Breeding Dogs for Health, Not Looks

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To anyone who has been involved in shelter or rescue work, the idea of intentionally breeding mixed-breed dogs, or even unregistered purebred dogs, seems a bit bananas. There are too many homeless dogs! What the heck?

But there is a group of well-respected people with a variety of dog-related professions who are promoting just that: the purposeful breeding of dogs without breed registration, and with a purpose that is not producing dogs with a specified morphology, that is, dogs who look a certain way or meet all the physical characteristics of a breed standard.

Why, you might ask?

The Functional Dog Collaborative

The group’s name, the Functional Dog Collaborative, offers the first clue. This group is trying to promote the breeding of dogs who are, above all, functional in terms of health, both physically and behaviorally. The group states on its website that when those health goals are in conflict with a breed standard or closed studbooks, the functional goals are considered more important. That puts the group at cross purposes with those who maintain that breed “purity” is paramount, as well as those who are breeding animals with an appearance that is fashionable, but unhealthy (think flat-faced dogs who can’t breathe, droopy-skinned dogs whose eyes require surgery to avoid painful interference with their lashes, breeds with long backs who often develop painful spinal conditions, etc., etc.).

The group is in the process of developing information resources that will help interested breeders, including breeders of both purebred and crossbred dogs, learn how to produce dogs who are physically healthier (more able to breathe freely, move without pain, reproduce and give birth without veterinary interventions, and with less inherited disease and longer lifespans), as well as behaviorally healthier (dogs with minimal fear of novel humans and other dogs and animals, maximal ability to cope with change of environment and conditions, minimal behavioral pathologies such as separation anxiety or compulsive disorders, and minimal unchanneled aggression).

Ultimately, the group hopes to provide a place to deposit and search health records, so that breeders can access them for help with making wise breeding decisions. In addition to providing a podcast with interviews with experts on canine breeding and genetics (the Functional Breeding Podcast), the group is working to build educational resources that will help breeders produce dogs meeting the descriptions of health above. They hope soon to provide a curriculum for breeder education. Finally, it’s their hope to provide a “supportive and open community” for breeders with these shared goals, “through both social media and face to face opportunities, for mentorship, friendship, and social support.” (The project has an active Facebook group, “Functional Breeding,” that currently does just that.)

We can do better…

The project was originally the brainchild of Jessica Hekman, DVM, PhD, who is a researcher at the Karlsson Lab at the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, studying the genetics of canine behavior. Dr. Hekman also teaches online webinars and courses about canine genetics. (She has also written articles for WDJ, most recently, Behavioral Probiotics” in the August issue.) I asked Dr. Hekman about her original impetus for starting the organization. She responded,I think a lot of us have known for a while that we could do a better job of breeding dogs to be healthy pets and working partners. The reasons we don’t aren’t scientific, they’re social. Why do we maintain breeds with a heavy burden of genetically mediated disease? Why do we insist that people get pets from breeders who are breeding for the conformation ring, and the pets are the second best dogs? Why do we castigate pet owners who want doodles? Because that is part of the traditional way of looking at breeding dogs. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If it were a different way, what would it look like? Can we just do it? I think we can just do it.”

I think the group is onto something. I’d only add that when we urge people to buy puppies or dogs only from a “responsible breeder,” that these goals of health are the most important part of how “responsible” is defined.

Every registry for purebred dogs maintains a description of the ideal representative of that breed, a “breed standard.” In many of these standards, only the dog’s physical conformation (how it’s built) and its movement is described. In some others, the dog’s demeanor or personality traits are also described, to some extent. Breeds whose origins are performance-based (hunting dogs, herding dogs, etc.) rarely mention the ability to do that work in their breed standards. And if health is mentioned in ANY breed standard, I’d like to know about it!

When looks come first, health starts to suffer

One thing is for certain: When dogs are bred to look a specific way – to be a predictable size or color, or with a certain kind of coat – often, traits that are more important (to me and many other dog lovers) fall by the wayside. The lovely, friendly Golden Retriever starts to become dog-aggressive and tends to die young of cancer. The brave, biddable Doberman becomes neurotic and dies of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) at 5 to 7 years of age. The amiable Bulldog can’t be taken for walks, lest he keel over from heatstroke on an 80-degree day. In my view, I don’t care how many Championships a puppy’s parents and previous ancestors earned, I’d look for breeders who select their breeding stock for health and longevity, perhaps bucking the breed standards or current trends that are awarded ribbons in the show ring.

