Life After Color by Don Nielsen

About a year ago, Mary and I witnessed an event  that  had a dramatic impact on our lives as Schipperke breeders and as members of the Schipperke Club of America.  I refer to the birth of a  handsome purebred Schipperke puppy…a “fawn” puppy…that we  named “Midwatch Sundance Kid.”   I think it also is fair to say that “Sundance” may well end up having a significant impact on the Schipperke breed.  That sounds pretty arrogant, but since it just might be true, and there are lots of rumors out there, it seemed to me important to put all the facts before you, and  to let you draw your own conclusions.

“Sundance” was born to two Champions of my breeding: CH Midwatch Mighty Oz and CH Midwatch Merry Madeline…both, of course, solid black. Their pedigrees are completely innocent of any hint of color back at least nine generations.  This was a first breeding for each.

I’m sure you can imagine my expression when I spotted the “golden boy” in the whelping box…alongside his jet-black sister.  Despite the shock and despite the fact that  when I first joined the SCA over forty years ago people spoke in hushed whispers about  “color” in our breed, it  never for a moment occurred to me to try to hide this event nor, worse, to put the puppy down.  Indeed, within hours of his birth I notified all those who had helped me over the years to develop my little kennel.

Also, within hours of  this birth, I contacted the VetGen Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where their researchers are doing studies on color in a handful of breeds.  Some of  you may recall that, when the president of  VetGen came to our Specialty Show in Wichita at my invitation to discuss their research into Epilepsy,  Mr. Duffendack had also shown great interest in a “chocolate”  Schip that was on  the premises.  I had discussed  their research  then and later and I was quite aware of the fact  that the VetGen laboratory wanted badly to get some examples of colored coats in our breed.

At my request, VetGen sent me DNA swab kits for both parents and the two puppies, I took the samples and returned them within a few days.  Not long afterward, VetGen reported back to me that the DNA samples I had sent had enabled them to pinpoint the “color genes” in the chromosome chain of the Schipperke.  This meant, they reported, they were only a few research-weeks from being able to offer a “color test” for Schipperkes.  This may sound like a slam-dunk  because there are only supposed to be black Schips, but anyone who follows the breed is aware that there are non-black colors out there: brown, chocolate, “blue” (sort of a slate grey) and, of course, the most common, fawn. And U.S. breeders do NOT want the colored Schips messing up their breeding programs.  There have been a lot of  “expert” opinions as to why colored Schips popped up once in a while, but very little reliable, scientific evidence of the color building blocks in dogs had been offered.

This, my friends, is changing, and changing rapidly.  The researchers at VetGen have been in the forefront of efforts to “map” the canine genome.  They already  have successfully located the gene causing von Willebrand’s Disease in a number of breeds, have also isolated several other rare disorders and have been conducting intense research to find the elusive gene that causes genetic epilepsy.

On the color front, VetGen has isolated and is now offering color testing for a total of fourteen breeds – now including the Schipperke – using what  they call their “ChromaGene” test.  The inclusion of Schipperkes in their testing program is new, and directly traceable to the data collected from “Sundance” and his family.  Let me expand a bit on what we now know causes the appearance of colored coats in Schipperkes.  You can get a lot more  information by reviewing a couple of books (a brief bibliography is attached), and by referring to the VetGen website, but a short introduction may be helpful:

The locus for coat color in the Schipperke chromosome, or DNA chain, is resident in two pair of genes that control the color of the hair.  In the Schip, the “B” gene is the one that produces black coat;  the “E” gene is the one that permits dark color to be formed in the coat.  Each Schipperke has a pair of each, so that in most Schips, the coat color locus in the chromosome can be identified as “BBEE” with one of each letter coming from each parent.  “BBEE” means the Schip throws black coat and his coat is also black. The locus of the gene and the variant  that produces non-black coats was only recently added to the literature by VetGen research. Variations in the “B” locus usually are shown as “b” an alternative and recessive gene which results in off-shades of black, such as brown or chocolate (and possibly blue).  Variations in the “E” locus are shown as “e” an alternative and hidden gene which prevents dark pigment from forming in the hair.  Both of the genes in this locus must be “e” to result in the fawn or blond Schip.  The potential distribution of these genes is sometimes expressed in a graph called the “Punnet Square”  an example of which follows:

I  was able to learn almost immediately from VetGen that the color  in “Sundance” was produced because both of his parents carried  the hidden “e” gene, and the law of averages being what it is, his color  chromosomes  came out as “BBee.”   The “Punnet  Square” for the “E” gene in this litter is shown as follows:

Of course, the big question I had was,  “Where did the “e” gene come from?”  Was it in all my dogs? Only a couple?   What kind of breeding strategy was I going to have to follow in the future?

