Remember those experiments in elementary school where students crossbred sweet-pea plants to generate different color flowers?
Take that simple genetics experiment to the nth degree with dogs, and you get the Dire Wolf Project, which uses genetics to breed large dogs with better health and calm temperaments. Listening to Shawna Davies of Evergreen, who has been breeding these dogs — known as American Alsatians — for four years, the notion is fascinating.
The project, started in 1987, has nothing to do with direwolves on the “Games of Thrones” television series other than dire wolves did roam the Earth and became extinct 10,000 years ago, Davies said. “Game of Thrones” did provide a lot of publicity for the project, however.
It started with Lois Schwarz in Oregon, a dog trainer who determined that people want healthy dogs who live long lives and have a companion temperament — not easy to find, especially in larger breeds. She began with a German shepherd and a Malamute and has added in other breeds such as Irish wolfhound, English mastiff, great Pyrenees and more to create big dogs that are gentle, calm, intelligent, intuitive — in essence great companions — rather than working dogs.
The breeders, Davies said, are more concerned with the animal’s temperament, bone structure and health rather than the dogs’ appearance.
“Folks from all walks of life want these dogs,” Davies said. “We’re good at getting people what they want. We have the ability to tailor and handcraft a puppy based on their genetics.”
While the Dire Wolf Project may sound surreal, pure-bred dog breeders do something similar — concerned about pairings to bring out certain traits in the canines. Davies maintains that good genetic pairings are a better way to be good stewards of the breed.
Davies is one of three American Alsatian breeders in the country, and it takes years to be certified, including spending between four months and two years living with another breeder to watch how the breeders look for personality traits in pups from the moment they are born.
The breeders look for such things as how the pups socialize with their siblings, if they fight for food and how they play to learn more about their dispositions, she explained. Breeders are looking for pups that are not too shy but not too bold and aggressive.
While most American Alsatians become pets, some are trained as therapy dogs.
The dogs that meet the health and temperament standards will be bred with other American Alsatians — all with their genetics in mind.
Davies shepherds a litter or two a year, though she envisions moving to a home with more land in a few years to be able to breed more dogs to help enhance the American Alsatian breed.
Davies, a retired groomer, said her quest to find genetically healthier dogs came after she groomed a dog whose owner had its lower jawbone removed to fight cancer. The dog was embarrassed because its tongue didn’t stay in its mouth, and she was mortified for the dog.
“Dogs are wonderful animals,” she said. “They are God’s gift to us. After watching that dog, I wondered what I could do to fix this. If we put (all the science together), things will get better for the dogs.”
For more information, visit shawnasdoglife.com or direwolfdogs.com.