DOG QUEST: Canine Emotional Support

When I’m feeling very low, generally my instinct is to curl up in a cave constructed largely of doonas (eiderdowns or “comforters” for those of you not in Oz), pillows and cats, and go to sleep, on the theory that I’ll usually feel at least a bit better when I wake up. Usually, this is true.

So, bed is a safe place.

Every now and again I feel conflicted about this. I feel as though the only thing that could be more comforting than being curled up in bed next to snoring Husband and attention-demanding middle-aged cat (Jabba), and comatose elderly cat (Lestat), would be if Amos was asleep on the floor next to the bed and I could pat him.

We’ll leave aside reality for the moment. Reality would involve acknowledging that, in such a situation, Amos would steal my socks and refuse to give them back, and intermittently fart clouds of noxious gases into the bedroom, and wake us up from time to time by very loudly licking his penis (this results in quite the obnoxious slurping noise). Reality would involve acknowledging that he would probably eat the cat food, and the cats would be yowling and hissing in distress, and hiding under the bed, if not actively pissing on things in their outrage (this last one is more Jabba than Lestat. Lestat has more dignity than to piss on things in outrage).

I grew up with rottweilers. I took them entirely for granted, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I encountered another rottie and was reminded that there was perhaps nothing in this world that was as comforting to me as leaning my head on a broad, black, muscled, furry dog back. Nothing makes one feel quite as safe as snuggling up next to a large dog that is very fond of you.

When I cry, Amos gets worried. He expresses this worry by sitting politely in front of me, licking my face obsessively, and nibbling on my ear. He follows me around when I am sad or sick, and he lets me hug him and flop all over him, when most of the time he can be a bit precious about his personal space. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise at times like this, but dogs do recognise distress. Howling and crying are things he seems to understand.

And sometimes I feel that no-one will offer you such wholehearted, uncomplicated emotional support as a dog will.

"Draw me like one of your French girls."

“Draw me like one of your French girls.”

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DOG QUEST: Amos’s protective drive

Usual disclaimers apply here – I’m not going to delve deeply into canine behavioural psychology because, at this point, it is beyond my ken. There are some really good questions around territoriality and protectiveness, and I’m not much for answering those decisively, although I would love to know more.

This is about Amos, and some general perceptions of dog behaviour, and a bit of a brag, because I’m biased, and Amos is my bud.

Our first anecdote begins one bright Saturday morning when my father drove out to our place to help us with some yard work (this was before we adopted Abby). This is an ongoing project, ever since a fifty-metre-plus mountain ash with delusions of glory launched itself into our yard over a year ago and smacked down perfectly parallel to the fence line. Dad came around with his trailer and a tale of woe.

This is not unusual, and it’s a family trait. We love us some tales of woe.

Since the tree had crushed our original fence, gate and retaining wall, we’ve had some “temporary” pool-safety fencing up to prevent Amos from wandering the countryside. So Dad and I stood next to this fence as he shared his tale of woe. On the other side of the fence, Amos stood, wagging his tail and gazing happily up at us (Amos adores my father).

Now, this was a tale of betrayal and crappy friendship and a few thousand dollars lost between ex-friends, and my father gets very animated when telling a story.

This, too, is a family trait. Why simply tell a story with one’s lips when one can throw in waving hands and puffed out chests and facial grimaces? This is not merely a story, people. This is theatre, and that is our noble way.

He was very angry about what had happened, and, being Dad, he kind of got in my face, while shouting about it.

Let’s be clear – my dad wasn’t threatening me at all, and I was well aware of that, but I am not good around overt displays of anger or temper. I tend to freeze up a little, and twitch back.

“WOOF.”

Dad stopped mid-rant, mouth open. I frowned. As one we turned our heads towards Amos. He was standing in a very alert position, staring at my father. Now, Amos will bark to invite play, so I checked his body language – nope, this wasn’t a play bark. It wasn’t a full-on aggressive bark, either. “What?” I asked the dog (who, naturally, did not reply). “Nothing to worry about here. Everything’s okay.” I stroked him on the head and under the jaw and he relaxed, his tail wagging happily again.

I turned back to Dad. “Resume story,” I said, knowing the value of delivering a good rant.

Dad continued in his rant, and again, he got in my face.

WOOF.

And again, we turned to look at Amos.

The light dawned. “Ah. Dad, he thinks you’re yelling at me.”

“Oh!” Dad relaxed at once, and came over to give Amos some petting and love, and he backed off the story a bit, and all was well.

Now, I don’t know if Amos was responding to Dad’s aggressive body language (and it was very intimidating body language, particularly if you don’t know my dad), or my instinctive twitchiness in the face of anger, or possibly the combination of the two, but I’ll be honest: I think his reaction was excellent, and I’ll tell you why.

