Friday, December 28, 2007

The Blue Ribbon and Gold Card Alliance

In his book "Dog Wars," Donald McCaig comes to the conclusion that the Kennel Club is like a religion, founded on faith, and based on evidence unseen in the real world.

"Throughout the fight [with the Kennel Club], I kept stumbling over a simple truth without quite seeing it: dog fanciers and their creature, the AKC, really do believe that what is most valuable about any dog can be judged in the show ring, that the show ring is the sole legitimate purpose and reward for all dog breeding. They even believe, against all evidence, that the show ring 'improves' breeds."

I was reminded of this passage while reading a recent article in The Canadian Veterinary Journal in which Koharik Arman recommends several Kennel Club reforms she thinks should be undertaken in order to save dogs from the 19th Century eugenics theories upon which the Kennel Club's current system is now based.

Arman's suggested reforms include:

  • Opening breed registries to allow an increase in genetic variation;

  • Setting minimum numbers for foundation stock during breed establishment;

  • Redefining breed standards to include health, vigor, and temperament, in addition to typology;

  • Monitoring heterozygosity within breeds, presumably by looking at Coefficients of Inbreeding.

I chuckled a bit at reading the list. It's not that Ms. Arman's reforms are not good ones. It's just that Ms. Arman is naive to think the Kennel Club will ever embrace them.

I looked carefully through Ms. Arman's thesis and found her mistake -- the sunken rock upon which every discussion of Kennel Club reform eventually wrecks. Ms. Arman writes:

"The purpose of cynological associations is to facilitate the work of dog breeders, rather than impede it. "


The purpose of cynological associations is to give out ribbons. Dogs are simply a mechanism for the humans to get the ribbons.

Take away the ribbons and awards, and no one would go to a dog show at all. To do what? To pay money to stand around all day, to have your dog looked at for 5 seconds by someone who does not own or work the breed? Forget it.

In fact, it's entirely possible to be in the "sport" of dog showing without even showing up at a dog show at all! Unbelievably, it's done all the time.

At the Westminster Dog Show, the winning dog may not have been bred by the owner, may not have been raised by the owner, may not have been trained by the owner, and may not be handled by the owner in the ring. At these top shows, the "sport" of dog showing is too often reduced to the "sport" of writing checks.

As for reform, I hate to pour cold water on the idea but I am an unflinching realist, and it is not going to happen, at least not soon.

After all, the obstacle to Kennel Club reform is not ignorance about the scope of the problem, is it?

Anyone who knows anything about dogs or genetics knows there are serious problems withhin the Kennel Club.

Working dogs drawn into the Kennel Club lose their working abilities within 50 years or so -- i.e. as fast as their working abilities can be washed out of the gene pool by a breeding program that places no value on those abilities.

Even as the working abilities of Kennel Club dogs evaporate, gene-based health problems tend to rise up due to concerted programs of inbreeding and the overuse of championship sires, which results in a "doubling down" on negative recessive genes.

Add in to the equation the fact that some breeds are specifically bred for their genetic defects -- short faces that result in serious breathing problems, dwarfism that results in heart and joint problems, and coat color patterns that are tied to the genes for deafness -- and you have all the health issues that prompt Mr Arman to suggest Kennel Club reform.

So why do I think Kennel Club reform is impossible? Simple: The Kennel Club is an economic system with economic assets. Change the rules of the game, and billions of dollars of canine breeding stock will be worth a great deal less overnight.

If that happens, a lot of people will quit the Kennel Club in rapid order, others will join any one of several dozen class-action lawsuits that are certain to be filed, while still others will run off to join free-standing non-affiliated breed clubs or competing kennel club registries.

Put it altogether, and you can see how major changes could easily result in the Kennel Club being pushed past the economic tipping point.

And don't think the folks at the Kennel Club haven't thought about this. You do not have to be a Wharton Business School graduate to know there are dangers in economic, social and institutional transitions.

Look at IBM, for example. The world's largest and most powerful computer and business machine company in 1978 found it could not transition to the new world of personal computers while maintaining their old mainframe computer business.

Microsoft and Dell only had to build forward, and did not have to protect or service a back-end economic model or product. IBM did.

As a consequence, Michael Dell and Bill Gates are among the richest people in the world today, while no one I know owns an IBM computer of any type. IBM still exists, of course, but they are doing more and more "business consulting." After all, in a world of 20 gigabyte laptops, who needs a mainframe?

