Zsuzsa Füzesi-Szegvári:

You shouldn't be Malthound breeder at all!


Modern breeding knowledge – for healthy dogs

The general OBJECTIVE in breeding dogs is to create individuals following the standards as accurately as possible, increasingly accentuating the specific features (type) of the breed. Thus, the aim is to HOMOGENISE the breed, primarily with respect to VISIBLE features, since the standards primarily consist of features of appearance. However, many typical characteristics of breeds would be seen as faults elsewhere, or worse, may actually be unhealthy .

When selecting individuals for breeding , we make our decisions on the basis of PHENOTYPE (the totality of the manifest traits of the individual). However, it is the genotype (i.e. the totality of its genes) of the chosen specimen that will comprise half the heritage of its progeny. More unfortunately, genes come in a “package offer”, including not only the features we see and know, but unnoticed latent traits and a possibility of the emergence of certain features.

It is said that all vertebrates carry at least one gene that is a lethal factor – this is the “genetic burden” of every species, breed and population. In freely mating populations of sufficient size, even genetic distribution minimises the chance of the meeting of genes carrying the same harmful trait. This is one of the advantages of genetic diversity. Since in the breeding of dogs we endeavour to homogenise certain visible features of appearance, we incidentally reduce the genetic diversity of the breeding population, which in turn may entail the unwanted accumulation of other traits. There is an increasing chance for negative traits and maladies to manifest. Since we never know exactly what comes added to each “package”, this risk is present in all mating.

What then can the breeder do? Should he give up trying to raise beautiful dogs that reflect the breed type? OF COURSE NOT. Merely the strategies of breeding need a revision in the light of modern population genetics.

The rules we learned thirty years ago were ‘The best with the best' and ‘Preserve the traits of the (phenotypically!) most excellent individuals'. Well-meaning breeders strove to mate their bitches with the dog currently most renowned (on the basis of its phenotype) and to re-create the excellent sire by varying degrees of line-breeding and inbreeding. Inbreeding became the word of the day; unfortunately often done without a proper scientific backing and sometimes even unknowingly.

Today, its “by-products” are apparent in many breeds: inherited diseases have popped up, sometimes with such frequency that they can almost be reckoned as breed features. (E.g. only 15 to 20% of all Doberman pinschers of USA are free from vWD.) The lifespan of certain breeds (e.g. mastiffs) has become shockingly short.

The shorthaired Hungarian Vizsla may so far be considered a healthy breed (without claiming that it carries no “genetic burden”).

There are two reasons for this:

1. It is a working dog, so the shapers of the breed concentrated on versatile uses rather than features of appearance throughout its history of several hundred years.

2. Our predecessors who laid the foundations of the pure-breed Hungarian Vizsla pedigree had all the required proficiency, sensitivity and insight. Their breeding principles stand their ground even in the crossfire of modern theory. Thus, the breed has managed to survive even the loss caused by the world war and retain its health.

There is a third fortunate factor affecting the present situation: after WW2 due to political reasons the population has split up into several parts while the stock in Hungary has grown in strength.

Thanks to these conditions, the breed has no significantly common or outstanding diseases and negative traits, as seen from its health data.

Yet there are negative tendencies and indicators, which we must note and deal with.

•  The Vizsla too is affected by the incredibly dynamic worldwide growth of hobby-breeding and dog-show sport; it is increasingly popular so its breeding begins to smell of money.

•  Unfortunately, it is less and less typically used for its original purpose, for hunting.

It is time to act!

New strategies need to be developed on the basis of our modern knowledge of population genetics.

1: determining the OBJECTIVE: (setting up priorities) This has to be done ‘turned upside down'. Thus he must be HEALTHY , be good (that is, capable of work, teachable and good-natured, briefly: a Vizsla), and be pretty (i.e. according to the standards). Thinking along these lines, each breeder must develop his own working plan, after analyzing the faults and good features of his own stock.

2: selecting the individuals to breed: Unfortunately we can only deduce the genotype from the phenotype, although we can hope that the next decade will bring significant breakthroughs in the field of genetic tests.

Aspects of selection:

A. Data of origin, analysis of pedigree

- Rather than analyzing four generations as is currently customary, it would be pragmatic to analyze the coefficient of inbreeding (COI) at least as far back as six generations, and ideally as far as ten. With respect to the requirements of general healthiness and fitness, the coefficient should be no more than 10%, and there should be no common ancestor (ancestors) in the nearest three generations if possible.

- It would be crucial to use a so-called horizontal pedigree , i.e. the siblings' own performance should be noted in each line. This way we may come closer to actual genetic values, screening out “plus-variants”.

- In dog breeding, certain “fetishised” ancestors are given irrationally outstanding roles.

B. Analysis of own performance (with equal respect to health, goodness and beauty)

Healthiness: it's hardest to evaluate because many genetically based deficiencies (e.g. glaucoma, epilepsy) do not manifest at a young age. Therefore repeated screening is necessary.

- Older specimens (especially sires) let be preferred.

- Even females should not be taken into breeding before receiving results of the first screenings.

- Inbreeding should be planned only with sires and dams who have proven to live a long, healthy and active life.

- Changing the “human factor”: frankness and the dissemination of professional knowledge are important. At last we must realize: arising faults do not blame the breeder at all as it – or something similar - might arose anywhere and anywhen. You must not condemn any dog or line or breeding just because one major fault has happened to arose! The lack of frankness has to be the real shame .

