614 At Breaking Point

by   David Hancock

In the 19th century, it was acceptable to talk of 'breaking' horses and dogs, especially gundogs. It is an expression I have never been happy with. It suggests the use of force, the imposition of will by force and little consideration for the animal being trained. Horse-whispering not only sounds better but works better. My father took horses into battle in the Great War and my brother's regiment took their horses with them when going off at the start of the Second World War. Both changed their minds about Army methods of training horses as a result of personal experiences. Many who have seen gundogs trained professionally in days gone by have had similar conversions.

In his 'Dog Breaking' of 1915, "Wildfowler" wrote: "The whip should be resorted to only if the dog is very wilful and obstinate...Any breaker can teach a dog to drop in two hours by simply 'flogging' it into him, but I don't call that training a dog, I call it breaking his spirit..." More recently, especially in the United States, gundogs have been trained and then controlled in the shooting field by way of electric collars. This means literally shocking the dog into compliance. Both this and the use of a whip tells you more about the trainer or handler than it does about the dog. Breaking a dog's spirit or inflicting pain to instil order is a quite unnecessary form of cruelty. Who on earth wants a 'broken' dog?

We have largely outlawed the use of the whip and the electric collar is condemned by most experienced gun dog men. Direct cruelty outrages most people nowadays and often gets reported. Indirect cruelty is sadly not even noticed in its many forms. I know of breeders who have repeated matings known to have produced cleft palates, hare lips and crank tails. We have all met breeders who simply refuse to accept that they have carriers of inheritable defects in their stock. I have been told of one who even ignored cases of glaucoma and another who bred from dogs known to carry epilepsy. This is the worst type of 21st century cruelty.

Our views on direct cruelty have changed for the better in the last one hundred years, although the incidence of reported cruelty remains depressingly high. Our views on indirect cruelty now need attention. It is easy to object to the use of electric collars, not so easy to insist that the agenda of your breed club's committee meetings has 'Breed Health' as a fixed item, high up on the agenda. Unless we face up to and then act to remedy 'cruelty by breeding' we put our precious companion dogs and indeed our precious breeds at risk.

Some breeds of pedigree dog may well be approaching 'breaking point' .The incidence rate of heart problems in Boxers and Cavaliers is terrifying to me. The problems of faulty genes in so many breeds screams out for concerted action by both breed clubs and registries across the globe. It is so easy for 'deformation professionelle', or becoming blinded by your self- interested pursuit, to take over. On animal health we all need to bring our individual consciences, our personal standards, to the fore and stop thinking like the mob. There is nothing so dangerous as a closed mind. Within each breed there are known reckless breeders who ignore inheritable defect considerations and a harmful design in their brand of the breed and are allowed to prosper. Looking the other way is neither brave nor admirable. 'Blue sky thinking' brings real change.

It is time for all of us to show we care by speaking up when we see a breed of dog literally being 'bred to death' .Any breed club which condones dogs being knowingly bred to a harmful design or with defective genes must change its ways. Change from within is usually so much more effective than change imposed from afar. Everyone in animal welfare, vets especially, should press for the mandatory recording of essential data on breed health. Cruelty does indeed, as William Blake once stated in a poem, have a human heart. 2lst century cruelty may not come directly from whips and sticks but may be more life-threatening. We have the power to own and breed crippled dogs but surely the conscience not to; let's seek higher moral values and less moral vanity.

 How easy to bleat about a TV programme which exposes sinful activity in pedigree dog-breeding when it threatens your hobby. How much more difficult to attend the breed club AGM, stand up and insist on better health clearances and stronger cooperation with genetic researchers. Real moral outrage isn't about such an exposure itself but about the circumstances which created the exposure in the first place. Before you shoot the messenger, read the message!