Breeding Seppalas

Assortative Mating

WHEN YOU ARE TRYING to breed a vigorous high-performance animal for a specific purpose (exactly what we try to do in the case of the Seppala Siberian Sleddog) your objective should be to assure the presence of the genes that are critical for the animal's vigour and purpose, while hanging onto a maximum of genetic diversity otherwise. You are better off without too much inbreeding.

To accomplish all of these goals at once, you should attempt to mate a sire and dam who are ALIKE in the traits you wish to reinforce (usually sleddog performance traits; for details see "The Traits That Matter") but otherwise not too closely related by pedigree. This is called assortative mating. It allows you to reinforce (that is, to inbreed upon) only the traits you want to reinforce. You do that simply by choosing two parents that are very similar for those traits (and therefore probably have similar genes) . You can accomplish that without any unnecessary inbreeding to the extent that you succeed in locating unrelated parents. That's the catch.

It's always a challenge to do this kind of breeding with Seppalas, because the pure-strain examples are all rather closely related. However, you can use pedigrees to ensure that your breeding doesn't go any closer than necessary, and the SSSD Project is doing what it can to find ways to relieve the close breeding without destroying Seppala uniqueness. Genuine outcross lines (instead of the same old same old) are going to help with that.



ALWAYS IN BREEDING SEPPALAS we try to balance the traits of the sire and the dam and to avoid reinforcing extremes. It should be obvious that you want to avoid breeding two very small parents, or two very tall ones, or two highly excitable individuals, etc. However, it isn't any good mating a very tall dog to a really short bitch, either. Apart from the difficulties they might have mating in the first place (which can be considerable), you would probably get a mixed litter of tall and short individuals. Breed the extreme individual to one that's middle-of-the-road for that trait and you'll get better results. If one individual has a trait that you consider a distinct fault (let's say he's shy or fearful), if you must breed him anyway, breed to a mate that is excellent in that area (a good steady, stable mentality, not afraid of strangers or new situations), not to one that's a polar opposite.

The more diversity that exists in the gene pool, the more important it becomes to employ a sensible balance in matings. Diversity is good, but it can cause problems if you select mates that are either extreme in the same way, or else polar opposites. The golden mean, the middle way, should be the rule. That's just another reason why we want to do intelligent population breeding to bring the entire breed population along to a high average level of sleddog capability.


Colour and Markings

SEPPALAS COME IN A WIDE VARIETY of colours and markings. About the only colour that doesn't occur is the "copper" or "red" phase (with liver nose) that is commonly seen in show Siberian Huskies (also in Malamutes and Eskimo/Greenland dogs). It has never been a part of the Seppala genome; if it should turn up you can be sure somebody has added some Seeley-derived Siberian Husky blood. We don't want this gene in Seppalas, because it is a metabolic deficiency (inability to synthesise tyrosine-melanin) that seems to be associated with inferior sleddog athleticism. Seppala reds occur, but they are red due to an entirely different gene from the "coppers" and all have black noses.

Apart from that one item, COLOUR AND MARKINGS ARE IRRELEVANT. This has to be underlined and emphasised relentlessly! You cannot select for cosmetic superficialities of this kind without harming working ability, sooner or later. Yes, I know, there's always some smart-ass wittering on about the "dual-purpose Siberian" or the "good-looking dog that can also run," but I think you know what to call that stuff!

Seppalas typically have a natural beauty all their own, with many striking coat colours and markings that are not seen in the northern show-dog breeds. Maybe we've just been lucky, but at Seppala Kennels we have yet to produce a really ugly Seppala. I've seen some pretty homely specimens elsewhere, but then those dogs are usually the ones that are cross-strained with Seeley-derived bloodlines, which I think could have a lot to do with it. I don't think Seppalas have to be ugly, and I see no reason why they should be. Natural working dogs, selected only for function, have a natural beauty all their own that usually turns out to be superior to the cheap flashy look of the show bloodlines.

