164 Breeding for the next Millennium

by   David Hancock

It is comforting, if you like dogs, to think that in 2099 AD the same pedigree breeds of dog will be around as those of 1999. These breeds are, apart from some comparatively recent importations like the Shar Pei, the Kooikerhondje, the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, the Spinone, the Akita and the pointer-retrievers from Germany, very similar in name to the breeds displayed at the early dog shows at the end of the 19th century. Breeds like the cocker spaniel, the pointer, the fox terrier, the rough collie and the mastiff have become part of our heritage, symbols almost of the stability of our nation. We may have made the bulldog less athletic, the dachshund too low and too long, the bloodhound's head too loose-skinned, the basset hound too exaggerated and the Bedlington terrier too lamb-like, but it is unthinkable for breeds like these not to be with us at some stage in the future. Or is it ?

 I believe that our breeds of domestic dog are in unprecedented danger, not from one single distinct threat and not next year or the one after, but from a multiplicity of menaces over the next two decades. Some breeds, like the Sealyham terrier, the Sussex spaniel, the Cardiganshire Welsh corgi and the English Toy Terrier could simply fade away because of lack of numbers. Already there is concern over their immediate future. Their registrations in 1998 reveal the cause of this concern: 48 Sealyhams, 58 Sussex spaniels, 83 Cardigan corgis and 42 English Toy Terriers; each is now an endangered species.

 Unlike some countries, Denmark, Portugal and Japan for example, we lack a society devoted to the perpetuation of our threatened native breeds of dog. We have already lost the English white terrier, the Smithfield sheepdog, the Glenwherry collie, the Welsh hillman and the Llanidloes setter and only just saved the Irish wolfhound, the mastiff, the field spaniel and the Lancashire heeler.

 Paradoxically, another serious threat comes from the unwise overbreeding of certain overpopular breeds: German shepherd dogs (21,000 registered annually), Labradors (35,000), Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (13,000), golden retrievers (15,000) and West Highland White Terriers (15,000). I don't recall seeing as many badly bred specimens in these breeds as I did in 1999. Too many under-standard bitches are being bred from; too many faulty or weedy pups are being retained.

 Human whim plays its part too. The construction of the German shepherd dog now seems to merit some adverse comment from the Prince of Wales; far too many are built unwisely in the modern style, will not stand the test of time and are certainly not traditional. Why should a breed which had a level topline when introduced to this country over seventy years ago now require a roach back or the hindquarters of a cat? Why does a lovely breed like the Labrador need the head of a Rottweiler, hard cruel eyes and, in the once rightly-named yellow variety, any old off-white, biscuit or caramel coat colour? Why should the Yorkshire terrier, once a famed ratter, become an animated tea-cosy? Does it suit the dog? The physically beautiful golden retriever is no longer golden but a washed-out pale cream colour. The Dobermann, purpose-bred by a skilful breeder, now comes in such a variety of temperaments that any family wishing to own one should choose the breeder and the line very carefully indeed.

 In those breeds of dog favoured as companion dogs, temperament must come first. Statistics indicate that a quarter of our pet dogs are abandoned or put down because of unwanted misbehaviour. In a study recently conducted in America, 40% of pet owners considered at one time getting rid of their dog because of its temperament. The now massive numbers of inherited mental and physical problems in pure-bred dogs bring not just large veterinary bills but also great discomfort to the dogs and great distress to their owners.

 I strongly support the view recently expressed by four veterinary scientists at the Ontario Veterinary College which read: "The advantages of hybrid vigour in a pure-bred line could be realised in a carefully controlled breeding program making use of outcrosses." The American veterinary surgeon Leon Whitney found fifty years ago better disease resistance in his crosses between two pedigree breeds. Also in north America, a study by Scott and Fuller (1964) indicated that the high puppy mortality characteristic of matings within a breed was greatly reduced when two different breeds were crossed. Another study by Rehfeld (1970) showed that the frequency of neonatal death in pure-bred beagles increased with the degree of inbreeding.

 Most pedigree dog breeders resort to close line-breeding when they realise that such a programme is more likely to produce uniform animals of predictable merit. Then to their dismay, a few animals having recessive disorders begin appearing in the line-bred progeny. When the first abnormal puppy is born, the initial reaction is to deny that anything heritable is at fault in their line. It is regarded as a freak and the puppy disposed of. When further abnormal births occur, the cover up continues.

 The veterinary profession and geneticists know well that in-breeding is usually 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.

