As You Sow, So Shall You Reap; the role of the parent club in the genetic health of our dogs


Caroline Coile PhD, Susan Thorpe-Vargas, Ph.D. and John Cargill, M.A., M.B.S, M.S.


The AKC, like the United States, is a governing body that sets basic policies and “laws.”  Parent breed clubs, like states, pass policies “ laws” valid within their own boundaries or jurisdictions.  Club policies must be consistent with AKC policies.  Traditionally the main functions of the breed clubs have been to oversee the breed standard of perfection, organize national and regional specialty shows or competitions, and perhaps offer annual challenge trophies.  Beyond these minimal duties, the quality and services of parent clubs vary widely among breeds.  Many also offer judging seminars, breed information pamphlets and rescue contacts.  Many if not most breed clubs maintain Internet web pages.  Many breed clubs have a standing health and ethics committees, but again, the quality, scope and authority of such committees varies.


Parent breed clubs develop breed standards and maintain stud books and petition AKC for recognition of the breed and the breed club.  Even after agreeing upon a standard, the parent club may consider amendments to it, and if deemed appropriate, change the standard.  In developing a standard, a parent club exerts tremendous power over the genetic future of a breed.  In some cases, standards require physical characteristics that are inconsistent with hardiness.  For example, brachycephalic features predispose a dog to breathing difficulties, diamond shaped eyes to entropion and/or ectropion, excessive wrinkling to moist dermatitis, and excessive size coupled with deep chests to gastric torsion (bloat).  In most of these cases, the breed standards were drawn up long before the association of these traits with physical difficulties was known.   Such traits have become so ingrained as basic to breed type that breeders and parent clubs choose to retain them despite their associated problems.  Since the parent club has sole discretion over the breed standard, only the breed club can effect a change in the standard to change the essence of type and reward healthier, but less traditionally typey, specimens.  In almost every case in which type has been at odds with health, parent clubs have chosen to give type precedence.  The results are obvious!


Breed standard disqualifying faults also affect the genetic health of a breed.  The AKC has several disqualifying faults applicable to all breeds; perhaps the best known of them is unilateral or bilateral cryptorchidism (the failure of one or both of the testicles to descend normally into the scrotum).  Since this fault is less detrimental to health than a plethora of other far more serious faults with far greater heritability, the universal disqualification of such dogs is of questionable value to any breed. Several parent clubs impose further disqualifications, usually for traits considered extremely untypical for the breed.  Common disqualifying faults are for dogs over or under a certain weight or height, for different eye color, or coat colors or types.  Dogs with disqualifying traits cannot be judged at a conformation show, but may compete in other venues.  By banning these dogs from conformation competition, parent clubs hope to discourage breeding from them and perpetuating the offensive trait   Removal of dogs from the breeding population based upon arbitrary aesthetics can do more harm than help, especially in cases where the breed has a limited gene pool and the banned trait has no strong hereditary component.


Lack of appreciation of genetic aspects of a trait can result in illogical and detrimental disqualifications. One example is the “Boston” Great Dane.  These dogs are black with typical “Irish marked” coat pattern, that is, white feet, tail tip, muzzle, and collar, just like the typical pattern of the Boston Terrier.  This color pattern has been listed as a disqualifying fault since the AKC approved the standard in 19**.  Yet serious breeders of harlequin patterned Great Danes continued to use Bostons in their breeding programs.  Breeding a harlequin to another harlequin results in, on average, 25% harlequins, 25% merle (disqualified), 25% white (disqualified) and 25% Boston (disqualified).  In addition, of the harlequins produced, only about half have show quality markings.  Breeding a harlequin to a Boston, however, results on average in 25% harlequin, 25%.  Thus, a majority of dogs produced from perfectly acceptable colored parents will be disqualified from breed competition by virtue of the combination of acceptable genes that together produce an unacceptable color pattern for this breed.  These dogs may be of such high quality otherwise that they are sought after for breeding back to harlequins, especially because their use as a breeding partner to a harlequin actually results in a greater percentage of acceptably colored offspring than would a harlequin to harlequin breeding.  Unfortunately, because these Bostons are disqualified form competition, their quality has never been able to be objectively judged by way of conformation awards or titles.  It was obvious to many that the standard with these disqualifications was senseless.  Finally, in 1996, in recognition of the importance of the dogs to the breeding of harlequins, the Great Dane Club of America voted to change the breed standard to accept the Boston colored (now renamed “Mantle”) Great Dane as an acceptable color. 


