Medical Screening: Responsible Breeding
or the Road to Extinction ?

Jim Engel, December 2007

It began with hip dysplasia.  Thirty or forty years ago the canine community could no longer ignore the proliferation of crippled young dogs and sought to ameliorate the situation through use of radiographic hip examinations as a screening mechanism for breeding.  The concept was quite simple.  Since the defective hip socket configuration and the consequent proliferation of crippled dogs was primarily the result of genetic inheritance, the solution seemed to be the elimination from the breeding population dogs exhibiting external symptoms and also those dogs whose hips were deemed faulty through the use of X ray examination.

And indeed there was a very significant element of success in this selection program.  Having one’s breeding stock certified as free from dysplasia by agencies such as the Orthopedic Foundation of America ( OFA ) became the standard of breeder responsibility and there was statistical evidence of a broad improvement in the hip status of many breeds.

As time moved forward and other defects began to emerge the success of this gradually led to a proliferation of medical tests that “responsible” breeders needed to subject their breeding stock to.  In the Bouvier des Flandres, for instance, numerous problems emerged beyond dysplastic hips.  These included  heart aliments such as sub aortic stenoisis, very serious eye problems, thyroid problems and gastric torsion.  The Dobermans become a walking disaster with wobblers syndrome and von Willebrand’s disease leading a pack of horror stories. In the collie the emphasis on the extremely narrow skull produced the bizarre situation where in order to win in the show ring the breeder is required to produce skulls without room for two functioning, properly structured eye balls.

Medical screening became fashionable, another way for the dilettantes to buy notoriety and importance without personal effort or getting the hands dirty.  One could buy stock from the “winners,” or better yet have his professional handler buy and show stock, and subject them to testing, selling the rejects as pets.  In the Bouvier world there emerged such extensive screening that it became fashionable to boast of a “five star” dog, one who had passed the five leading screening tests.  This and a mickey mouse championship were proffered as hallmarks of quality; never mind that the dog might waddle like a wind up toy and would just lapse into dumb passive resistance were anyone silly enough to try and train him for the work of his breed.

But after all of these years and all of this testing, questions persist.   Why, after ten to twenty thousand years of successful breeding without medical screening are we seeing all of these genetic problems and doing all of this testing ? Are we really producing better dogs?  Or are we in avoidance, putting out brush fires while dissipating the heritage of the founders ?  Other than providing a revenue stream for the veterinary community and the medical service establishment, what exactly is being accomplished ? Perhaps the time has come to step back and make a new evaluation. 

In reality the emergence of the ornamental “pure bred” dog and the closed gene pool or stud book as pandered by the American Kennel Club and the various European bodies under FCI auspices has lead to dogs lacking in the functional character and robust physique that were the original reason for domestication, the emergence of never ending genetic defects and fragile breeds of exaggerated type lacking in real vigor. To see why this is so requires a quick review of the principles of genetic inheritance.

The genetic inheritance mechanism is the driving force of evolution, the means by which ever more complex and sophisticated beings have evolved over time.  Change comes through random genetic mutations, most of which are by simple probability deleterious and immediately disappear because the individual dies or is incapable of maturing to breeding age and procreating. ( Just as a random change to a computer program would most likely be a fatal defect rather than a new and desirable feature. ) Some new genetic attributes are defects but not immediately fatal.  They float in the gene pool, and when on occasion by chance an unfortunate individual inherits the wrong combination of genes external or phenotypical attributes appear. In the case of poor hip socket formation these individuals are less able to survive and procreate, and the incidence of the defect is thus in the wild population, though always present,  limited by natural selection, survival of the fittest in it’s most primitive and effective form.

Thus there will always be genetic defects in any breeding population.  In the natural order of things those defects which are detrimental to survival are minimized by natural selection; those genetic features which are beneficial in that they lead to increased competitive effectiveness are evolutionary developments. All gene pools have a floating set of genetic defects which from time to time, by pure chance, produce an individual destined to die very young, often as a fetus before pregnancy is even established, or produce individuals which are born but suffer serious defects and short, unsuccessful lives.  Short is an important feature here, for it precludes procreation and thus serves to prevent further propagation of the defective gene.

