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.
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE
Jessica Hekman: Hi friends, today I’m talking to two breeders who have joined forces to set up a new cooperative and registry for breeders as part of the FDC, with a focus on breeding for health and specific companion temperament goals regardless of breed mix. Laura Sharkey is the owner and training director at Woof’s Dog Training Center in Arlington, Virginia. Laura holds a PhD in microbiology and immunology, and has over 20 years of experience in training dogs, fostering and raising litters. Her personal breeding program is the Bosun dog project. Carolyn Kelly is a registered nurse with over 30 years of experience in human health, including in labor and delivery and in mental health, where she witnessed the power that animal assisted interventions can play in the healing process. She holds a master’s degree in nursing leadership and runs a small mixed breed companion dog program, Old Mission Retrievers. Together, they have founded the Co-pilot Breeding Cooperative, and have some really exciting ideas about the future of dog breeding. I’m looking forward to helping them share their plans here.
Hello, Laura and Carolyn, thank you so much for being here with me today. Normally, I start out by asking people to tell us about their dogs. But you guys both have quite a few of those. So why don’t we start out with, let’s start with Carolyn. Can you tell us about your breeding program?
Carolyn Kelly: Sure, I would love to. So I have a small breeding program. I have five dogs currently. Five, so not not a kennel or hundreds of dogs or anything like that. But I have five dogs currently that I live with, in various stages of growing up. Only one of whom at the moment is a current breeding dog. They’re all in different stages of that process, being evaluated or I have one retired and that sort of thing. I started breeding because I, you know, it’s sort of the… I don’t know, it gets mixed reviews as a motivation for breeding. Different audience members may have different opinions about it. But I’ve had lots of dogs over my life, raised many dogs from my own pets and I’m a nurse by trade. That’s my day job. And I was a labor and delivery nurse for a long time and kind of love that process. It’s certainly one of my passions.
Anyway, I came across a dog later in– here in midlife who is just I know this is you know, like I said different different opinions on this motivation. But gosh, is she just the best dog! And she really is. She’s, she was an easy puppy. She loves, she’s extremely social. She’s very easy, you can take her anywhere. She loves the car, she will go to the beach, she will go camping with you, she can go to the park, she’s pretty neutral to other dogs. Quite neutral; if she’s not thrilled with them she just ignores them, that’s fine with her. They want to act a fool, she doesn’t mind. And she’s a beautiful dog, I always got lots of compliments on her. She’s a purebred lab. She came from a breeder who didn’t mind if I bred her. And finally, when she was four and a half years old I thought, hey, let’s breed this dog. And from there it became an obsession. I’ve been learning now for about over three years, everything I can possibly consume about dog breeding and genetics and dog behavior and how to be a good dog breeder. And my program kind of reflects my evolution with that. I do mixed breedings, partly because I really believe strongly that, you know, low coefficient of inbreeding and diversity is important and partly because that’s just the type of dogs and the folks that I’m in community with, that’s where we kind of live. So I have two lines right now, kind of two directions I’m going. One is the, a non shedding retriever, standard size, going for easy, easier to maintain low shedding coats that don’t have any curl. So they don’t do a lot of the matting and things that, well they can, but it’s an easier to maintain coat than some of the other non shedding mixes. And my goal with that line is a service dog type temperament, a confident, highly social, all around family dog. And then the second direction I’m going as a smaller line. There’s a lot of folks who really– older people, people– physically limited folks, people with limited space who really are looking for a smaller dog. And so I’m looking at some different kinds of mixes that will help bring down the size. So yeah, my program is about making great pets for people. And using evidence based breeding practices, and doing all the things I know how to do to make healthy, solid dogs, whatever that means, regardless of breed.
JH: Awesome. And I think we’ll probably be talking a fair amount more during this episode about exactly what that–
CK: Yeah! Yeah, there’s a lot of detail there.
JH: Yeah, for sure. Alright, so Laura?
Laura Sharkey: Hey, um, I started breeding… Well, I’ve had this idea for a breeding project for probably over 10 years. And my day job is: I have been a dog trainer for the past 20-something years. And over that time, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in the dogs that people have, and as a small business owner and dog training center, we’ve seen more and more people adopting behaviorally challenging dogs in the last five to ten years, I would say. And my path to breeding was, I wanted to be able to send clients who were looking for a great pet dog that did not come with a bunch of behavioral or health issues. And so I thought, well what if somebody was breeding for health and temperament only? Meaning without regard to color, without regard to the stop of their nose has, you know, the top of their head has to be a certain amount and the distance between their eyes has to be this and they can’t have this color or their legs are too long, or their legs are too short, or their shoulders are too high. Anyway, the point being, like, forget about all that. Take away the genetic pressure that comes with needing to breed a certain size and look and breed solely for health and temperament. And so that’s how I came around to it. And so I started looking for dogs to do this with and that turned out to be really challenging because it was just hard to acquire a dog that I could breed. And I started on my way, and I’ve been breeding for let’s see, my first litter is now two and a half years old. So I guess I’ve been on a similar trajectory timewise as Carolyn. I think my ideas started like I said, 10 years ago at least, to start doing this. And I’m finally doing it. My breeding program is called the Bosun Dog Project because I consider it a project. We don’t know how to breed for health and temperament only, you know? We don’t know how to match dogs up and get really nice dogs. So I do consider it an experiment or a project and a lot of what I want to do is collect data about how this goes along.
