Inbreeding in German Shepherds
13.02.2024 17:27

by Aina Øverland (Norway)

I have received some questions regarding my previous post about the extreme level of inbreeding that is now a reality in German Shepherd Dogs (and most other breeds for that matter). How is it possible that the average inbreeding coefficient is 28.3%? This is equivalent to more than a full-sibling or parent/offspring mating.

You might say that my litter/dog is not in this category. You might say that the pedigree shows 0% inbreeding. Yes, mine does too. However, after taking a DNA test and having the real, genetic inbreeding rate evaluated, I see that this does not align with what the pedigree says. Why?

If we had a complete pedigree going back 30-35 generations, i.e., back to the ancestor Horand, Wright's calculation would roughly apply. But we don't have that. The correct parent animals are not always listed in the pedigree when going back a few generations. The only way to find the correct inbreeding rate is through a DNA test.

So how did the inbreeding rate get so high? I have created a graph that shows the number of times Horand von Grafrath and Pollux, Horand's grandfather, appear in a pedigree of a dog born in a given year. The growth is exponential and has exploded after the year 2000, as the graph shows.

Insane numbers that are almost hard to believe. German Shepherd Dogs born in 1925 already have Horand 272 times and Pollux 398 times in their pedigree. Then you just double it per generation. I have calculated one generation as 4 years. In 1965, you find Horand 278,528 times and Pollux 407,552 times. Then it starts to take off. German Shepherd Dogs born around the turn of the century have Horand 142 million times and Pollux 208 million times. In 2021, Horand appears 4.6 billion times and Pollux 6.7 billion times in a German Shepherd Dog born that year.
This is madness and completely unethical. This is what happens to all breeds based on a few "founders." Breeds that until recently had an open studbook don't have this problem, nor do relatively new breeds, yet. As soon as the studbook closes (only dogs with an FCI pedigree of the same breed are allowed to mate), an inevitable journey towards inbreeding depression begins. The question is not if but when it happens.
This is one reason why crossing different lines within the breed doesn't help, as all trace back to Horand and Pollux. Using the White Swiss Shepherd Dog doesn't help either, as it is still the same breed as the German Shepherd Dog in the USA (AKC). It also descends from Horand and Pollux, and no new dogs have been introduced.
In the 80s, a terrible idea was introduced that for a dog to achieve a VA (highest award at German Shepherd Dog shows), it must have at least one of "the big four" in its pedigree. The recipe for matador breeding. Unfortunately, it turned out that only two of "the big four" became popular and widely used. This is one reason why today's show population of German Shepherd Dogs has an even higher genetic inbreeding rate than the working population. But ultimately, it only goes one way for all, even though it is possible to slow down the pace by minimizing the increase in inbreeding in each generation with sensible planning. (Lowest possible pedigree inbreeding coefficient calculated over as many generations as possible and no matador breeding).
We already have an animal welfare law that does not allow mating where it is likely to pass on genes that can cause disease and defects in offspring. Can we honestly say that by mating within the breed, we aren't doing this? When all German Shepherd Dogs are as closely related as at least full siblings, we can no longer claim that it doesn't exist in my lines.
The Norwegian Kennel Club (NKK) also has a rule that an inbreeding coefficient of 25% or more is prohibited, and the offspring is registered with a breeding ban. This is based on a 5-generation pedigree, but now that we have the scientific tool of a DNA test that can measure the correct inbreeding rate, why not use it? Because it becomes too difficult since "all" planned breedings within the breed will exceed the legal inbreeding coefficient? It's not particularly costly either. I paid the same for a DNA test at Embark as for an eye examination.
Fortunately, some breeders are starting to realize where we are going, and already partially are. We need to move away from the idea that type likeness is good. Type likeness only means a high proportion of similar genes (high inbreeding rate). We have a breed standard to adhere to. But not everyone can be winners or fulfill this to the letter. It is a guideline we should adhere to as breeders and try to make the best possible combinations based on it. Most importantly must be:

1. Health
2. Lifespan
3. Temperament
4. Working abilities
5. Anatomy

To achieve this, new, fresh genes must enter an already overly inbred German Shepherd Dog breed. These genes must primarily come from dogs that don't have the same breed-typical ailments as German Shepherd Dogs. They must be vital, with an average higher lifespan than German Shepherd Dogs. The temperament must also as closely as possible match the description in the breed standard. It would just be a bonus if the conformation in the first generation corresponds to the breed standard. This must be the least important if we are ever going to get out of this predicament.
Is it really that bad, you might say? Yes, we are at least on the edge of "bad." This is not done overnight, and we must have many healthy and mentally strong German Shepherd Dogs that are as unrelated as possible to cross back with to maintain breed characteristics. The longer we wait, the harder this will be.
Fortunately, there is a new animal welfare law on the horizon, and the NKK must rethink the registration of dogs. Hopefully, it will be easier to use the annex register if this law comes into effect. One can hope. In the meantime, we must think alternatively.

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