by   David Hancock

  The division of most registered gundog breeds into a working type and a show variety is, however desirable to some and inevitable to others, to me regrettable. Some would claim that many working gundogs are just not handsome enough for the pet market, that the field trial dogs are too 'hot' even for rough shooters and that working ability in a show dog is wasted anyway, so why get excited about it? It has been argued that there are in fact three varieties within some gundog breeds: field trial, working test and show bench types. This may well be true in some retriever breeds and, after all, every working and sporting breed evolved in the pursuit of function. Foxhound breeders adapt their pack to their hunting country, so why shouldn't our gundog breeds just reflect the needs of their owners?

 Sweeping generalisations are regularly made about the different varieties within a gundog breed, on the lines of, on the one hand that all show dogs have been ruined and, on the other, that all good working dogs are structurally sound. Yet we all know of some excellent dual-purpose gundogs and we all see dogs win in the field sometimes in spite of their anatomy. Strong working instincts are not automatically accompanied by a strong sound physique. But surely it would be good to see every dog in each gundog breed not only possessing working skills but also actually looking like the breed named in its title. Handsome is as handsome does is no recipe for breeding better dogs.

  Our forebears bred good dog to good dog and didn't regard purity of breeding as an over-riding factor. The setter-man Laverack is on record as stating that a change of colour was as good as a change of blood. Would any setter breeder of today follow the master-breeder's advice? The great Bloodhound breeder, Edwin Brough, advised an outcross every fifth generation. Would any Bloodhound breeder of today follow such a respected pioneer breeder's advice? The best bred dogs, for function, in the United Kingdom are the Foxhounds in the hunting packs and how often do they restrict their breeding to their own kennel or fail to use say Fell or Welsh Hound blood when needed? Breeding animals is the single-minded pursuit of excellence not the blind pursuit of pure-breeding.

 A sound gundog, whether a working dog or a pampered pet, should be not just anatomically able to function, but look and act like the breed it belongs to. I hate seeing Labradors with Rottweiler heads and the body of a fat whippet. I object to a Pointer winning at Crufts with a Hackney action. I feel sad when I see a Gordon Setter with no power in its back legs. I get cross when I see our famous native breeds bred to a harmful design. But far more serious than any of this is the breeding of dogs carrying defective genes, sometimes knowingly.

 A study a few years ago by a group of distinguished Canadian veterinary surgeons concluded with these words: "The next hundred years look rather bleak for the pure-bred dog industry unless dramatic changes are introduced. We have a problem which if not addressed and speedily rectified, may destroy for all time many beautiful breeds of dog. All dog lovers share the blame for not acting..." They were referring to the practice of breeding dogs to a harmful design and to the failure to face the challenge posed by inheritable diseases. Our precious gundog breeds were handed down into our safekeeping by the likes of Laverack, Llewellin, Boughey, Lords Sefton, Derby, Knutsford and Malmesbury and the Dukes of Gordon, Kingston and Newcastle. What if they had tolerated unsound unhealthy dogs?

 Would the Duke of Newcastle have tolerated spaniels at Clumber Park weighing 80lbs, with serious eye problems, whelping difficulties and 'slipping kneecaps'? If he had we would not have the breed of Clumber spaniel with us today. If we do then we are betraying a trust, the belief that we too would care for such dogs and perpetuate them in their own mould. Spaniels are particularly prone to Immune Mediated Haemolytic Anaemia (IMHA). Cocker Spaniels can now inherit ectropion, entropion, a bleeding disorder known as factor X deficiency, progressive retinal atrophy, distichiasis and three different skeletal anomalies. Labradors now have their own disease: HMLR or Hereditary Myopathy Labrador Retriever. How many mandatory control schemes have been set up to reduce their incidence? Not one.

  Inherited defects are known to be affecting a number of gundog breeds, including Labradors and Cocker Spaniels. Every year another 20,000 Cockers and 40,000 Labs are registered with the Kennel Club. They come from breeding stock only a tiny number of which has been health-tested. Who knows what their genetic health is like? Why shouldn't their purchasers get their money back if these pups develop hip dysplasia, glaucoma or epilepsy in due course? Most of them will be too distressed by their dog's suffering to even try.

 The literally cruel fact is that nobody cares enough to lobby for compulsory clearances for all pedigree breeding stock. This does nothing for subject creatures in our care. It does nothing to perpetuate pedigree dogs as sound healthy animals for working use or as companion dogs. We should be thoroughly ashamed of the way we breed our gundogs and even more ashamed by our total failure to safeguard their health and well-being. We are a nation of dog-owners not dog-lovers. We have lost our way. There is a way back; but it is conscience-led not wallet-led. What are you, the reader, now going to do about this shameful state of affairs? You, in your own name. It's going to take action by us all to put this right, and we'll be better people for the trying.     

 But how to proceed? Could not every gundog club and society campaign for mandatory health-control schemes for gundogs, perhaps backed by some sponsorship from a morally-conscious dog food manufacturer; then led by some official schemes launched by the BASC or The Game Conservancy, ideally supported by  shooting/sporting magazine editors, ending up with proactive gundog breed councils (with the Golden Retriever one already working hard on health matters) insisting that the Kennel Club only registers health-cleared pups. What a start! But only a dream!