Karen Hinchy: The Chinook Outcross Project
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 Heckman: Hi, friends, I’m really glad to be back recording my first episode in more than a year. As many of you know, I have post concussive syndrome after a fall on ice a year ago, somewhat hilariously followed by a shattered ankle in June of last year, which also delayed my recovery. It has been a long road, but I’m starting to be able to get back to recording episodes again. I don’t know what the episode schedule will look like as I start to get my feet back under me. For now, I’m doing what I can when I can. This episode, I got to interview my friend Karen Hinchy. Karen has been breeding Chinooks for more than 13 years, and as a guiding force in the Chinook outcross project. She’s an extremely knowledgeable and science minded breeder. I know that there are a lot of questions out there about how outcross projects work, and what we can expect from them. And I hope this episode helps answer some of those questions.
JH: So Karen, thanks so much for being on the show. The inaugural “Jessica’s brain is doing better” show, back after many months. I’m really glad to have you here.
Karen Hinchy: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really glad your brain is doing better. And I’m really simultaneously excited and terrified (laughter) to talk about Chinooks here.
JH: Yeah, well, you certainly know a lot about them. And for those who don’t know, Karen is one of my more trusted volunteers on the Functional Dog Collaborative. So she and I have been working together behind the scenes on that for quite a while. But to start out with the easiest and most important questions, why don’t you tell us about the dogs that you live with?
KH: I have five Chinooks that currently live with me. My oldest is 15 and a quarter. I’m celebrating quarter birthdays now—she celebrates quarter birthdays now.
JH: For sure. Yeah.
KH: So today happens to be her quarter birthday. And that’s Tikaani. I have her daughter Sakari, who’s 12 and a half. I have another daughter, Calista, who’s 11. I have Sakari’s daughter, Nashira, who turns eight next week. And I have Nashira’s daughter Ankaa, who is a year and a half. They are all purebred Chinooks that are registered with the UKC except for Ankaa, the youngest, who is part of our Chinook breed conservation program. So she’s an F1b, second generation Chinook with a Tamaskan dog grandparent.
JH: So maybe the first thing we should talk about—I know you have a lot of information for us about Chinook history— is what is an F1b because I know there’s going to be people who don’t know that.
KH: Yeah. So looking at the generations of our crossbreeding program in Chinooks, and this is what we’ve had throughout the last sort of 40 years. And the first generation is where you have a Chinook parent and a non Chinook parent. Then the second generation is where you take one of those dogs and breed it back to a purebred Chinook. Which is technically what we call the F1b generation. So it has three Chinook grandparents and one non-Chinook grandparent.
JH: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Okay, so you’ve been in Chinooks for a while. You want to tell us a bit about the breed, like what were they developed to do initially? What kinds of dogs are they?
KH: Yep, so my oldest Chinook would have been 16 and a quarter. So yes, I’ve been in the breed for about 16 years. Actually, today is Chinook’s birthday. So the breed actually harkens back to an ancestor upon which the rest of the breed is modeled. And he was born 104 years ago in New Hampshire. As a matter of fact, Chinooks are the state dog of New Hampshire.
JH: So we should state that today is January 17 then, because there’s a lot going on today, apparently,
KH: Yes. Yes, there is. January’s a busy month. So Chinooks were effectively originally bred as sort of companion sled dogs. So they did a lot of sledding work, and sort of farm dogs. They were part of the foundation of the New England Sled Dog Club, where they actually did racing. They’re not as fast as Siberian Huskies. So once Siberian Huskies started to migrate into New England, Chinooks became a little bit less competitive and really sort of were then versatile enough to transition over to do some more freighting and hauling work around the farms up there.
But through it all, one of the things that they wanted to maintain and preserve in the breed was a temperament that was active and devoted to their people, very biddable for a northern sort of sled dog breed, very good with children, and with a great off switch so that they could come inside at the end of the day, instead of needing to be outside to get some more yah yahs out. So it’s a little bit of a different temperament and a different activity level than you would expect from a standard sled dog that’s, you know, go go go and going to run for many, many miles.
So today’s Chinooks are really sort of versatile, active family companions. They do great in all different kinds of environments. They’re very easily trained, they have a great off switch at home, and they’re really good at a lot of dog sports. So, barn hunt, nosework, recreational mushing, agility, Rally obedience. They like to be with their people and doing things with their people. So that’s really what we’re trying to preserve, is an active dog that also can be a great companion and Netflix and chill if that’s the rainy day activity for the family, and then be sort of trustworthy wherever you want to go.
They’re very rare, we estimate there’s about 1100 Chinooks in the world. And we have, on average, about 65 to 70 Puppies a year. And it’s very closely tracked. The community, like all families, has things that we agree on, and things that we don’t agree on, but does work relatively closely together to keep track of the dogs. And so we’re pretty confident in our numbers. And that’s part of why we have been able to get some good data on where we are as a breed in terms of health and longevity. And get some people that are thinking a little bit more futuristically about where we want to go.
JH: They sound so lovely. I’ve met a few. I ran into one, as I told you. I live in New Hampshire, I ran into one locally, and they said that they knew you. And then of course there was the time I came to the specialty to say hi to you—they are such nice dogs. So what is the formal structure of the breed clubs like? You mentioned UKC, are they also recognized by the AKC, what is the breed club? What’s that situation?
KH: The first recognition was with—so little bit of history to add in there. In 1981, there were 11 intact Chinooks in the world. Because primarily for many decades, from say, the 20s, maybe the 30s through the late 70s one person at a time really controlled all the breeding stock. It was a different person, the person changed, but it was only one person at a time. So there was really no growth beyond breeding that that person did.
And those 11 dogs that we knew existed in 1981 all were related to four dogs from the late 70s. So there’s a four dog genetic bottleneck that all purebred Chinooks came through. In the early 80s three people sort of got together and said we feel this is worth putting our effort into saving. And so they actually split the dogs up, east coast, middle of the country, west coast, and sort of worked together to try and grow a breeding community and expand the number of dogs and responsibly take the breed into the future.
