Of math, fashion and wiffle hounds


My oldest son has been struggling with freshman Biology, so the concept of evolution has been on my mind a lot lately. I have also been reminded that evolution applies, not just to organisms, but to points of view. Sometimes it can be easy to forget that you once held a different view – unless of course you are foolish enough to write it down for others to find later. I have been writing about horse color long enough now that I have had that happen!

The reminder of this came from my husband. Longtime readers of the blog have probably picked up on the fact that I have a strong interest in the issues surrounding genetic diversity. It is, as I have mentioned, one of the themes that runs through the upcoming books. My close friends could probably warn readers that it is a tempting soapbox for me, particularly when it comes to the topic of dogs. That was exactly what I was doing – standing on that soapbox – when my husband reminded me that I once held a very different point of view on the subject.

He has every reason to remember this, since there was a time when the topic came up often between us. My husband is a physicist working in the field of optics. When we first met, he was intrigued by the possibilities of using genetic algorithms to solve complex design problems. A genetic algorithm is a mathmatical tool that narrows down variables by “breeding” the possibilities until an optimal solution is found. He was experimenting with genetic algorthims, and I had recently bought my first Arabian mare after spending most of my teen years planning my future breeding program. I was more than happy to explain all the different inbreeding, linebreeding and outcrossing schemes breeders had developed over the years.

My husband used this diagram to illustrate a chapter on genetic algorithms in his book. My understanding of how he used the idea doesn’t go much deeper!

I was familiar with them because I had my heart set on breeding animals, most specifically Arabian horses and Rough Collies. Since I could not convince my parents of the pressing need to start populating our home with dogs, or to acquire land for horses, I used the time to learn all I could for the day when I could do those things. When the time came, I was determined to be the most informed breeder possible. I devoured issues of Arabian Horse World. It was the 1980s and  the market for Arabians was at its peak, so each issue brought countless images for a horse crazy girl trying to determine just what qualities she would emphasize in her hypothetical breeding program. While other girls were pouring over fashion magazines and beginning to notice boys, I was filling ring binders with notes on bloodlines and affixing sticky notes to the important pages. As you can see, many of them are still there today.

I was smitten by pictures of the stallion *El Shaklan. The more something looked like an imaginary elven horse, the better. I was not an especially practical kid.

Arabians appealed to my artistic sensibilities. My interest in Collies came about in a more personal way. My grandfather was a Collie man, and encouraged me to read Albert Peyson Terhune’s books. Mr. Terhune had lived in the same town, and traveled in many of the same dog circles, as my grandfather’s family had when he was a boy. Like so many, I fell in love with the breed as it was portrayed in Mr. Terhune’s books. When my parents offered to give me my very own dog for my twelfth birthday, getting a Collie seemed a natural choice.

My grandfather’s favorite Collie, Glengay Sandy Boy. The inscription on the back of his photo is the Terhune quote, “a thoroughbred in body and in soul.”

I knew the “proper” way to obtain a quality dog. My parents, however, had different ideas. I wanted the perfect bitch with which to start my grand breeding program. My parents wanted something within their price range and a reasonable driving distance. The result was the dog at the top of this post. She came from a local farmer who raised a few Collies on the side. She wasn’t the potential foundation female I would have liked to have gotten, but she was a dog of my very own. When you are twelve, that counts for a lot.

My grandfather, when he received her photos, was quite critical. She had a pronounced stop, which was not proper. The angles of her face were all wrong, and she carried her tail in something awful close to a curl. But the real deal-breaker was her prick ears. As soon as she left the puppy stage and those ears went up, he ceased to consider her a Collie. Purebred Collies had tipped ears. She was, he insisted, nothing more than a “Whiffle Hound.” She was no relative of his beloved childhood Collie, Sandy.

Looking back, perhaps that reaction planted the seeds of doubt about what was valued in the animal fancies. It was obvious to anyone familiar with the standard that Brandy was a Collie of inferior type. I would have readily admitted as much. She was, however, a wonderful companion for a young girl. I thought she hung the moon, and her over-large, erect ears seemed like such a little thing in comparison to all that was great about her. We competed in obedience for much of her youth and mine, and it was pretty clear which of us did the better job. (Her ears were less of a limiter than my tendency to confuse left and right.)

Pictures of my grandfather with his ‘thoroughbred’ Collie, Sandy, and me with my ‘wiffle hound’, Brandy. Interestingly enough, we are the same age in these photos and adopting quite similar poses as we encouraged our dogs to do tricks for the camera.

But when Brandy passed away at fifteen years of age, I was explaining close linebreeding (the word I used at the time) to my husband. I had absorbed those ideas from the cultures that surrounded Arabians and Collies, and if anything was going to marinate a young animal lover in the twin concepts of “blood purity” and the usefulness of inbreeding, it would be the world of those two breeds.