Happily  enough, the answers  to some of these questions were provided in the second phase of the genetic research undertaken by VetGen on our behalf.   In this phase I provided DNA samples from six  more Schipperkes:  Paternal  grandparents Satchmo  and Sable, and maternal grandparents Thumper and Missy.  The other two samples were from parental siblings Olivia (Oz’s Sister) and Ro-Bear (Maddie’s brother).  The results of this test was most enlightening:  Satchmo is BBEe; Sable is BBEE, Thumper is BBEE, and Missy is BBEe.  (Since Missy is also a Satch-Sable daughter, it’s easy to see where she got the “e” gene.)  The siblings carried out the “law of averages”  in their genetic makeup:  Olivia is BBEE and RoBear is BBEE.  So the culprit in my kennel is Satchmo.

Satchmo of course is one of my main stud dogs, and has produced twelve litters of all-black  puppies, some of whom—but   by no means all of  them—are probably carrying the hidden “e” gene.  There have been six different bitches involved and chances are none of them carried the “e” gene or we might have seen color sooner.  It was not until we bred Oz (a Satch son) to Maddie (a Satch grand-daughter) that we ran across a mating of two ‘Ee” parents…and even then we might have missed the color since the odds were 3:1 against coming up with a fawn.

However, the good news is – at least from my point of view – that I’m a lot better off than most of us…I know where the color marker  is, and I now  know how to avoid it.

But  what  is good news for the rest of you is that  there is now a test to determine if the hidden “e” gene is resident  in any of your dogs. For the cost of a tail-docking,  you can have your breeding stock tested and put your minds at rest.  Or, if it turns up, you can adjust your breeding strategy to avoid the possibility of color.  I will continue to breed both Oz and Maddie – in fact I already have done  so – but not to each other.  Maddie has produced a nice all-black litter from another male, and Oz has buns  in the oven now  (another bitch)  which are due in a few weeks.  You see, there is life after color!

Some of you may be wondering where Satchmo got his little sneaky color gene.  And of course, I was very concerned.  I no longer have either of his parents alive to test, but his pedigree is out  there on Kristin Henry’s website, and I suggest you take a hard look at it.  If you have any of his ancestors in your pedigrees, you might be well advised to have your breeding stock  “ChromaGene”  tested as well.  Some of  the names in Satchmo’s pedigree may be familiar to many of you:  “CH Ebon Imp Apollo,” “CH  Skipalong Echo,”  “CH Jetstar’s Command Performance,”  “CH Klinahof’s Marouf a Draco,”  “CH Green Lakes WaterBoy”  and “CH Ye Ole Lamplighter of San Dil Acres”  to name a few.  That  little gene came from somewhere…When researching these pedigrees, however, the best you can do if you find a common ancestor, is to have your dog tested for the recessive color gene.   As far as Satchmo’s color gene is concerned–we simply don’t know where it came from.  In the first place, we’d have a hard time proving any color in past generations, because of the common practice of not registering (or worse, destroying) any colored pups that showed up.  In the second place, if a colored pup was reported, it has been a common assumption that any siblings of the colored pup also “carried  color.”   This simply is not true–a glance at the “Punnet Square” above shows that one or more littermates may carry no color at all, while the others might carry it as a recessive gene.

I need to emphasize something I mentioned before because I’ve already heard that some of our more “informed” members have been spreading the report that the color came from Woody and Diane Harris’  “Thumper.”  We know, of course, that it  DID NOT.  Nor did it come from my late and much missed little British bitch “Beauty” nor from any of  the Landmark dogs in my pedigrees.  No, the little “e”  rascal has been lurking among my own lines for a long time, waiting for its opportunity.  We know he’s there, now,  though, so he is pretty powerless.