Dogs are attuned to human body language. It’s the only way they know to communicate with us. Every piece of information is crucial. I wouldn’t be entirely happy if my dog was so clueless that they couldn’t pick up on this sort of thing – it would probably be harder to communicate with them. I wouldn’t necessarily want a dog to become desensitised to it either, because that would indicate that displays of anger or temper are commonplace, and that’s not an ideal situation for anyone.

On the other hand, a dog that is overly protective – one that goes from zero to a hundred without warning – is really not desirable either. If a dog doesn’t let anyone they haven’t met get near you, that’s a problem, not just from a practical standpoint (having to put the dog away every time you have guests is frustrating. We sometimes have to do that, but admittedly that’s because of excessive social enthusiasm, not territoriality), but because it suggests that your dog thinks you can’t take care of yourself.

That may seem like excessive interpretation (and anthropomorphism), but bear with me: essentially, you want your dog to trust you to take care of them, not the other way around. In other words, it’s nice that Amos has my back, but clearly he follows my judgment when I declare things to be “safe” or otherwise. This means that if I don’t overreact to storms and earthquakes, he probably won’t either (note: lots of dogs are scared of storms and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your reaction – but your reaction can make it worse). If I react with warm enthusiasm to a visitor, that tells Amos that the visitor is safe.

If he were getting protective, even from people that I obviously like, that would indicate that he wasn’t trusting my judgment, and I need my dog to trust me.

I have another example. Last year, I had surgery. It was relatively minor surgery, but it did involve an open wound that took a while to heal, and Amos could smell that I wasn’t at my best. He didn’t get over-protective, but he did become a little bit more of a velcro-dog than he would normally be.

One day, a few days after I got out of the hospital, I stepped out on the back deck to find that Lenny, the kelpie from next door, had come to visit. Lenny is a sweetheart and a charmer, with an ant-eater style tongue that attacks you like a friendly, sloppy ninja, so I was delighted to see him. He galloped over to me for a pat.

Amos body-blocked him. He didn’t growl. He didn’t snap. He just ensured that Lenny could not get close to me, and after that, he actually gently herded Lenny over to the other end of the deck, and then came back to me, looking very pleased with himself.

It’s true that when Amos and Lenny (or Amos and Abby, or any combination of the three) are in the presence of any of their favourite humans, they get possessive and a bit jealous. No! I want all the pats! You can’t have any! And they will body block, and wriggle, and bounce, but there’s a very obvious no-hard-feelings about all the body language involved. I’ve never seen them herd each other before.

“Aw,” I said to Amos, “That’s sweet. But I want to pat Lenny.” So I put Amos in a drop, and walked over to Lenny, who was looking quite forlorn-

-and then I went back to Amos, and put him back in his drop-

-and-

Okay. It took a few tries to get past Amos’s instinctive conviction that Lenny shouldn’t be too close when I was vulnerable, but we got there. Amos held his drop, with a desperate look in his eyes, and I petted Lenny and told him he was very cute, and then I released Amos and petted them both, and the moment seemed to pass.

While I felt quite loved, herding away a smaller dog that we know well bordered a little bit on over-protective for me. He did it gently, with no overt displays of aggression, but it was an unnecessary level of caution. So, I decided that I had to demonstrate to Amos that I get to make all the decisions about patting other dogs, even when I’m sick and have an open surgical wound, and we did this in a controlled setting.

My favourite story, though, is a bit more ridiculous. It takes place the day after we brought little Amos-puppy home. He was nine weeks old and a bit under five kilos.

For nearly the first 24 hours that we had Amos, he interacted almost exclusively with me. Husband was working from home that day and things had apparently gone a bit pear-shaped, so he was very busy. I’d picked up Amos from the breeder and brought him home, talking to him the whole time and petting him at red lights. I’d put his box next to my side of the bed that first night, and slept with my arm dangling in it so he could lick me and get petted when he felt uncertain (just for the first night, I didn’t want to create a pattern). There was a very quick bonding process.

The evening of the second Amos-day, I was still very tired and not feeling at my best. Husband was stressed out about work, and we had what passes for a fight when two people are very grumpy but too tired to get excessively worked up. I was lying on the couch, and little Amos was sprawled on the carpet having a snooze.

Voices were raised. Tempers frayed.

Then, the adorable puppy growl: “rrrrrrrrrrRUFF.”

Little puppy Amos had woken up, and positioned himself closer to me, glaring at Husband.

We both melted immediately, and the fight was over. Husband held out his hand for Amos to lick, and all was forgiven. So, it was established early on that Amos is not a fan of raised voices in the home, or cross voices, and I’m not entirely sure that was a protective urge (he was just a baby, after all) so much as his own personal discomfort with the vibe of the room.

