable? Well, if it’s not very heritable, forget it, you’re not going to be able to select that. And so if it’s zero, or even like 5% heritable, it’s not really going to be all that great, not a big return on your effort to collect all that data. But if it is highly heritable, then they move on to the next step. And that’s the calculation of these numbers that I talked about, these estimated breeding values. And it’s done by software. Basically, many universities have done the livestock industry, but the International Working Dog Registry has been created to be able to calculate estimated breeding values for guide and service dog and other working dog programs, and hopefully, eventually, even breeders.
So the one that’s in there right now is the PennHIP. So you get the calculation, just simply automatically. If you’re the end user, you put in your data, out comes the calculation. And it’s really, really neat, because you can see the ranking of how well your dog ranks compared to other dogs in your colony. And if your dog is, let’s say, 90% ranking, ninetieth percentile, and the other dog that you considering for breeding—and you’re only looking at PennHIP—is only 60 percentile, and they might both have very good PennHIP ratings themselves, but their relatives don’t have that many, they have more laxity. So the one with the 60 is not going to produce as well as the one that’s 90% ranked. And as the population gets better and better over time, what’s now your 90% may end up being your 70% or 60. And you know, it just gets better and better and better over time.
JH: Yes, I think that’s the critical point is that there’s that initial gathering of all of that data, right? Like you have to first have this understanding of the population. And that’s sort of what we talked about as building an EBV for the population, for the trait, and the population.
JH: Then there’s the individual, right? So there’s this concept that we have to gather all the data first, which is the hard part for most people (laughter). And then once you have a specific individual, you can then go look at, as you said both, “What does he look like in this particular trait,” which is maybe hip quality, but also, “How do all his relatives who are in this database look,” and then that will give you this number that says, “Well, yeah, his hips look really great. But that was just luck, right? He’s unlikely to pass that on genetically.”
JR: Yep. So what we do is, once you get to have EBVs, you can combine the EBVs into something you call a selection index. So you weight them, and say I really want to improve confidence a lot, and my hips are really pretty good. So I’ll leave my hip quality in my index, but only give it a little piece of the pie. And I’ll give some of the other traits like body sensitivity or, or noise fear, or ability to handle stress might get bigger a piece of the pie, or skin allergy or something. And you weight that and one overall number comes out.
And so in a working dog colony, you actually will look at all the puppies in your puppy program and look at their index, their overall index of how genetically good they are for the traits you said were good for you to have, and you wanted to improve on, and then you… Think of it like a bunch of fish in the sea. And you’re going to make a big pool and say this pool out of all the fish I have, let’s say you have, maybe not all the fish, let’s make it smaller, and say you got 100 fish, and let’s see which hundred fish have the highest index. So that might be 10 of the fish. So you’re gonna put them in a pool, and they’re genetically the best. And then among those, we can see which dogs actually, by doing their actual hip x-rays and testing them with the GDBart test, etc, you can see which of those individuals are truly the best ones to keep out of that group. And you look at the whole dog, because you have to remember that you have to have good reproduction, and good conformation and other things that matter to everyone. And you also have to think of genetic diversity. So the ones that are top ranked are probably closely related to each other. So not everything you keep is going to be your 90, hundredth percentile or 97th. But that’s the beauty when I was talking about other schools and other breeders. You can find diversity of similarly good dogs if you have the same good measures, and you combine the data, then you can find a mate that actually is going to help you and not be highly inbred.
JH: Yeah, that’s one of the things I love about your program is how successful you’ve been in resisting this temptation of saying… because as you’ve gone on over time, you keep progressing your phenotype closer and closer to what you want. And it’s very easy to say, “Well, I’m just going to breed the very best dogs.” And to forget, as you said, that they’re all related to each other. And so for a couple generations, that does really well. But eventually you start seeing the side effects of that. So can you maybe talk a little bit about how that feels to balance, like when you bring other dogs in from other programs? Do you take a hit? And, you know, how do you work through that?
JR: Yeah, so if you’ve been selecting for many generations for what your particular school wants, and not every school is the same, you’re always going to get something that you didn’t quite want. And it could be a health thing that you’ve already cleaned up, or behavior, such as extra distraction, that you didn’t want.
