Archive for February 2010

Perception – is seeing believing?

February 27, 2010

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Two very different facets of my past experience came to mind this week which were triggered by an article in Our Dogs by Malcolm Willis’s article about the current controversy in German Shepherd Dogs.  Malcolm has been a friend for many years and when the Animal Care College (www.animalcarecollege.co.uk) was running regular seminars on Judging and Breeding in the 1980/90s he was a regular speaker.  He was greatly appreciated and admired by students, many of whom have taken top awards in our Winners Supplement over the years and who are judging at the highest levels today. The thousands of hours of work Malcolm has put in, his publications, his talks, advice and his articles have been of immense value to the world of dogs and I know from personal experience that he has always been willing to listen and bring thoughtful and knowledgeable input into any problem about dogs, breeding and genetics brought to him.

In reading his article I was reminded about an important factor of these courses written for judges and breeders: that of ‘perception’.  I must first say that in the first edition of the Judging Diploma course which I wrote in 1980, I omitted this very important section and it was one of our students at the very first seminar we ran at Maidenhead who pointed out this significant oversight.   In fact, he developed his ideas in his thesis and with his permission, I used the illustrations he created in my own lectures for many years.  The key element in the discussion is that the brain ‘interprets’ what we see physically and the conclusions we come to mentally, through the filter of our experience so that our internal vision of both our ideas and surroundings may not be the same as the person next to us or with whom we are having a discussion.

At its simplest I use the example of the way in which the eye works.  You will know that at the back of the eye, not quite in the centre but close to it, the optic nerve ‘connects’ to the retina in an area called the optic nerve cup.  The retina itself is covered with the optic nerve fibres (receptors) which connect to the nerve and carry information of light, shade and colour to the optic nerve and thence to the brain where it is processed to give us a visual experience.  Despite the advertising for a well-known camera which implies that our brain collects photocopied ‘images’ as we see things around us, we do not have ‘pictures’ in our mind – if we did there would be a round blank space in the centre of each because the optic nerve cup does not have any receptors so cannot ‘see’.  The reason that we do not go around with the moving blank space in everything we look at is that our brain ‘fills in’ any gaps.  I discovered last year that I have mild glaucoma and a quadrant of my right eye has been damaged so there are very few receptors in that area.  Fortunately it was discovered and has responded well to treatment but I would not have known had not my optician recognised an anomaly during an eye test two years ago.  As far as I am concerned I see as normal because my brain ‘collects’ electro-chemical links from the rest of the receptors which give me what is ‘normal’ vision.

In an experiment carried out in the 1950’s a man was given a pair of prismatic goggles which when worn appeared to turn his world upside down.  He wore them for a few days and one morning he woke up to find that even wearing the goggles he was ‘seeing’ everything the right way up – until he took them off when his world was once again the wrong way up.  A few days later, he was back to normal.  Many people wear two different contact lenses, one for short sight and one for long sight.  Their brain quickly learns to use the correct eye for what they are looking at so they appear to have normal vision without spectacles.

Taking this a step further, you will have noticed that when you take a picture of a tall building the resulting photograph is distorted so the building looks as if it is falling over backwards.  It did not look like that when you looked up at because your brain made the necessary correction so that it looked ‘normal’ – it did what modern photo manipulation computer programmes can do automatically – in your mind.

What has this got to do with dogs? ‘ Simples’, as the Meercats would say.  If you as the judge stand in the ring and look at, say, a Border terrier on the ground a few feet in front of you it looks perfectly normal in terms of its conformation.  If you took a picture of it, it would look very short on the leg because of the inevitable distortion the camera would give to the image.  Your brain is ‘adjusting’ the image so that it looks ‘right’.  This means you have no idea whether the dog is long in back, short on the leg, has a head in proportion to its body, a tail that is at the right angle or whether it has the correct depth of chest.  You can only be sure of these proportions by either putting the dog on the table or crouching down so that you can see the proportions correctly.  A judge recent complimented me on a bitch I was showing because she was the ‘correct’ square outline.  She is not – it is one of her two obvious faults – but the judge was standing above her so was not able to assess the length of leg in relations to the length of body.
If you are looking at a dog (crouching down so you see its true proportion) against a breeze block wall – that is one where the sizes of the blocks are quite large – it will look smaller that it would against a wall of ordinary (smaller) bricks.  ‘That Whippet looks big,’ you might hear someone say.  It may not be – what is the person seeing it in relation to?

In the same way our minds interpret information through the filter of our experience.  If we are comfortable and used to the look of a breed we love, we may not be able to see what others see in terms of its outline, feature or shape and not be prepared to consider other views.  And those who believe that such an outline, feature or shape are unacceptable may not be prepared to read or seriously consider research which might, just might, undermine their view.

You might bear some of these thoughts in mind when you are next in a discussion.  You may find you have a different perspective.

