Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Why have incidents of dog biting increased?

December 22, 2009

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Figures recently released by the National Health Service have shown that biting incidents by dogs have risen sharply over the last ten years. Apparently these figures only include those people admitted to hospital after reporting to Accident and Emergency and not those who are treated and sent home. This means the actual figure and percentage is likely to be much higher. The immediate reaction of those involved in re-homing dogs is that this is due to the increased number of dogs being used for fighting and as ‘protection dogs’ by individuals who want to look tough on the streets. To some extent this may be true but I believe the real reason is much more to do with society’s attitude and approach to dog training, an approach which has undergone and significant change over the last ten years. Can this be co-incidence? I think not.

Let me explain. At one time, the Barbara Woodhouse school of dog training reigned supreme. The owner had to be ‘in charge’ and the dog had to be forced into subservience by recognising its owner as its ‘pack leader’. The theory is based on what has been perceived by researchers as the behaviour of wolves in the wild, although it has since become clear that most of that research was carried out with wolves that were not truly ‘wild’ and did not have to compete for food. What was not recognised was the immense changes which had taken place in the behaviour of dogs as a result of their being domesticated. The DNA may have remained the same but the subtle changes in behaviour as a result of selective breeding had not been taken into account.

Added to this was the work by Karen Prior and many others that showed the effectiveness of what is called positive re-enforcement. That is, if you reward the behaviour you want the animal will quickly continue to behave in that way rather than behave badly. As a teacher I know that if you encourage pupils you get better results than beating them and that one of the most powerful forces in education is not punishment but the withdrawal of praise. The principle is the same although we have to recognise that there are circumstances when it is not enough – as we shall see.

Personally, I accept and use positive re-enforcement and there is no doubt that it is extremely effective as can be seen by such disciplines at Heelwork to Music where its ‘magic’ is so clearly demonstrated. If you bring a puppy up using this approach you will almost certainly have a well-behaved and well-socialised adult dog, which will be a pleasure to own.

Dogs behave well for one of two reasons: they are either selectively bred to behave in a certain way as can be seen in the Border Collie, many gundogs and the work of Guide Dogs for the Blind who have many generations of dogs bred to be ideally suited to their work, or they are well trained by their breeders and their owners using the positive re-enforcement techniques which we are speaking about and which are described in many books and used by many behaviourists.

But as always with changes in perception the pendulum tends to swing too far and this has resulted in many canine behaviourists rejecting any suggestion that a dog should be subjected to ‘negative’ re-inforcement and some believe that even raising your voice to draw a dog’s attention to its unacceptable behaviour is tantamount to ‘cruelty’.

A recent statement by an group called the Dog Welfare Organisation tends towards this view. It calls what I have referred to as ‘negative re-enforcement’, ‘aversive’ training techniques which includes choke chains – used by Guide Dogs for the Blind incidentally as well as many in the show world and Kennel Club registered trainers) among the unacceptable ‘unpleasant stimuli used to inhibit behaviour’.

I do not and would not condone any form of cruelty in ensuring a dos behaves acceptably but the thinking behind the Dog Welfare Organisation is naive and makes the assumption that all dogs and all anti-social behaviour can be treated using positive re-inforcement (what is often called ‘reward based’ training) and I am afraid that this is simply not the case.

The reason is not because positive reward based training does not work – it most certainly does – but that many, many dogs in the community become adult with ingrained bad habits because their owners have allowed them to behave in a way which is not acceptable and have not encouraged the dog to behave well through proper training. It is these dogs that cause the problems and these dogs that are mostly responsible for the rise in biting incidents and, incidentally, clogging up the re-homing system in our rescue kennels.

I think we have to recognise that any learning experience is not necessarily comfortable – ask any student preparing for examinations. Of course it better if learning is fun and the learner is highly motivated but to achieve anything worthwhile requires hard work on someone’s part and a degree of discipline, whether self or externally imposed, is essential if progress towards any skill is to be made. And if there are bad habits then the demands are inevitably increased: think of giving up smoking or dieting and remember a dog does not have that sort of personal, peer motivation and support.

This is not say that the negative equipment and procedures which include prong collars, electric shock collars and ‘pinning to the ground’, named by the Dog Welfare Organisation are acceptable but to condemn an effective trainer such as Cesar Millan (and by implication many others such as Mic Martin in the UK) who deal with dogs which have behaviours which are exceptionally difficult to modify is misleading and counter productive.

In my view it is no co-incidence that there are no DVDs showing really difficult dogs being rehabilitated by positive re-enforcement while there are many which show effective training using other techniques which, I must emphasise, are neither cruel nor unusual. The press release states that ‘a number of scientific studies have found an association between the use of aversive training techniques and the occurrence of undesired behaviours in dogs’. There are certainly some such studies but the information I have about them is that ‘scientific’ is a misnomer, that they have not been peer reviewed and there are no links to them on the organisation’s web site at http://www.dogwelfarecampaign.org

The answer of course, is as always, the education of breeders and pet owners to ensure dogs are properly socialised from the nest. That is where the focus of these organisations should be.

Canine behaviour modification – progress towards practitioner accreditation and registration

April 13, 2009

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Through the Animal Care College I have, inevitably, become deeply involved in the politics of canine training, behaviour and modification.I should make it clear that I do not consider myself a dog trainer or a behaviourist other than in the sense that our own dogs are reasonably well behaved in that they are properly socialised and domestically obedient.However, in the research and development that has been necessary over the years for the programmes delivered by the College I have come to understand the basic mechanisms by which dogs and animals behave and learn.

Several things become clear very quickly:the ways in which animals can be effectively trained covers a very wide spectrum, those who do the training are usually totally convinced that they have the only solutions and that dogs are quite different to other wild and domestic animals.

I would like to examine each of these elements in some detail but I must first emphasise that I am giving an overview here.My historical summary does not mean that all trainers were cruel for many will have been, instinctively, just very good at what they were doing.For instance, shepherds, huntsmen and obedience enthusiasts training their puppies by running them with experienced trained dogs so that the responses were learned by example rather than by force is an excellent example of sensible and effective conditioning which never required force.But the general perception of the development of training techniques is at variance with these techniques.

Effective training ranges from fear to what is currently termed ‘positive reinforcement’.If an animal is frightened it will do what its trainer demands because it does not want to be hurt.At the extreme, the animal is cowed and this is a technique has been used for centuries, especially with wild animals and as far as dogs are concerned, with service dogs.I remember early in my teaching career I worked with a very good teacher who had been a dog handler in the air force during his National Service.We had just got our first Finnish Spitz so, to me, he was an expert.Fortunately, I did not put his advice into practice for we moved soon afterwards but the techniques used were those of the circus and based on ensuring the dog was too scared to do anything other than follow the handler’s instructions.The dogs were trained by regular dog training air men using a strict regime that was absolutely meticulous and structured so that every dog was trained in the same way and to the same commands.They were then handed to the national servicemen who, from what I was told, were trained in much the same way using much the same techniques.When the servicemen had competed their two year stint, the dogs were dumped in a compound with no human company for six weeks.They were so pleased to be let out that they immediately identified with their new handler and automatically took up where they left off, obeying the commands and behaving precisely in the way that they had been trained.

Real change began when Konrad Lorenz developed a number of theories and processes within the natural world and began to study imprinting and animal behaviour patterns.This gradually led to more modern approaches to dog training based on pack hierarchy.This rejects ‘fear’ (and therefore pain and misuse) as the prime trigger to force dogs to behave in specific ways for what can best be described as ‘force of personality’ typified by the Barbara Woodhouse approach.This at least stopped dogs being beaten if they did not obey the trainers’ commands and of course, it worked perfectly well (as did the ‘fear’ method, of course).

Then came Karen Prior (among others, certainly, but I believe she was the first to put the idea of ‘positive reinforcement’ into words) who discovered – in her work training killer whales and dolphins – that if you waited until the animal exhibited a behaviour you approved or wanted, you just had to reward it at the right time with a unique signal for that behaviour.. to be quickly learned and repeatedIt works with any species – and this includes animals and birds as well as fish!Karen Priors ideas were developed for dogs by her, John Rogerson, John Fisher and others and the approach was taken up by experienced trainers and obedience enthusiasts such as Mary Ray and enables the advanced training now used in Heelwork to Music and the other canine training disciplines for support dogs in a dozen areas of disability.

So far, so effective but other layers were being added to what had become the incredibly complex and competitive world of what was once, simply ‘dog training’.

This has been largely due to the fact that dogs are quite unlike other animals.Over the centuries they have become integrated into human society in a unique way that has psychologically changed their nature for most never have to fend for themselves in the natural world.The result has been an animal which although incredibly intelligent, sensitive and responsive to human society has a mentality which is in effect, stunted and juvenile compared to its wolf forebears.What is more, the increasingly complexity of modern life in the West has brought with it extra external demands which have resulted in a range of problems from separation anxiety to unstable temperaments.Suddenly there was not just a demand for dog trainers but for canine psychologists and those who could effectively modify canine behaviours so that pet dogs would ‘fit in’ to their family and environment without causing their owners any trouble.

At the same time, it became clear that some dogs had behavioural problems which stemmed from their physiology so a veterinary input was needed to ensure that the dog was not suffering from a dietary problem or a disease.

in just a few years an immense specialisation has been created and the techniques used for behaviour modification in dogs have been sliced and diced to the extent that the current landscape resembles that of the competing and often vitriolic schools of human psychology beginning with John Locke at the end of the 17th Century through Freud and the emergence of psychoanalysis at the turn of the last Century to the detailed research into the working of the human brain today.

For all these reasons, the study of canine psychology and the modification of caninebehaviour cannot be compared to other domestic animals, including the cat and, most certainly, to the behaviour of animals in the wild.This is not to denigrate the study of animal behaviour: it is an important area of science and whether the research involves animals in their natural surroundings of plain, jungle, sea or air or in zoos and wildlife parks the conclusions will have significant effects on the sustainability of the natural living world.

At the same time, the world of canine psychologists and trainers will have a significant effect on the well being of humanity in the Western world, especially if you believe, as I do, that pets in general and dogs in particular, are an important element in both the physical and mental health of our society.However, therein lies a vital feature of any work with dogs – people are an essential factor in this equation.This quite different to the study of animal behaviour in the natural world where, generally, the impact of humanity other than in an environmental sense, is insignificant.