JH: Yeah you’re both very science minded. So Carolyn mentioned that she’s a registered nurse, and Laura has a PhD. So both of you have some–
LS: Yes, I was a scientist in my previous life.
JH: Yeah, so both of you have a background in sort of thinking through how all things work.
CK: Yeah, exactly. And like Laura, one of the things that’s amazed me on my journey of learning about the dog breeding world is how much information there isn’t. Or real data. I mean, don’t get me wrong. A huge amount of knowledge and work has been done in dog breeding. It’s obviously an old art form. But in the mixed breed world, for one thing, a lot of the science has been focused around breed. And within breeds what works, and what data do we have about this breed or that breed or how to optimize health within a closed gene pool. So that’s, it’s really different when you get outside of that. But then also, they’re just– it’s like everything. The more you start to learn, the more you realize isn’t known, particularly about temperament, and how to really breed for that as a priority and make sure that you do a good job with it. And Laura and I share that desire to really find a way to quantify what we’re doing and collect data about it so that we can help learn, for us and for others: what’s the best way to do that?
LS: Yeah, make informed decisions going forward.
JH: Yeah, I love that you two both recognize that the map isn’t there yet. But you’re going to try to do it. Because if no one tries to do it, there never will be a map.
LS: I was really surprised about that. I was surprised that there wasn’t a map.
JH: Yeah, I think a lot of people are. I get that question a lot, “How do I do this?” I don’t, no one knows.
LS: Nobody knows. That just blows my mind, you know? I mean, of all the years like Carolyn said, we’ve been breeding dogs for over a hundred years, and obviously thousands of years before that. But there is no map to how to breed a dog for health and temperament. Right? A mid-size, easy to live with companion pet. And I think, you know, going back to dog breeds, their origins had very specific purposes. And I think today the dog has a different place in our world. Certainly in North America. And I think, you know, if you’re talking about well, a border collie can herd and a hound can hunt and a terrier can, you know, critter, I think in today’s world there’s no higher goal than being a fantastic companion. So when people say, “Well you know, you don’t have a purpose…” I mean, yes, companion dogs! That is the main purpose of dogs now. Like I said, at least in North America, and most, a lot of parts of the world.
JH: Let’s say the most common purpose.
LS: The most common purpose, yeah, is a companion and a great companion is, you know, worth its weight in gold.
JH: Right, it is a job unto itself. Yeah, for sure. To be a good companion.
CK: There are companion breeds, which, that certainly there are some of the toy breeds are specifically bred for companionship. And they probably do in many cases serve that purpose well. One of the things that Laura and I are really focused on doing differently is losing that priority for the aesthetic. Needing to breed a Cavalier King Charles, or whatever wonderful small toy companion breed, to a breed standard based on appearance really limits what you can do as far as outcrossing for health and it limits what you can do, as far as temperament as well. And you can see that with some of the breeds that are struggling with some health problems. There are dogs certainly, there are purebred dogs out there who have great pet temperaments. But in many cases, they’re not in a sustainable breed situation.
LS: Yeah. I’m sorry. I think it’s a good point, to point out that neither one of us are anti-purebred, right? I personally live with two purebred dogs. I’ve had purebred dogs, I’ve had mixed breed dogs. This isn’t about saying, you know, one is better than the other. It’s just about doing something a little bit different.
JH: Yeah, that’s a very valuable point to make. But one of the differences is that with purebred dogs there are structures set up to help people find each other and to help people recognize, if I’m going to breed my dog, here are ways of identifying someone who’s produced another dog that would be a good match for my dog. And that can be harder for someone who’s sort of setting off to do something really new. Which brings us to this idea of a breeding cooperative. So I was hoping, Carolyn, that you could tell us a bit about sort of the concept of a breeding cooperative, cause I imagine a lot of people listening to this might not have heard that phrase before.
CK: Right. Well, I learned a lot about breeding cooperatives from the Functional Dog Collaborative, and some of your previous podcast episodes. Particularly with service dog groups have some pretty incredible work they have done with breeding cooperatives and with having a population of dogs, probably who come from more than one breeding program, and in most cases who then share data and best practices and find ways to improve the whole population of dogs. And that is where our inspiration for our breeding cooperative, which is focused on breeding pet dogs, regardless of breed. We really want to mirror some of that advantage that you can get from not just each program functioning in isolated independence, struggling to find good dogs, you know, good breeding candidates and do health testing and make decisions about pairings, but to join forces with other folks who have similar goals and work on not only sharing stock potentially, but collecting data on the temperament and health of our dogs, our health testing results. And then, over time, by studying the puppies and seeing what we get, find ways to really do the very best job we can. And I think that’s essentially what a breeding cooperative is: a group of breeders cooperating.
