Reading Pedigrees Loud And Clear

Pedigrees are a tapestry that defines the dog before you.

MBIS MSBIS Am. GCh. Twinroc Santa Paws, HT, PT, ROMG, bred by Doris Slaboda and owned by Paula O’Donnell. A rare phenomenal stud dog, sire of BIS and national specialty winners, a Westminster Group winner, a Crufts breed winner and sire of more than 50 champions. His prepotency is traced through his sire line, although it is not the result of line breeding. Teddy's Pic.

As we all know, the true point of dog shows is the evaluation of breeding stock, the assumption being that evaluation of the phenotype or appearance will be a good indicator of that dog’s worth in a breeding program. However, this is only one of many factors involved in the producing ability of any given dog. We do not have the scope of knowledge to astutely assess them all, and hands-on evaluation is our main criterion. That said, understanding the dog’s ancestry is a great help in utilizing the dog to the best advantage in a breeding program.

A fair number of committed show breeders, I would estimate perhaps 30 percent, experience a notable high point. This may be a well-known all-breed winner or a significant specialty winner. A smaller percentage, perhaps 5 to 10 percent, experience this high-level plateau for a period of time, let’s say seven to 10 years. During this time, their breeding programs produce multiple notable dogs, usually all genetically related in some way. A very small percentage of breeders are able to sustain significant breed influence over a much longer period of time. While there are a myriad of reasons for these results, in truth, all breeders have two main tools at their disposal: the phenotypic evaluation of the dogs and the genetic understanding of their dogs’ pedigrees. The greater the depth of understanding the breeder has of these two tools, the greater the chance of attaining and sustaining successful breeding programs.

I once read that the definition of intelligence is the ability to ascertain patterns in chaos. This is precisely the task at hand when evaluating a pedigree. The chaos is the long list of names; the discernment of patterns of that ancestry is the intelligence of the breeder.

Pedigrees provide a great deal of information that even those who do not have years of experience in a breed can ascertain. Overall genetic health can be estimated by understanding what underlying health issues might affect the dog’s progeny, based on knowledge of the inheritance of the diseases and how they present themselves in the pedigree. This can provide some insight into which bloodlines to tap and which to leave alone.

Value Derived From Understanding Your Pedigrees

The overall quality of the genetics is also discernible by considering the bloodstock behind the animal. Are there top-quality ancestors close up in the pedigree? Are there animals of lesser quality close up? Are there faults that are consistent through the lines? Are there strong virtues present, and are they breeding true? Again, these factors will mentally play into your planning process. I always appreciate the fact that the canine has what must be the largest genetic pool of any animal on the planet. This allows the breeder to make amazing progress in a relatively short span of time, but careless or unskilled breeders can lose a bloodline’s strong virtues very quickly so that while the extended pedigree may appear to be desirable, the up-close ancestors bear little resemblance to the level of quality being sought. I warn you, do not use pedigrees to evaluate the phenotype of your dogs!

The degree of homozygosity, or lack of genetic variation, is also of value. That is why breeders linebreed or inbreed, to reduce the genetic variability. Hopefully, it is done in such a way as to capture the best of high-quality specimens. Linebreeding on mediocre stock is pointless and will, in fact, be a detriment to the goal of breeding high-quality stock.

I like to evaluate a pedigree at about nine generations. Computers and software allow this to be easily done, and breeders can often access public pedigree databases to evaluate and plan breedings. I always subdivide the pedigree into four-generation segments, working first from left to right, then make another pass from the back forward. In other words, I look at the sire line in the top right corner, segmenting into four generations, then when I understand the relationships of those dogs and the qualities they had (if available), I will page down to the next four generations, then read over right to left, combining those pedigrees just as the breeding program unfolded. Once I understand the sire’s pedigree, I go through the same process for the dam’s pedigree until I have a good concept of how this dog before me came into being.

Most breeders have long assumed that homozygosity, done correctly, will yield consistent and influential producers. What I have learned is that while homozygosity does relate to consistency, it does not necessarily seem to relate to prepotency. What I mean by prepotency in this context is the ability for a sire or dam to produce many outstanding progeny. Because many super prepotent producers are not linebred, I have developed the theory that super prepotency is a separate genetic factor that has nothing to do with linebreeding or homozygosity of the pedigree. These extremely desirable animals that are capable of producing top-flight stock with an array of mates from an array of pedigrees, must contain some rare genetic factor that seems to heavily influence the breeding and that seems to have much less variability than it does in normal producers. So identifying prepotent animals in the pedigree is of value, especially if their super producing ability is being carried on down through the generations.

Sample Pedigree

Let us examine more closely the theory that extreme prepotency does not appear to be related to how closely the ancestors are related. I realized this in my own breed, Cardigan Welsh Corgis. My foundation stud dog, the famous Ch. Kennebec Ice Anchor, was the result of somewhat of an outcross. His sire was an English import that was linebred on his English family of dogs, but his dam was mostly of old American lines that were loosely linebred on themselves and relatively unrelated to the English side of the pedigree. The current-day stud phenom in the Cardigan breed, Ch. Twinroc Santa Paws, is likewise not the result of structured linebreeding. His sire is also prepotent, as was his paternal grandsire, and yet an examination of each pedigree provides no familial pattern of systematic linebreeding. To further examine this interesting finding, I chose to look at the pedigrees of a few other stud phenoms to see if this was an unusual situation.

Salilyn's Aristocrat
English Springer Spaniel Ch. Salilyn’s Aristocrat is the top-producing sire of all time, with 188 AKC champion offspring. Photo courtesy Bo Bengtson, Best in Show, I-5 Press, 2008.