Still, I like to say, “Amos doesn’t like it when people yell at me.” And that works out well, because I don’t like it either.

Morning Coffee Feminism: Large Dogs

“Really?” he asked. “What breed of dog would you get?”

“A rottweiler,” I said, surprised by the question. I’m sure I’d made no secret of my preference, and I knew he loved the breed also.

There was silence for a moment. “Are you sure?” he asked, looking as though he were trying to fish more tactful words out of the air. “You need to be very strong-willed…”

I blinked. Had he met me?

“…have a lot of force of personality, you know… strength…”

If you’ve met me, you’re probably not labouring under the delusion that I lack personal stage presence, and if you’ve spent any time with me at all, you’re unlikely to think I’m anything other than strong-willed.

I like phrases like “strong-willed” and “determined”. They sound so much better than “stubborn” and “plants her feet like a recalcitrant yak.”

My guest – who knew, and knows me, very well – refused to meet my eyes, and it was at that moment I realised: this wasn’t about whether I could command an audience on stage or look stern at a puppy. This was about my sex.

But we didn’t say that. It would have started an argument.

 

***************

“You treat that dog as a child substitute.”

I glanced across at my dog, who was happily flopped on the paving, his leash hooked onto a post. Since he was tied up, the other end was hooked to his harness, rather than his collar, because if he tugged at it, I didn’t want him to give himself an accidental correction.

“I don’t put children in correction collars,” I pointed out.

After a brief digression of black humour, I returned to the point. “I also don’t have them sleep in crates, leave them outside in the rain during the day, or kick them out of the house when they misbehave. I admit I haven’t had the opportunity, since I don’t have a kid, but I can promise I wouldn’t do these things. I also wouldn’t insist a child sit before coming inside, or wait for an invitation before coming up on the couch, or stay in a fixed position while I prepare food.”

“Yeah, but-”

“No, wait. Are you absolutely sure that you didn’t decide that, because I was female, I was going to treat any dog I got like a child? And are you sure you didn’t decide that ahead of time, and interpret every action I take in light of that? Because that’s called confirmation bias.”

There was silence for a moment. My conversational companion sipped at his wine. “Yeah. Okay. That’s a fair point.”

I only won like that once. The next time we had this conversation, he completely denied it. It would have destroyed his belief that mostly what women want out of life is to have babies, and somehow they’re incapable of viewing pets as anything other than babies. And if only I wasn’t so happy with and interested in my dogs, I would be absolutely trying conceive some potential offspring right now.

 

***************

I used to spend some time on a rottie enthusiast forum – I mostly lurked and just read things. I didn’t post. There were some really good tips and lovely people on there. Also, some absolute rubbish.

I remember being really affected by one extremely long conversation where a man insisted, at length, that women just didn’t have the force of personality to manage large dogs like rottweilers. They needed a man’s touch. I can provide links if anyone wants to watch the carnage that followed from numerous female dog owners and handlers.

This just in: you don’t need to be able to lift the dog – if it comes down to a need for physical control, all you need is leverage. Very small people can have leverage, and dogs don’t usually know how to work around it. If you’re getting to the point where you’re a big strong guy and you’re relying on that to control your dog, you have a serious problem. Furthermore, despite reports of dogs being sexist, I’ve found just as much anecdotal evidence going the other way. I think it really does have a lot to do with body language and confidence, as well as patience and determination, and these are not specifically male traits.

Furthermore, I’ll just link you through to The K9 Company again. There’s two women on the front page. The taller one? That’s Cat. She’s one of our trainers and runs the business with her partner, Brent. The delighted rottweiler there is Zooka. He’s honestly the best trained (and perhaps one of the most loved) dogs I have ever met. He is Cat’s dog.

If you want to tell Cat that women can’t handle rottweilers, be my freaking guest. Just let me know ahead of time so I can track down a flak jacket, because I don’t want to get injured as I enjoy the show.

 

***************

Post. “Morning coffee feminism” is a new blog post series I’m starting up, basically telling short stories about times where sexism and gender essentialism has impacted my life. They’re mostly what are called “micro-aggressions”, the little things that just start to add up like crazy over a lifetime. I was just going to write one post but it was reaching novella length, so here we are! Feel free to share your own experiences or opinions in the comments.

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.

Rescue Dog Filtering and Dog Breed Know-How

At the moment, Husband and I are in the market for a rescue dog. It’s a lifetime commitment (for the dog, at least) so we are pretty specific as to what we want. I’m ruminating on this subject a lot lately and after a few discussions with other dog owners have come to the conclusion that most people just do not know enough about various dog breeds before they adopt or buy (not that a known breed is essential, but there are traits that it is important to be aware of, and while the noble bitsa can be fantastic, I’m less inclined to get one myself). In order to get into some of this, we’ll start with how I’ve narrowed it down.

