August 24, 2008

Conspiracy of dunces

Dogs I love: Whitey, a mountain cur, and Ranger, a feist, working a tree. Photo swiped from Henry Chappell's most excellent blog.

From Shaw's play, The Dog-breeder's Dilemma:

RIDGEON. We're not a profession: we're a conspiracy.

SIR PATRICK. All professions are conspiracies against the laity.
And we cant all be geniuses like you.
OK, the play is actually The Doctor's Dilemma. No dogs. But I can't get that "conspiracy against the laity" comment out of my brain, and it's because of people who have turned dog-breeding into an arcane science. It isn't just the show-dog breeders, either. The conspiracy against the laity includes people who breed dogs for work and people who have never bred a dog or even owned one but who nevertheless "know" that a dog from the shelter is "better" than a "purebred," and both are "better" than a dog from a "backyard breeder."

This is bad news for dogs themselves. Consider one of the people featured in the AKC Gazette's annual breeding issue a while ago: she described her efforts to get a live pup from a bitch [a Peke, IIRC] that couldn't carry a fetus to term, let alone whelp, without round-the-clock supervision and intervention. You may be thinking, "They call this a good breeder?" Ah, but the dog was a Champion. It reminds me of the breeder in Dog World who noted a photo of an early Peke — one capable of breeding normally — and remarked, "That was before we perfected the head." I kid you not.

And it gets even stranger. During the AB 1634 battles in California, breeders like the person above were the ones the mandatory spay/neuter bill protected — as if titles handed out for "perfect heads" were evidence that a dog deserved to be in the gene pool. But a mating between your healthy, friendly, unpapered Lab and your neighbor's equally healthy, friendly shepherd mix? Bad, bad you, for sealing the fate of all those pit bulls and Chihuahua mixes in Kern County shelters who undoubtedly would have been adopted by your friends and relatives if only those thoughtless fools hadn't taken your healthy, friendly puppies instead!

Over on the Pet Connection blog, Christie Keith wrote a great post on dog breeding and the threat posed by loss of genetic diversity:
Genes, once lost, can’t ever be recovered. Dogs who died without passing on their genetic heritage are gone forever, barring a few stray tubes of semen hanging out in a canine sperm bank somewhere. And by selecting from a small number of popular sires and focusing breeding programs on extreme conformation traits at the expense of preserving genetic diversity and health, genes are exactly what are being lost. Permanently.

So, is the canine species doomed? No. But many of our individual breeds may be “doomed,” at least in the terms we in the United States and most of Europe understand the word “breed” today, breeds defined by closed studbooks.

Closed studbooks mean a registry, such as the AKC or its British equivalent, the Kennel Club, will only register dogs whose parents were registered by them as being members of that breed. It means breeders are deliberately limiting the genetic pool from which they’ll select when they breed two dogs together.
And in breeding to a conformation standard, appearance trumps temperament every. single. time. The happy, friendly pup with the conformation "fault" — a muzzle that permits easier breathing, for example — will be the pup sold with a strict spay/neuter agreement. Working-dog breeders have their own priorities: a well-known breeder of working border collies told me once, "If I had a great working dog that bit people, I'd still breed him." ([whispers] So would I.) This individual places every pup in a working home, but that isn't the point.

The point I think I'm working toward is that America's shelter problem, and America's dog bite problem and America's puppy mill problem, may have a lot to do with the fact that dog breeding has become a conspiracy against the laity. "You can't do it! You don't know enough!" cry the AKC breed clubs. "You can't do it! Shelter dogs will die!" cry the animal rights activists. "You can't do it! You'll make our dogs useless!" cry the working-dog breeders [who are actually correct, but bear with me for a bit].

And so John Q. Public, who wants a dog his kids can fall asleep on, a dog he can take jogging — who isn't interested in dog agility or stockwork or carrying Scout around in a purse, who doesn't want to tackle a rehabilitation project, who is just looking for a puppy that will grow up to be a healthy, friendly, laid-back, medium-sized dog to snooze at his feet during The Daily Show and schmooze agreeably during family barbecues — John Q. is screwed. He knows what he wants, but all he hears is, "You don't really know anything. We'll tell you what's good for you."

He might strike gold at the pound. I did, but with one dog it meant rehabbing a food-guarder; and the landshark, a terrific working dog, growls at small children if they get closer than the length of a football field. [Two football fields, if the small children are making loud noises.] Not much of a problem for someone who shares the dog's aversion, but probably a deal-breaker for parents. Some rescues handle this issue by rejecting families with young children, and as it happens, John Q.'s youngest is a five-year-old.

Perhaps John Q. could visit a dog show and talk to "responsible breeders." He may find a breeder who cares tons about health and temperament and has a comparatively problem-free breed. Stranger things have happened.

Working dogs are out. Too active, and John knows it. His oldest daughter tells him there are some adorable pups at the pet shop in the mall, but his wife saw Oprah's puppy-mill show, so the pet store is a non-starter.

Down the street there's a great dog John Q. admires: a smart, handsome, friendly, vaguely collie-looking dog that he's known since it was a pup. The owner was thinking about breeding this dog to a neighbor's athletic, ball-crazy Lab mix, but now the owner plans to have his dog neutered, since a coworker says intact dogs are more likely to bite, get cancer, etc. [See what actual veterinary medical research says about the effects of spay/neuter here.] Pity, since the pups would have been just what John was looking for. Maybe he'll swing by the pet store after all.