So that was started in 1981. And in the late 80s, they began to seek Kennel Club recognition as a registered breed. That was with the United Kennel Club, and they gained Kennel Club recognition with the UKC in 1991. So the Chinook Owners Association is the parent club associated with the United Kennel Club. Chinooks were subsequently recognized by the AKC in 2013. And there’s a separate parent club, you have to have different parent clubs. The UKC and the AKC require that. So there’s a separate parent club that looks after the AKC Chinook. There’s a lot of overlap, but there are some distinct differences in standards and a little bit in philosophies of the two different clubs.
JH: So you have mentioned that your dogs are registered with UKC. If you wanted to register them with AKC for any reason, would you be able to do that?
KH: Right now any Chinook with a UKC purebred pedigree can be registered with the AKC through January of 2023. So the studbook will remain open through there. That will enable all of the dogs from the first COA crossbreeding program to technically be registered with the AKC. None of the dogs from our second program that we launched in 2017 will be eligible for AKC registration, the studbook will close prior to that. Now whether it can be reopened in the future or people want to do that is something, but we’re unfortunately looking at a bit of a breed split. Some people have elected not to register their purebreds with AKC sort of pending, and also because the AKC standard has some disqualifications of standard historical colors that people aren’t supportive of.
JH: I see.
KH: So that’s a little bit of a philosophical difference. And you see this, unfortunately, in many breeds.
JH: Yeah, I was gonna say it’s not surprising at all.
KH: Yeah. And one of the things that we’ve really tried to do with the COA is, people can have their own preference, people have their own preferences, and that’s fine. And, in fact, I’ll maintain there’s benefit from people having different preferences, because they’ll choose different dogs to work and different dogs to breed. And that gives us diversity and, and a broader opportunity to support the breed moving forward. It’s when you start to put hard lines between “This is acceptable and that’s not acceptable. Or you can do it, but we’ll kind of look down on it.” That’s where you start to get into trouble. So inclusivity is where I think the future is, what we want for the Chinook, both in terms of crossbreeding and supporting all of our purebred breeders with what they feel is best for their programs and their dogs moving forward.
JH: Yeah, so and I guess I’d be curious what some of the different characteristics are that the different clubs disagree about?
KH: It’s mainly color and size. Which I also think is very common. If you look even within a breed with one registry you see working dogs tend to be a different size, and potentially color, and even body style than some of the show dogs. So, the AKC standard requires the dog to be tawny to be shown. You can do performance events if it’s not tawny. About 75% of our dogs are tawny historically. So it is a significant number. But 25 In a breed that’s as small as our breed is, is pretty significant. And so excluding the…we have tan point, black and tan, and cream color dogs as well historically. Outcrossing is potentially going to add to that, though we would not want to amplify those colors moving forward. But if we get a different color coming through the cross program, we don’t want to discount the dog simply because it’s not the color we prefer. I want to mention that the AKC prefers a bigger dog than the UKC. So…
JH: Yeah, so that is sounding pretty in line with what we like to talk about in terms of functional breeding. That the color is for the most part, I mean, there’s some situations where you could call color functional, but in this particular case, it doesn’t doesn’t matter as much as some.
KH: Right, there’s no (unclear) conditions associated with the colors.
JH: So that is quite a bottleneck going back to four dogs. That’s really impressive. So can you talk a little bit about that? I mean, I have specific questions I could ask, but I feel like you know enough about this, I might be able to just let you go.
KH: What I can start at least and say—and it sounds horrifying—it kind of is horrifying from a biological standpoint. But if you look at a lot of the breeds of dogs post World War II, you see many that are in single digit bottlenecks coming out of an event. Now ours didn’t happen to be World War II, it happened to be the single breeder that had control of the breed, no longer being able to keep up with a breeding program. But external events do these things.
So although the breed grew in the 80s, we had more than 11 intact dogs, even if they were closely related. We also had people that began to crossbreed them for fertility and health reasons. And the occasional oops litter. And so when the people got together and tried to start seeking UKC recognition, it got to be a little complicated to try and weed through pedigrees, and who was purebred, and who wasn’t. And that dog might look purebred but the person that bred it, you know, might not be able to, might not be with us anymore, might not be able to identify the pedigree. So it got a little complicated to do what you typically do when you register a purebred and draw a circle around these dogs and say these are the ones that are pure.
So what the people chose to do, the breed club at the time, was say, alright, we know these guys are purebred. We know these guys are not, but they have purebreds in them that aren’t in any other pedigrees, for example, in many cases, so we don’t want to lose them. But we don’t want to recognize them as purebred initially. So the United Kennel Club actually worked with the Chinook Owners Association and said, “Okay, you guys manage your program about how you’re going to get the non-purebreds to what you want to call purebred status. Give us the purebreds and then when you’re ready, tell us that a dog has obtained purebred status in your eyes and we’ll give it papers.”
And so the first COA crossbreeding program sort of came out of that. And it recognized some lines that were grandfathered, it provided the opportunity to add new lines, it had requirements like health testing at every generation. It was really focused around the best of the best, we’re only going to take the very best of each generation—very small numbers of these crosses forward. Because yes, we want to preserve them, but we want to, you know, make sure that they’re Chinooks by the time we sort of wave a magic wand over them and call them purebred.
And it was all with the best of intents. And in fact, a lot of the current programs that you see coming out of Europe for crosses are really sort of doing the same thing, very strict and very difficult criteria at each generation. I think the benefit of that is people that aren’t fully supportive of the program feel a little bit better about it, that there’s strong central control, and, and strong gates around health testing and phenotypic testing and that sort of thing. We also had initially a four or five generation requirement, depending on the origin, before a dog could be purebred. And so that worked and and actually, the people stewarding the cross lines through did a tremendous amount of lifting. Because it really fell on their shoulders, especially at the first, second and third generations, It was not easy to find other breeders that were willing to invest breeding stock into these crosses to bring them forward. So the people stewarding the lines did a lot of work for over a decade per line, to get dogs to the point that it met the program criteria and could be deemed a purebred.
