by Cindy Reich
I’m breeding dogs at the moment. One would think that if you make a living doing reproduction in horses, it can’t be that hard to move to another species. One would be wrong — very wrong. Now, when I was a kid, our house was like a small zoo. My father raised dogs — BIG dogs. Great Danes, Irish wolfhounds, Giant Schnauzers and the like were always around. My sister raised sight hounds — Afghans, mostly, but we also had the occasional Saluki, Borzoi, or whippet around somewhere. A brother was into snakes — pythons, boa constrictors, vine snakes, etc. And of course, I was out in the barn with the horses, sheep, and cattle. Needless to say we were a family well into animals of all sorts, thus, raising puppies was not a big deal. The female came into heat, you found a male you wanted to breed her to — put them in the same general geographic area and two months later — puppies! No big deal.
Not anymore. When our female came into heat, I knew it would be at least a week before she would be ready to breed. I had found a male several years ago that was a beautifully built dog — a champion show dog, but more important, a working dog. He excelled at earth dog trials, lure coursing, and other events that test the hunting instinct of a terrier.
Even better, he was in the same state as I was, so I wouldn’t have to bother with artificial insemination, but could breed the dogs naturally. Well, without going into graphic detail, although both parties were enthusiastic, the job wasn’t getting done. It was suggested that I get a progesterone test on the female, because it was the best indicator of when she should be bred. Silly me — I always thought that when a female was showing positive breeding behavior — especially standing well for a male, she was ready to be bred. Surely Mother Nature could take care of this situation — dogs have been breeding on their own for centuries. Just ask any person who had a neighbor’s dog hop the fence and gift them with a mixed breed litter for his effort.
With a much lighter pocketbook, I was presented with the news that the female’s progesterone level was too low. It would be another week before she would be ready to breed. Progesterone too low? Progesterone is the hormone of pregnancy — a high progesterone level would seem to me to mean the female was no longer in heat. Precisely, was the response. You want to breed her after she ovulates. For 35 years I have spent my time waiting for mares to get close to ovulation so that they could be bred — before or at ovulation. Now I have to wait until well after ovulation.
It was hard to wrap my head around this, but I followed the veterinarian’s advice and waited five more days before putting the dogs together again. In the meantime, I played “doggy roulette” every day, keeping the female away from other dogs, keeping the male away from the female, and keeping both the female and the male away from the resident elderly neutered male who was simply bewildered. Another tryst was scheduled for the breeding pair, and again, lots of enthusiasm, but no results.
While you are wondering why I am writing a discourse on dog breeding, there is a message here for horse owners. As the dog breeding production played out, it caused a lot of thoughtful discussion on the state of animal breeding in the 21st century. As with the dogs when I was growing up, we bred our horses the same way. Find a stallion, bring him to the mare, cover the mare, wait 11 months for a foal. And for the most part, it worked very well. As new techniques were developed, such as artificial insemination, cooled semen, frozen semen, and embryo transfer, the process of reproduction started moving further and further away from the actual animals. There were perfectly good reasons for embracing these techniques — everything from disease control to maximizing the reproduction potential of horses with superior genetics. However, in distancing the reproduction from the horses themselves, were we enabling horses to reproduce that might not be able to in a natural situation? This was always the dilemma that I would wrestle with at times. If a stallion or mare was subfertile, but could produce foals using assisted reproductive techniques, is it a good idea to produce foals from them? For me, it would depend on many things. If the horse was genetically infertile, I had a hard time justifying wanting to produce more offspring. If the infertility was due to illness, injury, or other outside influence, then producing foals from those horses by assisted reproductive techniques was the answer to many breeders’ prayers.
I am not advocating that we all simply turn out all of our stallions with mares and let it become a “survival of the fittest” selection process. However, I do think that from time to time we need to think about what we do as breeders, and how we do it influences the breed as a whole for the long term. There has been much discussion lately (and I have addressed it in this column) about how the use of A.I. and other assisted reproductive techniques are skewing the genetic pool toward just a few dominant bloodlines. The reproductive techniques are merely tools — it’s how the tools are used by breeders that determines what is present in the breeding pool. What is causing me great concern at the present time is the traits that are being selected for in the current marketplace. Breeders select for the trait they desire and then go to the bloodlines that will provide that trait. The reproductive techniques are merely a means to an end.
