by   David Hancock

At a time in the world of dogs, when cross-breeds and mongrels can be insured at a lower premium than pure-bred dogs, on health grounds not marketplace value, there is a need to take stock. Insurance assessors are no fools. Pure-breeding is the main basis of perpetuating breeds and is therefore both advisable and admirable when things are going well in any breed. But when breeds produce dogs which have a reduced life span and fall prey to every ailment available, things clearly are not going well. Dogs bred purely for appearance and not function will always be vulnerable to man's greed, vanity and, sadly, his lack of moral values.
Half a century ago, C R Acton wrote "The Foxhound of the Future", only 120 pages long but full of good sense. One of the chapters he called 'Racial Fatigue', in which he argued that: "inbreeding contributes nothing new to a line, but may intensify the determining strength of defects." His advocacy of genetic principles for breeding rather than subjective hunches provoked hostility from more than one MFH, who counter-argued that experience was of more value than professors. I would have thought that knowledge was the key. What merit is there in breeding litter after litter of low-standard dogs?

Acton drily wrote in his book that experience alone can lead to "breeding hounds...as long as alligators, and about as musical..." Acton was brave enough to pose the polite but searching question: "Is it not quite within the bounds of possibility that the foxhound of today is suffering from Racial Fatigue?" Has any pedigree dog breeder had the honesty and vision to ask themselves that question? The over-use of rosette-winning sires is a matter of concern in a number of breeds. There are known benefits of course in line-breeding but there are predictable dangers too when the lines get too close. The greatest fault in Foxhounds too closely bred proved to be lack of stamina.
The veterinary profession and geneticists know that inbreeding is often accompanied by an increase in defects: smaller litter sizes, increased post-natal mortality, general lessening of body size, lower reproductive performance, less robustness and behavioural problems. It is not inbreeding per se which brings about these defects but the presence of deleterious recessive genes which are being carried in the stock. Experience alone will not locate the presence of such genes, knowledge or qualified advice is needed too. Even very old breeds like the Saluki, the Pekingese, the Standard Poodle and the Basenji, which rarely express a severe genetic abnormality, can be afflicted by a new mutation.

Fifty years ago, US veterinary surgeon Leon Whitney found better disease resistance in his crosses between two pedigree breeds. A study by Scott and Fuller in 1964 indicated that the high puppy mortality characteristic of matings within a breed was greatly reduced when two different breeds were crossed. A study by Rehfeld in 1970 showed that the frequency of neonatal death in pure-bred Beagles increased with the degree of inbreeding. Ten years ago, a study by four distinguished Ontario Veterinary College scientists concluded that "The advantages of hybrid vigour in a pure-bred line could be realised in a carefully controlled breeding programme making use of out-crosses." Who listens when experts like this speak?
Heterosis, or hybrid vigour, in livestock breeding, is  usually demonstrated by increase in size, enhanced live-weight gains, earlier attainment of maturity and increased disease resistance in the first generation of crosses. Their offspring however do not automatically demonstrate this vigour to the same extent. This means that after an outcross, the gene pool needs to be stabilised again, especially in the protection of breed type. Is not the pursuit of a more robust breed worth a temporary risk to breed type? The really skilful breeders can obtain health, vigour and essential type. But breed clubs usually ban outcrosses and KC support couldn't be guaranteed.

Far too many pedigree dog breeders merely perpetuate the past, rather than improving on it. Their dogmatic stance on colour exemplifies their intransigence.The great setter man Laverack believed that a change of colour was as good as a change of blood.  For any breed to favour one colour to the detriment of others can limit the genetic base of the breed. In a number of breeds of course the coat colour is the breed. But where a breed starts off with a variety of colours and then ends up favouring only one or two is an enormous loss.

Distinguished breeders like Brough in Bloodhounds, Millais in Basset Hounds, Graham in Irish Wolfhounds, the Martinez brothers in Dogos Argentino, Laverack in English Setters and Edwardes in Sealyham Terriers had the skill and the vision to employ outside blood. Few pedigree breeds today were evolved without a combination of blood from identified breed-types. There are of course talented breeders of KC-registered pure-bred dogs producing excellent specimens and we all admire their stock and their skill. It is when things are going wrong that a radical rethink is demanded. Breed Councils, at least in the eyes of the KC, head up the recognised breeds. But do their agendas ever contain items like Breed Vigour, Longevity or Loss of Original Type? Most breed clubs are prepared to discuss judging and showing ad infinitum but rarely consider 'the state of the breed'. A breed survey initiated by the KC to examine the state of each breed would have enormous merit. No organisation claiming the mandate of 'the improvement of dogs', as the KC does, can overlook the welfare of breeds suffering from racial fatigue.

No working shepherd, professional terrierman, huntsman, cattle rancher or shooting man of the 19th century would have tolerated weedy dogs. That is how the splendid breeds we enjoy today came down to us. We insult the memory and betray the work of all those pioneer-breeders who bequeathed such dogs to us when we put breed purity ahead of breed vigour and breed robustness. Out-crossing, or cross-breeding, is no magic answer but it was the resort of many extremely knowledgeable truly experienced breeders in times past. It should not be unthinkable today. 

In his book "The Art of Breeding Better Dogs" of 1947, Kyle Onstott wrote: "There are fads that beset breeds. These mere fads are not to be mistaken for the evolutionary trend of the breed. They are merely ephemeral penchants for some spectacular phenomenon and are prone to last a season or two and to disappear." It was not 'an evolutionary trend' which produced the sheep's head on the Bull Terrier or the lack of a muzzle on the show ring Bulldog. Both conflict with the head depicted in these two splendid breeds in the earlier specimens. Sadly, Onstott is wrong about the brief tenure of these two particular impositions; egg-headed Bull Terriers and Pug-faced Bulldogs are now de rigueur in KC show rings. A fad has become a breed feature which only outside blood will ever put right.

In his valuable and informative book "Dog Breeding: The Theory and the Practice" of 1994, Frank Jackson wrote that: "The vigour of recently recognised breeds provides evidence of the value of the wise use of cross-breeding. These crosses will make it easier for the breeds to retain genetic health after recognition, which places a severe restriction on the size of the available breeding population and will call for a very different system of breeding management if the breeds are henceforth to survive in a healthy state."  The very different system of breed management into which all recognised breeds fall under the Kennel Club aegis means that in time racial fatigue is guaranteed.
We are guilty of perpetuating breeds which, because the pedigree has been allowed to wag the dog, lack robustness, vigour and a healthy genotype. Worship of the phenotype, or what the dog looks like, ahead of all ethical factors, has led to breeds becoming prettier but no longer, to use an old-fashioned phrase, hale and hearty. Short-lived dogs may make dog-traders richer, when replacement pets are needed more regularly, but their premature deaths do not exactly enrich the precious man-dog relationship. Pet cemeteries should be full of old dogs not young ones.