Now, another fact of which I need to advise you is what is going to become of  Sundance.  This is another reason I’m using this letter to inform you, because I have already heard several reports that he’s been sold.  He has not, but I  have reached an agreement with a lady in England who will be buying a co-ownership in Sundance so that he may be imported, shown and used  to refresh the gene pool of fawn/cream Schipperkes in that country.

Now, this is where some of my peers have been gravely offended by my actions.  After discussing it with VetGen, we decided to continue to validate the ChromaGene test by using Sundance in a very controlled experimental breeding.   VetGen does not have dogs in its laboratory,  but they agreed to continue funding  the tests on  my dogs   while we were following up on the coat color inheritance predictions.   Now before anyone gets outraged,  be assured that we were not  “breeding for color.”  In fact, the opposite is true:  we were very carefully breeding so as not to produce color by choosing a bitch, who had already been tested and found to be “BBEE.”  (I am most grateful to Esther Cooper-Scheller, who leased “Lizzie” — a bitch of my breeding — to me for this mating.)  If the testing protocols were correct, all offspring would be black.  They also, however, would be carrying the hidden “e” gene.  The puppies are on the ground now.   There are four, all very black indeed, and VetGen is processing the DNA tests on all of the puppies to insure that their DNA is as predicted

There is another good reason for the breeding as well: it has been said by many that the fawn or cream Schips frequently carry coats of exceptional harshness and abundance.  Those of you who saw Sundance in Orlando know that, at least in his case, this is true.  He has an exceptionally full and abundant coat, with wonderful pattern and very stiff, harsh guard hairs.  My discussions with Mr. Duffendack of VetGen suggested that these characteristics probably are independent of color, and could therefore be passed along without his fawn coloring.

I am quite conscious of our Code of Ethics, which requires us “to breed only for the purpose of improving the breed.”  This breeding, in my view, meets that standard in several respects:  first, the ChromaGene test that VetGen has developed has now been validated and can be used responsibly by anyone to eliminate a recessive color gene in his lines.  Second, if as we hope, the quality of the Sundance coat may be reproduced in these black offspring, these puppies could provide a significant improvement in the quality of Schipperke coat.  They need only  to be bred to mates with the “BBEE” gene set to be sure of solid black offspring, and the color gene can be diluted to  disappearance in just a couple of  generations.  I intend to retain co-ownership in each of these puppies to insure that any of them  that appear to be of good quality, are bred only  to tested non-carriers.  And those who do not appear to be of high quality will be spayed or neutered as soon as it is safe to do so.   For the record, at this writing the pups are three weeks old and all appear to have very harsh, well patterned coats,   and they show good substance.  But, of course, only time will tell  ….

Just to repeat for any of you who still harbor any doubts:  I do not intend to breed colored Schips and indeed I am now in a better position to avoid unwanted color than are many of you.  I breed  as I have always  tried  to do, to improve the breed,  and I do not  intend to use my recent experience to found or foster any movement to change our standard  to admit Schips of colors other than black.  Indeed, I left Sundance’s tail on — and a lovely tail it is — out of respect for our standard, by firmly identifying Sundance as not eligible for conformation showing in this country.  Sundance will be traveling to England, where neither his color nor his tail will be an impediment to competition.  He will no longer be in my breeding program, but I will, of course, follow his adventures closely.

Some years ago our Code of Ethics called on breeders to avoid registering Schips of color.  Happily this condition no longer is part of our Code, since we get nowhere by “hiding” these animals.  It is part and parcel of the need for an “open registry” in the Schipperke fancy to record and use to our advantage all information on disqualifying genetic faults.  People need to know where these genetic variations exist.  We gain no ground by bucketing or hiding these animals.  Without being open about   the arrival of Sundance and without the cooperation of the VetGen company, we would not be in the position we now enjoy.  I have since undertaken to have the rest of my breeding animals color tested  at my  expense so that I can avoid a repeat of  the surprise  I faced  last  year.

Sundance may have been a “lemon” in my breeding program, but as the old  saying goes:  “when life gives you lemons…make lemonade!”

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