This was also done dog by dog. So the dog had to be two, pass its health tests, once it was a fourth or fifth generation, and be evaluated by a judge as meeting the standard, you know, all of it’s very strict and comprehensive criteria.
Ultimately, we had 25 Dogs evaluated from the beginning of the program, which would have been in the early 90s through I think the last litter was born in 2014. So they were eligible for purebred evaluation in 2016. So over that timeframe, we had 25 dogs come through, which is not a lot, they all go back to three initial founders. So we got a four dog bottleneck, we added three new founders to that. So that’s good. But given a breed that we’re trying to grow, you know, in the high hundreds and into over 1000, still not a significant foundation to move forward.
What we found also is that the contribution of the outcross dogs really is now bottlenecked through mostly third generations, like one dog in the third generation. So even where they had extra second or first generation litters, it was just too hard to move all those dogs forward. So anything that we would have gained from a genetic diversity standpoint really was diluted by the time we were able to move dogs into the purebred population. So it’s good, we added things. But we probably did not add as much as we thought we were going to.
We actually did a study with Mars Veterinary in 2009. And it was a genetic study. And it was like so cutting edge at the time, and we were so excited. And looking back, it was like I think they checked, you know, like 50 alleles or something. But it was really, really pretty groundbreaking at the time. What we found, interestingly enough, was of all the alleles that they monitored 27% of them were solely in the cross population. Now, a lot of people took that to mean we’d introduced fully a quarter—25% of the DNA in Chinooks was non-Chinook. But in fact, that’s really not true. Because what we found is that a lot of the dogs that had been bred into the cross program were not bred as pure, even though they were purebred, they were only contributing to the future Chinook population through their cross descendants. So it was more of a population isolation than pure contribution from the outcrosses.
But that’s an interesting thing that we wanted to incorporate because I don’t think people think about that when they’re looking at outcross programs. You’re not only capturing genes from the outcross dogs, it’s also the purebred dogs that may not be being bred otherwise in the purebred population that you’re preserving through that. Don’t know if that makes sense or not?
JH: Yeah, can you say a little more about that? So the purebred dogs that you wouldn’t otherwise be breeding? So are you saying that because of the outcross program, there were purebred dogs that you would not otherwise have bred that did get bred.
KH: Yes. Or they might have otherwise been bred but they weren’t—the only litters they had were as part of the cross program.
JH: And why was that? Why did the cross program pull them in?
KH: I think part of it is what we found overall is geography impacts breeding. So where the dogs are. And it’s a very rare breed. So you may have to drive hundreds of miles to find a breeding partner. So it’s a little bit about that, it’s a little bit about people dynamics and people that are willing and able to work well with others. And which group they might align with, the people that were focused on the purebred breeding or the people that were focused on the crossbreeding. And frankly, in a rare breed, for example, if we have a stud that has two litters, he’s close to being overrepresented in the gene pool, like three litters is a lot for a stud. So if a purebred stud had one litter, and it happened to be a cross litter, that might be all that he ever has.
JH: Interesting. Okay, so that was the sort of first pass then. Yep, the 90s to the 2000s.
KH: We found some interesting things from it, though. So not only did we get some of these haplotypes just from the crosses, but we did find through health surveys that overall health outcomes were better in the crosses in key areas, and that’s hip, eye, and neurologic health. They were the same in some areas, around GI and skin issues, sort of allergies. And we did actually see that the crosses had a higher incidence of atypical Chinook temperament.
So we did a health survey in 2003, and another one in 2007. The findings were pretty consistent across the two. The key health outcomes, and frankly, the ones we could test for—hip, eye, and like we can’t really test for seizures or not, but it was something that was forefront of the mind—were better coming out of the crosses than the purebred side.
What we didn’t get hard data on there but we’re looking at in the current and revised crossbreeding program is fertility. And we’re seeing some pretty interesting differences. It’s a very small dataset, but some pretty interesting differences in that so far as well. We did end up with out of the 25 dogs that went cross to pure, so we waved a magic wand over them when they passed all their tests, eight of them became grand champions, seven of them became champions. One was a national best of breed. One was a top 10 best of breed and multiple of them were UKC, top 10 dogs. So in terms of dogs meeting the standard, by the time they were fourth generation, and in fact, frankly, many of the second and third generation dogs met the breed standard without exceptions.
JH: I’ve heard that again and again, that by the time you get to third generation, the dog is basically back to type. Although often as you said, then you’ve sort of bred back out a lot of the diversity as well, unfortunately. Oh, yeah. So that’s a question that I think a lot of people tend to have about outcross projects. So you answered the first question, which would be, did it successfully improve health outcomes? And it seems like it did. A second question that a lot of people like to ask is well, did it introduce any new diseases that were not in the breed before? So did you see any of that?
KH: We have no evidence that it introduced any diseases that had not previously been seen. Chinooks, for as a small breed as it is and as related a breed as it is, do have relatively good health. Anecdotally, we may have been seeing that decline in the last sort of five or six years, which is one of the reasons we launched the second crossbreeding program. But overall, we are pretty healthy. We did not get any weird new diseases that have come out of it at all. And the only thing that I think did surprise people is we probably got blue eyes from the Siberian Husky outcross that occasionally pop up. And if that’s the worst that happens, nobody should lose any sleep over that. Actually, some people really like the tawny coat and the blue eyes.
JH: Yeah, that sounds pretty. I think Embark has found a marker for Husky blue eyes. So it might be possible…that would be recessive, so that’s why it hides, but it might be possible for people to test.
KH: Yeah, and people are these days. It’s incomplete dominant, I think, is where they’ve landed on it. So it isn’t completely predictive, the test, but it is interesting if people want to screen for that. I think we’d have a lot of other things we should be focusing on as a breed before we worry about blue eyes.
But um, yeah, one other thing to note, the breeding community was really split at the beginning. And in fact, the parent club that went off and became the AKC parent club was pretty violently against the outcross program in the 90s. By 2013, every single active breeder in Chinooks had bred to a descendant of the cross program. Every single one. The first Chinook on TV in AKC at the National Kennel Club in Philadelphia was a descendant of the cross program. And the first best of breed winner at Westminster was a descendant of the cross program, so…
JH: That’s very successful.