LS: Yeah, and it also, you know, it creates a community. Right? A community of people who are interested in the same things we’re doing. And like Carolyn said, we can breed, we can share stuff, but we can also share, like, I bred this dog to this dog and this is what I got, and I wasn’t expecting that. And you know, as much as it helps us collect data it also, we can support each other because breeding is hard! (Laughs)
JH: Yeah, I think it’s hard to, it’s always hard to balance all the things that you’re trying to do. Even when you’re trying to make it easier by saying, I’m going to take some of the aesthetics out and have fewer things to balance, there’s still a lot to balance. And there aren’t rules out there. Like there’s I mean “rules,” but there’s sort of societally accepted perceptions of how you do purebred breeding responsibly. And it’s harder to know how we do mix breeding responsibly. So I know that was something that was really important to you two, in putting together the cooperative was to try to have some guidelines for how people who are part of the cooperative would breed. And I know you struggled with that a lot. So I was hoping you two could tell me, I mean, all about it. Maybe start with sort of how you went about putting those guidelines together?
CK: Right. Well it started as okay, we’re going to have a cooperative and we want to define ourselves for what we, how is it that we breed dogs. Similar to how maybe a breed club defines what they do. I mean, they set a breed standard and say, we breed dogs with this genetic background, who are this size and this shape and to this breed standard. That that has a lot of value, because it gets everybody pulling in a direction. And that’s where a lot of purebred breeders kind of find their true north, you know. “This is how I breed and this is why I breed responsibly, because I breed to breed standard.” And so when we were thinking about how would that be different when we’re breeding regardless of breed, we’re breeding a type. To a goal temperament, to a healthy goal, but not based on an aesthetic standard, what would be the priorities? And so we wrote some guidelines about what we think defines responsible breeding and a big chunk of it is, kind of animal husbandry. You know, a big part of what I think is the number one thing that’s important about a breeder, is how their adult dogs are being treated. Whether their dogs live in– And I know and again, I’m not against pure breeding, I’m also not against kennels. I know personally of some kennel programs that do a good job, and I think that there can definitely be a role for that. And that doesn’t mean if you’re in a kennel, that you’re mistreating your dogs. We don’t define that 100%, but that your dogs have vet care, that they have an enriching lives, that they have all the things that they need to be happy, healthy individuals, as well as breeding dogs is a big part of the guidelines. So we had a lot of input from different other breeders and leadership of the FDC and thoughts about how you would really define that and tried our best to put that together. And then we also, one thing that’s really different about our guideline than any other program that I know of is that we define that we have to have a genetic coefficient of inbreeding for any planned puppies of 10% or less, which is somewhat of an arbitrary cut off. And you certainly can have healthy dogs with a higher COI, but since we are, this is a project and we want to collect data, and see really what the difference is when you’re we’re mixing dogs. Whether, how that impacts what kind of health testing you need to do, we’re defining that as a part of our co-op. That we breed dogs with a low coefficient of inbreeding. And then we have some health testing guidelines, which are flexible, because we’re dealing with many different breeds and dogs of many different backgrounds, but health testing is an important part of breeding. And that’s understood.
JH: So I remember that as you were trying to figure out guidelines for hip testing, and you were trying to think of a cut off and you know, just– or goal numbers. And I remember you sort of were thinking you probably were going to go with PennHIP and maybe have some alternate guidelines for OFA, but there’s a lot of research out there suggesting that PennHIP is more predictive. And so we were, you were at least focusing on PennHIP without completely discarding OFA, but I’m just going to talk, we’ll just talk about PennHIP for now. And so for those who don’t know, PennHIP has numbers basically between zero and one. You wouldn’t ever go as high as one, hopefully, I don’t think the dog would be able to walk.
JH: But they’re gonna be sort of between .2, .6 and lower are tighter hips and higher are looser hips. And so generally we think that lower is better. There’s just a lot of struggling with, well, this test is not highly, highly predictive. It’s fairly predictive, but there’s nothing that’s completely predictive for testing hips and predicting whether the dog is going to actually have pain later on and/or gait problems. And so like, where do we draw the line? Are we going to be losing potentially good dogs? Yeah. And so maybe, could you guys talk a little bit about that struggle and how you resolved it, because I remember that was a tough one.
LS: This was a really big, kind of can of worms. And I think Carolyn and I both learned a lot. And what was really, really valuable is we got a lot of feedback from a group of other breeders who are doing similar outcross projects that we are, because the PennHIP index, from their own data they say anything .3 and under has basically, almost a 0% chance of having any hip dysplasia. And so, you know, originally we were thinking, “Oh, well, alright, so that that should be our goal.” But we heard from a lot a lot of people who were saying, “Look in my dog has a .5 distraction index, and the dog is fine. And she’s, you know, nine and a half years old, she’s never had hip dysplasia. She has no problem, she has no obvious pain. There’s no lameness.” That sent us down this this tunnel of, okay, so what does testing mean and how do we mesh that with what we’re actually seeing in the dog and with anything, just because a test says you carry a certain trait doesn’t mean that trait is being expressed or that you have the problem that the test says you might have. So we ended up changing in response to the feedback we got. We ended up changing our guidelines to say, to basically say, do the test and–
CK: Use the information.
LS: and use the information, right. To do the test, use the information to make wise breeding choices. So say you have a perfectly fantastic temperamented dog with a distraction index of .6, but it’s the best dog ever, and she’s already six or seven years old, or maybe a little bit younger. And you’re going to breed her. Well, we’re not going to say, “don’t breed that dog because it has a .6 distraction index.” What we’re going to say is “well, maybe you should make sure to breed it to something, to another dog who has a lower distraction index.”