More could be said about this subject, but really all you need to know is this: DON'T BREED FOR COLOUR AND MARKINGS IN SEPPALAS. Donnie McFaul and the others never did it; why should YOU start introducing cosmetic factors? If you just must have a particular colour or face, you'll be better off staying with mixed-lineage Siberian Huskies, and the Seppalas will be better off, too.


Crisis in Purebred Dogs

NO MATTER HOW OFTEN or by how many people it may be denied -- it's still true, there IS a genetic crisis in purebred dogs. Seppalas may be less affected by it than most breeds, but they, too, are at risk. Our time-honoured breeding methods and antiquated century-old Kennel Clubs will be responsible for the whole purebred dog game going down the toilet, unless dog breeders wake up and show some initiative. The fossilised structures of the American Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel Club will not solve the problem; they have a large number of fanatical breed clubs and a big population of ancient retrogressive dog-show judges to whom they must answer. Any remedies these dinosaur organisations apply will be too little, too late.

Have you noticed the proliferation of new or newly-registered breeds with independent registries (Shiloh Shepherd Dog, Olde Englishe Bulldogge, Jack Russell Terrier, SSSD, etc.) and the growth of what CKC calls "dissident registries" in the past 15 years? There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the umbrella kennel club, show-dog status quo! It's a healthy sign. If you are thinking about breeding Seppala Siberian Sleddogss, you're at least potentially on the cutting edge of the canine reform movement. There's a lot you can do to help the process along.

Instead of repeating myself at length here, I would just like to urge you strongly to DOWNLOAD, PRINT A HARD COPY, READ and DISTRIBUTE the document entitled Purebred Dog Breeds Into the Twenty-First Century: Achieving Genetic Health for Our Dogs . This paper is my contribution to the renewal of the purebred dog world. IT IS NOT COPYRIGHTED! Make as many copies as you please, and hand them out freely to your dog-breeding friends. It contains a lot of information that you and they need to know -- about population genetics, about how we can defuse the genetic crisis in purebred dogs. If you haven't read it yet, print yourself a copy right now and read it. If you have seen it before, read it again and pass some copies on to people at the next dog show, obedience trial, dogsled race, breed club meeting, or any other canine function you attend. Not for my sake -- FOR THE DOGS' SAKE!


Dynamic Balance Theory

THIS HAS TO DO with how Seppalas as a breed differ genetically from the northern show-dog breeds. The mainstream Siberian Husky, the Samoyed, the Alaskan Malamute and similar breeds have achieved an inbred static balance of genes that give them a high degree of resemblance to one another -- "breed type" -- that results from sustained inbreeding and selection for favoured colours, markings, and "conformation" or show points. All the unwanted, non-favoured genes are gradually thrown out, weeded from the genome by inbreeding and selection, leaving the dogs homozygous at many gene loci. (If that has no meaning to you, read " homozygosity/heterozygosity " and "genetics".) This kind of genetic equilibrium is achieved at the cost of genetic diversity. It's done by stripping down the genome, often eliminating many of the natural canine dominant gene complexes in favour of homozygous recessives that would very seldom be expressed in nature. It's the static equilibrium of an engine that doesn't run and isn't going anywhere.

There's another kind of genetic balance, the kind that occurs more often in nature than it does under the hand of man. That's dynamic balance, in which there is a great deal of genetic diversity, yet healthy dominant genes tend to rule, with heterozygous gene pairs that have a natural advantage over homozygous recessives. Geneticist Hampton Carson describes it this way in his essay, "Genetics of the Founder Effect":

"Genetic recombination naturally generates diverse genetic types from the large field of variability in the gene pool. In order to meet environmental challenges, natural selection in many such organisms tends to develop a system based on the higher fitness of heterozygotes. These are maintained under regimes of selection that exploit the advantages of heterozygosity for many alleles simultaneously. In these, the large amount of genetic variability is continually being recombined as balanced hybrid vigour is maximised… The genetic system is not a fixed and frozen entity but is dynamic and variable… By its very nature, this genetic system is inimical to the perpetuation of sameness."