KH: So one of the things that I would put out there for people is (because there’s a lot of “Oh, you must need 50 people”) you need some people, you need more than one person to get a cross program up and running. And one of the things we want to do in the next program is focus on the first and second generations and make sure we are breeding healthy, good examples of dogs in those generations, not just the one that we deem best from each letter, because we want to preserve some of the genetic diversity. But people that aren’t really supportive of that when they start to see third and fourth generation dogs, and they see improved health outcomes, and they see typy dogs, they sort of forget that there’s a great, great grandparent in the closet back there, that wasn’t a Chinook.
And we’re hopeful that that will be the case, you know, a decade from now, with the breeders that are currently not supportive. We do have a majority that seem to be supportive of our current program. There’s a lot of support if you do the crossbreeding in a way that I want with a dog breed that I want. But I’m not going to do it. But yeah, that’s what you should do. But again, there’s a little bit of the proof is in the pudding (unclear) but at this point, we can point to the first program and say give it five or 10 years. And you know if you build it, they will come—we’re sort of hoping that comes again.
JH: Yeah. So you did mention that some of them had atypical Chinook temperaments. What did you mean by that? And does that still show up now in like fifth generation dogs?
KH: No, this really came out of the second, mostly the second and third generation surveys. And I mean, it varied in terms of whether it was overly anxious or overly confident. So if you look at the bell curve of where we want Chinooks to be, there were dogs that were outside of that. And more of the crosses were outside of that than the purebreds. The physical, the morphology, the color, you know that that look, came along more quickly, it seems, than the temperament. Now whether that was because that will always happen, or because that was the breeding choices that were there—because again, we’re talking about small datasets, it’s a little hard to tell. But it is something that in the second program we really wanted to focus on is to make sure that breeders are considering temperament more top of mind because that is the area that we found lagging in the prior program.
JH: Yeah, and I think it makes a lot of sense. Morphology can be a lot easier to select on, for two reasons. Partly because it’s easier to describe, right? It’s easier to say this dog is tawny or not tawny than to say, is this dog anxious—I have to wait and see, and how much does that have to do with how I raised the dog? And then secondly, because morphology tends to be controlled by fewer genes. And so it’s just easier to fix that than behavior with, you know…
KH: That makes sense.
JH: So I think you probably will see that again. But it’s nice to know and not too surprising to know that that was something that sort of was the first few generations. And as you say something to take into account, definitely when you’re picking the dogs that you cross to. I think one thing when we think about outcross programs, too, is that we think of them as producing dogs that are going to be dogs of that breed, but that the first and second generation dogs, a lot of those might end up going to people who actually want something a little bit different. That’s fine.
KH: Right. So I’ve done two F1 litters under the new program, one with a Tamaskan dog, and one with a Labrador retriever. And having had a dozen purebred Chinook litters, and then in comparison these two, I mean, the puppy developmental timelines were different.
JH: (Laughs) Labs, yeah.
KH: Labs are on a completely different end of the spectrum than Tamaskan dogs that are very much more like a primitive breed in terms of the rapidity of them hitting developmental milestones. So it was fascinating and eye opening, and not surprising. Now, what I want to be careful about is people think if you mix breeds, you get this, you know, massive spectrum of puppies that are all over the place and have conflicting instincts and that sort of thing. That’s not what happened. I had a Chinook mother whom I knew very well. And I had a Tamaskan father whom you know, I have a great relationship with the breeder, I know exactly what he is. Tamaskans are higher energy, they’re more prone to separation anxiety, they have a lot more Northern breed, but also a huge German Shepherd influence. Like, I knew what an average Tamaskan I could expect to be and I knew what I was going to get out of the Chinook side. And the puppies are a pretty predictable spectrum of that. That spectrum is tilted to the right of the Chinook spectrum in terms of activity level, for example, and independence, and prey drive, but I knew that because that’s what I’m getting from the Tamaskan. So it isn’t that it isn’t predictable doing these mixes. It’s just that you’re going to get a different, you should be predicting a slightly different sort of bell curve and temperament than if you’re doing a purebred letter.
JH: A different range, yeah. And again, there’s people out there who want that.
KH: Yeah, some of these puppies went to working homes, and the Tamaskan puppies do fantastic in working and very active homes.
JH: Very cool. So alright, so you had the first outcross program, and so that ended in what the early 2000s?
KH: 2014 was the last litter and that was with frozen semen. So I mean, that basically was all of the dogs that had been outcrossed in the 90s. We’ve gone through their four generations to purebred status, there’s nothing else in the pipeline.
JH: Oh, so I see. So the new blood was brought in in the 90s. And then the dogs were sort of followed and gradually brought into being registered. Okay, and so then, now they’re all technically purebred, because the magic wand has been waved. But then there was, I guess, then there was the discussion about opening the books up again, and doing another outcross.
KH: So we sort of looked at the breed and did an analysis, and this was right with AKC recognition too. What we found is over 90, I think 90% of the time, and now about 98% of the breeding population is descended from the crosses in the 90s. So it’s all homogenous again. Which it speaks well in terms of people accepting the crosses and breeding to them. But it does mean that where we are in terms of genetic diversity is the best we could hope to be is preserving where we are.
We did work with the Institute of Canine Biology, because we had breeders that collaborated on a comprehensive pedigree database. So we are very lucky as a breed to have that. ICB worked with a couple population geneticists. They looked at it and said, equivalent population size and you know, they did all the extra special number crunching and came back and said, yeah, you’re not really in great shape. In terms of sustainability, you don’t have a lot of dogs, they’re highly related. They’re highly related with the same set of ancestors, deep back. And so good, we can help you with strategies to preserve what you have. But that’s not a lot. I mean, you’re you’re, you’re kind of on shaky foundation.
Just as an example, we’ve done a lot of work with both Wisdom Panel and Embark. I think the Embark numbers are easy to understand. Chinook genetic COI, so the predicted relatedness of Chinooks, on average is about 38%, which is multiple generations of parents, parent/child or full sibling breedings to get to that, if you were to replicate it.