It is therefore surprising that the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) is developing such a strong (and for some, unwelcome, voice) in the discussions generated by the Council for Companion Animal Welfare (CAWC).This series of meetings has been held as a result of their report published last year into the Regulation of Companion Animal Services in Relation to Training and Behaviour Modification of Dogs.They have been fascinating in that for the first time so many differing facets of the world of dog training and behaviour have been gathered round the same table.

I have no quarrel with ASAB. They are a highly esteemed academic organisation and their magazine, newsletter and conferences are hugely influential.However, a survey of their publications, articles and conference presentations reveals that none are about dogs.This is not surprising for only a tiny proportion of their 2000 or so members are involved in the world of dogs.For instance, sixteen people are listed as being certified as ‘Clinical Animal Behaviourists’ in cat and/or dog behaviours (you can see the academic requirements for accreditation at

http://asab.nottingham.ac.uk/accred/academic.php)

and there is no doubt that the accreditation process is very thorough – as you would expect of an academic organisation.What is interesting though, is that although I understand some members of ASAB are veterinary surgeons, none are actually listed as Clinical Animal Behaviourists nor are any veterinary surgeons members of the various committees.

A further complication which worries many trainers and behaviourists is that there appears to have been a tendency that as more veterinary surgeons have become involved in this area, some conditions which would respond to normal behaviour modification techniques are being treated with ‘prozac’ type drugs, many of which have not been tested on dogs.I have discussed these difficulties (and those regarding the arrested development of the canine mind) in more detail in the past and I have republished those articles here – just scroll down.

There is no doubt that the world of animal trainers and behaviourists is a tangled mass of conflicting views and ideologies and it needs a structure if it is to be respected and effective.But the academic route, however important it is within its own narrow focus, is not about training dogs – and the vast majority of problems the ordinary pet owner faces is about dog training and there are thousands of effective, worthy and sensible dog trainers and behaviourists in the community who are more than capable of solving 95% of canine problems and training dogs without any academic qualifications (this is not to knock academia – just to put things in perspective).

What is more, the Kennel Club has, without doubt, got the most extensive and comprehensive accreditation scheme already in place.What is required is for all groups and practitioners to sign up to it.I hope that this is achievable.An agreed code of practice, an effective complaints procedure and the KC accreditation scheme is all that is required to get the whole sector working together for the benefit fo dogs and their owners – and in the long term, our society as a whole.

Yes we can!

Alternative views on the modification of canine behaviour

April 13, 2009

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

As many of you will know, the Kennel Club has been developing an accreditation scheme for dog trainers and behaviourists for over two years.The scheme is excellent and comprehensive although it would be fair to say that is progress has not always been smooth and some feel it is much more complicated than it need be.I am not one of them – the accreditation of standards in any field is complex almost by definition – and I feel that those tasked with creating this award have done an excellent job and the first half dozen candidates have just been awarded their certification.

However, there are two issues that have to be addressed.The first appears to be almost solving itself in an entirely unexpected way.It is the question of how dogs are best trained or their behaviour modified.The problems have really arisen because I believe a false dichotomy that been created by the learning processes suggested by some (I emphasise ‘some’) research questioning pack theory.  I am not disputing the findings per se because it shows an evolution in the way in which dogs behave that sounds reasonable and has been successfully demonstrated by many trainers.However, I am saying that other research does not back it up – sometimes partially and sometime completely.  If you go to http://www.anglianwolf.com and click on ‘what is applied canine behaviour’, you will find what I think is a reasonable summary of the ‘old’ perception.

At the same time, I have no problem with the views of Donaldson (both Jean and Ian), Prior, Kerkhove and others, except that their published material is scattered with statements such as ‘if true’, ‘may’, ‘suggests’ and ‘seems’.  You could probably put all those same qualifications into the work done by Lorenz, Trummler and their followers so there is no doubt that the understanding of canine behaviour is not an exact science.

My own view is pragmatic and does not depend on a ‘vision’, ‘research’ or opinion’.  Given that any successful methods employed to train dogs are ‘reasonable’ by any humanitarian standards it does not matter what the theoretical foundation is.  The philosophy and ideas are important, interesting – even fascinating (and should certainly be understood by those involved in any behavioural work) – but they may give rise to a number of approaches to problems of behaviour.But one approach does not necessarily wipe another from the face of the earth and so you would think there is little reason to get upset if there is any disagreement.Not so: most of the proponents of each view are evangelical in their condemnation of the others’ ideas

It seems to me that we have been confused into thinking that there is an enormous gulf between the “old” (harsh and brutal) method, which embraces pack hierarchy and dominance, and the “new” (modern, progressive and gentle) method, which rejects these ideas altogether. Why should we have to choose between one and the other if (and I emphasise ‘if’) both work within those humanitarian parameters on which we all agree?

There appears to be a feeling that if you do not embrace the ‘new’ you are automatically of the ’old’ and therefore are ‘harsh and brutal’.My experience reinforces my belief that this is simply not the case.You may argue that the ‘pack’ approach may give credibility to those who might be harsh and I would take the point if overall attitudes to training had not changed.No one (well, virtually no one) would return to the Barbara Woodhouse ‘school’ despite her methods being very successful.

The reason for all this detail is that as things stand we are not yet in a position to condemn anyone would feels that pack hierarchies provide a reasonable sensible basis for CBM and in our own advanced Canine Psychology course at the Animal Care College we state that serious problems my require ‘rank reduction techniques’ i.e. those based on pack theory.

I took up the dichotomy with Sue Evans who is responsible for the Kennel Club’s accreditation programme.A slow, secretive smile and satisfied smile surfaced.She told me that one of the most interesting aspects of the assessment process was that as assessors had not been ‘screened’ for their views on dog training, many had been assessing candidates from the ‘other’ approach.She said that their faces ‘were a picture’ as they realised that an approach they themselves would not have used and in fact, rejected, worked perfectly well.

This is excellent news.Clearly, the argument is not, as some have suggested, Creationists against Darwinists.In the case of training and behaviour modification there is genuine and palpable evidence on both sides of the argument: much more like two people looking out of the window and one concluding it might rain later and the other concluding that it might clear up and be sunny.

The second may be more difficult.

A recent survey carried out by Pet Plan has revealed that one in four Vets have treated animals, generally dogs, for conditions caused by the ingestion of drugs.Regular readers will remember that I expressed my concern on this issue a month or so back.

Part of the report reads:

‘Whilst mood-enhancing drugs such as cannabis rarely prove fatal for a pet, unpleasant side effects can include dizziness, vomiting and temporary loss of movement.The effects can last up to three or four days and throughout that time; veterinary monitoring is essential to ensure major organs don’t fail. As a result vets bills can run into many hundreds of pounds.’

There was no specific indication as to whether these drugs were introduced by their owners by accident or deliberately by other vets or behaviourists and the assumption in the report surmised accidental ingestion but the possibility that these drugs may have been introduced deliberately highlights once again what is becoming an increasing problem within the world of Canine Behaviour Modification (CBM).

As Studies Co-ordinator of the Animal Care College I have naturally taken an interest in what is going on in the world of CBM and my concern is that those who use psychotropic drugs to calm down unruly dogs either while they treat them for behaviour problems more conventionally or on a permanent basis, are not prepared to listen to the concerns of many experienced trainers, vets and, indeed, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.They have dug themselves into a trench to extent that they cannot see above the parapet (do trenches have parapets or is does it only apply to battlements?).

The Kennel Club must take a view on this matter in relation to their Accreditation Scheme because the recent culture of demanding stress free training (for some) often requires the administration of prescription drugs.

The panels set up under the Animal Welfare Bill, with its provision of a ‘duty of care’ responsibility to animals are now working on defining that duty as part of secondary legislation.I hope that this will give added impetus to the view that stress levels while dog are being trained should be kept as low as possible and that the used of prescription drugs will be seen only as a last resort rather than a catch all ‘quick fix’ solution.In the meantime, I understand that Royal College will be addressing all aspects of the psychotropic dug issue separately.

(January 2006)

The use of psychotropic drugs to modifiy canine behaviour

April 13, 2009

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

This is a very difficult subject and one on which very little research has been done and, as a result, it subject to even more controversy.

The facts are these: in the mater of behaviour modification there has been an increasingly reliance on what are called psychotropic drugs.The word means ‘having an altering effect on perception, emotion, or behaviour’ and they have been developed to help in the treatment of people who have a range of physiological and psychological problems that place their general behaviour outside what society normally expects.These behaviours range from serious mental disorders to generalised depressions and anxieties.There is a great deal of controversy about the use of these drugs.They can be helpful, certainly but most have significant side effects and because they act on the delicate chemistry of the brain their effect can be unpredictable.Many psychologists and psychiatrists believe that for most minor conditions it is better to ‘work through the pain’ than take tablets, which merely suppress the condition for, when you stop taking the medication, the condition remains.

There are drugs for fear related behaviours (agoraphobia for instance), the control of anxiety and aggression and for mood stabilisation.They include buspirone, diazepam, acepromozine (ACP), lithium, carbamazepine, clomipramine and fluoxetine.They all have their place in the doctors and psychiatrists armoury but the time has long gone when doctors would dole out Vallium on demand for it was soon clear that their patients became psychologically addicted to them and their behaviour, although more stable, was still unpredictable.Nowadays, such drugs come with major health and welfare warnings for they affect the workings of the heart, the liver and the kidneys as well as the brain.There is not space to go into the detail here but a Google search will quickly reveal the long list of adverse effects of any of these drugs.

Over the past few years some canine behaviourists with the support of some veterinary surgeons have been recommending these drugs.This includes the Association of Pet behaviour Counsellors and you can see their independent report on cases where psychotropic drugs were used at http://www.apbc.org.uk/review_2003/report_03.htm.(This was compiled in 2003 and I can find no data on psychotropic drugs in the 2004 [latest] report.)

I am concerned that well educated and qualified though many of them are, most canine behaviourists only have the sketchiest understanding of mammalian metabolism and few are qualified to make a judgment any more complex than you make when you make a decision between Beecham’s Powders and Bisodol when you have a headache – either might work but the former is probably more appropriate than the latter.

