|Illustration by Kevin Brockbank|
Something extraordinary happened recently. In the pro-KC, pro-show newspaper Dog World, a poll showed that the vast majority of those who responded were in favour of a limit on the number of times a top-winning dog could be used at stud. I know, in the greater scheme of things it may not seem a very big thing. But it is, I promise – at least if you are a dog.
Until very recently, the prevailing view in the show world was that a champ dog should be used as often as possible, to pass on those winning genes to as many of its puppies as possible. It’s not just that the puppies cop a higher price – it’s that breeders genuinely believed that it is the right thing to do. I even remember the Kennel Club’s Secretary Caroline Kisko sounding rather astonished that anyone would think otherwise. “If you have a very healthy sire then why would you not want to breed him quite widely?” she said in November 2009, apparently oblivious to the independent reports which had wholesale condemned the practice.
Much of this attitude is based on the notion that if a dog was a big winner, it must be a good thing. But of course we now know better. We know that judges can award prizes to dogs for all kinds of reasons other than their true worth, and that the show-ring itself is often a very poor judge of health. We also know that dogs can silently carry all kinds of genetic problems that may be passed on, unwittingly, to their offspring. And we also know that dogs are often used at stud when they are very young – way before some horrible inherited condition that may lay lurking manifests itself.
A 1968-vintage German Shepherd, Canto von der Wienerau (right), sired several litters before he dropped down dead at the age of four and his progeny were very widely bred. Today, every single case of haemaphlia A in the breed can be traced back to Canto. The condition is now rare in the breed, but it’s difficult to eradicate completely as it’s carried silently by the females and there is, as yet, no DNA test that can detect carriers. In other words, it’s been a nightmare for breeders that they could have done without.
|Top dog Zamp... tragically dead at 8. But of what?|
Another German Shepherd, Zamp vom Thermados, who won Best of Breed at Crufts in 2008 (and many other top prizes), is listed on one database as fathering 750 puppies – the owners of which must be a little nervous following Zamp’s premature death aged just 8 earlier this year. There has been no official announcement of the cause of death, despite a lot of people wanting – indeed needing - to know given that his progeny are now, in turn, being bred from. Here’s hoping it was from something that was not hereditary.
The story is repeated in many other breeds – with many top dogs siring hundreds and hundreds of puppies, blithely passing on horrific problems down the line. In fact, it’s happened no less than three times in the blighted Basenji – a breed that began with only a handful of founders (despite there being thousands of them in their native Africa). Of those,
some were used far more heavily than the others and within a few years basenjis were dying from a horrible condition called haemolytic anaemia (also known as PKD). Fortunately, a DNA test was quickly developed. Unfortunately, breeders were so intent on cleansing the condition from the breed that they didn’t just stop breeding from affected dogs – they refused to breed from carriers too (which could have been bred safely to ‘clears’), rendering an already too-small gene pool even smaller. One of these dogs became a top AKC champion and had hundreds of puppies – only to be diagnosed when he was about eight years old with Fanconi Syndrome, a kidney condition that can be life-threatening. By then, Fanconi’s was widespread.
The same has happened with Progressive Retinal Atophy (PRA), too – a once rare, and blinding, condition now not so rare in the breed. In fact, the health problems in Basenjis have been so severe that the American Kennel Cub has sanctioned the import of a few more native dogs from Africa. Sadly, they have not been universally welcomed, especially by the breed purists who view the imports as mongrels.
In the Congo, the breed’s name translates as “village dog”. Doesn’t sound quite so grand now, does it? Although it many ways it should – the native Basenji is a triumph, a true survivor. And there’s a big lesson to be learned from them: the native Basenji is instantly recognisable and it breeds true – as is the case with other landraces, such as salukis, who have existed for hundreds and in some instances, thousands of years without help nor hindrance from kennel clubs or the show-ring.
Now, at last, the mood is changing. As I reported a couple of months ago, the Hungarian Viszla Club was even bold enough after Crufts 2010 to express their concern about Crufts winner Yogi (left) who has fathered more than 10 per cent of the breed in recent years. Then, there is the DogWorld poll – which voted 240 in favour of introducing restrictions against just 45 against. And, recently, the FCI (which is the umbrella organisation for most overseas kennel clubs – the KC and AKC not included) has proposed that limits should be introduced.
Some kennel clubs already have in place guidelines concerning popular sires (notably Sweden and Finland). The SV, which oversees German Shepherds in Germany, rules that stud dogs may not cover more than 80 females a year (but clearly that’s still an enormous number of puppies and at an average of €800 a jump, no mean income, either.)
The KC here, though, despite being under some pressure, has decided to not introduce any blanket bans. “This has been muted in the past, “ says Caroline Kisko. “The Americans brought it in and it caused absolute havoc in their registration system – it went from having one and a half million registrations per year to less than half that – those dogs being registered by other organisations.”
In fact, this is not true. The AKC has not brought in any limits on popular sires. It did introduce some extra paperwork and a paternity test for those wanting to breed more than a certain number of litters but this was a a move designed to stop dodgy breeders faking pedigrees. In truth, breeders in the US are still free to use their stud dogs as profligately as ever.
But the KC is adamant. It does not want to introduce a blanket ban, preferring instead to champion its upcoming “Mate Select” programme. When this finally comes online (and there’s no due date yet), it will help guide breeders away from stud dogs that have been heavily used – but it certainly won’t stop them. If they want to use the stud dog du jour they can do so with no penalty.
The KC talks vaguely about possibly introducing something a little tougher at some point down the line but I don’t think this is enough - particularly when the KC is still dragging its heels over educating its electorate about popular sires. For the third time of mentioning in recent columns, there is still nothing on the KC website warning about the dangers of these canine casanovas.
So forgive me for continuing to hammer home this point. To those breeders thinking of using a top dog that has already been well-used, please consider a less popular alternative, for the sake of the breed. However healthy a dog appears to be, remember that inbreeding in and of itself can cause problems and the overuse of one or more dogs in a breed almost inevitably leads to inbreeding down the line.
And to those considering a new puppy, please don’t be seduced by the name of a top-winning dog (usually written in red) on a pedigree – instead use it as a good excuse to ask searching questions of the breeder. And if they look blank when you mention the term “popular sire” or try to argue that you can’t have too much of a good thing, walk away.
This article is reprinted from the July issue of Dogs Today Magazine.