The problem? The Bulldog was a colour not permitted in the breed in the UK.
The old saying “a good horse is never a bad colour” doesn’t apply to pedigree dogs. There are very strict rules about what colours specific breeds can be. In some instances, it makes sense because some colours are associated with health problems. Or it might be due to a sneaky cross to another breed. Very often, though, it's just irrational doggie racism. And there can be dire consequences for pups that pop out the wrong colour or pattern, although fewer are put to sleep these days as vets are less likely to agree to euthanize an otherwise-healthy pup. To be fair, breeders are less-inclined to cull on these grounds today, too, although I believe it still happens.
The permitted colours for Flatcoated Retrievers are black and liver, but occasionally a yellow one is born. This isn’t due to an illicit liaison with a Golden Retriever – the yellow gene is a legacy from earlier times when retrievers were just retrievers and came in several colourways. In fact, all Golden Retrievers descend from a yellow Flatcoat and the gene – although rare - is still there in Flatcoats, often lying hidden for generations until a dog is mated to another dog that also carries the colour recessively.
In the old days, yellow Flatcoats were “bucketed” at birth; these days they are more likely to be placed in a pet home and neutered. But old attitudes die hard. There is, currently, huge disapproval within the Flatcoat community that an American breeder is breeding from yellow Flatties. Worse, he is breeding them not just to other Flatcoats but to American Cockers to produce an attractive, smaller retriever which he dubs a Chatham Hill Retriever, or “Chattie”. Of course I’m cool with thoughtful crossing, as long as it is done with as much due consideration as practised by the best purebred dog breeders and, having exchanged several emails with this breeder over the past two years, I think he should be supported, not slammed.
I can also muster no moral objection to the idea of breeding from a non-permitted colour, while appreciating that most core breeders won’t want anything to do with it. But this poor chap has received many anonymous, abusive emails from Flatcoat breeders from those that believe that what he is doing is evil – and no matter that he can boast a great health record for the 100 or so pups he has bred in the past eight years. There hasn’t been a single case of hip dysplasia, or PRA (an eye problem seen in American Cockers). And neither has there been a single case of cancer so far – a problem that plagues around 50 per cent of purebred Flatcoats. Now it’s early days in their breeding programme, but I find this much more interesting than the fact that they’re cross-breeding or using non-permitted colours.
The problem, of course, is the hallowed breed standard which dictates what colours are and aren’t allowed. But some breed standards were drawn up at a time when the inheritance of coat colour was poorly understood. Indeed, coat colour genetics is still a bit of a minefield because the genes that code for colour often interact. Some, for instance, might mask or modify the presence of another. For instance, golden retrievers often carry the gene that codes for brindle.
The reason you never see a goldie with a brindle coat, though, is because another gene masks it. Cross a golden retriever with another breed, though, and the brindling sometimes appears, as in a gorgeous rescue dog, Jacob, that my rescue recently rehomed.
|Goldie x Jacob|
There’s a huge fuss at the moment about brindle Salukis – with the purists claiming that these dogs must be mutts and very likely a cross with a greyhound, lurcher or other sighthound. Worse, there’s even dark talk that brindle originally came from Bulldogs and that brindle Salukis may have totally the wrong shaped bones as a result. This is truly unfounded scaremongering but it has convinced many to lobby against the colour.
A report commissioned by the American Saluki Club last year concluded that there have always been brindle salukis in the Middle East/Asia – and that it is likely that the nucleus of imported Salukis that formed the founding stock of the breed in the UK (and subsequently to other Western countries) also included brindle. It is hard to be sure because colour wasn’t always recorded accurately in those days. It is true, however, that there are no known brindle salukis in the current KC registered stock.
The controversy ignited when a UK-bred dog exported to Australia threw brindle pups – and in 2010 a brindle descendant of this line won a big show in the US under American Kennel Club rules. The colour is not disallowed in the AKC breed standard; whereas in the UK brindle is listed as “highly undesirable – effectively kyboshing any chance of one ever appearing in the showring. However, the American champ’s line has been bred from and so more brindle salukis are being born. There are also breeders keen to expand the Saluki gene pool who are importing the occasional desert-bred brindle Salukis from their country of origin. Tigger here, for instance, is owned by American biologist and Saluki breeder, Dr John Burchard. She came from central Asia and is indubitably all Saluki.
|Tigger... brindle Saluki|
“I believe the Kennel Club standard should allow all colours, including brindle, since all colours are to be found in Salukis in the countries of origin” says Sir Terence Clark, who has made a long study of Salukis in the region. He thinks this even though he concedes it is possible that brindle may be due to crossbreeding further back in the Saluki's long history. “At what stage does a Saluki become a Saluki?” he asks. “Historically, the Saluki has undoubtedly been crossed with other breeds and after three or four generations of back-breeding, it is impossible to tell. As the custodians of the breed in the region would say, if it looks like a Saluki and runs like a Saluki… it is a Saluki!”
