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The 20 Principles of Genes, Environment and Breeding

The 20 Principles of Genes, Environment and Breeding

Genes code for the traits an organism will show, physical as well as behavioral, but genes are not all. The environment of that organism also plays a crucial role in the way some of its genes will express themselves.

Genes play a large role in the appearance and behavior of organisms. Phenotypes(the appearance of the organism) are determined, in various degrees, by the genotype program (the sum of all genes) and the interaction of the organism with the environment. Some traits are more modifiable by environmental factors, others less. For example, while eye color is solely determined by the genetic coding, genes determine how tall an individual may grow, but nutritional, as well as other health factors experienced by that organism, determine the outcome. In short: the environment by itself cannot create a trait, and only a few traits are solely the product of a strict gene coding.

The same applies to behavior. Behavior is the result of the genetic coding and the effects of the environment on a particular organism. Learning is an adaptation to the environment. Behavioral genetics studies the role of genetics in animal (including human) behavior. Behavioral genetics is an interdisciplinary field, with contributions from biologygeneticsethologypsychology, and statistics. The same basic genetic principles that apply to any phenotype also apply to behavior, but it is more difficult to identify particular genes with particular behaviors than with physical traits. The most reliable assessment of an individual’s genetic contribution to behavior is through the study of twins and half-siblings.

In small populations, like breeds with a limited number of individuals, the genetic contribution tends to be magnified because there is not enough variation. Therefore, it is very important that breeders pay special importance to lineages, keep impeccable records, test the individuals, and choose carefully, which mating system they will use. Failure to be strict may result in highly undesirable results in a few generations with the average population showing undesired traits, physical as well as behavioral.

We breed animals for many different purposes. Breeding means combining 50% of the genes of one animal (a male) to 50% of the genes of another animal (a female) and see what happens. We can never choose single genes as we wish and combine them, so we get the perfect animal, but knowing which traits are dominant, which are recessive, and being able to read pedigrees helps us.

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Litter mates share on average 50% common genes, but only on average. Each got at random 50% of its genes from the male (father) and 50% from the female (mother), but not necessarily the same 50% from each (Photo by TheHusky.info).

Here are some guidelines for breeding (inspired by “20 Principles of Breeding Better Dogs” by Raymond H. Oppenheimer). The objective of the following 20 principles is to help breeders strive for a healthy and fit animal in all aspects, physically as well as behaviorally.

1. The animals you select for breeding today will have an impact on the future population (unless you do not use any of their offspring to continue breeding).

2. Choose carefully the two animals you want to breed. If you only have a limited number of animals at your disposition, you will have to wait for the next generation to make any improvement. As a rule of thumb, you should expect the progeny to be better than the parents.

3. Statistical predictions may not hold true in a small number of animals (as in one litter of puppies). Statistical predictions show accuracy when applied to large populations.

4. A pedigree is a tool to help you learn the desirable and undesirable attributes that an animal is likely to exhibit or reproduce.

5. If you have a well-defined purpose for your breeding program, which you should, you will want to enhance specific attributes, but don’t forget that an animal is a whole. To emphasize one or two features of the animal, you may compromise the soundness and function of the whole organism.

6. Even though, in general, large litters indicate good health and breeding conditions, quantity does not mean quality. You produce quality through careful studies. Be patient and wait until the right breeding stock is available, evaluate what you have already produced and above all, have a breeding plan that is, at least, three generations ahead of the breeding you do today.

7. Skeletal defects are the most difficult to change.

8. Don’t bother with a good animal that cannot reproduce well. The fittest are those who survive and can pass their survival genes to the next generation.

9. Once you have approximately the animal you want, use out-crosses sparingly. For each desirable characteristic you acquire, you will get many undesirable traits that you will have to eliminate in succeeding generations.

10. Inbreedingis the fastest method to achieve desirable characteristics. It will bring forward the best and the worst of your breeding stock. You want to keep the desirable traits and eliminate the undesirable. Inbreeding will reveal hidden traits that you may consider undesirable, and want to eliminate. However, be careful, repeated inbreeding can increase the chances of offspring being affected by recessive or deleterious traits.

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Adult wolves regurgitate food for the cubs to eat. Many dog mothers do the same (Photo by Humans For Wolves).

11. Once you have achieved the characteristics you want, line-breeding with sporadic outcrossing seems to be the most prudent approach.

