Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dog World Says It's Time for KC to Check Values

In the run-up to Crufts, a genuinely excellent piece has appeared in Dog World, the publication of the boiled-in-the-oil show-dog set in Great Britain. Read the whole thing, but here's a quick sample:

I know the dog world got very upset by the media accusation of its practising eugenics – but why? Eugenics is ‘the science of improving the population by controlled breeding for desirable genetic characteristics’. In its dictionary form, there is nothing wrong with that idea, despite all its ghastly historical connotations. Indeed, is it not exactly what pedigree dog breeders have been trying to do for hundreds of years – improve individual dog breeds? Of course, the problem does not lie in the act itself but in the interpretation of a desirable genetic characteristic and what improves it. Even historically it was ever thus.

The real problem is that one man’s ‘superb brachycephalic skull’ is another man’s ‘dog who looks as if he walked into a barn door – if he could walk that is because he does seem a little short of breath.’Surely what is happening at the moment is a matter of confusion over priorities and that all important focus. For example, one person choosing a stud dog might think that they would be improving the breed by shortening their bitch’s brachycephalic skull still further to produce extreme breed type. Wow – this one will knock their socks off in the rings!

On the other hand, someone else might say that the only improvement would be achieved by lengthening that same skull so that the nasal passages were less obstructed and the dogs could breathe more easily. Its choice of emphasis is why the Kennel Club and its breed Standards have come in for such a pounding in the press. If breed ‘A’ has such a short skull that it can’t breathe, then it must be the KC’s fault because it publishes the breed Standard that highlights such a skull as desirable. The KC chooses the emphasis and so it must bear the brunt of the criticism when the majority disapprove of the results.....

.... Almost all the pedigree dogs we breed end up in pet homes so, regardless of our desires for the tiny minority who are destined for the show ring, surely we need to respect and respond to the desires of society as a whole? If we continue to set ourselves apart from society’s sensibilities then we run the very real risk of acquiring pariah status which is a dangerous place to be in what is plainly a very judgemental, modern world.

All that has happened since last August begs certain important philosophical questions which must be addressed by each one of us individually and collectively as a hobby, awkward and difficult though they are. >> To read the rest.

Now here's the voice of reason, and the first step down the road to discourse!

Check your values? Yes!

Accept responsibility for publishing breed standards that select for defect? Yes!

Recognize that most dogs, even dogs bred by top show exhibitors, are pets? Yes!

Vow to learn the real history of dogs and the real history of the Kennel Club? Yes!

How could any of this be controversial?

Hat's off to Jessica Holm, the author! Well said, well thought, well done.



Lisa B. said...

I didn't actually find this piece "excellent" because it still operates from the basic premise that what's wrong with conformation breeding is down to "the sins of a few." The whole foundation of belief behind their "sport"--that narrowing gene pools by artificial selection based on appearance is somehow "improving" dogs--has been repeatedly demonstrated to be a bad idea and ultimately bad for dogs. So, sure, it's great that a few within the "fancy" are at least recognizing that there are some problems, but in the end they still believe that what they are doing is somehow noble. I can't agree with that.

Caveat said...

Just one quibble. Breed standards aren't blueprints or guides to identifying breeds. They are very vague, subjective sketches of someone's ideal that are open to wide interpretation. 'Well let down', 'sloping', 'not too' 'slight', blah blah blah.

Therefore, I don't think it's the standards themselves so much as the judges' interpretations and the inherent bias and opportunities for corruption/favouritism in the whole show process from pen to podium.

Of course, breeding dogs of a distinct appearance for decades, especially in breeds that focus on colour and strange mutations (doubtless caused by the inbreeding itself) is not a good thing.

I watched an interesting show on our public network last night called "Martin Clunes: A Man and His Dogs" (part 2 next Wed).

He was in Oz checking out wild dingoes on a large island. Oddly, they all look the same and aren't believed to have varied much in appearance since arriving over 5,000 years ago even though there are only about 200 or so and they are confined to an island.

I suspect this is because natural selection would work against most of the dogs in the show ring today, so only the true pariah type survives on its own.

PBurns said...


There are no wild poodles, 'tis true.

There is also no wild corn on the cob, milk cows, tomatoes, broccoli, or Rhode Island Red hens.

In my book, there is nothing wrong with breeding and selection, and I will even acknowledge that there is a place in this world for line breeding or inbreeding at the very beginning of a breed's creation.

The problem is that what you need to do to CREATE a breed is not what you need to perpetuate the breed. In fact, if you continue inbreeding, the animal gets less fecund, develops more defects, and can eventually die out. Farmers, who are able to gauge things on a steak-and-eggs axis, figured this out pretty quickly (first in cows which had the first registry), and today most farm animals are stable breeds which are, in fact, perpetually crossing hybrids.

This is, in fact, much of what Mother Nature does.

What is funny to me is to see some geneticists clicking their worry beads that there are almost no "pure" dingoes left in Australia outside of Fraser Island, and that there are no "pure" Bison left in the U.S.

In fact, there are thousands of bison and scores of thousands of dingoes, and they are as pure as they have ever been as far as I am concerned. This idea that Mother Nature's standard is "not a drop of foreign blood" is laughable. Wolves and coyotes and dogs have been cross-breeding on occasion since the beginning, and the same goes for hawks, falcons, parrots, various species of fish, various types of bears, etc.

How long can animals sustain themselves in a closed-gene population? If the numbers are small (under 100 animals), the answer is a pretty long time provided natural selection is at work and mating is truly random. If mating is not random, however, what appears to be 100 animals may be an effective breeding population of 10 (what we have in the show world), and things can go bad pretty fast. Studies of wild wolf populations on islands and isthmus's show dramatic increases in infecundity in just 20-30 years time.

If a random-bred population of animals is greater than 200 or 300 animals, the population may be able to roll forward forever, absent a limiting external disease like distemper, which would effectively choke down the gene pool and change the game again.

Finally, something needs to be said about the total population (N) created from "Adam and Eve" arrivals. If only two animals arrive on an island (let's make them rats), and they breed, and the population booms up to 100,000 animals over the next 15 years (30 generations of rats), the genetic diversity in the rat population will begin to INCREASE due to genetic drift (i.e. natural mutation). Mother Nature SO abhors homogeneity, that she has a "do loop" built into the system in order to increase genetic diversity. However, if a population of two rats hits an island, and the population does not grow very much (say 100 animals) and the matings are not random (only the 10 "best" rats become sires), then inbreeding will soar, diversity will be scrubbed out, and infecundity and defect will rise.

Finally, let's think of the folks in the show ring and at the Kennel Club as dogs. If they were dogs, how would we train them? By click and trearting when they began to approximate the behavior. We can shape the Kennel Club and the show people the same way. I am NOT, a pure-positive person when it comes to dogs or people. I like choke chains and leashes. There is a place to shoot the dog. That said, click and treat is a core part of achieving the goal of changing behavior, and that is true whether the change we seek is from a dog, or from the Kennel Club's bureaucracy. For that reason, this article gets FULL APPLAUSE from me!