Background: Why Purebred Dogs Are in Trouble
The present day Bernese Mountain Dog is a breed that is plagued with numerous health issues that are resulting in an abnormally short lifespan. Cancers, immune mediated disease, allergies, digestive issues, degenerative myelopathy, thyroid issues, and widespread reproductive issues are all significantly prevalent in the breed.
Dog Shows and Purebred Dogs
Every purebred dog has roots in various breeds or types from which they originated. Understanding this helps us understand why some purebred dogs have significant health issues and offers a possible solution to improve the health of Bernese Mountain Dogs. Breeding purebred dogs has only recently become popular. Based on the development of dog shows, societal pressure ensued to breed one pure bred dog to another. To that point, it was not considered taboo to cross with another breed to acquire a desired trait for physical characteristics, temperament, or health related reasons. Various breeds have been developed in this manner and have been kept healthy for centuries.
Closed Stud Books
Unfortunately with the popularity of dog shows and kennel clubs, it became forbidden to breed out. When a stud book is "closed" on a breed, it means that no dog will be registered that did not come from registered parents of the same breed. For this reason, closing a stud book on a breed can cause problems with inbreeding. Because there are only a finite number of dogs within any purebred breed, the gene pool is instantly limited when the stud book is closed. Since all Bernese Mountain Dogs are related to some degree, it does not matter if an American-born dog is bred to a German-born dog, the resulting litter will still be at least partially inbred.
How We Are Taught to Breed Purebred Dogs
Regardless of the venue, all of us - including some in the project - have been taught to breed for the individual, meaning we each have selected dogs to breed together so we can be more successful in a chosen sport. If dogs are shown in conformation, we breed for those traits —including size, coat, structure, etc. If dogs are shown in agility, other traits are selected. Despite the sport of choice, we all breed or select dogs that enable us to improve our chances of winning. There is nothing wrong with this - we all want to be successful in our chosen venues! Very few are truly taught how to breed to preserve our breeds—referred to as Preservation Breeding. We are breeding thinking about the health of the total population of Bernese Mountain Dogs as a whole versus the individual dogs that we may produce. That difference has become a problem for the overall health of purebred dogs. The use of popular sires is a prime example of breeding for the individual versus for the overall health of a population of purebred dogs. We each know that no individual dog should be overly bred, but “popular sire syndrome" is very much alive in virtually every breed of dog.
At What Cost?
The fascination with pedigrees full of dogs of the same breed and breeding as individuals comes at a significant cost. A baseline knowledge of education teaches us that a population of any species becomes more inbred and therefore is at higher risk of health issues, loss of vitality, and difficulties reproducing. Labeling a dog as registered in most countries means that only the same breed of dog can be bred together, so many purebred dogs are becoming more inbred despite the efforts of some very conscientious and ethical breeders who are doing their best to produce healthy dogs. If Bernese Mountain Dogs are to survive, it is critical that we have this shift in thinking and breeding. If we continue to concentrate our efforts to breed what we each individually desire and not breed for increased genetic diversity within the entire Bernese Mountain Dog population, our breed will continue to decline and eventually become so closely inbred that it may become extinct.