Changing the standard is one of the largest responsibilities that a parent club traditionally can take, and to do so in recognition of genetic mechanisms is a progressive step for a parent club.  Unfortunately, not all clubs have shown such an ability to accept genetics over tradition.  In other breeds, disqualifications have been implemented in recognition of health problems related to certain traits.  In 1979, a “white” Doberman Pinscher named Sheba was AKC registered.  She was undeniably eye-catching, with a light cream coat, translucent blue eyes, and pink nose and eye rims.  Her offspring were crossed to each and produced more such dogs.  These striking animals aroused much interest, but were apparently tyrosinase positive albinos. Not only were these dogs considered untypical for the breed, but because albinism can be associated with health problems, especially those from ultra violet exposure, the Doberman Pinscher Club of America acted to not only disqualify these dogs, but worked with the AKC to develop a scheme whereby dogs possibly carrying the gene for albinism could be identified by their registration numbers.  Such dogs are identified with a “Z” as part of the litter or individual registration.


Besides overseeing the breed standard, most parent clubs hold national or regional specialty shows for their breed.  Most clubs furnish lavish trophies to the winners so that many participants can barely haul their loot back home with them.  Winning these events carries such prestige that the trophies are simply icing on the cake.  The Saluki Club of America has for years instead opted to award modest momentos of wins at its specialty shows, with trophy donations instead going toward the “Humane Purse.” This money is donated in the Best of Breed winner’s name to a humane or research organization to further the welfare of dogs.



Specialty shows can be more than a showcase of dogs.  At no other time can so many earnest breeders and owners be found congregated in one place.  Though informal social events are an integral part of such gatherings, some clubs do little more than schedule dinners, awards banquets, and parties.  While some parent clubs are taking the opportunity to present educational events to the fancy, most events are more likely to center around judging issues than health issues, and are usually restricted to a relatively short seminar that may conflict with other concurrently scheduled events.  These seminars are extremely important functions, but could be supplemented by additional “poster” sessions much like those seen at scientific meetings. In these a question or problem is posed and explained by way of a simple poster presentation, so that interested persons can study those topics that interest them at their own pace.  Many such posters covering a wide range of topics could be presented during a day long session, with the poster presenters (the experts on that subject) available to explain the posters during certain time periods. At the same time health screenings could be performed for various genetic problems, including cardiac and ophthalmological screenings, and DNA samples could be collected.  Time must be set aside for these functions; unfortunately, given the choice of a party or education, too many exhibitors rend to choose the party.


In recent years, most parent clubs have formed breed health committees, the success of which depends upon many factors.  Larger clubs have a larger membership from which to draw educated and dedicated committee members.  Some clubs still operate under closed memberships, however, in which prospective members must be sponsored by existing members and voted upon by the full membership.  Such clubs too often resemble sororities and their membership reflects “who likes whom” rather than who can help the breed.  Because intellectual abilities and interests do not always reflect popularity, many qualified people are discouraged from even applying to such clubs.  Unfortunately, interest in club politics does not appeal to everyone, and sometimes those in control of the club are those with greater interest in being a leader than in actual knowledge of the breed.  Political issues are rampant within any breed, and control of the parent club is control of the breed standard---and ultimately the future of the breed. Thus, in breed clubs with small membership, because of either small breed numbers or exclusionary practices, the chance of forming a strong health committee is considerably lower than in those clubs with a large membership.  There is a concept, somewhat “tongue-in-cheek” but containing a grain of truth, that some dog club members are socially inadequate and that by purchasing club membership (dues) they can have a social experience they would otherwise not have.  Over time, such persons tend to gravitate to club office progressing through the less desirable offices to their final rewards.  Much as in the “Peter Principle[i],” club officers tend to be incompetent. 


