Inter-Breed Partnerships

Fifteen years ago, it took a courageous breeder to speak openly about illnesses and conditions. Fearing negative publicity for their kennels, most breeders resisted exposing problems. Slowly, this attitude has changed. Today, nearly every breed club understands that it is healthier to face problems. Permanent health committees identify and discuss health issues, recruiting owners to provide blood and skin samples for researchers.
  • disease
  • education
  • genetics
  • science
  • health committees
  • breed clubs
Dog World in January 2008

With recent advances in canine genetics, many intractable illnesses, including coronary ailments, spinal conditions, blindness, epilepsy, and the most dreaded of all – cancer – are slowly giving up their secrets to relentless scientific investigations. Members of purebred breed clubs have been the most important force driving this progress.

Now, breeders who deny problems put their reputations at risk.

Challenging the Concept of Breeds

There is good reason to be optimistic about the promise of genetic research. But it also poses challenges to some basic ways in which breed clubs think of research, and the way fanciers view their breeds. Although, for reasons still not completely clear, certain conditions affect one breed more than another, numerous diseases affect several breeds equally. Genetic researchers are making an increasingly convincing case that, despite superficial appearances, all dog breeds share essential biology and genetics.

Researchers at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, known primarily for their work in human genetics, made news in 2004 when they announced that they had revealed the canine genome, the entire genetic road map, a giant step toward being able to pinpoint which genes cause specific ailments.

Elinor Karlsson, a recent Ph.D. graduate with a background in genetics and molecular biology now working at the Broad Institute, thinks constantly about the common genetic history of dog breeds as part of her research. "Each breed has its unique history, but all breeds are created from a common population of dogs," she says. "They often have the same mutations causing the same traits and diseases. People think there must be huge differences among the different breeds, because they look so different. But the genetic differences between two dog breeds is pretty much the same as the difference between two humans."

Karlsson says that modern research challenges breeders to erase some of the artificial lines erected between specific breeds. "Every study we do comes from several breeds. That allows us to determine what is shared and what causes diseases to show up. We can't do our work with just single breeds."

Scientists at the Broad Institute have shown that dogs are a model for human genetics. If there are such strong connections between human and canine genetics, it seems clear that there are even greater connections across dog breeds. "Dogs are a great model for human research," Karlsson says. "There's no other species on earth having such variation, yet sharing a common history."

With geneticists blurring breed lines, it should be easy to find people representing different breeds who work together – perhaps German Shepherd Dogs along with Pugs, Rottweilers joining Miniature Pinschers. To find out, I contacted the AKC's Canine Health Foundation (CHF), which collects information on all officially recognized dog breeds, maintains databases on health conditions and the researchers working on those conditions, and handles hundreds of annual health research proposals. Erika Werne, director of canine research and education at CHF, sent an extensive spreadsheet with hundreds of lines of diseases affecting numerous breeds. On the subject of inter-breed partnerships, Werne added a note: "They don't always work well together."

For the most part, breed clubs continue to work within their own populations. This attitude may need an upgrade. As Karlsson explains, "In the past, it was enough to do family-based studies and look at diseases within pedigrees. But with the genome, we first look at a health issue, the disease, then decide which dogs to study." This is a paradigm shift away from a breed-specific approach, towards a condition-directed approach. Forming connections across breeds could be viewed as the next stage of awareness that began with permanent health committees.

The Role of the AKC Canine Health Foundation

Each year, hundreds of veterinary researchers develop exciting proposals to examine illnesses. Until about 10 years ago, clubs received these proposals directly from researchers. They were on their own to measure a project's potential. It often seemed that the only thing standing in the way of success was enough time and money from dog owners, and clubs could sink what little funding they had into projects that did not pan out. The problem is, most dog club members are not geneticists or biologists and find it difficult to distinguish worthy proposals from those with little promise. As health studies became more complex, something had to change. This was the rationale for establishing the CHF.

Breeders and scientists can be like two disconnected chains. For research to have the greatest impact on as many dogs as possible, these two groups must join. The CHF is the link. Its science-minded staff speak to clubs about the biggest concerns; they invite proposals from researchers that best address those concerns.

Jeff Sossamon, director of development and communications at the CHF, says his organization's expanding goal is to promote inter-breed partnerships. "Any time there's a disease or a disorder crossings breed lines, we make every effort to notify breed clubs, get them to pool their resources." This can involve CHF phone calls to clubs, detailed press releases, or educational seminars. "We try to give people social time to share ideas, then we follow up with online discussion boards where people log in and and make more connections."

Even with their vast resources, the CHF can only go so far. "We take these things out of the closet," Sossamon explains, alluding to remnants of resistance among breeders regarding health issues. "We make the information available. We can't make people form connections, but we give them the tools they could use to do it."

Werne says clubs have come a long way in the last 10 years. "When we first started doing our health surveys, very few clubs even had health committees. There has been a real push, and everyone is getting involved. Clubs now come to us when they have a problem. But they don't often look at what happens in the other breeds, so they don't realize all that's going on."

Once the CHF locates worthy research proposals, they contact health liaisons at all clubs with an interest in that condition, then collect money from each club. The CHF matches the clubs' contributions, creating a single grant that often exceeds $200,000.

