325 Racial Fatigue

by   David Hancock

 "...the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak."

Those words from St.Matthew come to mind when I consider the health and vigour of today's pure-bred breeds of dog. At a time 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 a book entitled: "The Foxhound of the Future", only 120 pagaes 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 Breed Council or breed club had the honesty and vision to ask themselves that question in the world of pure-bred dogs? 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.

 Yet all over Britain, away from Kennel Club rules, better motivated fanciers are at work, producing typy healthier dogs. I enjoy lurcher shows where the dogs on show are bred for functional performance not appearance. I attend working terrier shows where the dogs' ability to function is prized more than their looks. Three years ago, I judged the annual show of the Lucas Terrier Club and found a commendably lively collection of game little dogs and charming owners. There was no lack of vigour in this resurrected unregistered breed. A year ago I judged that much-maligned breed, the American Bulldog, unregistered in this country, and marvelled at the sheer strength of many of the entries. In mid-2000 I judged the Best in Show at the first annual show of the Victorian Bulldog Society and, shortly after, judged the first annual show of the newly-formed Sporting Lucas Terrier Club.

 The Victorian Bulldog Society, under the leadership of Ken Mollett, is striving to produce a healthier dog in the mould of the pre-Pug cross dogs of the middle of the 19th century. From what I saw they have the genetic base for success and deserve our support. In Australia, Pip Nobes is doing similar work, as for some time has David Leavitt in the USA and Lolly Wilkinson in Canada. Ken and Elaine Mollett brought their 11 year-old bitch Ezmarelda to the show; I had never seen an 11 year-old Bulldog before and enjoyed the experience. So many of the KC-registered Bulldogs die young. Longevity is surely something we desire in all our breeds and a feature we should actively seek.

 The Sporting Lucas Terrier Club show, at Hope Hall, Bramham, was held alongside The Yorkshire Bedlington Terrier Club show. It was a hugely enjoyable occasion: two rings featuring alert red-blooded dogs and enthusiastic exhibitors more interested in owning healthy vigorous terriers than building a show career. There were black Bedlingtons there, a colour I'm not used to seeing at KC-licensed shows. The great setter man Laverack believed that a change of colour was as good as a change of blood. It was interesting to note that the dogs at the 1997 Lucas Terrier Club show were nearly all coloured, rather like their Norfolk Terrier cousins. The dogs at the Sporting Lucas Terrier Club show however were mainly white.

 For any breed to favour a 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. The Sporting Lucas Terrier Club committee is open-minded about colour and about an outcross. They discussed the merits of Jack Russell and Sealyham blood but may opt for an infusion of Norfolk Terrier blood. This would give them coloured dogs and reinforcement from an ancestor breed. Lord Lucas attended their show; his ancestor Sir Jocelyn Lucas, the creator of the breed, would have approved this course.

 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. The emergent working terrier, the Plummer Terrier, comes from a blend of breeds utilised by a gifted breeder and now breeds true to type, with noticeable vigour. Unrecognised terrier breeds like the Patterdale and the Fell may not boast of written pedigrees but they live long active lives and cost little at the vets.

 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.

 Animal welfare and breed custodianship can never afford to be relegated to reacting only when things have gone too far; sickly breeds need to be identified and remedial measures coordinated and then implemented. Fostering the better health of a breed may not win rosettes or bring prestigeous judging appointments but from those claiming to love their breed it should attract the highest priority. Direct cruelty to dogs is more easily spotted than indirect cruelty. Is it not a form of cruelty to knowingly breed from sickly stock or perpetuate a breed which has a short life-span and low disease resistance?

 A slavish adherence to pure-breeding in dogs was very much a feature of 20th century society. But do we love breed type more than healthy active long-lived dogs? 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 rugger-ball head on the Bull Terrier or the lack of a muzzle on the show ring Bulldog. Baoth 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. This is unlikely to be initiated within these breeds, there is too much vested interest. Onstott also wrote that: "The pedigree should not wag the dog"; who observes that today?

 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.

 The domestic dog is a subject creature; man's whim decides dog's fate. 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. We rightly condemn puppy farmers on grounds of too much quantity. We should now look hard too at puppy-producers, calling themselves breeders, purely on grounds of quality -- the quality of the lives of the dogs they breed.