Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Mechanics Versus Tool Makers in the World of Dogs

In the world of dogs, our tool makers are running very primitive Iron Age production shops.

I got a note asking for recommended reading about line breeding to create a strain of working terriers.

My answer, for what it's worth, is below:

I know of nothing written that is any good, and I actually question the premise.

To make it simple, it's the difference between the goal of the tool user, and the goal of the tool maker .

The tool user wants a tool kit big enough to fit every bolt and screw he might find.

The tool maker wants every tool sold at a premium, and with his name stamped on the handle.
In the world of dogs, our "tool makers" are running very primitive operations.   
If we think of them as early Iron Age production shops, we have it about right.

Iron Age tool makers, like dog breeders today, did not have a perfect understanding of their own production process. 
They would often produce tools that looked great at the sales counter, and which did decent service in summer, but which cracked in winter or old age.

What was going on?  It was as if the recipe for good iron had changed itself.
And it was all a mystery, since the chemistry of ash and ore were still not well understood.

And so it is with dog dealers today, where folks are trying to forge a uniform product for sale. They want a "type" that is stamped like a Stanley hammer. But in the production, and in the stamping, are the unseen seeds of long-term failure.

When you scale up the production of working dogs, things tend to fail because you cannot test all the dogs in the field (a process of at least several seasons).   
In addition, in the rush to create a "type" or "strain" there is bound to be a certain amount of line breeding.

Line breeding, it should be said, is just an apologists' term for inbreeding.

Inbreeding and line breeding are not complex: It is simply mating a sister to brother, sire to daughter, mother to son, or perhaps two first cousins. It is incest, and there is no art to it, only error.

And we know it is error because it has been proscribed since the days of the Old Testament.  It was not proscribed because it was a success, but because it was an all too easy road to ruin.

When you line breed, unseen recessive genes double down, and disease and defect creep in.

Does that happen in one generation? Not necessarily, but it can.

Yes, there are instances of very bad outcomes from out-crosses, and there are instances of very good outcomes from inbreeding, but the math here cannot be denied. 
In the breeding of animals, as at the craps tables of Las Vegas, the rules are mathematical, and there are no long-term players who end up winners.

If you need proof of what's wrong with inbreeding and line breeding, just look at the Kennel Club where every "type" has become a breed, and where every breed now comes with at least three or four diseases attached to it.

Cull you say? 
Culling does not eliminate genetic defect; it only speeds up the narrowing of the gene pool in the absence of out-crossing. Narrowing the gene pool is the opposite of what you want to do --  it loads all the problems into hyper-drive.
Now, here's the frustrating part: We do not live in the age of schooners and candles, but in the age of fiber optics and the Internet.
What that means is that people on any continent can now be easily met with a few clicks of a computer mouse, and dogs can be sent anywhere in the world inside of a week or two.

It has never been easier to find a good dog, of whatever type you want, and there has never been less reason to line breed or inbreed.

And yet we still have people rushing out to buy dogs from big-name kennels and big-name working dog men, many of whom line breed and inbreed. 
But there should be a note of caution. The former are likely to be show ring pretenders who have never worked a dog at all, and the latter are often running on a reputation made 30 years earlier. They are now in their fourth generation of line-breeding from a dog named "Rock" or "Flint" or "Vampire" or "Tosh" that was supposed to have been "the tops" in its day.

And no doubt it was.

But dogs are not just whelped; they are also made by their owners, and by the field experience they have been given. Take good genetic stock, and inbreed or line breed it for a few generations, and then put the pups into the hands of someone looking for a "pull cord terrier" who will go to work at 8 months, and just see how it goes. Not well would be my guess!

Which is not to say that the points I am making here will always be right at every turn. 
There will always be a few excellent dogs produced by mating father to daughter, 
It will always be argued that these dogs alone "prove" line breeding and inbreeding are alright, same as a hard winter "proves" there is no global warming, or a winning weekend in Las Vegas "proves" someone has found a way to "beat the house" in Blackjack.

Hope, as they say, springs eternal.  But math never lies.

Note, that I am not against someone breeding a dog that looks and acts a certain way.

What I am saying is that in this day and age, there is no reason to line breed in order to get there. Look around! It's relatively easy to find unrelated, or not closely related, dogs to fit any matrix you can imagine.

Now, will finding those dogs be as easy and as cheap as simply mating the sire you have in your kennel to his daughter located only one bay over? No. But the cheapest and easiest way is not the way forward if you are truly interested in producing a healthy kennel of working dogs over time.

A final note about uniformity.

I understand that the show ring demands cookie-cutter dogs, and that such a thing is pleasing to the eye and gives comfort to those looking to get a puppy that will grow up to look just like the one they saw in the picture book.

But in the world of working terriers, a little variation in size and temperament is actually a good thing, not a bad thing. As a rule, I want a small dog, but is there a place for the occasional 13" terrier in the field? Absolutely! And is there a place for a dog that will only bay, or will unflinchingly put in the grip? Absolutely! Is there a place for a dog that will come out when called? Absolutely.

And so, in the world of working terriers, a little variation is a good thing, not a bad thing.

The natural genetic wobble that comes from an open gene pool, a disdain for dog show rosettes, and a love of canine diversity, is what has kept the hearth hot and the iron strong in the world of working terriers for a very long time.


PipedreamFarm said...

The long term field study on the wolves of Isle Royal is a study on the impacts of line/in-breeding. The annual reports and the publication (under technical) offer great overviews on genetic diversity (or the impact from the lack of genetic diversity).

Mary Pang said...

Uniformity is good when you're breeding genetically identical mice for drug research (strains of mice are patented), but terrible for pets. Pets should be healthy and robust. Working animals even more so.
I looked after the mice at school that were being bred for dissection. They got smaller and smaller because they were so inbred. They were so small they weren't even much use for dissection!

jeffrey thurston said...

Interesting- I'm "into" Vikings right now and was reading about the Ulfbehrt swords and Viking Age metallurgy. I think in a lot of ways your metaphor is not adequate because in the end it was function which counted and any of the horribly ruined AKC breeds of today would not have been tolerated even metaphorically in the Iron Age- bent, weak brittle swords...

Joe Mama said...

"...the math here cannot be denied."

Mr Burns: That is a spectacularly, excellent post!!!

Thank-you for taking the time spending the energy into articulating a path out of the swamp.