But something happened along the way. Soon after we married, my husband’s work took us away from our small farm in Alabama, and to city life here in Charlotte.  I had already begun to question the consuming nature of raising dogs and horses, having seen that more closely through the experience of a number of friends. My interest in breeding animals became more academic, and less about laying the foundation for future activities. My mindset shifted from future breeder to a person who would own a series of beloved family companions, and who just happened to be very interested in the topic of genetics and breeding.

It was the academic interest in animal breeding that exposed me to a new way of thinking about breeding programs. My interest in color motivated me to read journal articles. Many of the authors of those articles also wrote about breed conservation and genetic diversity. Over time, the ideas presented in those papers brought about an evolution in my thinking. Like classical evolution, the change was gradual – a shifted position here, and new insight there, until something quite different took the place of what had been before.

Thankfully for me, this process occurred in the peace and isolation of my own research. I could think about the issues involved in a fairly objective, unemotional manner because no one was clamoring for me to reach a specific conclusion. Now many of those issues have become a source of controversy and bitter battles within the animal fancies. This has played out most visibly in the British dog show world, which was rocked three years ago by the documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed. That program brought genetic diversity out of the realm of academic papers and into the public square. It is pretty safe to say that unemotional is not a feature of the situation!

In this reaction, many have called the focus on genetic diversity a passing fashion. That is not surprising, since fashion has long driven animal fancies. That is a natural frame for viewing motivations behind breeding decisions. I do believe, however, that calling the subject a fashion does a disservice to kind of thought that goes into breeding decisions. The acceptable angles of a Collie head, and the proper carriage of their ears, is a fashion. The acceptable amount of white on the legs and face on a horse are a fashion. The benefits and hazards of an increasingly homozygous population is a much larger issue. The truth is that breeders are dealing with competing concerns, with uniformity and predictibility being the very essence of selective breeding, and with its opposite, heterogenity, being so closely tied to health. That is not fashion: that is about the limits of the system as it really is. It is essential to understand those trade-offs if breeders are to make good decisions.

As I have said, the Equine Tapestry books touch on the subject of genetic diversity. Because the way a registry defines “breed” and “purity” has a huge impact on colors – both what is ruled in and what is ruled out – it is quite relevant. It is also true that misconceptions about purity and breed integrity have big implications for animal coloring. Because color is so easy to see, and is often the result of far more straight-forward inheritance than things like conformation or breed type, it tends to be on the front line of selective pressures. But beyond those issues, it is my hope that the books will raise questions about how we integrate our growing understanding of genetics into real world breeding decisions.

I have a few more posts to make that expand on some of these ideas, since I want to bring some of these ideas back to issues that touch more directly on color. I also plan to add another page (much like the Splashed White Project page) to the blog with a collection of links for further reading on genetic diversity. Perhaps they can plant the seeds for a more rational dialogue on the topic.

Twenty years ago, when I talked to my husband about linebreeding, I never mentioned genetic diversity. It was not a concept that had come up in my reading at that point. Today when I pulled the copy of my husband’s book, thinking I might find some of the images that came from his work in genetic algorithms, I found the following passage:

We intuitively know that larger populations will bring greater diversity and better sample the solution space. If the ranking function is nearly flat, poor attributes will stay in the population longer. If the ranking function is steep, the population swiftly becomes inbred. A lot of mutation can slow the convergence, while no mutation will lead to premature stagnation through inbreeding.

That passage pretty much sums up the situation facing breeders. If the selection process (what he calls a ‘ranking function’) is minimal, we will get a mix of good and bad attributes and not a lot of control over which we get from any particular breeding. That is the part I knew. At the other end, if we use extremely strict selection, we run the risk of a dead end where the variables present are too limited to provide the answer to a problem. For many, my younger self included, that is the missing piece. I may not have understood then, but the math certainly gave my husband a more complete picture. It almost makes me wish I hadn’t spent so much of my high school algebra classes doodling horses in the margins of my notebook.

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11 Responses to Of math, fashion and wiffle hounds

  1. Lisa Shepard March 29, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    What a great story, and wonderful beginning to what I consider great (and not over my head!) reading. Its nice to hear how the seeds to someones passion are sewn, how each step is forming to what is now the present. All that, and I am learning something, too. Thanks!

  2. Threnody March 29, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Looking forward to the genetic diversity section! Your posts and knowledge have sparked my own interest in the subject. I’m personally curious about the possibility of domestic horses crossbreeding into the Przewalski population, at some point or another, adding needed genetic diversity for the species which may have helped it survive multiple genetic bottlenecks. I wonder if the occasional fox-colored Przewalski’s and those with stars were caused by mutation, introduction and/or a mix of all these possibilities.

