There has been a great deal of interesting discussion in the press and on social media recently around the general topic of Wolfhound breeding, especially with the Kennel Club’s announcement that the breed now finds itself on the ‘Vulnerable Native Breed’ list, with 2014 seeing only 282 Wolfhound puppies registered in the UK. Various explanations as to the origin of this drop in popularity have been proffered, but there does seem to be some general agreement on the key factors of line-breeding, genetic bottlenecks, smaller gene pools and importing breeding stock from abroad. However, there are other factors to consider which contribute to the whole topic and which could exacerbate the current situation.
The Popular Sire Effect In my opinion the ‘popular sire’ effect can and does create genetic bottlenecks and over time history repeats itself, not just in our breed, but in others too. We can all see why a popular sire is used; people like what they see and want a bit of that to rub off on them. However, it is what lies in the hereditary genetics of the popular sire which is the issue and these issues only tend to become apparent once the dog has aged and it is too late. Certainly in a numerically small breed, such as the Wolfhound, overuse of a popular winning dog creates its own set of problems and even without the presence of any inherited health issues, overuse of any one dog will reduce the opportunity for genetic diversity.
Breeding Endorsements The other issue which I perceive to have been a drawback in many ways, is the unbalanced way in which breeding endorsements have not been lifted. The breeding restriction is there to provide protection to both the breeder and the dogs. However, restrictions have sometimes been used to dictate who can and cannot breed. Whilst it is the right of every breeder to impose restrictions, surely when dogs are showing great health and longevity and are a good example of the breed, then those restrictions should be lifted? In addition there should be more conversations to engage and mentor new breeders with such stock? I totally believe in the need for endorsements as it allows the sensible amongst us to monitor the health and progress of the progeny and at the same time monitor the dam and sire. There is a point, however, when you have some of the “facts” in front of you and it is apparent the endorsement could and should be lifted. I agree we don’t need a ‘free for all’ approach to breeding and breeding indiscriminately is unwise for the inexperienced - we need balance. It seems we have failed in this country to adopt a more sensible approach with endorsing, but have instead overtly micro managed the situation.
Importing to Widen the Gene Pool What is apparent in the UK is that Wolfhounds have three main issues that affect breeding decisions; heart problems, osteosarcoma and lack of fertility. These have had a very damming effect on the breed lines in this country and have narrowed the gene pool considerably. As a results many breeders have decided to look elsewhere for their hounds and have imported dogs from Europe and further afield. This, in essence, is a positive step to dilute what we have. However, importing is not without its own pitfalls. Yet, if a lot of the imported stock comes from the same background/kennels/lines then that is ultimately creating a new small gene pool, within an already small UK gene pool. We are now beginning to see a diversification of imports and this should be actively encouraged to try and dilute our gene pool. It's not a guarantee of health and is just as important to show due diligence regarding health matters. Without the assistance of some of the larger European kennels being prepared to export their dogs to the UK, the breed would have been in much greater peril than it currently is. Let’s hope that those who have imported will start their own carefully thougth out breeding plan.
Hobby Breeders versus Stocks-people If we didn't have larger stock kennels in the uk, who breed for a living, then our breed would have long been on the endangered list. Very few hounds from these kennels go on to breed and sadly those owners which do take the plunge and breed with their hounds, are typically not breeders that show their dogs or health check?
What we have also seen is a lack of new people coming into the breed and being mentored by the experienced members of the breeding community. This, in hindsight, should have been a priority and the few newcomers that have been mentored, have seen this success in their kennels and in the show ring. What is encouraging at present is that one or two newcomers have had the foresight to acquire hounds from European kennels before embarking upon their own breeding programme, which can only be a positive in reducing the effects of the very narrowed gene pool?
