104 EYE CARE - LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
EYE CARE - LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
It is perhaps a reflection on our selective compassion that we hear more about guide dogs for the blind than we do about blind dogs; both need our committed support. I was once asked by a precocious child why there weren't any guide dogs for blind dogs; it is a fair question, grown-ups don't often ask such an original question. There are records of sighted dogs acting quite instinctively to assist blind dogs in their movements. I know of a blind Whippet which went hunting daily, despite its disability; I admired its owner for giving it such spiritual outlet and release from perpetual handicap. We should treasure sound eyesight in our dogs both through breeding programmes, to reduce the incidence of inherited eye conditions, and by monitoring the sad restrictions on sight imposed by faddish breeders. No dog enjoys wearing blinkers!
The much-feared European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals (ETS 125) aims, rightly or wrongly, to counter those elements of pedigree dog-breeding which affect the welfare of the dog. It expresses concern over the 'abnormal size and form of eyes and eyelids' and seeks reconsideration of breed standards' where the wording could lead to discomfort for a dog. There is, perhaps understandably, strong opposition to this convention in Britain. This could eventually lead to a heated discussion on what matters more, breed type or the morality of breeding discomforted creatures. In the times we live in, I believe that the arguments over the latter will win. The wording of breed standards here on eyes, i.e. what they should look like in a breed, are questionable. It would be sensible if our canine hierarchy gave this some early attention.
It could be argued that the group of dogs above all others which need sound eyes is the sighthound group, if only by name. But if you examine the wording of the various sighthound breed standards, there are clearly amendments needed. The Afghan Hound eyes have to be 'nearly triangular' without the shape of triangle being specified; that is not helpful to a tyro-breeder. The punctilious could well argue that 'nearly triangular' is a contradiction in terms; a triangle cannot be 'nearly' anything else. Who decides how flat or upright the nearly triangular eye of the Afghan Hound has to be? Of what value is such a loose term? The Saluki and the Sloughi have to have 'large' eyes, but how large? The Greyhound and the Borzoi are expected to feature eyes which are 'obliquely set', i.e. diverging from a straight line, but by how much? Imprecise wording in a word-picture intended to be instructive is dangerous.
If you find joy in watching a setter scan the foreground or a Pointer focussing on suspected scent floating its way, before 'freezing' instinctively, you appreciate fully the close link between sight and scent in sporting breeds. These two particular senses have been highly developed in such breeds by man for centuries. Both senses mean more to dogs than to us; that alone is reason enough to prize them and strive to protect them. It is believed that dogs have 20/75 vision, meaning that they are able to see clearly an object from 20 feet away that a human with normal vision would see at 75 feet away. Cats have roughly 20/100 vision and horses 20/33, closer to ours. But dogs have vastly superior night vision and the detection of movement. They thrived as predators because of their combined better-developed senses of sight, hearing and smell. The low-light vision of dogs is greatly superior to ours too, facilitating hunting at night.
Yet, in breeds like the Soft-coated Wheaten, Black Russian, Sealyham and Kerry Blue Terriers, the Schnauzers and some Toy breeds, we appear to be doing our utmost to limit their forward vision with scant regard for the welfare of the dogs. We cannot knowingly do that and then complain about interference from Brussels, on the grounds that these breeds are safest in our hands. If you 'fancy' a breed, surely you do so out of affection, not exploitation. As Shakespeare wrote: "Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart or in the head? How begot, how nourished...? It is engendered in the eyes." There is not much nourishment from the hearts of some breed fanciers. An obtrusive heavily-hanging fringe is not a feature of many wild dogs, neither is the distinct squint of some Chows. Nature provides living creatures with the senses needed to survive, what right has man to impede these basic senses? By what mandate do breed fanciers inflict limitations on their breed's sight? Certainly not out of a truthful regard for breed history, impeded sight is a recent innovation in dogs.
In his masterly The Conformation of the Dog (Popular Dogs, 1957), the veterinary surgeon and successful exhibitor RH Smythe wrote: "Dogs such as the Kerry Blue with a huge bunch of hair descending from the forehead between the eyes will have the greatest difficulty in seeing at any time with two eyes at once any object situated in front of them. It is amazing how such dogs as Old English Sheepdogs and some foreign breeds such as the Tibetan Terrier with masses of hair bushed out all over the face manage to see at all!" Half a century later, the situation if anything has got worse; when is action going to be taken by those with responsibilities for breeds of dog in Britain? Is it at all surprising that an outside body has thought it timely to act in the protection of dogs?
That last comment is a direct reflection on our Kennel Club, who have taken upon themselves the full and final responsibility for breed standards. Eyes are a key part of not just a dog's basic senses but of its anatomy too. The construction of the dog affects the way it uses its eyes, the neck and the skull especially. If you accept responsibility for the word picture of a breed, then you can in so many ways decide the fate of that breed. If the word picture allows the dog of a breed to become handicapped then surely the body responsible for that word picture has a case to answer. If it is not a declared fault for a dog's eyesight to be impaired by its coat or its eye design then it is a fair question to ask, why not? If for over a century, a body which has based its whole raison d'etre on the improvement of dogs, has merely watched actual deterioration, step forward the Eurocrats! At last, a proper job for the jobsworths.