“Goodness”: temperament, evaluation of working ability:

- if possible, all specimens three generations back should have some level of certified working ability.

- at least the sire should have a versatile performance (do not underestimate achievements in no-hunting fields, /e.g. obedience, agility/ )

- personality and temperament of the bitch are especially important.

- individuals with poor temperament (shyness or unprovoked aggressiveness) must not be bred.


- must be based on the opinion of a competent professional judge

- structural features (constitution) must be given first priority.

- the typical faults and virtues of the line must be given special emphasis; not only the individual in question matters.

C. Analysis of progenies' performance: practically the hardest task in dog breeding (importance of human factor!)

- information about the entire litter is needed for decisiveness

- accurate mature-age information must be available of at least half litter

- the sire and the dam are equally “responsible” for the quality of the progeny; one must not blame only the dog/bitch.

3. Pairing:

- faults cannot be corrected with opposing faults

- traits one intends to enhance and improve in the bitch must be found to an excellent degree in the dog and all its line

- any traits faulty or lacking in the sire must be found in good quality throughout the lineage of the bitch AND must not be consistently negative in the bloodline of the dog (siblings, cousins).

- traits with a high h 2 value must be judged more strictly

- Striving for the maintenance of the breed's biodiversity is very important. In case of specimens with similar value you should prefer the one with lessen “fame”. Avoid to use the actually most popular stud – his values are reserved well by the others yet.

- Should strive for introducing females to the stock from bloodlines that aren't in the ‘main current', I mean whom pedigree bears few (or any) well-known red names however the ancestors have quality.

4. Selection:

- Basically it must be determined by the priorities of the OBJECTIVE.

- The selection threshold with respect to a trait is determined by the sum total of all individuals in a bloodline (regarding to the trait in question); nevertheless the quality of the entire population (regarding to the trait) must be considered when making a decision.

- Traits with a bearing on health and working capacity must be judged more strictly.

- With respect to the most important traits, a minimum requirement for the whole population must be established and kept.

- Don't forget: anybody lacks of faults! Just because one fault you shouldn't eliminate the specimen bearing some other extraordinary positive traits from breeding, particularly when its siblings and ancestors lack the particular fault.

However when pairing such a specimen you must take special care finding a pair that is excellent in the trait in question, and whom line also has this positive trait abundantly.

Modern means in dog breeding:

Thanks God the modern science has given and is going to give us, dog breeders, really new techniques that make possible to produce better (nicer, healthier) specimen.

Some of them are:

  1. DNA-based identification of individuals: it means possibility of certifying origin and relatedness.
  2. Genetic examination (DNA tests, Marker tests for certain maladies) allow for the dissemination of the genotype, thus not only manifestly afflicted individuals, but latent carriers can be recognized in due time.
    /Meanwhile, drastic eliminating the no affected carriers may cause throwing out the baby with the bath water (as CA Sharp writes in the article: Bad Genes, Babies and Bath Water ). As the result of drastic decline of the genepool & diversity other - maybe even more dangerous - recessive traits might proliferate rapidly and drastically in the population. /
  3. Artificial insemination using deep-frozen sperm: expands the limits of population, allowing genetic diversity to increase.

Finally, as a lesson or warning, let me quote the “ Fate and tale of the Malthound ” by C.A. Sharp.

”Consider the hypothetical case of Old Blue, Malthound extraordinaire. Blue was perfect: Sound, healthy and smart. On week days he retrieved malt balls from dawn to dusk. On weekends he sparkled in malt field and obedience trials as well as conformation shows, where he baited to--you guessed it--malt balls.
Everybody had a good reason to breed to Blue, so everybody did. His descendants trotted in his paw-prints on down through their generations. Blue died full of years and full of honor. But what people didn't know was that Old Blue, good as he was, carried a few bad genes. They didn't affect him, nor the vast majority of his immediate descendants. To complicate the matter further, some of those bad genes were linked to genes for important Malthound traits.
A few Malthounds with problems started showing up. They seemed isolated, so everyone assumed it was “just one of those things.” A few declared them “no big deal.” Those individuals usually had affected dogs. All in all, folks carried on as usual.
Time passed. More problem dogs turned up. People made a point not to mention the problems to others because everyone knows the stud owner always blames the bitch for the bad tings and takes credit for the good. Stud owners knew it best to keep quiet so as not to borrow trouble. Overall, nobody did anything to get to the bottom of the problems, because if they were really significant, everybody would be talking about it, right?
Years passed. Old Blue had long since moldered in his grave. By now, everyone was having problems, from big ones like cataracts, epilepsy or thyroid disease to less specific things like poor keepers, lack of mothering ability and short life-span. “Where can I go to get away from this?” breeders wondered. The answer was nowhere.
People became angry. “The responsible parties should be punished!” Breeders who felt their programs might be implicated stonewalled. Some quietly decided to shoot, shovel and shut up. A few brave souls stood up and admitted their dogs had a problem and were hounded out of the breed.
The war raged on, with owners, breeders and rescue workers flinging accusations at each other. Meanwhile everybody carried on as always. After another decade or two the entire Malthound breed collapsed under the weight of its accumulated genetic debris and went extinct.”

Hey, we aren't malthound breeders, are we ?