It won’t be a surprise to hear that in these days of increased awareness of the need for genetic diversity that I agree with him. But there are many who will disagree vehemently and the battle looks set to rage for a long time yet.
The situation gets even more complicated with the knowledge that some genes that code for colour are associated with health problems. Too much white, particularly on the dog’s head, is linked to an increased risk of deafness – although this does seem to vary from breed to breed. The reason white dogs suffer is because pigment plays a role in the development of the auditory system.
The Dalmatian has a high rate of deafness as it is, essentially, a white dog - and large patches of colour which could help reduce the deafness, are considered a fault. A Dalmatian pup born with a patch on its ear is considerably less likely to be deaf – and yet these are not used for breeding (and they used to be culled).
In Boxers, breeders often breed for a “flashy brindle” – a brindle dog with white feet often extending some way up the legs, white on the tummy and chest, white on the face and possibly a white collar as well.. Breeding for them, though, increases the risk that some dogs in the litter will be born white with, again, an increased risk of deafness. Boxers breeders used to cull these white pups. Fortunately, there is now a demand from the pet market for white Boxers, so far fewer are put to sleep.
There’s a condition called Colour Dilution Alopecia (CDA) - or “blue dog syndrome” - that can lead to hairloss and skin problems. It’s caused by a gene that dilutes the base colours black or brown to produce blue and lilac dogs. The highest risk is in blue dogs (in reality a slate grey) with a black base colour and short-coated dogs are more likely to suffer than long-haired.
If two merle dogs are bred together, there is a risk that the pups will be born deaf or with severe eye abnormalities - including no eyes. And yet merle is incredibly popular in breeds such as the Sheltie, Rough Collie and Australian Shepherd with some breeders even willing to risk merle-to-merle matings to ensure all the pups are merle, a strategy that almost inevitably results in some pups in the litter being deaf or blind.
Conversely, there’s a huge battle to try to prevent the registration of working-line Bearded Collies which carry the merle gene. There is very little consistency of thought or practice across the breeds with some colours that are associated with health problems actively selected for, and others that cause no problems at all being frowned upon.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a Elisa, a Finnish breeder fighting a colour bar in German Pinschers. She is among a small group of breeders hoping to persuade the breed clubs that chocolate/tan (a colourway often seen in Dobermanns and Dachshunds) should also be acceptable in German Pinschers – a breed known these days for being all-tan (technically “red”) or black and tan
It turns out that there were chocolate/tan dogs originally in the breed but it was bred out. This was partly by chance and partly because it was considered a colour associated with health issues – wrongly in this case as it happens. As a result, the chocolate/tan was removed from the German Pinscher standard in the 1970s. But now some chocolate/tan pups have been born in Sweden – from a rare line of German Pinschers.
Elisa believes they should be registered and bred-on, particularly because the breed is struggling with a very small gene pool. But the resistance remains even though the claim that the colour causes health problems has been disproved. At heart, it is fuelled by traditional breeders simply thinking the colourway is ugly – an attitude that is hard to counter.
And there’s a crazy colour bar in Newfoundlands. The breed has three accepted colours: solid black, solid brown and black-and-white (known as Landseer) and one banned colour: brown and white. The way the colour genes work in Newfies means that all four colourways are possible and there is absolutely no health risk in brown and white. And yet it is not allowed. It is completely illogical.
Similar stories are to be found in many other breeds. White German Shepherds were once thought to be at higher risk of health issues and even though that’s not true, the colour is still not considered acceptable despite a white dog being one of the founding dogs for the breed. Instead, aficionados have had to create a whole new breed – the Swiss Shepherd Dog. They are recognised in Switzerland and other countries, but still not in the UK.
I do think it’s time to reassess what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of colour and to challenge hard where there is no sense to it – particularly if a colour does not come with any health risks. It too often smacks of the kind of overt discrimination that led to whites-only public transport, restaurants and schools. That, thank goodness, is a thing of the past.
Of course, it’s not racism in the sense that it is any psychological insult to the dog – but it still leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
With many thanks to coat colour expert Liisa Sarakontu for her considerable help in compiling this article
This article first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Dogs Today Magazine.