182 Can Sporting Dog Survive

by   David Hancock

"The next hundred years look rather bleak for the pure bred dog industry unless dramatic changes are introduced. We have a problem which if not addressed and speedily rectified may destroy for all time many beautiful breeds of dog. All dog lovers share the blame for not acting..." This very firmly-worded statement comes from a source not renowned for its desire for publicity or notorious for its over-statement. It is a conclusion from a recent wide-ranging study into the state of the contemporary pedigree dog by four leading veterinary surgeons from the Ontario Veterinary College. And such a situation has arisen because, over the last hundred years or so and for the first time in the millenium of the man-dog partnership, dogs have become valued not for what they can do but for what they look like.

 Dogs can now have ears which all but drag on the ground, absurdly short legs, needlessly long backs, over-wrinkled skin, sunken eyes, extra teeth, freak tails and crooked legs and actually be admired for these exaggerated features. They can be brainless, savage, mentally unstable, have a short life span, host some of the 300 inheritable diseases which afflict the canine race and yet still be prized for two assets: their cosmetic appeal and their pedigree. Such a preference for disabled useless dogs would have astounded our sporting forebears, who devoted their whole lives, painstakingly and with no little skill, to the seeking of functional excellence in breeds which became revered all over the world.

 As far as the sporting breeds, terriers, hounds and gundogs, are concerned this situation has come about partly because sportsmen of today, no longer led by high-minded landed gentry, have abrogated responsibility for their breeds to those who "mind the pedigree", i.e. the Kennel Club. Yet as long ago as 1906, William Arkwright, the celebrated pointer devotee and author of the massively-authoritative "The Pointer and His Predecessors" was writing: "...degeneration in him (i.e. the pointer) was a necessary consequence of the methods of the Kennel Club. The interests of this body, ranging from lap-dogs to life-savers, were far too wide to permit of its ever being a satisfactory legislator for the gundogs...For in a club like this, the shooting men must be in a minority, and laws will be passed that may be good for barzois (sic) or bulldogs, but will spell ruin for sporting dogs."

 Sadly his prophesy has come true and even sadder is the fact that the show circuit has done even more harm to our bulldog, now a travesty of a functional animal, and has not done many favours to the borzoi, now featuring a convexly-curved spine not desirable in a sighthound. But even a casual glance at the early photographs of most breeds of sporting dog show the deleterious changes which have taken place in the twentieth century. A breed feature has been made into a breed exaggeration and whilst working origin has been lauded to the skies, it has not actually been honoured. Overpopularity in the Labrador and the golden retriever has led to unwise breeding. Unskilled in-breeding too has led to a loss of virility. A Border terrier enthusiast has traced 8 million dogs of his breed yet only come across less than 3 thousand names, a worryingly small proportion.

 The terrier family of pedigree breeds has departed a long way from the prototypal dogs, with diseases of the central nervous system causing concern. The Sealyham, once the gamest of earth-dogs and developed by a real terrier enthusiast, is nowadays too profusely-coated and inflexible in build to be a working breed. Lens dislocation and deafness occurs in the breed, with progressive retinal atrophy manifesting itself in Sweden.

 That appealing old gladiator, the bullterrier, now sports the only ruggerball shaped head in the canine world. The Bedlington terrier, a unique combination of lurcher and terrier, has copper toxicosis in one dog out of every three. The Airedale, once the choice of dockyard, railway and the Paris police, has lost its protective role. It was a pity it was ever classified as a terrier; an earthdog which is two feet high at the withers takes some justifying. In France the Airedale would have been dubbed a griffon or harsh-haired hunting dog. And now we have the Jack Russell officially recognised as a separate breed of foxterrier when the Reverend John Russell himself never regarded it as such. Deterioration will now surely follow. If the Kennel Club has a conservation role, it didn't do much to stop the English white terrier from becoming extinct.