I should make it clear I am not against the use of drugs.My point is that (like booster vaccines which have finally been recognised as causing some problems for otherwise healthy dogs) they need to be used with care even by qualified professionals.If a doctor puts a patient on insulin (not a psychotropic drug I know but a medication that will be continued throughout the patient’s life) the patient is properly examined, tests are made and a great deal of time is spent ensuring that they thoroughly understand what it does, how it is used and the other nutritional and lifestyle changes that need to be made in order for it to work effectively.Much the same applies to the use of psychotropic drugs.Their doctor should see the patient regularly and they should have physical tests and blood tests to ensure that the medication will not cause more harm than good – it is almost always a long, complicated process.

It seems to me that few of these safeguards are in place when psychotropic drugs are used on our dogs – and on cats too.Firstly, although they have been licensed for human use (and tested on animals) the research on whether they are actually suitable for use in the treatment of animals is minimal.Furthermore, no research has been done into the effects of any given dose.Most humans are roughly the same size – this is not true of canines and as there is no ‘standard’, who is to say at which point a dog is overdosed?

A veterinary surgeon should always do a series of tests before dogs are given any drugs and these must include psychotropic drugs.The problem I have with all this is that vets are prescribing drugs for canine behaviourists on the advice of the behaviourist.Apart from any ethical or professional considerations this is illegal for both parties.And I would ask whether it is helpful?If a dog is exhibiting an unnatural behaviour it takes the time of a professional, preferably within the dog’s home, to seek out the clues to its relationship with its owner and members of the family, and its environment: this is the work for which an experienced canine behaviourist is supposed to do.There are dozens of factors to take into consideration but it appears that sometimes both consultant and owner are tempted to go for a quick, relatively cheap ‘fix’.But if we have the welfare of the dog at the heart of the matter this can seldom be the best way.

I have incontrovertible evidence that one well known behaviourist suggested to a client on the telephone and without having seen the dog, that they see their vet and ask that a specific drug be prescribed for their dog.

I am suggesting readers should take care.Dugs have their place and there may sometimes be a good reason why a veterinary surgeon after fully appraising the situation will want to prescribe a psychotropic drug. On the other hand, the canine behaviourists knowledge of the overall effects of a drug is likely to be limited.You should also know that there are behaviourists who have no need of any sort of psychotropic drug to achieve their objective – a mentally healthy pet giving pleasure to its owner throughout its life.

If anyone suggests that drugs are the answer to a behavioural problem, my advice would be to start with your veterinary surgeon who you should expect to carry out a full physical check-up and a blood test for liver and kidney functions before being prepared to give a prescription for a psychotropic drug.If they propose that a drug may be suitable (and this should be their decision and not the decision of a behaviourist even if that person is their recommendation), your expectation should be that it is for short-term use only.

Drugs are very useful to us and to our pets too.But I believe we should always be cautious in their use and remember the problems they have caused from Thalidomide in the 60s to Vioxx* in 2004.

You might like to go to http://www.nutramed.com/brain/mind_drugs.htm for further information.

*Just as an example, I was prescribed Vioxx for a damaged joint in my toe and took it for several years.When I ricked my back last year, my physiotherapist suggested that it would help me if the dose were doubled while my discs recovered.I was understandably upset when my doctor refused for I might have been on that double dose for six months – but I am not complaining now for a friend recently had two strokes that look as if they were the result of taking that drug.

(September 2005)

How puppies learn

April 13, 2009

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

In the last thirty-five years my wife and I have owned many dogs.The whole idea was hers so I take no responsibility for what has happened since.Our first was a Finnish Spitz puppy we called Kirri.Her ‘proper name was Cullabine Greta and she became a champion.As an aside I would emphasise that we were absolute novices so it just goes to show that if you have a good dog you can win – although I accept this is much more difficult in breeds such as Golden Retrievers.

Soon after, another bitch joined Kirri and since then our household always had several dogs (ten was the maximum, I think) until we downsized and only one remained.She was already five and well behaved but, sadly, died of cancer eighteen months ago when she was only eight years old.It was a great shock to both of us and we have not been able to face having another dog until now when a puppy from one of her daughters became available.

The reason for the preamble is to explain why for the first time for many years we find ourselves in the position of having to train a puppy!This is not easy – for several generations we have been able to let the older bitches take that responsibility and I can confirm that they did an excellent job.Woe betide the puppy that stepped out of line – which brings me to the subject of the month’s column – the minefield of claim and counter claim by canine trainers and behaviourists as to which approach to canine behavioural modification is ‘the best’.

Regular readers will have noticed in our Canine Behaviour Modification Supplement that we have a range of authors who use a variety of methods to achieve successful results.None, I emphasise, use the old ‘yank and yell’ technique mentioned by Debbie Berriman in her interesting contribution last month.Barbara Woodhouse who I should also emphasise, was also an incredibly successful trainer of dogs brought this approach to millions through her television series’. But we have moved on and John Fisher, John Rogerson, Mary Ray among many others have demonstrated that it is possible to make astonishing progress by working with and re-enforcing the dog’s natural behaviours.However, there are many theories out there and those who advocate them are sometimes quite abusive about any ideas that do not conform to their idea of what is ‘right’ and anyone who reads my musings will know that I am against all forms of offensive discussion.

We have to look at what we know of the facts – some of which may appear to be contradictory because the researcher is anxious to prove a point and so are based on flawed research – and try to come to conclusions and solutions that are successful while placing the welfare of our dogs at the very core of what we do.

I would not pretend to have a deep insight into canine behaviour modification but as Studies Co-ordinator of the Animal Care College an enormous amount of material passes over my desk and therefore, although I may not know the countryside in detail I might have a better appreciation of the landscape.

I think (based on my own experience and my readings of research from Konrad Lorenz, Trummler and those following their foorstps) is that few young mammals are fully equipped to survive entirely by instinct – although instinct is the most powerful survival motivator.  To be successful within their environment they need to be trained/educated about what is acceptable, not acceptable and/or dangerous.  This initial training is usually carried out by the mother until the most respected member of the family/pack is deferred to because experience has shown that he or she is the most likely to take the decisions which will ensure survival.  This seems to be the case in all mammalian communities – even in the world of domestic cats, which are generally thought to be loners but which, in a feral environment, form colonies, as do big cats in the wild.

We also now know that in any given situation the ‘leader’ is not always the same individual and that the ‘evolution’ of the domestic dog provides a much more complex psychological framework within which we must work.This has led a reconsideration of our ideas about the mechanism of the ‘pack’. This does not necessarily ‘disprove’ or undermine the original premises of the structure of wolf behaviour– but it does give us new ways of understanding canine learning processes.

There is no doubt that canines are different in that their development has been arrested by our intervention.  For this reason there are many ways in which canine behaviours can be modified that are not applicable to other pets or domestic animals.  Naturally, good, positive re-enforcement training from the nest is the ideal but many breeders and new owners are not even aware of the processes much less skilled in their use.The result is often dogs that have never been trained to be ‘good citizens’.In these cases where established behaviours are damaging to the relations between the individual dog, other dogs, its owners and other people, then we sometimes have to resort to more basic tactics and it is occasionally necessary to use what have been termed formal rank reduction techniques and negative re-enforcement – an anathema to some.

We must always ensure the welfare of the animal being trained or whose behaviour is being modified.  It should never be necessary to cow it or hurt it – but that is not to say that it cannot be put under some mental pressure or physical restraint (we put dogs on various forms of collars and leads for their own safety – this is no different in principle) to ensure a change of behaviour which it in everyone’s best interests – including the interest of the dog!

Finally, except in extreme cases we should be trying to modify the behaviour of both dog and its owner/family in such a way that improvement it behaviour is permanent.I do not believe that this is likely to be achieved by the use of drugs

(October 2006)

A talk for Savages (members of The Savage Club, that is)

April 1, 2009

Notes for a talk to fellow Savages (who delight in literary oddities)

The wonderful world of Willard Espy.

Willard Espy is an American who has written many books.  Two I own are so well thumbed that they are falling to pieces.  There are hundreds of fascinating linguistic peculiarities, word games, and curiosities of language within their pages and these notes were put together for a talk given to those present at one of the regular members lunches in April 2009.

 

Acrostics:

As a little tease, this clever example of a complex acrostic was written into the menu for the lunch but leaving out the lower case letters after the line for March

JANET WAS QUITE ILL ONE DAY

JANet was quite ill one day.

FEBrile troubles came her way.

MARtyr-like, she lay in bed;

APRoned nurses softly sped.

MAYbe, said the leech judicial,

JUNket would be beneficial.

JULeps, too, though freely tried,

AUGured ill, for Janet died.

SEPulchre was sadly made;

OCTaves pealed and prayers were said.

NOVices with many a tear

DECorated Janet’s bier.

 

Acrostics are wonderful.  Willard himself has composed one which is firstly a sonnet – difficult enough to create anyway – which has its hidden message down the lines three times using the first letter of each line, the the first letter of the third word of each line and the first letter of the last word of each line

Synonyms:

Incidentally – why are there no synonyms for Thesaurus?

Which are the words which have the greatest number of synonyms?  I have not counted but ‘boat’ and ‘container’ are contenders.  If you want a good word game for Christmas see how many alternatives your guests can think of in ten minutes.

 

Punctuation:

Private. No swimming allowed

Private? No. Swimming allowed

Eats shoots and leaves

A vegetation of greengrocer’s 

 

Which leads delightfully onto collectives – some are well established such a ‘swarms of… variopus creatures.,’ but why ‘a school of whales’?  On the other hand there are some wonderful inventions such as a ‘squirm of snakes’, ‘a stinking of skunks’ and for ladies of the night, a ‘peal of Jezebels’, ‘a flourish of strumpets’, a jam of tarts and ‘a pride of loins’.

 

Which leads us to

Palindromes

Palindromes come in several guises:  pure, word, numerical – even musical and visual 

Our last palindromic year was 2002

Dates turn up regularly in shorted form

                3/1/3 (3rd March 2003) or 30/3/03

                But 20/02/2002 is more satisfactory but these are few and far between

‘Reviver’ is the longest word in English that is a palindrome.  The longest word in the Roman alphabet is ‘Saippurakaruppias’ which is Finnish for ‘soap salesman’

There are lots of word palindromes as you will know.  But an unusual one I like is

Girl bathing on Bikini, eying boy, find boy eying bikini on bathing girl and my favourite.

