What are we waiting for?
As the many thousands of the readers and followers of this blog know, the Great Dane has been my life’s greatest and longest love affair. From the time I was no more than a child, these magnificent animals have been my best friends and some of my best educators. They have taught me love, magnanimity and compassion. They have also taught me loss and heartbreak, which only deepened the affection and the lasting influence the breed has had on my life.
Since we started the Apollo of Dogs Great Dane Preservation Society group on Facebook, six years ago in July, Preservation has become a buzzword among dog breeders and owners. And through that group, we have fought together: we have fought with the weapons of care and education against ignorance, exploitation, misconception, misinformation, betrayal, cruelty, deformity, intentional, physical and mental disfigurement of the Great Dane breed.
I am grateful that Preservation has come to the fore of discussions amongst breeders and owners. But we can’t preserve what we don’t know. Without the information, preservation breeding is a pipedream or just a catchy slogan, just like the “betterment of the breed” was before. Without knowledge, we can only offer prayers, good intentions and wishful thinking, instead of effective, practical and realistic, science-based plans and action. So the time has come to fight the battle that is greatest of all: the battle for Survival.
From this blog, and everywhere that I was given opportunity, I have been vocal and critical about the way the Great Dane as a breed has been managed, or rather mismanaged, at least during my lifetime. I have called for a Conservation movement for the Great Dane, shouted it from the rooftops. To say that I am disappointed by collective myopia and apathy displayed by the institutions we have put in place to safeguard these dogs would be a major understatement. I have seen the Great Dane transformed from the Apollo of Dogdom to a travesty. And I have experienced the devastation caused by genetic disease, the countless premature deaths of innocent dogs from preventable causes. Every. Single. Day.
How much longer?
As again many if not most of you know, I am not motivated by personal vanity: I am not interested in show wins or fame and fortune, breaking records, collecting trophies or selling puppies. I am not interested in popularity – in fact I often speak up for the unpopular view, when I believe that is where reason and truth are to be found. My ambition has always been to serve the best interests of those I love.
Recently I have voluntarily chosen early retirement from breeding and judging. I am not interested in globetrotting while life, as we know it on the planet, is under existential threat. Neither do I seek nor have I ever sought high office or a comfortable chair for my ample posterior on influential and prestigious establishment positions – in dogs or elsewhere. The reason for this stance is simple: my conscious desire to remain independent, able to critique what I feel is wrong or support what I see as fair wherever it might be. My favorite quote is from Aristotle: “Plato is my friend but Truth is better”: I believe meaningful relationships and the path to progress can only be founded upon honesty and paved with the ability to both offer and receive constructive criticism, fairness and facts; and to be able to intelligently change one’s mind and evolve, when new evidence is presented. My personal integrity and freedom of thought are the principles I value above all. Most importantly, I made this decision because of a higher calling.
Dogs have given me and my family their everything: their lives and their beauty, external and more importantly internal, their magnificent spirit, and the most precious gift of all: their sincere, unconditional, non-judgemental love, to their dying breath. They have never betrayed or abandoned us. They taught us honesty, sincerity and self-sacrifice. They fuelled our inspiration. They consoled us in our darkest hours. I owe them. Big time. And before I become fertilizer for mother Earth, I have one last battle to join, one last good fight to offer back to the Great Dane, as a tiny, compared to the true Majesty of theirs, gift of love and gratitude.
As I mentioned above, you can’t preserve what you don’t know. To rescue the breed from its current predicament and rapid decline, we need information. To find out how we can halt the advancing deterioration of their genetic health; to devise effective schemes tackling their hereditary defects; to restore their fertility and reduce their mortality rates; to reverse diversity loss; to be able to actually claim, instead of just theorizing and hoping, that breeding can indeed bring about improvement, measurable by results and real, in any and every way; to increase their fitness and longevity; to decrease the rate of premature deaths from preventable causes; to serve these goals realistically and successfully, we need to examine the evidence. We must have the data that will inform breed clubs and breeders of the true situation so that they, in turn, can make the best decisions about the selection methods and strategies that can be implemented, to save the breed from inevitable death and extinction. Without knowledge, we have no options.
What we have been waiting for has begun
After several months of talks with friends, consultation with Carol Beauchat of the Institute of Canine Biology and communications with other geneticists and preservation initiatives, a small group of volunteers, a task force to undertake precisely this goal, has been formed. The task: a Population Genetics Study of the Great Dane breed. A broad – spectrum, global, scientific examination and analysis of the breed’s genetic state.
It became obvious, the more and more we discussed it, that this is the only way we can truly preserve the Great Dane as a distinct phenotype and breed of dogs. Preservation is a nice buzzword (and I am happy the Apollo group helped to popularize it among Great Dane breeders), but to preserve anything you need to know exactly where it’s at, what condition it is in, what it requires and how to manage it. We can’t say that we know any of these essential pieces of the puzzle until now: the vital information is missing because a study of such scope has never before been undertaken. We can’t manage the breed without a methodical study of the entire population that will tell us exactly what we need to know. We are feeling our way in the fog. This study is the tool that will take us away from the era of darkness, fragmented pieces of anecdotal evidence and guesswork. The study can inform us:
A: how we can solve the problem of the three major killers – Bloat, Cancer and DCM – as well as the numerous other hereditary diseases spreading and threatening the Great Dane’s survival.
B: how we can preserve, restore or increase, depending on what the study will show about the current state of the breed, the necessary genetic diversity that enables improvement via breeding selection.
C: how we can improve fertility and reduce mortality, increase biological fitness and strengthen the immune system of our dogs.
