Are We Mastiff Breeders, or Just Breeding Mastiffs...by Sharon Krauss
Every breeder needs to take some time periodically to assess his/her breeding program and decide if the current direction is appropriate to reach his/her goals as a breeder. We should also look honestly at whether we are Mastiff breeders, or just breeding Mastiffs. The following questions may help with that assessment.
Recent statistics from the AKC Gazette show that the Mastiff has risen in popularity from #56 in 1991 to #48 in 1992, with individual registrations increasing by 14.1% (litter registrations for Mastiffs increased about 6% while litter registrations for all breeds declined by about 5%). The Gazette highlighted the Mastiff as one of the eight breeds to watch that were "double-digit" movers during 1992. They also pointed out that these eight breeds were predominantly of the large/giant category and that one of them could be the new "fad guard dog" on the horizon, much as the Rottweiler (now #2!!) has replaced the Dobe and GSD over the years. A truly scary thought!!
As more people become aware of the potential of the Mastiff and the demand increases, we must be constantly vigilant against letting economic gain rule our breeding programs. Many breeds (breed clubs and breeders) have not and their beloved breeds have suffered drastically and irrevocably in the process.
Specific examples can be foundin the Doberman -- of 20,000 dogs tested over the last fifteen years for VWD, those with low levels went from 55% up to 80%; those affected went from 9% up to 22%. Similar statistics can be found regarding thyroid imbalance in the Sheltie, Great Dane and Golden Retriever as well as bleeding/hemolytic anemia in the Old English Sheepdog. On the other hand, when breeders and breed clubs work together, significant improvements can be made, as with the Scottie -- a reduction in VWD over the last ten years from 43% down to 13%. (Thanks to Dr. J. Dodds for her input on these examples).
The Mastiff is not for everyone, but visions of easy money can sway both breeder and buyer into making unsound decisions. And, these decisions can affect the entire breed for generations to come.
How can we as breeders prevent the corruption of a our gene pool by hereditary problems? Once introduced, these problems become increasingly difficult to remove as each succeeding generation passes.
The breed standard is our blueprint for the appearance of our breed (phenotype). Each of us must study this in detail and come up with our own interpretation or opinion of what that breed standard represents in the dogs we want to produce. Just like our judges, each breeder will have a slightly different concept of what that ideal will be as well as what emphasis is placed on the various faults that can occur within the breed. Because each breeder's interpretation and emphasis will be different, and that is as it should be, we will continue to see variations in the breed ring. However, the underlying foundation for all of us should always be
TEMPERAMENT & HEALTH!
Without these atributes, even the most perfect specimen is useless to a breeding program. If we lose sight of these qualities while proceeding with a breeding program based on phenotype only, we and more importantly our dogs, will be the losers in the long run.
So, how do we combine the two -- sound phenotype as well as genotype -- without sacrificing one for the other. From my point of view, the only viable answer is a good database of genetic screening and structural assessment on breeding stock, ancestors, siblings and progeny. Ignoring these areas of breeding is like trying to find a show location you have never been to without directions or roadmap. Without this information you are at best shooting in the dark, and at worst playing Russian roulette with your dogs' lives.
A good breeding program needs a sound foundation, both in the breeding stock being used and background data on that stock. Breedings need to be planned with an eye to not only the two individuals being bred (outward physical appearance/phenotype and genetic make-up/genotype), but to the ancestors and siblings as well. The only way to get this information is to look for it.
Assessment of genotype is done by genetic screening and evaluation of ancestors/ siblings/ progeny. The data gathered is essential if you are going to make any progress in your breeding program. Data should be maintained on all dogs possible, not just those used for breeding. All are representative of the gene pool which you are working with and all are important for accurate assessment.
Testing is currently available for hip and elbow dysplasia, eye disorders, thyroid function and von Willibrands disease. (There are other things that can be tested for, but these are the mains ones at this time). All are extremely important if our dogs are to live long and healthy lives. A complaisant attitude about the genetic make-up of our dogs is the easiest way to lose the attributes of sound temperament, longevity, reproductive and genetic soundness.
"I've never had any problems", is a too often typical statement made by breeders. If you don't test or follow-up on all offspring and siblings, how do you know you don't have any problems. Many problems can go unnoticed in the dog's physical appearance (phenotype), particularly in pet homes, unless the problem is glaring -- crippled movement, blindness, major skin problems, reproductive problems, to name a few.
As you can already see from the CERF report data in the last few issues, the Mastiffs being tested for eye problems are pitiably few. OFA data reported in the last issue shows a similar trend toward lack of testing. To date, only about 70 elbow x-rays have been submitted for Mastiffs. Checking of thyroid and von Willibrands is in the same catagory as eyes, hips and elbows. Finding a dog that is checked and clear on all five is almost impossible. As of this writing, I know of only EIGHT in our current gene pool (based on information compiled by Jeanne Cook for the MCOA Journal as well as Journal ads and OFA data).
