There was big news in Kooikers this week as the first breeding occurred as part of an outcross (crossbreeding) project initiated by Suomen Kooikerhondje ry, the Finnish Kooikerhondje Club. A Kooikerhondje in Finland was bred to a working line cocker spaniel in an effort to introduce new genetics to a breed that has been struggling with its genetic diversity since its WWII population bottleneck. Outcrossing to other breeds is not without precedent but also comes with its controversies. As the information and discussions have been primarily on Facebook, in person, and/or in languages like Finnish that are hard for Google searches to find and translated, I think it is important to share this information more widely – but I am personally not involved in this project!
Serious discussion about outcrossing to other breeds has been ongoing in the community since at least 2017, when it was discussed at the VHNK’s international symposium in the Netherlands. Discussion was spurred when the speaker, Dr. Pieter Oliehoek, while presenting an excellent talk on health and diversity within dog breeds, was asked directly if outbreeding (or crossbreeding, the term used there) was necessary for the Kooikerhondje given what he knew about the breed’s genetics and disease risk. He diplomatically acknowledged that it is a politicized, complicated issue, but did admit that his “gut feeling says yes” to the necessity of initiating an outcross project. However, he also warned that outcrosses will not have a population-level effect unless done “extensively.” After this meeting, club members in Finland (traditionally a progressive bastion for research, health and genetic advances) began forming plans for official outcrosses based on findings from 2019 Facebook discussions and a survey sent to Finnish breeders – see the 2019 article on Suomen Kooikerhondje ry’s website. By 2020, members of the Breeding Committee of the Suomen Kooikerhondje ry made strides in getting approval for an official outcross program by petitioning the Finnish Kennel Club and the Finnish Spaniel Association. In order to approve any outcross project, support is required from the parent club in the country of origin. The VHNK (the Dutch Kooikerhondje Club) sent a statement of support late in 2020, and the first mating has been done, and we await a Kooiker/cocker crossbred litter in spring 2021. A second Kooiker/cocker mating has also been approved, and the Finnish Kennel Club is currently working on approving a second breed.
As part of an officially sanctioned outcross program, puppies resulting from outcross matings are placed on a nonbreeding registry under the Finnish Kennel Club. After completion of all health testing and a mental and physical evaluation, the FKC can decide to include the individuals in a “breedable” registry. If enough Kooikerhondje breeders are willing to breed their lines to these dogs, by the 4th generation (the great-grandchildren of the original outcross parent) the puppies can be fully registered as pure Kooikers. For Americans, this is very similar to the process by which new dogs can be included in the population of a breed whose stud book is open in AKC. While the project is beginning with crosses with working cocker spaniels (“wockers”), a number of breeds and individuals will need to be crossed in to make this project effective. In the community’s discussions, the most popular breeds floated as outcross options were the working Cocker, Poodle, Toller, Papillon, Brittany, Markiesje, Welsh Springer Spaniel, and Small Münsterlander. (The Danish-Swedish Farmdog was also a contender but has been ruled out due to polymyositis concerns.)
It is important to note that this type of sanctioned outcross project is not without precedent – outcross projects have occurred in many breeds. But there is much to learn from these examples that we will have to apply to Kooikers. Many Americans may be most familiar with the LUA Dalmatians that descend from an outcross with a Pointer in order to fix a genetic problem that caused Dalmatians to form urate stones. Lesser-known successful outcross examples include closer Kooikerhondje relatives both geographically (their fellow Dutch breed the Wetterhouns have a fantastically detailed outcross program) and genetically (working cocker spaniels were also bred into Clumber spaniel lines to increase diversity in Sweden). While the Dalmatian project was an example of a less-successful project due to poor transparency and resulting limited acceptance within the breed community, it seems that following the example of transparency, communication and careful planning illustrated by the Wetterhoun and Clumber projects is most likely to yield a positive result in the Kooikerhondje. As an interesting aside, Clumbers also experienced unauthorized outcrosses to Cockers (pedigrees and registrations were paper-hung, or faked). Some Clumber fanciers attribute the rise in blindness-causing PRA in Clumbers to the surreptitious genetic introgressions from Cockers – and whether or not this is true, the community’s response to this unauthorized outcross compared to the authorized Swedish project illustrates the importance of transparency in any outcross project. Other outcross projects have failed because the dogs are not incorporated into the wider population and the crossbred “line” ends up dying out. Outcross projects clearly have potential for pitfalls that have nothing to do with the dogs, genetics, or health results – we can see that it is vital that the Kooikerhondje community accepts this project enough to carry it into the future.
While an outcross project is in many ways “sexy,” it is important to recognize that we as Kooiker fanciers have not yet exhausted all options or given up all hope, despite the challenges that face our breed (I’ve written about these genetic challenges extensively before on this blog!). An outcross project is just one more tool for breeders, one more front in the battle against the breed’s extinction vortex. It should be used, but used only in conjunction with other tools and advice for maintaining a healthy population. It remains vital that we health test as many individuals as possible, report the resulting data honestly, and make breeding decisions that don’t further narrow our gene pool needlessly – things like avoiding popular sires, making use of more individuals for breeding (promoting single litters from two siblings instead of one sibling having two litters, for example), breeding to individuals and lines less-represented in the population (using principles like mean kinship), and maintaining our international gene flow. As Dr. Oliehoek put it, an outcross project is “not like taking a pill – it will not cure your breed” but we can hope that in conjunction with careful breeding efforts by committed Kooikerhondje breeders and owners, it may offer another route to the healthiest breed population we can create.