Pictured Above: Robette Johns with Jessie and Paris. From the December 2018 Issue of ShowSight. Click to subscribe.
The AKC Canine Health Foundation’s vision is to address the health needs of all dogs across their entire lifetime by focusing on their physical, mental, and social well-being. That’s a lot of science to cover! So how does AKC Canine Health Foundation address the full breadth of canine health issues affecting our beloved companions? They join forces with dog lovers like Robette Johns.
A long-time Collie enthusiast, Robette helped pave the way for the prevailing culture of collaboration in canine health research. Thanks to the efforts of Robette and many others, AKC Canine Health Foundation works closely with AKC Parent Clubs, dog owners, breeders, veterinarians, and researchers alike to identify and select research projects of high scientific merit and those that address today’s greatest needs in canine health.
Growing up with a Collie mix and watching the television show Lassie, Robette fell in love with Collies at a young age. As a teenager, she attended her first dog show and first Collie Club of America National Specialty and was hooked. She started showing in the breed ring and her third dog, a smooth-coated, tri-color bitch named “Mandy,” was her first breed champion, her first top ten Collie, and the foundation bitch for Row-Bar Kennel. Robette started a breeding program and worked as a professional handler. Based on the premise that form follows function, which helped guide her breeding decisions, she also showed her dogs in obedience and herding trials. Over the past forty-plus years, Row-Bar Kennel has produced high quality Collies and Pembroke Welsh Corgis, including more than 75 breed champions and at least one top ten Collie in each decade.
To give back to her beloved Collie breed and the sport, Robette became approved to judge Collies in the AKC Conformation ring and had her first provisional judging assignment in 1997. Since then she has been approved to judge Australian Shepherds, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Junior Showmanship, with plans to become approved for additional herding breeds this year.
As a breeder, judge, and active member of the Collie Club of America, Robette saw first-hand the health problems facing Collies both as breeding stock and as family members. She was alarmed by the lack of genetic diversity and prevalence of auto-immune disease in the breed. After breeding dogs for many years, she encountered Collie health issues such as dermatomyositis and progressive retinal atrophy, as well as issues that affect many breeds and mixed breeds such as cancer, bloat, and epilepsy. She saw a critical need for canine health research to improve the well-being of her companions.
Frustrated by their limited ability to financially support Collie medical research and related activities, the Collie Club of America created the Collie Health Foundation in 1986. It was the first breed-specific health foundation in the United States. Robette was an early member and corporator of the organization and has remained active, serving several terms as an officer or corporator and currently serving as president. By 1997, as treasurer of the Collie Health Foundation, Robette was managing the foundation’s donations to the AKC Canine Health Foundation and interacting with their staff on a regular basis. Things were starting to roll.
Early on, Robette realized that by working together, AKC Canine Health Foundation and the Collie Health Foundation could have a greater impact on canine health. “I saw a positive change in the dog community and a chance to address the larger health issues affecting quality of life for dogs and the families that love them,” states Robette.
The Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) DNA repository is a great example of the power of collaboration. AKC Canine Health Foundation partnered with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals to create this resource, providing researchers with a wealth of genetic material and its corresponding genealogic and phenotypic information. With this quality DNA repository available, AKC Canine Health Foundation and its donors have funded studies resulting in genetic tests for devastating canine diseases. Robette is grateful for the resulting genetic test for progressive retinal atrophy, a disease that causes blindness and was once rampant in the Collie breed. Thanks to funding for research, the influence of the simple recessive genetic mutation that causes this disease in Collies can now be managed.
While canine health is always the primary focus, AKC Canine Health Foundation also seeks to find and fund projects that may have comparative medicine benefits for humans. Dogs share our homes and are exposed to many of the same environmental and lifestyle factors as humans. As we learn more about canine disease, we also learn the genetic and molecular mechanisms that result in human disease. Robette tells everyone, “Even if you’re not a dog lover, canine health research benefits you, too!” Current research on epilepsy, asthma and allergies, osteosarcoma, tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and more is providing valuable insight into disease prevention and treatment at both ends of the leash.
As the largest funder of health research focused exclusively on dogs, AKC Canine Health Foundation continues to lead the way to better canine health. The 9/11 Medical Surveillance Study and additional working and service dog research will benefit the dogs that support us and all canine athletes. The Harmonization of Genetic Testing for Dogs initiative will provide a valuable resource to dog owners and breeders looking to own and breed healthier dogs and preserve the genetic diversity of our purpose-bred dog breeds. AKC Canine Health Foundation education grants will support the next generation of canine health researchers investigating issues from infectious disease to cancer and will help ensure that there are sufficient specialists trained in canine reproduction and genetics to educate owners and breeders about the latest veterinary medical advances.
Now is an exciting time; Robette believes it is “the best time ever for canine health research,” and has hope that we may find a cure for canine and human cancer in her lifetime. With that much passion, hope, and dedication to making a difference—the future is indeed bright. Join AKC Canine Health Foundation and supporters like Robette Johns to make a difference for canine health. Donate today at akcchf.org/donate.