In an earlier post I mentioned Cate, a mountain cur that I totally covet belongs to Henry Chappell, and the sensational Chet Baker, adored by Julie Zickefoose and family. Chet comes from a breeder who turned her back on the show world in favor of sturdy, friendly dogs that can breathe reasonably well. Tons of people would give just about anything for a dog like Chet Baker, but his breeder would be excommunicated by the AKC Gazette crowd, and shut down for good by AB 1634-type legislation. If Cate's breeder tested his dogs for genetic problems I'd be surprised. Henry wrote:
I knew before I went that I’d buy one of those pups. The breeder, Greg Coker, is a serious squirrel and ‘coon hunter.
And this:
I found the sire and dam calm and friendly, and neither barked or paced excessively despite the visitors and excitement.
And this:
Much to its benefit, the mountain cur isn’t recognized by the AKC. Hence the healthy variation in size and color. Until fairly recently, the mountain cur really wasn’t a breed at all, but a “type”bred strictly for working qualities. We all know the benefits of breeding records, judicious line breeding, and competition... We all know the dangers, too. The cur has always been a rawboned, rural meat, hide, and stock dog, the sort of dog unlikely to catch the attention of the Fancy and well-heeled competitors. Let’s hope it never does.
In the excellent discussion following Christie's post, blogger slt wrote:
I don’t think breeders need more policing, more hoops to jump through, more ways to cheat on tests and/or more false standards to determine if stock is worthy to be bred from. Rather, a dialogue needs to be opened about 86ing all the “rules” we were taught by the AKC breed clubs and start fresh. Step outside the box, forget what you thought was right and take a fresh look to see if it really *is* right.
Amen. To start with, we might acknowledge the historical truth that ordinary folks are perfectly capable of breeding good dogs that suit their needs. And we might consider the possibility that a conspiracy of dunces — from show-dog breeders to mandatory spay/neuter supporters — has made every dog-related problem much worse by marginalizing and disenfranchising people who may not know squat about "perfecting the head," but know enough to want a dog that can breathe normally, be "calm and friendly," and enjoy a long, healthy life.


Anonymous said...

It sounds as if, among other things, you are advocating the idea that it might not be pure evil for someone to want to breed good PETS!
*gasps, falls out*

; )

Anonymous said...

Best article on dog breeding I've read in a long time. Thank you for your heresy!

Luisa said...

I have mixed feelings about this "heresy" when great dogs are being killed in shelters every day for for lack of adopters. But the solution isn't to legislate away the freedom to make decisions about one's pet.

People shouldn't be required to think less, but encouraged to think more. The more people know, the more likely they'll be to make a good decisions about the family dog. And here endeth my Pollyanna homily for the day.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't think there's anything MORE important than the breeding of good pets. There isn't anything more complicated, either.

A 'good pet' has to be friendly, personable, calm, relatively easy to train and housebreak, healthy (good pets don't have huge vet bills) and easy going. That's a LOT harder to get than just a 'dog that looks good' in the ring.

I've said time and again that I favor a few things in my Frenchies that are pretty much NOT the fashion in our breed -- longer muzzles (for better breathing), longer bodies (better spines, easier pregnancies, free whelping) and a functional tail (tied to spinal health). If my dogs, bred with those ideals in mind, can't "win in the ring", then the ring can go pound salt.

Dog shows are pretty much pointless to me now -- they're what you 'have to do' to 'prove you're a good breeder', which we all know is just utter BS.

Steve Bodio said...

You said it, Luisa. WHY ARE THESE THINGS SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND? Closed studbooks lead to genetic death.

Right now people who want to use my tazis to bring new blood into (coursing / hunting) salukis are being denied access. Apparently Kazakh tazis are not salukis but Iranian ones are...

Henry Chappell said...

Great post, Luisa. And thanks for your kind words about Cate. I can assure you that her breeder did no genetic testing. Rather, he took a simple and sensible approach. He bred Tiger, his excellent hunting cur, to Heidi, his buddy's excellent hunting cur. If the two have shared ancestors, they're very, very distant. Heidi had ten pups. All were placed with hunters. All are treeing, even though they're barely a year old. As far as I know all are healthy and well-adjusted.

sp said...

thank you!

Anonymous said...

Luisa, I'm starting to wonder if a big part of the problem isn't the concept of "breed". If people wetn back to just breeding for "type", would that help?

You can't have a "purebred" dog without an entity that defines what makes a dog "pure" with respect to a "breed standard". Even the "good" breed clubs have rules that limit what you can mix into a pedigree before a dog can no longer bear the "purebred" denomination. What would we lose by eliminating the concept of a "purebred" dog from our world? People could still breed responsibly or irresponsibly using whatever strategy they chose, but they'd have to chose and defend that strategy all on their own, without a breed club to hide behind.

Luisa said...

Alaska -- you're absolutely, totally right. In the world of working cowdogs this happens a lot, and I imagine the dogs are healthier for it.

Linny said...

This is the most sensible and straightforward article I've read on this topic. Thank you.

Erin Wilcke Nott said...

I agree that Breeds may be bred to extinction, I also agree that this would be a very regretable thing. I love the idea of dogs being bred because they are great dogs. However, I have HUGE concerns over "just anyone" being allowed to breed dogs. I volunteer for a rescue organization (and own a pure bread Collie) and am just amazed by the number of people who ask us if our dogs (available for adoption) are intact so they could breed them. These are "unwanted" shelter dogs with NO track record what-so-ever. I think people should have to pass a test before they are allowed to breed dogs (or humans for that matter...but that's another topic). People scare me, and our dogs are suffering for their carelessness. But I did enjoy your article.