DANELINKS.COM                                                                                                                                       9.1.05 

Health Screening and the Direction of the Breed:
A Newcomer’s Perspective

          by Adam Protos


Adam Protos was born in Massillon, Ohio, on February 19, 1981. As a small child his family moved from Ohio to Roswell, Georgia, a small suburb of Atlanta. It was here that the family had their first Great Dane, a brindle female which would be the beginning of a passion that would follow Adam into his adult years. After graduating from high school he attended the University of Georgia, obtaining a degree in chemistry. Slightly before graduation, Adam acquired the first Dane he would call his own. That fawn puppy would mature to be Ch. Winhurst’s We’ll Be There, otherwise known as Arthur. Adam’s involvement in Danes has been deepening ever since. He is attending Tulane Medical School in New Orleans, Louisiana.

We all want healthier, longer-lived Danes: a breed that not only gets great marks in the ring, but also in the vet’s office.

But I don’t believe the initiative on the Great Dane Club of America (GDCA) ballot is a means to that end. The screenings overemphasize technology as a superficial substitute for depth of knowledge and leadership.

We need to return to our roots. We need our long-term breeders to speak out on pedigree history, basic genetics, and breeding fundamentals -- health, temperament, style, soundness, and type. We must examine the direction of the breed relative to the roles of the newer and the long-term breeders. The health screening issues, including the specifics of the proposed legislation and its anticipated effectiveness, can then be dissected. Finally, the implications to Futurity and breed as a whole can be examined.

Newbies like me often are used as justification for the new legislation, which would require the screening of the sire and dam to nominate a litter for the Futurity. This is by no means a trivial concern, since newcomers today represent the future of the breed, the very lifeblood of the fancy. While the immediate welfare of the Futurity is certainly cause for concern, this issue is essentially a symptom of a larger and more ominous problem facing our breed.

As all facets of our society have become more inclined toward instant gratification, the sport of dogs has likewise followed suit. A drive is created to obtain the maximum return on the minimal investment of time or effort. This is underscored by the current emphasis within the fancy on campaigning and ego, rather than on the long-term development of a line where intimate knowledge of a pedigree and health histories is paramount. This intimate knowledge is painfully absent with most of today’s novice breeders, which now constitute a large constituency of the fancy. For instance, look into ring and you will see a lack of breed type being passed off as “soundness”. Thumb through a breed publication and you will find dogs with a parade of acronyms after their names denoting a laundry list of various health certifications, only to discover later that some of those same dogs died at startlingly young ages. This is because most newcomers are at loss as to how to define and recognize type. Likewise, they are oblivious to health issues which lurk deep within the ancestry of their beloved Danes.

Conversing ringside with newcomers similar to myself reveals many at a complete loss regarding these issues. This does not seem to stem from a lack of intellect, but from a lack of guidance. These are things which must be learned from mentor, not a book or website. Consequently, a void in knowledge once supplied by leadership and mentoring is developing within the breed, and is being filled with the advent of modern technology. While resources such as the Internet and health screenings can certainly be used to provide constructive information, without the proper guidance to place them in the correct context they can actually become counter-productive. The superficial becomes a substitute for substance and depth, providing easy, one-dimensional answers to complex, multi-faceted problems.

When dealing specifically with the issue of health screening I view it as an important piece of the overall picture regarding a breeding. However, as I found out in no uncertain terms on a recent Danelinks poll, this is a black and white issue for many people. Often, any criticism of health screening or the proposed GDCA legislation is misconstrued as an ideological stance against all health testing, and this, I believe would be a vast over generalization. A faulty piece of legislation could set the original intent of the proposal back years and actually be an impasse on the road to healthier Danes.

Despite sensationalistic ramblings to the contrary, there are many reasons why caring and responsible people would oppose the initiative. First, and foremost, the initiative mandates screening for conditions which are not serious threats to the health and welfare of Great Danes. According to the recent health survey published in Daneworld magazine the most critical issues facing Danes today are bloat, cancer, and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), none of which are suitably addressed by the screenings proposed by the GDCA legislation.

For instance, you can perform eye (CERF) or the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) cardiac screenings on your dog at age two and his offspring have a pass into the Futurity for the rest of his days as a stud. Never mind that he may have died of cardio at age five. Oh, thank God for health screenings, I know I’ll sleep easier at night. Further, other issues such as age-appropriateness, frozen semen breedings, and public availability are essentially by-passed. These oversights misplace priorities and perpetuate a false sense of security, which will do nothing to provide a reliable predictor of the most serious aliments facing Great Danes.

This situation is further complicated by the fact that, when considering DCM for instance, the phenotype of the affliction is only loosely tied to the genotype. For example, a DCM carrier bitch would never show any symptoms of the disease and would likely pass all screenings, but half of the male puppies whelped by this bitch would be afflicted, while half of the bitch puppies would go on to be carriers. This is assuming, of course, that the sire is not afflicted. All the while these puppies would be eligible for the Futurity under the GDCA initiative. Do we really want to give these dogs an implied seal of approval?

While the intent of the proposal is admirable, the method is poor. If the people within the corridors of power of the parent club were receiving such a tremendous outcry for a health screening mandate, then why not formulate a proposal that has the courage of its convictions. Under the current proposal the sire and dam do not have to even pass their screening, or even receive the same screening. The retort to this, that the focus is about the flow of information, is mired by the fact that the results are not made available in a public database.

Personally I feel that anyone who does not health test at present are not going to start because of the Futurity, which is not even a point granting event. Hoping that American Kennel Club (AKC) will follow suit? Well, I have more bad news on that one too, AKC is nothing if not a business and doing anything that has the potential to lose entries is not high on its priority list.

Repeatedly, I hear the contention that other breed clubs have enacted similar measures and have had wonderful results. However, typically, these clubs reaped great results because they faced systemic problems (hip dysplasia in German Shepherds or Rottweilers, for example) in their breeds which could be identified with the application of a widely available screening. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case regarding Great Danes. Rather, these mandated screenings are not based on the most critical problems facing Danes, but on which certifications are widely available.

Certifications are not an end in themselves. Besides, the majority of breeders (according to the 2002 GDCA National Health Survey) are already using health screenings as part of their breeding programs. The information is already there, so why focus on coercive tactics. Instead, honest conversations about pedigrees and individual dogs must be encouraged and should be the rule rather than the exception. However, the implementation of compulsory, yet ineffective, screening mandates runs completely counter to that goal. This creates an atmosphere of implied guilt, fueling the reluctance of experienced people in the breed to speak out. This deprives newcomers to the breed of guidance in the areas of ancestry and basic genetics, which are paramount in not only improving health issues, but also in areas of type, style, and temperament.

So, in the end, I believe that the legitimacy of the Futurity will be undermined by making it a more restrictive event. We will be excluding entire litters of worthwhile puppies from competition based on  their parents participation in unreliable screenings, rather than on the merit of their conformation.

Thus, implying that health screenings are an acid test of responsible, conscientious breeders would be a grave oversimplification of a complex issue. Instead, we should be spearheading efforts to develop more reliable and predictive tests such as genetic markers, while emphasizing a culture of honesty and camaraderie instead of coercion. Long term breeders have to stop hiding in the corner and speak up, breaking the silence born out of either apathy or frustration, and newcomers have to listen and be willing to learn. Pillars of the breed must reclaim control over the direction of Danes, providing the leadership we so desperately need. Sadly, this is something no health screening can provide.

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