488 Dog that Matters not pedigree form

by   David Hancock

 A few years ago I was attending an agricultural show, chatting to a pony judge and a livestock breeder, when a visitor strolled past with his two huge Great Danes. The three of us, being interested in animals, paused to study them. When we looked back at each other the conclusion was mutual and painfully obvious: here were two anatomically seriously flawed four-legged animals, whatever their species. These two statuesque dogs were victims of their breed, although, victims of their breed fanciers would be more accurate. My colleagues turned to me, the member of the trio most interested in dogs, with the questions: Why do they (i.e. the breeders) do it? and Do they (the breeders) know what they are doing?

 It would be wrong however to pick out Great Dane breeders for scrutiny in asking those two key questions. At four World Dog Shows I have asked myself the same questions when viewing the Mastiff of my country being paraded around the show ring. Small dogs and heavily-coated dogs often get away with faulty construction but a huge dog, especially one with a short coat, displays every fault in anatomy revealingly. A small or lightly-built dog can also manage reasonably well with structural faults; a huge dog however has a reduced quality of life from significant physical shortcomings, mainly from the sheer weight borne by the skeleton.

 It seems that if someone offered, for sale, a huge mongrel, 31 inches at the shoulder, featuring a dippy back, cow hocks, splay feet, straight stifles and upright shoulders, then few takers would be found. But a purebred Great Dane or Mastiff with such faults can be prized purely because of a combination of size and breed. The quality of the unfortunate dog doesn't appear to matter. This unjustifiable almost bizarre desire for great size has led to unwise feeding in giant breeds. This is despite the vast amount of evidence proving the folly of unwise supplementation.

 There is a perpetuated myth in the pedigree dog world concerning the nutritional needs of big breeds. This myth is rooted in the idea that these breeds have high requirements for certain minerals and vitamins, with which to make 'great bone'. But nutritional needs are largely related to the energy needs of the dog rather than its body weight. A 50 kilogram adult Newfoundland does not need twice as much food as a 25 kilogram adult Labrador retriever. Over-feeding and over-supplementation has serious consequences, particularly during growth.

 In one experiment, twelve pairs of Great Dane puppies were fed a palatable diet rich in protein, vitamins A and D, calcium and phosphorus. In each pair, one was fed as much food as it could eat, whilst the other was given two thirds of this amount. The dogs with unrestricted access to food grew faster and were heavier as adults, BUT, they also suffered severe bone abnormalities and were sluggish and lethargic in comparison. It was considered most likely that the deformities were a result of very high vitamin D levels, aggravated by high mineral levels and over-rapid growth. Another study revealed that the dogs with the most rapid growth had the shortest life span. As dog owners we are not expected to contribute to meat production, so why the weird value placed on size?

 Two thousand years ago, Xenophon, wrote in his famous Cynegeticus: "...for much over-feeding of puppies distorts their legs, and produces diseases in their bodies; and their interior parts are thus rendered unsound." We ignore ancient wisdoms at our peril. The breeds which our ancestors handed down to us were developed in pursuit of function; unsound dogs couldn't function and so, especially in the world of sporting dogs, we were lucky enough to have sound dogs bequeathed to us. We may not want our breeds to carry out their original function but should value their capability of doing so; this alone can produce sound dogs. 

 Mark Twain once wrote that good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person. If we think little of our breeds as dogs, rate the breed ahead of the functional creature, we will get what we deserve: canine cripples.  I am not suggesting for one moment that breeds do not matter, that breed differences are unimportant or that breed type is not precious. My argument is with the perpetuation of physically unsound, short-lived dogs with harmful exaggerations, all in the name of breed purity.

 Skilled breeders producing sound dogs full of type draw my appreciation without hesitation. But I see, even in the Crufts show rings, dogs which are not there because of their quality but because of their breed. Breed-worship ahead of simple humanity does no good to a breed in the long run. In any civilised society, animal welfare looms large and breeders who rate a breed ahead of a dog have odd moral values. Dogs are more important than breeds. Breeds are just a concept; dogs are living sentient subject creatures, creatures subject to our whims. It's the dog that matters!