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Hunting Dog DNA Tests – Protecting Purebred Lineage
Investigating the importance of DNA testing hunting dogs and its application to stud books
The topic of “purebred” dogs makes me feel like I am in a Harry Potter book talking about pure-blood ancestry. The glaring difference is that the version in Harry Potter is a negative plot point, whereas the idea of purebred bird dogs is significant to the future of preserving breeds. Full disclaimer: this is not to say that adopting a mixed-breed dog is not an honorable act. What this discussion is about is the moral and ethical obligation to continue the work of hundreds of years of breeding hunting dogs for very specific purposes. More accurately: continuing that legacy in an ever-evolving manner and protecting that heritage.
It goes without saying that technology will and has inherently affected just about everything in our lives. Stud books turned to digital and searchable archives, e-collar technology brings us into the space age, and now DNA blood testing has become affordable and accurate.
How DNA testing dogs works
In all, it is the same technology we use on humans. But it is important to point out that DNA testing a dog is not like the DNA programs we see advertised to discover where your family came from — which has come under increasing scrutiny over recent years for the vast discrepancies between providers. The idea here is building a scientific database rather than just a written stud book.
Let me explain. This DNA testing can identify the parents of a dog. So if we take two purebred bird dogs (that have DNA on file) and they have puppies, we can then test them by looking at the scientific data we stored to identify those two dogs as the parents. In short, we are beginning to build a new, more accurate database that can help future generations make sure the purity of breeds is maintained. And that information is now scientifically confirmed for accuracy.
As much as I would like my griffon to be tested by some outstanding DNA technology that leads us on a journey through the European countryside to his roots of Dutch, French, or German origins, that is not going to happen. However, someone hundreds of years from now — if we continue to establish databases — will be able to trace these dogs back with amazing historical accuracy to breeders, kennels, and regions of the world.
Why is blood testing important?
Breed standards, organizations like the American Kennel Club, American Field, and the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association all exist to accomplish a very specific goal: the advancement of hunting dog breeds and the protection of said breeds. To the casual eye many of these bird dogs are easy to distinguish, and to the trained eye more minor standards easy to point out. But many breeds can become the subject of debate, arguments, and culture that seems like something from the movie Best in Show. Take the vast difference in standards between the Deutsch-Drahthaar and the German wirehaired pointer, for example.
That passion is important. There is a whole group of people and culture obsessed with standing guard over this important task. Whether it’s hip testing dogs, declining to breed dogs with health issues, and committing to breeding the highest testing dogs. Although there is DNA testing that does identify genetic defects in health, the idea of this DNA registry is used to only identify parents of the dog in question are.
Believe it or not, the history and future of hunting dogs has almost fallen apart in the past. On my recent reading of Craig Koshyk’s Pointing Dogs Volume One – The Continentals, it is a common thread of the impact and destruction of World War 2. Many purebred hunting dog breeds were nearly lost forever, and some are believed to have disappeared. The effects rippled all the way back to the U.S. where breeds like the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon were crossed with a lesser known Czech breed, the cesky fousek. Look at a couple pictures side by side and at least I am left scratching my head at the differences in physical appearance.
That is a reason why more than ever we have to protect the purity of our hunting dog breeds. We have a moral obligation to the history of these breeds to maintain their future and its practical applications to our hunting worlds.
There is no reason to dive deep into the dangers and controversies of crossbreeding. Just google labradoodles or dive a bit into the debate on silver labs and you will need to come up for oxygen in a few days. Be careful not to ask the wrong person as you may find hostility in response to your curiosity. Responsible pet ownership should not result in mixed breed dogs, but the world is far from perfect and all we can do is put our stock in organized systems that seek to preserve the hunting dog legacies in a responsible manner.
DNA blood testing programs and requirements
Recent advancements in DNA testing allow this task to become a bit easier. In 2019, NAVHDA official began requiring DNA testing for breeders and had already required it for NAVHDA Invitational. You can order a DNA test on their website for the price of $55. This is right alongside the importance of hip certification which, as this whole topic entails, affects the future of a dog’s breed in a positive way.
The AKC has a voluntary program for DNA testing, although their “Frequently Used Sires” requires a mandatory DNA testing because of its impact level on stud books — as well as situations where parentage cannot be proven. This holds the same for the United Kennel Club.
The Field Dog Stud Book which is operated by the American Field is a rather unique situation. As no other organization recognized the Llewellin setter as a breed separate from the English setter, they not only recognize and seek to preserve the lineage but also require DNA testing of all Llewellins registered in the book.
When purebreed controversies surface
In 2004 The American Field was put to test when the question of that year’s National Championship was called under question. The whole situation came down to whether or not the lineage of the “Miller’s On Line” was accurate. DNA testing was called for, and as a result it was discovered the listed dam was incorrect. Although the successfully identified dam was still part of the purebred line, it was against the rules to inaccurately represent lineage and therefore the dog being struck from the record was disqualified for not being properly registered. Now all Champion and Runner Up Champions are required to have DNA testing. This is also required, like other organizations, for breeding litters.
This is a roundabout way of saying that DNA testing bird dogs is an amazing and important technological advancement for the word of hunting dogs. It exists to keep breeders honest, the historical record accurate, and the future of these hunting dog breeds intact. This allows for greater commitment to the underlying goal of advancing and protecting bird dog breeds from disappearing.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.
