Dogs, Eugenics, and the Evil of Closed Studbooks

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Photo by Bianka Csenki on Unsplash

So, let’s talk about purebred dogs. Before we start I’m going to lay out my stance:

I know some people are going to read this and rail at me about dog overpopulation, but that isn’t what this post is about.

This post is about specific issues with pedigree dogs, and we’re going to start with the spotted beauty above.


What About Those Spotted Dogs, Then?

Dalmatians were bred for a specific purpose. They were bred to run alongside carriages as “outriders” and guard dogs. This is why Dalmatians tend to have a lot of energy and aren’t great pets if you can’t keep up with them. They’ve also been used as hunting dogs, for vermin control, and used to be used by firefighters to guide appliances to the fires that they could easily smell.

Dalmatians are, in short, quite amazing dogs.

But purebred dalmatians have a problem. Somehow, a genetic defect got into the breed. This defect means that their livers don’t process uric acid properly, resulting in a high chance of urinary stones.

This defect turned out to be carried by every purebred Dalmatian.

Every. Single. One. Not all Dalmatians get stones, but their risk was far higher than other breeds.

In 1973, Dr. Robert Schaible brought together a group of breeders with the goal of fixing the breed. Unfortunately they were unable to isolate a “clean” line of Dalmatians.

Instead, they bred Lady Godiva to an AKC-registered Pointer named Ch. Shandown’s Rapid Transit.

The pups were then bred back to registered Dalmatians. Urine samples were used to determine which pups had normal uric acid production (now we have a genetic test).

The Dalmatian Backcross Project, as it was known, involved this one cross to an outside dog, who was chosen for his health, quality, and resemblance to Dalmatian type. Within a few generations the pups were, for all intents and purposes, Dalmatians. They looked like Dalmatians, acted like Dalmatians, barked like Dalmatians.

In 1981, the AKC elected to register two of these dogs as Dalmatians, as a way to correct the genetic defect.

The members of the breed society, the Dalmatian Club of America, went nuts. In 1984, the dogs were put on hold, their offspring rejected for registration. Dalmatians had to continue to suffer for the sake of “purity.”

It took until 2011 to get the AKC to fully accept Rapid Transit’s descendants as Dalmatians. (If you want one, look for a breeder who is producing “LUA” Dalmatians).

And there’s still opposition, and still people refusing to introduce these lines into their breeding programs.

The problem here is the concept of a “closed studbook.”

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Photo by Sheri Hooley on Unsplash

When did Studbooks Start Being Closed?

When we initially created breeds of livestock we didn’t care about studbooks or pedigrees.

We cared about type. For example, when Thoroughbred horses were created in the U.K. in the 17th and 18th-century, breeders cared about one thing: Does it run fast. In 1791, the Thoroughbred studbook was closed…and this was the start of the idea of closing a studbook.

Now think about ideas that also started to become really popular right about then. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson published “Notes on the State of Virginia,” which had some things to say about Black people that included “In imagination they are dull [and] tasteless… This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”

The idea of scientific racism moved over into the animal world as the idea that pedigree was more important than aptitude.

When a studbook is closed, no new animals can be registered, ever, that are not the offspring of registered parents.

In large breeds like the Thoroughbred, this is not as big a problem. But in small and endangered breeds you can easily end up with something like the Dalmatian problem. And, of course, it circles around to some, shall we say, problematic ideas.

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Photo by Mohamed Noval on Unsplash

Reopening Studbooks To Save the Breed

I’m going to go to horses again for my next example. The example is the only breed of Draft horse native to the North American continent.

It’s called the American Cream.

American Creams were created in the early 1900s in Iowa, with the foundation mare being a horse named Old Granny who stood out for her gorgeous cream coat and amber eyes. She carried a gene not common in draft horses, the champagne gene.

Her descendants became a new breed, similar in shape and function to Belgian horses, but with the gorgeous cream to gold color and an amazing temperament.

It was recognized as a breed in 1950…just in time to be rendered obsolete by tractors. The studbook of the American Cream was closed in 1962, but the numbers of the horses were already plummeting.

The horses vanished into the past…but a handful of people were still breeding American Cream foals. In 1982, three breeders pulled out the old charter and had a meeting. The first thing they did was reopen the studbook. Many American Creams were of unknown ancestry. Registration by standard adherence became the rule, with laxer rules for mares. The studbook remains open to this day, although there is talk of closing it when the numbers reach a sustainable point.

Obsession with closed studbooks could easily have cost us this gorgeous breed.

So, Should we Re-Open All the Studbooks?

With a few exceptions, I would argue that yes, we should. (One exception is the Icelandic horse, a breed which can’t be “opened” for animal welfare reasons; due to generations of isolation, introducing an outside animal for breeding purposes could result in a massive epidemic of disease, something which is a risk even with frozen semen).

This doesn’t mean breeding crossbreds willy-nilly.

It means allowing the partial registration of animals that would add something to the breed and then the registration of their offspring, much as Thoroughbreds are used to keep a solid influx of speed into the American Quarter Horse.

It might mean allowing certain “approved crosses” with breeds that are similar in purpose and function.

Yes, ancient breeds should be preserved, but we also need to be aware of the fact that sometimes outside blood, far from diluting the traits needed for a breed to fulfill it’s function, will strengthen them.

And to say otherwise is dangerously close to scientific racism.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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