In its pure form there are few common ones : Able was I ere I saw Elba etc   and

Now, Ned, I am a maiden nun; Ned, I am a maiden won

Rise to vote, Sir

but a particularly complex and delightful example is

T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet  (created by Alistair Reid)

There are even palindromic poems


Returning Exquisite desire

Burning, then ashes and smoke

Glowing ember or flaming –oak

Unknowing, unknown secret fire!

 

Fire, secret unknown, unknowing

Oak flaming or ember glowing.

Smoke and ashes; then burning

Desire, exquisite returning.

 

English as she is pronounced

‘Telling hearth from earth is tough stuff Suzy’  is a poem created by British officers working with many different nationalities  during the Second World War to help them understand the way in which English is spoken.  It begins

 

Dearest creature in creation

Spelling’s not pronunciation

 

And goes on for several fantastic and intricate pages

Hear is another on similar lines (the spelling is deliberate as you will see if you actually read out the poem)

 

I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you

On hiccough, thorough, laugh, and through?

I write in case you wish perhaps

To learn of less familiar traps:

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard, and sounds like bird.

And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead;

For goodness’ sake, don’t call it `deed’!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

For goodness’ sake, don’t call it `deed’!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother

Nor both in bother, broth in brother

And here is not a match for there

Nor dear for bear, or fear for pear.

There’s dose and rose, there’s also lose

(just look them up) and goose and choose

And cork and work, and card and ward

And font and front, and word and sword

And do and go and thwart and cart

Come, come, I’ve bearly made a start

A dreadful language? Man alive,

eI’d mastered it when I was five!


 

Double entendres:

Some are unintentional.  Browning read a 17th Century poem which included the lines:

They talk’d of his having a Cardinall’s Hat 
They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat 

and assumed that ‘twat’ was an article of clothing and, in ‘Pippa Passes’, wrote:

Then owls and bats 
Cowls and twats 
Monks and nuns in a cloister’s moods 
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry 

I’ve tried to find out whether the following passage was, in fact, deliberate and inspired by Charles Dickens’ extra marital relationship but I do not think so.  It was published in 1843 and he did not meet Ellen Ternan until 1857.  What we do know is that Dickens’s affair with her, which lasted until his death, had several influences on his later fiction which explores sexual passion with an intensity and perceptiveness not previously apparent in the meek, goody-two-shoes heroines of most of his work.’

So in Martin Chuzzlewit, when Dickens describes the infatuation of Tom, the church organist, with a member of the choir I think this was inadvertent:

‘When she spoke, Tom held his breath, so eagerly he listened; when she sang, he sat like one entranced.  She touched his organ and from that bright epoch, even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began a new and deified existence.’

 

And on that note….

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Buying a puppy

March 12, 2009

Buying a puppy

There are hundreds of books and articles, leaflets and pamphlets giving excellent advice about buying a puppy.  What can I add which will be helpful to you?  Well, if you  picked up a copy of Our Dogs at your local newsagent or went to Crufts and are looking for a puppy there may be aspects of puppy breeding or purchase you may not have considered.  So rather than adding to the mass of easily available information and telling you what to do, this article poses some questions which you might like to consider and provides some guidance as to the answers.  Think of it as a Short Course in Puppy Buying for you and your family (puppies are usually bought by families) and do make sure the whole family is involved in trying to answer them.
What I am not going to do is to repeat the information and advice which is readily available from books, magazines and the Internet but we will begin with an easy question to which I will provide the answer to give you a good start.

I begin by making the assumption that you are prepared to take time in deciding on the breed you want. Many people are not even prepared to spend any time to assess what would be the best for them but buy ‘on the spot’.  It is therefore not surprising that they stumble at the first hurdle.  A puppy is not like a washing machine with which you do not have an emotional relationship.  The washing machine can go back if there is anything wrong with it while the puppy has already wormed its way into your heart.

So – to the questions.

Where will you quickly find the most comprehensive information about buying a puppy?   There is no doubt that for information, the Kennel Club’s web site (www.thekennelclub.org.uk) is the best and looking through the pages under buying a dog you will find all the guidance you need on selecting and choosing a suitable puppy.  All the options are carefully laid out and the alternatives discussed bearing in mind your circumstances.   However, the site is designed to steer you towards an Accredited Breeder (a good thing) and there are alternatives.  Some breeders have good reasons for not being accredited and I hope the following will help you sort out the good from the others
Where should you begin?  Think carefully about which breed will be suitable for you and do not be tempted to make an emotional choice.  You may always have had a desire for an Alaskan Malamute but lovely though they are, they eat like horses (not for nothing are they called ‘the carthorse of the Arctic’) and have a mind of their own about everything.   The great advantage in choosing a pedigree dog is that you know what its characteristics are, its size, its looks and its temperament are all reasonable predictable so you are able to make a choice which suits you.

The Kennel Club site and others such a Breedadog (who work closely in association with OUR DOGS) and Petplan provide access to responsible breeders and my advice is to confine yourself to these sites if you intend to find a puppy through the Internet.  Of course, breeders still use the traditional routes such as notices in veterinary surgeries and pet shops, local papers, the canine press and national sales magazines such as Exchange and Mart.  You can also buy a puppy at some pet shops although only about 2% of pet shops sell puppies these days or through the larger ‘trading kennels’ which sell many puppies a day.

The range of ways in which you can buy a puppy might appear to make it complicated but it need not be so – and the remedy is in the hands of you, the buyer.  My experience is that most potential owners, once they have made the decision (often under pressure, quite rightly and understandably, from the younger members of the family) is that they ‘want it now’.  Giving in to this natural though reasonable instinct increases the chances of you taking home an unsuitable puppy by one thousand percent.  The reason is that good quality in dogs is not usually available ‘off the shelf’.  You might be lucky but the alternative is much more likely.

So: If I have decided to by a puppy of a particular breed, what are the chances of a really good, responsible breeder in my area having one at precisely the time I want to buy?  Not very likely is the answer.  This is one of the main reasons that puppy buyers go to a trading kennel – impatience.  Look at the litters available on the Kennel Club, Breedadog or Petplan websites to see that this is the case.

This leads to a more fundamental (and probably more important) question:
Why are puppies bred?  Now this is a very important consideration and you can learn a great deal by thinking about the answer.  If you go to a trading kennel or a pet shop it is likely that they have been bred as part of a commercial venture.  To ensure a profit the breeder has to breed as many puppies of as many (popular) breeds as possible so that when you decide you want a puppy there is one immediately available.  There is nothing wrong with this.  If the business is carried out within the law then selling puppies in bulk to trading kennels or importing them from Ireland is not unacceptable although there are laws and regulations which impose a duty care on the person responsible.  Unfortunately the law is too often not enforced, so there is very little control over the conditions in which both breeding dogs and their puppies are kept and transported so quality suffers – as well as the dogs.

Remember, some established breeders breed an awful lot of puppies.  They may confine themselves to one or two breeds but puppy sales are the foundation of their income.  Again, there is nothing wrong with that but you have to ask yourself whether there comes a point when quantity may take precedence over quality.

Some owners of pedigree bitches may think breeding a litter is a jolly good way to earn a few pounds ‘pin money’ so they are happy to let their pet bitch have a litter or two to pay for a holiday or the new car.  A Golden Retriever, a Dalmatian or a Labrador can have an average litter of anything between five and ten and at £6/800 a puppy this may be very tempting – especially in times of economic stress.  Again, this is not illegal but how much does a pet owner know about breeding quality stock.  As far as they are concerned a Golden Retriever is a Golden Retriever so putting their bitch to stud to dog up the road or in the next town or village is perfectly acceptable.

So a good series of questions is:

  • How many litters has this breeders had from this bitch?
  • Can I see the mother?
  • Can I see the pedigree?
  • Where does the stud dog reside?

The answers will give you an insight into the background of the breeder which is an essential element of their motivation of breeding.
At the other end of the small scale scale is the enthusiast – the dedicated breeder who is anxious to win in the show ring and breeds a litter to enhance or continue his or her success.  Some will select the stud dog on the basis of its wins even though this may not be the best dog for the genetic, structural or conformational health of the puppies.  So more questions:

  • Does the breed as a whole have any structural or genetic defects?
  • What steps has the breeder taken to ensure that if there are any, they have not been passed on?
  • Is the breed subject to any recommended test or screening?
  • Have these been done?  Can I see the results or the KC listings showing the results?

It is important to ask the questions – and equally important to be comfortable with the answers.

Finally, the breeder of your puppy cannot give you a guarantee that it will be perfect.  It is, after all a sentient being with all the possible problems any living thing might have.  The person from whom you bought your rose may not be responsible for black spot (assuming roses get black spot – this is an area beyond my expertise) but you would expect good advice and concern from the grower: so with a puppy.  Your breeder should be there for you and your dog, should have a continuing and life long interest in their puppies and be prepared to help you if things go wrong.  Ask the questions and ensure you are happy with the answers.

Good, dedicated and responsible breeders are plentiful and they have nothing to hide – take your time to find one in who you feel confident.  It is not rocket science.  Good luck

My response to the All Party Group on the Welfare of Animals

January 7, 2009

The APGWA have called for evidence re their enquiry into pedigree dog breeding. It requires a covering letter explaining ones qualifications for comment, an summary and up to 2,000 of evidence.

This is my response:

7th January 2008

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare

Dear Sirs,

I have been involved with pedigree dogs for almost forty years as an exhibitor, breeder and judge. In 1973 I was responsible for publishing the Dog Directory, a reference book listing responsible breeders, the intention of which was to make good breeders names and contact details easily available to the general public. It ran to many editions but was eventually overtaken by the Internet. I wrote the book ‘All About Mating Whelping and Weaning’ in 1981. It went to three editions and is considered by some to be the standard work on the subject.

I am the principal of the Animal Care College, a non-profit making distance learning organisation set up in 1980 to deliver accredited home study courses to both enthusiasts and professionals in the animal care sector. In 1984 was asked by the Manpower Services Commission to assist in the creation of the Animal Care Lead Industry Body for Animal Care (ACLIB) for the then government’s training schemes which developed National Vocational Qualifications for the sector. The ACLIB has since been incorporated in to Lantra, the Learning Skills Council for the industry. I am the publisher of the oldest established weekly newspaper devoted to specialist canine interests (Our Dogs) and for fifteen year published the specialist monthly magazine Dogs Monthly. For eleven years I was as a senior manager of the Dogs Home Battersea so have an interest in and knowledge of, rescue and rehoming both dogs and cats.