So you select the best dogs genetically from another colony. And as you mentioned before, that’s why we do those common measures. So when we bring one in, we’re actually bringing one in that just doesn’t look good, that’s been raised well, but truly has genetic merit that we’re seeking. So once we breed that dog and have progeny, let’s say we’ve already selected them, we usually use frozen semen from them from another country and store it and use it kind of spread out. So we can see how they’re producing with our colony, and not have too many of them coming in at one time. So that’s one strategy.
The second one is, of course, you know, look for problems that neither colony had an issue with, but the “lock and key.” Two genes got together that are now in a homozygous state that previously was a hidden problem. And you just happen to see that, or just combinations like that.
But in general, you breed—usually we’ll do three litters over a little time—and we’ll have enough EBV information to be able to determine how that dog is really looking in there as a producer, by the EBVs of the progeny. So it’s really not often that they’re better than breeding our best dogs together and their EBVs for the things we want. Usually they’re a little lower. But you save that dog, and then you breed it to another dog of yours. And you repeat that process. And you’ll see that, let’s say the EBV is you breeding your 100 percentile dog to a 50 percentile. The puppies will be typically about an average of in the middle. So it’d be at 75%. So you breed your 75% back to your 100, now you’re up at what, 87 or something percent. So that’s how you improve your dogs. By data, by breeding them to the mates that will compensate. Not only be low inbreeding, which of course, if they came from another colony, that’s no problem. So you, you breed for the lowest inbreeding coefficient and then you breed to avoid any genetic test problems. So you don’t want two EIC carriers or something together. And then you would look for the fine tuning: can you find a mate who can compensate or complement and bring up the estimated breeding value for a particular trait? So within your index, no dog is just like across the board perfect. You’re always breeding the best of what you got and then breeding to a mate who can bring that up a little bit.
JH: So the index is both a number that you use to sort of select your best fish, right? Sounds like you can also break it back down again later, when you’re actually putting individual dogs together to balance them out.
JH: So how do you decide what goes into the index? And how do you decide how to weight it? I feel like this is a problem a lot of people struggle with is that they want everything.
JR: Yeah, yeah. So first of all, you do kind of get progress with almost everything. Because my first impression of this whole index thing was, “How in the world are they going to just breed that? Then you’re going to have a bunch of dogs who can’t reproduce or, you know, look terrible, they can’t walk, or something silly.” And what I learned was, again, that fish concept of the fish in a pool. You took the hundred, and now you start looking for the individuals that are overall the best. But you’re not being tempted to take the ones who just look good externally, you know, they have good hips, they act confident, because they were raised really well, etc. Or they just happen to be that fluke of the litter, you know, that they have the good hips, everybody else is not so good. So that pool of dogs, you are still making progress. What you’re doing is you’re directing the genetic improvement by saying the index is helping me pick out the right dogs. So for that, that’s the thing that I really had a little problem with at first. I thought they were just going to, you know, look and focus on that few bench traits.
So how do you pick them? We do data analysis and look for what we are releasing dogs for. And then we identify whether the trait is heritable or not. And then we decide to do an estimated breeding value. And then, out of all the problems that we might have, that we’re releasing dogs for, we look at the trend. Is it really rising fast? And how much is that affecting us? And how heritable? And pretty much our weighting is based on those decisions. You don’t change your index, though, on a frequent basis. It’s pretty much the same for numerous generations. It takes about three generations, six years, to really see the dramatic change in your dogs.
JH: Yeah, so you’re lucky that you, well I don’t know if you’re lucky, but you have a group of people who can come together and decide what’s going to go into the index. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But so you’re gonna have some health stuff and some behavior stuff, right? So you’ll look and see, like right now, maybe this type of cancer, we’re seeing a little bit more of it than we would like, or more of it than we had before, so we’re going to prioritize that. And we used to prioritize, maybe body sensitivity, but right now they seem to be doing really well with that. So do you guys all get together and talk about it? Or is it?
