Sporting Dog Soundness and Breeder Evaluation: Bernard S. Rodey Protocol

Many, many Golden Retriever breeders have been schooled by their mentors to use standardized testing developed by university-funded entities, mandated by breed clubs and unwritten rules of the road,  all done theoretically to identify and bring under control the incidence of  hip and elbow dysplasia, subaeortic stenosis–atrophy and narrowing of the aeorta– and heritable eye disease. Other hereditary conditions have emerged since the OFA was founded, such as forms of progressive retinal atrophy and the skin condition icthyosis.

It is good that these resources are available, and that there are an ever-increasing number of tested Goldens in the gene pool.  And in an ideal world, all breeders would avail themselves of them.  But not only do these tests not guarantee that progeny of tested dogs will not inherit the very defects tested for (see below), they are not the only way to assess the soundness of dogs one wishes to breed.  And, they are not always the best way to screen and cull one’s dogs. 

There are two things you should know about Golden Retrievers and their “certifications.”

One, and the most important one, is that all inherited defects are polygenic i.e. cleared parents do not guarantee cleared progeny; they only increase the probability of next-generation soundness. More succinctly put; obtaining numerous clearances on the parents does not guarantee that the progeny will be defect-clear.  It only increases the odds.

Because defects are polygenic, unpredictable and uncontrollable, it makes sense to increase the probability of sound progeny by purpose-driven screening.  Hence, as endorsed by Robert Wehle,  founder of the English Pointer Elhew line,  Ducks Unlimited and innumerable gundog clubs throughout the US, field testing is the most reliable way to choose a sound gundog. Ideally, field testing for stamina, visual acuity, biddability and other qualities are in tandem with genetic testing/ traditional clearances in deciding who to keep, who to cull.

For the sake of a shorthand to address this process, I have named our preliminary testing The Bernard S. Rodey protocol. I’ll save our family history and my famous great-grandfather’s penchant for hunting with Teddy Roosevelt for another day.

How do our potential sires and dams do on a retrieve?  Do they mark fallen birds/balls easily, showing the depth and accuracy of their field of vision?  Do they work like streamlined machines, coursing nose to the ground, working sections of ground at a time to locate their prey?  Do they handle inclines well? Do they plunge into ice cold water and swim swiftly and strongly to that mallard you shot? Have they manifested any weakness at all in the hindquarters, which would be a red flag for hip dysplasia?

Those who use their sporting dogs/gundogs for their intended purpose evaluate their dogs at work in the field. See the UKC breed standard, to understand the blueprint by which we assess the soundness and value of a dog bred to retrieve to hand from water and cover.  And again, the more detailed and positive the evaluation, the more probable it is that progeny will also be sound.

Imagine shooting down ten pheasants only to have them plummet out of the sky into nearby woods, or a pond, a lake, a river.  Any sporting dog or gundog must work for his dinner and be able to assist the hunter in retrieving his or her kill.

We support formal genetic health testing but we also believe that preliminary testing of breeding stock enhances OFA clearances and should be purpose-driven, i.e., involve those things for which a given dog has been bred in the first place.  These are not things that the OFA has an interest in telling breeders.  The OFA wants everyone to believe that x-raying is the only way to diagnose hip and elbow dysplasia.  The well-heeled show Golden elite in the U.S. proudly displays the plethora of test results on k9 data, and urban legend becomes that if you don’t fall into line you are not a serious breeder.

Subjecting your young dog to a rigorous work-out such as the above yields quite a bit of information about him.  You may opt to have his hips x-rayed, but experienced hands can also palpate a Golden’s hips and detect whether or not the femur is seated in the acetabulum. Again, these are breeder-driven protocols that incorporate common sense activities into looking at a dog one wishes to keep and to campaign or spay or neuter and place in a pet home.

For many years, in fact,  breeders of hunting dogs have tested their dogs’ soundness by working them in the field in informal tests as we have..  To preliminary conclusions, they have added any and all data on the dog’s parents, grandparents and so on. Such info is now readily available at k9data.com .

The Proof of the Pudding…

I offer you several examples.  The sire of my bitch’s sire–her grandsire, came down with an acute case of hip dysplasia.  However, her sire went OFA Excellent, with no known dysplastic puppies in his progeny.

A show kennel, Crystal Glen, down the road from me, mentored me in the late 80’s and we co-owned a bitch together who was the result of a breeding of an OFA Good champion to a champion bitch with one dysplastic hip.  My bitch Dora was sound in the hips, but developed elbow dysplasia and was spayed and kept on arthritis meds until her euthanasia at the age of ten.  Early screening could have saved her breeders thousands of dollars.