12. Breeding does not create anything new unless you run into favorable mutations (seldom). What you get is what was there to begin with. It may have been hidden for many generations, but it was there.

13. Litter mates share on average 50% common genes, but only on average. Each one got at random 50% of its genes from the male (father) and 50% from the female (mother), but not necessarily the same 50% from each.

14. Hereditary traits are inherited equally from both parents. Do not expect to solve all of your problems in one generation.

15. If the worst animal in your last litter is no better than the worst animal in your first litter, you are not making progress.

16. If the best animal in your last litter is no better than the best animal in your first litter, you are not making progress.

17. Do not choose a breeding animal by either the best or the worst that it has produced. Evaluate the total breeding value of an animal by means of averages of as many offspring as possible.

18. Keep in mind that quality is a combination of soundness and function. It is not merely the lack of undesirable traits, but also the presence of desirable traits. It is the whole animal that counts.

19. Be objective. Don’t allow personal feelings to influence your choice of breeding stock.

20. Be realistic, but strive for excellence. Always try to get the best you can. Be careful: when we breed animals for special characteristics, physical as well as behavioral, we are playing with fire, changing the genome that natural selection created and tested throughout centuries.

Featured image: Hereditary traits are inherited equally from both parents. However, the mother will have more influence on the puppies’ behavior than the father because she spends more time with them.

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Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior

Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior is a catalog of a class of canine behaviors. It includes the most commonly observed behaviors but it’s not an exhaustive list.

Behavior is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Behavior does not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to control a stimulus. Initially, all behavior is probably just a reflex, a response following a particular anatomical or physiological reaction. Like all phenotypes, it happens by chance and evolves thereafter.

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time, a particularly advantageous behavior spreads throughout the population. The disposition (genotype) to display a behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), It requires, though, maturation and/or reinforcement for the organism to be able to apply it successfully. Behavior is, thus, the product of a combination of innate dispositions and environmental factors. Some behaviors require little conditioning from the environment for the animal to display it while other behaviors require more.

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Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are therefore only approximate and as pictures allow.

An organism can forget a behavior if it does not have the opportunity to display it for a period, or the behavior can be extinguished if it is not subject to reinforcement for a period.

Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from a maximization of utility and towards a maximization of fitness.

Social behavior is behavior involving more than one individual with the primary function of establishing, maintaining, or changing a relationship between individuals, or in a group (society).

Most researchers define social behavior as the behavior shown by members of the same species in a given interaction. That excludes behavior such as predation, which involves members of different species. On the other hand, it seems to allow for the inclusion of everything else such as communication behavior, parental behavior, sexual behavior, and even agonistic behavior.

Sociologists insist that behavior is an activity devoid of social meaning or social context, in contrast to social behavior, which has both. This definition does not help us much. All above-mentioned behaviors do have a social meaning and a context unless ‘social’ means ‘involving the whole group’ (society) or ‘a particular number of its members.’ In that case, we should ask how many individuals we need in an interaction to classify it as social. Are three enough? If so, then, sexual behavior is not social behavior when practiced by two individuals, but becomes social with three or more being involved, which is not unusual in some species. We can use the same line of arguing for communication behavior, parental behavior, and agonistic behavior. It involves more than one individual, and it affects the group (society), the smallest possible consisting of two individuals.

Agonistic behavior includes all forms of intraspecific behavior related to aggression, fear, threat, fight or flight, or interspecific when competing for resources. It explicitly includes behaviors such as dominant behavior, submissive behavior, flight, pacifying, and conciliation, which are functionally and physiologically interrelated with aggressive behavior, yet fall outside the narrow definition of aggressive behavior. It excludes predatory behavior.

Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, which caused the least disadvantages.

Aggressive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.

Fearful behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat.

Submissive behavior, or social-fear, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Mates are two or more animals that live closely together and depend on one another for survival.

Aliens are two or more animals that do not live close together and do not depend on one another for survival.

A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury. Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

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Canine ethogram for social and agonistic behavior. The colors illustrate that the categories are constructed by us. When a behavior turns into another one is a matter of convention and interpretation (illustration by Roger Abrantes).

The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors (please, click on the diagram to enlarge it).

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PS—I apologize if by chance I’ve used one of your pictures without giving you due credit. If this is the case, please e-mail me your name and picture info and I’ll rectify that right away.

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