CK: Right, and also that we’re going to try to collect some data [on] the puppies and see what we’re getting. And I think this, like Laura said, it opens up a can of worms. And that’s one of the things that’s been the most eye opening for me in learning about dog breeding overall, is that the health– there are a lot of great tools with health testing. There’s a lot available. But there’s a lot more that isn’t testable, I mean, a lot more. And the heritability of hip dysplasia is very complicated. And the breeding co-ops, the seeing eye groups, they are a great example of what you really have to do in order to use hip dysplasia testing, to improve hip scores. I mean, you really have to have data on almost all the puppies you produce over multiple generations. And then you have to use an algorithm, which, you know, Estimated Breeding Values to predict which dogs are the best ones to breed. And if you’re breeding in isolation, and you’re looking at the phenotype of a dog’s hips, it’s good information to have but you really don’t have everything you need to know if you’re going to reduce hip dysplasia. And when you’re crossbreeding, to be honest we don’t really know what the risk of hip dysplasia is in these dogs anyway.
LS: Yeah, we have no data!
CK: So we’re not breeding Bernese Mountain dogs or German Shepherds where we know that hip dysplasia is a big risk and you know, we really need to have a target. We don’t really– people have not been collecting data. I mean, certainly there’s information out there about the health of mixed breed dogs and overall we know that they tend to do somewhat better, but they certainly can have problems. They can have hip dysplasia, they can have cancer. How do we know how to prevent that? There’s just a lot we don’t know. And and, yeah.
LS: I think that’s one of the gaps that maybe, you know, if we think big maybe we can collect data. One of the things about the co-op, we’re going to have a registry. It’s called the Companion Dog Registry. And one of the things that Carolyn I want to do is not only collect the data of the sire and dam, but collect longitudinal data on all of the puppies. Not just the puppies that maybe are gonna go on to be breeding adults in a certain program, but all of the puppies. Because that’s the only way to really look at the whole picture. You can’t just look at the few dogs that are picked out for potential breeding prospects in the future. We have to look at every single puppy and that’s a huge project. But that’s what we want to do, right? We want to create a large database, let’s start collecting the data now.
CK: Right, that’s what we’re working on. And we have, while we’re talking about it, we do have a structure set up in a database and we have a plan. We are at the point now of being ready to register adult dogs. And a lot of what the guidelines are, is: what is required to bring an adult dog into the registry. So we set very specific temperament standards and health standards for dogs who might be potential breeding dogs for the Companion Dog Registry, to be registered in the database. And so since we’re starting from now, we can register adult dogs 18 months and older who meet those requirements. And it’s part of our guidelines.
JH: So maybe you could explain a little bit about how the registry works. So someone can come in, who can register dogs? Do they have to be part of the co-op? How do they register the dog? And then what does that mean, when the dog is registered in terms of, if it’s bred to another registered dog? Like, how does the registry work?
LS: Right. So I think let’s talk a little bit about the co-op. I’d just like to back up a minute about the co-op. There’s two kinds of members in our co-op, right? Say you’re a person who likes the idea of outcrossing, or breeding mixed breed dogs for health and temperament. Anybody who agrees to the standards and guidelines, and wants to just sort of follow along and maybe has breeding goals in the future, or maybe doesn’t, they can join us as general members. And the more the merrier in terms of, you know, information and sharing of data, as well as just creating a community. Then people who are actually breeding dogs can join and start registering dogs and start registering litters. So as long as the dog meets the standards and guidelines, and your program meets the standard guidelines, you can start registering a dog. Once we have registered dogs, if a registered– can we say “bitch?” A registered female is bred to a–
JH: You can, we’re not on Facebook, you can say “bitch.” (Laughs)
LS: I know, it’s like I’m so gun shy now. So a registered bitch being bred to a registered dog can have a registered litter. And the goal would be to provide resources and support for keeping track of data on all those dogs, on all of those puppies.
LS: I lost where I was going with this.
JH: I think, so you’re talking about, someone can register a dog, someone else can register a bitch, and then all the puppies are in the registry as well.
LS: Yes. So– go ahead.
CK: Oh, that’s okay. So we do have an application for registering an adult dog. And it goes through the requirements and you have to submit health testing. Each dog is considered individually. So it’s an individual decision. And we’re not aiming to be, you know, negative about dogs. We will look for if there are health testing things that you know, someone has a great dog that they think is a good candidate, and they’d like to register but they don’t have all the health testing, our goal is to support people in finding ways to do that, and working with them to see how we can get the dog registered. And then dogs who are born to two registered dogs are considered Companion Dog Registered puppies. So it’s similar to the AKC or any other registry. Both parents need to be registered in order to produce registered puppies.
JH: Alright, so we’ve talked about how you have some rules to make sure that dogs, the initial dogs, we can even call them founder dogs, the initial dogs who are coming into the registry, are healthy. And then the puppies are sort of automatically part of the registry. But I think we all know that just because you have two healthy parents doesn’t necessarily mean that the puppies are all going to be great breeding prospects. So how are you guys making sure, or trying to provide guidelines and guidance going forward to make sure that the members of the co-op are continuing to make good progress on moving dogs in the direction of producing healthy and temperamentally sound pets?