 The hound group has also regressed under KC patronage. The show basset hound has become a caricature, a gross misrepesentation of itself; one recently tripped over its own ears in a national show ring. When a breed suffers so much from slipped discs because its fanciers favour an over-long back, surely those in authority must act. In the hunting field the basset hound has been outcrossed with a harrier to produce an improved performance and rectify amplified exaggeration. The "English basset" which results is a far healthier creature. Such outcrossing was recommended by Edwin Brough, the greatly-respected bloodhound breeder, in every fifth generation. Bloodhounds in working packs have been outcrossed with Dumfriesshire foxhounds to minimize 'bloat', reduce head size and avoid sunken eyes. What is the value of pure breeding when it isn't working?        

 The deerhound has a minimum height of 30" at the withers for dogs in its KC-approved breed standard. In its early days as a pedigree breed, the specimens of this size only came into the hands of exhibitors because they were too cumbersome, uncoordinated and unsuccessful as hunting dogs. Breeding for great size at the expense of physical soundness is foolish, as the Great Dane breeders are demonstrating. There is no record that I can discover in Germany of this breed being required by its devotees in the last century to be at least 30" at the withers. This breed is now short-lived, has innumerable bone problems, Wobbler syndrome and from being one of the strongest breeds has become one of the weakest. Unlike this German boarhound, our best bred hounds by far are the foxhound and the harrier, neither recognised as pedigree by the Kennel Club.

 But it is the gundog group which gives me most worry, for these breeds were bred to a level of excellence by knowledgeable sportsmen such as Laverack, Llewellin, Boughey, Lords Sefton, Derby, Knutsford, Malmesbury and Lichfield and the Dukes of Kingston, Gordon and Newcastle. The latter's Clumber spaniel now has eye problems and birth difficulties; once favoured at 40lbs as a sporting dog, in 1986 it was allowed to go up to 70lbs in weight and is currently required to be 80lbs, with a request for the limit to be raised. Yet an 80lbs spaniel was never desired by our ancestors.

 The loss of type in our two most used gundog breeds, the Labrador and the English springer, is a matter of concern. The former , once prized for its equable temperament, now features in the top three breeds displaying unwanted aggression, and, on top of hip dysplasia and epilepsy, now has its own disease: HMLR or hereditary myopathy labrador retriever.

 That lovely breed the golden retriever was found in a survey amongst American veterinary surgeons to be the 7th most unhealthy breed and in the UK features in the top three for unwanted aggression. Such a rating for two fine retriever breeds must give worry to potential owners; the Labrador's KC-approved breed standard incidentally needs 44 words to describe the dog's tail but only half that number to cover temperament.

 The English setter was recently ranked sixth in the United States for its incidence of hip dysplasia. Cocker spaniels can now inherit ectropian, entropian, a bleeding disorder known as factor X deficiency, progressive retinal atrophy, distichiasis and three different skeletal anomalies. Gordon setters can now  be afflicted by juvenile pyoderma, Chesapeake Bay retrievers by hereditary cataract, Irish setters by haemophilia A and Clumber spaniels by 'slipping kneecaps'.

 Identifiable cruelty to dogs is, shamefully, at an all-time high. But incidental cruelty through faulty breeding, unwise blueprints and a lack of moral authority in the pedigree dog world dwarfs it. Voluntary hip and eye schemes are not enough; banning an Irish water spaniel from the show ring after receiving an operation for entropian is bizarre when the dog can still be bred from. If such a rule were to be applied to chows, the breed classes would empty very quickly! The Kennel Club has a long record of unacceptable immorality when it comes to tolerance of faulty breeding. In 1930, for example, the KC Council of Representatives actually asked the KC committee to amend their regulations so that dogs with inverted eyelids could not be shown unless remedied by veterinary operation.

 We  must not allow dogs with faulty genes to be bred from; savage strains must be eliminated; exaggerations must now be bred out. We have got to the stage when ruthless culling is essential. The Canadian veterinary surgeons are telling us something we already know: if we do not act, all dog lovers that is, many beautiful breeds of dog may be destroyed for all time. We do not own these precious breeds of sporting dog. They have been passed on for  us to safeguard during our lifetime. Our sporting ancestors must be frowning down on us.