Sunday 29 May 2011

Mate Defect

One thought has pervaded the last couple of days of researching Mate Select and reading on the lists the concerns of breeders - for whom breeding dogs has become an unenviable juggling match of expensive health tests, co-efficients of inbreeding, ancestor loss co-efficients etc etc - and owning dogs for too many has become a gut-sinking wait for preventable disease and lives robbed too young.

What a bloody shame that is has come to this. 

What a bloody shame that those who could have done something to stop it never did.

And what a bloody shame that more isn't now being done to tackle the fundamental reasons why too many dogs today lead shortened, compromised lives.

That's all.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Mate Select - good but no cigar (just yet)

Yesterday, the Kennel Club launched Mate Select - over-ambitiously hailing it as a breeding tool that will "transform" the health of pedigree dogs. (KC blurb here)

It does irritate the life out of me when the KC makes such bold claims and this one is on a par with one recent press release claiming that KC funding of the KC Genetics Centre at the Animal Health Trust would assist in the "eradication" of genetic disease.  Clearly nonsense. I was concerned, too, to read the AHT's Sarah Blott being quoted in the KC press release saying that Mate Select would "prevent" the decline of genetic diversity in pedigree dogs.  Mate Select will do nothing of the sort.

Indeed, in answer to one breeder's questions yesterday, Dr Blott replied that the hope for Mate Select is that it would "help to manage the rate of inbreeding - the percentage by which it climbs - to no more than 0.5% per generation."  Inherent in this reply is the acknowledgment that this is the best that one can hope for given the way pedigree dogs are being bred currently- which is never (or very rarely) to allow new blood in to halt the inexorable loss of genetic diversity.

I understand that the KC wants some positive headlines out of the launch of Mate Select - and it deserves some as it is a step forward. But the KC  must resist overstating the case in this way.

So does that make Mate Select a bad thing? No, it doesn't. It's actually a pretty good thing - and it has the potential to grow into something quite powerful. It's just that it's important to be aware of its flaws and its current limitations.

But first, let's look at the good bits:

Mate Select in its current form allows you to do three things:

• look up the co-efficient of inbreeding (COI) of a particular dog (ie how inbred it is) and compare it to the breed average.
• find the published health test results for an individual dog
• do a virtual mating. This is intended for use by breeders who already have a shortlist of potential mates for their dog to find out which would produce the least-inbred litter.

Now this is a facility that breeders in Finland have had available (in a rather different form) for some time thanks to a particularly progressive Kennel Club there. But, I have to say that Mate Select's "front-end" has been well-designed and it is extremely easy to use - and it is streets ahead of what is offered by some other Kennel Clubs (notably the American Kennel Club which should be making much more effort to tackle this issue).

Indeed, when you think back to where we were three years ago,  Mate Select is nothing short of a revelation. Then, there was very little recognition that inbreeding was a problem; barely anyone knew what a COI was, and there was very little understanding of why genetic diversity was so important - or why the lack of it was such a threat to pedigree dogs.  This despite the Kennel Club knowing the devastating findings of the Imperial College study that found, in the 10 dogs breeds they looked at, that most had lost 90 per cent of their unique genetic variants in just six generations. (Calboli et al, 2007)

We have, then, come a long way. I know too, that there has been a huge amount of effort put into the development of Mate Select and it is good to note the genuine excitement about it emanating not just from the team at the Animal Health Trust that has put so many hours into developing it,  but also from the Kennel Club itself. I hope they're enjoying the warm glow that comes from initiating (even it if was under duress originally) something that is genuinely a good idea.

Mate Select is free, too, and available to anyone with a computer.  And the goodness doesn't stop there - the team at the AHT (which includes Sarah Blott and the lovely Tom Lewis) clearly wants to improve it and is open to suggestions on how to make it better or more useful to breeders (see below for details of how to contact them).

Which brings me to the not-so-good bits.

Yesterday, there was a flurry of breeders, owners and researchers trying out Mate Select, both in the UK and abroad. And it had many scratching their heads, with the most common comment being: "The breed average COIs are much lower than I expected."

• Mate Select throws up an inbreeding average of  just 4.2% for Standard Poodles, for instance.  The much more comprehensive Standard Poodle Database, however, finds that it is around 17%. 

• Mate Select's inbreeding calculation for Irish Red and White Setters throws up a breed average of 16%.  But using a more complete breed database, the 10-generation COI for a typical IRWS is over 25%.

