Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Kennel Club at the Crossroads

This is my column in the February 2010 edition of Dogs Today.

The Internet May Yet Save the Dog

We stand at the beginning of one era,
and the end of another

Oddly enough, the history and future of pedigree dogs is inexorably tied to two great information revolutions.

The first occurred during the Victorian era, when a combination of cheap pulp-wood paper, movable metal type, and block plate illustrations helped disseminate old and new scientific theories to the common man.

Out of this first Golden Age of Information came a Victorian fascination with nature, the rise of farm stock shows, and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

It is hard to overstate how important cheap paper and movable type were to the spread of scientific inquiry and the explosion of controlled breeding experiments occurring at this time.

Suffice it to say that from before recorded history, until the publication of British Quadrupeds in 1837, fewer than 20 breeds of dogs were recognized in Great Britain.

Of course, that was about to change!

By 1837, Charles Darwin had returned from his voyage around the world, and in 1859 The Origin of Species was published.

That same year, the first dog show was held on Newcastle-on-Tyne.

Within 15 years, the Kennel Club had been formed, and just 20 years after that, it had closed its registry to cross-breeding.

The Gospel of Unnatural Selection

Where Darwin had preached a Gospel of natural selection by the hand of God, the Kennel Club preached a Gospel of unnatural selection at the hand of man.

Surely what God did in leisure, man could improve on in haste?

From the beginning, of course, there were skeptics. Within the first two decades of the Kennel Club's creation, some began to note that inbreeding was already a problem. Others decried the "grim joke" that the Bulldog had become due to the embrace of non-functional standards.

Working dog men noted that breeds brought into the Kennel Club seemed to quickly lose their utilitarian abilities. Luminaries of the dog world such as the Reverend John Russell, famous for his working terriers and hounds, refused to register their own dogs, saying they preferred the "wild eglantine" found in God's fields to the "hot house rose" being paraded in the show ring.

Did this criticism have much effect?

In truth, not much.

The breeding of exotic-looking dogs in a closed registry system had started as an act of faith, but had quickly developed into a kind of fevered obsession as immune to logic as any religion.

It helped, of course, that the Kennel Club was organized around nearly powerless individuals and weak breed clubs that were beholden to a small but powerful oligarchy at the top.

This oligarchy was itself the product of a lifelong catechism into the values of conformation dog shows.

An organization which abhorred cross-breeding, and which valued "conformation," was not a likely prospect for rapid change. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the Kennel Club held tight to its antiquated Victorian theories, as trapped in their own dogma as any insect embedded in Miocene amber.

This was the Kennel Club as it was for more than 100 years. Though critics were sometimes heard mewing on the margins, they were easily dismissed and in truth there were not too many of them.

After all, who wanted to speak too loudly knowing they might jeopardize their chance of winning in the ring, or forfeit any hope of advancement in the Kennel Club's hierarchy?

And if you were not winning? Well, these people did not last too long with the Kennel Club, did they?!

A few cracks in the firmament popped up from time to time, of course -- a critical essay or magazine article or two might note a decline in the health and working abilities of one or more pedigree breeds.

These episodic outbursts of protest had little lasting effect. Like honking in the street during a church service, they did little more than irritate the congregation inside.

The Second Information Age

In the late 1990s, however, something came along that changed everything: the Internet.

It is hard to overstate the impact of the Internet. Suffice it to say that in our own lifetimes, we will see the end of books, newspapers and magazines as we have known them. The era of film cameras, video tape and recorded disks is already past. Many young people today have yet to lick their first stamp, such is the ubiquitous nature of email, voice mail and text messaging in this modern world.

What does this mean for the world of dogs?

Quite a lot.

The Internet, you see, has democratized information and mass communication.

Today, anyone with a computer can read Darwin's notes about canine evolution, research the origins of the Kennel Club, and locate health surveys and veterinary insurance records which illuminate the current and rising crisis in canine health around the world.

When hard-hitting documentaries like the BBC's Pedigree Dogs Exposed are produced, they are no longer seen for a night and forgotten with the morning sun.

Now, thanks to YouTube, anyone with a computer can watch at leisure, and forward the link to scores or even thousands of others via email, list-serv, personal blog, or organizational web site.

