by   David Hancock

Breeding for Virility

 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? Breeding for virility should be our watchword.

Perpetuating Soundness

 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. Cocker Spaniels can now inherit ectropian, entropian, a bleeding disorder known as factor X deficiency, progressive retinal atrophy, distichiasis and three different skeletal anomalies. How many mandatory control schemes have been set up to reduce their incidence? Not one. Commendably, the KC now has a Dog Health Group looking at the number of litters registered to one bitch, veterinary inspections of Best-of-Breed winners in certain breeds, one of them, the Clumber Spaniel, being a gundog breed, and introduced the Mate-Select system to guard against unknowing inbreeding.

 Hip dysplasia is a crippling disease affecting a number of gundog breeds, especially Labradors and golden retrievers. Every year another 50,000 retrievers are registered with the Kennel Club. They come from breeding stock only a tiny number of which has been hip scored. Who knows what their hips will be like? Why shouldn't their purchasers get their money back if these pups develop hip dysplasia 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 mandatory clearances for all pedigree dog 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 wellbeing. 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. Kennel Club registrations are not being sustained; since 1996, when over 270,000 registrations were processed, the KC has regularly lost thousands in annual registrations. The gundog group accounts for around 100,000 of these registrations, easily the largest group. If the Countryside Alliance or BASC made themselves responsible for such registrations and maintained the same scale of costs, they would receive the best part of a million pounds. Quite a thought! Think of the health schemes and sporting competitions that could be financed by such income.

 Of course, owners of gundogs who are solely interested in showing their dogs at KC-licensed shows will still want to register their dogs with them. But most dogs registered are just pets. These, together with gundogs intended for work, would probably make up around 55% of gundogs registered. If these alone came over to a new scheme, they would still bring with them well over £500,000 in revenue, a sum worth more than a passing thought.

Sponsoring Sporting Dogs

The fashion of registering sporting dogs with the KC should have gone 'out of fashion' a long time ago. Owners of sporting dogs have been slow to realise that the Kennel Club itself is slowly but surely going out of fashion. Gundog fanciers need to ensure that our native breeds don’t go out of fashion too. Thirty years ago I tried hard to stir the consciences of the gundog fraternity in an article in Shooting Times entitled "Do we need the Kennel Club?" pointing out the value of the International Sheepdog Society to the working sheepdog, the National Greyhound Racing Club to the racing greyhound and the Associations of Masters to packhounds, despite their disassociation from the KC. I was inundated with letters of support and the editor's Letters page vastly oversubscribed. But the support of such notables as Peter Moxon, Derry Argue and Diana Bovill was not reinforced by the field sports' organisations, to my deep regret.

 Commenting on my article, the editor of Our Dogs wrote that "The gundog section of dogdom, particularly that part of it concerned with field trials rather than show competition, has always shown great independence of spirit." I wish that "great independence of spirit" in the field trials world had only matched that of their counterparts in the sheepdog, greyhound and packhound world down the years. Diana Bovill, in her letter to the editor, wrote: "Having for about 20 years watched and studied the Kennel Club in relation to field trials, I do not think one can easily overestimate the evils which spring from autocracy and privilege." In the late 1920s, a gundog breakaway was planned and only averted at the last moment by the clever intervention of the Earl of Chesterfield and by taking the rebel's general, the redoubtable Lady Howe, on to the field trial committee, the first and only woman to serve on any KC committee for more than forty years. Are Diana Bovill's words that wrong?

Ministerial Confusion

 Subsequently I wrote another piece for the same sporting magazine, pointing out that in Canada, the monopoly of their Kennel Club has now been broken - by law. Sadly, in this country two quite separate ministries, the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, neither of them noted for their vision or surefootedness, seem to dabble in the welfare of the domestic dog, unlike the Canadian situation. But the welfare of our gundogs - the control of psychopathic dogs, the eradication of inheritable diseases, the restriction of back-street breeders and the promotion of well-bred, physically-sound, functional, working dogs to support us in the field is the business of all of us who have had the privilege of working such dogs. Master breeders of the last century passed these revered sporting breeds into our hands during our lifetime, in the belief that we too would carry their torch and then perpetuate these splendid animals for the benefit of those who come after us. We are betraying that trust.

 After the publication of that second article, several gundog society secretaries wrote to me expressing support for a gundog breakaway from the KC. I asked them to write to the BASC; perhaps I was wrong. But all of us who admire field prowess in gundogs have to accept the need for change. The destiny of our gundog breeds, as breeds, must be recaptured by those who use them as functional animals. Perhaps the new thinking at the KC, in the light of the immensely influential TV programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed of 2006, will restore our faith, but so much valuable time has been lost over safeguarding the whole future of our precious gundog breeds.

 If we did have a separate working gundog studbook, perhaps then we could work to eliminate entropion in Clumbers, inherited canine cataracts in Labradors, hip dysplasia in Golden Retrievers, central progressive atrophy in Chesapeakes and PRA in all too many gundog breeds. The studbook can play a leading role in such work - if we are determined, that is, to work towards the reduction rather the limp acceptance of such flawed stock. We would no longer need 44 words to describe the tail of the Labrador and could work to restore true type and the correct temperament in our gundog breeds. We might even find genuinely yellow Labradors and truly Golden Retrievers being bred again! And, after all, do the American shooting men allow the show dog people over there to run their sport? No, they do not and that alone is a lesson for us. Come on, BASC, run gundogs!