Breeding Dogs for Health, Not Looks

Breeding Dogs for Health, Not Looks

To anyone who has been involved in shelter or rescue work, the idea of intentionally breeding mixed-breed dogs, or even unregistered purebred dogs, seems a bit bananas. There are too many homeless dogs! What the heck?

But there is a group of well-respected people with a variety of dog-related professions who are promoting just that: the purposeful breeding of dogs without breed registration, and with a purpose that is not producing dogs with a specified morphology, that is, dogs who look a certain way or meet all the physical characteristics of a breed standard.

Why, you might ask?

The Functional Dog Collaborative

The group’s name, the Functional Dog Collaborative, offers the first clue. This group is trying to promote the breeding of dogs who are, above all, functional in terms of health, both physically and behaviorally. The group states on its website that when those health goals are in conflict with a breed standard or closed studbooks, the functional goals are considered more important. That puts the group at cross purposes with those who maintain that breed “purity” is paramount, as well as those who are breeding animals with an appearance that is fashionable, but unhealthy (think flat-faced dogs who can’t breathe, droopy-skinned dogs whose eyes require surgery to avoid painful interference with their lashes, breeds with long backs who often develop painful spinal conditions, etc., etc.).

The group is in the process of developing information resources that will help interested breeders, including breeders of both purebred and crossbred dogs, learn how to produce dogs who are physically healthier (more able to breathe freely, move without pain, reproduce and give birth without veterinary interventions, and with less inherited disease and longer lifespans), as well as behaviorally healthier (dogs with minimal fear of novel humans and other dogs and animals, maximal ability to cope with change of environment and conditions, minimal behavioral pathologies such as separation anxiety or compulsive disorders, and minimal unchanneled aggression).

Ultimately, the group hopes to provide a place to deposit and search health records, so that breeders can access them for help with making wise breeding decisions. In addition to providing a podcast with interviews with experts on canine breeding and genetics (the Functional Breeding Podcast), the group is working to build educational resources that will help breeders produce dogs meeting the descriptions of health above. They hope soon to provide a curriculum for breeder education. Finally, it’s their hope to provide a “supportive and open community” for breeders with these shared goals, “through both social media and face to face opportunities, for mentorship, friendship, and social support.” (The project has an active Facebook group, “Functional Breeding,” that currently does just that.)

We can do better…

The project was originally the brainchild of Jessica Hekman, DVM, PhD, who is aresearcher at the Karlsson Lab at the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, studying the genetics of canine behavior. Dr. Hekman also teaches online webinars and courses about canine genetics. (She has also written articles for WDJ, most recently, “Behavioral Probiotics” in the August issue.) I asked Dr. Hekman about her original impetus for starting the organization. She responded, “I think a lot of us have known for a while that we could do a better job of breeding dogs to be healthy pets and working partners. The reasons we don’t aren’t scientific, they’re social. Why do we maintain breeds with a heavy burden of genetically mediated disease? Why do we insist that people get pets from breeders who are breeding for the conformation ring, and the pets are the second best dogs? Why do we castigate pet owners who want doodles? Because that is part of the traditional way of looking at breeding dogs. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If it were a different way, what would it look like? Can we just do it? I think we can just do it.”

I think the group is onto something. I’d only add that when we urge people to buy puppies or dogs only from a “responsible breeder,” that these goals of health are the most important part of how “responsible” is defined.

Every registry for purebred dogs maintains a description of the ideal representative of that breed, a “breed standard.” In many of these standards, only the dog’s physical conformation (how it’s built) and its movement is described. In some others, the dog’s demeanor or personality traits are also described, to some extent. Breeds whose origins are performance-based (hunting dogs, herding dogs, etc.) rarely mention the ability to do that work in their breed standards. And if health is mentioned in ANY breed standard, I’d like to know about it!

When looks come first, health starts to suffer

One thing is for certain: When dogs are bred to look a specific way – to be a predictable size or color, or with a certain kind of coat – often, traits that are more important (to me and many other dog lovers) fall by the wayside. The lovely, friendly Golden Retriever starts to become dog-aggressive and tends to die young of cancer. The brave, biddable Doberman becomes neurotic and dies of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) at 5 to 7 years of age. The amiable Bulldog can’t be taken for walks, lest he keel over from heatstroke on an 80-degree day. In my view, I don’t care how many Championships a puppy’s parents and previous ancestors earned, I’d look for breeders who select their breeding stock for health and longevity, perhaps bucking the breed standards or current trends that are awarded ribbons in the show ring.

Many of us have owned a unique dog we wish we could clone: Sound of mind and body, friendly to all, easy to communicate with, a terrific learning partner, confident and game. Some of these dogs may have been purebred; some may have been the result of a purposeful mix; some may have been a shelter mutt or a roadside dog that found its way into our families and hearts. Often, these dogs resulted by chance – they were happy accidents resulting from an intentional breeding focused on their morphology, or from a strictly profit-oriented breeder, or a chance breeding far from human supervision. What if dogs with these traits were intentionally produced? I don’t care what the results looked like; I just know there would be far fewer dogs in shelters as a result.

The group is built on volunteer effort and is very much community-driven. Want to help? There are lots of ways to get involved. Check out the group’s website for more information: https://functionalbreeding.org/

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