Those who want to know more can easily find reams of information, much of it eye-opening. Consider this single line from the August 2009 issue of The Veterinary Journal for example:

"[E]very one of the 50 most popular pedigree breeds of dog in the U.K. were found to have at least one aspect of their physical conformation predisposing it to a heritable defect."

Every one.

Suddenly the dog-buying public was paying attention. A Kennel Club dog was a risky proposition. Canine insurance records and rates underscored the proposition: a cross-bred dog was a better gamble than a pure-bred one.

As more information began to percolate out to the public, those with sick dogs no longer saw their expensive veterinary burdens as a bad stroke of personal luck. Even the most cursory search on the Internet revealed the bitter truth; huge numbers of pedigree dogs were diseased, defective and deformed.

The Kennel Club, it seemed, had forgotten to do right by the dogs.

The Choice Ahead

Now, almost too late, the Kennel Club seems to have woken up to the precarious nature of its position.

In the age of the Internet, creating a new national registry of dogs is no longer a daunting task. If the Kennel Club will not stand for dogs that are healthier and more able than those found down at the local pound, then someone else surely will.

While it took the Kennel Club 130 years and hundreds of millions of pounds to build their current registry, it might take a young Internet-savvy entrepreneur only a few weeks and perhaps 100,000 pounds to build the backbone of a parallel Internet-based registration system that pairs modern email outreach with a dynamic web site, a powerful online date base, and a system of real veterinary-based health checks coupled to product-based discounts on pet food, pet insurance, and veterinary care.

Unlike the Kennel Club, this new registry would have no historical baggage to tote, and would not have to pay homage to petulant prigs and screaming matrons hell-bent on holding on to defective standards and misguided Victorian-era theories.

One thing is for certain: at this point in the game, the Kennel Club cannot afford to dally and play footsie with incrementalism.

The 21st Century will no longer wait for the 19th Century to catch up.

Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood :: Crossroads


Anonymous said...

Good post. The Internet can do a lot for purebred dogs.

Unfortunately, as I posted today, it's being used as much for ill ends as for good.

Sue said...

Brilliant, Patrick.
The analogies to religion are apt. I have been struck over and over by that immunity to logic every time I attempt to discuss or share a link with show breeders in my two breeds, not to mention with people who work at the AKC.
"Petulant prigs and screaming matrons," precisely!

Retrieverman said...

The internet can be good, but it also can be an echo chamber for misinformation.

And even the best of us can be fooled.

Our brains are wired to a simple framework: if it is repeated enough times, it must be true!

And that's why we have to be careful.

PBurns said...

As a general rule truth does not suffer in a free and open debate, though sometimes you have to look hard for it.

One of the things we need to train ourselves to do is to look for the absence of things.

For example, in the Murder Hollow basset case, where were the photographs from the Kennel owner? One of the persons leading the charge to foment panic is a photographer, but never offered up any photos of the kenenls. 11 people were involved as "hunt supporters" but it was complete silence from them. Hmmmmm...... You did not need to be Daniel Boone to track that one!

And now, where is the money that was raised and how much was it? You ask the question, but total silence follows. There is a story there too.

In the case of the Kennel Club, it's the absence of Kennel CLub dogs on Alaskan sled teams, at Miami Grey Hounds race tracks, and in the field under a gun or under a shovel (if a terrier), or herding sheep or cattle on the mountainside. Kennel Club dogs do not work.

As for the health, it has not been a closely held secret. The Kennel Club itself notes the baset-case health problems on their health surveys. All you have to do is drill to find the data. They will not do it, but it's there to be found.

If people present a story, look for the numbers. If they present percents, look at the raw data (and vice versa).

With bad story, the truth generally falls out if you read enough and look for the problems. There are three version of the "Ten Commandments" and four different (wildly diverget) versions of the last days of Jesus in the Bible. Anyone notice?

How about all those dog histories? Most made up whole cloth and nonsense on their face. This is all to be found, but you have to read and look for the problems. The good news is that once you find them, you can TELL THE WORLD and link to it too. Not everything can be linked to, of course. Some very good pieces of information still "fall off a truck." There is a still a place in this world for a man in the secrets business ;)

In many cases, the Internet is just replacing another medium.

