Monday, September 22, 2014

Creating the Master Breed

They say that a dog is man’s best friend. But that isn’t how
the story goes. In 1870, a lawyer sued on behalf of a dog
owner whose foxhound, Old Drum, was shot by a sheep
farmer. His closing argument did explain why a dog is a
better friend than another person, but he never actually
said the phrase, “ a dog is man’s best friend.”
People heart their dogs – I read it on bumper stickers every day; apparently some dogs are smarter than my honor roll children. But for some reason, dogs haven’t caught on as viral video cuties to the extent that cats have. There must be scientific reason for that – you figure that out and win a Nobel Prize. I'm currently pondering the love of people for specific breeds of dogs; like it’s “the best breed ever” versus every other kind of inferior dog.

Our attempts to breed dogs with specific traits has had its drawbacks. Often, selective breeding of dogs leads to health problems.  Dogs bred to be big have a tendency to overheat, and the weight on their bones makes them more susceptible to bone diseases and bone cancer. Bulldogs have heads so big that they all have to be born by Caesarean section. Bassett hounds have immune system problems and blood dyscrasias - selective breeding has gone to the dogs.

A new study shows that health problems selective breeding in dogs may have a bright side. Chiari malformation occurs when the bones of the skull fuse too early and parts of the brain are forced through the base of the skull. It occurs in Griffon Bruxellois dogs at a shockingly high rate, but also occurs in humans.

One in 1000 people is afflicted with some degree of Chiari malformation (some are symptom free), yet the causes of this defect remain obscure. Studying the genetics in selectively bred dogs may help to identify genetic markers in humans.

Does this mean that all selective breeding is laden with problems? No - a relatively new dog breed called the Jagdterrier, or German Hunt terrier, is disgustingly healthy. Who do we have to thank for this marvel of selective breeding – the Nazis, oh great.

In the photograph on the left, Lutz Heck is shown on the far
left, while his best friend, Herman Goring, is on the far right
(no kidding).  Heck used his connections to fund several
selective breeding projects, including the production of the
German hunting terrier, the Jagdterrier, shown on the right.
The German national movement of the 1920’s and 30’s saw the rise of the Nazi party and the idea that anything German was better than anything else from anywhere else. And if being German is good, than being purely German must be better – even in dogs.

The hunting group of dogs at the time was well represented by the American Bloodhound and the four breeds of foxhound. Also at the time, terriers were at the height of their popularity. A terrier won the first Westminster dog show in 1907, and won eight of the first eleven shows.

So two brothers in Germany, Lutz and Heinz Heck, decided to breed a genetically and functionally superior German hunting dog, and to make it a terrier. Lutz was the curator of the Berlin Zoo and was no stranger to selective breeding in the name of German national pride, but more on that in a moment.

The two brothers were good friends with anyone high in the German government that they though they could suck up to. Lutz was very close to Herman Goering, and both brothers knew and were friends with Adolph Hitler. Hitler didn't fund their program as far as it is known, but the brothers used their connections in the Nazi party to procure patrons and partners.

The Heck brothers used the Welsh Terrier, the Old English Terrier and the Fox Terrier to start breeding toward the perfect hunting dog, but they needed the German blood, so they included a pinch of Pinscher and Dachshund as well. They wanted to end up with a dog that could run a fox to ground (chase it underground into its den), but was strong and nasty enough to take on bears. What they ended up with is the Jagdterrier, a breed finalized some years after the fall of the Reich.

Unfortunately, the German Hunting Dog was a victim of poor planning. We now have a dog that is too big to chase a fox into a den, but too small to take on a bear with any hope for survival. On the plus side, they don’t seem to have suffered from their selective breeding history – no health problems here, nothing to see, move on.

The Heck bovine on the left is the product of a selective
breeding program. Their map – the 10,500 year-old
cave painting on the right. How do you think they did? We
can’t know exactly how they tried because the Heck’s didn’t
keep a breeding book – very un-Nazi like.
Jagdterriers are good hunting dogs, but the one I know is crazy as a loon. I swear he’d eat my lawnmower if given the chance. They're a loyal and fierce breed, and this leads to quasi-terroristic behavior towards well-meaning neighbors. Thank you so very much, Herr Heck.

The brothers Heck didn’t stop there. They also used selective breeding to try and bring back an ancient cattle breed that wandered Europe a thousand years ago. Called the aurochs, this is the bovine immortalized in cave paintings across Europe – the supermodels of the Neanderthal period.

As opposed to the selective breeding of the Jagdterrier that was designed to a functional end, the breeding of the bovine was basically an attempt to generate an animal that looked like the picture; sculpting in live medium. A recent study has sequenced the aurochs mitochondrial genome using museum pieces, but my guess is that the modern day Heck Cattle, as they are called, will bear small genetic resemblance to the ancient breed.

For a guy who supposedly loved and worked with animals for conservation purposes, Lutz Heck turned out to be one nasty guy. In 1941, after the fall of Warsaw to the Nazis, Heck looted all the exotic animals from the Warsaw Zoo and took them back to Germany. For the remaining animals, he invited his SS friends to have a private hunt and slaughtered them in and out of their pens – a massacre. Not such a great advertisement for the Nazis, who claimed to be such advocates for animal rights.

Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD
As Many Exceptions As Rules

German Colonialism: Race, The Holocaust, and Post-War Germany. edited by Volker Max Langbehn, Mohammad Salama. New York, Columbia University Press, 2011.

The Zookeeper's Wife. Diane Ackerman. New York, W.W. Norton, 2007.

Lemay P, Knowler SP, Bouasker S, Nédélec Y, Platt S, Freeman C, Child G, Barreiro LB, Rouleau GA, Rusbridge C, & Kibar Z (2014). Quantitative trait loci (QTL) study identifies novel genomic regions associated to Chiari-like malformation in Griffon Bruxellois dogs. PloS one, 9 (4) PMID: 24740420

Zeyland J, Wolko L, Bocianowski J, Szalata M, Słomski R, Dzieduszycki AM, Ryba M, Przystałowska H, & Lipiński D (2013). Complete mitochondrial genome of wild aurochs (Bos primigenius) reconstructed from ancient DNA. Polish journal of veterinary sciences, 16 (2), 265-73 PMID: 23971194

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