The first step a breed health committee faces is identification of health problems.  This step is not as simple as it may seem.  Breeders may have a “feeling” about what may be a problem based upon personal experience and anecdotal reports.  The problem then becomes one of determining whether these problems are breed specific or common to all breeds.  For example, if a breeder knows of ten dogs over the past three years that suddenly fell over dead at a young age, this might raise some suspicion that the breed had a problem.  But perhaps this is no more than would be seen in any breed of dog. The problem is that 95% of that breeder’s contacts also have the same breed of dog; it would be very unlikely that the breeder would ever hear about the same circumstance in another breed simply because of lack of communication.  Thus, a major problem in breed specific health surveys is one of bias.


While it is unrealistic to expect parent clubs to have the expertise conduct statistically sound and unbiased health surveys, they are being forced to shoulder this responsibility.  Some have done a better job of tackling it than others.  The greatest barrier to parent club health surveys is lack of trust on the part of breeders, since those collecting the information are often that breeder’s competitors.  Though hiding health information may seem petty and dishonest, recall that many breeders have a lifetime of hard work, study, money, and emotion invested in their line of dogs.  They fear that if they are the only ones to come forward with information, they may be the only ones branded as having unhealthy dogs, effectively terminating the line to which they have devoted their lives.  In popular breeds much of the information thus comes from individual pet owners  In some other breeds efforts are undertaken to ensure anonymity.  For example, the Salukis In Good Health Committee developed a process in which identifying information and medical information pertaining to a dog are sent in separate sealed envelopes, coded by a “middle-man”, and sent on to separate data entry people so that no person ever sees the medical and identifying information together.  Only in the final step are the two sets of information associated within a third database that encrypts the information so that actual identification of animals is still inaccessible to committee members.  It is this information that is ultimately used for performing analyses.


Code of Ethics


Most parent breed clubs maintain a standing ethics committee to develop, maintain and enforce some form of code of ethics.  Such codes are known by various names such as Guidelines for Responsible Ownership[ii], Guidelines for Breeders[iii], Guidelines for Ethical Conduct[iv], Ethical Guidelines[v], Mandatory Practices[vi], Principles of Integrity[vii], Statement of Conduct[viii], Canon of Ethics[ix], Breeders Code[x] and Code of Recommended Practices[xi].  There are several more variations upon this theme, but in general, the parent club codes of ethics make vague and not very binding statements about genetic health, ranging from no mention at all, to actually listing the diseases of interest and the screening required. 


Parent clubs have a serious internal political problem when establishing a standing ethics committee, with the result that some clubs have yet to progress this far.  Other clubs have official committees, but they are kept out of sight and out of mind.  In some clubs, because of the personalities and beliefs of some of the more successful members, have severely controlled or thwarted the actions of such committees.  When one of the more successful breeders with more champions bred and shown refuses to screen for hip dysplasia, the club is often powerless to enforce screening requirements.  In such cases, genetic screening becomes “recommended,”  “encouraged” or “should be considered.”


There are several breed clubs that do in fact list the screening that should be done and say that such screening is mandatory under the code of ethics.  A number of codes of ethics mention the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, but no other registry such as the Canine Eye Registration Foundation.  This is a step in the right direction, but we find virtually no evidence that anything has been done to discipline or terminate membership of any successful breeder who fails to follow the club’s screening regimen.