Many of us have owned a unique dog we wish we could clone: Sound of mind and body, friendly to all, easy to communicate with, a terrific learning partner, confident and game. Some of these dogs may have been purebred; some may have been the result of a purposeful mix; some may have been a shelter mutt or a roadside dog that found its way into our families and hearts. Often, these dogs resulted by chance – they were happy accidents resulting from an intentional breeding focused on their morphology, or from a strictly profit-oriented breeder, or a chance breeding far from human supervision. What if dogs with these traits were intentionally produced? I don’t care what the results looked like; I just know there would be far fewer dogs in shelters as a result.

The group is built on volunteer effort and is very much community-driven. Want to help? There are lots of ways to get involved. Check out the group’s website for more information: https://functionalbreeding.org/

35 COMMENTS

  1. I ‘m glad to know about this group promoting health over looks. It is sad to see dogs such as pugs get bred with such flat snouts that it must compromise their health. I sometimes cringe when watching the Westminster show at the extreme characteristics of the breeds shown there. Thank you for brining it to our attention

  2. I cringe thinking of “Specialty” German Shepherds whose angulation is so extreme that they are almost crippled. People wanting real working German Shepherds often go to Europe where ability to perform tasks is part of the breeding. Some years ago I was told that to be registered in Germany a dog had to be able to perform at least three tasks such as obedience, herding, tracking, or Shutzhund. All they have to be here is the progeny of two AKC-registered parents.

    If you want to another example see what we do to dogs, look at the original English Bulldog who was more squarely built, without such a pushed-in nose. Now they have such big heads, and the pelvis is so narrow that puppies have to be delivered by C-section. Judges have to quit awarding ribbons to the extreme dogs and working their way back to something more normal and healthy. They are ultimately the ones who decide what a dog should look like.

  3. Love my Cockapoo! Lovely hybrid, bred for disposition, size, coat, and intelligence. Living an average of 15 years is one sign of good health. Yes, she snores occasionally but what a dedicated companion she is. She’s sleeping with her head on my foot as I write this. Of course, where else! She’s an excellent watchdog but super tender hearted to those she knows. Full house security 24/7. When she barks at someone approaching our yard, I get a notice And video on my phone from my nest cam, a comfort when I’m away on an errand. Since she’s been sleeping by my bed, I haven’t had a single break-in nightscare. 23 pounds of love and security. ‘Rescued’ her as a puppy from a breeder who let her go cheap because she was sick with parasites. It was after my hurricane Katrina rescue Golden died a few years back. I had a close relative who had a Cockapoo and I was very impressed after day sitting him for several months. After a life of shelter dogs and rescues I gave myself permission to adopt the dog companion of my choice. See how that works, it’s not a black and white issue. She’s the best dog in the world and perfect for us. So for those of you who want to adopt a specific breed from a breeder, choose a good one, you have my permission. Those of you who want rescue, God Bless You!

    • Cockapoo and Goldendoodle aren’t breeds. They are intentional mutts. To call them a “designer breed” and then charge for them like an AKC pure bred is criminal. However I do approve of cross breeding for health as is the intent of this article. I’ve never had a pure bred but always had healthy dogs. My last one lived to almost 15 years old. My parents had a “mostly” labrador (we did DNA and she had both a German Shepherd and Golden Retriever grandparent.) She had hip dysplasia and was pidgon-toed. But she had a lovely temperament and lived to almost 14 years old, despite being obese. (My Dad’s fault.) They now have a total mutt who is just as loved and just as loving. So far a very healthy girl.

      Glad you got the dog of your dreams but it was still a “rescue.”

  4. I love the concept but I fear this will give too many people an excuse to breed “Rover” because he is such a perfect pet for them without considering what has shaped his behavior to make him that dog. I work in a veterinarian’s office, so I often hear people wish they could clone their dog because he is so wonderful – but, “Oh, by the way, you will need to muzzle him before we take him out of the car because he is apt to bite when he gets excited!” The dog may be healthy and wonderful in their home, but do we want his progeny in the local farm store with children?

