Red Rottweilers and “Unethical” Breeders

I am genuinely torn on the issue of dog breeders. On the one hand, I love dogs, and I have a fondness for particular dog breeds, and it’s the responsibility of breeders to produce more of those dogs so people like me can take a puppy home to treasure and train. Many breeders are lovely, responsible people even if they don’t know enough about population genetics to prevent inbreeding. While some breeders may view their studs as assembly lines, many do genuinely love their charges and take care to properly house and socialise their dogs and puppies.

I’ve put that disclaimer there. There it is. See that disclaimer? If you’re a dog breeder who loves your dogs, takes good care of their health and their need for companionship, and values the health of your dogs over their appearance, then you need not take the following rant personally in any way.

You might do so anyway, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve covered my arse.

The adorable 9-month old rescue Rottweiler girl that we just adopted (blog post and pictures to follow) has slightly longer hair than Amos does, and it reminded me that there are long-haired Rottweilers in the world. Curious, I did a little research. It turns out that the long hair is a rare, recessive gene; it is not linked to any health issues.

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How cute is this guy? Photo from Molosserdogs.com

It is considered a “fault”. In show-breeding, that means the breed does not meet the standard. You really can’t show that dog, and most breeders will insist that if you take a long-haired rottie pup, you desex that dog when it comes of age so that it does not breed.

Let’s recap, because these concepts will return:

(a) long hair is part of the natural variation in the breed, i.e. it is not caused by outbreeding.

(b) long hair is not linked with poor health on the part of the animal.

(c)  For a recessive trait (like long hair) to express, you need two copies of the relevant allele, meaning one from each parent.

While apologists may argue that long hair is not necessarily very practical in a “working dog”, this can easily be rebutted by pointing out the numerous working dog breeds with long hair (oh, so many: border collies, long-haired german shepherds, mountain dogs, Old English sheepdogs…) and the fact that show dogs don’t tend to do a lot of work requiring a neat army buzz cut.

The production of long-haired rottweiler puppies means that both the parents have one copy of the long-haired allele. The breeder might decide not to repeat that cross, but they’re generally going to keep breeding those specific dogs to other dogs. This means that the carriers are still going to pass on that long-haired allele (50% chance per pup per parent with the allele).

This in turn means that not breeding the long-haired rotties does absolutely nothing to reduce the frequency of the allele in the population; it simply fails to increase it. As an attempt to remove genetic diversity from the population, it is both misguided and astonishingly ineffective. Even if it were effective, you would not only be removing that cosmetic change, but all the other genetic diversity linked to it, and purebred dogs can’t afford to lose any genetic diversity that doesn’t have a health cost.

So at this point I’m wondering why anyone – anyone – gives a crap if a rottie has long hair. They can still have the physique preferred for the dog. They’re still intelligent and loyal and strong. They still look like a rottie. Most importantly, they are healthy. It might be a bit tricker to comb for ticks and remove burrs, but otherwise, I’m drawing a blank. Maybe it makes it harder for judges to give points to a dog if there’s too much variation in the breed and they have to pick one variant over another.

I’m starting to take issue with the word “fault”.

The long-haired issue, however, is dwarfed by the issue of “red Rottweilers.”

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Another gorgeous one. Photo from the Rested Dog Inn at http://www.resteddoginn.ca/redrescue.php

These guys are fricking gorgeous, and they are, if anyone is curious, purebred rotties. Coat colour is a very complex polygenic trait. “Black with tan points”, the colour pattern one finds in rottweilers, is in itself the product of homozygous recessive genes that are fixed in the rottweiler population. All rotties have two copies of that allele.

In order to produce the “red” rottie (although I’d argue that’s more of a brown or liver colour), another gene needs to be altered. Once again, the alteration resulting in this colour is recessive and, much like the alleles for long hair, it’s quite rare in the population.

Again, the red coat is considered a fault. I curiously read more on this and came upon a rabid drool-flecked mouth-foaming rant on the subject by someone associated with the American Rottweiler Club, who used the phrase “corrupt the purity of our breed.”

They also stated that a breeder who sells a “red rottie” is to be considered “unethical,” because that dog can’t be shown and that such dogs should never, ever be bred. Furthermore, they said it was a sign of inbreeding.

