Friday, December 26, 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I have been reading and watching the development of a phenomena. The term 'Purebred' applied to dogs is being transformed from a positive into a pejorative.

Since the airing of the BBC's exposé of pedigree dogs, an attack on the breeding of show dogs in the UK, the term purebred has begun to represent all that is bad in dog breeding and keeping. The BBC report showed that these bench bred dogs were being bred with high incidences of genetic diseases. It was illustrated with grisly and disturbing videos showing some very nasty stuff.

My dictionary tells me that purebred (when applied to an animal) means, “bred from parents of the same breed or variety.” Pretty innocent usage. But there is a potential threat when concerned people – knowledgeable and otherwise – suggest that something needs to be fixed and politics and regulation raise their ugly head. Animal welfare and animal rights organizations have joined in with condemnation and contempt for people who bred pedigree (purebred) dogs.

I would like to use this forum to try to sort the rat shit from the pepper.

What is a pedigree?

Simple – a record of an animal's ancestry showing it to be purebred. Without debunking this idea here, I'll simply say that in and of itself, a pedigree is meaningless – simply a tool for a breeder's use in tracking a dog's ancestry.

To get closer to the root of the controversy it is necessary to examine the breed clubs, registries, breeding pools, and, especially, the breeders of dogs, their practices and motives.

Breeding and breed standards

The AKC is a for profit registry for dogs. They codify breed standards that are developed by the member breed clubs. They maintain the registries for recognized breeds, and sanction shows and to a lesser extent, field and performance trials.

The standard for English setters, for example, states:

An elegant, substantial and symmetrical gun dog suggesting the ideal blend of strength, stamina, grace, and style. Flat-coated with feathering of good length. Gaiting freely and smoothly with long forward reach, strong rear drive and firm topline. Males decidedly masculine without coarseness. Females decidedly feminine without over-refinement. Overall appearance, balance, gait, and purpose to be given more emphasis than any component part. Above all, extremes of anything distort type and must be faulted.

It goes on to describe the desired physical attributes of an 'ideal' English setter. The standard was most recently ratified in 1988, after the breed had been in existence for at least 300 years. This suggests that the Breed Standard is subject to whim and revision.

What is missing? Any mention of function or capability – nose, endurance, intelligence, pointing and hunting instinct – the very things that motivated the development of the breed and allow it to do its job are nowhere mentioned in the AKC breed standard. A pity that the English setter's very reason for being has been so lightly discarded.

In this breed the bench (show) lines diverged from the field (hunting) lines long ago, and the gulf between them grows ever wider.

It has been seriously suggested that breed registries should be eliminated – that breed standards should not exist. Two different things, in my view.

If the goal is to breed healthy dogs, a registry is a critical tool in understanding and breeding sound dogs. It is the breed standards that need to be changed. The reliance on a physical description needs to be tempered, at least, with a minimum performance standard. The likelyhood of this happening is very low, indeed.

The Field Dog Stud Book is a registry of pointing breeds (open to any pointing breed) that has no breed clubs and no breed standards. This has been working well for the FDSB breeders for over 100 years, because these breeders are interested in a single goal – performance in the field. And field trials are the place where this performance is proved. That is their standard.

Open and closed book

Most registries are 'closed' – that is, they do not accept dogs of other breeds or unregistered dogs as breeding candidates. This is not harmful if the gene pool within a breed is large and diverse and breeders are working to breed sound dogs. If the breeding population is small and/or carries a heavy burden of negative genetic traits, it is not healthy.

Some people are calling for open registries with the idea that this would be good for an at risk breed. Perhaps it would... the red setter breeders interested in reviving the field capability of their breed proposed breeding to the higher performing lines of English setters were met with a hailstorm of protest from the AKC breed club, and ended up going their own way and registering with the FDSB. But if I breed my English setter to an Airdale, what do I get? Not an English setter, but a largely unknown mix of genetics. I cannot see how this helps me get a better setter or a better Airdale. Of course, the bird dog world is rife with suspicion that so-and-so breed pointers into his German shorthair or setter line. And it happens.

Fix the problem, not the blame

My take on this is that dog breeding is subject to Mendelian genetics. Breed junk and that is what you will get. Breeding run of the breed dogs will only result in producing the mean of genetics common to all dogs in the breeding population, and the overall quality of dogs will tend to decline over time. But breeding within a line of dogs and outcrossing for strong contributions from outstanding individuals in the breed, and culling (removing from the pool of breeding candidates) for sound dogs with desired performance characteristics will result in dogs that have less genetic faults than the general breed population and that will perform better. Over time, this breeding ethic, an overhaul or elimination of breed standards, and a strict registry will raise the overall level of the breed.

Political fallout

I sincerely hope that there are no attempts to further 'regulate' dog breeding. This only plays into the agenda of organizations who would like to eliminate the private ownership of animals by making dogs more difficult to breed, obtain, and keep. And believe me, these organizations are working at all levels of government to make this threat a reality.

2 comments:

Andrew Campbell said...

Mike: thanks for putting this down in pretty clear terms, namely that a breed standard for a sporting or working dog that doesn't mention performance ability is an empty standard. It's one reason that I admire the folks that defend the distinction between a German wirehaired pointer and a Drahthaar, not that there aren't a bunch of great performing GWPs, but that the VDD Drahthaar folks start from a basic performance requirement.

I hope that the vizsla isn't going to go the way of so many weimeraners, but it's tough stuff.

all best
Andrew

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