JH: I just wanted to jump in and give that a little bit more perspective. So breeders of endangered species, like zoos, try to keep COI under 10%, which is a bit of an arbitrary line. But that sort of, you know, what we have decided is a great goal for everybody. Purebred dogs, in general, if you take all the breeds and average them, are around 20 to 25% COI. And then if you look at some of the breeds where there’s some really scary health problems, they tend to be a lot higher, in the 30s, or the 40s. So that’s just to help everybody have a perspective of when I would see a 38% number, I would definitely be scrambling to do something about it.
KH: Yeah. And it’s really insightful on human psychology, because people can see that and you can put all the logic out there. But people can also say, but I look at my dogs, and I look at the two or three litters that I bred, and they’re all perfectly healthy, so we’re fine. I’m not really good at marketing. So it’s hard to communicate to people that you have to take a step back. I’m not saying your dogs aren’t important, your dogs are a piece of the puzzle. And you really have to look at the whole puzzle of the breed to say, are we in a good position?
I didn’t personally want the breed to drive off the cliff of 78%, dying of cancer at eight or nine, before we chose to do something. And looking at the work that said you’re never going to be better than 38% COI, but you can work hard to stay there didn’t feel like a good position. And I thought we owe the dogs a little bit more, to be honest. And so collaborating with some like-minded people and talking to some of the scientists, you know, we said we really should… The first program worked. It was imperfect but it did work. So we should really look at doing that again. And a lot of people then said, well just go find the program that’s out there that’s doing it and has figured it all out and copy it. Which I would have been perfectly happy to do. Unfortunately, I haven’t found it and if anyone else has it, I hope they would email me and share it with us all.
JH: People message me all the time asking for that handbook and I generally send them to you, honestly, and say, “Well, Karen’s been through this so you can ask her what she did, but that’s the best I got.”
KH: Yeah. We’re learning. So there is a lot of helpful information out there. So the work that the conservation biologists have done with zoos is helpful and insightful and amazing. But species conservation is a little bit different from breed conservation. The other thing that I’ll put out there, because I’ve had this argument with some people that are like, “But this is what they did. And that’s what we should do.” When you’re producing puppies that are going to be companion animals and go into homes, you have a whole, I think, a different ethical obligation to your puppy families and to your dogs than when you’re trying to preserve a species. And so you have to weight things a little bit differently. And what may come up as the best genetic match to preserve diversity might not be something that you as a breeder can get behind, for a variety of reasons that are valid. Like we shouldn’t try and force breeders to just take what you know, this is what the number calculator churns out is the best genetic option.
JH: Sure, I mean, you could breed them to Chihuahuas, and that would probably bring in a whole lot of diversity, but it’s not the direction that you want to go.
KH: And what do you do with the first generation?
JH: Right, right.
KH: But there’s still a lot of information that, you know, models and statistics that they use, and methods that they found that are hugely instructional. We also have our first experience with the crossbreeding program in the COA. And there are a number of other crossbreeding programs, primarily out of Europe and the Scandinavian Kennel Club seems to be the sort of hotbed of them that are also set up with population geneticists input and things like that. But most of them are in their first or second generation, Norwegian Lundehund is one, there’s several. So we looked at those, we looked at what conservation biology had to teach us from the zoos, we looked at our first experience. And we tried to go find the expert that we could talk to, in academia, on this, and then there really isn’t. They’re all kind of working their way through it with clubs. So we decided that…
JH: I actually talked to someone at one point and said, Can you hook me up with someone who’s working on zoo preservation? Because I would love to have them on the podcast, or talk about the kinds of things they do. And the person was like, none of them care about dogs, that species is not in trouble, the species of dogs is totally fine. And they are interested in species.
KH: Which is a fair point, like I get it. It’s a related problem, but it’s…
JH: It’s a different perspective.
KH: I talked to the health and genetics committee, we looked at the data. And we sort of came to the conclusion that doing something was better than doing nothing as long as we had the right ethical boundaries around something, you know, it wasn’t just go walk down the street, find a non-Chinook to breed your dog to and go for it and we’ll see where it goes. You know, like, let’s put something together, let’s base it on what we know worked last time, and try and fix what we think didn’t work last time with the program, and what science has to tell us now from our genetic testing and our population analysis. And then let’s build in a mechanism into the program to evaluate it annually with the committee and every couple of years with uh, with any scientists we can get to talk to us, to see where we are and where we should go.
So I mean, effectively, that’s what we came up with. We did put in where we want the breed average COI to be in 15 years and where we want the equivalent population size. Whether the numbers we came up with are achievable or not, I don’t know. But it’s directional. And what we want to do is review them and then adjust as we go along. Because again, that felt more valuable to the dogs as a whole than sort of sitting around and waiting for someone to come down from the mountain with the tablets of how to do a cross breeding program.
JH: Well, are you going to tell us what the numbers are?
KH: We launched the program with a couple of objectives that were sort of the headlines. And that was to develop and maintain a sustainable gene pool for the Chinook, and improve the health and longevity by reducing inbreeding. We did want to put some sort of statistics or numbers there because what gets measured gets done. And so based on the analysis that we’ve been able to do, we put out there that we want to decrease the average coefficient of inbreeding of litters from 37.4% to below 15% by 2030. Now, I know that’s not where we probably want to be in the long term. But we wanted to set something out there to start us in the right direction and then adjust as we go along. We also put out there, because this is something that breeders can do on their own, which is about decreasing average five generation pedigree COIs to 3%, because a lot of people look at five generation COIs. And we wanted to increase the effective population size from about 12 to 50 by 2030.
JH: Yeah, those sound like good goals, I want to say realistic goals. I don’t know if it’s realistic or not. But it sounds like it would move Chinooks from being on one side of the spectrum when compared to other purebred dogs, to being sort of more in the middle. I think it would be good for people if we define some terms. So you refer to effective population size. I’m trying to think what the other thing was that you said that I thought people would want. Oh, pedigree COI, people ask us a lot, what is the difference between COI and pedigree COI? Can you talk about that a bit?