  5. I primarily agree with the goal, indicated in this article. You have breed standards listed on AKC, and then each National Parent Breed Club go further. Most have requirements for genetic testing, specific to each breed based on the presence of genetic markers for various disorders. There are additional requirements for hip x-rays, patellas, thyroid, etc. Usually, these are requirements in order to be members of the club. There are strong requirements for such breeds as the Bernese Mt Dog, Bearded Collies, Golden Retrievers, etc. Most of the National Parent Dog Clubs, with their basic dues, include donations to the Canine Health Foundation for research into “everything health”. As an example, the Golden Retriever Club as donated BIG monies towards health research, genetics, cancer etc. as they have a big problem with Hemangiosarcoma and Lymphoma in their, most of which is heritable in their breed. I attended a 4 day Canine Health Symposium at CSU in 2008, put on and in big part, paid for by the Golden Retriever Club. Top research vets attended from all over the country, mainly focusing on Cancer, but also had seminars on reproduction and vaccines, presented by Dr Ron Schultz. Truly responsible breeders value the genetic health and structural health of their dogs and good temperament, equally to the breed standard in terms of appearance. These two should not be mutually exclusive. Temperament and health must be there as a baseline prior to moving forward with breeding. I own, breed, show and work with Norwegian Elkhounds. ALL of my dogs have been genetically tested through, what used to be “MyDogDna/Genoscoper” where the primary research is done in Finland. Wisdom Panel bought them out, so breeders must use Optimal Selection/Genoscoper (still using the tests based on wonderful research done through Genoscoper) as well as research in the U.S. I’ve been to Norway and have been to dog shows. Yes, the hunters have dog shows that confirm the very specific standard created hundreds of years ago to make sure that the dogs meet this standard. They must have a certain amount of hunting to attend the shows. As my father and family came to this country from Norway, I have a huge appreciation for this very natural dog. I do all of the genetic testing which can be found on the Genoscoper website. In otherwords they have a registry. I also do OFA hip x-rays, patellas, eyes, etc., have very good temperments typical for the breed and stick to the standard. All “responsible” breeders do this, but, I agree, there are many who ONLY care about show wins. I have no respect for these people. My point to all of this is that there are breeders out there doing the right things already when it comes producing healthy puppies, INSIDE AND OUT!

    • Yes, thanks.
      My dogs also were tested by MDD. Diversity is important in breeding purebreds. I’ve tested my dogs through UC Davis. Poodles were the 1st to include this in their breeding programs. https://vgl.ucdavis.edu/canine-genetic-diversity/standard-poodle. They now include many breeds and Better Bred is the companion site to translate the results. The Finnish Kennel Club is progressive. For some breeds, they encourage crossing to better the health of a small gene pool. Science is becoming a valuable tool for breeding. My Shiba has 4 positive health tests and a CHIC number, a great temperament and has much to offer the breed. If I don’t find the Shiba that would compliment him, I won’t breed him. I contribute to Shiba rescue and I’m thinking of fostering. I find in Europe there isn’t such a rhetorical stigma about breeding. It’s sad to hear platitudes when some who breed are actually helping the diversity and health.

  6. I find it difficult to believe that this functional dog group believes that any of the purebred dogs are bred simply for their “looks”. All breeders of purebred dogs will belong to their particular dog’s breed club either locally or nationally. They are well aware of the health concerns in their breed and will do health testing prior to breeding. The dogs seen in the American Kennel Club show rings are judged not on “looks” but on which dog will be able to do the task it was bred for. Many of the dogs compete not only in conformation but in obedience, agility, nose work. Go to the local shelter and you will see many mixed breed dogs who live their lives in kennels waiting for adoption. Others are not so lucky-they are not in a “no kill” shelter and will be put to death. We do not need a group promoting breeding of mixed breeds because they think they will be healthier. This group needs to rethink its purpose and start promoting spay and neuter and adoption of the dogs in their local shelter. I am not a purebred snob, as I have owned mixed breeds as well as purebreds.

    • lol nope. ‘Show’ Irish setters are called ‘irish airheads’ and are notorious hyperactive scatterbrains, almost utterly useless in the field. There are, in fact, seperate ‘hunting’ lines with irish setters that look very different from the ‘show’ dogs- that is, containing traits ACTUALLY desired by hunters. Throwing a show line irish setter into the field is a waste of time. Working Irish setters are smart, steady dogs with coats lightly feathered enough to work well in the field and MUCH shorter, non-pendulous ‘cocker spaniel’ type ears which are frankly a danger to the dog in stiff brush. In my opinion they ought to just split the breed into ‘useless pretty massively over-feathered show dogs’ and ‘fine hunting dogs’. Dalmations have it even worse- It took the AKC 30 years to recognize the Dalmation/Pointer backcross project descendants as official dalmations that could be shown, partially due to pressure from the breed club- it was a project specifically designed to weed out the genetic bladder defect that is rampant in the breed, and produced radically healthier dogs- and continued to produce them for the 30 years it took for the akc to start caring that their ‘official’ dalmations were being deliberately kept unhealthy. 8 percent of Dalmations today are completely deaf and TWENTY-TWO percent of them are deaf in one ear. That is 30 percent of an entire breed that is acceptably bred to produce disabled dogs. That’s not even TOUCHING the ‘breed standards’ that specifically call for cropped ears and docked tails- it’s a bold statement to insist the akc and breed clubs have the breeds health at heart when they require procedures that are outlawed in other countries- not just discouraged, regarded as criminal cruelty to animals.