I have also served as a District Counsellor and was Chairman of the Environmental Services Committee of Bracknell Forest Council which had dogs and dog control as part of its remit.

I am he longest serving trustee of the charity, the Pet Care Trust (and for a few months was Chief Executive while the organisation developed a new and more relevant strategy) and was a member of the committee which developed the Model Licence Conditions for Boarding Kennels and Catteries. I made contributions to the modification of the Dangerous Dogs Act, had some input into the Animal Welfare Act and its continuing establishment of secondary legislation through discussions with Defra. I have worked closely with other charities and non-governmental organisations. I have therefore been deeply involved in the political, educational, economic and social background of the animal care sector at many levels.

I clearly have an interest. I am a member of the Kennel Club and judge extensively both in Britain and abroad. However, as a teacher with twenty-five years experience and an in depth knowledge of dogs and pets in society, I believe that I have a clear-sighted and balanced view of the issues involved in this enquiry.

My full CV is available at www.davidcavill.co.uk

No part of my submission is confidential.

Yours faithfully

David Cavill

Summary

  • The proportion of pedigree dogs who suffer as a result of genetic disease or selective breeding is small

  • There is a great deal of confusion in the media between the terms, ‘genetic defect’, ‘genetic disease’, and ‘selective breeding’ which has led to many misunderstandings in the public mind

  • Much research is being carried out to improve the quality of life of affected dogs has already had a considerable degree of success

  • The programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed was distorted and misleading which encouraged organisations to ‘catch the publicity wave’ which exacerbated the misunderstandings

  • The charge that these problems are the direct responsibility of the Kennel Club and/or hobby breeder, show exhibitors or judges is inaccurate

  • It is important to ensure that all breeding stock is DNA tagged to ensure meaningful pedigrees

  • Breed standards should include a mandatory requirement for breeders and judges to give the health and welfare of the breed the highest priority

  • Adequate enforcement of current law and regulations through the Animal Welfare Act (2006) is more than sufficient to address the issues raised

Evidence

Dogs, including pedigree dogs, are an integral element of the cultural fabric of society in Britain and their importance socially and economically is immense.

Some 5% of pedigree dog breeds in the UK (10from a total of 200) have significant genetic defects or disease, many of which have been caused by the thoughtless application of selective breeding. However, of those breeds only a proportion are affected and many live perfectly normal, long-lived, healthy lives. It should be noted that the study carried out by Imperial College to which there is likely to be constant reference in some submissions to your committee, was on just ten breeds and the overall genetic health of pedigree dogs was not studied. Just because animals are closely bred does not in itself, mean that they will be subject to genetic defects. Selective breeding (as in cows for milk, sheep for wool or chickens for eggs) can have positive outcomes in terms of usefulness or health.

It is essential that these problems are addressed but it is important to keep the proportion of dogs affected in proportion

A further (approximately) 30% of breeds have some genetic defect or minor distortion of the normal canine conformation which is an inconvenience rather than a serious disadvantage. Again, only a proportion are affected and the vast majority are fit and healthy

The majority of breeds are affected by genetic defects to the same extent as the human population and are minor. DNA research is throwing up an increasing number of genetic shortcomings in humans and we learn to live with them as we have with serious defects such as diabetes, cataracts and Alzheimer’s as well as more minor problems such as short-sightedness and baldness.

Much research has been and is being carried out both here and abroad into every aspect of genetic defect and disease and much progress has been made over the last few years. This research is being led and funded by Kennel Clubs in many countries which are fully aware of their responsibilities for canine health and welfare. In the UK the Kennel Club/Animal Health Trust is the coordinating body.

The programme which triggered this enquiry, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, was extraordinarily biased and misleading. The programme was made by a producer who has written ‘there is no obligation on my part to promote a balanced view’. Calls to ban particular breeds are a similarly subjective over reaction.

Although it is true that in the past, breeders have used selective breeding to distort the conformation of some breeds to the point where they were uncomfortable and in pain, there have been powerful forces (of which I hope I have been one) against these practices over the past thirty years and there is no doubt that the worst excesses have been amended in the UK (This is not true of some other countries, incidentally but is certainly the case as far as Britain is concerned). Although selective breeding will increase the chances of genetic defects and genetic disease this is not necessarily the case. Selective breeding can be used to improve stock and to eliminate genetic defects if use knowledgably and intelligently.

The gradual establishment of a pedigree base which is tied to a DNA tag is one way in which this process could be advanced more quickly. The Kennel Club through its registry, although it is not legally binding, is by far the most highly regarded and would be best placed to institute this reform

Minor adjustments to breed standards are unnecessary. I have long advocated that every standard should include the introductory phrase ‘any characteristic that militates against the best interests of the health and welfare of the breed should be severely penalised’. The Kennel Club have not yet gone quite that far but they are close and a phrase with that intention was included in all standards some years ago. It is not strong enough in my view but I believe that it will be made more forceful shortly

The UK has adequate laws regarding the commercial breeding of puppies for the pet market but these are not applied by those responsible for their enforcement. There is no doubt that puppies bred by those termed ‘puppy farmers’ are the source of many of the genetic defects we see. Providing stock for the market is not, in itself, wrong but if the selection and care of breeding stock and the socialisation and upbringing of the puppies is inadequate then quality suffers across the board. We do not need more laws – we just need those we have to be applied effectively.

Like democracy, the Kennel Club is inadequate in many respects but also like democracy, any alternative would be less satisfactory. What is clear is that the Kennel Club is totally aware of its responsibilities and dedicated to the improvement of the health and welfare of dogs. I believe it can be trusted to carry out those responsibilities.

My recommendation is that no parliamentary action needs to be taken although the APGAW may rightly conclude that the situation might be reviewed in a few years time.


David Cavill



The RSPCA should be ashamed

December 16, 2008

I have just finished reading Bleak House. My favourite author is Jane Austen (favourite book, Emma – not Pride and Prejudice) and I am afraid I do not enjoy reading Dickens very much. I know his plots are wonderful and his characterisation incredible and appreciate the sections when the story moves forward but there are just too many unnecessary words. I know the reason for the dense, impenetrable and opaque verbiage (you can tell it is having an effect on my own style)but why did he not have the common sense to edit the novels after their publication in the weekly magazines and before they were published as books. Who has ever actually read the opening chapter of A Tale of Two Cities? It is a mountain of language, piled up into an impassable wall of words which quickly becomes not just futile but meaningless and empty. On the other hand, properly and sensitively edited, his work can be fantastic as can be appreciated in the current radio version of A Christmas Carol being read by David Jason on Radio 4.

However, to return to Bleak House, Angela has always said I should not comment on things I know nothing about and while I have usually replied that there is no point at my age of changing the habits of a lifetime, I did agree that I would stop criticising Charles D until I had actually read a complete book. So now I have and I am pleased to have done so although I found much of it very heavy going. But it was particularly interesting because it is his book that focuses most sharply on the workings of the legal system. It seems to me that there is a great deal in the truism that the more things change the more they stay the same. Both Dickens in Little Dorrit and Trollope in The Way We Live Now, write in considerable detail about the irresponsible activities of banks and bankers and it seems to me that great chunks of their plots and characters are still relevant today as evidenced by the current hedge fund scandal in the Untied States.

The law is no exception to these observations and these thoughts passed through my mind as I sat in a Crown Court this week, the activities of which, other than their length, would have done credit to Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the core of the plot of Beak House, in which a case in Chancery goes on for so long that every last penny of a valuable estate being challenged by competing claimants is absorbed by the lawyers so when it is finally resolved there is nothing left.

The case being heard is one in which I have been involved as an expert witness and was an appeal against a very questionable judgement by a Magistrates Court earlier this year in a case brought by the RSPCA.

I should explain at this point that the RSPCA is not one charity but many and while the small locally based organisations do excellent work in caring for and rescuing animals in their region everyone should be aware although they have ‘the name’ they are independent, separate organisations who have to fund themselves and receive nothing (yes – nothing!) from ‘head office’. If you leave money in your will to ‘the RSPCA’ (and most of its income comes from this source) it automatically goes to headquarters at Horsham when you pop your clogs: your local charity (other than the very few shelters which are directly controlled) will not receive a penny. So when I talk about the RSPCA, I am referring to ‘headquarters’ and their income of around £100m a year. Its main preoccupation seems to me just to generate publicity which will keep the charity in the forefront of the minds of people who love animals so that when their solicitor suggests bequests, they are the organisation which comes to mind.

In this case, a man had collected his two ten year old bitches from a kennel – which I have visited and can confirm is one of the best in the UK. One, it is suggested, may have been lethargic and had been off a food for a day or two. Having actually managed kennels I know that most dogs are healthy and behave normally and consequently you remember very little about them and their stay. If a dog is not behaving normally and/or shows signs of sickness you spot them quickly and do something about it. The kennel’s veterinary surgeon gave clear evidence that the kennel tended, if anything, to be over cautious and that if there was ever a problem dogs were taken in straight away and having been established for twenty years the kennel has an unblemished record. The bitches were brought out of the kennel when their owner came to collect them and one was quieter than usual but not showing any symptoms of illness. It’s hind quarters were wet but it was explained that she had apparently and inadvertently fouled herself and been bathed – entirely reasonably.

On his way home, the owner become concerned and told the Court that he had smelled urine. The dog had not urinated in the car (and I personally wonder whether he smelled the remains of disinfectant) and did not urinate at the veterinary surgery when he took the dog to his own vet two hours later. The young veterinary surgeon examined the bitch and diagnosed a likely pyometra for, by the time it arrived on his table there was some puss seeping from the vulva. The bitch was put on a drip and was successfully operated on the following day.

As you will know, a closed pyometra is extremely difficult to diagnose. It develops slowly, usually a few weeks after a season but shows no symptoms until the final few hours when it advances rapidly and can lead to sudden death. Owners have put their pet to bed last thing at night and come down in the morning to find the dog dead or dying having had no indication that anything was wrong other than, perhaps, she was a bit below par on the preceding day.

