The dog’s conformation could be judged by a visual inspection or on a photo. What could not be seen is very important: Temperament and Health. Hancock describes it so well when he writes:
From this quote it is clear that the temperament of the Boerboel is the most remarkable feature of the breed and therefore it is not negotiable. We avoid using any Boerboel with a doubtful temperament.
In our selection the working qualities of the dog also plays a major role. A dog with the ability to work well with his master, remains stable under stress and easy to work with when tired or stressed, is the dog to breed from. The Boerboels superiority comes from selection for these traits and we will continue that.
Health is another issue that poses a great threat to our precious Boerboel. Vaginal Hyperplasia or Prolaps is a major threat to our Boerboel breed. Unfortunately the best lines of today were bred from the carriers of that gene. This restricts our choice of alternative bloodlines very severely. In the absence of any scientific method to determine carriers, the bringing in of new breeding dogs remains a risk. Initially we avoided using any dog with a carrier in the pedigree. As new information comes to light, we have hope that this problem will be solved with research in a few years time. Therefore we are now using two dogs with carriers in their pedigree, but we indicate the risk very clearly.
Hip and elbow testing is a very important part of our breeding program but also a very taxing task because of the distance (more than 500km ) we have to travel with the dogs. The largest part of this distance is through the worst traffic imaginable. We wait until we have enough dogs to make the trip worth while before we go. Sometimes a female will have her first litter before she is hip tested, but all our breeding dogs get hip tested when they are more than eighteen months old. While I am very weary of the problem, I prefer to breed with a good dog with not perfect hips, and improve the hips in the next generations, to breeding with a bad dog with perfect hips. In other words I believe it is easier to correct hips than temperament or certain conformational faults.
Progress in breeding depends on selection. Research has shown that genetic progress is greatly enhanced when progeny evaluating is done to identify (select) the best breeding sires and then using them extensively. At the moment we are conducting an evaluating scheme privately, although I believe it is the responsibility of the SABT to do that. The success of this scheme will depend on the quality of young sires that enter the scheme. In order to make sure we start with the best young dogs in the breed we select them from throughout the country. If I only select from my own animals and ignore the large majority of dogs in the country, the progress will be so much slower. We are already also selecting from the dogs outside South Africa. The quality of the young stock is extremely encouraging and shows that sustainable breed improvement of the Boerboel is possible.
Genetics and animal breeding has been part of my life for many, many years. I am involved in the breeding and / or judging of a few cattle breeds, sheep, pigs and Arab horses. Racing pigeons and dogs was my first experiences with breeding, and rabbits while at university. With all these breeds I learned that breed improvement is possible with the application of knowledge and experience in conjunction with scientific methods. I also learned that there is no sense in putting great effort into improvement if you start with anything but the best. That is the reason why I can say with an open mind that the dogs I breed from is the best that I know of. There are of course others that I would like to bring into my program, but they will have to wait for a later opportunity.
Breeders often request information regarding certain aspects of selection. This little piece was written to discuss something that is often misunderstood. The aim is not to lay down hard and fast rules, but to provoke some thought that might in the end enhance breed improvement in the Boerboel.
Selection is a process of choices. Choices must be made to determine the best individual, but choices must also sometimes be made to determine the lesser evil. Unfortunately every breeder must also choose between good animals with a fault and bad or mediocre animals without faults. These choices determine the parents of the next generation and thus the direction of the whole breeding process. Every dog has got faults. Breeding is the art of using the best individuals of the breed and emphasizing their strong points while eliminating their weak points. In general it is always advised by geneticists that the greater emphasis must be placed on the traits that determine performance the most. Breeds and breeders that concentrated on breeding a ‘good’ animal as opposed to an animal without faults, are always the most successful.