Well… sort of. That’s hard to argue if you don’t know the incidence of the gene in the population. The best way to see if your dog is inbred as hell (other than assuming that purebreds are always inbred as hell, which is true to a point) is to look at the pedigree. If you can, go back more than the standard three to five generations. The only differences between a red or long-haired coat and a congenital internal recessive defect are that you can see the cosmetic changes and they’re not unhealthy. It is true that if you tried to breed for long hair or recessive coat colour, you would eventually create a highly inbred line. As the occasional result of a mating, it’s not a problem.

Then they tried to argue that this coat pigmentation is linked to problems in cardiac, eye and skin health.

“Gosh,” I thought to myself, “that sounds dire.”

Given that I still possess access to the university library, I signed onto Web of Science to do a little bit of a literature search for any studies showing a link between this particular pigmentation and any health problems.

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Curious.

Nothing.

Problems with white pigmentation have been heavily documented and researched elsewhere. A dog being brown instead of black… not so much. I tried every variation of keywords I could think of, and still…

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Zip. Nada. Nothing.

“Hrm,” I thought to myself, “that coat colouring looks familiar.”

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(Red and tan kelpie! photo from Noonbarra, kelpie breeders)

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A photo from a nice website on coat colour genetics in this breed. http://daminidachshunds.weebly.com/dachshund-color-genetics.html

“I wonder if it’s linked to health problems in those breeds? It’s clearly considered not a fault in those.”

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(look, I was getting tired of orthopteran insects, but the principle remains)

Now, in the interests of genetic honesty, it is possible that a particular condition might be linked to a health problem in one breed and not another, given how rapidly genes become fixed in these very small populations. It is possible.

But it’s not damn likely.

That makes it recap time!

(a) The red coat is part of the natural variation in the breed, i.e. it is not caused by outbreeding.

(b) The red hair is not linked with poor health on the part of the animal, and any attempts to state otherwise are clearly apologetics based on zero goddamn evidence and very likely confirmation bias (cf. confirmation bias: “This particular red rottweiler has a skin condition! I knew they were unhealthy!”).

(c)  For a recessive trait (like the red coat) to express, you need two copies of the relevant allele, meaning one from each parent.

The closest possibility is that the red coat appears to be strongly associated with lighter-coloured eyes, which are a bit more sensitive to sunlight. I have blue eyes. I relate. It’s really not something that affects my life in any major way.

In the cases of long hair and red coat, which are purely cosmetic differences as far as the dog is concerned and do not affect the strength, health, or conformation* of the animal, it is not possible to remove that diversity from the population without a genetic test to see if a parent dog carries the gene (except to, perhaps, make a note of it when these bundles of joy do turn up).

Labelling a breeder “unethical” for selling a perfectly healthy fucking dog?

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Trying to remove an allele from the population without having the faintest idea how to do it?

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Referring to the presence of a slightly different coat colour as a corruption as though it was best cast into the fires of Mount Doom? (“One phenotype to rule them all…”)

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This does not make sense. Breed standards exist for a reason, but they have gone well beyond that at this stage. I think it’s exceptionally telling that kelpie breeders in the U.S. refuse to allow their breed to be registered because they are concerned that their breed will be destroyed by show breeding. That is an entirely fair concern. I think it’s telling that the U.K. German Shepherd breed standards have been altered to consider that horrific sloping back a fault rather than a desirable trait.

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You have got to be fucking kidding me.

 

 

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See? That looks sensible. Photo taken from http://thegermanshepherddogbreed.blogspot.com.au/

Apparently it’s controversial.

Emphasising the health of the animal should never be controversial.

People who are selling red rotties and long-haired rotties as “rare rotties” might be accused of taking advantage of a genetic quirk and promoting aesthetics over temperament (although it’s a bit late to worry about that latter point), but they are hardly unethical. The only way it could be unethical would be if the breeder did not tell the buyer that the dog can’t be shown. Since I tend to consider dog shows somewhat in the light of obsessive public masturbation, this wouldn’t bother me (yes, yes, that’s just my opinion).

So if you see a long-haired or red rottie pup for sale and you melt into a pile of dog-adoring goo, be dissauded perhaps by the enormous responsibility of owning a large dog, or a dog at all; by the huge amount of work they are; by the possible vet bills you may be signing up for; but don’t, even for a second, be dissuaded by the mouth-breathing rants of breed purists.