This is the equilibrium of a well-oiled engine that's running sweetly and going someplace! It is this kind of genetic balance that we seek for the Seppala Siberian Sleddog breed, and it cannot be achieved through inbreeding and continually discarding genetic material. This is nature's way, and it is the best way to produce a vigorous and healthy working dog.


Evaluating Young Stock

EVALUATION IS A VITAL PART of breeding, but it's too often carried out inappropriately. Our experience has been that you don't know what you've got for sure until an animal is three years or older. We've seen stock older than that change significantly, giving us real surprises. DON'T BREED VERY YOUNG SLEDDOGS if there's any way you can avoid doing so. We've all seen the ads from the show-dog people: "New Champion Fluffy-Butt -- finished from Puppy Class at 10 months of age! Puppies from Champion Fluffy are eagerly awaited next month!" Who knows what Fluffy will have turned into by the time he's three years old! I've seen sleddog racers do the same thing: "That ten-month-old dog of Larry's was really showing some stuff in rig training this fall, so we decided to see what he'd throw -- I've bred him to my old leader bitch." In both cases, this is just plain stupidity.

Many dogs fail to fulfil early promise. This is even more true for sleddogs than it is for show-dogs. A sleddog is not worth breeding from until you've seen him do what he should be doing in all kinds of conditions, all weather, all sorts of trails, mile after mile. A green-broke dog with 100 miles on him may be showing you performance that gets you excited, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you will still be thrilled with him once he's mature.

What's more, breeding from young animals means you're unwittingly selecting for early maturity -- which usually means that you're also selecting for early burnout. You see a lot of this in hot Alaskan husky racing lines! Burning up the trail as a yearling, in his prime at two or three, all washed up by five years old. Breed from the early trail-burners, and soon the dogs from your kennel will be the kind that are all washed up at age five or six, physical and mental basket-cases, instead of the sort that are still working happily at age ten and hate the thought of ever quitting.

The desire to evaluate young stock early, moreover, leads many folks to push them too hard. Too much, too soon. Too many miles the first season, on trails that are too long for them, in teams that are too big and too fast for them. Racing people are often so driven and impatient that this problem is almost the rule rather than the exception! Green-broke dogs in their first year should not be running in large teams. (Yet how many people these days always seem to break and train their young stock in ten, twelve, or fourteen-dog hookups in front of a 500cc ATV?) Youngsters should not undertake trails longer than 8 or 10 miles. They shouldn't be run in fast first-string teams of older experienced racing dogs. They shouldn't have twelve hundred miles put on them in their first working season. Their bones aren't hardened, their ligaments aren't toughened, nothing about them is fully formed yet. A sleddog one year old often looks weedy and underdeveloped; maybe he has got his height (or maybe not), but it takes time to lay down solid muscle mass that protects bones and ligaments from damage. Don't push young stock just because you're short on patience and eager to know what you've got. Give them time. (I keep telling people this, over and over, but usually they don't listen. Please don't blame me when you mess up some young dogs if you're one of the idiots who won't listen.)

For another aspect of this theme, see " generation time."



TOO MANY PEOPLE have told me, "I don't get this genetics stuff." If you don't get it, you probably ought not to breed Seppalas. It's a vitally important subject. Some folks are put off by learning some of the technical language -- "What do you mean, ho-mo-zy-gos-ity? Why can't you put it in layman's language?" Of course I can do that; otherwise, how would you ever learn what it means? But you have to learn the meaning of the key concepts, because (in the case of homozygosity) that one word is shorthand for something that takes five minutes to explain. We'd never get anywhere if we had to stop every time and spell the whole thing out again in words of one syllable.

Basic genetics is not that tough to understand, folks. Like any science, it can get complex and mathematical if it's pushed far enough. Dog breeders don't need to push it that far, but they do need to understand the basics. The trouble is, those breeding books I mentioned on the front page of this section aren't teaching people the right areas of it.