Select for positive traits
Successful breeders realize that a good dog is not a dog without faults, and a dog without faults is not necessarily a good dog. Quality is not determined by the absence of faults, but by the presence of outstanding traits that elevate the individual above its peers. Breed improvement therefore depends on the realization of the breeders that they must be positive and select those animals that will enhance the strong points of the Boerboel, even though it will still have faults. Because no dog is perfect, it is inevitable that some dogs will carry faults with them that must be eliminated in successive generations, but it will not prohibit breed improvement. In practical terms it will mean that the good breeder will select for a Boerboel with the best temperament, a good sized animal, with a big, typical Boerboel head, good muscling and agility. The less important traits should not be the deciding factor in selection, but where possible, should not be neglected, and of course they must not harm the health or the functionality of the dog.
Amongst Boerboel breeders the question is often asked: What about piebald dogs, what about dogs with ugly ears, what about dogs with bad hips, etc, etc.
Piebald as an example
Personally I do not like piebald dogs and therefore it will be a good example to look at. There are some piebald genes in the Boerboel breed and some red and white or yellow and white specimens do appear from time to time. In fact, the very, very best Boerboel legends were bred from piebald dogs, especially on the female side.
Do not narrow the genetic base
There are some people that want to bar the piebald from registration. If that happened two and a half decades ago we would not have had most of our modern bloodlines. Some of the best families had a piebald bitch as the foundation. The principle involved is that we must not narrow our genetic basis that is already restricted, by eliminating dogs with an unimportant trait like an unwanted color. By discriminating against that color, but not eliminating it, the possible genetic contribution of the dog with the unwanted color is not lost, but the multiplication of that color is discouraged, either by discriminating against it on the scorecard, or the buyers discriminating against the dogs by not buying that color. Today the breed is in just as much need of the genetics of the piebald dogs as it was in 1983.
Concentrate on performance traits
Breeding history in other species has shown that genetic progress comes only by concentrating on important performance traits and correcting faults when possible. Faults like bad feet, slack pasterns, straight hind legs, hip dysplasia and too wide chest could inhibit movement and functionality greatly, and must be avoided. Let us take hip dysplasia as an example.
Select for important traits while retaining function
Breeding with a Boerboel with dysfunctional hips is unacceptable, because it will hamper his performance as a working dog. On the other hand, by breeding only with dogs with perfect hips the primary breeding target shifts to hips and you get good hips but the dog lacks most of the other desirable traits that distinguish the Boerboel from the other breeds. In that way we will end up with a dog that will have nothing but good hips. The sensible way to go about breeding good Boerboels is therefore to select for the important traits amongst the dogs with acceptable hips, while always striving towards perfect hips. Because of the strong emphasis on 0-0 hips as a Boerboel marketing tool, inferior dogs are often used as breeding dogs, and that slows down breed improvement drastically.
Genetic vs environmental factors in hips
According to the knowledgeable people only about 50% of the HD (hip dysplasia) score of a dog is due to its genetic makeup. The rest is due to environment like feeding (Ca content, Mg : Ca : P ratio, Vitamin C, etc), exercise, etc. If the Boerboel breeder does everything possible to protect his puppies and dogs from HD, and he feeds and exercises them correctly, he will have very little hip problems with his Boerboels, but the good environment will, to a certain extent, mask the genetic inability of the dog to develop good hips. If the breeder is therefore eager to distinguish the dogs with a good genetic makeup for hips he will avoid the different aids available to strengthen hips, but rather select for hips under sub optimum feeding conditions. Thereby he will have a bigger differentiation between dogs with genetically bad hips and the dogs with normal hips. Unfortunately the number of dogs that test badly for hips will be much higher.
Breed Improvement vs Fault elimination:
Formulate clear priorities
Breed improvement in the Boerboel could only be achieved by formulating the priorities very clearly. When a car develops a fault and the fault is eliminated, it is just restored to what it was before. To improve the car, something, like an air conditioner must be added. Improving the quality of the Boerboel could only be achieved by improving the strong points of the breed. The Boerboel will be a better dog when he is more functionally efficient. That could be achieved by improving the traits that contribute to the function of the Boerboel like temperament, strength and appearance. By eliminating certain colors or fancy points or hip score above a functionally efficient score, does not improve the quality of the dog, it only eliminates faults. Breeders must clearly distinguish between Boerboel improvement and fault elimination. If the breeder chooses the last as his priority, he is going nowhere. If he chooses the first, but does not manage some faults properly, he is also going nowhere.