For the last fifteen years or so, the trend was to select for long necks. Long necks were winning in the showring and became a desirable trait in a breed that was not known for a particularly long neck; a highly arched neck, yes, but not extremely long. Horses were marketed for their long necks and rewarded in the showring for long necks. So after successive generations of selective breeding, long necks were more and more prevalent in the gene pool. However, unfortunately, by selecting for long necks, it appears that in the bargain came long backs. Consistently, horses with extremely long necks also came with extremely long backs or loins. That is the risk in selecting for just one trait. It might come along with another one that is not so desirable.
Going back to dogs for a moment — all dogs are descended from the wolf. From a pug to a Puli to a Lhasa Apso, they all descended from the same ancestor. So how do you get a poodle and a Chihuahua from the same breeding stock? By selecting for certain traits.
An amazing study was conducted in Russia with the silver fox over the course of fifty years. These foxes were black with silver highlights (a variant of the typical red fox). The researchers decided to select for just one trait — tameness. So every generation, they would test the kits for tameness — would they show interest in humans, have low aggression, allow touch, etc. Only those that scored high on a tameness scale were bred.
Over 40 generations later, they had produced incredibly tame foxes. Mission accomplished. However, by selecting for only one trait — the breeders were essentially ignoring all other traits. What happened was that while they succeeded in producing completely tame foxes, the foxes started coming up with all sorts of different physical traits. Many of them ended up with colored coats — pinto foxes, if you will. Others had blue eyes. Some had curly tails. Some had floppy ears; others started having different shaped skulls. Basically what they ended up with hardly even looked, and certainly didn’t act, like foxes.
This is likely how all the different dog breeds emerged from the wolf. By humans controlling the selection process and selecting for certain traits over generations to produce the traits they thought more desirable. Some of these traits were selected on the basis of working ability — Border collies, for example, have no equal when it comes to herding sheep. Terriers were selected for their gameness and hunting ability. So those that excelled in these traits were the ones that were bred on.
Arabians excelled at going long distances very efficiently. That was the original selection process for breeding them. Over the years and generations, other things have been deemed desirable and selected for. Color, for example. Some breeding programs select for only black horses. Working ability — some breeding programs select only for speed (racing) or endurance or those horses who have more animation at the trot. But what breeders must acknowledge and be aware of is that there are consequences for selecting for a single trait.
What is worrying to me now is a recent trend of selection for heads. Extremely dished heads. Although the Arabian is noted for its “slightly” dished face, there has been a trend to breed for the most extreme head possible. And, as is usual with trends, extreme heads are being rewarded in the showring and more important, rewarded in the marketplace. So what is the big deal, one might ask? An exotic head is simply more beautiful and is just an enhanced version of what we have now. Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but the heads that are being produced now (what I call “dolphin-heads”) are so extreme that it impairs the horse’s ability to breathe and to eat. Some dished faces are so pronounced that the nasal passages are restricted and the horse has difficulty breathing. The horses’ jaws are often undershot, resulting in eating problems. It is all well and good to select for “enhanced” traits that also enhance function. But when the selection for an enhanced trait results in impaired function, how are we improving the breed? For every horse with a more exotic face that is not impaired and goes on to be rewarded in the showring and then in the marketplace, how many were produced that had problems? We will never see those in public.
I am not telling people how to run their breeding programs, nor am I condemning those that like exotic heads and want to produce more. And as a judge, I love to see a beautiful head. What I am saying is, I think we are on the edge of a precipice. If there is continued selection for this single trait over more and more generations, we are going to end up with what are essentially deformed heads. Breeders need to consider the consequences of their decisions — for every good trait, a poor one can also be expressed. Longtime breeders are well aware of this. The good news is that with a long gestation period, multigenerational selection takes a bit of time. The bad news is that there has been a sharp increase in “extreme” heads in a relatively short interval. My hope is that as breeders we all take seriously our responsibility to the breed as a whole and consider what our impact is (and will be) on the breed’s wellbeing in the long term.
The Arabian horses that are being bred now are the most beautiful they have ever been. They are amazingly athletic and excel at a huge variety of disciplines. Breeders who desire Arabian traits have used them to improve other breeds of horses. We have Arabians because we love them. However, let’s think carefully about what we will leave to future generations of breeders and not love one trait so much that we cause harm in the long term.
Meanwhile, back at the dog breeding venture, with the use of artificial insemination, we were able to get the female bred. The male had never bred a female naturally prior to this one — he had only been collected for A.I. Perhaps if he had been bred naturally early on, he would have accomplished the job. However, because we have taken the reproduction a step further away from the animal, we will likely never know. So while I have succumbed to using the techniques available — the breeding program will end at this point. The male was very fertile, but lacked some of the behavior needed — because of human intervention.
Src: AHW Arabian Horse World Magazibe 2013