More about GSDs

February 10, 2010

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

In the near twenty years I have been writing articles none other than my video about Pedigree Dogs Exposed* (over 15,000 viewings and over 400 hundred comments) has generated as much heat as my recent article on German Shepherd Dogs which has been read 300 times and generated 60 comments.  This is over and above anyone who read the article when it was published in Our Dogs in early January and demonstrates not just people’s enthusiasm and commitment for breed by those deeply involved, but what can only be described as their ‘passion’.  I am great believer in passion.  Balzac said, ‘Passion is universal humanity. Without it religion, history, romance and art would be useless,’ and Anthony Robins, one of the world’s most successful motivational speakers and management gurus, said ‘Passion is the genesis of genius’.  We will return to Anthony Robbins later but first I must bring us down to earth and point out that passion may be one of the most powerful emotions which drives humanity but it cannot be denied that it does not always steer it in the right direction.

The Kennel Club is made up of people who are, mostly, passionate about dogs.  Although some might say they that many are more passionate about power, my experience is that it is the love of, and commitment to, dogs which is members’ over-riding concern and sentiment.  Unfortunately, bureaucracy tends to mask enthusiasm so the KC usually comes across as pretty soulless.  They have to cover every media, government, charity, scientific base in anything they say and do where as you and I can more or less say what we like and ignore the consequences.

The comments on my GSD article are an excellent case in point.  Many good and sensible points are made but they almost always address narrow issues and take little account of what would happen in the wider world were their ideas to be adopted wholesale.  To counter this, the KC has published a press release (as reported elsewhere in Our Dogs this week) which tries to put everything in perspective.  Unfortunately it may not help – after all everything in it has been said before to little avail.  I know how they feel because although I am occasionally deliberately provocative: ‘putting matters in perspective’ has been what I have always tried to do.   But if you try to steer a middle course there is a tendency for both ‘sides’ to make the assumption that as you are not on ‘theirs,’ you must be with the ‘others’!  This is almost never the case but there is a considerable amount of sociological research indicating that whenever one ‘takes a stand’ on an issue and particularly if you are not prepared to compromise, the consequence is to drive everyone who might have some sympathy into another, alternative corner.

The other problem with ‘passion’ is that it tends to feed off the emotional side of our brains rather the logical, reasonable and dispassionate areas.   The result is that a fog descends and it often becomes impossible to come to a rational view.  At worst this results in dictatorships and ethnic cleansing and at best rifts between those who once were friends – but there is good news.  We may be becoming more civilised

The initial discussions on GSDs on my web log took a series of what appeared to be entrenched and disparate positions but over the past week or so the tone has changed and there have genuine attempts to understand other points of view.  Jemima Harrison, John Leadbeater and David Payne have all made contributions which, although not conceding a great deal have nevertheless acknowledged that some of what the others have been saying has merit.  You will not be surprised to learn that David and Jemima have somewhat similar views on the Kennel Club and I see that fact that each can recognise that there are some points of agreement has to be a good thing.  What is just as interesting is that discussion has been conducted in a rational and reasonable manner.  The parties certainly disagree but the very fact that they and others are prepared to put their names to their views and do not hide behind ‘user names’, improves the quality of the posts.

I have been delighted at much of the discussion and this brings me back to Anthony Robins.  One of things he emphasises is that, ‘Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers’.  I hope in these articles I ask the right questions (I certainly think I did about German Shepherd Dogs) and I think Jemima, for all the distortions she edited into her programme, asked the right questions too.  Had she not done so, the damage to our world would have been very much less so we would have been allowed to remain in our comfortable cocoon.  As things stand, distasteful or not, the programme triggered an unprecedented acceleration of progress within Clarges Street’s hallowed portals.  The last eighteen months or so may have been uncomfortable and some may have felt pilloried (and threatened too) but change is uncomfortable – and progress cannot be made without change.

Be passionate – but ask the right questions. It might be more effective if the Kennel Club took part in these discussions rather than sending out more press releases.

*You can see and hear my talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njPsECODIBs or log onto You Tube and search for Pedigree dogs exposed Exposed!

Who is really responsible for what dogs look like?

February 10, 2010

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

The Kennel Club has come in for a real roasting over the last eighteen months and anyone who understands the background will long have held the view that the recent furore was an accident waiting to happen.  It is true that Pedigree Dogs Exposed has now been accepted as a valuable catalyst/crowbar for change regardless of the distorted and unfair portrayal of the Kennel Club, those representing it and many other breeders, but there can be no doubt that in some ways Clarges Street was hoist by its own petard and so allowed Ms Harrison (and many others happy to pillory those dedicated to pedigree dogs and the advantages of selective breeding) to exploit its weakness.