Given the quality of care at this establishment I am certain that had the bitch remained in the kennels for a few more hours the discharge would have been noticed and she would have been taken to their vet but the owner reported the matter to the RSPCA saying that the kennels had not properly cared for his dog. An inspector interviewed the owner and then turned up at the kennels, unannounced, and took witness statements from the owners and the manager. The kennels owners wanted to co-operate. They did not realise that the RSPCA inspector had no rights to take statements and, in fact, the procedure was so poorly prepared that they were not acceptable to the Court. However, despite the facts set out above – an unfortunate coincidence in effect – the RSPCA decided to prosecute.

They got their headlines ‘ XXX kennels to be prosecuted by RSPCA’. On both occasions, had the whole process not been so distressing for those involved in the farce, I could almost feel sorry for the Barrister acting for the society. He had no evidence of any substance and spent hours (and I mean hours) repeating questions over and over again trying to get an admission on which he could hang some sort of case. In my evidence I was asked a number of questions about the 1963 Act, about the Model License Condition (which I helped to write) and the Animal Welfare Act. His point was that kennels had a responsibility to take a dog to a vet if it was ill. I agreed – of course they do. Unfortunately they was no evidence that the dog showed any symptoms of illness.

At the Magistrates Court hearing the kennel owners were exonerated but the kennel manager was found guilty by a magistrate sitting alone who during the two day hearing complained of a headache and insisted that she need to go home early. Even in my layman’s view there was no case to answer and the evidence presented was both insubstantial and unsatisfactory: how she came to her conclusions is a mystery. Fortunately at the appeal, there was a ‘proper’ judge who was patient and fair, had a grasp of relevant evidence (none), was understanding and sympathetic to the distress of the kennel manager, was unbelievably reasonable in allowing what arguments there were to be put across, sensible in his assessment (although, I felt, was clearly frustrated by the determination of the RSPCA’s barrister to drag inconsequential arguments out until they were stretched beyond reason) and came to the conclusion that was blindingly obvious from the start, ruling that there was, in effect, no evidence of any value. He and his colleagues brought in a verdict of not guilty and awarded costs against the society.

In my view, the RSPCA should be ashamed of themselves, not just because of the misery caused by this action against hard working and innocent people but for the inevitable damage the media inflicted on the business by responding to the Society’s publicity machine as well as the waste of the enormous sum of money expended – which had been collected from ordinary people who believed they were contributing to an organisation which would use it to help animals in real distress.

Be assured this is one of many such actions.

Happy New Year!

Eat your heart out Jemima

November 29, 2008

 

This is the sort of programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed could have been. Had you made the points you wanted make in this way this is the sort of review it might have got.

I have just watched the Channel 4 documentary ‘Animals in the Womb – Dogs’. To say that I am gob-smacked (a term I am very reluctant to use) is an understatement but I cannot think of any other which expresses my admiration and appreciation of this truly remarkable and wonderful documentary. It is all Pedigree Dogs Exposed was not – a sound, scientific, balanced and incredibly well produced and beautifully photographed programme with a superb, clear and concise commentary based on research and science and which was absolutely up to date, informed and educated. It used no emotional tricks or sleight of hand, explained clearly the foundation and background of its subject – and allowed you to make up your own mind about the issues raised. It explained and described the process of selective breeding and its consequences but made no biased, moral or ethical judgements. It was an exceptional and extraordinary example of programming and I cannot praise it too highly.

 

The phrase that rings in my mind was used during the caesarean section of the Chihuahua too small to whelp naturally: ‘Man has caused this problem and has also provided the solution’. Think about it. Here is an approach which is reasoned and reasonable, clearly explains the dilemmas and the reasons for them

 

In the programme, the complex background to the development of the dog is revealed by carefully documenting the in-utero development of three very different breeds of dog and their single ancestor, the grey wolf. The dogs featured are the Neapolitan Mastiff, the Chihuahua and the Golden Retriever. It may not sound exciting stuff but it is absolutely riveting


By following their foetal progress, this film explores the similarities between wolves and dogs, explains the differences and why they have probably occurred and describes the unique characteristics that make each breed so distinctive
and why they have developed.


 

Using ground-breaking photographic techniques, state-of-the-art special graphics, revolutionary 4D scanning techniques and anatomically accurate models, the film demonstrates the amazing development of the dog family from embryo to birth. Not to put too fine a point on it the results are stunning.


 

The explanation of the way in which the grey wolf was developed into the domestic dog 15,000 years ago is clear and comprehensible and the reasons for the establishment of 400 or so different breeds explained. The programme also outlines how, with humans controlling their breeding, the dog has become the most diverse single species on the planet and from mating to whelping explains how the secrets of their development lie buried (and now exposed) in their sixty-three day journey from conception to delivery. You can see it on Channel 4s free catch up service on your computer by clicking the link in Our Dogs News Extra page. Do not hesitate. If you did not see it you have a treat in store. This is how scientific programme should be done.


 

Here is the link


http://www.channel4.com/catchup-player/player.htm?brandId=animals-in-the-womb-cats-and-dogs&contractId=44974&episodeId=2


 

You have about three weeks – dont miss it.

Introduction to the Animal Care College

November 18, 2008

I am the Studies Co-ordinator of the Animal Care College and since posting videos on You Tube and starting my Weblog I have often been asked for more information about myself (’Who are you to lecture people on dog breeding?’ is a common question) and the Animal Care College.

I have always been a teacher – it was built into my DNA through my mother while the patience it requires came from my father. For the first twenty-five years of my working life I was a real teacher – in a classroom with a bunch of unruly sixteen to eighteen year olds but I got involved in dogs and caring for animals thirty five years ago. As a result I was lucky enough to become friends with some of the most influential and well-informed people in a world that is a passion for millions and a working environment for many, many thousands. The internationally renowned judges, Joe Cartledge, Bobby James and Catherine Sutton; the writers Wendy Boorer and Kay White, the prominent administrators Barry Huckle of the Pet Care Trust and ‘Tod’ Sweeny, the Director General of Battersea Dogs Home among many others all provided friendship and a knowledge base which was rich and has been enduring.

So the establishment of the Animal Care College in 1980 was in many ways a natural progression. It was the first distance learning centre of its kind and we quickly became established and successful – so successful others, including some of our past students and tutors, have copied our approach and materials and in one case, even our name. So beware of imitations!.

However, being first gave the Animal Care College an advantage. Not only are our courses very well established and externally accredited but they are recognised as valuable qualifications throughout the UK. Our students are not only self-employed as behaviourists and trainers but work for charities and commercial establishments throughout the country because the possession of an Animal Care College and National Open College Network certificate means a great deal: not just that the holder is interested in animals but that they have the courage, enthusiasm and stamina to take on and complete courses which, at the upper levels certainly, are demanding and challenging.

External verification ensures that Animal Care College courses are not easy options. Completion not only gives a great sense of achievement but really means something to the world outside.

Also, and unlike many of our competitors, the College has a strict Code of Practice approved by the British Association of Correspondence Colleges (we are the only members in this field incidentally), a regular Newsletter, a dedicated Message Board where students can have direct contact with each other, a comprehensive Learner Agreement, a Student Study Guide and well established procedures for complaints and appeals.

Learning is hard work, I am afraid and I can do nothing about that but from our offices at Ascot and from each student’s allocated personal tutor anyone taking a course will receive all the support they need to succeed.

Browse through our Prospectus at http://www.animalcarecollege.co uk and our pages of Frequently Asked Questions – and do contact us if you have any further queries. Our satisfaction comes from your achievement and we want to help.

You want more information as to my credentials you can see a full CV by clicking on http://www.davidcavill.co.uk

A beginners guide to inbreeding and line breeding

October 28, 2008

My thanks to Sue Bowling for allowing me to quote extensively from her article

 

First and foremost I should emphasise that line breeding is the cornerstone of selective breeding. Selective breeding has given us cows that give the maximum amount of milk, sheep that give the maximum amount of wool, chickens that lay eggs almost every day and the most beautiful dogs in the world. There is nothing wrong with line breeding but it is like using a satellite navigation device – if it is not used intelligently you land up in Richmond, North Yorkshire when you intended to go to Richmond in London! If you are to use line breeding intelligently you have to know the basics. I hope that this short article will help.

What are inbreeding and line breeding, and what effect do they have?

In genetic terminology, inbreeding is the mating of two animals who are related to each other. In its opposite, out crossing, the two parents are totally unrelated. Since all pure breeds of animal (including humans) trace back to a relatively limited number of foundation ancestors, all pure breeding is, by this definition, inbreeding though the term is not generally used to refer to matings where a common ancestor does not occur within a five-generation pedigree.

Breeders of purebred livestock have introduced the term ‘line breeding’, to cover the milder forms of inbreeding. Exactly what the difference is between line breeding and inbreeding tends to be defined differently for each species for there is no ‘formal’ definition. Inbreeding at its closest applies to what would be considered incest in human beings – parent to offspring or a mating between full siblings. However, uncle-niece, aunt-nephew, half sibling matings, and first cousin matings are called inbreeding by some people and line breeding by others. Under normal circumstances if this was the only example of close breeding in a five-generation pedigree what is called the ‘inbreeding coefficient’, expressed as a percentage, would be so low as not to be significant. But three things need to be taken into account. The closer this relationship is to the first generation of the pedigree, the more often it occurs and the relationships of the other sires and dams in the pedigree all result in an increased percentage.

What does inbreeding (in the genetic sense) do? Basically, it increases the probability that the two copies of any given gene will be identical and derived from the same ancestor. The higher the inbreeding coefficient the more likely this is to happen. The technical term is ‘homozygous’ for that gene. The ‘heterozygous’ animal has some differences in the two copies of the gene. Remember that each animal (or plant, for that matter) has two copies of any given gene (two alleles at each locus, if you want to get technical), one derived from the father and one from the mother. If the father and mother are related, there is a chance that the two genes in the offspring are both identical copies contributed by the common ancestor.

This is neither good nor bad in itself – but consider, for instance, the gene for PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy), which causes progressive blindness. Carriers have normal vision, but statistically, if one is mated to another carrier it is likely that one in four of the puppies will have PRA and go blind. Inbreeding will increase both the number of affected dogs (1 in 4) and the number of genetically normal dogs (3 in 4) so inbreeding can thus bring these undesirable recessive genes to the surface, where they could be removed from the breeding pool – you do not breed from the dogs which go blind – although a proportion of other dogs in the litter will be carriers. This will only matter if they are mated to another carrier, of course, but it demonstrates the complexity of the problems

Unfortunately, it is still much more complicated for we cannot breed animals based on a single gene – the genes come as just two packages: one in the sperm and one in the egg. So you may be able to eliminate one undesirable pair but the very fact that the animals will be becoming increasingly homozygous (which may quickly improve some characteristics) is also likely to bring other undesirable combinations to the surface.

