The Devil You Know

 On an unexpected day off, we raced across town to a post office to pick up an overnighted delivery containing a DNA test kit.  Once secured, we continued eastbound toward the home of our friend and owner of Tucker, to collect his cells.  He is our only co-owned dog. We met his owner, who has become our dear friend, really more of a relative now, when we set the ears on her Kerry bitch.  She was our kind of person from the start.  Years later, we are still friends, our relationship enduring the inevitable storms but surviving and growing.  She works for the US Postal Service and can get anything anywhere in a rush.  She was waiting at her desk for our arrival with the little bristly swabs, containing the cells from her dog’s cheek, sealed in an official envelope from VetGen, one of the biggest testing labs in the dog business.  This test was part of pre-breeding screenings on Tucker.  We call him our perfect dog.  Excellent hips, passing CERF, clear for DM and clear for Factor VIII and Factor XI.  Now this last test.  One that has become almost standard among Kerry breeders:  VonWillebrand’s Disease (vWd). This is considered to be a mild to moderate bleeding disorder. Many dogs with this  disease do not ever experience a severe bleeding episode. But they can and there are reports of fatalities associated with this condition  and surgical procedures. Though few owners have seen this disease in their dogs, some feared spaying their bitches and simple surgeries for fear their beloved pets would bleed out.  All the written information on this disorder emphatically states the blood test will give different results sometime hour by hour or day by day for the same animal.  For breeding, the industry standard is the DNA test.

A little over ten years ago a genetic test to accurately determine the vWd status of any given dog of our breed was developed.  Tucker’s maternal grandfather was part of this study.  He was clear, just as it turned out is his grandson, Tucker.  Our perfect dog remains genetically perfect, if there is such a thing.  His name added to the list of dogs testing clear for the various maladies important to many breeders today.  But what does this tell anybody about the dog himself. Does it tell you about his show attitude or temperament around people and dogs?  Does it describe the quality of his coat and ease of movement.  Will knowing he will never succumb to these disorders make us feel secure he will live out his life until the age of fifteen and quietly die in his sleep?  Do his health clearances tell anybody looking at him as a potential stud dog whether he will improve heads, rears or shorten the loins of his puppies. Will they see in him an intrinsic value merely because he has passed these tests, and not because he has plenty of breed type and fits the standard better than most. As wonderful as these test results make us feel, they answer only the easy questions about our dog.

Genetics is probably the most complicated, least understood component in breeding.  Most breeders believe they know far more than they do about the role of science in dog breeding. Some fail to grasp even the rudiments of Mendel and rely too heavily on reported test results when making breeding decisions.  These attitudes, combined with the ability to pay for expensive testing, will get you written results but not what part in breeding the dog they should play. In dogs, once the information needed to produce a reliable test is collected, the research ends.  In the case of hip dysplasia, DM, vWd, eye diseases as well as various cancers, the availability of tests either to diagnose or identify the diseases, leave  important questions unanswered.  If a dog identified as dysplastic in one hip is bred, will he pass that on to puppies in each litter?  What percentage of puppies can a breeder expect to grade as dysplastic if sired by such a dog.  A frequently used sire in Europe, by the breeder’s admission, has produced 14% dysplastic puppies across all his litters.  Considering the US reported average is closer to 6%, across all Kerry lines, this seems unthinkably high.  Yet, this fine dog’s other attributes override this genetic flaw in the minds of all who have used him on their bitches.  Is the breeder right to offer him at stud?

 It is interesting how certain disorders catch the fancy’s imagination and take hold. If you stand ringside this year at our National Specialty and survey everyone there on their experience with DM or vWd you will undoubtedly find people who have never heard of either one.  You will also find a few people who have seen, or owned dogs, affected by these disorders and know the heartache they cause.  But the majority of those there to enjoy the show and dream of owning great winning dogs, will have heard of both conditions, but never seen them in their own dogs or those of their breeder or their friends.  It is also fascinating that while those who consider themselves responsible breeders test their breeding stock for these disorders, we are so accepting of the meager results we are given.  As the owners of two carrier dogs for DM, we want to know if we breed our carriers, and roll the dice on producing 25% at- risk puppies, what is the likelihood the genes will switch on at age 8 or 10 or 15.  If the disease manifests itself, in our line, at age 8 we are concerned, if the symptoms materialize at age 15 we are less so.  What causes this variation in the genetic timeline?  These are the questions we need answered, not just that we own two carriers and breeding them would make us pariahs.

In our breed, we have seen a progression of concern for heritable genetic disorders in the last forty years.  First PNA and its finger pointing and veiled referenced to “sick litters” and an unfortunate shouting match at a long ago board meeting pitting breeder against breeder each bound up in fear.  Then hip dysplasia.  This climaxed when a very nice dog of a well-known breeder tested dysplastic.  The owner sent a letter to the club in general that made the rounds, stating that while his dog was indeed dysplastic, he would continue to breed him because of his many other wonderful qualities.  This caused a wave of people refusing to use dogs in breeding programs that were graded “fair” on their OFA evaluations.  All this changed when the great Mick was revealed as only “fair”.  Suddenly the furor died down and it was business as usual.  In the cases of vWd and DM, the origins of the concern about them is cloudy. The effects of these disorders are devastating.  Likely a few affected individuals cropped up in our breed, and 42 others, over the years with enough frequency that somebody developed a test.

Maybe we test because as a country we are rooted in the scientific method. Intuition and experience alone seem so uneducated and therefore lack merit.  We look for quantifiable values to support our decisions about breeding where really so much is indeterminable.  Maybe we test because we can.  Or maybe we are told it is the testing that separates responsible breeders from our nemeses the commercial and backyard breeders.  Sadly, we rely on these tests because many of us lack an eye for a dog, as they say.  Do we need the scorecard of genetic testing, to confirm the dog that caught our eye at our National is a great Kerry Blue? Can’t we just like him because we instinctively do?  When did most of us stop using our eyes and hands and turn to our databases to find a suitable stud dog or brood bitch. We spend our time and money testing our dogs but not really studying them.  Not really honing our eye.

 When the computer can’t find a dog for us there is always Europe.  Never mind you would be hard pressed to find a European breeder doing all the testing done in this country. We know our dogs are genetically tainted, we have tested them, therefore imported ones must be more genetically sound simply because they aren’t ours. A quick check of the OFA databases show many imported dogs have been tested and passed their clearances, just like their American cousins.  It is interesting to note these dogs were tested in the US, not in their countries of origin.  Their sires and dams remaining untested in their homelands.

Certainly, genetic testing is one tool a breeder holds that needs consideration before any litter is produced.  But I don’t believe it is the most important, or even the best resource.  Our own ideas and experiences combined with foresight and luck are more powerful. There are still no DNA tests for type and soundness. No predictors of just plain beauty, style and elegance. An over-reliance on genetic testing will not make the breed better.  And if you are breeding to exhibit, it is worth remembering the judge can’t see the perfection of a dog’s health testing results. He can see the perfection of the dog’s presentation in the ring. In general, our breed is a healthy one. Due to careful breeding practices and honesty among breeders for decades.  The fact so few of us have lived with, or produced, genetic catastrophies in the whelping box, in the absence of or long before these tests were available, suggests the foundations of the modern Kerry Blue were solid. Men and women who developed their breed knowledge, took risks and were honest about what they produced set the course for those of us coming later.

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