Here’s the list that makes it tricky. The potential dog must:

1) get along with Amos (our excitable two-year-old Rottweiler).

2) get along with, or at least not eat, the cats.

3) be okay with children as we plan to reproduce at some point (also, we like our friends to bring kids around to play with the dog. Doesn’t have to be their kids. They could just pick some up off the street. That would work).

4) be okay with being a bit of a couch-potato dog. We are happy to walk our dogs and play with them, and we try to be dedicated with training them, but Husband and I are both often sedentary during the day due to the nature of our work. We both work from home a few days a week, and in that time we let Amos in to sit with us, but the lad does get bored (under these circumstances, the treat ball is a freaking godsend). This is actually one of many reasons we want to get another dog. We’re on 2/3 of a forested acre, so it’s really not the end of the world.

5) not have a very high prey drive. We have native wildlife around here, and between echidnas, wombats and the odd wallaby, it might all be a bit too tempting for, say, a greyhound.

6) not be an escape artist. We have four foot post-and-wire fences (a combination of chicken mesh, dingo mesh and concrete reinforcing mesh – there will be no getting through it, but digging out is not impossible, and climbing – or simply leaping – for a kelpie-like sort of dog is a possibility).

In terms of personal preference, I like to add that dog must:

7) be a large breed dog (I like big dogs and I cannot lie. I’m just a big dog person)

8) be a female dog (firstly, a female is more likely to get along with Amos, but secondly, I just want a girl dog).

9) be a young dog, preferably past the toilet-training age as we want a dog that we can leave at home. I get a bit uncomfortable at the idea of leaving a six-month-old puppy at home alone for extended periods – there is just too much trouble they can get into. On the other hand, I don’t think I could handle the heartbreak of adopting a dog that is going to die in four years or less, as much as old dogs need homes and love too.

So what does this mean?

Well, first of all, our search rules out male dogs. Most of the dogs available for adoption are male; it’s a significant trend. I am not sure why this is, but could theorise that dominance and marking behaviours (not always resolved by desexing) could play a role, or possibly because people preferentially choose male dogs to start with and when they realise they have bitten off more than they can chew, the boy dogs get surrendered. It’s worth being aware that female dogs can also have issues with the hierarchy, although marking is less of a problem.

Secondly, there are some breed exclusions. For fans of particular breeds, rest assured that I really have nothing against these dogs – they can all be lovely! – but they’re not suitable for us.

No greyhounds. This is a bit sad because they tend to be very sweet and relaxed dogs for the most part, and so many retired racers need homes and patient love and care. Unfortunately: high prey drive + cats = violence and tragedy. You can also never let them off lead when you’re out and about – they hit their top speed on their third stride and you aren’t getting that dog back until it’s good and ready to head home.

No cattle dogs. The particular Australian fondness for working breeds means that rescue centres are choc-full of various mixes of blue heelers, kelpies, Australian cattle dogs, koolies and related breeds. Our neighbours have a kelpie and he is an absolute sweetheart (he has adopted us a secondary pack when his beloved people aren’t home). It is, however, impossible to keep him in. He is basically a cat. As far as Lenny is concerned, four-foot fence is for leaping (hence the frequent visits to our place). Also, these are highly intelligent breeds: they like to explore, they need to run, they easily escape and they get bored easily. While Rottweilers like Amos are also highly intelligent, they are less prone to explore and escape. Our neighbours take their dog running when they go mountain bike riding, so he gets plenty of exercise and stimulation; we couldn’t provide that outlet for a dog, so it’s not an option. Also, high prey drive. As a side note here, if you’re the sort of person who wants to get a cattle dog, and you live in the city or the suburbs, be aware that dog is going to need lots of room to run, lots of walking and a hell of a lot of stimulation.

No huskies or Alaskan malamutes. This was very upsetting for Husband, who really loves these breeds, but a four-foot fence is about as much of an obstacle to these fellows as it would be to the kelpies, and for similar reasons. These dogs are also bred to be amazingly independent, which is a virtue in their original line of work, but which leads to constant dominance struggles. If my whole life revolved around my dog, I might find that stimulating, but I do occasionally like to do things that don’t involve arguing with a canine over who, exactly, is the boss. These guys are fantastic, but have specific needs (also, generally not good with cats, as in really, really not good).