Which of course means that artificially interfering with this process so as to allow the dog not viable in nature to survive and be bred short circuits nature’s mechanism and allows the genetic defect, once under effective natural control and limitation, to expand without effective limit. Consider the instance of dysplastic hips. In the wild canine population and the hundreds of generations as practical working dogs the incidence of phenotypical manifestation, that is, actual, observable physical defect, was effectively controlled by selection of the fit for procreation through breeding. But show dogs who live out lives in kennels after a brief confirmation competition career where they become "champions" and thus desirable breeding animals are an example of this. They have become certified as breeding animals before the effects of the genetically defective hips reveal themselves as severe dysplasia.  Animals most likely to have been eliminated by competition in a natural setting become instead primary breeding resources, thus forwarding and concentrating their genetic defects.

Among human beings procreation has been ongoing for millennia under the influence of  biological and social drives, needs and customs.  Primitive hunter gatherer bands evolved societal structures where the younger males or females were exchanged among neighboring bands, and incest taboos strongly discouraged breeding among the closely related.  This was not unique, for similar social forces encouraged genetic diversity among the wolf packs from which the dog was to emerge.

In human beings where custom or happenstance leads to small, closed genetic pools, where inbreeding occurs over generations, serious genetic problems emerge.  The royal families of Europe are an example, where the bleeding disease in the Russian aristocracy and the general lack of brightness among English royalty are manifestations of the general tightness.  Religious sects with persistent inbreeding and the breaking down of incest taboos in isolated rural populations demonstrate the deleterious consequences of sharply reduced genetic pools.

In European society it was the princes and princesses, the sons and daughters of the kings and queens, which were most obviously subject to genetic disease.  The very narrow gene pool of the aristocracy was and is the causative factor. They had the services of the best "medical experts", and it did nothing for them.  This population is dying out, which is over all perhaps not a bad thing.

Throughout history man selected for breeding those dogs who served their purpose, which meant relatively mature dogs who had passed the real world test of physical fitness by demonstrating their ability over time in the hunt, in herding service and in the physical protection of the hunting band, tribe or farming community.  Natural diversity and human aided natural selection, a broad pool of genetic resources, maintained physical fitness as well as the necessary moral and working character attributes. Simple, practical choices based on functionality effectively limited genetic defects.

A little over a hundred years ago the concepts of the “pure” breed with a closed gene pool, the conformation show as the primary breeding selection process and kennel club registration as the primary badge of value and legitimacy profoundly changed the age old partnership between man and dog.

Instead of large regional breeding pools for local agricultural and hunting needs, with a sporadic injection of lines from remote regions as dogs on occasion were sought out from greater distances, the closed gene pool with constantly narrowing blood lines emerged as the normal situation.  But this closed pool violates all of the lessons of nature, replicates on a formal and enforced basis the practices which among human beings and other animals have always, eventually, led to widespread and entrenched genetic degradation.

From a perspective of a century of experience, only the most obtuse could fail to see that the pure bred concept is based on the hubris of the elite, that  ingrained arrogance has created a system preordained to collapse in a genetic sense just as surely as the formal incest of the European royal class led to it’s physical, moral and intellectual decline.

The consequence has been breeding to an ever narrowing pool of dogs who have come to predominate in the show ring, often winning at young ages before physical break down became apparent and on the basis of fashion and appearance only rather than practical working capability, truly functional structure and traditional values.

The physical ideals sought have become bizarre caricatures of the normal canine, from the incredibly narrow collie skull, the extreme angulation of the monstrosities in the American German Shepherd ring to the massive, pitty patting Bouviers fashionable among the pseudo elite breeders of the Netherlands and the AKC ring.

Rather than seeing that the root cause of the problem is the closed gene pool and breeding selection on the basis of the show ring   —  a process having to do with money and social manipulation rather than performance of the mature dogs —  the breeding community has grasped at the medical screening test as the solution for the general loss of vigor, health and proliferating genetic defects.


If medical screening is from the long term point of view not the panacea it is promoted as, why has it become so popular?  If there were simple answers to such questions I would not be writing this, you would not be reading it, and they would have been long ago implemented and we would be moving on.

In a certain way, the success of screening in significantly improving the over all hip dysplasia incidence has served as as a model for newly perceived problems by the various groups for their own reasons.  Remember that breeders were dragged kicking and screaming into the age of science when the over all pressure forced routine hip examinations. Once their hand was forced, they began to see that certified this and certified that could become powerful promotional tools.  The show breeder totally clueless about structure, lines, character and so forth - and that would be most of them - could just spring for the cash for a bunch of fashionable tests and buy credibility.