Dog sales ads, for example, are no longer in the newpaper as much -- they are more likely to be online. Is it any worse than it has ever been? Not so far as I can tell.

If we go to the numbers, as I did here >> , we find that there has been a steep DECLINE in abandoned dogs and euthanized dogs EXCEPT for Pit Bulls.

And then, with a quick check of Google we can seen who is talking about that little trend and reverse trend problem (not too many). Then we can write a post to change in the hope that a little information might help to change that equation.

And that piece can be read in Minnesota, or Missouri, Alabama, or California, England or South Africa. That's the power of the Internet.

No, it does not fix the lazy, the hazy, or the crazy, but it is a powerful tool for the the industrious who are actually willing to do the work. Will the gullible always be with us? Sure. It says so right in the Bible.


an American in Copenhagen said...

I'd really like to see a detailed run down of the 'heritable diseases' brought on by traits in the breed standard for 'all 50 of the most popular breeds'. I just don't see anything particularly unsound about the breed standard for Labs or Goldens or probably a number of the top 50. Unless they're counting things as silly as dropped ears.

PBurns said...

American in Copenhagen, if you go the Canine Health Links in the bar at the right of this blog, there is quite a lot of information to be found for any and every breed.

For example, we have the Kennel Club's own Breed Surveys at >>

For a data base of canine inherited disorders, see >>

For Cambridge University's Inherited Diseases in Dogs Data base, see >>

Remember that the FIRST part of every every standard is always the same: "This is a closed registry" which means the breed is maintained within an ever-shrinking pool of genes. If the initial pool was prety large, and the breed pool has grown a lot out of that, things may not devolve too much. Most breeds, however, were closed with less than 100 dogs in the base, and a very large number have never grown to very large numbers, or have grown to large numbers despite the incredibly small initial gene pool. The result: jaw dropping problems. Retrievers tend to suffer from cancer, labs from dysplasia, etc.

The article quoted won the George Fleming Prize for 2009 (see ) and is quoted on the blog here >>


Retrieverman said...

Labs are the healthiest of the retriever breeds. However, their standard requires "lots of bone." To get that heavily boned look, lots of breeds get their dogs fatter than they should.

The show versions of goldens and Labradors are inefficient movers compared to their working bred variants.

Labs tend to be the least inbred of the retrievers, which is a good thing. Outcrosses occurred in Labradors as late as the 1940's. Golden and flat-coated retrievers experienced now outcrossing after 1916, and what's more, both breeds experienced a lot of inbreeding as they became established.

Flat-coated and golden retrievers were the same breed until 1911 (proposed) and 1912 (officially) and were interbred until 1916.

Unknown said...

I am very interested in the paragraph that contains this: ", it might take a young Internet-savvy entrepreneur only a few weeks and perhaps 100,000 pounds to build the backbone of a parallel Internet-based registration system that pairs modern email outreach with......

Have you written any more about this? Who would be eligible to register their dogs? Who could do this? Would you do it?

PBurns said...

The entire paragraph reads:

"While it took the Kennel Club 130 years and hundreds of millions of pounds to build their current registry, it might take a young Internet-savvy entrepreneur only a few weeks and perhaps 100,000 pounds to build the backbone of a parallel Internet-based registration system that pairs modern email outreach with a dynamic web site, a powerful online date base, and a system of real veterinary-based health checks coupled to product-based discounts on pet food, pet insurance, and veterinary care."

The entire paragraph swings on itself, and baked within it is reason people would join such a registry and why it woulg get funding: it would be a discount program for owners with healthy dogs. The registry would drive business outside of the ego-besotted show world, which is what props up the KC and AKC and UKC.

The computerized part of this is very simple. Building the business relationships for discounts, business referrals, etc., is considerably more involved.

I am not doing this (I have a lot of other things on my plate) but it is where the dog world is going. In the U.S. we have hundreds of registries (most poorly financed) and we have clubs and associations that revolve around discounts and advocacy (AARP, AAA). Putting the two together is innovative, but not science fiction.