I looked at the pedigree of the famous German Shepherd Dog stud, Ch. Lance Of Fran-Jo. The database inbreeding coefficient provides a number well below 5 percent, and most of this is actually a result of the scant linebreeding on his dam’s side of the pedigree. Again, his sire and dam appear unrelated for all intents and purposes. I also looked at the pedigree of the Labrador Retriever Ch. Dickendall Arnold, a dog that I notice is very often in the pedigrees of specialty winners. Arnold’s grandsire was a very influential producer himself, the English import Ch. Receiver Of Cranspire. While Arnold does have linebreeding on the dam’s side, here again it is not terribly close on the pedigree of ‘Receiver,’ nor does Receiver’s pedigree demonstrate close breeding.

It may seem odd that in an article on pedigrees I am noting the lack of linebreeding behind some outstanding producers, but I want to point out that the accepted wisdom that homozygosity or lack of gene variation is the route to prepotency must be questioned. Rather, I think it behooves the breeder to realize that phenomenal producers are not necessarily the product of linebreedings but, as I have proposed, actually possess some kind of “super gene” or factor that makes them the successful producers they are. However, skillfully linebreeding on them while continuing to retain this heightened producing ability should be the goal of the long-term breeder.

For my breeding program, I conceived of a very specific type or, as some prefer, style that I wanted to produce. By using the best available examples of the type desired, I quickly established this type through very tight breeding. When my breeding program attained a plateau in terms of what it was capable of producing, I reached out for a stud dog that possessed the requisite complementary qualities. He was not, in fact, much related to my bloodline, going back about four generations before his maternal line linked into the bloodline I was developing. However, he happened to turn out to be a stud dog phenom, and my breeding program was able to progress. By staying within my preferred type but selecting for virtues which he could produce, I was able to improve the overall quality of dog I was breeding.

Then again, my selections are made first by reviewing available stud dogs that possess my preferred type and bloodline. These combinations can be made to great effect, but the wise breeder is always open to that phenomenal producer that appears in the breed. These dogs are extraordinarily rare in most breeds. Over a span of 35 years of breeding Cardigans, I have come across these dogs maybe two or three times. You can then fold this back into your breeding program and continue to make progress.

An Example of Studying A Pedigree

To evaluate a pedigree, start as far back as you wish. For instance, for this article, I decided to study the breeding lines of Patricia Trotter’s Vin-Melca Elkhounds. There can be no more clever or successful breeder than Mrs. Trotter, so I knew I would see the various breeding methodologies in practice over the generations. Her true foundation bitch, Ch. Vin-Melca’s Rebel Rouser, contains a shortened pedigree, so we move to the next generation and look at her daughter, Ch. Vin-Melca’s Rabble Rouser. ‘Rabble Rouser’ was by an imported dog, Ch. Tortasen’s Bjonn II, who was likely an important dog for his day. Rabble Rouser was bred to an American dog, Ch. Windy Coves Silver Son, a dog with a good deal of European ancestry, and now we are seeing some interesting linebreeding. ‘Silver Son’ was the result of a cousin-to-cousin breeding and also a grandson of Ch. Tortasen’s Bjonn II, so a definite linebreeding on Bjonn II. This breeding produced Ch. Vin-Melca’s Hi Ho Silver. ‘Hi Ho Silver’ was then bred back to his granddam, Ch. Vin-Melca’s Rebel Rouser, and gave her breeder Ch. Vin-Melca’s Vickssen. ‘Vickssen’ bred to the key producing bitch Ch. Vin-Melca’s Vikina resulted in the famous Ch. Vin-Melca’s Vagabond. I now roll back to review the pedigree of ‘Vikina.’ Her dam is of particular interest, Ch. Vin-Melca’s Astridina, who is out of the foundation bitch Ch. Vin-Melca’s Rebel Rouser sired by a dog that was sired by Rebel Rouser’s grandsire, Ch. Carro of Ardmere. Moving ahead a generation of Ch. Vin-Melca’s Vagabond, we come to the producing bitch, Ch. Vin-Melca’s Nightcap. Rolling back to the dam line, ‘Nightcap’ was out of the National Specialty-winning bitch, Ch. Vin-Melca’s Happy Hour. ‘Happy Hour’ was sired by the phenomenal producer and huge winner Ch. Vin-Melca’s Howdy Rowdy. ‘Howdy Rowdy’ was also out of the top-producing Ch. Vin-Melca’s Vikina and sired by Ch. Windy Coves Rowdy Ringo.

Elkhound Vikina 

Ch. Vin-Melca’s Vikina was the foundation bitch for Patricia Craige Trotter. Vikina’s oldest son, Ch. Vin-Melca’s Howdy Rowdy, National Specialty and multi BIS winner, was the progenitor of a strong tail male line. Her youngest son, Ch. Vin-Melca’s Vagabond, top dog all breeds 1970 and two-time Westminster Group winner, became an important brood bitch sire. Ludwig photo.

Reading a pedigree is reading the generations of work done hopefully by skilled breeders. It is the tapestry that defines the dogs before you and is a key guide for the progeny they will produce. Keen breed students decipher the patterns, learn the virtues and shortcomings of the bloodstock and thereby position themselves to make the most intelligent and fortuitous decisions for the next weave of the tapestry.

Jon began attending dog shows more than 45 years ago. He has been involved in many breeds and has owned or bred major winners at National Specialties in six breeds. He is probably best known for his Cardigan Welsh Corgis, bred under the Pluperfect prefix and now in their 15th generation. Jon is also an AKC judge.

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