KH: Yeah, so at the time we did this, we didn’t have a lot of people adopting some of the newer genetic COI tools that are available. And that’s actually one of the things that we’re going to be looking at whether we should add a new genetic COI metric. But pedigree COI is basically, if you look at the five generation or x generation pedigree of a dog, you can actually do the math. There’s a calculation based on that pedigree that tells you what the inbreeding coefficient should be, or what is the likelihood of a puppy having inherited the same gene from both parents from a common ancestor. It’s theoretical, because it always assumes you get, you know, the same percentage as a linear sort of mathematical calculation, but it is directional.
There are some very interesting tools that are now available. We happen to, as a breed club, be going with Embark now, and are working with them as a research partner. So we want what will look, you know, at Embark we’re about 38% average COI for Chinooks, so we’d want to sort of come up with, I think, a measure as to where we want to be by 2030 there. I totally get your point on whether it is realistic to get there, because we have, on average, not that many litters a year. And as I said, we’ve had five litters in the second cross program since its inception. So I don’t know if it’s realistic.
We’re working with dogsglobal.com and Dr. Pieter Oliehoek, who’s a population geneticist, right now. And he’s going to be doing a population analysis, which will tell us where we are against some of those numbers today. And this gets back to the part I talked about earlier, which is that we built a feedback mechanism into the program. So what we’ll do is we’ll get the input from him and from Embark, and we’ll review the program and then say, does that still seem realistic for 2030? Do we want to be more aggressive? Should we adjust it in either way? Or does that mean we want to be more aggressive in soliciting people to do crossbreeding litters because we know we’re going to fall short, potentially. And we think that that’s not good for the goal of a sustainable gene pool. Those are sort of all the things that we need to be number crunching now that we’re far enough along to have some litters to be able to tell the difference. So it’s all learning.
JH: Yes. Right. Because really this hasn’t been done. I don’t want to say it’s never been done before. But certainly as we both said, there’s not a handbook. There’s not any recognition of the right way to do it. What to do (unclear)
KH: What we’ve found with some of the numbers… We’ve had four new founders and we’ve had five litters. So there was a repeat letter with one of the new founders, again, because of geography actually. And, you know, if you don’t have access to a repro vet, and you’re in the middle of nowhere…
JH: The practicalities of life. Yes, for sure.
KH: And services are a barrier. So what we found in the litters that have been analyzed by Embark, the F1s have had a COI of zero to 4%, a genetic COI. So their prediction based on the actual, which is what you’d expect, you to expect it to be quite low compared to the 38 ish of a purebred.
JH: Yeah. And that basically tells us that their parents are completely unrelated, which is what you would expect.
KH: Yeah, it flipped out. I lost you. You froze, are you still there? Oh, there you go.
JH: Sorry. Yeah, I don’t know who’s on whose end. So just to clarify, a genetic COI of zero basically means that the two parents are completely unrelated, which is what you would expect if you were breeding dogs from two unrelated breeds. So for example, if I were to breed a Border Collie to an Australian Shepherd, I might not expect to get quite a zero COI, but that would not be something that I would be doing in an initial part of a long term outcross program. So that’s about what you would expect, but just wanted to clarify for people that that’s what that means.
KH: No, very fair. Thanks for that. Yeah. And I’d have to look up the Labrador because the Labrador and the Bernese Mountain Dog are probably the most unrelated. We know there’s some common ancestry between the Tamaskan side and the Siberian Husky side, which are the other two. But still very low. I mean, zero to 4%, even 4% is pretty low.
What we found is, we’ve had two sort of second generation litters and the COI has jumped to about 18 to 22%, immediately. Which is, again, probably to be expected and actually fairly in line with what you would get from a pedigree, but sort of horrifying if your goal is to reduce this. I mean, yay, 22% is lower than 38%. But by the time we get to the third generation, it’s going to be hard to not be right smack in the middle of purebred levels of inbreeding. So you know, this is the thing that we’re looking at. And, you know, part of me thinks, and we’ve talked about it, I think we have a population of breeders that’s open to just saying, this program goes on, sort of in perpetuity. We’ll decide if it ever has to end at some point, but we don’t we don’t at this point see that this is three or four dogs that get added and we’re done and we can sort of wash our hands and move on.
JH: Yeah, I think having a program going on in perpetuity is, I think it makes a lot of sense. I talk a lot about a research paper that was, it was just a paper doing computer analysis. So they weren’t looking at real dogs, right. But they basically looked at, if you cross in a dog, and then you start breeding back to type, you’re just going to breed that all right back out. And so I think it’s not surprising. But the goal of a healthy large scale outcross project, if we can talk about how hard that is to build up, but I think the goal would be that you would have the diversity coming in in a lot of different places. So if I want to breed my Chinook to your Chinook, mine would have, you know, a Lab in the ancestry and yours would have a Berner in the ancestry, and we’d breed them. And then that would be bred to something that had the Tamaskan and you know, something else.
KH: Right? And that’s ultimately our goal. And in fact, it’s a different way to think about what’s a Chinook. And to me, it’s less about what papers a great great grandparent had. And more about what does the dog do, act like, and look like? And if those things all fit what I expect of a Chinook why isn’t it a Chinook? Or, can it be a Chinook? Why can’t we think about it as Chinook? And again, who really cares where the great, great, great grandparent came from?
What we’ve found, so over the last five years, we’ve had about 12% of the litters have been cross litters, and about 16% of the new population. So we have seen the cross litters have an average litter size of about two puppies larger than the purebreds. Which again, it’s a small sample size, but two puppies, when an average litter is six puppies, is a third of a litter more.
JH: Significant, yeah.
KH: One of the other things that we found, was in the seven outcross litters we’ve had one C-section, which is about 14%. And we’ve had zero neonate fatalities. In comparison, in the purebred side, just in 2021, we had about a 40% C-section rate, which is consistent across the last few years, and about a 9% neonate fatality rate. So it’s small numbers, but our experience so far is a significantly lower rate of C-sections and neonate fatalities, which is certainly the direction we want to go.
