Standing near the cold metal table, my fingers shook as they ran gently through the soft fur of my best friend of the last two years. She lay still on her side with her eyes closed taking shallow, quiet breaths as the vet set the needle full of tramadol into the IV and steadily pushed the clear fluid through the tube traveling into her veins. Within minutes, my dear friend’s breathing slowed as warm tears tracked down my cheeks. As her last breath lingered in the air, the vet placed a kind hand on mine and looked into my eyes with the sorrow that only years of experience in the vet industry can give. No words were spoken, but in that moment, I knew my broken heart, as painful and deep as my sorrow was then, would eventually mend as this vet understood all too well. I closed my tear-stained eyes turning away from the vet’s touching concern, grazed the sides of my sweet dog’s cooling cheeks, and hoped that my friend’s life had not been in vain. I did not know how I walked from the cold, sterile room to the front desk and I did not remember paying for the last vet visit I would make, but when the clerk handed me a card that simply read “Tina” with a large black paw print in the middle, the sorrow I felt suddenly consumed me as the life we had shared together for those years flashed into my mind. Uncontrollable sobbing washed over me as silent concern and caring support emanated from each one present in the waiting room that day. Even now, as I write about this tragic moment, the memories are hard to recall. Each sentence I have written in this sorrow-filled tale was accompanied by loving tears for a beloved dog who left us much too soon.
Over the last few months, we learned that three puppies in the Buck/Sela litter had congenital kidney malformation. Two of those precious pups were given a last tender touch as their lives were extinguished by a skilled veterinarian in order to save them from a lifelong, pain-filled existence. The remaining puppy, Enoch, is in the loving care of her owner with the hope that she will live a full life with one functioning kidney. Two other puppies in the litter were tested for high BUN and creatinine levels, as well as both parents. All four were within normal range. Three other pups from the litter were not formally tested, but do not present with any issues of concern at this time.
I know very well what it is like to lose a dear furry friend, I have had to say good-bye to a few in my breeding career. My sympathies are with those who had to make the ultimate sacrifice. This report is not intended in any way to diminish their memories, belittle the sad experience, or grudge up further pain. Instead, I would like to shed light on what has happened, why it may have happened, and what we now plan to do about it.
A question was raised a day ago about why the project would keep Lone Star and Vespa (Buck/Sela) for breeding when three of their siblings had malformed kidneys. The question implies that it might be a risk of increasing the chance of seeing further kidney issues if those related puppies were bred. The question also implies that perhaps it is unethical to breed dogs whose siblings showed kidney malformation if it would indeed increase the risk of further kidney problems. These would be legitimate concerns, if it weren’t for two fundamental things: 1. We do not yet know if these three cases of congenital kidney malformation were actually genetic in nature.2. Genetics doesn’t work that way.
Let’s look at both of these important points separately.
Three puppies from the same litter with the same congenital issue is not a coincidence. It is completely reasonable to assume that something genetic is awry. However, the reason we do not yet know with certainty if these three cases were actually genetic in nature is because there are many factors that could have contributed to their underdevelopment. First of all, it could have been an unexplained trauma event during the in-utero development of these puppies that may have caused the issue. Lois says that she fed bone meal to Sela during her pregnancy. Now, Lois normally does this, but Sela was the first of Lois’s females to receive gardener’s bone meal in her diet. Unknowingly, Lois picked up bone meal from the local garden center because it said 100% bone meal not realizing that manufacturers do not have to share that they add fertilizer and chemical stabilizers to the bone meal mix because it isn’t intended to be consumed by animals. Gardener’s bone meal is considered “mild to moderately” toxic by the Pet Poison Helpline. Since mother’s pass on what they consume to their puppies, if Sela received too much of this, perhaps this caused a blockage in the systems of these three puppies during their development causing their kidneys to mature incorrectly or atrophy or malfunction and shut down thereby withering instead of growing properly. According to Banfield Pet Hospital, “bone meal can become a large cement-like bowling ball foreign body in the stomach.” Could it have been that particular bone meal fed to Sela that produced these issues in the little puppy fetuses? We do not know, but it is something significant enough to cause us to doubt whether the kidney issues in these puppies was truly genetic in nature or not, especially when this has not occurred with the parents nor the immediate ancestry.