The Kennel Club is in the same position as IBM, with the dangers of transition to a "new economy" almost beyond calculation.

In fact, the transition from a 19th Century closed-registry eugenics system of breeding dogs, to an open-registry performance-based system is actually going to be much tougher for the Kennel Club to achieve than anything IBM ever tried to do.

When push-comes-to-shove, after all, IBM was simply selling inanimate machines. Getting people to change how they evaluate and breed living animals that are connected to their all-important ego is going to be a much tougher sell.

In fact, the process of transitioning from the old paradigm to a new one is likely to kill off the Kennel Club entirely.

So long as the Kennel Club cranks out a lot of ribbons, breeders will continue to proselytize the false gospel that ribbons and Kennel Club registry papers are some sign of quality.

Change the deal, however, and the economic value of those millions of Kennel Club registry papers will evaporate, and breeders will no longer be good Kennel Club missionaries.

Kennel Club officials know this, and as a consequence they have been strongly resistant to all reform efforts.

As far as they are concerned, their first duty is not to preserve a particular breed, or even the health of dogs in general, but to preserve the Kennel Club.

From where they sit, if the Kennel Club fails to exist, then nothing else matters.

After all, many of the dog breeds that exist today only exist for Kennel Club show ring purposes. Get rid of the narrow selection criteria that fences in contrived breeds, and jettison the "market maker" that is the dog show, and many breeds will merge back together or disappear altogether. Imagine the horror of that!

The Kennel Club will tell you, that "Yes," a large number of dogs are burdened by genetic maladies, but that's the risk folks take when they get a pure-bred dog.

The data is out there for anyone to find and read about. Caveat emptor.

If your dog is deaf, or has ataxia, or is dysplastic, or has poor liver function, well then it's a good bet that you did not do your homework when purchasing a dog.

Besides, you can always put down your defective dog and simply buy another one. Most breeders have a lot of puppies they are willing to sell. Try again!

And it's not as if all those crossbred dogs down at the pound are all free of genetic disorder, is it?

This is the Kennel Club way of thinking. This is their defense.

And, to tell the truth, it has a kind of internal logic to it. If your goal is not improving the genetic health of dogs in general, and you are not concerned about preserving the working qualities of specific breeds of working dogs, then there is not much wrong with the Kennel Club way of doing business.

Yes, the Kennel Club dogs don't work. And yes, Kennel Club dogs may be sicker than they might otherwise be under a different breeding regime. But so what?

After all, you can still find a Dalmatian that is not deaf if you look carefully. And if you really want a Dalmatian, isn't that the best and easiest course of action?

Of course it is! There's no reason to look for macro solutions when a micro solution is so close at hand. Thump all the melons, and try to avoid the rotten ones! Go to a "good" breeder, and not a "backyard" breeder, and never mind that all the "good breeders" are actually hobby breeders with a lot of dogs in the backyard. All we need is a pejorative term to describe anyone we don't like -- there's no reason to actually change the Kennel Club structure itself. After all, they're "just a registry."

Of course, Ms. Arman does not seem to be buy into that line of thinking, and neither do I.

Even if it's not illegal to embrace a flawed evaluation system that results in a rising number of defective products, it is certainly immoral.

And when that defective product is an animal that will live a shortened life in pain, it is positively evil.

But of course one man's floor is another man's ceiling. Where you stand may depend on where you sit.

Defective dogs with expensive ailments are not all bad for everyone, are they? If you are a veterinarian, for example, such animals may be your bread-and-butter.

And don't think veterinarians don't know this! They certainly do.

Yes, some vets may privately tut-tut about the high rate of inbreeding, but are their trade associations going to launch a campaign to push for reform within the Kennel Club, as Ms. Arman suggests they should?

Heck no! Why would they do that? Dogs with serious long-term gene-based physical disabilities are a core part of any veterinary practice. Why would the veterinary trade associations launch a campaign to cut off their nose in order to spit their face? They wouldn't. And they haven't.

Besides, if the veterinary trade associations fired off at the Kennel Club, the Kennel Club might fire back.

Suppose the Kennel Club blew the whistle on all the price-gouging, up-coding and bogus billing going on in the veterinary trades?

Suppose the Kennel Club started telling folks how to worm their own dogs and how to give vaccines? Suppose the Kennel Club started educating folks about the nonsense called canine teeth cleaning? Where would the veterinary trades be then?

So no, the veterinarians are not going to lead the charge to reform the Kennel Club.