JR: Yeah. So within the Guiding Eyes, because we are a big colony, yes. There are cooperatives that are made up of, like the ABC cooperative, is made up of a number of small schools. Guiding Eyes provides dogs to their breeding project. It can be a group of people who decide, or a breed club or whatever, but the concept is the same. Basically, within Guiding Eyes, we get together with the training department and the breeding department, and we look at what is heritable? What are the problems? We then focus on those traits.
One thing to keep in mind is you can’t breed by committee. Some one person has to be responsible for the selection of who becomes a replacement breeder. If you do it by committee, everyone’s all over the place. You have to have very clear principles that the dogs have to be genetically superior. But other than that, you really need to gather all the information from every department, and the vets, and the training department, as I mentioned. But it’s so important to then take that, decide what you’re going to do, and then one person carries that out, using all the data from everyone.
JH: Yeah, so data, and then also a plan for what to do with it sounds like is what everybody needs, right?
JR: Yeah, yep. That’s, that’s the basics. So whether you’re breeding just a few dogs a year, you can get together with your data. And we right now in IWDR are not adding or making it possible for breed clubs. But I see that in the near future that it could be possible. So breed clubs could get together and make that a way to do it, like the guide dog schools have.
JH: Yeah, this is part of my dream, mostly born from talking to you guys about what you’re doing.
JR: It’s a great thing to do. I think there’s a real need out there, Jessica.
JH: Yeah, for sure. Okay. So as we’re starting to wrap up, and you’ve been mentioning IWDR a couple times, so maybe you could talk a little bit about what the future holds for you?
JR: Sure, sure. I’m winding down. As I mentioned, I’ve been at Guiding Eyes for many years. And we’re training my replacements now. And I am working three days a week on the IWDR. I should say, more than that, working about five days a week, and two days a week for Guiding Eyes. And it’s the International Working Dog Registry. And it’s owned by, we built it—Eldin Leighton, myself, and Kevin Keymer, and a few other people are involved in it. We built it and we donated it to the International Working Dog Breeding Association, because it’s way too expensive to create something like that. So it’s in the millions of dollars. So the world can have better dogs and have a tool at low cost. It’s web-based, subscription based as far as the fee. Very, very reasonable fees for folks to use.
And you basically enter your data there, and behind the scenes the data are combined. So you don’t see everybody else’s private data. You only see your private data, and cooperatives can choose otherwise. But basically the data are all combined into one data set if the measures are appropriately done. Only the owners can enter data so you don’t have the problem of someone entering something incorrectly. And basically, it gives you estimated breeding values, breeding tools such as test matings, inbreeding coefficient calculations. You can manage all the basic data that you want, like relationship, who has the dogs, and all the dog data and the titles and stuff like that, that pretty much any database will do. But the big part that’s different is that it gives you a structured data entry. The way the data are entered makes it possible for estimated breeding values to be calculated and analytics and reports that you can pull right out of the database.
JH: Cool. Yeah, I love the IWDR. So why don’t you remind people of the website where they could go to to learn more about that. And then maybe also if they wanted to learn more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind?
JR: Sure. So Guiding Eyes for the Blind, is www.guidingeyes.org. Again, we’re in Yorktown Heights, New York. A nonprofit producing guide dogs for people who are blind and visually impaired throughout the US and Canada. And the IWDR is www.iwdr.org. Again, it’s another nonprofit owned by the International Working Dog Breeding Association. It’s an international registry right now for working dog programs, but in the future also for private breeders, or breed clubs more likely.
JH: Yeah, hopefully. So good luck with those labors of love. And thanks so much. Your depth of expertise is very much… Having access to your depth of expertise is very much appreciated. So thank you so much for sharing all of that with us.
JR: It’s my pleasure.
Thanks so much for listening. The Functional Breeding Podcast is a product of the Functional Dog Collaborative and was produced by Sarah Espinosa Socal. Come join us at the Functional Breeding Facebook group to talk about this episode or about responsible breeding practices in general. To learn more about the Functional Dog Collaborative, check out www.functionalbreeding.org. Enjoy your dogs.
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