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A Look Down The Bottle's Neck

by Margi Bragg, ADPEF Historian
Reprinted with permission obtained by Marj Brooks


A consideration of the consequences to a breed of having but a few genetic founders.

Reprinted from 1999 Doberman Quarterly, with permission from the author

One of my “sub-hobbies” in Dobermans has been tracing pedigrees back as far as possible. I´ll admit that I didn´t initially undertake this to educate myself, I just like to know where pedigrees lead and I find it enjoyable in itself. However, there came a point when I realized that I was acquiring some profound insights into the history of the breed and that these insights apply to today´s Doberman in ways that affect us all.

Most students of the breed know that Dobermans are just now one hundred years old. We are very lucky in one sense, because we are one of a very few breeds that can know our whole history. On the other hand we cannot assume that our breed is “finished” at such a young age. Many of the so-called “ancient” breeds, such as Pharaoh Hounds, have far fewer genetic syndromes, probably because the breeders of long ago wouldn´t support a dog that was non-functional. Within the entire history of the Doberman, he has been a pet and show dog far more than he has been a true working dog. To a large extent, we have not only circumvented the process of natural selection, but even the process of functional selection (at least as far as the ability to perform the breed´s work, as originally conceived) for more than fifty percent of our breed´s entire history. As a direct result, I believe that we are now facing a genetic crossroads in the Doberman that will determine if our breed survives another hundred years.

About ten years ago I began to wonder if my knowledge of old pedigrees could help me understand what has happened in the Doberman. How did we arrive at such a point of gene saturation in a mere hundred years? Most Doberman pedigrees go less than twenty generations deep to end up at the first registered dogs. In comparison with “older” breeds, this seems barely enough time to create a breed at all, and definitely not enough time to arrive at the kind of consistency we take for granted and certainly expect of our show litters. This gave me a clue that I was looking for: A very small gene pool in the origins of our breed. I began to look at the old pedigrees with new eyes. And what I found was even worse than I expected.

One of the prerequisites of a gene pool, be it Dobermans or cheetahs, is that it must have enough genetic variability to allow some members to survive even if most of the group acquires a genetic defect. Now this is an oversimplification to be sure, but the ultimate enemy of isolated natural populations is usually inbreeding. As inbreeding rises, genetic variability falls, eventually allowing the group as a whole to become afflicted with some genetic defect that precludes reproduction or survival of the offspring…. Hello, extinction! This class of genetic defect must be mentally separated from the diseases of old age, which only affect the organism after it has reproduced. Every gene pool has its share of genetic detritus, which affects (reduces) longevity, but if an organism carrying such genes has produced viable offspring before the genes´ lethality/morbidity becomes active, then the offspring too, will have acquired -and will pass along those genes. When I began looking into the history of Dobermans…the produce of a mere three breedings – represented by only five dogs -came to dominate the entire breed over the next ten years…it was at once apparent to me that the “breed” began to be consistent and show dramatic improvement in type almost immediately. Within fifty years we begin to see in photographs a dog very similar to today´s dog. We don´t know the exact numbers of foundation stock, as some were unregistered, but we do know that the breed was begun with relatively few specimens. Between 1900 and the first world war (1914), the breed proliferated greatly, and the gene pool was even enlarged with the influx of new genetic material, e.g. the black greyhound cross Stella, whelped 1908, and two crosses with the Manchester Terriers – first about 1902 and then, again, in 1908. World War I gravely reduced this original gene pool, and the remnants again proliferated until just before World War II (1939).

In America, the first recorded Doberman arrived in 1908 and the breed also sailed along here. However, the really pivotal occurrence came almost fifty years into the Doberman´s history, and it is from the point of World War II (1939-1945) that we have been heading for a crisis with the Doberman. In Europe, the crisis is more understandable, because the breed and breeders both had to pick up the pieces of lives and a gene pool. In America what happened can´t be explained so easily, because the crisis was precipitated not by the war, but by the exact same decision making process that we, as breeders, are still using today -Success breeds Success.