No terriers. This means no bull terriers and particularly no staffordshire terriers. Staffys have become very popular in recent years and I don’t think that most people who take them on really understand what they are getting into; at least, that’s my conclusion from the extraordinary number of staffys and staffy mixes on the rescue pages. Here’s a tip: staffys are high maintenance dogs. They are lovely, don’t get me wrong. They are affectionate, loyal, highly intelligent, energetic and fun. There’s a lot to love about them. They are also needy as hell (all dogs can be needy; they’re not cats, after all; however, there are still degrees) and, again, they get bored easily. Don’t get a staffy if you’re leaving them at home alone for an extended period. As always, hard and fast rules are a mistake, and some will be fine, but when bored, they tend to become destructo-dogs, and they can get quite neurotic. Our rottie does need to be part of the family, it’s true, but we can leave him at home alone for a day and be confident that we won’t be coming back to a disaster. Also, terriers tend to have that high prey drive.

Let me tell you: once you rule out staffys, terriers, greyhounds and male dogs, the rescue pages start to get a little thin. In fact, it thins out as soon as you rule out staffys (see previous paragraph).

What does it leave?

Well, in terms of large breeds on the rescue pages, it leaves Rottweilers and rottie mixes (not many – they get snapped up quick), German Shepherds and GSD mixes (again, they get snapped up quick), mastiff mixes, Great Dane mixes, Rhodesian Ridgeback and ridgie mixes, the occasional Labrador or lab mix, and the odd wolfhound or deer/staghound.

I love rotties, ridgies and mastiffs, and am quite fond of the Danes and the German Shepherds. The only problem I have with Great Danes is their potentially shortened lifespan, and the problem I have with German Shepherds is based on the show-breeding culture – ever notice how GSDs tend to have back legs much shorter than their front legs? That’s not healthy, but it’s a “desirable conformation”, apparently. No problems with temperament or intelligence in either breed.

We are still searching for our desired rescue/rehome dog, but here’s the thing: clearly I know enough about dog breeds to be aware of some of the pitfalls in temperament and health. What I don’t know I will research extensively.

It’s become apparent to me that not everyone does this – and that’s not a judgment on them, because apparently not everyone is aware that this is something they should do. I grew up with rotties, so I knew that if you take in a purebred puppy, it’s ideal to check out the elbow and hip scores of the parents, as well as eye examinations (they have a tendency to ectropia). Obviously, this is not something you can do for a rescue, but generally joint problems will have manifested already by that stage, so you can be aware of them.

When you pick a puppy, it is crucial to know about the breed and know what to look for, but there are also some general rules. The first eight weeks of life have a huge effect on a pup’s temperament and socialisation – have the pups been handled? Have they had a chance to explore their environment? Have they socialised with other dogs? Have they socialised with kids? Does the pup seem too shy or anxious? Does the pup seem in any way neurotic? Make absolutely certain that you can at least meet the mother, if not the father. Is she a calm and mellow dog? Is she friendly? Does she seem happy and healthy?

It is so easy to get swept away by an adorable puppy and then be trapped later on by health and behavioural problems – and by that stage they are your beloved pet and there is generally nothing you wouldn’t do to help them (including enormous amounts of stress and gigantic vet bills). It’s not that you have the power to prevent these things, but they are things you should avoid having to deal with if you can.

To be fair, I nearly didn’t pick Amos (the “snuggliest” puppy), because he seemed a little anxious. Just a little. It turned out that they’d all had their claws clipped that day and the breeder had clipped his a bit too short which for a puppy is very upsetting. All the same, he was still sociable, still friendly, still climbed all over me. It was the latter behaviour that melted me a bit.

There’s a lot I don’t know about adopting a grown dog, but a lot of their personality is formed, so that takes out some of the guesswork. There are trial periods, in case it doesn’t work out, and we can introduce Amos to them before we make any decisions. There are upsides to this aspect of things.

We’ll see how it goes.

P.S. At this point, these perceptions and opinions of various breeds are based on research and personal observation, but I would love to hear any stories that would conflict with my perceptions! A “breed” does not mean all dogs have identical behaviour – they are merely discernable tendencies, and every dog is just that little bit different (one reason why we end up adoring them so much).

Animal breeding, genetics abuse, and Powerpoint pedigrees

I’m about to tell a little story, here, and be aware that there are far worse and far more egregious cases of what I’m going to call “genetics abuse” than the situation I am about to describe.

After dog training the other day, as we were walking Amos (our purebred Rottweiler, for those who don’t know) back to our car, a woman stepped out of our car and went “Oh, he’s beautiful!” (thank you, we know our dog is gorgeous).

“What line is he from?”

This question, well-intentioned as it is, makes me twitch. While we did glance at Amos’s pedigree (in my case, and as I’ll explain below, it was to calculate his inbreeding coefficient) and look at his parents’ records for eye examinations and elbow and hip scores, we don’t care what line he is from. We’re not breeders. We won’t breed Amos for a number of reasons. We got Amos from Oscelly because his parents were healthy and good-natured, and the breeders were supportive.

“Oscelly,” Husband replied politely. “In Kyneton.”

