Where are the greatest dogs ever bred? People usually romanticize the great dogs of the past. They think of great dogs and images of Roman war dogs and lion hunting Assyrian mastiffs come to mind, but that’s not where the greatest dogs ever bred come from.
The dogs of that era achieved greatness through harsh selections. No medicine, no pity, only victory meant life, only victory meant having pups. Those dogs were forged in the kind of fire we’d never dream of subjecting our dogs to, but still we can make dogs far greater than they ever dreamed.
The greatest dogs ever bred have yet to come. I’ll tell you why that is and how we get there.
The first thing is good performance testing and results based selection as it’s always been. That can’t be thrown aside and best to best breeding will always be the core of any program breeding for quality. There are fundamental problems with this method alone though. Best to best breeding has a few major blind spots. The first is recessive traits, recessive genes don’t show up in the dog you’re evaluating. Your dog may have greatness but maybe he carries for a genetic disease or some weakness that would prevent his offspring from being great. Even good producers can pass on negative recessive traits that may wait in a line for generations.
This is something that takes decades and many generations to reduce to a minimum and there is no guarantee this method alone will ever eliminate it all together.
Detailed genetic testing can get through that blind spot by detecting everything in the dog even the genes that aren’t expressed in the dog as you see them. This tells you not only what the dog will produce but also what combinations will work best to create your goals even without relying on so much chance. This deeper sight allows a breeder to make better selections of breeders, keeper pups, and breeding combinations. That’s something the Roman breeders never had.
That’s not a do all for testing though, detailed genetic screening is just a part of performance and health testing. In the end a winner is only winner if it wins. To know if the dog has heart and drive and power you have to give him a challenge and see if he’s willing to rise to it. Working your dogs is still the core of any selection method, but genetic testing is the key to avoid nasty surprises coming out of your winners.
Now we get to the most powerful breeding technique ever invented, genetic engineering. I know that seems out of reach for dog breeders right now but it’s not. I’ve spent the last three years working on a way to bridge the gap between dog breeders and genetic engineers by editing the sperm itself during an AI. With the advent of next generation genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR and the new methods and means created by biohackers this technology is now cheap enough and accessible enough to be a dog breeders tool. If I can genetically modify organisms then anyone can.
The importance of gene editing in the future of dog breeding can not be overstated. This is what dog breeding will be. If you are a dog breeder and you aren’t looking into how you can use this yourself you will be left behind.
Genetic engineering is the key piece that dog breeders have needed for the last 40,000 years. The fundamental change this allows for is you are no longer limited by the mutation rate. You are no longer limited to choosing from a pool of genes that already exist in dogs or hoping for those rare once in a lifetime positive mutations. Now you can look beyond the gene pool of the dog. Now lions, sharks, bacteria, trees, bears, almost anything becomes a possible source of new traits for your dogs.
Do you need a dog who can handle being frozen down to subzero body temperatures like the arctic ground squirrel?
Do you need a dog who can tolerate lethal doses of radiation like the Tardigrade?
Do you need a dog who can climb like a panther?
A dog who never gets cancer?
A dog that lives twice as long?
A dog with a leopards spots?
A dog the size of a horse?
A dog that never gets Parvo or worms or ticks or fleas?
This is the incredible power genetic engineering offers us, the ability to create dogs not only free of all the genetic diseases dogs suffer from today but also a dog with strengths and abilities drawn from all of life.
But it even goes beyond that. Synthetic biology and DNA synthesis allows for DNA and genes that don’t exist to be made and used. Genes from extinct animals are even on the table. Does your dog need something only found in Woolly Mammoths or Dire Wolves? That’s doable, and it’s still not the end. Totally novel genes that never existed in nature can be engineered and placed into living organisms. Genes that do things nature never needed done, but they work all the same. Scientists created genes that allow bacteria to digest nylon, genes that help the immune system hunt down cancer in novel way, genes that allow viruses to make battery materials. The limits are just the laws of physics, the edges of knowledge and your work ethic.
The greatest dogs are clearly in the future. Even when these new traits are added to dogs and disease and genetic flaws are removed finding the best of them will still take the pressure of health, genetic and performance testing to find.
The key to creating the best dogs ever bred is to combine the wisdom of the past with the technology of the future.
This isn’t a hypothetical future this is right here right now today. Genetically modified dogs will be in circulation in the next couple of years and it will be the biggest event in dog breeding since the domestication of the wolf.
If you want to see more about the project to make these technologies available to dog breeders see my special projects page.