The Legacy of Sir Gay

Dr. John B. Armstrong

The story of the modern American Standard Poodle really begins in the early 1930s, when the Blakeen and Carillon kennels imported blacks of both English and Swiss-German origin, and Swiss whites (see From the Imports to Wycliffe). Carillon bred mainly blacks. Blakeen bred all colors, a tradition continued by Bel Tor and Puttencove.

In every generation there have always been one or more popular males that everyone just has to breed to. Take Mr. Wonderful and breed him fifty or a hundred times, and you may end up with 50-100 champions but also close to a thousand progeny. If only half of these produce one litter each, we are looking at something on the order of 3000-5000 grandchildren. Is it any wonder that almost any two dogs share a grandparent or great-grandparent?

If each successive "Superstar" had substantially different origins, the impact on a relatively large population might be acceptable. However, since the time of Annsown Sir Gay, a black male born in Connecticut in 1949, almost all the most prolific studs have been his descendants.

Sir Gay was, by most accounts, a dog to be noticed. One can argue over whether he was really outstanding (he didn't have any obedience titles and he died rather young), but his impact on the breed is undeniable. Was he "great", or merely good, and lucky? The difference between producing none and becoming a top producer may be more a matter of luck than of any real difference in quality (real or perceived). Obviously having sired a champion or two helps to get started, but how do you get to that first step? You may be noticed by a breeder in your area who is willing to take a chance. Though Sir Gay was bred by a small kennel, he was the son of a well-known Carillon stud. In addition, most of the larger, well-known kennels were nearby, and much of his success stems from his use by Bel Tor and Carillon.

Sir Gay sired 21 litters and 21 AKC champions. However, only 10 of the 21 produced champions in their turn and only four became top producers. How, then, have his descendants managed to take over the breed? It has happened partly because his 4 top-producing progeny were male (and a dog can produce far more offspring in his lifetime than a bitch), and partly because of the fortuitous pairing of one of these sons, Gay Knight, with the right bitch, Wycliffe Jacqueline.

First, lets look at the other three sons. Two of these, Morceau Choisi and Gigadibs, were bred by Rebecca Mason (Bel Tor), and the third, Dilemma, by Carillon. Gigadibs sired more champions (28) than his older half-brother (18), but none of his sons became top producers and Morceau Choisi appears about twice as often in current pedigrees. Dilemma sired the most champions - 33 out of 347 progeny. However, only 17 produced champions in their turn, and the four top producers were all daughters.

The success of Annsown Gay Knight, on the other hand, stems largely from a suggestion from Blanche Saunders of Carillon to Jean Lyle of Wycliffe that Jean consider mating him to Jacqueline. Neither was at the beginning of their career. Jacqueline had already produced 7 champions in two litters (one of them from Dilemma), but Gay Knight would not have become a top producer were it not for the 5 champions from the famous Wycliffe "T" litter of 1959.

The relative contribution of Gay Knight and Jacqueline to the genetic heritage of the current black Standard Poodle is a remarkable 55% of the total, and the impact on the others is considerable.

This represents an "artificial" bottleneck, created by the popularity of the Wycliffe and closely-related dogs. There were a total of 667 new AKC champions born in the 1950s, and they did not die from some mysterious epidemic before they could be bred. However, Wycliffe dogs sired 1/4 of the champions born in the 1960s, and when dogs of other heritage were not used, their genes were lost to the population.

(For additional information, go to The Influence of Wycliffe on the Black Standard Poodle)

Founder effects and bottlenecks

An unwanted gene for a genetic disease may be found only rarely in a large population. However, most individuals carry several such genes. Therefore, if a breed is based on a handful of founders, the particular problems that they carry will appear at a much higher than usual frequency among their descendants.

This does not seem likely to have occurred in the poodle. It is not a recent breed, and both the recorded pedigrees and written descriptions indicate considerable diversity. The North American SP heritage originates in at least 6 distinct lines (3 white and 3 dark) of Belgian, English, French, German and Swiss origin. The genealogical records indicate that, while the number imported from each line varied, the total number should have been more than adequate.

A genetic bottleneck occurs when the population undergoes a severe constriction in size due to disease, war, lack of popularity or natural catastrophy. In effect, there are no longer sufficient individuals to carry the full range of genetic diversity originally present, and genes may be lost accidentally.

However, at no time since the founding of North American population do any of these factors appear to have had sufficient impact to produce a conventional genetic bottleneck. Though some reduction occurred during WWII, the major impact appears to have been on the number of new Champions. Individuals representing the major founding lines that made it to North America before the war are readily identified in the fifties.

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© John B. Armstrong, 1997-2000

Last revised April 13, 2000