    • ilovehorses.net (@ilovehorsesnet) March 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

      I’ve read there is evidence Przewalski’s Horses have already interbred with domestic horses, at least accidentally and possibly also through human effort. Even though they have two more chromosomes than horses, their crossbred offspring can reproduce. This has created confusion for scientists who can’t quite figure out where to place the Przewalski’s Horse in the equine family tree because of the genetic overlap.

      It will be interesting to see what science can uncover about what the Przewalski’s Horse has inherited from their horse cousins.

  3. ilovehorses.net (@ilovehorsesnet) March 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    You and I were doing the same thing with our Arabian Horse World magazines in the 1980s. 😉

    I just published an article on my blog about the Akhal Teke, which includes some info about how they are seriously lacking in genetic diversity. They face distinct challenges because cryptorchidism was freely bred on in Russian and Turkmen programs for many years, and they also have issues with Naked Foal Syndrome, Kissing Spine, and Wobbler Syndrome — the latter two probably because of the Akhal Teke’s unique conformation.

    Conformation is a whole other controversy within that breed… Are today’s Akhal Tekes authentic to the original Turkmen tradition, or are they simply a trendy design created by the Russian breeder who saved Akhal Tekes from extinction in the 1950s?

    Another genetic diversity discussion that I consider fascinating is how to deal with the fragility of today’s Thoroughbreds. Some experts have bravely suggested introducing Anglo-Arab or Arabian bloodlines to give Thoroughbreds more genetic diversity and improve their durability. That will probably never happen, but I hope something changes the situation in that breed.

    Kristin Berkery

  4. Dainelle Kinsel March 30, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    I’ve always wondered why people who claim to “love animals” actually go along with so much inbreeding. How can they turn away from so many genetic problems (especially in the case of dogs) when they see those problems first hand? How can ethically kill (excuse me…cull) an animal that has nothing wrong with it save it’s coat color? Sometimes I just cannot wrap my brain around these issues.
    How do otherwise intelligent people get led into believing that ONE person is the “expert” (or one body of people, i.e. a registry) when they have seen otherwise first hand? How does this happen in the first place?

  5. oldmorgans March 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    A very well written and clear post. And I enjoyed the old photos of you & your collie.
    Good comments too.
    Thanks to all.

  6. summerhorse March 30, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    It is so funny we did so much of the same things a few years apart. I still have that picture of El Shaklan although I did go through the magazines and remove all the “good” i.e. marked pages and put them in file folders! We know that a great many of those perfect tulip ears were actually created by extensive “training” of the ears from puppyhood on. My first collie had perfect ears but when he got cancer and had only months to live they came back up reaching for the sky. The natural collie ear is more likely to be pricked just as all those crop ears are actually hanging ears normally. I’ve long been against the culling of animals simply for color and even though they still do it, it’s nice to be found “right” once in awhile!

    The almost (almost!) common occurence of DW now in TBs especially but also Arabs and Clydes makes me wonder exactly how many of these have been culled over the centuries!

  7. dakota328 April 4, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    It’s interesting how time and thoughts change. I was born in 1990, and grew up with the philosophy that animals with ancestors repeated in the bloodline was a cause for trouble for later generations. Just a few months ago I was browsing a horse classifieds site and found an ad boasting about wonderful ‘In Line Breeding’ that the horse had, having the same grandfather on each side if memory serves correct. It made me cringe just looking at the bloodline. I didnt realize this was the norm, even a well sought after, breeding method such a short time ago.

    Very cute pictures! I had a German Shepard X Sheltie as a childhood dog and everybody thought he was a collie when they saw him. Always made me mad, as to me a collie is supposed to look like your grandfathers dog, which my dogs face had all the wrong angles. His face was a look closer to your collie, so I guess I can forgive people for always mistaking him as a collie now lol.

  8. Heather May 12, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    You have just solved a 20 year old mystery for me. When I was ten I read an old book about a collie at a friend’s house and have been looking for a copy ever since. I thought the title was One Man’s Dog, but I now know I was looking for His Dog by Albert Peyson Terhune! My own copy is now on its way from Amazon. Thank you so much!

  9. The Equine Tapestry October 23, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Equine Tapestry and commented:

    This post ran back in the spring, but I never did add the promised page of links. That is up on the website now, though it is still a work in progress.


  1. A clarification | - January 6, 2014

    […] two years ago, I explained my choice not to become a breeder in a post on this blog (“Of math, fashion and wiffle hounds“). It serves as a pretty good overview on my perspective, and I would recommend it anyone who […]