Disease Prevention vs. Disease Elimination

By Jennifer Stoeckl, MAT - Dire Wolf Project CEO, June 20, 2018
Black American Alsatian puppy at 7 weeks old
Skøll (Stanley/Shennara)

Recently there has been quite a lively discussion over at DireWolf Dogs of Fennario regarding health testing and the American Alsatian dog breed. Of course, those posting were foul and hateful. Many just wanted to create a hornet's nest of ridicule and loathing. Be that as it may, it is important for everyone to understand how we determine that our dogs are extremely healthy in order to continue to improve the health in our dog breed over time. As we have stated many times, health is paramount to the American Alsatian breed because without great health, our beloved dogs suffer.

First of all, it is important to understand that Lois introduced a new idea for breeding that she calls "God's Breeding Plan" and it is not a joke, but a seriously strict way of eliminating dogs from the breed that would never survive in the wild. Wild wolves living in the wild have an average lifespan of around six or seven years old... BUT when wild-born wolves are captured and placed in captivity, they can regularly live up to twenty years old. Not only that, but wolfdogs, especially high content wolfdogs, live very long lives, usually between sixteen and seventeen years old despite their size. No similarly sized domesticated dog breed can claim the same rate of longevity. This naturally leads us to acknowledge our own human shortcomings and failings. No human-bred dog breed has been able to show that kind of consistency in longevity and many dog breeds live much, much shorter lives. i.e. Irish Wolfhounds regularly die at four and five years old... etc.

Let's think about God's Breeding Plan [or natural selection, if you prefer] for a second longer. How many health tests do wild wolves take before they decide they are healthy enough to breed? For that matter, think of any wild animal you want... how many health tests do they perform before they are willing to bring children into the world, sometimes hundreds of children all at one time - like the spider? The answer is that they do not have to health test... now why not?

Think for a minute... mull this one over. Why do all wild animals not have to health test to make sure they are not carriers of some hidden genetic disease?
[Jeopardy theme song]
Because its not about prevention... its about elimination.

That's right. It's such an ugly thing for us very emotional human beings to hear. Wild wolves that have a genetic disease and cannot survive to procreation are completely eliminated from the species, usually by death, however, some are sterile or simply do not have the ability to procreate.

But... I can hear it now... if it is about elimination and not about prevention that means that a breeder has to be willing to produce unhealthy dogs, which is so hard for us humans because we do not want animals to suffer. Of course we don't. None of us want animals to suffer, myself definitely included. But, it does not change the fact that in the wild, nature cleanses itself by a sometimes brutal, but mostly swift, death and that nature's way of breeding has sustained wild animal populations MUCH longer than mankind has even been around to witness. Compare that to the myriad of devastating genetic diseases now being experienced in the purebred kingdom of dog species and the health gap is enormous.

So why not at least use the best possible health testing prevention measures we have available to prevent at least the most common genetic diseases in dogs?

We'll get to that answer in a second. But first, let's talk in general terms about health testing.

First of all, in order to understand, you have to first accept the premise that health testing, by itself, does NOT mean your dog is healthy. If you cannot accept that notion, then this conversation is over and this breed of dog is not for you. Let me say it again slightly differently... health testing alone does not produce healthy dogs. When people state that you do not have X health test on every one of your dogs so your dogs must be riddled with genetic diseases, they are expressing a logical component fallacy called "False Cause #1." The only thing... the ONLY thing... that health testing does is tell us which dogs do or do not possess a very specific health issue, genetic or otherwise. They cannot, and never will, tell us if our dogs are healthy.

Secondly, before we can move on, you must accept the truth of the matter that there are WAY more genetic health conditions plaguing our pets than there are formal health tests to root them out... and many of them are polygenic in nature [dealing with more than one gene]. That means that many genetic diseases cannot even be tested. What to do... what to do? Without a formal test, how can we possibly eliminate the health issue from the breed?

Okay... now back to the question above.

What about the diseases we can prevent, like hip dysplasia? Surely, we should at least use OFA to formally test all of our breeding stock for the sad genetic condition known as hip dysplasia. Every responsible breeder should at least perform that one, right?.

Again, let's think this through logically and not use the second False Cause fallacy "Given the breeds involved, like the German Shepherd Dog, you must have untold incidences of hip dysplasia."

Traditionally, the German Shepherd Dog has a sullied history of severe hip dysplasia, causing extreme pain when walking and ultimately severe bone fragmenting in the hip joint area. It is devastating to watch the dysplastic dog walk and more heartbreaking when the decision to end the dog’s drastic suffering by humanely euthanizing the dog is the final result. To be sure, hip dysplasia can range from mild to severe and there has been a strongly suggested genetic component due to the fact that certain dog breeds are more prone to the disease than others. However, not all dog breeds possess hip dysplasia to any significant degree. Looking to other breeds that have been a part of the American Alsatian dog’s foundation does not automatically mean that any dog bred from those foundation breeds had, or carried, hip dysplasia. Claiming it does solely based on the other breeds that do show a significant rate of hip dysplasia is not proof that we do indeed have the same rate of hip dysplasia.

But, truthfully, we have recently seen some incidence of hip dysplasia in our dogs. They have all been first or second generation crosses from Bear or Princess. Surely we would be quite irresponsible if we did not hip check at least the dogs coming from those lines.

[Remember: wild wolves do not show hip dysplasia. Oh, there might have been one recently, I can't remember, but if so it is so rare as to be non-existent. Also note that hip dysplasia was FAR less of an issue before x-rays were even invented. Before the invention of the purebred dog, hip dysplasia was not really a thing. Why not? What is going on there?]

It is our firm belief that x-rays are not needed to eliminate hip dysplasia from the breed. Yep, you heard that correctly. BUT... "Responsible breeders have an obligation to x-rays ALL of their breeding stock." says every person on all dog sites ever. I know... I have heard it a million, billion times [only slight hyberbole there].

That's right, x-rays are not needed because even the slightest hint of a dog walking incorrectly, being able to use its back legs properly, having unsound bone structure, weakness in the joints, weak movement in the joints, etc... ANY indication of ill health in the bones or joints... is an automatic elimination from breeding and this is before hip dysplasia even sets in as an issue.

Now, that doesn't mean that we won't see some incidences of hip dysplasia. We have and we may experience others just as breeders who x-ray all their breeding stock still have incidences of hip dysplasia despite both parents receiving excellent scores from OFA. But, we can reduce the incidence rate to almost nothing, as we have done and as breeders regularly did before x-rays and purebred dogs became popular... and as wild wolves still do to this day. I have personally OFA hip scored six dogs in my breeding program, all showing good or excellent hips. The dogs that have experienced hip dysplasia in our breed within the last thirty years, there have been two [the third had an accident, which cannot be ruled out], were never bred into the lines. Two dogs reported in thirty years. Now, please tell me how that is irresponsible breeding?

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Jennifer Stoeckl is the co-founder of the Dire Wolf Project, founder of the DireWolf Guardians American Dirus Dog Training Program, and owner/operator of DireWolf Dogs of Vallecito. She lives in the beautiful inland northwest among the Ponderosa pine forests with her pack of American Dirus dogs.