Donations do cross breed lines, and most breed clubs can cite studies they have contributed to. While no one denies the importance of donations (it gives participating clubs ownership of the results), money alone cannot make each club aware of what's happening in all the other clubs. Effective interbreed partnerships of the future demand even more.

Beyond Monetary Partnerships

Colonel Malcolm of Poltalloch, a 19th-century hunter in Western Scotland, had imperfect aim. One day while hunting foxes, Poltalloch accidentally shot one of his Cairn Terriers, whose dark color blended into the background. This inspired Poltalloch to begin selecting for dogs with whiter fur. After some experimentation, he created a new breed – the West Highland White Terrier. Similar breeding resulted in the Scottish Terrier. With their common ancestry, these dogs share many persistent health issues, one of which is craniomandibular osteopathy (CMO), a painful growth of the dog's jawbones. In 1998, Wayne Kompare, who has bred Westies for 34 years, formed a task force on CMO, which ultimately became a permanent health committee for Westies. He contacted the Cairn Terrier and Scottish Terrier clubs, and all three, along with a matching grant from the CHF, soon had a researcher investigating the genetics of CMO.

Westies, Cairns, and Scotties have a clear connection, but Kompare says their partnership is instructive to other clubs as well. "Health involves not just research projects but also education projects – knowledge. We talk several times a year about doing health seminars. Face-to-face meetings help you come up with ideas for health efforts, like a joint conference or an agreement to cross-publicize what you learn in your respective clubs. If one group has done something another group needs to do, why reinvent the wheel?"

Louis Mitchell, representing Scottish Terriers in the three-way CMO partnership, supports Kompare's statements. "The most remarkable cooperations would be ones that spread across many breeds. With some cancers, you could get up to 40 breed clubs involved."

Linda Heiner, chair of the health-related concerns committee of the Cairn Terrier Club of America, the third part of the CMO partnership, says that going beyond monetary connections allows each club to take advantage of educational materials and events sponsored by the other partners. "A prominent researcher gave a talk at our club. We transcribed it and sent it to her. She turned my one-page summary into a three-page report that was simple and informative for breeders. I sent it on to the secretaries of the other two clubs."

Scientific Communication

Many people are intimidated by the complexity and volume of information in modern research and misunderstand the pace of health studies. Breeders often think of research as a kind of scientific ATM: put in a request and get predictable results. Those who get involved in funding research need to understand that the pace is slow and deliberate. In a given year, it may seem that the work has hit a dead end, even though it is heading in a positive direction.

Mitchell describes research this way: "It's not always a clean and direct process. A lot of times, it's like turning over grains of sand on a beach. There are millions of them, and you never know which are worthy, but you keep turning them hoping to make a meaningful difference."

Heiner adds, "Research is like a funnel. A lot of money goes in at the top. By the time it comes out, you might have more information but still no answer. A lot of dog enthusiasts don't get this. They see research as a fee-for-service thing, where you pay for certain results."

It is difficult enough keeping members of just one club together for the duration of a five-year project. Maintaining a two- or three-way connection is an additional challenge.

To avoid frustration, successful inter-breed partnerships streamline communications by choosing a designated point person. "Researchers are working on several different projects, not just yours," Heiner says. "When you contact them with information or questions, you have to be focused. You don't want well-meaning people sending three-page e-mails with the same questions. I'm the point person in our project, so anyone who wants to contact the researcher has to go through me, not directly to the researcher. That minimizes distractions." Inter-breed partnerships create more possibilities for who can serve in this role. In the CMO effort, Heiner is a good choice: she is a registered nurse accustomed to the language of science.

Although health committees have been a normal part of breed clubs' missions for some time, there are still pockets of confusion, even resistance, to scientific concepts. Heiner says, "People are sometimes in awe of researchers and don't understand what researchers are saying. Sometimes, clubs aren't good at monitoring a project's milestones." The CHF has been a boon to clubs in this regard, but often the breed clubs must contact researchers directly. Inter-breed partnerships help with this. "One person may have more luck getting through to the researcher than someone else," Heiner explains. "In our partnership, if Wayne gets information back from the researcher, he immediately shares it with me. And if I hear something, I tell him."

Future Possibilities

Mitchell says his club has recently entered into a new inter-breed partnership with four other clubs to research cerebellar abiotrophy (CA), a deterioration of the cerebellum. "We're doing this project with American Staffordshire Terriers, Old English Sheepdogs, Gordon Setters, and Scotties. We're hoping to find the gene responsible, because it really creates a pitiful existence for dogs who have it." The CA project is just getting underway, but Mitchell says he has already seen progress, not only in funding, but in creating face-to-face contacts, organizing educational seminars, and establishing ways to help each other interpret scientific information.

Asked to name some good reasons for other clubs to engage in active partnerships, Heiner says, "It sounds simple, but partnerships direct clubs towards solving problems and learning what research involves. This is better than clubs waiting for a project to get approved before contacting others. There could be far more partnerships. Clubs need to talk to each other, tell each other what health conditions they are concerned about. Ask other clubs, 'Do you know about this researcher? If a project got approved, would you lend your time and support?'"

Karlsson predicts that inter-breed partnerships will become increasingly vital to accomplishing future research goals, as diseases researchers examine, and the techniques they use, become more complex. "We don't know yet exactly what's going on in every breed, but we're always looking at how two or more breeds share the same traits. To do this, we need to compare different breeds. That means we need clubs to come together. When that happens, we can get very good results."