Friday, November 21, 2008

Is There a Kennel Club Road to Reform?


The Kennel Club has scrambled to come up with a proper response to the BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed. 

Their first move was to trot out in-house public relations apologist, Caroline Kisko, who ran through the standard play book for what a company does when caught in scandal. 

Ms. Kisko first claimed it was all a hatchet job, and that the Kennel Club had not been given an opportunity to respond.

  • Never mind that top officials in the Kennel Club who were interviewed and were part of the documentary.

  • Never mind the Kennel Club's own breed health reports, which showed jaw dropping levels of admitted pathology in breed after breed.

  • Never mind researchers from Imperial College, London, which used the Kennel Club's own pedigree data (the paper was co-authored by a Kennel Club official) to show distressing levels of inbreeding in Kennel Club dogs.

  • Never mind the Crufts dog show winner that could not breathe, the German Shepherds that could not walk in the ring without a wobble, or the dogs with routine epileptic seizures.

  • Never mind the 50 years of people politely pointing out all the problems and the Kennel Club summarily ignoring them.

"What are you going to do," Ms. Kisko seemed to be saying, "believe your lying eyes, or believe my nonsensical talking points?" 

To say this public relations campaign went over like a lead balloon is an understatement. 

Rather than mitigate the Kennel Club's public relations problems, it exacerbated it.

Here was proof positive that what the critics were saying was right. Clearly the core problem was not just the Kennel Club's embrace of failed 19th Century eugenics theories, but a kind of Inbred Thinking that pervaded the Club's hierarchy itself.

Case made!

For two months nothing changed.
Then, about a month ago, came word that the Kennel Club was writing to all the Pekingese breed clubs to say they were going to force a change in the breed standard of that dog so the poor animal could get a bit of nose and perhaps be able to actually breathe.

The Kennel Club has since said
that it will be looking at ALL the breed standards with the idea of eliminating scripted deformities and obvious exaggerations which lead to predictable misery and pathology. 

This is certainly the right idea, but let's be blunt: It will be very hard to do. 

What is the Kennel Club to do about dogs with merle and spotted coats, such as Dalmatians and harlequin Great Danes, where the core "look" of the dog is associated with a known pathology, such as deafness? 

What is the Kennel Club to do about Ridgeback dogs which are defined by a cowlick stripe of hair along the spine of their back which is an indication of a mild form of spina bifida which results in about 10 percent of the dogs having a dermoid sinus? Will the Kennel Club say a Ridgeback is still a conforming Ridgeback, even without that stripe, provided it's an otherwise healthy animal? 

Will a minimum weight and size be mandated for toy dogs so that fewer of them will suffer from skull deformities leading to convulsions and mental defect?

Will achondroplasia be listed as a disqualifying characteristic of bassett hounds and dachshunds and bulldogs which suffer from both skeletal and heart defects due to this inherited form of dwarfism? 

Time will tell, but doing the right thing will not be easy, and the smart money is that the Kennel Club will do what it has always done: say quite a lot while doing very little. 

Which is not to say that the pressure is not on. 

The RSPCA has pulled out of the Crufts dog show, as has Dogs Trust. 

Pedigree dog foods has cancelled its sponsorship of Crufts (worth more that $2.2 million to the Club), and the BBC has said that though it is contractually bound for at least one more year to film the show, they too are looking to slip out of the deal. 

The British Veterinary Association has called for an independent review of the breeding of dogs, and the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW) is forming a working group on the welfare of pedigree dogs. 

So will the Kennel Club cowboy up for change? 

Right now the smart money says "no." More likely, say the cynics, is that the Kennel Club will try to dissipate any push for real reform into an endless round-robin of "study committees" and health-related research. 

The goal here would be to pantomime change without ever actually doing it. 

The end game would be to consume time in the hope that "the controversy" would blow over and blow out. 

But, of course, the waiting game may not work. 

I believe the BBC has already commissioned a new follow up show, and there's certainly no shortage of genetic wrecks to film or people interested in moving forward. Pick a breed, any breed, and you will find cancer, heart defects, dysplasia, epilepsy, cataracts, liver disease -- and people willing to stand up and say it's time we did something different. 

On the up side, Kennel Club Chairman Ronnie Irving has stood up to say the Kennel Club must end "exaggerations" within breeds, and the Kennel Club has agreed to review breed standards to root those out (time will tell what that really means). 

