Ever since a human first tossed a wolf the last scraps of his or her dinner, people have been obsessed with dogs.
We work together. We play together. We feed, shelter and care for them. They entertain, protect and comfort us. They tolerate being dressed up like sharks and hot dogs. We feel real, palpable grief after their too-brief lives are over.
Laurie Connell, a professor with the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine, doesn’t study dogs in her day-to-day work at the university. But over the past year, her lifelong passion has led UMaine to acquire the largest publicly accessible collection of dog pedigrees in the world. Breeders and researchers can now use it to help improve the genetic diversity of breeds suffering from abnormalities that have resulted from generations of inbreeding.
“The lower the genetic diversity, the higher the likelihood that there will be enough recessive genes present for a particular trait to show up,” Connell said.
For many years, Connell has researched the Cesky Fousek, a Czech breed of hunting dog that has been plagued by seasonal alopecia, a genetic disease that causes fur loss. She keeps two Cesky Fouseks, Allagash and Flora, on her Winterport farm.
During a research trip in New York about two years ago, Connell visited the American Kennel Club library and stumbled across a large collection of uncatalogued books. They turned out to be decades worth of stud books — or breed registries — from kennel clubs from all over North America, Europe, Asia and South America. They document the pedigrees of countless breeds dating back to 1860 — from popular breeds such as Dachshunds and Doberman Pinschers to lesser known breeds, including the Cesky Fousek.
As it turned out, the American Kennel Club library was trying to decide what to do with the books. Connell knew that within them there potentially lay information that could help improve many breeds’ genetic diversity. Breeders and researchers could examine pedigree lines going back decades, identify lineages far away from one another, and breed dogs from those lineages together to improve genetic diversity — and, as a result, lessen the chances of those dogs inheriting life-threatening disorders.
“It’s a unique group of stud books. It’s a huge collection,” Connell said. “If your dog has dangerously low genetic diversity, you can go way back through one of these books, see a pedigree from Europe or elsewhere in the world, and see if you can breed with a dog from that pedigree. That starts to bring that diversity back in.”
Connell turned to her colleagues at UMaine’s Fogler Library to see if they could house the collection. After nearly a year of negotiations between UMaine and the American Kennel Club, the collection arrived at Fogler last summer. Library staff catalogued it all over the fall months and made it available to the public.
Connell has already heard from an Irish wolfhound group about looking through the collection to identify potentially breedable pedigrees to start to repair that breed’s genetic diversity.
“When all these breeds become more cookie cutter, that’s a really bad thing, genetically speaking,” Connell said. “Doberman pinschers are on the brink of genetic extinction because almost every single member of the breed has some horrible genetic disease … and it’s because of closed stud books. It’s because that information is not accessible.”
Though purebred dogs often have highly distinctive traits — the squashed face of a pug, the short legs of a corgi, the barrel chest of a boxer — Connell said breed styles and lineages are anything but set in stone.
“Dogs that were brought to the U.S. in the 1920s might have been called under a totally different name than they were known by in Europe,” she said. “Today, the labradoodle is not a new breed, but at some point in the future they might end up becoming one, under a different name. Things change all the time.”
Beyond the pedigrees the books showcase, the collection also provides a unique way to view 19th- and 20th-century history in certain parts of the world — in particular, in Europe, where nearly every duchy, province and region had its own breed of dog. Weimaraners were the preferred hunting dog of Weimar, now located in Germany. Hungarian aristocracy kept the graceful Vizsla to flush fowl out of their rivers and lakes. French and Spanish shepherds and nobility alike adored the gentle, brave Great Pyrenees. And Bohemian kings kept the Cesky Fousky on huge tracts of land in what is now the Czech Republic.
“Reading these books from back in the 1880s, you get to see this world through a perspective that is really unique — through the eyes of hunters and their dogs,” Connell said. “All these breeds would change names and adapt and they spread throughout Europe and the U.S., and that kind of reflects the history of the place. Dogs are part of human history.”