The Great Dane is showing signs of inbreeding depression. Breeders are struggling to find healthy dogs to use from disease-free backgrounds. The available studies show an alarming increase in the prevalence of Bloat, Cancer & DCM. The breed is squeezed into a tighter and tighter corner, suffocating, because it is under pressure from three sides: the selection criteria and popular sire effect (reducing the available dogs to breed from and therefore diminishing the effective population size), the hypertype effect (which has brought about a de facto partition between typical and atypical dogs, further reducing the gene pool) and the color code effect (which segregates the breed even further into three separate color families, fragmenting and isolating what remains of the available genetic diversity).
The Great Dane is fighting for its life: are YOU going to answer the call?
In the next few days a new Facebook Group will open its doors to the Great Dane Community: the Great Dane Population Genetic Study Group. A crowdfunding initiative will be up and running next week to start fundraising for the Study. After looking into several websites, I selected to go with the GoFundMe platform as it offers the best terms in both, flexibility (there is no deadline or limits) and transparency. We need a number of volunteers around the world, as many as possible, in every country that the breed is represented; these volunteers will have the duty to promote and coordinate the fundraising efforts, liaise with breed Clubs, contact sponsors and donors, print flyers to circulate at shows and every event where Great Danes at present in their area, share on social media, via e-mail and personal contact, post updates etc.
Most importantly, the Task Force volunteers are required to complete the database by filling in the missing data of the pedigrees and acquiring more pedigree entries from other database sources. That is why I am opening a new, dedicated Facebook group for everyone to actively participate, to gather and volunteer the information from their pedigree records and monitor the progress. Every single Great Dane person and other breed persons can help – that is what guarantees the success; you don’t have to be a breeder, you don’t even have to have a Great Dane at present, you can help in a variety of ways and of course you can donate and help raise funds. I will start working with my IT expert consultant next week on the Quintessa database data, which was generously given to us by Glen (Australia) care of Helene Nicoline Lund Gammelgaard (Denmark) – big shout out to you both: a million thanks! When the completed database is ready and the fundraising has taken off, we can get the study underway.
The ICB has kindly offered an additional way of funding the study, via enrollment to the online “Managing Genetics for the Future” Course at greatly reduced rates for Great Dane people – it’s fantastic value: it costs less than what you’d spend at one dog show or a single visit to the pet supplies store and it’s for the best cause ever in the breed – the Survival of the Great Dane as an entity itself. The goal is for a critical mass of Great Dane breeders to learn the basics of population genetics. This will allow them to understand the genetic analyses and use them to design a breeding strategy to reduce genetic disease, become educators and mentors to others. Education is critical to our success. Please take advantage of this terrific learning opportunity and also support funding the first phase of genetic analysis! This is the first step in working towards the development of a breeding strategy to address the health challenges in the breed.
Vision for a Future
This is for the long haul. A historical first never before undertaken in the breed – but this is what it takes, so we must get it done. We will need several months, perhaps even years of commitment to fulfill the task. After the database is at the lab, we will need a certain amount of DNA sampling and testing to complete the project. I am confident in the Great Dane community: we have proven our dedication throughout our campaigns. We are a large Great Dane army of Love and I am absolutely resolute and certain we can do this for our beloved companions.
We don’t know and we have no way of knowing beforehand what the study will reveal. We have a few cards in our favor: scientific breakthroughs in the field of genetics, like NGS, mean that we don’t need to identify every single gene causing this or that disorder; the fact that the breed is segregated in three color families and partitioned in local population islands within the gene pool, that are not customarily in contact with each other, either because of geography or due to traditions and even prejudices, could be the breed’s saving grace in terms of the remaining valuable genetic diversity – which we will further need to preserve.
Let’s Make History
The pressing fact of the matter is urgency itself: we must do this now, before it’s too late; find the answers, get the information needed to make Preservation a reality, before we run out of time as the breed reaches a point that it is beyond saving.
A Great Dane Angel to help:
To match ICB’s generous offer, I am adding something of my own: this original painting will become the property of the person who will make the single highest individual donation to the Great Dane Genetic Population Study Fund. By yours truly, it is, I have to confess, one of my most favorite personal collection pieces and framed in a gorgeous frame. I had never intended to sell it or in any way part with it because it is a hymn to all the Great Dane angels that have graced our lives with their beauty and love; so it is only now that I have come to fully realize what it was always meant for: instead of just my own selfish aesthetic pleasure and the enjoyment of my guests who view it at my home, this Great Dane Guardian Angel can bless and help the entire breed.
Another very special surprise is in the works: I had an idea for creating a very unique Great Dane Art piece, in a form and medium that has never been used before, to be produced in a limited edition numbered & signed series, which will be sold with the proceeds going to the Study fund. It will be something truly awesomely unusually and breathtakingly beautiful, and that is no exaggeration, I promise you. It is a collaboration with a very fine, famous artist in his own medium. I can’t say more yet but it’s very, very unique and special. And I will try to make it very affordable so that many can acquire & cherish it. Watch this space!
Sharing is caring
Please share this post everywhere and stay tuned for updates. There will be many updates in the next few days. A new blog post with links to the Study Group and the crowdfunding website will be posted in the blog early next week.
I know we can do this. And I will never give up, nor will I drop dead, if I can help it, until it is done. Because I would like to die one day a smile on my face, knowing that the dogs I love will have a great chance of a better future.
For the Love of the Great Dane: join the movement. The dogs deserve we do everything in our power, our very best, to ensure their survival, health and well-being.
Please share the post far and wide and comment below if you have any questions.
The New GDGPS-dedicated Facebook Group to work on the database is now open! People on Facebook, who have pedigrees to contribute to the study, please go to the Great Dane Genetic Population Study group and request to join – thanks.