Poodle Diversity Project - Blog

  • Outcrossing - what is it really?

    A topic that's come up recently in a few situations is the concept of what makes an inbred dog and what makes an outcross. Some of you have a sense of this from the Standard Poodle Project list - some of you have the more common idea of an outcross thought of in most breeding circles. (I am helping a number of other breeds and this is similar in those too.)

    In an outbred population, one with lots of the original diversity left, like Miniature Poodles, if you were to look at the 15th or the 20th generation you would see some repeats, but mostly different families. For most Standard Poodles, if you go to PHR and look at the 15th generation, start at the top and scroll down, you will see the same names hundreds of times. If you don't in that generation, check it for each of your dog's grandparents.

    It's so far back you'd think it wouldn't matter, but what breeders don't know (because they aren't geneticists) is that genes DO NOT CHANGE IN 20 GENERATIONS. There are about 19,000 genes in a dog and a few might mutate along the way, but what are 10 genes out of 19,000? What are 100? Not enough to make for completely different dogs. The only thing that changes the genetic make-up of a population in that period of time is SELECTION: which dogs are bred to which dogs. So because in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s everyone linebred on the same dogs, who were linebred on the same dogs, who were linebred on the same dogs, the dogs that exist now are genetically extremely similar to one another. This is simply fact, proven five ways to Sunday through pedigrees AND genetic data. Arguing about that is like saying just because we don't perceive the earth to be round in our daily lives, perhaps it's not.

    So at this point, the question of what makes an outcross is relative. For most breeders, an outcross is a dog with different dogs in oh, the first eight generations or so. Technically this SHOULD be an outcross, so it's not like people are wrong to assume it. They just don't realize that the legacy of the Mid Century Bottleneck means that most likely it doesn't matter AT ALL that your pedigree is different from that other pedigree in the last 8 generations - these dogs are likely as close genetically as siblings would be in a normal population.

    Now most breeders understand that full sibling breedings are risky and won't do them. They would expect to turn up problems, and would be prepared to cull whatever issues came up. In Standard Poodles, we can make what we think is an outcross and run into the kind of problems that wouldn't surprise us in a full sibling breeding. When we see these problems in what should be an outcross, it seems likely that it was "outcrossing" that caused the problem. This is only because of the faulty premise that if your dog has different recent ancestors than those of the dog it was bred to, it means these dogs have different genes.

    One of the problems with our perception is that Standard Poodles have been highly similar genetically for the last 20 years. Yes there were some odd ball lines that were different, but these were never taken seriously, or were considered lower quality. Of course they looked different - there were genetically different. They were no less poodles though. It's tempting to think - and I've heard many people say or imply this - that the other lines weren't pure poodle. I can understand that because they look different from the typical Standard lines - but there's no reason to believe they aren't pure. Miniatures have a ton of variety in type AND a ton of variety genetically. Based on photographic evidence, Standards used to have the same wide range of type. Look at Nunsoe the Duc, or Bibelot's Tall, Dark and Handsome, both huge, show-winning, important dogs, and they'd be considered not typey enough for the ring now. Some consider that improvement, but it's improvement based on historical inbreeding, which is dangerous for a population. (Also a simple proven fact - can be discussed further if necessary.)

    I heard someone say recently that obviously your COI will be low if you cross to a Golden Retriever, so what difference does that make? First, that person was absolutely right. Low COI for low COI's sake is kind of silly. This is still selective breeding, right? We want poodles that look like poodles and are actual poodles. Certainly there are still plenty of examples of the breed that don't look much like poodles at all. I would still bet that unless someone lied and bred in another breed, as has obviously happened with merles, most of those ugly poodles are as influenced by the Mid Century Bottleneck as the most elegant show dog, as many of them have the SAME breed-specific diseases well bred dogs have.

    Here's another concept that's important: because genes don't change, but can be selected for: a singular outcross 8 generations back, with descendants bred back into a population without any backcrossing will be imperceptible in its descendents. The only way you might notice is would be if it has a single trait that's been selected for in each generation. No one wants a poodle with some cross breed, obviously, but a single cross will not make a dent in an historically inbred breed unless it is used more than once and there's more than one outcross. So shocking as it may be to some, from a scientific standpoint, such an ancestor doesn't make any real genetic difference at all. The ONLY way for dogs to be genetically different is for them to have many distinctly different ancestors.

    Thus any suggestion that parti dogs were at some point crossbred for the various colors - while possible I suppose - such mythical outcrosses don't mean that their genetics are really going to be any different - except for the three or four genes (out of 19,000) that control color. Those are retained only because they would have been selected for and all other traits selected for would have been poodle traits. We also know parti poodles from pure lines existed from historical evidence so no one would HAVE to outcross to another breed to produce partis anyway. The genetic data so far also indicates that they are pure Standard Poodles, and just as influenced by the MCB as most others. I know there were those hoping they would be outcrosses, and while one or two proved to be outliers, most aren't.

    So going back to outcrosses, there are a few lines that are genuine outcrosses -as in different at the 20th generation - and they come from different places. These few lines consistently look different in their genetic data. Some also look different in type, but truly, many of these are better looking than some poor quality high MCB dogs. They also tend to be quite different from one another. There are brown lines that are different from apricot lines that are different from silver lines that are different from black lines. And all of these are different from the mainstream lines. (And by the way, "mainstream" is not meant as an insult. I do not mean they are ordinary or bad - some are and some aren't. What they are is genetically similar.)

    So try to remember that most breedings still being done today are MCB cluster to MCB cluster breedings. True outcrosses are few and far between. I am not saying they are inherently better in quality - I am saying they are actually, effectively, genetically different while still being Standard Poodles. Quality is a rating breeders have to make for themselves.

    From a genetic, scientific and medical standpoint, finding true outcrosses and using them if you have typical lines is an excellent idea, because most of the dogs you think are different most likely aren't.

    From a breed culture standpoint, using a true outcross takes a lot of guts, will likely be unpopular among your peers, will give you a broader range of type in your litter with fewer to choose from to show, and the development will not necessarily be as you are used to now.

    I'm well aware of how tempting that sounds!! It's not for the faint of heart. But keep in mind that neither is breeding genetic siblings. It's a matter of picking your poison. This is why I have no judgment about people not jumping on the bandwagon. There are no silver bullets. If someone doesn't perceive a health issue, why would they outcross? To be fair, most people interested in diversity have either experienced some autoimmune or other diseases in their line or have seen so much in others they can't find a stud dog. So there are many who know there's a problem. PCAF wouldn't have funded the study if they didn't perceive a problem. It should be addressed and outcrossing is one way worth exploring.

    (This is Gaston de Grenier, a true blue outcross, and pure Standard Poodle. Shown expertly by Rebekah Zurbrugg.)