Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Tolerating the quiet

There's a depressing comment by Ceksy Terrier breeder Sheila Atter in an exchange of comments in response to her Dog World column this week.

"In my breed there are no required tests, eye testing is 'recommended'," she writes. "Personally, I heart, eye and patella test. Almost every other Cesky Terrier breeder (except one in the US) thinks that I am not merely completely barmy, but doing the breed a grave mis-service as any mention of health-testing will apparently convince the general public that we have problems in our breed. None seem to be able to understand the argument that health testing actually proves something about the health status of my dogs. I was even 'ordered' at the last AGM not to mention health problems in my DW breed notes as this was 'harming the breed' "

I can't tell you how many times I've heard similar things said in other breeds and it makes my heart sink. But well done for Sheila for being brave enough to say this.

Here's a little PR advice to breed clubs that take this stance: it doesn't work because it doesn't fool anyone.  I spend quite a lot of time trawling breed club websites and it's the ones that are most open and honest about health problems that are the most reassuring (with one or two exceptions). We don't want to hear health problems minimised. We want them acknowledged and we want to know what it is being done about them - and how we can help. To see how some other clubs are doing, check out the Karlton Index  - which, for instance, praises the Dachshund Breed Council for its proactive stance on health.

Worth a revisit is Omerta: The Breeders' Code of Silence written by Sierra Milton in 2004, way before Pedigree Dogs Exposed. I don't agree with everything in this article (Jerry Bell's views about outbreeding do not tally with those of many population geneticists for instance), but Milton's heartfelt plea to break the silence is strong and pertinent.

"We can break the silence by commending those with the courage and determination to talk about problems, share successes and knowledge instead of ostracizing them. Omerta fails if every puppy buyer and stud dog user demands that proof of genetic testing is shown. The Code of Silence fails when we realize that it is not enough to breed winning dogs or to command the highest price for puppies or to have a stud dog that is used fifty, sixty, a hundred times; we must take back the passion with which we all first embraced our breeds and passionately work with determination toward a future where the numbers of genetic disorders are reduced each year."

And she concludes:

"It is hard work and takes great courage to develop a breeding program using scientific methods and tests, but the hope of a better future should drive us all to that very commitment. The key is being able to work together without fear of whispers or silence. Omerta, the code of silence, can be broken if more of us decide that we are not going to tolerate the quiet any longer." 


  1. Fortunately there are some good examples. I've been tremendously impressed with how the Gordon Setter breeders have coped with finding that they not only had Late Onset PRA in their breed, but that it is widespread with around half of all Gordons either carriers or affected. It started with just one breeder, who had LOPRA diagnosed in her Gordons, going public and naming the parents of her dogs. Other Gordon breeders followed her shining example, got their dogs eye tested and more affected dogs were found. Soon they had enough affected dogs to give DNA samples to the AHT and had raised enough money to get a DNA test. Within a year , the AHT had the DNA test available, and most breeders were getting their dogs tested, with the results listed publicly. No panic, no witch hunting, no rumour spreading, just getting on with it. So now they are in a position to work out a strategy for reducing the incidence of the condition without losing too much from their gene pool.
    Openness, honesty, common sense and willingness to tackle a problem quickly and calmly. The Gordon breeders are an example to us all

  2. Now we just need to see more being bred for function, as featured here:

    But that should not downplay the above achievement - it is, as you say, a great example of what can be achieved.


  3. Gordon Setters are also a good example of how it is possible to breed good looking dogs who meet the breed standard and can compete in the show ring, while also remaining functional . While some Gordons are still being bred purely for show, a growing number of Gordon breeders have become interested in breeding setters who can be trained for shooting, grouse counting and competing in field trials . They understand that one starts with breeding for a fit and functional dual purpose setter, using a mix of working dogs and show dogs carefully chosen because they still have working ability. Then they put a lot of work into training their dogs.
    Its also good to see the mutual support and encouragement within the breed for breeding and training the dual dog. Its not just a token gesture of doing the occasional training day for show dogs and their owners. It hasnt happened overnight, some Gordon breeders like Jane Osborne have been quietly working for over twenty years at breeding a dual Gordon that can compete on equal terms in field trials with FT bred dogs, and it takes several generations of breeding to really see results. But they have shown that it is is possible, even if the dogs they work and show vary somewhat in size and type from the purely show bred dogs. At the same time , it is good to see how the Gordon people have worked on improving hip scores, which used to be pretty bad, and this has also contributed to a more fit and functional setter
    The other UK setter breeds could do well to take note and learn from the Gordon people

  4. Perhaps some discussion of what "fit for function" really means would be helpful? I sometimes wonder if everybody at the KC really understands their current catchphrase? When they first started the "fit for function" campaign, the dog on the logo was a show type Irish Setter! A dog that, although very eyecatching, wasnt the best example of a functional dog, and caused some ribald remarks from the owners of working gundogs! Looking at the Stop the BBC making another PDE page on Facebook, there are a lot of photos of dogs whose owners think they are "fit for function" but only show that their owners havent a clue what the phrase means. If the dog is enjoying itself running about , they think it is "fit for function" . Never mind that the Old English Sheepdogs have so much hair obscuring their vision that they cant see where they are going, let alone find a sheep!
    Fit for function means that the dog is physically AND mentally capable of doing the job for which it was originally bred. If it no longer has the instinct, drive and trainability to do the job, and if it is handicapped by inappropriate conformation and coat, or health problems that hinder its activity, then it isnt fit for function. It also needs to be physically fit- being overweight, fat and flabby, lacking muscle , and having flat feet and sagging pasterns through lack of exercise,or being unable see, or to breathe properly mean that a dog isnt fit for function. So maybe the KC needs to spell out rather more clearly what they mean by "fit for function"