In fairness to breed clubs, it is difficult in a litigious society to attempt to force any sort of genetic testing without that attempt resulting in internal lawsuits.  If changing a breed standard to add a comma to correct punctuation is difficult, think of how difficult it might be to establish a genetics committee to interface with an ethics committee and develop a genetic screening regimen appropriate to the breed.  Imagine the legal tests when a successful (usually wealthy) breeder is censored by some means for not conducting such screening. 


The answer lies in educating the club membership.  Advertisements of top dogs need to include the genetic screening supporting them.  Articles need to be frequently published in the club and breed magazines/newsletters questioning the folly of purchasing a dog from anyone that did not have an effective genetic screening regimen.  In our democracy, the free market exerts the force for change that is otherwise prevented by the costs of litigation.  The puppy buying public is slowly becoming aware of the problems of genetically inferior dogs.  States are rushing to enact puppy lemon laws.  AKC is becoming known as the registry of sick dogs.  Any breed club’s attempt to rise above the mire will serve to differentiate that breed from the “You don’t want one of those, they have a lot of health problems.”  Individual breeders can enhance the desirability of their puppies by documenting generations of genetically healthy get.



The development of genetic tests is an expensive and time consuming process. Often the same disease in two distinct breeds is the result of a different mutation in the genome. This requires a separate test for each breed. With the advent of the AKC Canine Health Foundation, individual clubs are able to raise money for genetic research and have that money matched by grants from the foundation. Other benefits of using the AKCCHF are: their ability to screen and evaluate research proposals, locate qualified research facilities, supervise and assess on-going research projects, and prevent the duplication of management and administrative functions, thus saving time and money. 



DNA Sampling


Even more important then money is the raw material needed to conduct the research and this is where the individual breeders and breed clubs can make a most necessary and invaluable contribution. Without blood or bucal swab DNA samples, accompanied by accurate and appropriate pedigrees, genetic research cannot continue to advance. See Fig.1 for examples of pedigrees needed and some sampling strategies for isolating disease genes and determining their mode of inheritance. With this information, tests can be developed so that breeders will have the tools to make informed and responsible breeding decisions, and rectify some of the extensive health problems our dogs suffer.


The authors strongly suggest that breed clubs look at the heritable diseases associated with their breeds, and establish a well-defined screening protocol mandatory for all dogs owned or bred by members of the club.  The AKC Canine Health Foundation is there to help you. Furthermore, we suggest that the code of ethics include a statement to the effect:  “Members, when advertising any dog, bitch or puppy, in any venue, will include in that advertisement the genetic screening conducted on that animal and its parents.”  Such mandates are within the prerogative of breed clubs, and only they have the power to correct the current appalling situation of poor genetic health.  It is time to stop bashing the AKC—“we are them and they are us.”  The responsibility for requiring genetic screening rests squarely with the parent clubs.  The gauntlet is down!  Is there a parent club willing and capable of picking it up?


Following are representative extracts from a sample of various breed clubs codes of ethics:


Akita—“I will keep well informed in the field of genetics and work to eliminate hereditary defects from the breed….I will participate in a program of hip x-raying and eye examinations by qualified veterinarians to eliminate hip dysplasia and congenital eye problems. When an Akita has hereditary faults of such nature as to make his or her use for breeding detrimental to the furtherance of the breed, that dog shall be neutered/spayed.”


Basenji—“Ethical breeders should discuss openly and honestly the genetic and physical problems that have occurred in their lines.  This should include the potential of these problems to be passed on, especially in cases where testing can indicate only that a dog is currently free of a problem, but cannot determine that the problem or the ability to pass it on will not be inherited.  Stud dogs or brood bitches who produce offspring of  consistently poor quality or with genetic problems known to be inherited in the breed are therefore of no value as breeding stock and should not be used again.”


Basset Hounds—“Breedings will be directed toward producing Basset Hounds of exceptional quality in breed temperament, Basset Hound type and ability to hunt game.  Only healthy and mature dogs and bitches free of congenital defects and of characteristic breed type, sound structure and temperament shall be bred.”