Prior to WW II, America had a huge population of Dobermans and after the war that population came to represent almost the entire gene pool of Dobermans. Since the number of individuals was relatively large, the effects of decreased genetic variability might seem remote. However, the produce of a mere three breedings – represented by only five dogs – came to dominate the entire breed over the next ten years, to the degree that it can truly be said that these five dogs, all born in the decade of the 1930´s, are virtually all there is in a modern pedigree.

I have observed, when one traces a pedigree back far enough today, nearly every line of every pedigree will end up at one of the following three breedings:

  1. Blank vd Domstadt x Ossi v Stahlhelm
  2. Kurt vd Rheinperle-Rhinegold x Jessy vd Sonnenhoehe
  3. Kurt vd Rhineperle-Rhinegoldx Gretl v Kienlesberg.

Occasionally, we can also find Pericles of Westphalia (Kurt´s son) x Jessy.  Only in the rarest of circumstances do we find a cross out to any other (unrelated) bloodline that predated these dogs. When one considers that in a fifteen generation pedigree there are possibly 16,384 distinct individuals in the fifteenth generation alone, to accept that the above handful of matings may appear repeated upwards of 8000 times is usually more than anyone can believe.

In fact, when I discuss this with people, I always have a very hard time making them understand the gravity of this situation. At first, the mind simply cannot take it in. And also, it sounds like ancient history to most people. After all the breed has survived another fifty years, hasn´t it? Aren´t our dogs great because of this concentration of greatness?

Let´s look at the facts: Blank to Ossi was a second-generation line breeding, one of the first done on their ancestral stock. At least one of those offspring (Domossi) died of a “heart-attack.” Domossi´s son Emperor, the product of another generation of line breeding, also died of a “heart-attack” (From Illena and the Seven Sires by Peggy Adamson). Alcor, the third of the “seven sires” to die of a heart attack, was related maternally. Jessy´s critiques from Germany clearly state that her temperament was not good, and people who knew Pericles of Westphalia have stated that he could not be shown because he was so fearful. Gretl v Kienlesberg (who was, incidentally, Jessy´s half sister) died of distemper along with most of her litter. Although distemper claimed the life of many dogs in those days, normally dogs´ immune systems are at an all time high while pregnant and lactating. One of Gretl´s famous grandget is said to have had no immune system at all.

Now over the past fifty years. But their tremendous genetic impact has a dark side, as well. We tend to beat ourselves up today -or worse, beat up each other -for the genetic frailty of our breed. But how can we defend ourselves against
something (things) that were instilled into them fifty or more years back? Our generation has inherited a gene pool that is too small. The worst problem we face is Cardiomyopathy and it is a defect that in most cases occurs after the dogs have reproduced. Line/Inbreeding has created vast improvements in type and structure, and has made our breed stand out among its peers as a pillar of consistency. But at the same time, it has so concentrated the “bad” genes that there may be no way out, particularly in the areas that relate to problems of the immune system, (e.g. thyroid disease, allergies, vaccine titres, autoimmune syndromes) and our heart-related diseases. Cardiomyopathy, arguably, could and should be relegated to the classification of diseases of old age, from which there is no escape. However, we see this scourge affecting even our young dogs.

No breed of animal is ruined in great leaps, but in tiny increments. Every time a breeder makes a bad or self-serving decision, a tiny step is taken towards the end of the breed. We can´t even see these steps most of the time because the course of breed history changes rapidly. A dog that is used sparingly in his lifetime may produce one over bred son and a dog that is used too much may find very little of his contribution around ten years later. A breeder sometimes justifies introducing genetic garbage into their line with the old saw, “I´ll

breed that out later.” One thing you can be sure of about breeding is that the second you breed flawed individuals you breed those characteristics IN. Only spaying and neutering ever “breeds” traits out! This is the one similarity I can think of between computers and genetics – GIGO – or (for those of us not computer literate) “Garbage In … Garbage Out.”