Most people these days have been exposed in high school to one aspect of genetics: basic "Mendelism." Mendelian genetics treats the subject from the standpoint of the behaviour of one or two gene loci at a time. (Gene: the basic unit of heredity. Loci: (pron. "low-sigh") plural of locus, which is a genetic "location" or site that governs a particular trait. Alleles are different "versions" of a particular gene that can be found at the same locus. The locus governing coat colour, or really one of the loci, since there are several loci controlling coat colour, could have three or four possible alleles with different effects on the ultimate coat colour.) I guess we've all seen the chart of the possible variations of Mendel's smooth green and wrinkled yellow peas, and the 9:3:3:1 ratio of phenotypes (the visible physical expression of gene action) that result from the assortment of dominant and recessive genes at two gene loci (a dominant gene expresses itself even in the presence of another different allele, a recessive gene is only expressed in the phenotype when it's present in two identical copies).

The dog breeding books solemnly re-explain what we should have learnt in high school. The trouble is, it isn't really all that useful, and the most useful aspect of basic Mendelism is in its application to simple cosmetic situations like coat colour! But sleddogs aren't garden peas, and the simple situations aren't actually that simple. For one thing, nobody can define precisely what a gene is, except conceptually as I just did: the basic unit of heredity. But geneticists find it difficult to point to a physical structure and say, "there -- that's a gene." Because genes consist of long sequences of DNA (the organic chemical compound that is the vehicle of heredity), but it can be tough to decide where the effective "gene" begins or ends. Sometimes one gene, too, controls many traits; sometimes one trait is controlled by several genes. The DNA in your dog's chromosomes, (which are the DNA chains on which the genes are found, within the cell nucleus), is not like an engineer's blueprint, neat and precise! No, it's more like the hard drive on my computer, which has some useful files of information, some other files that are necessary to interpret the information files or to manipulate them, along with a tremendous amount of junk data, much of which I don't even know is there or have the slightest notion what it's for. I'm serious! In the chromosomes of you or your dog, the actual functional genes are probably a lesser part of the total amount of DNA. There are sequences there that say, "start", "stop", "read" or whatever. Punctuation. Instructions. There are long sequences of utterly meaningless junk. There are fragments of ancient viruses (yes, really!) that have become incorporated into the chromosomes. It's a grand and glorious mess; trying to straighten it out and interpret it has become a major scientific growth industry.

Three decades or so back, Dr. Clarence Little published his book, The Inheritance of Coat Colour in Dogs. I bought a copy around 1970, and ever since then I've been observing Seppala litters in the light of Dr. Little's schema of coat colour genetics. And I've got to say, the dogs have made a liar of the man over and over again! In Seppalas, colour genetics just don't work the way he says they should. Even in this "simple Mendelian" aspect of canine inheritance, what is "known" just isn't very reliable or useful.

When they explain Mendelism, one crucial item gets ignored for convenience. Genes don't assort independently! Genes aren't found in isolation, each to itself. They are found, as I said, on the chromosomes. It's the chromosomes that separate and assort when gametogenesis (the production of sperm cells and ova) takes place. There are many, many genes on each chromosome. Dogs probably have on the order of 100,000 genes, give or take a few thousand, but only 39 chromosome pairs. Thus the genes don't assort independently but in large groups on the chromosomes. (This linkage of genes can change, because sometimes during gametogenesis the two chromosomes of a pair tangle and crossing over occurs, in which the north end of one chromosome gets spliced onto the south end of the other, and vice versa. In that way genes that were linked get un-linked and re-linked in a new association.) But in any event, those who think they can isolate and select for individual traits without affecting other traits are dreaming. This is why selection for "simple" traits like coat colour is dangerous. When you consider coat colour in isolation and select for a given colour, you are probably selecting around 2,500 other genes at the same time, genes you know nothing about and haven't considered at all. The artificial selection itself is not so bad, but when it gets teamed up with inbreeding, disastrous things happen.

There's another aspect of genetics that dog breeders rarely hear about, yet it's a lot more relevant than simple Mendelism: population genetics. If you want the syllabus for the post-graduate course in breeding according to the principles of population genetics, read the following article: Population Genetics in Practice: Principles for the Breeder.

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