Borzoi—“No animal selected for breeding should have any serious hereditary defects as determined visually and by veterinary examination.”


Chesapeake Bay Retriever—“Be aware of genetic defects which can be harmful to the breed.  When breeding, endeavor to select animals that will reduce the incidence of genetic problems while enhancing the positive attributes and abilities of the breed.  Be open with all persons interested in the welfare of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever and discuss possible physical or temperament defects in your own stock.”


Dachshund—no statement concerning genetic fitness for breeding


Doberman Pinscher—“All dogs offered at stud shall not be bred prior to one (1) year of age nor after twelve (12) years of age and shall be in good health and free from communicable diseases and disqualifying genetic faults.” …Any bitch accepted for stud service must be at least 18 months of age, in good health, and free from communicable diseases and disqualifying genetic faults.” 


English Cocker Spaniels—no standing ethics committee.  Statement of Conduct is silent on genetic health.


Field Spaniels—“Breed only healthy and mature animals who are free from serious congenital and hereditary defects.”


Golden Retrievers-- “Owners of breeding animals shall provide appropriate documentation to all concerned regarding the health of dogs involved in a breeding or sale, including reports of examinations such as those applying to hips and eyes.  If any such examinations have not been performed on a dog, this should be stated.”

“Animals selected for breeding should:

(i) be of temperament typical of the Golden Retriever breed; stable, friendly, trainable, and willing to work. Temperament is of utmost importance to the breed and must never be neglected;

(ii) be in good health, including freedom from communicable disease;

(iii) possess the following examination reports in order to verify status concerning possible hip dysplasia, hereditary eye or cardiovascular disease:

            Hips: appropriate report from Orthopedic Foundation for Animals; PennHip; Ontario Veterinary College; BVA/KC Hip Score (Great Britain) or at least a written report from a board-certified veterinary radiologist (Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Radiologists).

            Eyes: appropriate report from a Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology (ACVO), or from a BVA/KC approved ophthalmologist (Great Britain).

            Hearts: appropriate report from a Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Medicine, Cardiology Specialty.

Consideration should be given also to other disorders that may have a genetic component, including, but not limited to epilepsy, hypothyroidism, skin disorders (allergies), and orthopedic disorders such as elbow dysplasia and osteochondritis.”


German Shepherd Dog—no statement of genetic health in the Breeders’ Guide.


German Wirehaired Pointer—“Only those dogs free of recognized genetic defects shall be used in a breeding program.”


Italian Greyhound—“If a dog or bitch has produced any offspring with serious inherited defects detrimental to the animal's well being, such as but not limited to blindness, luxating patellas, blood disorders, PRA, cataracts, glaucoma, deafness, lameness or impairment of the vital functions, and produces like results with a different mating partner, the owner shall refrain from further use of this animal for breeding.”


Irish Setter—“Make every effort to learn about the structure, anatomy, action, behavior and other inheritable traits of the Irish Setter. To use this information to adhere to the breed standard and produce sound, healthy dogs with good temperament…..To use or give service only to registered stock that is believed to be free of serious abnormalities which are considered inheritable….When selling an Irish Setter known to manifest hereditary defects considered to be detrimental to the breed, use written contracts or spay/neuter agreements to prevent the dog from being bred.”


Miniature Pinscher—“Breed only mature animals in good health, free from communicable diseases and major genetic faults.”


Pekinese—no mention of genetic health in Code of Ethics


Pointer—“Only animals of quality with characteristic type, sound structure and temperament, and free of congenital faults should be bred.”


Pugs—no mention of genetic health in Code of Ethics.,


Rhodesian Ridgebacks—“Only dogs screened and certified clear of hip dysplasia shall be bred. Breeders are encouraged to screen for all appropriate hereditary disorders.”


