Mind Over Miller: Why not strive for longevity?


Dr. Robert M. Miller wonders why a long life span hasn't been included as a significant breeding factor.

I choke up every time I see a service dog showing the gray muzzle and the inhibited gait that comes with age. This is especially true when the dog is a guide dog for a person who is blind. I realize that the owner, whether a client or a stranger on the street, cannot see what I see—the signs of aging: the nuclear sclerosis in the old dog's eyes, the graying face, the slowing.

It is hard to completely understand the depth of the bond that must exist between such a dog and a human seriously dependent upon it. I never charged for veterinary services to guide dogs for the blind.

Many years ago, a leading dog magazine telephoned me. They said they wanted articles written by veterinarians for their publication. I asked what subject they wanted me to write about. They said it was up to me to decide.

After a lot of thought, I wrote an article about service dogs. I pointed out that dogs had been bred for many qualities throughout human history—for size, for color, for coat, for hunting ability, for herding ability, for intelligence—but that no breed had ever been selectively bred for an exceptionally long life span, for longevity.

I described the emotional impact an aging service dog had on me. I'd see a dog I thought was 10 or 12 years of age and sadly imagine how traumatic the loss of that dog would be in a couple of years. Dogs just don't have long enough life spans. Whenever I see Rosie in the photo at the bottom of this page, I long for her.

I suggested that some organization, perhaps a university, make a project of creating a new breed of working dog that would have a typical life span of 16 or 18 years.

Such a project would take at least half a century. Semen would need to be frozen to use many years in the future after longevity had been demonstrated by offspring. Perhaps frozen embryos could also be used.

Obviously, the dogs would have to be highly intelligent, docile, and eager to work. I suggested that perhaps the breeding program could begin by crossing breeds such as the border collie, golden retriever, and smooth collie. You'd want a good-sized dog with a not excessively thick coat and proper physical qualities.

The article was published in the magazine, which was largely devoted to show dogs and dog shows. But the magazine never received a comment on the article pro or con—nor did I.

I still think it was a great idea.

Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his website at robertmmiller.com.

Dr. Robert M. Miller

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