At Paw Print Genetics we are passionate about prevention of inherited diseases of dogs. Through modern technologies, there are over 150 inherited diseases that can now be prevented through genetic testing of breeding dams and sires. Through use of the information gained from testing, informed decisions can be made for choosing breeding pairs to avoid producing pups afflicted with certain inherited diseases. Unfortunately however, not everyone that currently breeds dogs is aware of genetic testing availability or the importance of these genetic technologies in the overall well-being of their favorite breed. As a result, thousands of dogs are born every year with diseases that can now be prevented.
While the ability to prevent inherited diseases brings happy thoughts, the outcomes of dogs bred without the use of genetic technologies can be much less joyous. Historically, many dogs born with inherited disease were either euthanized or died due to complications of their condition. However, Paw Print Genetics was recently invited to visit a sanctuary for dogs called Double J Dog Ranch, where dogs with special needs find compassion, training, and eventually their forever home, through adoptions to families prepared for the unique opportunity of owning a special needs dog. Many of the dogs living on the ranch have diseases that are currently preventable through genetic testing. We were honored at Paw Print Genetics to have the opportunity to visit these special dogs recently and learn more about the organization.
Double J Dog Ranch is a 501(c)(3) non-profit canine sanctuary located in Hauser Lake, Idaho committed to the care, training, medical requirements and adoption of special needs dogs. The sanctuary founders, Duane and Cristene Justus, started Double J in 2009 out of a sincere concern and compassion for canines and a desire to make a difference for special needs dogs obtained by shelters. The sanctuary was started shortly after the couple adopted an 8 week old, blind and deaf Australian Shepherd from a veterinarian who had assumed responsibility for the puppy after she was presented by a breeder for euthanasia. Bunny, as she would be named, became the official mascot of the ranch and joined the couple’s first blind dog, a German shepherd named Little Joe that they had adopted the previous year. The ranch soon adopted the motto “special needs dogs are perfect in every way that matters” and after visiting with them, I wholeheartedly agree. Though some of the dogs are permanent residents on the ranch, most dogs lucky enough to live at the ranch undergo special training and obedience to be ideal candidates for adoption. Double J’s attentive volunteer staff is committed to making sure they have top notch care and the best chance of a successful placement. In addition, it is a goal of the ranch to play an important role in public education about prevention of inherited diseases.
As is the case with Double J’s mascot Bunny, many of the dogs at Double J are deaf and/or blind due to an inherited condition referred to as “lethal white” or “double merle”. This condition arises in puppies from a breeding between two dogs with merle coat color. Some of the offspring from these breedings are mostly white in color, are frequently born deaf, and can also display blindness due to multiple ocular defects including small, underdeveloped eyes. A variation on the merle coloration trait (often referred to as “cryptic merle”) complicates breeding of merle colored dogs. By definition, cryptic merle dogs have the genetic mutation responsible for a merle coat, however they do not have the characteristic merle appearance. Some of these dogs show no signs of merle coloration at all, while others may show just a tiny amount of the characteristic coloration that can go undetected by breeders. Unfortunately, despite their lack of obvious merle coloration, if bred with another merle dog (cryptic or otherwise) they can produce dogs with the “double merle” condition. Because this disorder requires two copies of the merle gene for a dog to be affected, about 25% of offspring from such matings have a substantial risk of being deaf and/or blind. With special obedience training and care provided by Double J, many of these dogs have been successfully placed in homes to live a long, happy life despite their condition.
Double J also has some other interesting and adorable dogs with disorders caused by known genetic mutations. One such dog named Frank, a sweet Labrador retriever with a condition known as oculoskeletal dysplasia (OSD), hasn’t let the blindness or dwarfism which characterizes his disease, slow him down. Thanks to weekly visits to physical therapy for runs on an underwater treadmill, Frank’s muscle mass is maintained to support his abnormal skeleton and joints, thus slowing the progression of early onset arthritis; a relatively common finding in dogs with skeletal deformities. Unfortunately, many dogs born with OSD do not have the luxury of physical therapy or an owner versed in the care of special needs dogs. Luckily for Frank and his ranch mates, Double J makes sure that dogs receive veterinary care, surgery, and physical therapy as needed for their particular condition.
Not all dogs living at Double J have inherited conditions in which the specific genetic mutation is known. A young, jovial German shepherd dog named Eli quickly jumped in to our hearts during our visit. Eli suffers from a rare (likely inherited), developing concern for German shepherd dog breeders known as “Straight Leg Shepherd”. Dogs with this neuromuscular condition are born with hind limbs in full extension that do not bend at the stifle (knee) or hock (ankle) and have severe hind limb muscle atrophy. While there are no reports in the scientific literature currently regarding this disorder, the condition has become common enough to draw the interest of concerned breeders and owners who have created an educational website about the condition. Despite his hind limb challenges, thanks to help from Double J, Eli has adapted spectacularly and has learned to get around quite well. In fact, when we arrived at Double J for our visit, we accidentally let Eli out of the office and he was quite content running around outside, even if his gait was a little unconventional!
It is a new day for dog breeding and canine genetics. Rolling the dice is no longer the only option when choosing appropriate mates to have happy, healthy puppies. Through education and spreading the word about genetic testing options, Double J Dog Ranch and Paw Print Genetics are committed to reducing the number of dogs born with preventable, inherited diseases. Until canine genetic testing becomes commonplace for all breeding dogs, I’m glad there are places like Double J Dog Ranch to give these special companions a chance at a happy life.
If you would like to learn more about Double J Dog Ranch or are interested in adopting one of their special dogs, please visit their website. If you aren’t currently looking for a dog but would like to support this great organization, consider a donation to help Double J care for their wonderful, furry friends.