LS: I think there’s a couple of things we’re doing. The litter of two registered dogs is going to be registered, but that’s not the end of it. One of the things we have hopes for is supporting breeders who have had litters in getting all those dogs tested. It is very expensive, it is very time consuming to have a litter of nine puppies, PennHip-ed and Embarked and stuff like that. So one of the goals of the co-op is to provide both financial support and guidance on what to do, how to get the litter tested, how to look at the results of that particular pairing.
LS: Yeah. And I think that’s a really great goal, because that’s where we’re gonna get the data from.
JH: Yeah, I think it– so taking a moment to talk about why it’s important to test all the puppies. So, hip testing. So maybe you have, say you have six puppies, and one of them clearly is a bit more shy. And so you’re thinking this dog is not going to be a good breeding candidate for sure. Would you still encourage someone to test that puppy’s hips as it became an adult?
JH: And can you tell us why?
LS: Because we want to know. Say you have a female who has a distraction index of .6 and a male with a distraction index of .4, we want to know, what are the distraction indexes of all of those puppies, right? Does it mean, does .6 plus .4 equal .5? We don’t know. So we need to know what–
CK: Well, we don’t know that applying selection pressure over time, breeding the lower hips will give us better hips. But exactly Laura, I mean we, because we’re breeding outside of a closed gene pool we don’t know exactly what the– I mean, nobody knows exactly what the result will be until you have several generations of data. And if you don’t have all the data points of what you produced, it’s just less complete information for actually learning what you’re getting, and what you need to do in order to make it better.
LS: And I’d like to say that we want the behavioral and temperament data as well. It’s not just the physical health data. We want to know how these puppies go on in their roles as companion dogs in life, how successful are they? You know, what challenges come up? And this comes, this brings us back around to the predictability. One of the great things about purebred dogs is because of a close gene pool, you have much greater predictability of not only what the dog is going to look like, how big the dog is going to be, whether it sheds or it doesn’t shed. You also have some level of temperament predictability. I would say that that’s probably not nearly as solid as we’d like to think. So, you know, that’s one of the things that we want to look at. What is going to be predictive, when breeding mixed breed dogs.
CK: Right. And part of what we have accepted in our program and with our philosophy, is that we won’t have in many areas it will be more difficult without line breeding and without fixing traits as much as you can. With[out] higher COIs, it will be more difficult to have as much predictability. And part of what my big passions since I started learning and since I’ve become a dog breeder is that I’d really like to see us think about normalizing range. A healthy range of temperaments and appearance within the litter. I’m not talking about severe aggression being acceptable, I’m not talking about dogs with really unlivable or unstable temperaments being okay. Obviously we want to eliminate those things. But breeding for a healthy range of individuals within a program is my goal. And we understand that predictability is going to be not as not as likely to be extremely predictable as we as you could be in a purebred program. Am I explaining that in a way that makes sense?
LS: Yeah. I think also though, that we believe strongly that there will be enough predictability.
CK: Right. That’s what I mean.
LS: There’s going to be enough predictability in temperament for these dogs to be extraordinarily successful as pet dogs, as well as potentially being significantly healthier, due to not having a closed book.
CK: Right. And when I say predictability within a range, that’s what I mean. I mean a range of successful pet temperaments we may have some that are, you know, there may be within a litter, a more shy dog and a bolder dog. There may be a dog that’s more cuddly and less cuddly, but within a range of successful pets that are resilient, can handle the environments that a pet dog needs to handle and fit in well with most pet situations. That is the number one goal.
JH: Yeah, I keep wanting to jump in and say things but you guys are saying basically what I would say. So I think that’s–
CK: Well that’s great if you want to back us up! (Laughter)
JH: No, I think that’s lovely. So I think what I would reiterate there is– well, there was this paper about dog breeds, I guess, that came out in Science a couple of weeks ago.
CK: Oh, yeah, I heard about that. (Laughter)
JH: That suggested that predictability within entire breeds is probably not what we think it might be in terms of behavior. And, you know, a lot of people came back and said, “but are those dogs well bred?” And my answer was, “No, these were all dogs.” And so you can have more predictability within lines. Which, to some extent is what you’re saying. That you’re going to provide selection pressure to–
JH: –to go for a certain kind of personality. But the other thing is that I think what that paper should help us to recognize is that there is going to be a range within litters and within well-controlled lines even. And I think we know this, right?
JH: That when you have a litter of puppies on the ground, they’re not all behavioral clones. It’s not like somebody’s gonna be able to come and say, “I’m getting a puppy of X breed, and therefore I expect it to have these traits and I’m gonna bring it back if it doesn’t have those traits.” There is some amount of work that a breeder has to do to identify, this particular puppy is better for this particular home and that particular puppy is better for that particular home.
LS: Well I’ll be honest. I think that’s a little bit of a myth in the purebred world. Right? You know that when you breed a Golden Retriever, that you’re going to get a certain size, a certain coat, a certain look, a certain body frame. And that stuff is very predictive. I think if we were to look at it honestly, I think that within a litter of Golden Retrievers or within all Golden Retrievers that you probably see a normal distribution of behavior traits along a bell curve. Just like in a mixed breed population or a population of Dachshunds or Bernese Mountain dogs or whatever. I think that we tend to overestimate the predictability of temperament in a breed, because they all look so similar.
