Archive for October 2017

Is science taking over the ‘art’ of breeding dogs

October 15, 2017

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some years ago I wrote a Speakers’ Corner which set out my ideas about ‘line-breeding’ and ‘in-breeding’.  As you probably know there is no formal definition of either of these terms for all ‘line-breeding’ is ‘in-breeding’ to some extent but for many decades they have been used by dedicated breeders to distinguish between breeding which is very close and that which is designed to retain the characteristics of specific dogs and bitches without causing what I suppose we could call ‘genetic damage’.  I subsequently posted the article on to my weblog (www.davidcavill.wordpress.com) which I have long used to publish articles on various subjects which I felt would be of longer-term interest and worth retaining rather than their being used, along with all the other pages of Our Dogs, to mop up puppies’ excreta.  There are now about 60 such articles and the website garners between 150 and 200 views every day, by far the most popular being that article titled a ‘A Beginners Guide to ‘Line-breeding’ and ‘In-breeding’.  As I write I can see that over 60 people accessed it yesterday and over the years it has been read by almost 30,000.

There is nothing complicated about breeding good dogs if there is a sufficiently wide genetic base and they are of a relatively normal conformation: my article simply sets out the way in which generations of dog breeders selected dogs and bitches to produce the puppies that they felt best represented their breed.  I explain that problems arise when the physical structure of the dog is stretched too far from the norm or dogs are bred too closely for too many generations.  The old rule of thumb used to be, ‘line breed for two generations then outcross for the next’ and this has been a generally reliable mantra for most breeds.  This does not mean those dogs are necessary spectacular champions, Group or Best in Show winners (you need long experience and a measure of honed instinct for that – Angela has it but I freely admit that I do not) but the dogs you breed ought to be consistent and generally healthy using this simple formula.

Has research changed our perception?

Since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the recognition of the amazing research of Gregor Mendel, the whole process of breeding dogs has benefited from advances in science and technology which has been built on the foundations which they established.  When Angela and I started to breed dogs at the end of the 1960s Malcolm Willis’ books had not been published and for us, genetics was a vague memory, poorly remembered, from school biology.  We were both teachers and so the concept of hereditability and the importance and impact of environmental factors in development of children were discussed in lectures on child psychology but there was no reason for us to connect that material which was entirely focused on our vocation to work with children and young people, with the breeding of dogs.  It was much later that we made such connections, partly as a result of experience and partly due to the research which I was beginning to do for my writing and being fortunate enough to meet experts such as Malcolm and other prominent geneticists.

And in the 40 years since much has been learned by us all, and many breeders are now reasonably confident in talking about coefficients of inbreeding, F1, F2 and F3 generations, commonly used techniques such as artificial insemination and tests for over 100 hidden genetic defects which enable us to avoid doubling up on damaging flaws which will affect our puppies.

The speed of development has been hastened by criticisms of pedigree dog breeding by the veterinary profession, the RSPCA and programmes such as Pedigree Dogs Exposed, for kennel clubs throughout the world have followed the lead of our KC and set up special programs and initiatives designed to educate breeders and give them the tools to enable them to breed healthy, long-lived puppies.

Invaluable tools

Such tools are invaluable as is the research upon which they are based, but it occurs to me that it is possible we may be coming almost too reliant on the ‘science’ rather than the ‘art’ of breeding dogs.   It is certainly true that if you want to become an expert in breeding specific colours in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels you need to educate yourself in some fairly detailed genetics and if you have a breed which is subject to genetic flaw or physical distortion it is essential that you are familiar with many of the tools for breeders which are now available.  But in a breed I know well and which is fundamentally healthy, breeders have become so obsessed with avoiding two specific, not particularly common defects that breed type and the working abilities of the dogs are being lost to the extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find dogs and bitches of quality even in the country of origin.

We see similar decisions being taken in other breeds where, although it has been shown quite clearly that where the sire or dam carry a specific but masked defect and testing can detect it so that the dog or bitch can be used safely so long as its partner does not carry the deleterious gene, passionate breeders will still seek to avoid using those dogs which are in all other respects of superb quality.

There will of course be important exceptions, but it seems to me that perhaps we should be concentrating much more on developing our understanding and knowledge of breeding patterns and our appreciation of breed type while keeping in mind the health and welfare of puppies.  This is not for a moment to suggest that we should ignore scientific evidence and conclusions, but we should at least put them in perspective bearing in mind the results of the recent research into Brachycephalic breeds which appears to indicate that rather than using a complex series of measurements and predictions we concentrate on the relatively simple series of decisions which any breeder can take into account by simply looking at the size of nostril opening of both the parents and puppies in breeds which are affected.

Another ‘rule of thumb’ which appears to be too often ignored by some breeders, is that when a ‘problem’ is identified, whether it be size, ear or tail carriage, eye shape. length of muzzle, steepness of stop, length of body or second thigh, angulation or coat quality, you simply breed away from it.  Look back at three generations to identify where that particular problem started and just avoid that line.  It sounds obvious and even trite but this is the way dogs have been bred by enthusiasts over many hundreds of years and it is a like babies and bathwater – if we reject all of those basic principles and rely entirely on the scientists, valuable although their contributions have undoubtedly been, we may not be doing ourselves or the quality of pedigree dogs any favours.

First published in Our Dogs in August 2017

 

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October 5, 2017

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together – Vincent Van Gogh

I attended a meeting of the Canine and Feline Sector Group (CFSG) on 15th September.  It is the most influential of all the pet animal lobby groups for it has as its members, representatives of almost every aspect of dog and cat care in the UK.  There is a separate Sector Group for all other pet animals and both have a direct line to the Department of The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).  It was the first meeting chaired by Chris Lawrence MBE, a veterinary surgeon who has been Chief Veterinary Officer of both the RSPCA and Dogs Trust.  He has just taken over from our own Steve Dean who, under the CFGS constitution, has had to step down after almost four years during which time he set up the group.