What remains unaddressed, even on paper, is taking action to reduce rising levels of inbreeding caused by a closed registry system and the overuse of show-winning sires which leads to massive genetic loads and phenomenal levels of defect and disease within breed after breed.

Without a fundamental change in the way
the Kennel Club does business on this end, a major root of the problem remains unaddressed 

Repairing the damage done to dogs by 130 years of breeding within a closed registry system will not happen overnight, of course. No one should expect an "instant-rice" miracle. 

That said, a program for recovery does not have to be complex or difficult to imagine or implement. 

Step One, I would suggest, would be for the Kennel Club to change the registration rules for ALL dogs so that at a future date certain no puppies would be registered if they had a Coefficient of Inbreeding greater than 16 percent. 

Step Two would be for the Kennel Club to publish a list of breeds "at health risk." A breed would be deemed to be at risk if any defined medical pathology exceeded a set percentage, or if the breed's median lifespan fell below a certain number of years. The Kennel Club would commit itself to running breed-wide health surveys (with veterinary overview), and breeds would automatically come on and off the list as their health degraded or improved. For each breed deemed to be at health risk, progressive five-year benchmarks for reducing serious breed pathologies would be established by each breed club. 

Step Three would be to to simply delist certain breeds whose entire purpose is centered on morphological extremes resulting in inevitable disability and a lifetime of cruelty. This would include many very flat-faced dogs such as English Bulldogs, Pugs, and Pekingese.

Step Four would be to implement a "breed health recovery" program for each at-risk breed in order to achieve the benchmark health goals defined by the breed club. Breed health recovery programs would be built around genetic testing (where possible and useful), and delayed registration so that only healthy adult dogs age three or older would be registered following veterinary inspection and a clean bill of health. Puppies born to younger dogs would not be registerable, ever, and adult dogs would have to be reinspected every two years and given a clean bill of health to be shown or bred. 

For some deeply impacted breeds, approved and controlled outcrosses to related or similar breeds would be allowed in order to reduce the genetic load on the breed as a whole. Breed clubs would not decide this matter (though they would have input). This decision would be made by a committee skewed not to show dog people, but to geneticists.

Taken as a whole, this seems to me to be a pretty simple plan of action, and it is in line with (and certainly is not in opposition) to the KC's "Approved Breeders Scheme." 

What would be the result of the Kennel Club simultaneously publishing a list of breeds at risk AND mandating a program of health recovery for those breeds?

I think a surprising number of people would come forward to be part of an organized and scientific effort to "rescue" a breed. 

Could there be a more noble calling in the world of dogs? Owners working with breeds at risk would be seen as more than ego-besotted ribbon-chasers; they would be true "stewards" of a breed who were members of a large, science-based community engaged in truly good work being done in an organized and regimented fashion. 

Perhaps more importantly, breeders working within the auspices of a breed recovery program (a very specific and regimented type of "Approved Breeders Scheme") would be able to price their dogs at a premium as compared to those who remained outside of the Kennel Club breed recovery plan. After all, breeders who were not breeding within the confines of the recovery plan would (presumably) have "unreformed" dogs named as being "at health risk" and NOT on the road to a sounder genetic footing. 

Am I mad to think such a simple system could work? Have I fallen off the rail? Is there a fatal defect or flaw or weakness in logic or economics? 

Perhaps. I certainly do not claim to be a Brain Trust of One! 

That said, here's a simple plan, however flawed. Adapt it, adopt it, add to it, take it away, replace it, change it, or redefine it. Just do something. 

Any plan that works to eliminate intentional deformity is good, as is any plan that eliminates defective dogs from the breed stock while also reducing the Coefficients of Inbreeding we see in Kennel Club dog populations. 

One thing is sure: If the Kennel Club keeps on doing what it has always done, it will keep on getting what it has right now; dogs that are deformed, defective and diseased. 

Surely the dogs deserve better than that? Surely the people who buy Kennel Club dogs deserve better than that? .


Anonymous said...

I don't see the downside to what you've proposed. There might be some fall off in numbers for a hugely popular breed with massive defects (like Cavs, Chihuahuas and British Bulldogs), but that will just allow for the healthy dogs to rise to the top. Besides, if people will leave a breed BECAUSE it is being put back on the road to health that's a GOOD thing; those people are the source of all problems anyway.


Anonymous said...

My only question is how do we get the AKC to do it, too. If I see one more crippled looking GSD, I'll scream (quietly).