In the Wolfhound community of yesteryear the breed, like many others, was dominated by a handful of very large Kennels, where the breeder had a great variety of dogs to choose from in terms of breeding stock and there was a greater awareness of the importance of ‘stocksmanship’ and the showing of dogs was a means to an end to identify dogs for breeding. The trend for large Kennels has gone full circle and now the majority of breeding is carried out by smaller ‘hobby’ or 'amatuer' breeders with a far scaled down level of dogs available for breeding. Whilst downsizing does have its advantages-not least in not mass producing a specialist breed it does not necessarily have an advantage in breeding from a wider gene pool. With fewer dogs in a Kennel to choose from, automatically breeding activities become restricted, in truth, if we are the custodians of the breed, should there not have been the foresight to the longer term effects of losing larger kennels and their stock? Unfortunately, the smaller hobby breeders, like all of us, get older, downsize property and don't keep as many dogs and ultimately will discontinue breeding. Therefore, some lines naturally die out. "Show entries have also shown a decline over the past ten to 15 years, and sadly along with numbers there has been a decline in quality overall". This is an interesting comment from the Wolfhound writer in DogWorld, as the dogs from the larger stock based kennels are not bred into the smaller hobby breeder stock nor did they have an impact in the showring, so the decline in the show stock must be from within the smaller breeders stock- is this comment a reflection on today's breeders not having wider choices to breed from especially when issues of kennel type and line breeding are factored in?
Breeding for Health or the Show Ring Line-breeding has always been a contentious issue, but it does have certain advantages as it is a more reliable way, in certain regards, of predicting how litters will look and for limiting possible health issues. Unfortunately, this approach to breeding also has some serious downsides. There are various papers now written on the subject of line-breeding and the general concensus is that line-breeding ultimately creates a decline in the breed, often referred to as an ‘inbreeding depression’ which we are now seeing. Frequently we hear the comment that some hounds are easily recognisable as coming from a certain Kennel. At first glance, this appears to be a positive comment as clearly that Kennel has been successful in consistently breeding a particular ‘look’, however, what is also evident in such a statement is that there would appear to be very little genetic diversity in that Kennel? Therefore, such practices will only ultimately contribute to a new genetic bottleneck. By moving away from traditional line-breeding practices and lowering breeding coefficients, automatically we would see a positive effect on genetic diversity and also a step towards improved health, but only if breeding choices are based on health tested and health annotated breeding stock and not solely on show ring success. Several warnings have already been issued regarding breeding for the show ring, but the allure of success in the ring seems difficult for some breeders to resist. If the breed is to survive then all breeders must look closely at their strategies and benchmarks for breeding and inevitably some success in the show ring may have to be sacrificed for the sake of producing healthier hounds?
It is hard not to breed with a good looking dog or bitch, who has fertility problems or potential heart issues, but it is vital to remove these hounds from our breeding programmes as these health issues are being bred into our UK lines. These are just two of the problems we can actively avoid by being sensible and not just using our hounds for the sake of it. The fact is, that is all we have and we want to continue years of our lines …. but what lines, if they are diminishing and we are having problems?
Another important factor when discussing health of our hounds is disclosure and use of health testing schemes. We already have some excellent testing schemes available at subsidised rates in the UK, the most prominent being the heart testing scheme run by the IWHG. Despite such testing being offered at a hugely discounted rate, there is often poor take up by certain breeders and owners, which can only negatively affect the overall health status of the breed. The reluctance to health test in certain quarters is compounded by a similar reluctance to disclose data and therefore make this valuable information available for others, so that informed decisions about future breeding programmes can be made. Transparency is the key to this problem and concealing health issues pertaining to a dog or within a Kennel is a very short term and thoroughly misguided approach and will ultimately only quicken the demise of the breed. Some very good health schemes are not going to have full impact without the information being shared. Today’s breeders need facts to take the breed forward and to not waste precious time in basing breeding decisions on false information.
Conclusion Within the UK we now appear to have a ‘closed shop’ situation with Wolfhound breeding, which has been further compounded with aspects such as endorsements and the level of micro managing, resulting in the breeding stock being severely diminished amongst the 3,000 Wolfhounds. Existing breeders, fearing for the breed, still seem to make it even more difficult for newcomers wanting to start a kennel, exacerbating the problems into a downward spiral of poor genetic diversity and health.
As a hunting hound in modern day United Kingdom it isn't necessarily a total negative element to be on the vulnerable list. Limited numbers of puppies born and available each year will help in making sure puppies have the right homes to go to, with people who are prepared to live with a large hunting dog, which is of paramount importance. However, it would be prudent to have a way forward to protect the breed and to enhance health and increase longevity and by not looking at the bigger picture the breed is now at a vulnerable stage.