    • I rescued a dog that was seen dumped in the country. He lived with us for 16 years and passed away at 18 1/2 years old. My current puppy is the result of an accidental mating of 2 designer dogs. He is beautiful and one of a kind. He was free!

  7. Growing up a zillion years ago, I had a chihuahua- Manchester terrier mix who thought he was a German Shepard. He was healthy and friendly to my friends, but could be aggressive. Fast forward to now and we wanted a retirement companion. Due to family experience we decided to look for a Shih Tzu. In doing research about the breed and looking for a breeder, we happened upon a “sub breed” called Imperial Shih Tzu, which is basically the result of breeding runts with runts to create the smallest possible dog and charging a premium dollar. I assume that other breeds undergo similar breeding to enhances more “marketable puppy”. We did find a reputable breeder and our soon to be 8 year old boy is healthy, happy , friendly to everyone, 16 pound (top end of breed standard), wavy haired Shih Tzu. He was bred to be a companion not a show dog.

  8. I believe it is almost impossible to find a genetically healthy dog today. There are two responsible groups, united in greed. That is to say, breeders of purebred dogs who, for centuries, destroyed dogs health and functionality in favour of looks. The other is puppy mills who breed what male and female dogs they have to hand. Anyone who breeds dogs to make money and or without regard to health is a mill. I speak from 40 years of rescue experience in Toronto. What began as a nuisance is now a nightmare. The suffering of these animals is beyond measure.

    • I would include “rescues” in this. What a scam. They go to shelters and “rescue” any dog that looks like their focus. Pitbulls that are “labs”. Chihuahuas that are “Min-Pins”. Any fluffy thing that might be able to pass off as a poodle. Then they turn around and charge people $500 to adopt them. Leaving the shelters with about four choices: German Shepherds, Pit Bulls (basically any mixture of the bully breeds plus anything else mixed in), Chihuahuas and the occasionally “Poodle.” Many are either very senior or “teens” that were surrendered for behavior problems. Plus the medically sensitive ones. You still have to pay unless you are a senior but it isn’t as much as a “rescue.” But these rescue groups basically clean out the shelters. It’s getting so dog ownership is becoming elitist. And the dog you end up with could be just as unhealthy as a puppy mill dog since these dogs likely originated that way. While the successful spay/neuter programs have dramatically reduced the problems of overbreeding they have created a new problem. Rescues and Puppy Mills for profit. They starting booming as spay/neuter programs became more widespread and successful.

      I’m beginning to think there is no “winning” in this.

  9. I’m glad to see some voices of reason share their comments rather than simply allowing the purebred bashing to continue. Responsible breeders DO breed to the standard, health test and socialize their puppies and are VERY, VERY particular when placing them in homes. A responsible breeder will ALWAYS take his/her puppies back, no matter the issue, so those are not the dogs you’re seeing in shelters. You’re seeing the Amish puppy farm dogs, the puppies produced when neighbors Bob and Sam decided to make a few bucks breeding ‘doodles’ or even quote/unquote ‘purebreds’, the petshop fodder coming from commercial puppy mills simply because some family needed a toy for their kids to keep them occupied – THOSE are your shelter dogs. Responsible breeders keep in touch with their puppy families for the lifetime of the puppy. Responsible breeders are members of their respective breed’s parent club. Responsible breeders also participate in performance events that demonstrate their dogs’ soundness and fitness for purpose. Sadly JQP is easily duped by heavy color advertising, flashy websites with endearing pictures of puppies in homes with kids (when in reality they live in chicken crates in a back barn and have never seen kids) and cute stories of their puppies who are ‘registered’ (with fake registries they made up themselves!). I have even had reasonably intelligent friends fall for such advertising!
    We surely don’t need a group advocating creation of mixed breeds! I have owned mixed breeds as well and they were no genetically healthier than many purebreds with issues. Science will bear this out. More important to health-test and performance test purebreds who are relatively predictable as to temperament, size, coat type, need for care, etc.
    If only we could get folks to understand that heavily advertised and responsible are not at all the same thing. To understand that getting puppies in Lancaster from ‘the nice Amish’ is a sure recipe for disaster as those puppies were produced with NO health testing, NO handling, and no consideration for anything other than the cash they’ll bring. Wonder why you can’t housebreak them? When they’ve lived in filth since they were born they simply don’t know any different. Wonder why they bite? They’ve never seen the light of day let alone humans who didn’t torture them.
    No, a different ‘registry’ is not needed at all. What’s needed if these folks want to get on a soapbox is to put efforts into spay/neuter of backyard pets and closing down puppy mills.