Thus breeders, in their wishful thinking and ignorance, are the primary driving force, for if they did not jump on every passing band wagon then nobody would be building band wagons.  If the various breeds went forward with an over all strategy strongly favoring wider gene pools, multiple "lines" rather than the lemming race to the current winner and most particularly if there were an effective, above board method and culture of bringing in dogs from outside the stud book many of these problems would be manageable.  After all, most of us have children without passing a famous five medical screenings and the human race does manage to totter on.  Sure, particular ethnic or national groups, because of long term genetic isolation, develop characteristic medical defects which are to some extent ameliorated by medical screening.  An occasional, limited medical screening for similar canine situations would in a similar way be the appropriate application of such technology.

Ultimately, the road is going to be down hill until we accept that the only real solution is real genetic diversity.  This means that in addition to encouraging more open breeding practices and discouraging massive use of momentarily fashionable stud dogs the need for occasional injection of outside the stud book dogs must be recognized, encouraged and provided for in the registration process.

The second driving force is plain old fashioned capitalistic vigor.  Just as General Motors is not about making cars but rather making money, the veterinary establishment in the largest sense, the pharmaceutical houses, the universities, the professional societies, the clinic owners, ultimately are in the business of providing products and services that breeders and owners are willing to put out cash for.  If a new problem rises out of the genetic morass, they are going to develop and offer a screening test, and start a whole new revenue stream, rather than point out that you should just suck it up and solve the basic problem of the ever tightening gene pool.

The same principle applies to all of these medical screening procedures; they represent potential big money to every faction of the veterinary industry, and it is not in their interest to question the real long term efficacy and the collateral consequences in terms of the diminishing gene pool. 

Much of this blind faith in science is based in hubris rather than raw greed, the concept that through ever more sophisticated testing, and perhaps ultimately artificial manipulation,  the necessity of  genetic diversity can be discarded along with the fireplace for heat and the candle for light.  An ever expanding  revenue stream for the medical suppliers and veterinary establishment is just a happy byproduct.


In the Bouvier des Flandres world there emerged in the nineties a plague of  sub aortic stenos (SAS) and serious eye problems, among others.  The source of the problem was quite clear, this is was coming from the influx and close breeding on the Dutch show line imports in the later eighties and early nineties.  Not that these dogs were all bad, but they were already quite tightly bred and the American breeders, especially in California and the west coast, bred to them blindly, like the gift from the European gods.

The reaction was yet another crusade to make increasingly expensive medical screening the mark of the responsible breeder.  This was basically an ostrich head in the sand reaction, because the root cause of the problem was the shrinking gene pool, and testing can only further reduce diversity and increase the problem.  The consequence is that other problems floating to the gene pool will emerge, and another round of testing initiated in an ever tightening spiral to oblivion.

This is insanity !  Other problems to will continue to emerge, and they are not going to stamp it out by eliminating one or two dogs.  You can breed tight only so long before you pay the piper, and that is the real Bouvier health crisis.

In reality what this amounted to was a few big deal money breeders with problem lines trying to pull everybody else into the mud so they would not be so lonely.  Their problem is that they are only seeing the tip of the ice berg, and when they do all of their testing and declare their purity before the world, they are going to find out that they have only uncovered more ice.

As we have seen, there are all sorts of things floating around in our tiny little gene pool, and if we could test for all of them, which we may in the future  be able to do, eliminating every dog with any problem would simply eliminate all dogs and bring the breed to an end.

Although there are many problems, the Bouvier working lines until the nineteen eighties tended  to be more diverse and the fact that the working dogs tend to be bred later after demanding physical performance tests had tended to make for more vigorous dogs.

Those close to the situation know full well that there is Malinois blood in working Bouvier lines,  in some places we know where it is.  This is the KNPV culture.  If we had a future, it would be important to bring this process out into the open; which would mean breaking from Kennel clubs and national breed clubs.

Some working breeders do no testing, saying that a five year old dog with a Dutch Police (KNPV) certificate or similar title needs no further proof of vitality and health. That approach has served well for thousands of years, and we need to realize that more diversity in lines, the open gene pool, meaning mechanisms of legitimately breeding outside lines back into the closed breed stud books, reliance on working and character tests as primary elements of breeding selection and breeding the males as more mature dogs at an older age are the keys to healthy dogs.