Sewell Wright developed what is called the ‘inbreeding coefficient’ in the 1920s. This is related to the probability that both copies of any given gene are derived from the same ancestor. A total outcross (in dogs, probably a first-generation cross between two purebreds of different, unrelated breeds would be the best approximation) would have an inbreeding coefficient of 0. As we have seen, they would still have common ancestors many generation back so would still be homozygous for some genes shared by all dogs so even though the inbreeding coefficient = 0 even matings between unrelated pairs can still throw up genetic disease.

An inbreeding coefficient of 100% is rare in mammals and would result if the only matings practiced over many generations were between full brother and full sister. A mating between a brother and sister from unrelated parents would result in an inbreeding coefficient of 50%. A mother/son (or vice versa) or father/daughter (or vice versa) mating would result in a breeding coefficient of 25% assuming that there were no other related matings in the preceding generations. A cousin-to-cousin mating actually gives a relatively low percentage (6.25) but other related matings would affect this figure – perhaps substantially. However, Dr Malcolm Willis, one of the most experienced geneticists in the world of dogs, has said that the average inbreeding coefficient in pedigree dogs registered with the Kennel Club is actually only between 4 and 5% but, of course, the long term effect of many generations of a breed on the same register will mean that today’s dogs do have a higher chance of passing on deleterious genes simply because, as explained at the beginning of this article, there were relatively limited number of foundation ancestors.

As a general rule, very close inbreeding in domestic animals cannot be maintained for many generations because it generally results in loss of fertility – apart from any other genetic disease which may become apparent. .

To ensure genetic health breeders need to select pairs in such a way that the inbreeding coefficient of the offspring is kept as low as possible commensurate with the adherence of stock to the breed standard. One way of doing this is to use the method often adopted in other countries: that is breed from animals which ‘look’ the same (heterozygous) as distinct from what we tend to do in the UK which is to breed from animals which are genetically similar (homozygous).

Another key is to constantly move away from families known for possessing deleterious genes – a method practiced by knowledgeable dog breeders for generations.

You can download a programme from the Internet called GENEs which was written by Dr Robert Lacy which will enable you to calculate the inbreeding coefficient of any mating (assuming you have the full five generation pedigree) quite easily. The programme is free but has some restrictions. Go to http://www.vortex9.org/genes.html to download it.

Genetics is an immensely complex subject and this is but a simplistic introduction. Much more can be found at http://www.highflyer.supanet.com/coefficient.htm including the formula for working out inbreeding coefficients. It is:

 

Welcome Jemima

October 19, 2008

I am delighted to welcome Jemima Harrison to You Tube. She appears to have joined to be able to comment directly on my talk about her television programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed. I am very pleased she did so and she and I and the others who have taken part, have had some stimulating discussion. Unfortunately, the long term damage the programme inflicted on pedigree dog ownership will not easily be undone and this saddens me as I believe that dogs are good for people and are an important element of the cultural fabric of our society.

 

That said, the programme highlighted many important issues which both the Kennel Club as an organisation and I, as one of many, many individuals, have been working on for years. For the record, I published the Dog Directory with Joe Cartledge in 1974, I wrote the Dog Breeding Diploma in 1982 and All About Mating Whelping and Weaning in 1986. Since then I have lectured to students and breed clubs and written extensively on good breeding practices so I have been on the side of the reformers for many years. The KC virtually ignored these problems until about ten years ago but since then has worked hard (often against the perceived self-interest of some of its own members) to make improvements. They have not been unsuccessful but they would be the first to admit that there is still much to do. I am afraid Jemima’s programme gave them no credit for the effort they have made and the considerable sums of money which have been given to the Animal Health Trust, among others, to improve the situation.

I do not challenge much that was important in the programme but the statistics quoted and the way in which clips were used so selectively to support Jemima’s contentions, resulted in a programme that was biased and distorted. I strongly object to this type of journalism, which is sensationalist in every sense and took advantage of naïve breeders and an inexperienced Kennel Club that allowed its senior spokesmen to walk into the traps set. By carefully editing short sections from long interviews – the Kennel Club gave over three hours of interviews to the programme – and masquerading as ‘scientific’ while bringing in emotionally charged elements such as the suffering of dogs and the gratuitous clips of Nazis and discussion of eugenics the programme implied that all pedigree dogs were ‘falling apart’ when this is demonstrably not true. The programme fell far short of the balance and objectivity which has for so many years been the hallmark of BBC reporting.

I was appalled so I posted my feelings on You Tube to help redress the balance. The response has been extraordinary. In just five days my talk was viewed almost 3,500 hundred times and there have been many supportive comments. Others have been less so but most have suggested that I was challenging the information in the programme. I have challenged some of it, certainly, but my main concern has been that the approach was entirely one sided and ignored the fact that many breeds do not have genetic defects in any case and that selective breeding, rather than genetic disease, have made just as significant a contribution to those problems discussed. And selective breeding is easily reversed – a much more sensible and realistic approach.

What is more we humans are riddled with genetic defects. Kettles and pots come to mind. We now know that epilepsy, arthritis, shortsightedness and many forms of cancer all have a genetic component and as these are very common in humans (who do not generally breed closely) the simplistic ‘all inbreeding is wrong’ approach of the programme is not as relevant as it would first appear.

You can see and hear my series of talks on this issue by clicking on the picture at the top. There are many long discussions on the comments section which go into more detail and you can read Jemima’s comments and my replies.

 

Thank you for listening thus far and thank you Jemima for making the programme. I just wish it could have been made with the old fashioned virtues of fairness and balance. In the comments on my You Tube website, Jemima says that ‘There is no requirement of me as a programme-maker to give equal weight/airtime to opposing views.’ I think that sums it up and that is the problem. The public relies on the BBC above all other media organisations throughout the world, to set the highest standards of reporting. Are not fairness and balance obligations for programmes such as this? In this programme I believe the BBC has fallen short of those standards and I hope that my contribution has highlighted the problems created when they are set aside.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

October 15, 2008

I would like to demonstrate to you how unreliable statistics can be and why many of the figures quoted in the recent programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed are unreliable

The programme flung statistics around like the cream pies in an early silent movie. I was told that the programme had been ‘meticulously researched’: if this was the case some indication of how unreliable statistics actually are should have been included. It is not just that they are subject to misinterpretation but as the collection of data which make up the final figures can be so very different the results are almost always incompatible with other sets of figures. You can listen to  this talk at http://uk.youtube.com.user/davidcavill

As an example of how inaccurate statistics can be, let us look at the numbers of dogs that are estimated to reside in Britain. The Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) website states that in their latest survey there are 7.3 million dogs in the UK in 2008. They say 75% of those dogs are pedigree dogs (although do not define whether that means those dogs are registered with the Kennel Club), 11% are ‘cross breeds’ and 14% are ‘mixed breeds. My immediate reaction is that 7.3 million is not a realistic figure and 75% being pedigree dogs is very unlikely. Why do I think this? Well, the PFMA researchers also asked where the dog owners obtained their pets. 16% said ‘from a private advert in a newspaper’, 7% said ‘from a pet shop’, 8% said ‘through the Internet’, 25% said ‘from a friend’ and 16% said they obtained their dogs from a breeder. The rest, 32% said ‘from a rescue centre’. Now this is where the high total may come from – the number of puppies available from rescue centres is actually very low and as most dogs are adult before coming up for rescue many would be counted twice and some might be ‘recycled’ several times. What is more, dogs from a rescue centre are allocated a ‘breed’ by the staff so many who look a bit like, say, a Border Collie or a Border Terrier would be counted as pedigree even if they had no papers.

There is more. In 2007, the Kennel Club registered 270,707 puppies. In relation to 7.3 million this means that the registered pedigree dog population is about 43%! This is long way short of 75%. There will, of course be many dogs which are classified as having a ‘pedigree’ by their owners even though they are not KC registered but is it likely that they comprise 32% of the canine population? A much less scientific method is to observe the dogs appearing at your local veterinary surgery. You will find that the numbers of pedigree compared to mongrel dogs is about 50/50, and this probably reflects the proportion of pedigree/crossbred dogs in the county as a whole.

If there are, in fact about 7 million dogs and the average life of a dog is, say, 12 years (the KC survey suggested that of the 30,000 dogs in their report into canine morbidity in 2004 the average age was 11.3 years) this means that approximately 600,000 puppies are born each year and, of course, 600,000 dogs die. Let us now look at the dogs which die each year. We have seen that this is likely to be around 600,000. It is likely that most die (or are put to sleep) because of infirmity or old age. We can have no way of knowing how many are put down because of illness when they are not old but we do have some figures put out by the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust about dogs put to sleep ‘unnecessarily’.

The RSPCA’s latest figures for 2007 say that they put about 6000 dogs to sleep for humane/medical reasons – i.e. they were ill or old. And just over a thousand were put down because they could not be re-homed i.e. they were likely to be a danger to the community. As a proportion of the total number of dogs handled by the RSPCA this is not unreasonable. Putting a dog to sleep is regrettable, of course, but it does not seem an unreasonable figure although it is seriously at odds with the headline grabbing press releases sometimes put out by the organisation which incidentally added £23m to its reserves in 2007.

Dogs Trust began its own Stray Dogs Report’ about five years ago. This report says that in 2007 nearly 100,000 strays were collected by local councils of which 6,700 were put to sleep for want of a home. That is an average of 18 each day but it also means that over 92,000 were, presumable, safely returned to their owners or were still in the care of the local authority at the end of the year.

Quite how these figures are collected is unclear as, in general, Dogs Trust does not take in strays collected by dog wardens although when they have room and the dog is re-homable (for the charity boasts it never puts a healthy dog down) they may take dogs in after the seven day period. On the other hand some RSPCA centres do so – as do Battersea and the city based dogs homes such as Birmingham, and Manchester – so again, some of the dogs might well be counted twice.

