In previous articles we’ve talked about the shrinking population of the purebred dog and specifically about how much smaller the Gordon Setter population is today – over 70% fewer Gordons than twenty years ago. The current bottleneck in the number of Gordon Setters available for breeding calls for us, as responsible breeders, to evaluate each mating more carefully to determine if it will accomplish our own goals while also considering the impact our mating will have on the breed gene pool. As breeders in today’s world we are not only charged with improving the breed, we are also called upon to ensure that our breeding activity has a positive impact on the preservation of the breed gene pool. The good news my friends, is that all of this can be less painful to accomplish than you might have thought.
For topics like this I call on experts for advice, and I am grateful to Jerold S. Bell DVM, Clinical Associate Professor of Genetics, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine for the guidance he’s offering. Jerry’s article “Small Population Breeds & Issues of Genetic Diversity“ is the resource used for this article and is quoted here, and reprinted entirely elsewhere on the blog with his permission. (Click the title above to link to that article.)
Has the Gordon Setter population reached a level where we should consider it a “small population breed”? Perhaps not, yet..who’s to say? The point here is that the population of the Gordon Setter has shrunk dramatically (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!) and as it is now substantially smaller, breeders must be aware of how important our breeding choices become when viewed in terms of the health of our breed gene pool. Just as there are fewer Gordon Setters, so too are there far fewer breeders bearing the responsibility for their preservation. With fewer breeders we find that many of the older lines are harder if not impossible to find today.
Jerold S. Bell DVM – *Issues of genetic diversity are a concern to dog breeders, and this can be especially so for breeds with small populations. The concern is whether there is enough genetic variation within a breed’s gene pool to maintain health and vitality. Breeders should be concerned about genetic diversity, because there are examples where damage has been done to a breed due to breeding practices. Restriction of genetic diversity can also occur in large population breeds.
Putting a lesson in genetics aside for another time, let’s talk today about genetic diversity in our breed gene pool. Quoting Jerold S. Bell DVM * There are two factors that must be considered when evaluating genetic diversity and health issues in a breed; the average level of inbreeding, and detrimental recessive genes. With a small population, there is a tendency to find higher average inbreeding coefficients due to the relatedness between dogs from common ancestors. There is, however, no specific level or percentage of inbreeding that causes impaired health or vigor. The problems that inbreeding depression cause in purebred populations stem from the effects of deleterious recessive genes. If the founding population of a breed produces a high frequency of a deleterious recessive gene, then the breed will have issues with that disorder. This can be seen as smaller litter size, increased neonatal death, high frequency genetic disease, or impaired immunity. If these issues are present then the breed needs to seriously consider limited genetic diversity.
In this statement then, as a group of dedicated breeders, we find a key to issues or symptoms, whose frequency of expression within the breed need monitoring. An increase or spike in these symptoms throughout the breed population, that goes beyond normal expectations, should be a cue that breeders need to seriously consider if we are experiencing limited genetic diversity in our breed gene pool. As a group we must be willing to share our breeding experiences with a wide audience of our peers. Additionally, we must understand that GSCA Health and Genetics committee surveys are also a vital indicator of the breed health, especially as it pertains to breed gene pool diversity.
As we talk about gene pool diversity, we may find some breeders who discourage linebreeding and promote outcrossing (outbreeding) as the way to protect genetic diversity in the breed. While this does sound like an easy, and maybe even an obvious answer, outbreeding would not provide the complete solution.
Jerold S. Bell DVM – *It is not the type of matings utilized (linebreeding or outbreeding) that causes the loss of genes from a breed gene pool. Rather, loss of genes occurs through selection: the use and non-use of offspring. If a breed starts limiting their focus to breeding stock from a limited number of lines, then a loss of genetic diversity will occur.
The process of maintaining healthy lines, with many breeders crossing between lines and breeding back as they see fit, maintains diversity in the gene pool. If some breeders outbreed, and some linebreed to certain dogs that they favor while others linebreed to other dogs that they favor, then breedwide genetic diversity is maintained. It is the varied opinion of breeders as to what constitutes the ideal dog, and their selection of breeeding stock based on their opinions, that maintains breed diversity.
The most important factor for diminished genetic diversity in dog breeds is the popular sire syndrome. The overuse of a popular sire beyond a reasonable contribution through frequent breedings significantly skews the gene pool in this direction, and reduces the diversity of the gene pool. Any genes that he possesses – whether positive or negative – will increase in frequency. Through this founder’s effect, breed related genetic disease can occur. Another insidious effect of the popular sire syndrome is the loss of genetic contribution from quality, unrelated males who are not used for breeding. There is a finite number of quality bitches bred each year. If one male is used in an inordinate amount of matings, there will be fewer females left for these quality males that should be contributing to the gene pool. The popular sire syndrome is a significant factor in both populous breeds and breeds with small populations.
I believe as a whole, that Gordon Setter stud dog owners have worked hard to manage stud dogs properly to avoid the “popular sire syndrome”. This is not an easy task to manage as so many variables, including emotions come into play. Hats off to all who have kept a diligent and watchful eye on our breed through proper stud dog management.
As I look back at what Dr. Bell has written, I realize that our breed is fortunate to have had many breeders, both past and present, who have contributed much to preserve the Gordon Setter; sometimes they contributed matings that improved specific aspects of the breed and sometimes they contributed by using breeding practices that preserved genetic diversity. Moving forward, our breed needs us to continue to attract and mentor a diverse group of breeders who also possess an understanding of the principles of gene pool diversity. As we have seen, there is simply not one step or one action to preserve diversity, instead there is a collection of various actions, that when understood and followed by the individual breeder, with each breeder working alongside the many other breeders – it is when we work as a collective group that we accomplish that one common goal – preservation of the purebred Gordon Setter…oh, and don’t forget there is still improvement of the breed to consider!
Jerold S. Bell DVM writes: *The best methods for ensuring the health and diversity of a breed’s gene pool are to:
- Avoid the popular sire syndrome.
- Utilize quality dogs from the breadth of your population to expand the gene pool. (as new genes cannot be added to a closed registry this refers to preserving genes that might otherwise be lost by selection of only a few sires out of the many available)
- Monitor genetic health issues through regular health surveys.
- Do genetic testing for breed-related disorders.
- Participate in open health registries, such as CHIC (www.caninehealthinfo.org) to manage genetic disorders.
Photograph by Susan Roy Nelson shared for your viewing pleasure, is not intended to illustrate any point in the article.