“I used to breed Rottweilers, in Queensland,” the woman explained. “But I can’t have another one since my last one died.”

I flooded with sympathy. “Oh, that’s awful,” I said.

“Yes, and there was no sign! I line-bred him as close as I could-”

At this point the conflict between “It’s so sad to lose a dog” and “you fucking idiot” caused a blood vessel to pop somewhere in the tact-zone of my brain. I actually inhaled my own spit when I went, “Ah… ha?”

“-and I’d been wrestling with him the night before, and he was fine, and I went out to the garage in the morning and he was dead. He was only seven.”

A healthy Rottweiler has a good chance of making it to ten years old and beyond. Quietly I observed, “Sounds like a heart problem?”

“Yes, I thought so.”

Then she admired Amos some more while he wriggled in sociable happiness, particularly his beautifully shaped head (he does have a nice head), and we parted ways. As in all truly frustrating situations, it actually took a few hours for me to get angry enough to start composing this post in my head.

Let Auntie Kate explain line-breeding to you, as well as some basic genetics, and let’s get cracking on what happened to this poor dog and his owner.

Line breeding is where a particular breeder/stud decides that they want their dogs (or horses, or cats, or alpacas) to have a particular look and tendency. They basically want a genetic stamp that says “These are our dogs. You have a dog from Stud X!” They also want all the traits that will allow them to win more dog shows, which will get them more stud fees. In order to achieve that, they try to concentrate the particular desired traits in their dogs.

They do this by inbreeding. Let’s be clear here: line breeding is just another way of saying “inbreeding.” There is no fucking around. It is the same thing, and it is very, very bad for any population to have this happen.

I know a good deal about population genetics (the thesis is coming along nicely) and next to nothing about animal husbandry. All that I know about animal husbandry is based on breeders of any kind of animal delivering bone-headed pronouncements that make me want to smack them upside the head with a population genetics text book (heavy enough to concuss). Having said that, animal husbandry is one of the long arms of human agriculture. Humanity has been breeding animals to conform to their specifications for millennia, and we’ve become pretty good at it. Without an understanding of DNA, or complex inheritance patterns, we managed to work out that breeding too close was a bad idea.

We worked this out from a number of signs: deformed offspring is one obvious sign. Less obvious signs are infertility or reduced fertility. If, for example, you want to buy a puppy from a breeder, and they announce that the bitch only had one pup in that litter, do not buy that pup. That pup has a good chance of breaking your heart. If you do cave, and buy the pup that almost certainly carries a number of recessive defects, do not breed the pup. Ever. If you do, you’re part of the problem.

So some animal husbandry has limits as to how close they are willing to breed their animals. They draw these limits far, far closer than they should, and then cite some pretty random research to say that this is okay. This research does not say what they think it says, and I’m going to explain why.

In every cell of your body*, you have two copies of your master genome** – the 23 (usually) chromosomes that are tightly wound strings of DNA. You have one copy from your biological mother, and one from your biological father. In the simplest scenario, when you produce gametes (eggs and sperm), each gamete contains only one copy. They might have your paternal copy, or your maternal copy (they might have a slight mix of the two as your chromosomes cross over and recombine, which is how new combinations arise). The successful gamete will pass that copy on to the next generation. Odds of having a mostly paternal versus a mostly maternal copy are 50:50.

So we have two copies of every gene and every gene region. When these copies are different in any way, we refer to the different versions as “alleles”. For example, I have red hair. Red hair is what we call a recessive trait, which means that I have to have inherited alleles relating to red hair from both my mother and my father (hair colour is actually a polygenic trait, so it’s not that simple, but both parents have to be involved for my hair colour to express the way it does). This also means that, since I have two copies of the relevant alleles, I am guaranteed to pass on one redhead allele copy to any kidlets I one day have.

So we’ve got the background for simple recessive inheritance. Now we get to the scary part.

YOU ARE A FILTHY MUTANT.

No, really, you are. DNA is self-replicating, and it even has proofreading systems to make sure it copies everything perfectly. It still screws up, and leads to mutations. We all have these mutations, every single one of us. Most of them are probably relatively benign on their own – after all, you’re reading this, right? – but in many cases if you had two copies, the result would be lethal. In fact, most of the time, if you have two copies that were flawed in the same way, you wouldn’t develop all the way to viability. You would be miscarried, maybe as a zygote, or an embryo, or a fetus.

Here’s the thing: because these mutations are so sparsely distributed throughout the genome, and so individual, and because there is so much diversity in the human genome (we have what is called a large effective population size, more on that later), it’s astoundingly rare that you will get two copies of a flawed allele (with the exception of some named recessive disorders that have persisted in the population – and there are some nasty ones out there).