But all the Kennel Club has tried to do, like the Royal Society, the Institute of Architects, the Royal Society of Arts and thousands of other organisations, is to attempt to regulate.  And it has been very successful, for most institutions have alternatives while the Kennel Club has a virtual monopoly.  But this success of course, contains the seeds of its weakness: it is blamed for any failure and there is no-one else conveniently accountable.  This will remain the case while it represents but a tiny fraction of those involved.  At one time I estimated that this was about half of one percent put the rise in popularity of activities such as heelwork to music, the Young Kennel Club, Flyball, Good Citizens, Canine Club and the rest has, despite the fall in popularity of formal Obedience, means that this fraction is even smaller now than it once was.  With not many more than 1,100 members there is no chance that government, local authorities and the charities will attempt to lay the blame anywhere other than Clarges Street, even though they are not actually responsible.  Why not I hear you cry?  Let me explain.

Having said all the above let us look at the whole situation through a different window.  If you give it some thought it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that, despite all the fuss, the Kennel Club is not directly answerable for any of this because human beings delight in the extreme.  Whether it is in sport, music, building, faster cars, cooking more complicated food, bizarre artistic creation or the selective breeding of dogs, cats, birds and other animals, humanity is hard wired to strive for difference and ascendancy: it is what makes us human.  The Kennel Club does not and in fact, cannot, control what people ‘like’.

When my wife and I first got a dog, part of the compromise (another part was me going to work for three weeks in a milk bottling factory during my summer holiday to earn the money to pay for her) was that I chose the breed.  I was immediately attracted to the Spitz group and after a great deal of discussion a Finnish Spitz is the breed we selected.  In my view they should be much more popular than they are but many people do not like the style and shape of the dog.  It looks too ‘fox like,’ it can be noisy – it does not have to be – and they are not the easiest to train – doing what you want simply is not their style.  We like that, we like the independence and the smart, alert look of them, the ‘handy’ size and we are lucky to have had excellent dogs and to have subsequently bred some very good ones.

Others have different views: they want dogs to work to the gun, to train to a very high standard, to be every good with children or to be as little trouble as possible. Or, and here we come to the point, they want dogs that are very big, very long, very heavy, very brave, very strong, very delicate or with an unusual shape, head or expression.  The Kennel does not dictate these preferences – the public does and breeders, many of who are interested in their breed and want to win well and breed better dogs only reflect them.  What us more, in just the same way that they like the look of their dogs, so do others who may not want to show or but simply want a pet.  And if there is a market it will be filled – preferably by a responsible breeder who ensures that they only breed the best and take a great deal of time and trouble to feed, socialise and test their puppies.

But more than this, once there is a market, those who are not concerned about quality will come forward to fill it.  Just because we are dealing with a sentient being does not mean others may not treat it as a commodity which will make profits if it can be brought forward for sale with sufficient margin.  Again, the Kennel Club cannot be blamed for this  – and it is not Crufts or dog shows that contribute to the problem either – it is the very media which have turned so viciously on the fancy.

Let us look at the facts. When Crufts was televised it was seen by millions of people all over the world through a four-week ‘window’.  Last year it was web streamed very successfully although if you look at the figures the numbers watching was comparatively small.  But apart from that, the number of pedigree pet owners who attend dog shows as spectators at any level other than Crufts is tiny and although 50,000 plus is a very respectable figure to squeeze into the NEC, it is a small proportion of the total population and many of those are true enthusiasts coming for a second day.  So the exposure of pedigree dogs generated by the Kennel Club and its activities is actually microscopic (a smaller proportion to the population at large even than the membership of the KC is to the number of those actively involved in dogs probably).

So where is the interest in the extremes of dogs propagated?  In the media, of course! How many times does the Churchill insurance advertisement appear on TV, on posters and in newspapers and magazines every day – hundreds!  Children see that cute little Bulldog time after time after time throughout their most formative years and view it as a cuddly, adorable family friend with a sense of humour.  Why is it surprising that when they grow up they like the large head, the wrinkled skin, the turned up nose and the thick set build?  Those children will be exposed to other conformations, it is true, but nothing is telling them that one is preferable to the other.  Then they go into the toyshop and are faced with a fluffy version to take home and sleep with.  Do their parents say, ‘No – you should have this Border Collie instead – a Bulldog shows characteristics which lead to genetic disease?’  Of course they don’t.  Pedigree are currently using a Bulldog in their ads for Jumbone, Eukanuba are using a Boxer – Boxers are very popular – and the Harry Potter films have added to the popularity of the Neapolitan Mastiff.

I am surprised, now I come to think of it, that the RSPCA are not calling for legislation to prevent advertisers from using the ‘at risk’ breeds in advertisements. That sort of legislation would be easy to pass, easy to implement and, I suspect, rather more effective than lashing out at the easiest target – the Kennel Club.

Note to advertisers:  I am not complaining about you.  You are entitled to use whatever images you like to sell your products and you have to use those that will be effective but do not be surprised if the Non-governmental Organisation/Charity searchlight begins to focus on you.