JH: Previous research has suggested to us to expect, which is that when animals start to become inbred, you see fertility go down.
KH: Exactly. And in a breed that’s really struggling to expand our breeder population, the easier we can make breeding and having a litter, the better off we are. So not having to worry about C-sections 40% of the time, not having to worry about neonate fatalities, you know… You always have to worry about it because anything can happen. So I’m not I’m not saying it’s the perfect solution. But if we can improve those odds, we can also feel more confident as we try and onboard new breeders to help us grow the breed responsibly, which is a good feeling to be in.
JH: Yeah, and speaking of bringing new breeders in, you mentioned something about a Bernese Mountain Dog cross. And that one was one that really interested me because of the group that you worked with. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
KH: Yeah, so there’s a group of Bernese breeders who have sort of pioneered a cross breeding program. Now theirs is not sanctioned by a parent club. So they’re a smaller group and I think they struggle in terms of getting support, probably to the extent that would be more useful for their efforts. But they sort of are in the same place of doing something is better than doing nothing. And even if I can’t do the perfect thing, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
And so they’ve had, I think they just had two more litters, and they’re on their F litter already or something as part of the Bernese outcross program. So the interesting thing about that litter, which is very exciting, is the puppies that are the F1 are able to contribute to both programs. They can contribute both to the Bernese Mountain Dog program and the Chinook program. They’re just turning two I think probably late November of last year, so they’re just starting to get their health tests. But it’s a really exciting opportunity to collaborate amongst like minded people and potentially impact two different breeds, sort of two birds with one stone really, and provide things to both breeds that they’re looking for, which is fantastic.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. It’s lucky. I hope we could see more of that going forward as we start seeing more outcross projects. Alright, so where do things stand now? How are the outcross puppies doing? Are they showing? Are they being accepted by the community?
KH: So I think the people that were supportive in the beginning are still supportive. I think there’s a lot of people that are sort of waiting and see. And there’s some people that are sort of fairly against ever incorporating the new crosses into the population. We just have two second generation litters. So we’re talking about mostly first generation dogs, which would be the ones you would expect to have the least Chinook-like appearance, although in fact they’re all pretty typy.
We had an AKC judge evaluate both of the second generation litters. A renowned AKC judge evaluated them, every single puppy in both litters, and they were big litters, it was a nine puppy and an eight puppy litter. So 17 puppies were all evaluated as above average conforming to the Chinook standard, with the exception of color in a couple of the puppies. And on average, half the puppies in the litter don’t become above average. That’s why the average is an average. So we felt really good about that outcome from a second generation litter.
We’ve got a long way to go. The health and genetics committee is trying to focus on how do we help people sort of get over the bump of breeding to a first generation or second generation dog, when particularly new breeders don’t want to buck the system. And they want to go for a big tawny dog that’s going to look just like Chinook and sort of be comfortable. And I get that it’s hard. The dog world can be really hard if you’re bucking the system a little bit. But we do really want to focus on carrying as many of the healthy and happy and well-tempered, well-structured dogs forward as we can from the first and second generations to bring what we can and glean it from the outcross.
We’re also still looking for additional outcrosses. We think particularly female, because all of the outcrosses so far have been males, because it’s a lot easier to find someone that will let their stud be used than someone that wants to take their non-Chinook female and have a Chinook litter. So we’re prioritizing that. And we’re working with Dogs Global to sort of see how that goes.
The COA does, as part of all of its events, all of Chinook crosses are welcome. And in the specialty, we actually have an exhibition class just for the cross dogs, so they get best of breed cross and best female just like the purebreds do, it’s just a different class. Which I think is a good way to encourage owners to get their dogs out. And then so people that might not have otherwise seen any of the crosses, get the opportunity to interact with them and realize that they’re a lot more Chinook-like than you might think just looking at a picture or seeing something on paper. So I think that does help gain acceptance. And I really do think as we get further on in the generations we will gain acceptance.
You know, it’s a bit of a disappointment that we’re going to have this split when the AKC stud book closes, and those dogs are left behind. But there’s always the opportunity for that to be addressed in the future, hopefully. And if we can carry forward some healthy typy dogs, people will be motivated to make that happen I think. Meanwhile, we just want to make sure we’ve got the right sustainable population. Because we love our dogs so much, everybody loves their dogs, but we love our dogs so much. We want to make sure that people in the future can enjoy them, and that they’re healthy and happy as they’re as they’re part of people’s lives.
JH: So it sounds like what you need the most right now is you need people to be interested in buying the outcross puppies, and potentially going forward with breeding them. And you need people to come in with dogs of appropriate breeds and be willing to do outcrosses with you. Particularly if someone had a female of an appropriate breed, that would be really useful. Do you have thoughts about what appropriate breeds are? Are there particular breeds you’re looking at?
KH: I mean, I have personal thoughts. I don’t as part of the committee or the program, we deliberately didn’t want to limit that. Because there’s a lot of work that gets put on the breeders that start a cross and want to push it forward. And we want them to be passionate about what they’re doing, rather than feeling like we’re forcing a choice on them. So I got a lot of pushback on using a Labrador Retriever.
JH: Oh, why? I’m such a lab girl. I don’t have one myself, but I think they’re like the best for crosses. They’re very fertile, they’ve got great personalities.
KH: I mean, I really was doing it in reaction to the outcome from the first cross program that said temperament was one of the things that we found to be more atypical in the crosses than the purebreds. And like, we actually want a less outgoing lab, like a Chinook shouldn’t be… But I thought if I have more outgoing, that’s going to be easier to breed other Chinook purebreds to and moderate than if I ended up getting a more protective dog or something like that,
JH: And it’s easier to place those puppies, right? If you have an overly friendly puppy from your perspective, find it a good pet home. But if you have a puppy that bites people, no one wants that. And that’s not true. Some people want that. (Laughs) But most don’t.