Rottweilers—“Breed only AKC registered dogs and bitches which have OFA certified hips (or HD-free hips as certified by foreign counterparts of the OFA). Imported Rottweilers must have OFA hip certification within six months after arrival in U.S.A. If semen is used from an imported Rottweiler, the dog must be x-rayed and certified by the OFA or foreign counterpart at no less than 24 months of age. Breed only dogs and bitches of stable temperament with no disqualifying physical faults according to the AKC Rottweiler Standard (i.e. entropion, ectropion, overshot, undershot, wry mouth, two or more missing teeth, unilateral cryptorchid or cryptorchid males, long coat, any base color other than black, absence of all markings.)    Offer at stud with a signed written contract, only mature (two years of age or older) healthy dogs with OFA certified normal hips, free of communicable diseases, having none of the faults listed in Section 2 above. Refuse stud service to any bitch not meeting the same requirements. Breed only bitches two years of age or older with OFA certified normal hips, in good health, free of communicable diseases, having none of the faults listed above in Section 2, to not more than one stud dog at any one season, and not more than two out of three consecutive seasons. Plan all litters with the goal of improving the breed.”


Saluki—“All dogs offered at stud and all bitches to be bred shall be free from communicable diseases and serious genetic defects.  When evaluating breeding stock each member shall duly weigh the presence or probability of genetic disorders in the Salukis under consideration.  Each member shall take every precaution, consistent with the best medical knowledge available at the time of the breeding, to avoid the perpetuation of such disorders.”


Samoyed—“Each litter is the result of conscientious planning, including consideration of the parents’ freedom from hereditary defects, type, soundness, temperament and general conformance to the official standard of the breed.  The SCA member must be particularly concerned with the proper placement of puppies, both pet and show potential.  The SCA member only breeds healthy, mature Samoyed adults, preferable 24 months of age, but at least 18 months of age.  Prior to breeding any Samoyed, the SCA member obtains certification that its hips are normal from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, an equivalent foreign registry, or from a board approved radiologist and has its eyes certified free from genetically transmitted defects by a certified Veterinary Ophthalmologist.  The SCA member knowingly breeds Samoyeds only to other registered Samoyeds.”


Scottish Deerhounds—“Breeders are urged to breed only dogs and bitches that are in good health and of such maturity (yet not past their prime) to demonstrate a degree of freedom from genetic defects breeders are urged to test for health defects, where possible.”


Shih Tzu—“In my breeding program I will keep alert for and work to control and/or eradicate inherited problems and conditions that are particular to my breed, and breed as closely to the standard of the breed.”


Silky Terriers—“All breeding stock should be of sound temperament, free from congenital defects such as blindness, deafness and dysplasia. Dysplasia of the hips and shoulders may be ascertained by x-rays taken and read by a veterinarian who is familiar with the proper procedure and diagnosis.”


Visla—“Breed only those dogs who are free of serious hereditary defects including epilepsy, progressive retinal atrophy, von Willebrands, entropian and cranial muscular atrophy and who are over two years of age and have been x-rayed nd OFA certified as free from hip dysplasia.”


Weimeraner—“Choose only healthy parents of good temperament and qualities in relation to the Weimaraner 's AKC-approved official standard, and whose hips have been X-rayed and certified free from hip dysplasia by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or any ABVR certified veterinarian . 3.Not use dogs with hereditary defects or disqualifying faults for breeding.”


Yorkshire Terriers—“Prior to breeding, owners of stud dogs and bitches will adequately screen for both infectious and hereditary diseases, using current techniques as well as those developed in the future.”












[i] Xxxx, The Peter Principle

[ii] Scottish Deerhound Club of America

[iii] Borzoi Club of America

[iv] Basset Hound Club of America

[v] American Pointer Club

[vi] American Rottweiler Club

[vii] Irish Setter Club of America

[viii] English Cocker Spaniel Club of America

[ix] Field Spaniel Society of America

[x] German Shepherd Dog Club of America

[xi] Basenji Club of America