CK: Well, and look at–
LS: I think if we looked at their temperaments, we would find quite a wide variety.
CK: Well look at what the, going back to the service dog groups. The Working Dog Registry and the service dog organizations that have absolutely done [an] incredible amount of work to quantify behavior traits that they test in a uniform way, on all of the dogs they produce–
LS: In a large population.
CK: Right, throughout the first two years. And then they use, you know, the very best science there is with Estimated Breeding Values to try to predict which dogs are the best to breed. And they have made huge progress on having more dogs be successful as service dog candidates. By using all those strategies. But they still have a lot of dogs that don’t make it. You know, even with all of that, there’s no way to get to 100%.
CK: Right. So it’s biology and part of what makes it work is the diversity that’s built in. That’s part of what makes you know, living beings survive.
LS: I think what you’re trying to say is that recombinant genetics is complicated. (Laughs)
CK: Really complicated, right.
LS: Really complicated. Especially when you’re looking at behavior, which is multifaceted traits.
JH: Well, and a lot of behavior is affected by environment. And environment, we have to remember is not just the environment of where the dog is living as an adult, but how it’s raised and those critically important first, sort of five to eight weeks.
JH: Which is when it’s with the breeder. So I know that a lot of what you are providing guidelines for also, is how the breeders manage the puppies after they hit the ground.
CK: Yes. And Laura’s told me today… Laura and I share a dog. Well, he’s Laura’s dog but Laura has a dog that I bred
LS: But he’s from Carolyn’s breeding program.
CK: Right, so we’re having the experience of having her raising a puppy.
CK: What? Yes, right. But she tells me I need to work on my puppy protocols to get the puppies to sleep in later in the morning.
JH: Oh I’m all for that. (Laughs)
LS: I would like Carolyn’s puppies to sleep later than 6:30am. So if she could start selecting for that, that would be awesome.
CK: Well, I wanted to do a study to see if there is any influence from the environment of the first eight weeks, because I was telling Laura that my puppies, who I raise in my home in a puppy room off my kitchen, have a very structured schedule. And they go to bed at 9:00, the whole house goes to bed at 9:00. I mean, I work full time. My husband, bless his whole, who is half of the equation of why I can breed because he’s here all the time. And he doesn’t have to go to an outside job. And so we have a very structured schedule, and we’re up at 5:30 or 6:00 in bed at 9:00, and the whole house shuts down in this quiet from 9:00 to 6:00, and then we’re up. And I was wondering–
LS: Yeah, and my household is very different. My wife and I are both dog trainers. And so we both work evenings, which is when you know, people take their dogs to class, after their day job ends. And so sometimes our night, our work hours don’t even end till 10:00pm. And so we’re up significantly later at night, and we get up much later in the morning. So how much of you know this puppy’s getting up early was from those first, you know, eight weeks of life with Carolyn?
CK: It may very well be that that’s not it at all. But there are endless numbers of questions like that with how you raise puppies and what impact it has, and what impact the dam’s behavior has on temperament that again, I’ve just been really astounded to find out how little we really understand. Or how there’s no clear recipe. There are all kinds of great ideas. You know, Puppy culture is amazing and Avidog has good material. But very little of it is like, been studied in a way where you know, you tested you can raise the same puppies two different ways and then test adults. Nobody really knows. It’s all–
LS: I would like to point out that this particular study of waking up early, actually has an N of 2. Because yeah, in addition to Carolyn’s puppy, who’s four months now, I have a one year old who was bred in my house, on my schedule.
LS: And she sleeps in.
LS: So, you know.
JH: When you breed Carolyn’s puppy, it will be very interesting to see.
LS: Which is interesting, because I might be breeding Carolyn’s puppy to this puppy. But you know, with an N of 2, I hardly think we’re breaking any new scientific ground.
JH: No, but if you start keeping track, and you start successfully producing puppies who sleep late, I would take one of them. That’s like, my major reason for not wanting a puppy.
LS: Well, I’ll be honest with you. You know, during this podcast, I’m sitting in a room with four dogs and they’ve just been lying here quietly the whole time. Right?
LS: Well, one of the things I am actively breeding for is sort of dogs that can chill out in a busy world. My dog’s just lying around. Carolyn’s puppy, my original girl, the puppy that I have from the last litter. They’re just lying here with me while I talk. They’re just really nice dogs. And we’re both hoping to share that with more and more people. Right?
CK: Right, exactly.
LS: Let’s get some nice puppies out there. Help people find a nice dog for their family. That’s always been my goal. A nice family dog.
JH: Yeah. Okay, so let’s make sure– so one thing that I think we would definitely be getting questions about, people always want to know about health testing. And we’ve talked about your general approach to health testing, but let’s just sort of reassure people that these dogs are actually being health tested. So can you sort of give an overview of what kinds of tests you’re talking about in the co-op, and with the recognition that not every test is appropriate for every dog. Right?