Instead, the veterinarians and the Kennel Club are going to start doing business with each other.

This is called cross-marketing.

The Kennel Club now promotes Kennel Club-friendly veterinarians to help vets generate new business.

For their part, veterinarians never warn prospetive clients off of a breed, not do they mention that there are entire canine web sites organized around breeds-by-disease.

And, of course, both sides love pet insurance. What a great product that is! It means veterinarians can charge their customers more without guilt, while the economic pressure to reform defective Kennel Club breeding practices will be lifted a little bit.

Plus, the pet insurance companies will pay kickbacks for referrals!

And so the Kennel Club "religion," which is based on the failed eugenics theories of the 19th Century, continues unreformed.

And have no illusion: If reform ever does come, it will not come easily. What religious reformation ever has?

But, of course, do you really trust any religion that remains unreformed?

"Mrs Shortley looked at the priest and was reminded that these people did not have an advanced religion. There was no telling what all they believed since none of the foolishness had been reformed out of it."
. . . .- Flannery O'Connor, "The Diplaced Person"


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A HAT TIP to Pat Nolan over at his dog training blog for pointing me to The Canadian Veterinary Journal article that this post bounces off of.


Diogenes said...

Excellent post. I've been hanging around dog shows a lot in the past few years, fundraising for our legal challenge of the Ontario terrier breed ban. Talk about a tough crowd, we do better at street festivals open to people with - gasp! - mutts.

Anyway, I realized awhile ago that a lot of these people don't love dogs, at least not the way I do. It's an ego thing. I wish they'd come off all the 'bred to do this or that' stuff and just be honest - it's a beauty contest pure and simple and the people with the most money win the most because they campaign the most.

Some breeds have been almost destroyed over here - the GSD is especially heartbreaking but there are others. Europe has a better handle on breeding than we do.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with pets, they are great to have around. It's just that all this weird obsession with appearance above all else is starting to take a tremendous toll on dogs. Some breeds look very weird today compared with when I was a kid - Pekes come to mind, so do Collies and Dachshunds, which are quite large at the shows, much larger than they used to be.

As for who handles/shows, up here in Canada you don't see many owner/handlers anymore because the judges give out places to pro handlers - they bring in a lot of dogs and a lot of money for the shows. A friend of mine who breeds MinPins, shows occasionally, nailed all four places in several breeds at a recent show not because of the dogs but because of who was handling them. The best dogs weren't put up at all.

You're right, it's unlikely to change until the dogs can't produce anymore, until puppy mortality increases, serious defects keep cropping up earlier, etc.

The Dalmatian experiment I read about worked well, they outbred them and then line bred them again to eliminate urate crystals. The kennel clubs won't recognize these outbred Dals, even though they look exactly like the others, breed true, etc. I guess they've been 'tainted' with pointer blood.

Funny that all these 'breeds' were mutts not that long ago, isn't it? Back when dogs were bred for performance and temperament before looks.

Disgruntled in MN said...

I truly don't understand why so many people today are horrified at the idea of cross-breeding or out-crossing dogs. When genetic disorders become common in a breed - doesn't it make more sense to do thoughtful out-crossing to maintain the IDEAL and FUNCTION of the dog rather than to keep the lines "pure" and destroy the dogs?

Steve Bodio said...

Heads- up for an email on opening up registries etc (which of course the AKC will ignore). I'll be blogging on it soon and linking this. Happy New Year!

Nightmare said...

Disgruntled-the Chinook people are doing an out-crossing project with UKC that looks to be going about it the right way. But the breed clubs are the ones that will decide whether to ride their breeds into the ground; it was the DCA, after all, that decided not to allow the Pointer/Dalmatian crosses to be registered. Google the Dalmatian Pointer project. Even the Basenji people that went to Africa had a backup plan to register the dogs with a European registry, just in case the stud book wasn't opened.

AKC complains that shows don't make enough money and they don't have enough new exhibitors to replace the ones that drop out or croak, but it's their own damn fault for their stupid point system that pits owners against each other and feeds egos. The European system is much better, the dogs are truly judged against the standard and you don't have to defeat another dog to get a certificate and earn a championship.

I have no problem with dog shows and people who show. Whatever blows your hair back. But don't tell me that only Champions are worthy of being bred, only people who show should be allowed to breed their dogs, and don't be offended when I giggle maniacally after you tell me that all that hair on your Afghans legs doesn't interfere with it's ability to run.

Steve-looking forward to it.