It is much better to start your breeding program with at least genetically screened/cleared stock (and even better if their ancestors are likewise cleared), than to have to backtrack and remove problems after you have established the "type" you want.
Breeding to a top show winner will not necessarily guarantee good quality puppies. Selection of individuals with similar phenotype -- not having faults in common -- is absolutely necessary. But, again, quality is not guaranteed, as the two may not be prepotent for producing their good traits.
In Aussies, I knew of one absolutely outstanding individual that was as close to perfect as we had seen at the time. However, as a stud dog he was a dismal failure, not being prepotent for his good traits, never producing even close to his own type regardless of what he was bred to. Why? Because he was the product of a total outcross -- no ancestors in common.
To assess phenotype, a personal study of as many dogs in the background as possible is best. When that is not feasible, photos or video-tape can also be used. Lastly, if none of the above is available, descriptions from others must be used. If this is all that is available, then you need to be aware of any bias of the person giving the information (likes/dislikes, priority of faulting, knowledge of structure, "kennel-blindness").
When my initial breedings failed to produce the consistency in type that I was looking for in Aussies, I was very fortunate to pick up a copy of Planned Breeding by Lloyd Brackett. This very small booklet (actually compiled from his articles in Dog World in the 1950's), gave me the insight for me my future breeding programs and methods. From that very powerful little booklet relating the experience of 50 years of breeding, I learned that the only way to make appreciable progress in setting type was to utilize linebreeding and inbreeding.
Linebreeding and inbreeding emphasize what is already there, both phenotypically and genotypically, good and bad. Not knowing what's out there doesn't mean it's not there. Outcrossing doesn't get rid of problems, it just masks them. Linebreeding/ inbreeding doesn't create problems, it just brings them to the surface (for selection/ removal).
Linebreeding and inbreeding are tools for the serious Mastiff breeder, not someone who is just breeding Mastiffs. Utilizing these methods requires knowledge, research and care -- this is not for the casual breeder.
Through linebreeding and inbreeding (on good quality, genetically screened, reproductively sound and good tempered dogs) your type can be set in a relatively few generations. Also, this type will be prepotent when linebred as well as outcrossed -- for all traits, both good and bad. Your litters will have consistency (for either good or bat traits) all having similar type, movement and, we hope, genetic soundness. Just be careful with what you start with as disaster can as easily be produced as sterling quality.
If you do not feel comfortable with linebreeding/ inbreeding, then by all means do not use these methods. However, you need to be sure that phenotype and genotype of mating pairs is compatible (as well as similar type among ancestors). Your progress may be slower this way, and you may not have the consistency and prepotency derived from linebreeding/ inbreeding.
Goals are necessary to any breeding program both to give direction and as a baseline to assess if the desired progress has been made. It is good to have both long term and short term goals, the short term being more flexible as the progeny of each litter is assessed.
Because of the late maturing characteristics of the breed, five and ten year goals should not be unusual. The serious Mastiff breeder can realistically set this type of goal -- the person just breeding Mastiffs may not be around that long.
Selecting appropriate breeding stock from litters produced can be a problem at a young age. From experience you can chose on the basis of phenotype what has matured to the desired type. Also, utilizing linebreeding/ inbreeding, your litters should be more uniform in type and that will help with this selection. Starting with a good foundation of genetically screened stock with screened ancestors will give you a better chance of producing genetically sound individuals that will mature into good breeding stock.
If you have had problems selecting for the appropriate personality for show, obedience and other specific types of competition, you may want to consider Puppy Personality Assessment (temperament testing, aptitude testing) to select for your own needs as well as place your puppies in homes that will match their personalities. This is an excellent means of selecting puppies with the right attitude and aptitude for conformation, obedience, agility, etc. and ensuring that owner and puppy are happy, thereby avoiding rescue or return situations. (See article in future issue on this excellent tool).
In summary, the future of our breed rests with us. Hopefully, we are all Mastiff breeders and not just breeding Mastiffs. Education is key in this endeavor. Ongoing education for experienced breeders and education of the novice by those "who have been there". We are seeing so much new information, changes in thinking by the veterinary profession and many alteratives to time-honored procedures, that we cannot let ourselves become closed-minded. We can't fall into the "I've always done it this way" trap and reject innovative concepts.
It can be a case of pay me now or pay me later. If we don't pay attention to these things in the beginning, we and particularly our dogs will be paying for it later and for generations. We must invest the time and effort at the outset to ensure our breed's future. Honest and open discussion of breed problems will provide the means to eliminate them and benefit everyone concerned.
When we take it upon ourselves to plan and produce living entities, we must also accept the responsibility to ensure that they are sound in mind and body and are cared for by ourselves or other conscientious g uardians for the rest of their lives. Never think that "someone else will do it". Only you are responsible for what you produce.