• Mate Select finds a breed average inbreeding of 2.4% for Nova Scotia Tolling Retrievers - but the worldwide breed database, which goes back to the handful of founders, shows that the true figure (for Tollers registered between 1999 and 2008) is 26%, making a Toller more than a full sibling to any other Toller.

In at least some breeds, then, Mate Select seriously under-reports the level of inbreeding.

So what's going on?

There are a number of reasons for the discrepancies. First,  Mate Select uses the Kennel Club's electronic database as its raw material. The database was not computerised until 1980 and and the very earliest dogs recorded in it (picked up from the pedigree data for those early dogs) were born in the 1960s.  Mate Select treats the first dogs in the database as unrelated founders - ie. of having a COI of 0% - when that will almost never be the case.

This is, in fact, the flaw with any COI program unless the data includes the true breed founders.  The Imperial study mentioned above was similarly handicapped. As you can see from the table below, it found that there were over 15,000 founders for the GSD, for example - crazy when the reality is that German Shepherds descend from just a handful of original dogs.

Click to enlarge

Mate Select also treats the furthest-back dogs in the pedigrees of imported dogs (between three and five generations are recorded) as having a COI of 0% which, except perhaps in the case of a new breed, is never going to be the case. In fact, those dogs that Mate Select marks down as having a COI of 0% could (and in many cases do) go back to original UK stock and in reality could be extremely inbred.  That Mate Select does not include this missing data means that the inbreeding data it generates is flawed - quite severely in some cases, and particularly in breeds where there have been a lot of imports.

Another reason some of Mate Select's breed-average COIs are low is because it is based on the COIs of registered dogs from the last year for which complete records are held (currently 2010). This, in fact, makes some sense as the current inbreeding levels are probably the most relevant. However, again, it does not reflect the true level of inbreeding and the figure could be very skewed in breeds with few litters registered per annum. A rolling mean of five years would, perhaps, be a better idea.

Although some breeders on the canine genetic lists have welcomed Mate Select, others have expressed concern that people will be falsely reassured as to the extent of inbreeding/level of genetic diversity in their breed. A low breed average COI suggests there is no need to panic when the reality is that some breeds are in dire straits. The very low genetic diversity in Tollers, for instance, recently prompted Finnish researcher, Dr Katariina Maki to call for an outcross to another breed (pdf of Dr Maki's statement here).

The other concern was that it will be impossible in some cases for breeders to breed litters with a COI below the breed average because of the way it is worked out.  Mate Select suggests that its breed average for Malinois is 2.2% (almost certainly because of very few litters, many sired by imports) - but a breeder on one show list yesterday said that it would impossible to do a mating using their dogs that would get anywhere near this low a figure. This makes it unnecessarily awkward for breeders - and confusing for puppy-buyers.

So do we write off Mate Select then? Well, no. It has its uses. Although it should not be seen as a measure of a breed's extant genetic diversity, COIs of individual dogs will be fairly accurate, at least in terms of recent inbreeding, unless there are imports in the pedigree (and in many UK breeds there may be none). More health/genetics data will be added in time. There is, I understand, a plan for the system to flag up when individual dogs have been over-used at stud, which would be very welcome (and long overdue) given the enormous damage popular sires can do. I hope there is a plan to include effective population sizes too - a more useful measure of genetic diversity than COI alone.

For experienced breeders, nothing will replace in-depth pedigree analysis (something that is impossible to do with Mate Select as it gives no pedigree information at all) and they will undoubtedly continue to use alternative breed databases, which are very often mantained by the most dedicated of breed enthusiasts.

But, for casual breeders and pet owners, Mate Select offers a really simple, intuitive way to find out a bit of info on individual dogs, encouraging them to think about genetic diversity and, particularly, to breed for lower COIs without all the hassle and hard work of trawling through endless pedigree information.

For that reason, it gets the PDE Blog's seal of approval. Albeit one with caveats. Another one being, incidentally, that the person who wrote Mate Select's guide to genetic diversity should be shot. It starts: "At any single gene, diversity can be measured as the degree of homozygosity (the inheritance of the same version of a gene from both dam and sire) which is observed.  The more homozygous a population the less diverse it is.  One of the main factors leading to increased homozygosity or loss of diversity is inbreeding. "

As Pat Burns ("Terrierman") observed in a private email to me yesterday:

One of the ways you can tell an expert is thay they do not feel the need to toss around four-syllable words to a lay audience.  Picasso, in the end, could draw a raging bull with one line.