But, let’s assume for a moment that the puppies with kidney malformation/underdevelopment is a result of a genetic condition. That is, after all, a viable cause. Would breeding health siblings from the Buck/Sela litter increase the risk of a higher chance of kidney malformation in their offspring? Along with that, is it unethical to breed a perfectly healthy individual whose siblings have had a serious genetic health condition? There are many who believe it is highly unethical. But, the other side of the coin is this... what if we breed the sibling without kidney issues and there are no puppies with malformed kidneys? Would that also be unethical? What if we decided not to breed any of the siblings and they would not have produced kidney issues? Then, we have lost valuable genetic diversity in our breed for no reason. Losing genetic material is a big deal in a small breed as it causes a serious decline in genetic diversity, which raises inbreeding levels, litter size declines, and healthy immunity diminishes. The significant loss of genetic diversity far outweighs the slim possibility that a perfectly healthy sibling specifically bred to a dog that is also perfectly healthy would produce a puppy with a kidney defect. There are major consequences to eliminating entire lines from a small population and we do everything possible to prevent such a bottleneck effect. Furthermore, if breeders never bred any puppies from any litter where siblings had a congenital health issue, hardly anyone would be breeding because eventually fewer and fewer dogs would be able to be bred until there were no more lines left where a genetic issue wasn't present in at least one puppy from any one litter.
That being said, breeding carrier dogs is actually a legitimate way to eradicate health issues from a line without losing valuable genetic diversity. Some call it "breeding up". Others call it "trial mating". Lois calls it "going through the looking glass" and without DNA testing it is the only way to find out for sure where and how the disease manifests in the lines in order to get rid of it. This idea is not some crackpot, backyard breeder’s excuse for justifying the breeding of dogs with health issues. We have an extremely important mission as breeders to eradicate disease and we must do so without delay and we cannot be swayed from what we know is right simply because people without the understanding of how to do it are upset by what they perceive is wrong.
Furthermore, Genetic disease doesn't work the way many seem to think it works, namely, "if I don't breed any dogs with ill health or their siblings, then I will eliminate the ill health." Genetics doesn't work that way. This is because complex genetic diseases are recessive and there is ALWAYS a risk of producing a genetic health issue. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. No one can breed generation after generation with no genetic health issues unless that person knows exactly where those complex recessive health issues are found on the dog's genome. No one knows, so it can't be done. Remember this: all dogs carry the genes for all genetic diseases, some carry more of them than others. Currently, geneticists only know of around 172 monogenic health issues using DNA analysis. We know that in the American Alsatian dog breed we only carry 1 of those 172 monogenic health issues, which we are actively working to eliminate without losing valuable genetic material in the process. But, there are a great many more diseases that cannot be detected. Kidney issues is one of those.
So, at some point in time, a health issue will arise in every breed with every breeder. More often than not, it will be when the breeder least expects it. This was exactly the case with these three puppies with kidney issues. Parents were blood tested clear and no kidney issues run in that line. So, how did it all of a sudden get there? We do not know. We cannot know. No one can. So, moving forward we must make sure not to breed a pup with a kidney defect, breed only healthy puppies, strive to keep as much genetic material from the line as we can while monitoring the puppies closely from the dogs that do go on to breed.
If you recall, early in spring 2019, it was found that Kilo (Finnegan/Black Swan) had a clot of connective tissue in her spinal cord called fibrocartilaginous embolism. Her legs, bowels, and bladder were affected before she healed. The neurologist said that her blood vessels would need to reroute in order to recover, which they eventually did. Through all of this, Kilo and her owner bonded as best friends. Recently, now, there has been another incident which is completely unrelated to the one described above. Kilo has shown a significant behavioral issue, much like the one that appeared with her full brother, Talisker in 2017. It appears that just as with Talisker, Kilo has had several episodes where she becomes suddenly unexplainably aggressive. Her owner shares that when this occurs, she appears to not be in her right mind. When she comes to, she appears to have no understanding of what just occurred and is very contrite and confused in her appearance. As always, Kilo remains the owner’s best friend and confidant and apart from these bizarre behaviors, she is the perfect dog and so loving and sweet. The owner has tried professional trainers to no avail. Everyone involved now agrees that this is perhaps something neurological in nature and not something that can ever be trained against. Unfortunately, Kilo has bitten her owners and attacked their other dog. We talked about rehoming, but the thought of Kilo possibly harming another isn’t really an option. At this point, Kilo’s owner, along with full knowledge and agreement from Lois and myself, has decided to do what is most humane for Kilo and her family and allow her to pass on in peace. Her owner is extremely distraught by this and does not wish to be bombarded with questions or thoughts of concern or sympathy. She is not ready and would like her privacy. Please respect her wishes.