From my perspective the obsession with breed “purity” tends to be a bit dangerous for the long term health of the dogs and their innate abilities going forward. Terms like “inbreeding depression” and “hybrid vigor” come to mind from basic animal science classes in high school. I thought the following video put the difficulty of breeding “purebreds” into an understandable perspective, https://youtu.be/eXs02IlxMCY
This article also has helped explain some of the basic hurtles: https://www.instituteofcaninebiology.org/blog/the-myth-of-hybrid-vigor-in-dogsis-a-myth
The other end of the spectrum is any random dog being bred with any other random dog and saying it can be a good bird dog, i.e., back yard puppy mills selling “bird dogs” from “established parents” with no real proof. On the other end I worry about dogs bred only for their look without care for their ability in the field. I primarily think of bird dogs being bred for show here without any care of their ability to hunt which leads to a breeding program with problems both in genetics (inbreeding depression) and the abilities which they were breed for. A good balance probably lies somewhere in between the two. But in the end, I will take a good dog in the field over a well papered dog any day. Just so you know, I own both kinds of dogs (well papered dogs and unpapered dogs bred for their abilities).
If I could, I would modify my last sentence to be more accurate and say “I will take a good dog in the field regardless if it has papers or not.” The first comment may have implied unpapered dogs will perform better and that was not the statement I was trying to make. More importantly I wanted to communicate that I want a good dog in the field and am happy to hunt behind a “pure breed” dog or “mixed breed” dog as long as it does its job well. I think “papers” should help to build buyer confidence in the abilities of the dog, but I am not worried about notions of “purity”. Papers can be a bit like insurance and I like having some insurance, but “pure breeding” can lead to real problems with longevity and performance in the field.
The following statement in the article, ” DNA testing does not identify genetic defects in health but only who the parents of the dog in question are.” is misleading. Fortunately, many health issues identified in a breed can be identified by DNA testing, as to whether a dog is clear, carrier or affected. It all depends on what you are testing for.
Great point Ruth! That certainly was misleading the way it was written. It is now updated to “Although there is DNA testing that does identify genetic defects in health, the idea of this DNA registry is used to only identify parents of the dog in question are.” Appreciate the feedback. This is very helpful to us!
As a veterinarian, I strongly believe that no breeder should be planning litters without a full genetic panel like Embark, which tests for 167 diseases and health conditons and gives a coefficient of inbreeding as well. While you best dog may not display a certain disease or condition, it is very possible that they are a carrier. If that dog is bred with another carrier, you would likely have affected pups. I cant help but wonder where our breeds would be if this technology had been around for longer. I would never consider paying for a dog that comes from non-genetically screened parents. I would much rather buy a hunting line “purebreed” with small percentage of another breed than a true “purebreed” that has a genetic condition such as, but not limited to, dilated cardiomyopathy, von wildebrands disease, hypothyroidism, and on and on and on.
While I absolutely appreciate protecting purebred lineages, I have to ask you the question “where do you think these breeds came from”? The answer, carefully planned crossbreeding. I think it is a bit naive to say that no responsible owner should buy a crossbreed. Not all responsible pet owners need a purebred pointer to hunt as they would like. My husband and I are avid upland bird hunters and additionally love jump shooting ducks. Our best dog comes from a fully health tested (orthopedic, eyes, heart, and genetic) and is a goldendoodle (gasp). Guess what– she out hunts many of the purebreed dogs we hunt with, AND we can allow her coat to grow out over the winter so she can comfortably ice fish with us in -30- -40 degree weather. She had a fantastic temperament and doesnt shed at all. We thought long and hard about what our next dog would be, and after spending all my days covered in hair while at work, I love not having to worry about hair at home.
Again, I totally appreciate the love of the purebred dog, but I think that it is disheartening to see an article like this making such judgements over people choosing the dog that is right for them, their family, and their situation. I would welcome you to spend a week with me at our vet clinic, which may, perhaps give you am much better sense of what actual goes into responsible pet ownership. I am very very confident that you would be shocked. We dont need to shame people for dogs they choose to buy, but should instead focus on breeders who continue to breed dogs they know will produce pups that will likely have minimal vision by middle age, or are likely to develop bleeding disorders etc. Certainly this is not just true about the purebred breeders, but the mixed breeders too. It is very hard to find a responsible, ethical breeder who breeds the dog you are looking for. Absolutely advocate for protecting your breed of choice, but please keep in mind that your lab, pointer, setter, etc all started somewhere.
The problem is truth in labeling. If you say your a veterinarian, but didn’t go to school for it, it’s wrong. If someone sells me a dog for high dollar and says it is out of jack and jill breeding and its not, it’s wrong. I too hunt what I want but I knew what I was taking home before I did so. Lee
The reason it is needed unfortunately is because of morals and money. I have heard of it many times over the years. The registered horse that had a still birth, so the beautiful grade foal was registered in place of it. The 40lb Gordon setter that was a modern class field trial dog with white on the chest. The shorthair that was exported because it wouldn’t make the cut in Germany. Etc. Etc. Deep down you know we’ve all seen the dog ,we know is not what the owner says it is. Those people will do anything to win, anything to make money, anything to brag and they don’t care who they screw over.
It’s like that package of steak in the market, we want to know where it came from under what conditions . I don’t want to be sold a steak ” marked grade a choice “. Only to find out after I paid for it , have it home and cooked that it is one grade above fermented shoe leather. I have a dog that contains short fur, has speckles ,loves people and hunts like a demon. I would never sell pups from her and say they were purebred (she is registered and spayed), but that’s me. The wrong person would sell $800 /pups off her as fast as possible , and then say they should of did their homework.
Morals,ethics, & greed , that Is why we have all the rules/ laws out there. Trying to keep a level playing field for the people that would never consider doing such.