48 PEDIGREE PARALYSIS
The last few years have been momentous in the world of the domestic dog. The canine genome has been unravelled, the dog's DNA analysed, health clearances are increasingly available and quarantine relaxed. But if you study the records of just over a century ago, the French expression, 'deja vu', comes to mind; there is that illusory feeling of having already experienced a contemporary happening. A glance at the dog scene of 1883 provides all the material to explain that nostalgic sensation. In a letter to the Kennel Gazette of that year, a Gordon Setter breeder boasts that his bitch 'had eleven whelps on the 2nd of January 1883, eleven more on the 18th of July following, and that she is in whelp again, and due to pup January 25th (1884)'. Over-breeding is no new phenomenon. In the same issue of the Kennel Gazette, the Old English Mastiff Club adopted 'The Points of the Mastiff', which required a massive body, a short muzzle, small eyes, heavy shoulders and very large bones in the forelegs. Such requirements still afflict this breed today.
The Field magazine of 1883 covered dog shows very comprehensively, their editor acting as a judge at some. This sporting magazine covered the Ostend Dog Show, attended by British exhibitors, and the appearance in English field trials of Pointers and Setters from the United States. With progress, we might one day be able to achieve the latter again! It is noteworthy that Great Danes were termed German Mastiffs at one dog show, Boarhounds at another and German Boarhounds or Saufangers (literally pig-catchers) at the Essex Agricultural Show, all in the space of a few months. Nowadays Great Danes are still denied their hound ancestry and languish in the Working Group. But once again British exhibitors can now enter dogs at a show held in Ostend.
In the last 120 years many aspects of owning and breeding dogs have changed. Some sadly have not and there is often human frailty behind such failings. What is especially disappointing is the failure of the pedigree form itself not to move with the times, respond to increased knowledge and our ability to obtain and store information. If you look at a pedigree form of 2004, it could so easily be one from 1883: five generations of names of sires and dams, nothing else. Is this Kennel Club inertia, an unwillingness of breeders to expose their shortcomings, mere laziness or a fear of progress itself? There are needs not being met here, a significant omission of any indication of quality through grading and no genetic content. Both lackings do not advance the science of dog breeding or the stated desire to improve dogs. Is a healthier breed not worth pursuing?
Why should we be afraid of such a scheme? Do we not accept that far too many poor quality pedigree dogs get bred from, partly because nobody is brave enough to tell their owners how poor they are? This system of judging may be slower but is speed-judging the best way to identify future breeding material? But a far more important omission on pedigree forms is any reference to the genetic health of the subject dog. In his most informative book Control of Canine Genetic Diseases (Howell Book house, 1998), George Padgett, himself a vet and professor of pathology, makes a compelling case for the inclusion of genetic information on pedigree forms. Such an inclusion could play a vital role in reducing the incidence of inherited diseases in breeds of dog. Is that not desirable?
Padgett cites the work of a group of American breeders, in the Northwest, who reduced the prevalence of Collie Eye by 38% over a three year period. He mentions the achievement of Portuguese Water Dog breeders there who all but eliminated the breed's storage-disease problem in just a few short years. He concludes that: "It is clearly time for breeders, breed clubs, the AKC and the veterinary profession to come to grips with the problem to preserve the integrity, health and well-being of our canine friends." Again and again he stresses the key role of the registry and the need for such a body to review its role in a new millennium. Whilst we rely on the same piece of paper to certify a dog's birth and the names of its ancestors as we did in 1883, we miss a golden opportunity to advance. Such things must never remain the same, they must change.
Do we truly want to be stuck in 1883 as far as the compilation of written pedigrees is concerned? Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a classic, Treasure Island, in 1883, but he produced a classic phrase two years later, the desire 'to change what we can; to better what we can...' This should be the leitmotiv of every dog breeder and dog-registry; perpetuating the past is just not good enough for dogs. Bettering the past is the real challenge. We have the technology to better the past, all we need is the will and the vision. This is an opportunity for our dog registry, the much-criticised Kennel Club, to delight us all. And what a mission statement that would make: To establish before 2013 the issue of a written pedigree for every dog registered with us, setting out the quality of its phenotype and the health of its genotype.
The time frame should frighten no one; the information should please anyone who cares about the welfare of dogs and the integrity of breeds; the intention should impress everyone who seeks to better the lives of domestic dogs. Livestock breeders sneer at dog breeders sometimes, calling them Luddites. Breeders themselves want to enjoy a degree of freedom in their work, but surely not the freedom to breed crippled dogs. 1883 was an interesting year in dogdom; 2013 could be too.