Of course, no one has yet begun to define what all these terms mean and each organisation has different methods of compiling the figures so it is virtually impossible to work out what the proportion of strays there are in any given year, what proportion of those strays are put to sleep because no home is available and precisely what proportion of dogs are killed compared to the number who die naturally or are humanely put to sleep to save them pain or stress. There is no doubt there are ‘problems’ with a proportion of all dogs in society but defining that proportion is extraordinarily difficult.

How much more difficult it is then to collect meaningful statistics about genetic abnormalities. The Kennel Club’s research into the reasons why dogs die, makes almost no mention of genetic disease – because, by and large, genetic diseases are not in themselves life threatening. If they were, they would not in any case, as the dogs would die before they could reproduce.

We can certainly identify many genetic conditions but because they are identified does not mean that they are necessarily debilitating. In fact, some may be little more than an inconvenience. Many humans live with being short-sighted, have mild allergies, asthma or are hard of hearing (all of which have a genetic component) with little or no inconvenience. The Cavalier King Charles which went BIS as the CKCS Championship show might well have some indication of disease on a CAT scan but it looked calm and composed and cannot be compared to the poor creature shown on the programme which was clearly in considerable distress.

In its introduction to its Purebred Dog Health Survey (2004) the Kennel Club says ‘The results of this survey and particularly the breed-specific analyses should be interpreted with caution.

This sensible warning was totally ignored by the Pedigree Dogs Exposed programme if it was even looked at. Almost all the statements in the programme were vague. ‘Up to’, ‘estimated’, ‘probably’ and ‘may’ were words attached to any figures. The statement that ‘up to 30% of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels may have the condition’ is not in inaccurate in itself but as the KC’s ‘estimate’ is that the condition ‘probably’ affects about 2% of the breed, it is hugely distorted.

What we do know is that one of the most knowledgeable geneticists in the world of dogs, Dr Malcolm Willis has stated, categorically, that the inbreeding coefficient in the UK pedigree dog population as a whole is in the region of 4% percent and that less than 1% is the result of a parent to offspring mating. This is a breeding coefficient of 25%. To put this in perspective, a cousin-to-cousin alliance, which is not at all uncommon in this county and overseas, has an inbreeding coefficient of just 6.25%. These are the facts.

So any statistics should be handled with care – perhaps all summaries of figures should have a government health warning!

 

How much do you really know about genetics and genetic health?

October 13, 2008

 

As an experienced dog breeder, dog judge and teacher, I am going to try and explain the significance and importance of genetic health because it is clear that many people, including those who made the television programme, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, do not have a clear idea of how genetics affects the development of species in general and pedigree dogs in particular. I am afraid it might be boring – but it is important. You can find a video of this talk on my web log at http://uk.youtube.com/user/davidcavill

We all live with genetic defects. I am short sighted and suffer from a number of allergies. My mother is short sighted and suffers from number of allergies too. I have a friend who is epileptic – as was her mother. Another is diabetic and I have just heard that someone close to me has developed breast cancer. All these conditions have a high ‘hereditability’: that is, their genetic component is significant. If you are the direct descendent of someone who has any of these conditions you will not necessarily get them yourself – but the likelihood of them occurring is much higher that it would otherwise have been. Scientists have identified around 3,000 genetic defects in humans and about 300 hundred in dogs.

This is not the place for long explanations but there are some words which have been used wrongly in the recent furore surrounding the Pedigree Dogs Exposed programme and in the programme itself. They have emotional overtones that add to misunderstanding and bias so it might be helpful to go through some definitions.

Firstly a ‘genetic condition’ refers to a physical or mental disorder caused by an absent or defective gene or by a chromosomal aberration. The make up of the genetic material of the sperm and egg is such that the DNA of the resulting embryo is damaged and the development of some characteristics is distorted. Most damaged embryos are detected and are aborted but many are not, so the embryo survives and is born. At this stage the condition may mean the baby will not survive. In some cases the child is severely disabled but in most cases and more commonly the child become an adult and learns to live with the condition, often with the help of medication.

This is not the same as a ‘congenital condition’. This is where the original embryo was fine but suffers damage between fertilisation and birth. The mother smoking, drinking or taking recreational or prescription drugs may cause congenital conditions. The best-known example is the conditions directly caused by the drug thalidomide being prescribed to women who were pregnant.

A mutation is quite different. In genetics, a mutation is a permanent, transmissible change in genetic material as a result of a miscopying of a section of DNA. This can be caused by environmental factors (radiation, for instance) or by the age of the mother or the father because eggs and sperm deteriorate over the years. It is mutation which has produced us! It is the whole basis of evolution and without it we would not exist. But the important point is that is it entirely random. Most mutations have little effect but occasionally one turns up which improves the organism’s chances of survival. To describe any living creature with genetic disability as a ‘mutant’ shows deplorable ignorance from a scientist or anyone who has even a basic knowledge of genetics.

As humans have developed companion animals to be more and more useful there has been a conscious desire to ‘fix’ certain characteristics. At the simplest level it was breeding dogs which were faster to help with hunting and bringing down animals which humans could not catch on their own and later, as nomads become farmers, cows were bred to give more milk for longer periods, sheep for more coat to provide fleeces which would give more wool, chickens to lay more eggs and all them as well as pigs, goats and geese to give more meat. This process, called ‘selective breeding’ is common throughout agriculture

However, ‘fixing’ one characteristic which was desirable could also fix others which were less so. Random liaisons between animals tend to keep their DNA healthy (this is called ‘hybrid vigour’) although, as we have seen in humans, it cannot do so altogether. It is for this reason that most societies forbid marriage between those directly related to each other although many societies are comfortable with a cousin marrying a cousin and if both are fit and healthy there is not normally a problem. And there are plenty of examples where cousin-to-cousin marriages have been contracted down several generations without any difficulties. The reason is that what is called the inbreeding coefficient (the measure of how close two people are genetically related to each another) of a cousin to cousin relationship is just 6.25% and for most couples in this position there is little likelihood of serious genetic defects arising although, of course, there is always a risk. However, most relationships have an inbreeding coefficient of much less that 6.25% – but because of the complexity of human DNA many children are still born with genetic defects. Most are minor although there is always the chance of something very serious – but this can happen between people who are not at all related. Genetic defects are in our genes and will sometimes occur. This is very simplistic, of course and there is an array of mechanisms which result in specific conditions such as haemophilia (which is caused by a sex-linked recessive gene) and others where the recessive is expressed on both sides of the DNA.

Most pedigree dogs are ‘line-bred’; that is they are mated to members of the same family although seldom very closely. In fact, the average breeding co-efficient on the Kennel Club registry is between 5 and 10%. Inbreeding where fathers are mated to daughters or vice versa or mothers are mated to sons or vice versa) is not common: less than 1% of puppies on the KC register are the result of inbreeding which is defined as being anything mating with a breeding coefficient of over 25%. A common rule of thumb for dog breeders is ‘line-breed two generations and then outcross’. Basically this means that in each two-generation ‘layer’ of a pedigree you will find the sire and the dam of the puppies more than once but in every third ‘layer’ you would find a dog which was not repeated anywhere.

In dog breeding, responsible breeders will try to select dogs and bitches which are good examples of their breed and, these days, most will ensure that their stock is not carrying serious defects. This is not true of everyone, of course – and I am afraid that those who breed large numbers of puppies without the expertise and care the dogs deserve, often have little regard for their health and welfare.

However, what was not made clear in Pedigree Dogs Exposed was that there are two quite separate issues here. They are ‘genetic conditions’ and ‘conformation’. Although they are connected it helps if we look at them separately.

As we have seen with other companion animals, is relatively easy to change the conformation and performance of an animal by selective breeding. Frisian cows are bred primarily to give milk – their flesh is not very suitable for meat and most meat from Fresian cows ends up in meat derivative products such as pies, sausages and dog food because it would look very unappetising on a butchers counter. At the other end of the scale, Aberdeen Angus give exceptional meat but their cows give little milk.

When countrymen wanted dogs which would go to ground and flush out vermin they were able to produce dogs with the right conformation by selective breeding very quickly. In fact, it has been shown in experiments at the turn of the last century that, given a group of mongrels, a breeder can produce a creditable example of any breed within five generations. You like the idea of a hairy dog with a flat face? Just collect some small, hairy mongrels and mate them. Select those puppies with the shortest muzzles and mate them. Continue the process and you very soon have a Pekingese! The Dobermann and the Leonberger and our British Gundog and Terrier breeds were all ‘created’ in just this way. It is simple and it works. However, it is possible to take a specific characteristic too far as has happened with some breeds and this will inevitable lead to problems of conformation. This is not the same as deleterious, damaging genetic conditions. Bear with me.

As you change the conformation of the dog by selectively breeding them for shorter legs, longer bodies, more skin or deeper, wider and rounder chests, the rest of the dog’s anatomy is stretched or compressed to fit. Up to a point this does not matter. As I explained in my previous talk, so long as the dog can eat, breath, walk and run, mate and whelp normally then its conformation and head shape is unimportant. But once its conformation affects those natural behaviours then however attractive the breeders and potential owners find the look of the breed, their conformation should be modified. It is easy – you just reverse the process. You do not have to start again. Four or five generation is all it takes.

However, in getting a desired conformation there is a tendency to use the same small group of dogs and if they have a deleterious genetic condition, a disease, then this will become endemic within that breed. This is what has happened with dogs which should be perfectly sound from the point of view of their conformation. It is usually because breeders have relied on too narrow a gene pool – and in some of the smaller breeds this gene pool is very small. These conditions are more difficult to breed but it can be done by introducing dogs from outside the breed into the breeding programme.

This can and has been done (with Kennel Club approval, I must add) and I am sure that in the next few years it will be done much more often. But I must emphasise that although some of these genetic diseases conditions are serious and, of course, very distressing for the owner, the majority, like short-sightedness in humans, are a minor inconvenience which can be treated or managed. So the incidence of a genetic condition in a breed does not mean all the dogs are ill or damaged. Some will be, I am afraid but for many or most their dysplasia or patella luxation is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Few dogs die of genetic disease. If is serious they do not survive beyond the womb in any case

And it is also important to note that for many or even most breeds, deleterious genetic conditions have a very low incidence. They are there, just as they are in humans and in other animals but, in general, they are as fit and healthy as any mongrel you might take home from a dog rescue centre.

Go to a dog show and see for yourself