An old sailor, who knows how to teach sailing, does not talk about port and starboard, bow and aft, pintles and gudgeons, rodes and stays.  He talks about left and right, front and back, hinges, ropes, and cables.  Paint it simple, say it simple.   And the more important the message the simpler it needs to be.

I quote the Bible when I talk about inbreeding. This is an ancient wisdom and even the illiterate pagans know it is wrong to lie with their sisters.

Fucking your sister?  Not a good game plan for humans OR dogs.  Said plain, and easy to remember, eh?

Now there's a strapline.

To help make Mate Select better, write to

Thursday 19 May 2011

KC Chairman Ronnie Irving resigns

Kennel Club Chairman Ronnie Irving announced  today at the KC's Annual General Meeting that he is standing down - after nine years in the big job. The big surprise might be that he hasn't gone sooner. Ronnie intimated to me more than three years ago (at an interview for Pedigree Dogs Exposed in January 2008), that he did not see the unpaid post as a job for life and hinted strongly that he did not need the hassle that might come after Pedigree Dogs Exposed.

To give him credit, Ronnie stayed put and bore a considerable brunt of the storm - and, personally, I always saw him as someone who embraced at least some reform. First off, he has Border Terriers - a dog with a natural conformation and few health problems. And although he also has Dandie Dinmonts, he did once tell me that he was open to an outcross to inject some much-needed vigour into the Dandie (even if he didn't put his money where his mouth is and actually do it himself).

Then there was the May 2008 editorial in the Kennel Gazette where Ronnie spoke out strongly about exaggerations. There was also some fighting-talk (albeit behind closed doors) regarding the German Shepherds after PDE, and a very strong letter (which made its way into the public domain) to an overseas correspondent saying that to go on as before as regards health was unacceptable.

So why has he gone now? I suspect - but of course it's only a guess - that after the three years post-PDE presiding over the Kennel Club during the most difficult time in its history, that he's tired of the fight and looking for a quieter life.

I wish him well. For what it's worth, of all the senior bods at the Kennel Club I have dealt with, I liked Ronnie the most.

The full text of Ronnie's goodbye letter is on the Kennel Club website here.

So who's going to be the new Chairman? The election is on June  7 (with Ronnie at the helm until then).

And, boy, is that going to be interesting...  Will it be the same-old same-old - or the reform-embracing regime change so many people want?

Watch this space...

A people's revolt?

Oh to be a fly on the wall at today's Kennel Club AGM... Following on from my blogpost earlier this week which highlighted the grumbling in the ranks regarding the KC's attempt to stop exhibitors enhancing their dogs' coats with hair spray, chalk, silicon, dyes and so on,  Dog World runs with an extraordinarily-bold headline on its front cover that should get them summarily barred from not just this year's Annual General Meeting, but every one for the next 10 years.

The calls for a more democratic KC (as exists in Sweden where everyone who registers a dog gets a vote, not just the select few who have been invited to the hallowed ranks of KC membership) are undoubtedly getting louder.

But, goodness, wouldn't it be nice if the reason for the revolt was a demand for better health, rather than the a right to slap any old 'product' on their pooches?

So now the KC finds itself in a tricky place. With the outside world watching, and the KC keen to prove that the show-ring has integrity, it would be impossible to give in to the protestors and allow them carte-blance to L'orealise their dogs. I strongly suspect they are opposed to it in principle anyway.  KC Secretary Caroline Kisko has Siberian Huskies (and proper ones, at that, without the mad excess coat seen in some overseas show-rings); Chairman Ronnie Irving and Steve Dean both have Border Terriers and Anne Macdonald has salukis - all of which need minimum prep for the show-ring. 

How to resolve? Well how about dipping a toe into democracy and having a referendum? To get the ball rolling, here's a poll...

What should exhibitors be allowed to do to prepare their dog for the show-ring?

Tuesday 17 May 2011

How to achieve perfect ears

First, up, how to glue a Border Collie's ears. Why? Because the breed standard calls for them to be erect or semi-erect.

And here's how to achieve perfect 'rose' ears on a Bulldog. Why would you want them? Because the Kennel Club breed standard stipulates: "Rose ear correct, i.e. folding inwards back, upper or front inner edge curving outwards and backwards, showing part of inside of burr."  Problem is, many Bulldogs are born with button (normal) ears.

You can staple them, too (NB: you are not allowed to do this yourself in the UK - stapling is considered a veterinary procedure).

And here's how to achieve the perfect Airedale ear - because the breed standard demands: "V-shaped with a side carriage, small but not out of proportion to size of dog. Top line of folded ear slightly above level of skull. Pendulous ears or ears set too high undesirable."