I don´t really want to bring out this information without a solution being offered – but I´m not sure there is one. People have suggested using only older dogs for breeding, but I´m not sure that is enough. Honesty between breeders would be a vast help, but since we typically attack the very people who try to be the most honest, you can´t really blame them for “going underground” the next time. What is needed is a general awareness that the Doberman breed is not here to serve anyone´s personal aggrandizement, but that we are here to serve the breed. We need to begin to make even the tiniest decisions with the breed´s future in mind and not our kennel name, the next show season or the next National. We need to give our pride away and live to serve the breed. We need to talk, to really communicate about the dogs, to make informed decisions. And we need to own our mistakes with the same grace we bring to our successes.


by Margi Bragg, ADPEF Historian
Reprinted with permission obtained by Marj Brooks

Or Never Let Fear Drive Your Bus

When the above article appeared in the summer 1999 D.Q., a mere ten years ago, I had no idea it would prove to be prophetic. I did know that the breed had some problems, serious problems, which were affecting health, longevity and worst, people´s perceptions of Doberman ownership. I did know that we also had some societal problems. Insurance companies didn´t want to insure us; PETA was loud, obnoxious and dangerous, urban communities needed to solve their dog problems. All of this taken together meant that the glory days of a large cropped and docked breed were over. What I didn´t foresee was that 1) the fancy would grow old and not replace itself. 2) The economy would tank and 3) that the Animal Rights Loonies without ever scoring a real victory against us would insidiously change our perception, “raise our conscience.” What I didn´t foresee was that guilt would so become a part of our approach to breeding that we would spay and neuter ourselves nearly to extinction. You may be wondering why I´m cramming all of the topics above into one article. I want you to understand he “Big Picture.” All of the above is one thing-one war, we are being attacked on many fronts, but it is one war. It is about a paradigm shift in America, a paradigm shift in which our rural and agricultural history is becoming increasingly urbanized. Urban mentalities have no connection with the realities of producing animals. Urban mentality is disconnected from the nature of life. It is disconnected from the inevitability of death. Those of us who insist on creating lives, in our case Dobermans, are being made to feel guilty and sadly, it is this guilt more than anything else that is now destroying the fancy and our breed.
The only thing I can guarantee when I produce a puppy is that it will die. When, where and how is beyond my capacity as a breeder. We are being held to a higher standard than human parents and that is ridiculous. Puppy buyers come wanting a guarantee of unlimited life. They believe they can purchase insurance against pain by buying a well-bred dog. They can dabble in something alive without experiencing the pain that comes with it. This is disconnected, urban thinking. We breeders have absorbed this thinking and are trying valiantly to produce a dog that is devoid of all medical problems. In the course of that pursuit, we are spaying and neutering everything less than 100 %. What you need to know is that by the time science gives us the tools we need to do that, there won´t be anything left to breed from. We will have been guilt-driven to extinction or at least will have created another genetic bottleneck. Genetic disorders are not causing the demise of purebred animals, but guilt is.

We have to do a number of things this instant if we are to be proper guardians of this Breed.

1. We have to identify and change our guilt-driven and fear-driven actions. Remember our Doberman temperament.
2. We have to fly in the face of AR´s and legislators who are pushing guilt. We must not absorb that guilt.
3. We have to begin to culture young people to take over for us.
4. We have to bear in mind the big picture and resist America´s paradigm-shift.
5. We have to breed dogs, lots of dogs.
6. We have to be publicly proud of our dogs and restore the cache´ and glamour of the show dog.
7. We have to behave with decorum and sportsmanship so that people will be drawn to our sport, not repelled by it.
8. We have to quit blaming and shaming anyone who breeds a dog that dies, including ourselves.

We have all forgotten to take a lesson from the Dobermans we so admire -watchful, fearless, alert, loyal, brave. We have become so tired, so poor, so guilty, so consciousness-raised and so spineless that we are letting the breed slip through our fingers. Entries at dog shows are pitiful, the amount of anti-dog legislation is pitiful, registration numbers are pitiful, letting a few crazy people tell us we shouldn´t crop and dock is the most pitiful. Where is, what has become of OUR temperament? The time has come as in the movie Network to stand up and say “I´m mad as hell, and I´m not going to take it anymore.”