Posted tagged ‘pedigree dogs’

More about GSDs

February 10, 2010

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is really responsible for what dogs look like?

February 10, 2010

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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