 Yet it is consistently argued by pedigree dog breeders, and regrettably even by some with veterinary training, that our pedigree breeds of dog are just as healthy, virile and robust as any cross-bred dog, mongrel or mutt. This is in spite of the  weight of empirical evidence, especially from north America, over the last fifty years in particular. There are of course plenty of perfectly healthy pedigree dogs and far too many ill-kept mongrels and pitiful pi-dogs in the world. It is in the area of planned dog breeding where action can and must be taken to conserve the famous breeds handed down to us.

 It is significant that very old breeds such as the saluki, the Pekingese and the basenji only rarely express a severe genetic abnormality and then probably from a new mutation. Breeders of past centuries would never have tolerated the flawed stock which we strive to justify today. Another ancient breed, the standard poodle, has been highly but skilfully and successfully inbred and now possesses a relatively clean genotype. Younger breeds, some with ancient origins but lacking the distinct physical identity of the saluki, the Pekingese and the basenji, seem to carry a high content of genetic 'junk' and breeders need the help of informed geneticists in planning their breeding programmes.

 The genetic health of a pedigree breed depends a great deal on the genetic status of the top stud dogs. Time and time again the occurrence of defects is traceable to one prepotent sire, the outbreak of "trembler" in Bernese mountain dogs for example coming from one Swedish import. Genetic disease of the recessive kind is not something we merely endure; it has to be countered. Culling of even the very best dogs if they carry diseases is necessary if long term soundness is to be attained. Such culling, not surprisingly, demands expert advice if we are to avoid the risk of increasing another heredity disease present in the genes. But do we have an objective geneticist and a resolute vet advising the host of pedigree dog breed clubs with problems in their stock ?

 There are two bodies which could take action more or less immediately to control the inheritance of genetic defects. The registration of pedigree dogs in Britain is the self-appointed task of the Kennel Club, which also officially authenticates all breed clubs. If identified carriers of inheritable diseases were refused entry to the KC stud book, a dramatic advance could be made. And if veterinary surgeons declined to remedy umbilical hernias, patella luxations, entropian, etc., unless the patient was concurrently speyed or castrated, another equally dramatic advance could be achieved. There are signs that each could happen one day but the impetus, most noticeably, is not coming from the top.

 There is surely an Alice-in-Wonderland situation in dogdom when dogs bred accidentally or by intentional cross-breeding, (as with lurchers and working terriers), can be more robust and sounder, mentally and physically, than many of those bred to a written blueprint by experienced and sometimes wealthy breeders. But when you breed, deliberately, for great size, crooked legs, long backs, soppy looks, loose skin, absurdly short legs, prominent eyes, ruggerball-shaped heads, diamond eyes, anteater skulls and needlessly long coats, you also breed for physical unsoundness. When you ignore problems of temperament or known inherited defects in your breeding stock, you are knowingly and wickedly producing sick dogs.

 This is essentially a moral dilemma; but those in authority and scientists in general are the last people to solve moral issues. Historically, it always takes one tough-minded, absolutely dedicated and utterly resolute individual, usually dubbed a trouble-maker, an odd-ball or an eccentric to step forward and put such matters right. Nowadays it probably needs a woman!

 I believe that pedigree dog breeders, not all but far too many, have lost their way. Why stick to a closed gene pool when it produces unsound stock? Breeders of French hounds of the chase have always sought the best blend. Our hunting basset people have outcrossed to the harrier in pursuit of a better hound. Edwin Brough is revered as the developer of the modern bloodhound but he insisted on an outcross in every fifth generation. Graham in re-creating the Irish wolfhound, Moseley in stabilising the bullmastiff, Van Rooyen in developing the Rhodesian ridgeback, Edwardes in breeding the Sealyham, Korthals in evolving his pointing griffon and Dobermann bred from the best ingredients they could get, with no slavish regard for pedigree, to give us some of our finest breeds of today.

 Yet no contemporary show breeder would, off his own bat, introduce outside blood in the pursuit of a better sounder dog. What a difference a century makes! One hundred years ago the pursuit of a better dog was considered a higher motive than the pursuit of prizes. Are we today worthy of this heritage?  If we really intend to honour the dedicated work of the master-breeders of the last two hundred years and conserve the distinguished breeds now in our care we must heed the wise words of 'Ikey' Bell, perhaps the greatest foxhound breeder of all time:

    "Remember that your stewardship

     Spells trustee to our race.

     The duty now before you

     Is not to 'mess us up,'

     And not going running riot

     To gain some silver cup."

What hope for 21st century dog ?