Isn't everything you describe just as bad on this side of the pond? Wouldn't the same plan work here also because the good breeders would step up to the plate?

(By the by, the terrier painting you so kindly promoted (along with me) is now available as a limited edition (300) giclee print. Also, I'm still getting traffic on my blog from that post. Yeah!)

Anonymous said...

The program itself looks sound, but I do have one question.

In the past, you've blogged extensively on why the AKC (and presumably the UK club has the same problem) looks the other way for puppy mills: because they cannot afford to dump them, as the registration money is their lifeblood.

With a program like this, registrations would drop massively at the same time as the costs of implementing the program- also presumably massive just due to the data gathering and research inherent in several of your measures. (Which, again, I think are really good ideas.)

Where does the money come from?

PBurns said...

The money would still come from registrations, but not
registrations of LITTERS of dogs, but registration of individual dogs.

Instead of registering a litter of dogs for $20, the breeder or owner would register EACH DOG for $20. Yes, that's a pass through cost to the dog buyer, but what's $15 (the marginal difference) on the price of a dog? Nothing!

Under this scenario, even if there was a fall off in registrations, there would not be a fall off in dollars.

The problem is that right now the the Kennel Club is engaged in "Jug Wine Economics" where they see dogs and registrations as a pure commodity; their dogs are just like every other dog. Sadly, due to inbreeding and selection for deformity that's not true; many Kennel Club breeds are actually WORSE that pound dogs.

But it does not have to be that way.

It would not take too many changes for them to go from the "Jug Wine" commodity business to the "Wine With Bottle and Cork" business. But they need to improve the wine (i.e. the dog) in order to do that. As for the a price increase on registrations, studies have shown that people will gladly pay a higher price and often assume a higher price means a better product. In this case, if a dog were in a health recovery program (call it a "Breed Integrity" program if you prefer), people would have a reason to feel better and pay more.


y" with the other. They are confused. The are unclear as to whether they want to be in the business of selling Jug Wine (it will get you stoned, same as the other stuff), or whether they want to be in the bottle wine with real cork business (our wine actually tastes good and is not cut with ethelyne glycol to sweeeten it).

Anonymous said...

Since most of AKC conformation dog showing is political instead of functional(in my opinion, anyway), enough political pressure may actually have a chance to change things for the better in regards to healthy dog breeding. AKC People REALLY BELIEVED that their methods were producing superior dogs, and it is FINALLY being driven home that they are not.Let's hope this leads to more sensible breeding practices--they can all take a lesson from the Basenji people, who continue to open the stud books and allow outcrosses from Africa into the formerly narrow bloodlines of this breed(although even closely inbred Basenjis were still considerably more natural and functional than pugs or pekingnese). And for Susan Fox--go to a Wal-Mart; look in the cheapo movie/DVD bin and find the old 1930's Rin-Tin-Tin series and buy it for $5 bucks; and watch what German Shepherds USED to be! Scenes of them running IN FRONT of GALLOPING horses! Beautiful! But virtually non-existent running ability in GSD's these days, alas....L.B.

Anonymous said...

the horse wolrd faces simular issues, just not to the extent. warmblood horse breeders allow other breds to be evaluated and ok'd as breeders, ie: a thoroughbred stallion could be a registered breeder for the hanovarian society. this would be an acceptable way to introduce outside crosses into "damaged" breeds. visla's and weimeriamers could be outcrossed, and ever perhaps the ridgeback, simpular build, simular origins, etc. i think that is a wonderful idea. much like breeding in the occassional lakeland in a jack russell pedigree.

AAshby42 said...

Great ideas, it's time some breeders started to look at what is happening to their dogs, and for people that are only into the supposed cash from breeding to smarten up or stop.
I own a flat coated retriever, and two years ago she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in her jaw. The vet managed to remove that part of her lower jaw, and the entire process of diagnosis up to this day my family and I kept running into individuals that had heard or had had a flat coat with cancer.

Since my dog poses an interesting subject I started looking up veterinary schools or someone who would benefit from the remains of my dog when she passes so as to assist figuring out how we can help flat coats. I found out there is an association in the states that provides funding to veterinary projects examining ways to improve the flat coats health.
I plan to contact them and see whether they would want my dogs body when she passes.
I know that despite the thought might make me slightly uncomfortable it's the right thing to do and hopefully will help other flat coats and their owners.