619 Crossing Breeds

by   David Hancock

  Pure-breeding is worth supporting when it is successful but no gene-pool should be sealed for ever. One faction in the Plummer Terrier world wants to backcross to the Bull Terrier to 'body-up' their dogs. When I judged the breed, I found sufficient stock in front of me, to want to question the wisdom of this proposed outcross. The entry I saw had the breeding material to continue the breed without the alteration to type such a backcross would bring, quite apart from temperament differences. But when judging the Sporting Lucas Terrier at their annual show, I felt it was a pity that there was not one solid red jacket on view. I therefore support the breed committee's decision to introduce Norfolk Terrier blood to restore this breed feature. That, to me, is a sensible solution and a rejection of dogma, for the sake of the future of this appealing little breed. Two different cases and two different solutions.

 I have also judged the annual show of the Victorian Bulldog Society and a couple of American Bulldog shows. At each of these shows there were some really sound animals, with no exaggeration. The Bulldogs resembled the dogs depicted in prints and paintings produced in past centuries, not the version of the breed exhibited in th show ring here. There is an abundance of breeding material for any enthusiast wishing to re-create the pre-show ring Bulldog. But of course when I speak to pedigree dog breeders about the sheer quality of these Victorian Bulldogs, I am met with comments such as 'but they're not the real thing, are they'. I think they are; a breed which doesn't resemble its own ancestors, like the show ring Bulldog,  can hardly claim to be 'the real thing'. A slavish adherence to a closed gene-pool when the genes are producing either untypical or unhealthy pups is not admirable; it contributes little to the desire we all surely share, that of improving dogs. Perhaps the Kennel Club's self-imposed mandate of 'improving dogs' should be updated to read 'improving the soundness of dogs'.

 In his 'Dog Breeding' of 1994 (Crowood), Frank Jackson writes: "The vigour of recently recognised breeds provides evidence of the value of the wise use of cross-breeding." He points out that these crosses make it easier for the breeds to retain genetic health after they have been recognised, as recognition immediately puts a severe restriction on the size of the breeding base. One advantage of the recent blending of Parson Russell Terriers with Jack Russell Terriers is that the breeding population in the combined breed gives far greater flexibility in developing future breeding lines. The white working Lakeland Terrier, as Frank Jackson reminds us, did much to infuse new blood, and a better anatomy, to the emergent Jack Russell. This use of outside blood to improve the breed is not possible now that KC recognition has been obtained. This may suit a registry but does not make for the best practice in  breeding sound dogs.      

 In their classic 'Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog' (Univ of Chicago Press, 1965), Scott and Fuller report: "...breed intercrosses might be used to produce superior working animals...it should be realised that a breed is a population of individuals showing a limited but still important degree of genetic variability. If selection is confined to one narrowly defined type, the result will almost inevitably be the accidental selection of various undesirable characteristics." They went on to state that breed standards should also cover health, behaviour, vigour, and fertility, as well as stipulating body form. They suggested that obedience and field trials were a valuable step in influencing the selection of breeding stock. My reservation about that would be based on a worry that the dogs which excel at responding to human instructions are not always those able to think for themselves.

 It would be a huge step forward however if breed organisations, i.e. clubs, societies and associations, formed to look after individual breeds, came up with proposals for expanded breed standards, as Scott and Fuller proposed. If enough breed clubs responded to such a call, and the work of Scott and Fuller is internationally admired, then national registries such as our Kennel Club might well be supportive. In special circumstances, such as the recent infusion of Bull Terrier blood into the Miniature Bull Terrier, the KC has been both flexible and understanding. When a closed gene pool protects, benefits and allows improvement in a breed, no action needs to be taken. But when a breed loses virility, has a problem with an inheritable defect or is losing true type to an alarming degree, then outside blood has a role to play.

 In all areas of livestock breeding the value of hybrid vigour is acknowledged, except in dogs. Some of the most impressive dogs I have seen in the last twenty years have been cross-bred dogs. These have mainly been working terriers and lurchers, but include too: a Springer-Clumber cross, a Dalmatian-Weimaraner cross, a Dogue de Bordeaux-Bulldog cross, a Dobermann-Azawakh cross, a Mastiff-Bullmastiff cross and a blend of Dobermann and Irish Setter. Some were accidental, some were planned with care and knowledge. Crosses between two retriever breeds have been favoured by the Guide Dogs for the Blind organisation. Our ancestors didn't worship the pedigree; sportsmen have kept faith with their predecessors in any number of countries. The best breeders know that you get the best results when you breed one outstanding dog to another, suitably matched. Breeders of packhounds and lurchers still rely on this ancient system.