640 Purity Pursued dangerously

by   David Hancock

 In the controversial hard-hitting BBC programme 'Pedigree Dogs Exposed' (Aug 2008) reference was made to eugenics, a term coined by Francis Galton in 1883. The word meant the practice of altering a population by controlled breeding for desirable inherited characteristics. Galton was inspired by The Basset Hound Club’s studbook! Other scientists such as Darwin, Galton's cousin, were influenced by his views, as sadly were the Nazis, who mis-applied it for human social engineering. It was entirely rational for the programme makers to use such a reference; it showed the dangers of the misguided pursuit of breeding purity.  Their reference was relevant to their argument: that the blind pursuit of breeding purity could lead to quite appalling consequences, both in the concept of a 'master race' in human society and of elite but unscreened gene pools in dog-breeding. It was honest and arguably even morally brave for the programme makers to include such a reference, since Slavs, Jews, Roma-Gypsies and other ethnic groups were cruelly punished by such mis-applied pseudo-science. But it did, quite dramatically, focus attention on the quite awful dangers of elite breeding concepts being unthinkingly pursued by some unskilled dog breeders.

 The relevance of eugenics to dog-breeding has been made by a leading authority on canine matters, biology professor Raymond Coppinger, in his acclaimed book Dogs (Scribner, 2001). He writes: "The service dogs are perhaps the most exaggerated case of eugenic manipulation of an organism. There is little question that the service dogs represent a great benefit for a very few humans, but are also a biological disaster for any dog that gets trapped in the system". He went to state: ''...as a scientist, I don't think a great companion dog can be produced with eugenics". Against these words from such an eminent scientist, how could it be wrong for the maker of a programme on unwise dog-breeding to omit reference to eugenics? On grounds of human sensitivity alone, do those peoples so badly affected by the Nazi mis-use of eugenics truly not want such an unwise practice exposed?

 To ignore the influence of Galton's views on dog-breeders would be to ignore his impact on such exalted dog breeders as Sir Everett Millais (Basset Hounds), Earl Bathurst (Foxhounds), EC Ash (Greyhounds) and CJ Davies (Scottish Terriers). The most influential book on dog-breeding in the 1930s: The Principles of Dog-Breeding by 'Great Dane' (RE Nicholas), published by Toogood in 1934, relied on Galton's work, and was supported by Edwin Brough, the eminent Bloodhound breeder and Dr J Sidney Turner, the distinguished Mastiff breeder. To ignore the influence of the Galton school of genetic theory on dog- breeding would be to produce an incomplete record, a dishonest, less valuable one. The inclusion of references to eugenics in this programme was entirely justified. Its association with extremists made very graphically the comparable danger for dog- breeders. Even exaggeration achieved over half a century's breeding can produce extremes, extremes which are harmful to the dog. A sound dog will always be more important than five generations of unsullied but flawed gene-flow. It's the dog before you which is important, much more than its grand-dad!

 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.

 If pure-bred means of unmixed descent then it can hardly be applied to our recognised breeds of dog, those registered as breeds by the Kennel Club. According to the KC's own Glossary of Terms, the words pure bred are defined as 'A dog whose sire and dam belong to the same breed, and are themselves of unmixed descent.' If the caveat 'for a minimum of five generations' had been added to this definition, it would have had greater validity. I would be interested to know of a recognised breed which is truly of unmixed descent. Such an event is as assailable as the statement that modern dog is descended from modern wolf, as so many lazily claim. But for a breed to have come from mixed ancestry is for me a strength not a derogatory sly gibe. It is fair to state, I believe, that only show breeders rate purity of breeding ahead of the worthiness of the individual dog. To value a dog solely because it is a registered pure-bred dog and not mainly because of its mental and physical attributes is, to me, irrational and unwise. It may reward humans; it doesn't reward dogs. This is what both programme makers and dog-lovers should surely be focussing on.