KH: But yes, if you’re doing Schutzhund you want that. The thing that worked out is the Labrador litter literally went home, the beginning of March 20…. I’m losing my years because of COVID, but right as the lockdowns began, so 2020. Yeah, literally went home, they were 10 weeks old, the beginning of March 2020. And some of them did go to homes, that it was their first adult dog. And they’ve all been fantastic. I mean, one is actually actively training for search and rescue certification. One is a service dog in training. And several are first time dogs with new owners that are just doing fine, even though they were locked down for the majority of their formative months. So that was more happenstance.
But I think what we found is breeders have in their heads what they want the Chinook to be and some people want it to be bigger, and some people want it to be more active sledding, and so even people that theoretically support an outcrossing program, get a little bit hung up on if you’re not doing it in the way that I think is making a better Chinook. And you know, they don’t see, look, if that’s not what you want for your program don’t breed to those dogs. It doesn’t make them not Chinooks or not valuable, it just makes… but you have that in purebreds, like those dogs are more on the working side, or those dogs are more on the freighting side. Like it’s no different, it’s just a little bit wider of a spectrum. And trying to get people around to that can be a problem.
So you know, personally, I would love to add Leonberger because I think some of the size would be useful. We do have a pretty large sex dimorphic split. And so bringing some size, particularly to females, I think would be good for us. But I could also see adding another working sled dog as well for working ability and things like that. So I think I would be more supportive of more, even if it’s not something that I would want to breed to, or a dog that I would want to own. If a breeder wants to do it and has a plan, then I want to be able to support that. As long it’s someone trying to keep the criteria. It isn’t about the program, it is about the breed. It’s not about dogs that I would want to own or breed to, right. So there’s a place for all kinds of dogs in the breed.
JH: Yeah. And I think the lesson we’re seeing these days is that there are people out there (unclear)
KH: Yeah, especially, I mean, if Chinooks were a bit more niche, in terms of their desired skill set, it would be one thing, but they’re supposed to be active family companions. So there’s a wide range of what active means and, and that and how outgoing or aloof with strangers a dog can be and still be successful. You know, we have a lot of room to work with there before we tip over into something that could be problematic.
I will say placing puppies has not been a problem. So the more difficult thing will be how do we get purebred breeders to participate breeding their purebreds to the first and second generation dogs. And that becomes, even if they’re supportive of the program, the puppies can’t be registered. That becomes where it becomes—I just said becomes like three times in one sentence (laughs). But it becomes a little bit more difficult trying to make sure that we’ve got the right purebred breeding stock to combine with the cross dogs to move enough of the first and second generation forward. Actually finding homes for the puppies themselves has really not been problematic. In fact, some people, to the point you made earlier, are more attracted to what they think the cross will provide than a purebred
JH: Chinook/Lab cross sounds great to me. Actually not for my home, but for a lot of homes. Sounds like a really nice dog. So, a little less goofy than a lab, maybe say. (laughs)
KH: A little more herding breed serious, yeah.
JH: Yes. And actually, so very breedist of me. So I was suggesting, you know, what breeds would you want but I imagine you would also be open to mixed breeds coming in and from a population genetics perspective, they bring in a lot more diversity in one generation.
KH: Absolutely, yes. As a matter of fact, from the original crossbreeding program, two of the three new founders were mixes. One was a German Shepherd/ Alaskan Husky mix. And one was like a Siberian/Malamute max. So yeah, there is no requirement that the dog be purebred. What I’ve oddly found is it’s a little bit easier to connect with other purebred dog owners that have health tested dogs, right. So many aren’t necessarily supportive of outcrossing programs, but when you start to put health testing and accessibility and maybe even proven barriers, although we don’t require titles, it’s a little bit easier to find that in purebred dogs of this size. I think if we were in the 20 pound size, there’s all the performance sport mixes that (unclear)
JH: I was gonna say, sport mixes is the place to look. I guess, yeah, I’m thinking of like, I don’t know if this would be the traits that you would want. I’m thinking there’s like, Malinois crosses and stuff like that, that are a bit bigger. But it may not be the sort of type of is this, you know, there’s sort of a different behavioral type than what you’re looking for.
KH: Yeah. And I think Chinooks historically are sort of Northern breed plus herding breed with the with a garnish of Mastiff mix. So there’s a lot of herding breed in there. And so I wouldn’t be against it in the right dog. But I do think that there’s a sensitivity and softness in Chinooks. That they can be very, very soft, very herding, very handler soft, and that doesn’t necessarily pair well with some of the intensity that you get from some of the sport mixes. I mean, sport mixes would be bred for that intensity. So yeah, I wouldn’t, I would never say never. But it wouldn’t be something that would be at the top of my mind.
JH: So if someone was interested in getting involved in any of the ways we talked about, if they had a dog that they wanted to work with you with, or if they were just interested in thinking about acquiring one of these lovely dogs, where would they go to learn more?
KH: So the Chinook Owners Association has a website it is chinook.org, c h i n o o k.org. It talks about the program there, it has email links to myself, the different committee heads, everyone on the board. And there’s also a COA Facebook page that people could put questions on and get answered. So that’s probably the easiest way centrally to get a hold of people. And I’m hanging out in the functional dog Facebook page. So I’m always happy to answer any questions that people might have there.
JH: Yes, come join our functional breeding group and that would be another way to talk to Karen. But yeah, so going to facebook.com/functional breeding, you could send a message to the FDC page and get in touch with Karen that way. Cool. Well, thank you so much, Karen. Is there anything that I should have asked that I didn’t?
KH: Not that I can think of. I probably babbled enough of everything I wanted…
JH: Oh, you passion talked, it was perfect! You are so knowledgeable. And it was really, that was fantastic. So I really appreciate your coming on the podcast.
KH: No, thanks for having me. I just, people don’t be scared. You don’t create Frankenstein monsters of dogs. You can find homes for them. And there’s a little bit of if you build it, they will come. People that are vehemently against the outcrossing, when they see the results, all of a sudden become a little bit more supportive. It takes a few generations to get there. But if you have the vision, you know, you could do it. And what we have seen is some of the health and fertility statistics bear out that the outcrossing is beneficial, as you would expect, based on many, many, many research papers.
JH: Well, I hope we can start seeing more groups following your lead and learning from what this project has done. So thanks again.
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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