Of course, if you’re closely related to someone, it’s much more likely that you both have that allele. I am now going to illustrate why cousins shouldn’t marry and have kids****, only in my example, they are DOG cousins.

(****early footnote to prevent offense also pasted in here: Of course, cousins are perfectly allowed to marry. It’s their right and their choice. It’s just that most of them seek genetic counselling to make sure that they are not going to pass on some deleterious recessive trait. In most cases, it’s perfectly fine.)

We begin with a basic pedigree.

Slide1

Meet Lord Doggington and Princess Jemima. They are both perfectly healthy, show line dogs of the breed I just made up called Zimbabwean Slothhounds. They win awards for how amazingly pretty they look. Depending on the breeder, they may also be valued for their robust strength and good nature, or the breeder might just be interested in appearance. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt: they are, after all, particularly good at chasing down sloths.

Like all dogs – and all DNA-bearing organisms – Lord Doggington is carrying a nasty secret in his genome. It’s okay, because it arose with him due to a point mutation in one of his parents’ gametes, so it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Zimbabwean Slothhound population. We should be safe from anyone ending up with two copies of this allele.

Alas, Lord Doggington’s owners think he is super awesome, and they want their whole stud to be like him. They want to concentrate his traits.

Lord Doggington and Lady Jemima have a bunch of puppies (ideally around eight). The stud sells six, and keeps two, Daisy and Fido, whom they like the look of. Daisy and Fido each have a 50% chance of inheriting Lord Doggington’s crap-arse allele. However, they will only ever have one copy, because Princess Jemima does not have the crap-arse allele. She probably has her own deleterious alleles, but we’ll focus on the other one here.

Slide2

Let’s imagine that both Daisy and Fido inherit the crap-arse allele. There is a 25% chance that this will happen (0.5 x 0.5 = 0.25, for those who forgot probability as soon as they graduated high school). Daisy and Fido are each bred to outstanding Slothhounds from other studs, and produce, respectively, Butcho and Miss Dogface, who are adorable puppies.

Slide3

There is a further 50% chance each that Miss Dogface and Butcho respectively will inherit the crap-arse allele from Fido and Daisy. If we know that Fido and Daisy have each inherited the allele, then, again, there is a 25% chance that both Miss Dogface and Butcho will as well. If we don’t know the status of Fido and Daisy – i.e., we’re just guessing, which is the fun part of recessive trait pedigrees – then there is a 25% chance that each pup will have the allele, and a 6.25% chance that both of them will. That’s a more than 1 in 20 chance; it’s actually quite high.

Let’s say that this untoward event happens, and the breeders decide to breed Dogface to Butcho (some breeders won’t do this. Some will. It varies) to create the pure strain of awesome that descended from Lord Doggington, thus elevating the Zimbabwean Slothhound from relative obscurity as a breed to glorious renown.

If we know that Dogface and Butcho have the crap-arse allele, there’s a 50% chance that their pup will have one copy, a 25% chance that they will have no copies, and a whopping remaining 25% chance the pup will have two copies. If it is still unknown – if, in fact, all we know is that Lord Doggington is on both sides of the pedigree and that Butcho and Dogface are first cousins – then we have a 1.56% chance that their offspring will have two copies of any allele from Lord Doggington. This is what we call the probability of identity by descent (IBD).*****

Slide4

In this last figure, I’ve now changed the colour to indicate that this unlikely event has happened, and we can see the carriers of the allele. The offspring of Miss Dogface and Butcho inherits both copies (something that is a 1.56% chance from the word go), and either aborts, or is born with a severe defect that may even require euthanasia. This is why you want to avoid dogs with tiny litter sizes – unless they’ve been bred for reduced ovulation, small litter sizes generally represent resorbed pups that did not develop or even useless gametes.

Lest you think 1.56% is vanishingly small, in a population-level analysis, it is huge. It is a matter of some concern, and this shit happens all the time. In livestock animals, offspring may often be bred back to their parents – now that you’ve got the basics, I’ll leave you to draw out the pedigree of all the shit that comes out of that.

When Amos’s breeder showed me his pedigree, he brought out a photo of his very own Lord Doggington, explained how fantastic that dog was, and that he was on both sides of Amos’s pedigree. This was stated to me as a good thing, and if I were not a geneticist, I would have been convinced by his superior knowledge. That is why I am writing this post and using too much bold typeface.

I gently pointed out that I was a population geneticist doing a PhD and that this was of some concern to me. The breeder told me about some research some fellow in the UK had done on plants where he experimented and showed that inbreeding wasn’t so bad.

I haven’t managed to find whatever research he was quoting, but here’s the question I want to ask: what sort of plant? Was it a native population? Because this, I think, is where animal husbandry and population geneticists part ways. Animal breeders know what I’ve just been explaining. These are not stupid people – they have a science all of their own. They’re just not updating it, and they are missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: the piece that comes from population genetics.