The original concept of evolution, and one still widely perceived, is that change and speciation was gradual, came about through small, reinforcing genetic change, and more or less uniform.  But current  thinking in evolutionary biology, beginning with the concept of  “punctuated equilibrium” in the nineteen seventies, is that change does not typically come about gradually through small changes in broad populations, but rather quickly in small isolated groups.  These evolving theories, concepts  such as punctuated equilibrium and quantum speciation, have obvious and important consequences for the understanding of the process of breed creation and maintenance.

In simple terms, perhaps overly simple terms, change requires the isolation of a small group under strong evolutionary pressure.  In nature this can be physical separation of a small group, and in breed creation isolation is the consequence of the intervention of man through breeding choice and evolutionary pressure by selecting according to a preordained set of desired physical and moral criteria.

In nature it would seem plausible that the vast majority of isolated sub populations under environmental pressure to adapt simply vanish, are unable to change quickly enough to experience the necessary random genetic changes to adapt to the new conditions.  In breed creation, mankind interferes in the sense of extending the process, of keeping the intermediate stages alive and breeding.

By definition, the small group creates a line breeding situation, and the out cross, by virtue of the isolation, is simply impossible.  In order to succeed, the new breed or species needs to become large enough, rapidly enough to down the road create the out cross possibility and thus genetic diversity.

There is a difference between the species and the breed.  A species is by definition a group of animals which can only successfully breed within the group, that is, produce fertile offspring.  Thus once a new species exists it is on it’s own with no possibility of back crossing for diversity.

But a breed is different, for it is an artificial grouping within a species, the canine, and thus has the possibility and in reality the necessity of the back cross component in the ongoing maintenance process.


There is of course a place for  medical screening, and  most responsible breeders will from time to time test for such conditions as thyroid problems and other situations where there is evidence and / or reason for concern.  The screening for hip dysplasia has in general led to an over all improvement in many lines.

But  the emergence of the conformation dominated national and international registry bodies with their emphasis on the breed as a group of dogs with a closed stud book, that is, a limited breeding pool, has been seriously deleterious to the dogs we live with. 

The combination of the closed stud book precluding the periodic introduction of more distantly related dogs and the breeding of very young dogs only on the basis of conformation results without the verification of health, vigor, character and structure through maturity and working functionality has seriously depleted the vigor and diversity of our breeds.

Dogs routinely become champions at a very young age, sometimes as virtual puppies, before the manifestation of genetic defects and are bred and continue to be bred in spite of conditions that would eliminate them in the wild or in an environment of serious work where a reasonably long service life is a normal expectation.

Reliance on ever expanding medical testing is promoted in large part to put money in the pockets of veterinarians.  Testing until the vets have all of the money will accomplish nothing unless the underlying problem, the small gene pool and the breeding of animals, especially very young animals, because of a political show system, is addressed.

In the German Shepherd world, Dr. Helmut Raiser, for a brief period national Breed Warden of the SV, the German national breed club, has publicly taken the position that lock step selection based on hip X rays has weakened character in the breed and proposed that selective introduction of Malinois blood could be part of a better over all approach.  Needless to say, the rank and file GSD show breeders managed to remove Dr. Riser from his office and rejoin the pack of lemmings headed for the cliff, but their greed, power, arrogance and stupidity does not make them right.

All of this wailing and throwing money at the alter of the medical gods will accomplish nothing. Breeding programs based on the general maintenance of genetic diversity and selection based  on physical performance in the more mature animals is the only possible basis for a long term viable working breed.  For the Bouvier in particular, this would appear to be politically impossible, preordaining the end of the breed as envisioned by the founders. 

The general progress in biological, chemical and electronic knowledge of the twentieth century has produced powerful new diagnostic tools for the practice of medicine, veterinary science and research.  To ignore or depreciate these tools in favor of historical ways of doing things would be irrational, we would still be hunting with chipped stones if this had been the prevailing mind set of mankind.

But technology brings forth problems and dilemmas as well as benefits, and perceived benefits taken to extremes bring forth unexpected consequences.  The automobile and the internal combustion engine are producing environmental and economic problems of enormous magnitude.

Opposition to the blind use of medical screening and the absolutely closed breed gene pool does not mean we should go back to blind random breeding.  Line breeding, the breeding of dogs more distant than siblings and parents to children, is the foundation of animal husbandry, is how we fix desired attributes in dogs, horses and other farm animal stock.  What needs to be done is to move back toward the traditional long term approach .