  5. I think one thing that specifically stands out about breeder is she does not just the "recommended" tests. I think the code of silence mentions this. The most important part, I feel, in health testing is to not just submit "good" results but all tests (good or bad). When I look at the OFA database and see some cavaliers with abnormal results, the breeder stands out and not as a poor breeder but in my eyes better than others. Sure no one would want a health problem but that's not realistic.

    I think its very important for the public to understand that. When dealing with more than one health condition, its important to look at the whole and not just one test. Leaving out the cavalier in the program, I have read comments on this blog and other places about not giving CC's or letting cavaliers with bad scans in the ring. Many people feel this way and I can see how one would think how can a cavalier be showing with a bad scan or think they are more concerned with showing than health. Sure there are some but if you step back and understand there are several health issues, there could be a valid reason. Remember this is not the cavalier in program.

    1) the breeder actually had the cavalier scanned and submitted results for public knowledge. So not just A or clear scans are rewarded.

    2) an asymptomatic cavalier with mild SM or graded D CAN be bred with an older A cavalier. Now this is very important because they have to be because

    3) cavaliers have other inherited conditions and it, in my opinion, it would do more harm to focus on one condition.

    The more tests a breed has, the harder I imagine to find a "perfect" dog. That's what makes these test valuable so breeders can use them to help make decisions. To one breeder, only breeding A cavaliers is acceptable. To another that is focused on MVD for years, that would remove some with good heart lines. Let's not forget eyes, patellas, hips, and now ef/dry eye curly coat dna tests. One who is a carrier of last should not be removed from being bred because what if they have very good results from other health tests and lines. The use is to find a cavalier that is not a carrier.

    What can see easy on the outside is quite difficult and ideally a breeder would make decision based on information. What one would do and another could be different but the decision would be based on tests.

    There should be no stigma and I would hope that the public can understand these things so that hopefully more will be open without pointing out ones with bad results.

  6. I agree with Anniemac. Breeders that acutally submit their not-so-good health tests are at least sharing with the public rather than hiding it. A good breeder will not hesitate to speak the truth, as the interest is for bettering the breed.

  7. I appreciate what AnnieMac is saying, but I can't help but think that if a breed is so riddled with health problems, like the CKCS seems to be, the best thing would be to do an outcross to a healthier breed. I know the CKCS breeders will be up in arms about creating 'mutants' from their beloved breed, but they're the ones that have screwed the breed up in the first place.

  8. I'd love it if you would do an article about the health issues faced by Saint Bernards, and North American breeders refusal to face them.

    I live in Canada, and I cannot find any Saint breeders on the continent who OFA or PennHip all of their breeders. The OFA states that only 48% of all Saints that they have assessed hips on are "normal" and I find this totally unacceptable. Neither the American nor the Canadian national clubs require these testings, or ANY testing that I can find. I'm taking my search overseas now, and it's not like I'm looking for a show dog (oh I could find plenty of those with horrible hips!), just a physically sound pet.

  9. Cassie, perhaps you should consider a smaller dog? It's obviously not impossible to find a good Saint, but their sheer size/weight stacks the odds against them.

    From one of my blogs about this:

    "The Berne Natural History Museum in Switzerland has extensive data on the St Bernard dating back to the 1800s. The UK breed standard for the St. Bernard now specifies a minimum shoulder height of 75cm (30in) for dogs and 70cm (27.5in) for bitches and they weigh 65-85kg (143-187lb). But a typical 19th century dog was approximately 60 cm (20in) high and weighed less than 50 kg (110lb) . It is a huge increase."

  10. Cassie, the OFA figures *certainly* under-report the incidence of CHD in the breed.

    There is significant pre-screening of radiographs -- if the hips look really awful, people just don't bother to send them in and pay the $35 to be told what they can very well see.

    The best of those breeders cull the dog with poor hips from the breeding program. The VERY best opt for the open database for those scores. The bottom-feeders just carry on; they send in the good-looking radiographs, and if they get a favorable rating, trumpet it from the rooftops as advertising copy. If not, convenient silence.

    And many, many breeders in badly affected breeds simply take a "see no evil" approach and refuse to check.

    So only half of *submitted* radiographs are normal. That doesn't account for the dogs not radiographed (which are a non-random group) and the ones radiographed and not submitted (all terrible). I'd be surprised if 20% of Saints had radiographically sound hips. Let's not even get into elbows...

    A decade ago I would have suggested you check out the Leonberger, but now that AKC has gobbled them up and tossed out the previously required health clearances and breed surveys, I can no longer endorse this course.