They are missing effective population size.

Effective population size is basically a way of describing the background genetic diversity in the population and what is passed on to the next generation. For example, you might have an enormous population of corals on a reef, but if the millions are all reproducing by cloning themselves, and if they are all descended from the same clone, the corals will have a very, very small population size (i.e.: 1). However, since they are clonal, they already have their two genome copies, and we already know that they are functional. There are advantages to clonality.

You might have a very large herd of deer, but if all the young males keep getting their arses handed to them by the boss male, he’s going to do all the mating. Because you have a large number of different females, the effective population size will be larger than 1, but it’s not going to be enormous. There’s going to be a lot of deer wandering around with that paternal genome copy.

The basic message is this: when you breed to concentrate physical traits in a population, you are removing variation from the genome, because you are not breeding the animals that don’t fit your requirements. These animals do not contribute to the next generation; therefore they are not included in your effective population size. You are concentrating the physical traits you desire, but you are also concentrating the invisible, deleterious alleles. You are increasing the likelihood that matings will result in double copies of the same rare, lethal allele. You are reducing your effective population size.

You are drying up your gene pool #nerdpun.

So inbreeding is tolerable and manageable when you have a large effective population size, although it is itself reducing your population diversity. It is a horrible thing to do when you have a small effective population size.

This just in: purebred dogs have a very small effective population size. We’re not talking clonal corals, but we’re definitely not talking human-grade levels either. It’s a closed system; generally they only breed purebreds of a breed to others. That’s the whole point. I decided to get a purebred dog despite knowing all this, because I grew up with and love the breed, and also because this way there is a measure of predictability regarding temperament (I like large dogs. Temperament is important) and disease (I want to know what to look for).

I decided to look at Amos’s pedigree myself. All up, his probability of any allele being identical by descent was less than 0.06%. Since I’d been told that the odds of finding a breeder who does not practice line breeding are slim to none, I decided that was an acceptable risk. Amos has an undershot jaw, so it would be irresponsible to breed him (it’s not a huge deal for him personally), but otherwise he is perfectly healthy.

I think. I’m not sure, because here’s the rub: Rottweilers became very fashionable at some point in the 1980s. Before that, they were known for the elbow and hip problems, and possibly the minor eye issues – and that was it. These are also common to many breeds of dog.

When a dog breed becomes fashionable, you get a lot of what is termed “backyard breeding” – people either breeding out of ignorance (because they like puppies), or greed (because purebred dogs are worth squagloads) or both. This means people didn’t necessarily check that their dogs were healthy before they bred them.

Rottweilers are now known for heart problems. This is a new thing. I now have to worry about my dog’s heart, because even though he has a 0.06% chance of identity by descent, the odds of these crappy heart alleles floating around are much higher (there’s also cancer. Don’t get me started).

And this woman I met in the parking lot – to come back to the point after a long and circuitous journey – line-bred her dog as close as she could, and she did it because she honestly believed that it would produce a healthier dog. She believed this because all the dogs she bred were outwardly healthy, with no consideration for or knowledge of what was hanging around unexpressed in their DNA. This is the problem. Because they don’t consider effective population size, because they don’t consider recessive traits, and because they do not acknowledge how common these mutations are, they only breed from the appearance and behaviour of the animal, i.e., from the phenotype, not the genotype (this is not universal: a number of recessive traits are very well understood and bred for, but this doesn’t connect with effective population size).

It’s possible that if she outbred her dogs with other studs – and you could even do this and keep a dog purebred – the resulting pup wouldn’t have had a congenital heart defect.

It’s just possible she wouldn’t have gone out to the garage and found her best mate dead on the floor at seven years old.

So, even in purebreeding systems, you can outbreed. Do that. Avoid genetic abuse. Reduce animal suffering. Avoid getting your heart broken.

*Except red blood cells. They need extra room for hauling around oxygen, so they don’t have a nucleus.

** We’re not talking about the mitochondrial genome. While that is important in its own way, it is only maternally inherited, it doesn’t recombine, and because cellular respiration is so crucial and you only have one copy rather than two, deleterious mutations don’t tend to survive.***

***Having said that, there are rare cases of species or individuals where a mitochondrion may be bi-parentally inherited and/or undergo recombination, and there are rare human diseases that are caused by mitochondrial mutations.

****Of course, cousins are perfectly allowed to marry. It’s their right and their choice. It’s just that most of them seek genetic counselling to make sure that they are not going to pass on some deleterious recessive trait. In most cases, it’s perfectly fine.

*****IBD! Identity by descent! Not to be confused with Isolation By Distance, or any other number of concepts for which IBD is an acronym…

(Backdated entry: Originally put together November 2012)