Mary, Patrick, Matt, and Reid all tipped me to this fascinating NYT science piece on so- called “bully whippets”. Thses stout over- muscled dogs are what happens when you inbreed too much seeking a single character, in this case speed. When the whippets are heterozygous for a certain gene they are fast, but when they have two copies they are rather monstrous.
This stirred up me (and Matt, and Dr. Hypercube) into some off- web discussion. It hit two of my pet peeves: that such pursuits as racing and lure coursing are as good for dogs as hunting, and that pure “blood” and closed studbooks are somehow desirable (Patrick always has plenty to say about this too).
Matt stated the first problem clearly: “… what it takes to catch a rabbit with a dog is not ONLY speed, but brains and stamina and much else besides. So never before in the sighthounds has there been an attempt to breed for speed alone as an abstract trait, and as measured by a mechanical device. That’s new, and maybe that’s what lead us to this problem.”
As for the second, look at the article:
“When mutant, muscle-bound puppies started showing up in litters of champion racing whippets, the breeders of the normally sleek dogs invited scientists to take DNA samples at race meets here and across the country. They hoped to find a genetic cause for the condition and a way to purge it from the breed.
“It worked. “Bully whippets,” as the heavyset dogs are known, turn out to have a genetic mutation that enhances muscle development. And breeders may not want to eliminate the “bully” gene after all. The scientists found that the same mutation that pumps up some whippets makes others among the fastest dogs on the track.
“With a DNA screening test on the way, “We’re going to keep the speed and lose the bullies,” Helena James, a a whippet breeder in Vancouver, British Columbia, said.”
“It was not exactly news to breeders that speed is an inherited trait: whippets were developed in the late 1800s specifically for racing. But knowing that one of her dogs was sired by a carrier of the gene, said Jen Jensen, a whippet owner in Fair Oaks, Calif., makes its championships seem “less earned.” Ms. Jensen’s suggestion that a DNA test be required for all dogs and that the fastest ones without the mutation be judged and raced separately, however, has not gone over well.
“At a recent race here in southern New Jersey, some whippet owners wanted the mutation eliminated altogether, even if that meant fewer fast dogs. But as the dogs pounded after a lure at 35 miles per hour, several owners allowed that they would prefer a whippet with the gene for speed.
““It’s more fun having fast dogs than slow dogs,” said Libby Kirchner, of Glassboro, N.J.”
But such “purity” comes at a steep cost: reduced genetic diversity. Also, genes do not exist and act in a vacuum; their effects are intimately linked. I think that is what this fellow is getting at, though the reporter didn’t elucidate his exact reasons:
“Many breeders hope this new effort to corral nature will weed out the numerous recessive diseases that plague purebred dogs after generations of human-imposed inbreeding. But some question the wisdom of escalating intervention. Mark Derr, an author who has written about the history of dog breeding, urges everyone to reconsider the goal of genetic purity.
“I always use dogs as the example of why we don’t want to be mucking around with our own genome,” Mr. Derr said. “These people are trying to use DNA tests to solve problems of their own making.” “
My take on both questions, as related to Dr. H. (slightly edited as I do go on in early AM emails!):
“Racing and lure coursing are ersatz tests– hunting is the real thing. Even competitive open field coursing introduces an element of artificiality. Hunting selects for intelligence and intangibles.
“All working breeds AT LEAST should have ways of bringing in new genes. Ideally I’d like to see it like pigeons where the result in appearance or performance is all that matters and breeding is irrelevant.
“This will never happen. Purebred dogs and shows started in Victorian times and picked up a lot of baggage there. Breed people buy in to all sorts of mysticism about it (show saluki people with their pure Arab breed myths are among the worst– see below) and make up absurd creation myths. Also the AKC pedigree machine is Big Business and we all know what that means.
“The saluki type is what John Burchard calls a “landrace” and behaves rather like a species, maintaining itself with plenty of genetic buffering and little need for pedigrees. The west split off one small Arab population, mostly from Iraq, and called it saluki, and took an even smaller group from Afghanistan and made of it the absurd modern show Afghan. The Russians, extending our idiocy, now count those two plus taigan, aboriginal Afghan, tazi, and even a longer- coated tazi variant called Khalag tazi. In “nature”, all blend into one another and keep plenty of diversity. You can see all types plus smooths in Afghanistan, and John tells me you could see all but the heaviest – coated in the Arabian peninsula 20 years ago.
“Pedigree dogs have diminishing genetic pools and they are getting worse all the time, aided and abetted by the AKC. The saluki is the ONLY AKC breed with a mechanism for bringing in new “blood” and even that is cumbersome, partially because of Arabist romanticism and the myth of the “pure” (hurr) Bedu, saluki, Arab horse, and saker. The Arabs certainly hold a higher place for salukis than “dogs” (or at least did until the recent rise in rabid Salafism, which also affects the Afghans) but the dogs still came down from Asia. Don’t know yet when my dogs will be officially accepted. Not that they care.”