CK: Right. Well, we require an Embark as a baseline on everybody. And the reason that we made it an Embark is because they’re the only ones, the only company that I know of right now who can give you a predicted COI on the puppies from any two dogs in their database. And so for now, given that they have the only ability to do that we’re using Embark. So every dog if you want to have a dog registered in the database, you have to kind of apply individually and like I said, we look at each one individually, but a basic idea would be that we need to do the health testing for any breeds that we know are included. And you know, that basically comes down to for most dogs, hips, elbows, patellas, heart, eyes, thyroid potentially, and then some other ones depending on specific DNA that’s testable and things like that. Am I missing something?
LS: I think that’s pretty much it.
CK: Yeah. So there are some, we need to know merle status, there are some specific breed content that would trigger us to do other kinds of–
LS: Yeah, for example, my foundation girl. She has had her CAER eye exam. She has had her elbows and hips x-rayed. She has had a cardiology appointment to check her heart. So let’s see eyes, hips, elbows, and she has her Embark. I know that she carries PRA, progressive retinal atrophy, so I want to make sure I don’t breed her to another dog who carries PRA. That is sort of the baseline of what needs to be done before we can, before we want to breed two dogs together. We want to make sure that we’re not doubling down on any recessive trait that could potentially cause problems in the future.
CK: Yeah, all those basic, all those tests and then there are some other things in the guidelines that aren’t testable, as far as has the dog been diagnosed with conditions that affect quality of life, and/or require treatment by a vet. The kind of things like autoimmune things, and allergies and seizures and other things that we don’t have testing for are also important when you’re evaluating for breeding.
JH: Right, you want to ask about, certainly about family history there and obviously about the actual dog, but it may not be old enough yet to know.
CK: Right. True.
JH: So basically behaving like responsible breeders, then.
LS: Using 100% of the science that is available to us.
CK: Right, and also understanding that there are no perfect dogs. And that all of it is a balance where you look at the whole dog, all of the tests, all of the dogs that are potential candidates and then make decisions. And our goal is to have data on lots of puppies out of our program, if not all of them, so that we can make the very best choices about who is best to breed.
LS: And I have a goal of– right now, my foundation girl was half Lab half Border Collie. Because of the Border Collie, I took her to see a cardiologist and we got a cardiology report and she was, you know, looking fine. I want to know, like, if you’re not breeding back to Border Collies or other dogs that have known heart issues. How long do you have to do that? How long do you have to get carded out?
JH: Meaning how many generations?
LS: How many generations, yeah. How many generations of outbreeding before, you don’t really have to test that because it hasn’t cropped up. You’ve produced downstream puppies, 50 puppies. Did any of them, any of those puppies show any heart disease issues throughout their entire lives? So this is something that is going to need to be on the ground for a really long time so that we can collect generational data.
CK: I think this… Yeah, Laura, it goes to the whole thing I think I mentioned earlier that we really just, there’s a lot of answers that we don’t have about heritability, particularly in mixed breeding programs. And I see a lot of people, you know, health testing is wonderful, and it’s a tool. And it’s not that I’m– I feel like every time I say this, someone thinks I’m minimizing it. Like, “Oh, well you just want to breed a dog that has a bad test result.” Well, no. Or, or not do the test. But the truth is that when you really start to learn and try to figure out what best practices are, it’s really complicated. Like for instance, I don’t know if you guys heard there’s a new test for CCL tears in purebred Labs. Did you see that?
JH: Yeah I just heard about that, and I haven’t… No one has gotten me the reference to the paper. So I want to read about that if anyone–
CK: I want to learn more too and I actually was, we were in one of the breeding groups that I’m in online, we were talking about how/what we would use it for and whether we need to it– it’s not even available yet but it’s supposed to be available maybe this fall. And it’s a polygenic–
JH: Sure, yeah.
CK: –trait that they found a grouping of things they’re testing for. So it’s not like a one gene recessive, it’s a group. And I am still trying to get my head around [it]. And I even emailed with the researchers a couple times, and they were super helpful in answering my questions, but I still don’t understand. It’s predictive for the dog it’s tested on. Like, it tells you that they have this, they either have a high risk or a low risk based on a grouping of characteristics. And their recommendation is that the dog has shown to be high risk that you don’t breed it within a population of purebred Labs. So how do we use that information, then? Are they recommending that, I mean, what percentage of purebred Labs are high risk?
CK: Can you eliminate it all at once? Or do you breed high risk and low risk together? And then what happens when you crossbreed? Does that change what the– and frankly the test is what it is for the dog that you’re testing, but they didn’t… And maybe I have to learn more, but I’m putting my best mind to it and still not sure what it means as far as heritability. So it’s really complicated.
JH: So as a geneticist who has worked in what we call complex trait genetics, which would be traits that– I know you guys know this, but to tell the audience– traits that are dependent on many genes and also on the environment. And the risk of cranial cruciate ligament tears is absolutely one of those dependent on many genes and the environment, having to do with how much the dog exercises, how much the dog weighs, all that kind of thing. So–
LS: Do they do high impact stuff, right?
JH: Right, right, right.Yes.
LS: Are they agility dogs? Are they flyball dogs?
JH: Are they weekend warrior, where they’re overweight? And then the weekend all of a sudden they play ball for three hours?
CK: And whether they’re desexed is a big deal too. Yeah. Whether they’re spayed or neutered.