Finding new Bloodlines / Families.
In the breeding process breeders are constantly eliminating at the bottom and multiplying at the top. This inevitably leads to a concentration in one or two families. After a few generations of careful breeding by a knowledgeable breeder, the resultant population is very homogeneous and uniform. Visitors comment that the breeder made a wonderful job and the breeder feels that the whole effort was worth while. There are however a few dangers lurking in this utopia:
1. Genetic diseases
It is a well known fact that every one of our beloved dogs carries 4 or 5 genetic diseases. Most of these diseases are unknown to the breeders and will only emerge with time or better testing methods like a Progeny Testing Scheme. When that happens and you find yourself with 100% of your dogs from the same family that is all carriers of the same genetic disease, you as a breeder are at the end of the line.
2. Misguided selection priorities
Every breeder has got some faults in his or her selection priorities, and will therefore keep on selecting for one or more bad traits or will be unable to recognize certain shortcomings in their own dogs. This could be eliminated by adequate exposure to dogs from other breeders. This fault is particularly evident in kennels where the breeder stuck to own bred stock, on both sides of the pedigree for five or six or more generations.
Maintaining multiple breeding lines
In the Boerboel Breeding world of today there are only about a handful of breeders with numbers that would justify the keeping of two or more lines or families, and therefore we at Spitsvuur are very eager to comply and maintain a few lines. Just recently we realized that one of our lines was getting totally dominant and some others were disappearing. We also noted that we had just about 100% homebred females or females bred from our own males. This is in contrast to our experience of a successful breeding operation.
Finding new families
With all the above in mind we set out to find a few new families. This was done with renewed vigor and is now again an ongoing process. Although it is not easy to find what you are looking for, it is very interesting and rewarding. One of the greatest advantages of being an appraiser is the fact that you get to see a lot of dogs. Every dog at an appraisal and every dog that is judged at the shows is a potential breeding dog for Spitsvuur.
Slow Process of combining desirable traits
Sometimes when looking for a certain trait, it is not possible to find exactly what you are looking for, and then you must be satisfied to start the whole process in small steps by combining two animals with traces of the desired traits, and selecting from their offspring something better than the parents, and in that way you work towards the ideal that you set out to achieve. The process is seldom a quick one and seldom an easy one, but it is always rewarding to get the results. Off course you sometimes end up with something you did not bargain for. It may be something good, or it may be something good accompanied by something so bad, that it is not acceptable, and must be discarded.
Investing into a widened genetic basis
In the last seven months we have selected 27 puppies that must contribute to the widening of the genetic basis at Spitsvuur. Amongst them there is tremendously interesting puppies that we have got very high hopes for. The majority of these puppies are not home bred. In a few months time, those that make the grade will be incorporated in the breeding lineup and they will be available as parents for the new generation. Judging by the effort that went into their selection, they will also produce offspring that will satisfy the new owners, but we have an expectation that they will take the Boerboel Breeding to new heights.
Just for the record it must be stated that inbreeding is not necessarily a bad thing, and if handled correctly, could go on for many, many generations without adverse effects. The requirements for success are very high. You must start with a sound specimen. The breeder must be an expert and extremely stringent selection must be applied. There are very interesting work done on this aspect, but one of the most enlightening reports is the one where researchers bred albino rats for 22 generations, brother to sister, eliminated all known genetic defects, and ended up with excellent specimen, that are, for all practical reasons, clones of one another.
Identification of unrelated lines
In the Boerboel breed we have the situation where the great majority of the good dogs are very strongly related and sometimes inbred. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to identify unrelated lines and develop them to the point where they can compete with the best lines of today. The results of this project is very encouraging and we will put in a great effort to make this whole project work. At the moment we are doing this in collaboration with three other breeders.