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Is it Genetics? A Breeder's Perspective

When a dog owner encounters a health or behavior issue with their pet, the first question asked of the breeder is whether it is a genetic problem. When questioned further about their situation, they will ask, "Is this a genetic problem within these dogs (breeds)?" The answer to that question is that it could be a genetic or environmental issue. Just because a dog has what is deemed a problem, does not necessarily indicate that it occurred during the breeding process.

All living creatures are assembled by means of a genetic structure. This structure combines to achieve certain abilities, display certain qualities, provide an overall appearance, and promote the immune system. This same structure also causes deformities, imperfections, and health problems. The question that should be asked is whether the problem being encountered is a congenital or hereditary trait.

When a dog performs its task very well, no matter what it may be, it is often said that it inherited its abilities from its parents. This gives an indication that the parents were perfect specimens and produced another perfect specimen. In truth, the parents could have been junkyard dogs that had no idea of what their abilities were, but both the sire and dam contributed the combination of genes that developed within the dog. The coming together of desirable genes will produce the specimen known as the Perfect Dog.

Breeders have been chasing the perfect dog for centuries. At the time of this writing, it does not exist. Every dog, regardless of breed, function, and/or ability, has a flaw. The Perfect Dog does not exist because we have no means of controlling the genetic makeup. Even with today's technology of cloning, a dog may be reproduced to resemble another dog, but its genetic makeup will be different from the original. The procedure will reproduce a dog that looks like the original; however, it may not perform the tasks, or have the same personality of the original. It will only be an aesthetic carbon copy.

Congenital traits are the genetic formations that contribute to a dog's specific abilities, appearance, and health, but are not readily displayed or observed in either parent. For example, a dog that excels in the performance of Police Work, or Apprehension Dog, could be the product of parents that have neither the drive nor desire to achieve this skill. The offspring performs a function that is not apparent with either of the breeding pair. This would also relate to a dog that displays a particular illness or deficiency that is not displayed in either parent. These could be environmental issues such as poor nutrition in the dam, in utero infections, early postnatal exposure to infectious agents, poor maternal nurturing instincts, etc. Many congenital defects are known to be triggered by environmental factors, such as the existence of a defect that did not show up until the proper environmental trigger elicited it. The environment in which the pups are kept, by the breeder or owner, could lead to undesirable traits being displayed.

Hereditary traits are also genetic formations, however, these traits are directly attributable to the parents. Observing a dog that performs its task in the same efficient manner as its parent is believed to have inherited its abilities. The parents perform a specific function, and the offspring performs the same function equally well. An example would be a dog that hunts and trees squirrels in the same proficient manner as his parents.

The breeding of dogs is an educated guess at best. Health problems, deficiencies, abilities, and to some extent outward appearances (aesthetic values) are studied by the experienced breeder, and precautions taken to avoid such pitfalls. Does this mean that educated breeders will produce perfect litters? No, it does not, because even experienced breeders cannot predict which genes will combine in the making of the offspring.

We, as breeders, cannot control the outcome of a litter, or even one dog within the litter. Dogs within the same litter, though related to the breeding pair by birthright, may not carry the same genetic makeup to one another. This sounds a little preposterous, but it is a fact.

Genetics is an ongoing study, and we may never reach the end. Combinations of genes coming together to achieve function, form, and fashion will continue to produce good and bad effects. The experienced breeders will make themselves aware of problems that exist and attempt to avoid the pitfalls of poor breeding. Even with the amount of information available today, there are breeders that will attempt to create a product, knowing that the chosen breeding pair is not the best of specimens. Then, when they are confronted with a problem pup, their first response is, "It's genetics, and I can't control it."

Knowing whether a problem, or quality, is Congenital or Hereditary will aid both breeder and owner alike. Breeders will benefit from prior history of the dogs they are breeding, and owners will be more readily acceptable to problems that are not under the control of the breeder. Remember, we, as breeders, should make ourselves aware of all aspects of breeding, own up to whatever mistakes we make, and be proud that we have the intestinal fortitude to make whatever changes must be made to better our breeding program.

Breeding is not an exact science, and Breeders are not perfect.

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