While line breeding is the foundation of animal husbandry, the process by which breeds are established and maintained, everybody knows, or used to know, that the periodic out cross to maintain diversity and vigor is fundamental to the process.  The fact that the closed gene pool and the focus on breeding to a very small number of show winners has in many situations made the true out cross impossible, thus preordaining the fragility, lack of vigor and proliferation of genetic faults that we see before us today.

The ideal situation is a number of concurrent lines, with interchange among them to provide the necessary out cross breeding.  The problem is that the show system, and to some extent the working winners, causes all of the wanna bees to blindly breed back into the same winning line.  The dumb ass judges, who really have no idea of what they are doing, find it safe to go with what other judges are putting up and the beat goes on.

As a practical example, the Dalmatian breed is plagued with deafness, to the extent that dealing with the problem in breeding, pet ownership and rescue has become a central part of the breed. Enormous numbers of pups are put down every year because they are deaf and thus unsuitable for companion dog service.

Yet there is a perfectly viable solution to this problem.  In 1973 Dr. Robert Schaible began a  "Dalmatian-Pointer Backcross Project",  in which Dalmatians were cross bred back to English Pointers, producing in a few generations dogs which looked like Dalmatians, acted like Dalmatians and for all practical purposes were Dalmatians yet substantially free of genetic deafness.  But in the eyes of the AKC, KC and the various breed clubs these dogs are not “pure bred,” are in fact mutts to be held in contempt.  This is just plain and simple stupidity on a grand, institutional scale, there is no other word for it.

Of course people could lie about their breeding records and introduce outside dogs as a means of reducing or eliminating the deafness, and this no doubt goes on, here and in all breeds.  But the introduction of DNA testing is going to make this gradually impossible, a case of the negative consequences of a scientific advance.  Rather than using it for good, the AKC will use it for stupidity, use it to put teeth and consequence into irrational rules.

This approach is not universal, for in  Belgium for instance there is a recognized, formal way to introduce outside genes.  One can show his dog to two conformation judges and, upon receipt of good or very good ratings receive provisional papers.  ( Unfortunately, there is no requirement of a character evaluation. )   No problem.  The offspring of such dogs also receive provisional papers, but in the third generation they convert to full registration.  This rational system should be the norm everywhere.

As historical background, this started pre WW II Belgium where there were multiple registries competing for acceptance.  Rather than accept another registry’s papers, this process was put into place. Also, until relatively late in the game the French & Belgian registrations were not compatible, hard to cross register.  Now of course the vast majority of European breeders are just as anal about the “pure bred” concept and  do not do this sort of thing.  But the tools are there. 

The fundamental problem is not the use of medical procedures to determine the latent potential for defects in the progeny, for it would be foolish to ignore this technology,  but rather the propensity to use it blindly to eliminate dogs without any thought of the over all consequences.  The OFA people in the beginning emphasized that you should base breeding decisions on over all planning and consideration of consequences, that breeding decisions should be made on the bases of over all diversity and the gradual reduction of risk rather than the blind elimination.  The breeding of mildly dysplastic dogs should be viewed as an undesirable but sometimes necessary  expedient based on the over all quality of the expected progeny.

In my view medical screening can only be useful and successful as an ancillary practice in an over all breeding program which is primarily driven by selecting breeding animals from among those who have demonstrated proficiency in the particular purpose of their breed at a relatively mature age.  In such a program these serious problems such as heart defects, severe dysplasia and juvenile blindness simply do not sneak up.  A four year old dog qualifying for a KNPV title simply can not be hiding much.  But when dogs are qualified in the Mickey Mouse show ring and bred relatively young  the breeders can and do conceal physical defects because the dogs never have to publicly scale walls, search in the woods or pull down a man on a bicycle.

Medical screening is truly a double edged sword, providing on the one hand a tool to assist in a gradual remediation of widespread genetic problems while on the other hand providing an excuse for ignoring the real problems before us today, that is, the closed stud books, the breeding on the basis of conformation rather than function and the shrinking gene pools.

But applied blindly, by excluding all dogs testing positive for new perceived genetic defects in a closed gene pool, medical screening can only further tighten the noose in an ever tightening spiral to oblivion.

Jim Engel, Marengo    © Copyright 2007

In my opinion, this is the most important article about dogs and breeding produced in the last thirty years:
The Jeffrey Bragg Breeding Article