The main discussion concerned progress on the government’s relatively recent commitment to sorting out the mess of legislation with respect to the current licensing conditions for caring for animals.  Ever since the first licensing laws were put in place, in the 1950s for pet shops (now given the generic term ‘pet vending’), in the early 1960s for boarding kennels and later those breeding dogs (three attempts none of which have achieved their objective) the reality has always been well ahead of the legislation.  When the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (AWA) was introduced there was a commitment by the then government to bring in secondary legislation which would more clearly define, explain and advise on what was expected of those subject to the regulatory provisions.  Even though most of the requirements were relatively simple (if you sold pet animals or boarded dogs and/or cats you were subject to the legislation).  Much more difficult are the regulations surrounding breeders, for separating the ‘hobby’ breeder from the professional and defining at which stage breeding became ‘commercial’ remains a serious problem and is still under discussion.

Just over two years ago the government decided, under pressure from various lobby groups and having received many thousands of complaints about almost every aspect of licensing legislation, that it would try to solve the problem once and for all.  In Association with ‘stakeholders’ they designed a series of extended requirements developed from those embedded in the AWA.  The first is what is called a ‘Generic Schedule’ which provides an extended explanation of the five animal welfare ‘needs’ and is common to all the legislation.  Just as a reminder those needs are defined as the:

  • need for a suitable environment.
  • need for a suitable diet.
  • need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns (as appropriate – as it is not unreasonable to train dogs not to bark, demonstrate mating behaviour or chase sheep).
  • need to be housed with, or apart, from other animals as appropriate.
  • need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

That Generic Schedule is followed by a sector specific schedule setting out the ‘Conditions of the Licence’ and including guidance for each of the regulated areas which are:

  • Boarding
  • Home Boarding
  • Breeding
  • Pet Vending
  • Doggy Daycare and
  • Animal Exhibits (this last is designed to cope with zoos and farms where animals are on display and may be petted and also those professional entertainers who take animals to children’s parties where they come into contact with children).

An ambitious timetable

The timetable is that these ‘conditions’ will become mandatory in the autumn of 2018 although it must be said that there are few outside Defra who believe that this timetable can be achieved.  Attached to each of the special areas there is extended advice for those holding a licence and for local authorities who will be expected to implement the conditions.

One general point I would make is that although there is much about buildings and environment affecting ‘new build’ for both kennels, catteries and other animal housing, there remains flexibility for existing premises and that overall, the conditions put a greater emphasis on animal welfare and environmental enrichment than has been the case in the past.

I would emphasise that although there are many pages of these documents, they are still under discussion and suggestions and amendments are constantly being made by the small specialist groups which are reviewing the detail and suggesting changes to the Defra proposals.  For instance, several members of the National Register of Boarding Kennels who kindly reviewed the draft for me noticed, among other things, that there was a requirement for the licence for boarding kennels and catteries to apply to all the animals on the premises – including those belonging to the owner.  I brought this up at the meeting and I was supported by others who agreed that this was a nonsense and the definition of ‘premises’ is to be changed to make it clear the licence only applies those animals who are paid boarders.

It would appear that the current legal position of pet care providers such as veterinary surgeons, groomers and, indeed, pet shops whereby they can board animals without a licence will no longer be applicable and all those boarding dogs commercially will have to fulfil the requirements of the statutory conditions.

One interesting aspect of Pet Vending is that statutory conditions could, in the future, also apply to sales of dogs, cats and other animals if such sales were judged to be commercial (and I would emphasise again that the idea of what and what is not ‘commercial’ within the pet industry is still being debated).  What is currently called the Pet Shop Licence Model Conditions which currently apply to large-scale breeders of puppies might also be applied to smaller breeders.  Many in the cat breeding community are very concerned that such legislation might be applied to them even though there is no intention of bringing in a licence for cat breeders.  Defra has assured the feline fancy that this is not the case but as the definitions have not yet been decided it remains a worry for them.

Alternative schemes and standards

Another aspect still under discussion, is the Kennel Club’s suggestion sent direct to Defra that their Assured Breeder Scheme should be recognised as the equivalent of an inspection by officers representing the Local Authority.  The KC argues that the ABS would not only guarantee the highest standards but that it would save the local authority money too.  The breeder would still have to have a licence but would not have to be separately inspected and, presumably as a member of the ABS, would not have to pay the full Local Authority licence fee either.

Similar schemes are being considered for the other licensing areas one of which is the Pet Industry Federation (PIF).  PIF is a specialist trade body representing those industries involved in pet care and so have the same approach to pet vending and kennels and catteries as has the Kennel Club for breeders.  They have set standards for most of the licensing areas for many years and as a board member for 20 years I was regularly involved in amending those standards as and when legislation or experience required it.  Also likely to make a bid to take on independent standards assessment is a company called SAI Global which does similar work for many industries from farming to engineering.  They have spent almost two years in discussing the standards with stakeholders representing every area of pet care and with local authorities.  I have been involved in those discussions and have been impressed with the detail although in my view it places more emphasis on generic standards and leaves much more scope within the specialist areas.

It remains to be seen whether or not Defra and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) will agree that these external organisations will provide sufficient authority to replace Environmental Health Officers or Licensing Officers but I suspect that they will be amenable because the amount of work which is being placed on Local Authorities by the new and generally more demanding standards is considerable, given the pressure under which they already have to work.

For the present at least there is no appetite for licensing Groomers, Dog Trainers or Canine Behaviourists.

Defra is ambitious: they believe that everything can be finalised by the end of October so that the papers can be submitted to parliamentary draftsmen with a view to enacting legislation in the autumn of 2018.   We shall see.