I would like to speak a bit about this, if I may. First of all, within the philosophy of the strongbred dog breeding concept, it is understood that periodic and systematic crossbreeding is necessary at strategic moments in the life of the breed in order to renew genetic diversity and reintroduce hybrid vigor. Since we have a very rare breed with few breeding specimens, it is necessary to crossbreed more regularly than other more populated breeds would require. In so doing, there is a concept called “outbreeding depression” that can occur, which is the idea that a moment of lower health/vitality can appear in the generations following the cross. In this case, when Lois introduced the Irish Wolfhound, she found that some of the puppies coming directly from this cross were sometimes bold, confrontational, and aggressive. On September 30, 2013, Lois openly admitted the following on the American Alsatian owners Facebook group, “Some of the pups from Rainier x Ahwna are showing some dominant bullying behavior.” The further away from this cross, the less this occurred. It is Lois’s professional opinion that in Talisker’s and Kilo’s cases, a lingering bit of this innate aggressive swing in temperament was found. It is important to note that when a cross happens, it is critical to choose the best pups to go on to breed. In the case of both Saigon and Pearl, full sisters to the aforementioned dogs, that were kept for breeding, Lois never saw any indication of whatever this issue is that appeared to have affected Talisker and Kilo.
Unfortunately, no one could have predicted that the Irish Wolfhound would bring such dominant, aggressive behavior. My aunt breeds purebred Irish Wolfhound’s and is high ranking in the Irish Wolfhound Club of America. She is studying to be an AKC judge for the breed. She has never mentioned this to occur in the breed and only speaks highly of the gentle giant nature of the largest dog breed. Vetstreet describes typical Irish Wolfhound behavior this way, “His great size notwithstanding, the Wolfhound is known for his quiet manners and gentle nature. This alert and courageous dog would defend his family with his life, and does not tend to be aggressive.” AKC agrees and states, “The calm, dignified, and kindly Irish Wolfhound is the tallest of all AKC breeds. Once fearless big-game hunters capable of dispatching a wolf in single combat, Wolfhounds today are the most serene and agreeable of companions.” So, either Lois received the only Irish Wolfhound to bring dominant aggressive temperaments, or there is something in some of the Irish Wolfhound lines that have a propensity toward this type of behavior. If breeders spoke openly to the public about what they faced or owners shared their difficulties in a more public arena, perhaps we could know the truth. But as it is, we can only know what we have experienced. Lois worked diligently to eradicate any indication of aggressive tendencies and both Talisker and Kilo did not show this as puppies. Only when they became adults was this behavior manifested. She could not have predicted it. But she did the right thing once it was known. She shared these stories with the group. She bravely spoke the truth to the group the moment she noticed it in 2013. She specifically chose those puppies for their owners and Kilo’s owner maintains that other than these bouts of aggression, she was the greatest dog and perfect for her in every way. They shared so many memories and these moments will be very hard to erase. The pain of this tragic time may linger for some time yet. It breaks my heart to see this turn of events, but we can work together as a group to support one another. That is the best of who we are as a family.
Not only that, but at the same time, we have lost our precious Nyomi in such a sudden way to an extremely aggressive cancer. All of these tragic events by themselves are very emotional and stressful. But, on top of all of this, Lois discovered that the wrong pup found its way to the wrong family for more than a week. Fixing the egregious mix-up as well as dealing with all of the loss in the same moment has taken its toll on Lois, and, it appears, others in the group. It has been quite devastating to Lois. But, she was already planning on retiring, she just didn’t know how she could. These events gave her no choice but to step back immediately from her online position. She has archived her Facebook groups and will remain off of the Internet until further notice. She loves you all dearly, but must take care of herself now. She has diligently worked for over 30 years, most of this time all alone, to bring the breed to where it is today. She is tired and weary to the bone. Her mother is aging and requires a lot of her time, which she is happy to give. So, Amey and myself are working now to come up with a plan forward. The Dire Wolf Project is not ending. It will just need some adjustments to meet the Lois’s needs at this time. We will reveal the plan as soon as we can. In the meantime, please stay tuned. You are in our thoughts and prayers. You are friends and family. We love you all so very dearly. Thank you very much for your continued support of our work. It is an honor to have you all with us. God bless.
Jennifer Stoeckl is the co-founder of the Dire Wolf Project, founder of the DireWolf Guardians American Alsatian Dog Training Program, and owner/operator of DireWolf Dogs of Vallecito. She lives in the beautiful inland northwest among the Ponderosa pine forests with her pack of American Alsatian dogs.