*(don’t get me started on conformation; it’s like the word “holistic” – it has an actual, useful meaning, but mostly people who use it don’t mean it that way at all)

—-
P.S. When we got Amos as a puppy, I used to spend some time reading and researching things on a rottie enthusiast forum in a search for behavioural tips, until we found our current trainers. I’ve since stopped reading this forum because I am so tired of people talking about “For the BREED!” without actually meaning anything when they say this.

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12 thoughts on “Red Rottweilers and “Unethical” Breeders

  1. One of the things I love about dogs is that they are so phenotypically diverse. It’s such as shame to have people dictate to us what we should consider beautiful. And that they don’t even consider behaviour,

    • It’s not entirely accurate that they don’t consider behaviour – a dog has to be even-tempered in the ring, if nothing else, and many breeders will say they emphasise a good temperament. However, it does seem to fall below conformation in their estimation, and it’s not as though behavioural tests are administered. In that sense you’re completely right.

  2. Thank you! In the process of buying a red rottie and was about to back (hesitantly) because of all the web info on them. I don’t show, so I don’t care about that. This will be my third rottie and I’m looking forward to lots of fun with him.

    • So glad to hear! What frustrates me is the whole “skin/cardio/eyes” issue as reported; *all* rotties have a tendency to those problems and they are not linked to the coat. If your red pup has an issue in that area, it’ll be because he or she is a rottie, not because she’s a red rottie. But people looking for problems will see what they expect to see – classic confirmation bias!

      Checking hip/elbow/eye scores is way more important for health assessment (and even then it’s not a deal breaker), which you can’t do with rescues anyway 🙂

      The only time it is actually unethical to sell a red rottie is when the breeder is trying to pass off mixes as pure rotties (which does happen, but easy to tell if you know what rottie pups actually look like, colour notwithstanding).

      Enjoy your beautiful pup, I’m sure you won’t regret this decision. If you feel like it, post photos here, I’d love to see him/her!

    • Hi,i hope that you decided to move forward in buying red rottie, i have a male red rottie that turned 2 in june 2014. He is not only beautiful he is healthy and the best big lap dog ever. I have no plans on breeding him just as a family pet. If given the chance ,i would purchase another one in a heartbeat!!!

  3. I have red Rottweiler male. He has a very nice even red coat with the brown or mahogany markings. he is very muscular beautiful dog! His demeanor is awesome very easy going. I don’t show dogs so the color did not matter to me I was just looking for a good buddy and I found it. I’m looking for a female red Rottweiler puppy. Allen, Odessa, MO

    • Hi Allen, I’m in Australia so I’m afraid I can’t help you out in your search! Just a heads-up, in case you are looking to breed them, it’s not a good idea long term. In the short term you would be alright, but the gene pool for red rotties is pretty small and it’s a recessive gene. To concentrate it would in the long run reduce genetic diversity and result in illness. I think red rotties are just gorgeous and would love to have one (if I had any room in my life for more dogs!), and they should be just as healthy as a standard black rottie- but if they were deliberately bred and hose traits concentrated in a specific line it would be another matter 🙂

      Anyways, good luck in your search for another pup! I’m glad your buddy is happy and healthy, it’s always nice to hear.

  4. The “fluffy” Rottweiler pictured in your post was my beloved Cooper; his photos have made it all over the internet! That photo was taken by a Mastiff organization at a UKC Winter Specialty in 2007, he went on to be an agility Champion and was also titled in obedience and tracking, TT tested and a therapy dog. Just an amazing all-around dog; best dog I have ever owned. He was also very well-bred and donated DNA to the MSU study that resulted in the identification of the recessive fluffy gene.

    I know this is an old post but thought I’d chime in.
    I also fostered a blind “red” Rottweiler puppy who went on to have a wonderful home.

    • Thank you for chiming in! I’m delighted to hear more about him, and also excited to hear that he helped ID the recessive gene in question. Sounds like he was a healthy and happy fellow, and very much loved. It’s also good to know that a blind red found a good home – it’s a funny thing, in spite of the common breeder spiel, red rotties do seem to end up being much loved and sought after (which I suppose could be part of the problem if they were bred deliberately, small gene pool, recessives, etc. etc.).