JH: Right. So with all of that, what we have been finding again and again, is that a lot of times when you look at markers… So what they, I mean again I haven’t read the paper and I would love to, but presumably what happened is these researchers looked at a population of Labrador Retrievers, and they found some markers that, you know, markers for: this one set of alleles suggest high risk, and that set of alleles suggest low risk. But there is almost certainly some amount of predisposition for risk that is part of being a Labrador Retriever. And that when you look at those markers outside of the background of being a purebred Labrador Retriever, there’s other genes that these genes are almost certainly interacting with. And those genes are all one way in Labradors, which is why they’re not finding them when they do the test in Labradors. They’re only finding what’s different within Labradors, they’re not finding what is the same in Labradors, that predisposes Labradors to that problem to begin with. And so when you start looking at the set of risk alleles in a dog that’s not a Labrador Retriever, or that’s only part Labrador Retriever, there’s some mystery set of genes that may or may not be there. And so exactly it is, we would really like for researchers to do this test in many different populations of dogs. And I’m sure that’s happening, but it’s slow and expensive, right? And so, assuming that just because a dog comes out with a test as being high risk, if they’re not a Lab, or not a purebred Lab, it’s really hard to know what that means and how much faith to put in the predictivity of the test.
LS: Right. And so now we have to decide based on this new information, does that, like what do we do with it? Does it inform our breeding choices going forward? You know.
CK: It’s very easy from the outside. I’ve heard a lot since I started breeding of people who have very easy answers, “oh, well, you know, then you should do that test and eliminate any dog that’s high risk, forever in all of them immediately.” But when you really start looking at it, is that true? I mean, would you eliminate a dog in a mixed breeding program if they were high risk for CCL based on that test? Maybe? Probably? Or would you not end up eliminating dogs that really weren’t ever going to cause a problem? Do you know what is the whole picture of the dog and what are all the things that you’re trying to balance when you’re making a breeding choice? So it’s easy to say, do all the tests and eliminate all the dogs with any kind of bad score, but it isn’t really that simple when you get right down to it. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
JH: No, breeding is hard.
LS: Breeding is hard, but I am hopeful. I mean, look at what breeding has done. Selective breeding of canines has created some amazing, amazing dogs, right? I’m a border collie person. The fact that you can like, how the Border Collie, two hills away, turn right or turn left, based on a whistle. You know, we created that! That’s amazing. You have a terrier, a livestock guarding dog, who hangs out and sleeps with the sheep, and guards them and keeps everybody safe. That is also amazing, right? And if we can breed them to do those things, we can breed them to be great pets. That’s what I believe.
JH: I believe that too. I think that’s probably a good place to move forward to sort of where does the cooperative stand? So you have some breeders who are part of your community already?
CK: We do.
LS: Absolutely. We are currently in the process of having, we put together the beginnings of the co-op. The cooperative has evolved, especially in the past year. And we are currently accepting applications. Anyone who’s interested in joining our group, you can go to functionalbreeding.org and go to the About section and look under breeding co-ops and you will find the co-pilot co-op. That’s us. As long as you agree to our standards and guidelines, then you can join and become part of our community. We have plans on adding a Companion Dog Registry studbook to facilitate the sharing of you know, stock. And we are looking to, we are beginning to register dogs now. So we’re starting to register the first dogs, we have a database setup. And we will be registering litters probably–
JH: As they appear.
LS: Well you know what, we’re going to register litters as they appear. The other thing is, if you’ve had a litter in the last five years, and both dogs can be registered as breeding dogs, we are going to allow breeders to register any litters they produce in the last five years. Which is going to–
JH: Nice. That’ll help bootstrap.
LS: Yes, it’ll help us start off with a population that we can start looking at. So I’m really excited about that.
JH: So how big do you want this to be?
JH: So big? (Laughs)
LS: You know, Carolyn suggested calling our database the Companion Dog Registry. And I thought, “Oh, you know, that’s kind of a boring, functional name.” And Carolyn’s response was, “Yeah, so was the AKC when they started. American Kennel Club.”
CK: Functional has its place.
LS: And that sort of, like, opened the world for me. Like what if this CDR becomes that? Something big like that? Companion Dog Registry. So yeah, big. That’s how big.
CK: Yeah, we have a lot of ideas and vision about how we can support breeders in doing good work, and how we can support puppy buyers and puppy families, on an ongoing basis for Companion Dog Registered dogs. So we’d love to have lots of people join us and get a big population of dogs that we can study and produce some amazing pets.
LS: And perhaps, you know, if we have enough of a database, contribute to the science of it.
JH: I would love all of that. So alright, so you guys have let people know how they can find the cooperative itself. And certainly if people are interested in just participating more in this conversation, joining the Functional Breeding Facebook group would be a good way to do that on a more general level, but you can certainly get in touch with Laura and Carolyn through the breeding cooperative page. And I’ll put the information on how to do that in the show notes. So I’m so excited about this. I really appreciate both of you coming out here and explaining it all. And I wish you the best of luck. And yeah, onward.
CK: Thank you.
LS: Thank you so much.
CK: Thank you very much.
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.
Copyright © 2022 Functional Dog Collaborative. All rights reserved.