Now, not even the stapling appears to hurt the puppies so I am not claiming that this is causing the dogs pain (although joining two surfaces together that nature rendered apart is going to cause irritation or infection in some cases). But what do you all reckon?

Are we nuts?

Is it cheating? Or fine to do what we want to dogs as long as it causes no real harm?

And if you don't think we should be doing it, how on earth do you stop it?

Monday 16 May 2011

Kennel Club bans Dog World from its AGM

You  know an organisation is in trouble when it starts clamping down on media access and the Kennel Club has again shot itself in its clumsy paw by banning Dog World from its AGM this coming Thursday (19 May).  For those that don't know, Dog World has enough objective professionalism to be able to criticise the Kennel Club from time to time but it is, essentially, a KC/dog-show-friendly paper with loyal support from breeders and exhibitors - partcularly the brighter ones who prefer it to the badly-written KC-toadying of its rival, Our Dogs.

(This blog, by the way, is brought to you from outside of Kennelclubistan where freedom of the press - however uncomfortable this makes it for some - is considered a basic tenet of democracy.)

Dog World's crime? Reporting on a campaign by champ Poodle breeder Mike Gadsby to stop the KC Stasi (as some breeders are referring to them) coat-testing Fi-Fi and Frou-Frou for such criminal substances as conditioner and the odd squirt of hairsrpay.  Discussion of this topic is, apparently, verboten because it is an item on the agenda for Thursday's AGM and the KC doesn't want agenda items to be reported ahead of the AGM (the fear being that the way they are reported might unfairly influence the way members vote). But, of course, this one is already in the public domain via a Facebook page (UK Show Dog Exhibitors Who Support An End To K.C. Coat-testing) and many other discussions on the internet.

As senior judge and Dog World columnist Andrew Brace commented on the Facebook page (a comment I now see has been removed) the KC's obsession with hairspray is "confusing" when greater misdemeanours such as altering terriers' ears and tails appear to go unmonitored. Eh? Ah yes, those perfect ear-folds are, apparently, sometimes achieved with the aid of flattening irons, while bolt-upright tails are occasionally achieved with the aid of stiffening wire. (And if you don't believe me, have a close look at some of those undocked Kerry Blue tails in the UK show ring - unless, perhaps it's Viagra keeping them bolt-upright?)

But while there's no doubt that Gadsby and the 2000-plus people who have already signed his petition have a point, arguing that harmless cosmetic enhancement is OK because there are greater ills out there is very often the tactic of those resenting personal scrutiny. (I say this, of course, as someone who is very often challenged to deal with the real problem of puppy mills rather than all those lovely people doing their best to breed happy, healthy pedigree dogs.)

I suspect the KC's focus on hairspray and talc is driven by two things: first, it's pretty easy to monitor and second, stopping it would in their eyes restore some of the show world's reputation as not just a bunch of fruits doing silly things to their dogs in order to win rosettes. But, surely, what needs to happen here is surely that the KC doesn't just scratch-and-sniff Poodle coats, but makes some attempt to police the more serious cheating that goes on - such as ear-crimping or the implantation of false testicles. When I last checked with the Californian company that sells Neuticles, they told me that over 3,000 pairs of them had been sold to the UK. Now the company absolutely insisted that they were being bought by ordinary pet owners who want their neutered male dogs to look more macho. Hmmm.

Separately, and rather quietly, the KC has also tried to tighten up rules regarding photography and filming at shows. The following has recently been added to most champ show schedules:

Click to enlarge
The relevant new bit here is: "Specific dogs may be photographed only with the approval of the exhibitor" and essentially it means that if I or anyone else should see a Bulldog gasping for breath, or a Peke on an icepack, or a Basset Hound with sore eyes or a Neapolitan Mastiff burdened with an absurd amount of excess flesh, that it can no longer be photographed and reported.

In truth, there are many ways round the new rules, but this is dangerous territory for the KC and I don't believe that any truly-thinking person in the dog world wants their sport to be hidden like they're a bunch of fiddling paedophiles who have to indulge their guilty pleasure behind closed doors.

Yes, outside scrutiny can be uncomfortable and irritating and sometimes unfair. But either there is a case to answer or there isn't. The KC must be able to withstand this kind of scrutiny - and to either robustly defend what has been reported/photographed or accept that changes need to be made.

Don't suppose regime change is an item is on the agenda at this year's AGM,  but the voices from the people of Kennelclubistan calling for democracy are getting louder.