By: GDB Breeding Manager Jenna Bullis
Guide Dogs for the Blind is more than an industry-leading guide dog school; we are a passionate community that serves the visually impaired. With exceptional client services and a robust network of trainers, puppy raisers, donors and volunteers, we prepare highly qualified guide dogs to serve and empower individuals who are blind or have low vision.
One aspect of how GDB leads in the industry is our breeding program. In our earliest days, most of our dogs came from animal shelters. It soon became evident that we were looking for something very specific: dogs that not only had excellent health, intelligence, and temperament, but also exhibited a willingness to work and thrive on praise. Our specialized breeding program was started in the late 1940s in an effort to ensure consistent availability of dogs with these desirable traits and to improve future generations of guide dogs.
The method used to make long-term genetic changes in our colony is called selection. The selection process determines which dogs join the breeding colony, who they are mated with to produce puppies, how many puppies they have, and how long they remain in the breeding colony. The idea behind selection is simply this: to let the dogs with the best set of genes reproduce so that the next generation has, on average, more desirable genes than the current generation. It is also important to remember that “best” is a relative term and there is no one best dog for all situations. The traits that make one guide dog suited to work in New York City might be quite different than for a guide dog working in a quieter more rural area.
Today our breeding program applies a wide range of scientific tools and techniques in our selection process. In addition to using health, temperament, and genetic (DNA) tests to assess each individual dog we also use population genetics to make genetic predictions. Population genetics allow us to use the extensive data stored on all the relatives of an individual to calculate Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). EBVs allow for comparison between the predicted breeding values of dogs in the colony. At GDB we calculate EBVs for a variety of measurable traits including success as a guide dog and a number of health conditions.
Over time, a closed breeding colony becomes more interrelated, consequently while managing the colony it is also important to maintain genetic diversity. This can happen in a number of ways: bringing in puppies that may mature into breeding stock, acquiring adult breeding stock, or by breeding to outside dogs via natural or artificial means. GDB looks for breeding programs which have selected dogs for similar traits to ensure high success as working guides. This typically means we work with other guide and service dog schools. GDB has a large number of collaborative breeding relationships around the world and routinely exchanges genetic material to maximize the genetic diversity of our colony, contribute to the global development of guide dog services, and to promote sharing knowledge, experiences, and camaraderie.
Sharing genetic material internationally often occurs by shipping frozen semen. GDB began collecting, freezing, and storing all studs in our colony in the late 1990s. Today, all semen cryopreservation is conducted in our breeding lab by our highly trained staff. This extremely valuable genetic material is frequently used for collaboration and is occasionally used within our current colony to bring back valuable traits from proven stud dogs of the past.
Remaining on the cutting edge of reproductive and selection technologies is a critical component to the ongoing success of GDB's mission. By carefully managing our breeding colony, we are able to produce exceptional dogs that with time and training can fulfill a life-changing role for our clients. Our international collaborations also enable us to positively impact visually impaired individuals around the world. Breeding is both an art and a science and we are proud to be among the leaders in our industry.