      • Yes indeed, the blind red got international attention and I was slammed with calls and emails for weeks, it was crazy.
        Look at 2010 here, I have fostered quite a few dogs for them:
        http://www.blinddogrescue.com/home.html
        Note that I do NOT endorse the intentional breeding or promoting as “rare” a non-standard dog of any breed!

        I totally understand and realise that DQ faults happen in the best of breedings of any dog but I got really tired of people telling me Cooper could not possibly be a purebred – they wouldn’t think to say that of a less visible fault such as incorrect bite or temperament! But he was 100 percent Rottweiler with a fabulous working temperament (and also a complete asshole towards other large dogs but we worked through that) and always a gentleman with people and especially kids.

  5. You make excellent points, but I want to bring up what I read elsewhere. (If it makes you feel any better, I don’t like using either website for information.) I read on one website that the red coat’s a deficiency. I read on another one that said it was due to inbreeding. They did have a point, but I got the feeling that they made them out to be perversions. They also went on to call the breeders selling them unethical.

    I wouldn’t call a breeder unethical for selling a red Rottweiler. I’d just see it as them as trying to find the puppy a home instead of having it killed over it’s coat color.

    I’m going to get a little off track, so I’m sorry about that. As someone who likes German Shepherds, I hate to see a sloping back. Not only does that look wrong, but that’s one reason why the days of them jumping 8 feet are gone. It gladdens me that there’s a standard that doesn’t praise the slope. It also makes me glad that some German Shepherds have a level stance.

    • Hey, thanks for your comment! I have to admit of all my posts this is the one that generates the most chatter, and I’m always glad to come back to it.

      In regards to “deficiency”, as far as dog breeders are concerned, it’s essentially the same as the word “fault”. It simply means that it is not breed standard, and is meant to imply that the breeder is not very good. It’s also used to describe white hair in Rottweilers (many rotties have a patch or tuft somewhere on their bodies – since it’s not breed standard, it’s a “fault”, but it has zero health consequences). So that’s easy enough to dismiss.

      In regards to the red coat being a sign of inbreeding, well, that’s a little more complicated. It’s a rare trait, so the frequency of that allele (that version of the gene) is already very low, and in purebred dogs the gene pool is already very small. Think of them as redheads.

      What this means is that it *could* be a sign of inbreeding. The occurrence of recessive traits is obviously more frequent in inbred lines – that’s just basic maths. But at the same time, it’s not at all convincing evidence. A recessive allele can be carried for generations without being expressed. I, for example, am a redhead, and I have only one red-headed parent (my dad). My mother carries the allele for red hair, but since she only has one copy from one parent, it’s not expressed (apologies if you already have a good understanding of this, I like to over-explain). There’s not a huge number of redheads in my mother’s extended family, but her family and my Dad’s are definitely not related.

      It’s not a perfect analogy. The gene pool for breed dogs is, as I said, orders of magnitude smaller than the gene pool for humans.

      What it comes down to is this: the red coat is more common in inbred lines, but it is perfectly reasonable that it might occur outside of inbred lines. If you start getting heaps of pups from the same breeder with red coats, that’s a red flag (apologies for the unintentional pun), which is why breeders should NEVER deliberately breed for the red coat (or any recessive trait. Never, ever, ever. Especially double recessives. Disaster awaits). But one occasionally doesn’t indicate anything.

      If you are concerned about inbreeding – which is a reasonable concern in a purebred dog, and I absolutely am concerned about inbreeding (remembering that I calculated the inbreeding coefficient for my puppy before I took him home, which is dead easy) – ask to see a pedigree. What you want to make sure of is that it goes back at least three generations, preferably more, and that the same dog doesn’t occur on both sides. If the same dog does occur on both sides, make sure it’s at least a few generations back. Amos had one of these dogs in his pedigree, three generations on one side and five on the right (I think – it’s been a while). I did the maths, and in combination with the fact that the litter was a good size (when there is too much inbreeding, less embryos develop successfully) and all the pups were healthy, I decided that it was an acceptable risk.

      So that is the best way to avoid inbreeding issues. It’s not foolproof – everything is based on probability of inheritance, after all – but it’s much better than looking at the occurrence of a recessive trait.

      I hope that helps! Apologies for the length.

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