Thursday 7 March 2013

Bravo Mr Foote

Yesterday morning, I had an anonymous phone call from someone in Chihuahuas tipping me off to a Long Coat Chihuahua called Ch Ballybroke Harry. The dog, said the informer, has been diagnosed with syringomyelia (SM) - the neurological condition best known for being rampant in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels but which is also evident in other toy breeds. Harry, I was told, is being shown in the Open Dog class at Crufts tomorrow (Friday) and, apparently, the the dog had been given "permission to show" by the Kennel Club. 

"Is the dog symptomatic?" I asked, aware that despite the condition being evident on an MRI scan that some dogs may show no obvious symptoms. Well no, came the reply.

My informant went on to say that although the breeder who owned the dog was fully open about the dog's SM, some people in the breed felt the dog shouldn't be shown.

The story was tempting.  In 2008, Pedigree Dogs Exposed revealed that a top winning Cavalier had been diagnosed with SM - but the issue then was that, despite the best advice, his owner had continued to breed from the dog. Had Harry been bred from? The KC's Mate Select reveals no health tests listed for Harry - but it shows that a sibling has tested positive for SM, and it also reveals that Harry had sired a litter of one - a pup that had tested negative for SM  It also, interestingly, shows MRI scan results for quite a few Ballybroke dogs and also some extremely low coefficient of inbreedings. Hmmm... was this such a bad breeder after all?

I pinged an email to the Kennel Club asking them to confirm that the dog had been given permission to show. I admit I was a bit confused...  Usually, this is sought only when a dog has had a veterinary procedure and if Harry wasn't showing any symptoms, it is unlikely that he has had surgery for his SM. But maybe this was just someone who didn't totally understand the regulations?

I also asked if I was right in thinking that as long as the condition didn't affect the outward appearance of a dog, there were no rules that prohibited the dog from being shown.

The KC was unable to answer my first question, saying that most of the KC had already de-camped to the NEC and didn't have access to all the records back in the office. But it did confirm that a procedure that didn't effect the outward appearance of a dog would not result in a ban.

Now this has always infuriated me. As we revealed in Pedigree Dogs Exposed, Danny, the Peke that had won Crufts in 2003, had had fairly extensive surgery to relieve the respiratory distress caused by brachycephalic airway syndrome. As we discovered, this broke no rules. But if the procedure had been to fix, say, a dodgy tooth or a wry mouth, Danny would have been disqualified.

So it's perfectly all right to show a dog with a genetic problem that is so serious that no breeder in their right mind should breed from the dog - as long as you can't see it. If ever there was evidence that dog shows are all about surface, then this is it.

I emailed Harry's breeder/owners, Graham and Margaret Foote, and here's the email in full:

Dear Mr and Mrs Foote 
Apologies for what I am sure will be an uncomfortable email.
I have been contacted by people in Chihuahuas who are unhappy that you are showing Harry at Crufts, despite the fact that he has been diagnosed with syringomyelia. 
I am writing to ask if you would like to respond to that criticism - and also to ask the following: 
• when was Harry diagnosed with SM?
• has Harry been bred from?
• is he symptomatic?
• is there anything else you would like to say?
As far as I'm aware, there are no rules that prevent Harry being shown so I am not for one moment suggesting you are doing anything that is against any rules. Indeed, I am impressed that you asked the KC for permission to show him (not something I am aware that any owners of Griffons or Cavaliers have ever done). I also understand that you have been fully open about the diagnosis which is to be applauded. 
I would very much appreciate your thoughts. 
I wasn't really expecting a response. But tonight back came this. Please take the time to read the whole thing.

Dear Jemima, 
Thank you for your email of yesterday's date regarding my Chihuahua Long Coat dog Ch Ballybroke Harry, and the first thing I must put you right on is that I do not find it uncomfortable to answer you enquiry, I have been very open about the problem with SM in our breed and more importantly in some of my dogs. 
I will start of with the point you make in your penultimate paragraph about me having asked the KC for permission to show Harry. I do not know where whoever contacted you got this from. I have never made such a claim, because like you I believe that I am not breaking any rules in showing an asymptomatic dog who I only know has signs of SM, because I have gone to the trouble and expense of having all my breeding stock MRI scanned and have removed from my breeding programme, any that showed positive.  
My full story is that following one of my dogs, Ch Deeruss Flashmoon at Ballybroke, having been diagnosed with SM when he was being shown in the United States in 2006, I brought him back to the UK and as the symptoms that he had displayed prior to his MRI scan in the States were very different from the symptoms of SM that I had read about. I decided to have him and all my dogs from the same bloodline MRI scanned. The result of his scan was positive for SM but his sire half brother and 3 half sisters all scanned clear. I attempted to follow up and have his dame scanned, but as she had been spayed following her litter and had been placed in a pet home, following the death of her owner, I was not able to trace her, but assumed the SM had come from her side. 
Flash had been on treatment with Prednisone for approx one week after his return from the States, but had no treatment after that and the only possible sign SM that he ever displayed was a very slight weakness in a front shoulder. He was never bred from in this Country, but had sired a litter during his time in the States. 
I contacted the owner of the two pups in the States and advised that he did not breed from them until he had them scanned to check for SM and that the scan should not be done until they were over three years of age. Just after the dogs were three years old I found out that one of them had been exported to Denmark. I followed up on this with the breeder in the States and was advised  that rather than scan the dogs the Breeder had one of Flash’s offspring castrated and the other which had displayed absolutely no signs of SM had been exported to Denmark. I immediately contacted the owner in Denmark and organised that the dog be scanned, this was done and he scanned positive for SM. Fortunately he had not been bred from in Denmark, but had sired a litter in the States the owner of the litter still has the three offspring and will have then scanned at a later age. 
Due to the fact that I publicised the facts about Flash in the British Chihuahua Club Newsletter several times a few owners contacted me about dogs they were worried about and asked if I thought that the symptoms they displayed could be SM. I convinced just 4 of them to have the animal MRI scanned. All four were positive for SM and these included dogs from both the Long Coat and Smooth Coat variety. 
I decided in 2011 that I was going to have more of my breeding stock scanned and was shocked at the outcome of scans carried out in Sept 2011 and during 2012, Out of 17 scanned under the BVA/KC scheme 4 were clear 4 had SM grade 1 and   9 were grade 2 all are asymptomatic, three American bred imports were positives as was an Italian bred dog. 
I have not bred from any of my dogs that have tested positive for SM, some have been spayed or castrated but most have not. As you are no doubt aware there are breeding recommendations published under the BVA/KC Scheme that would cover some of my dogs, but I am trying to work my way through the problem without reverting to using these recommendations. I keep hoping that there will be a breakthrough with a DNA marker for SM, but it does not seem to be close. 
Coming back to your questions about Harry, he was scanned in Sept. 2011 along with his litter sister and both were positive. They, by the way, were from a litter out of a daughter of a bitch imported from Australia and were sired by a top winning Italian dog. 
Before he was scanned he had sired just one litter, at that time I was following through on dogs related to Flash, as mentioned above Harry was mainly from foreign stock, I had no reason  at that time to suspect that SM was also a problem in imported dogs. I decided to have a litter and to keep the pups. As often happens in these situations there was a single puppy, I had the puppy scanned very early at the age of only18 months and he was clear. My intention had been to have one litter by him and keep the puppies, then have him scanned again at four years and also to have his litter scanned at that time unfortunately I lost him due to a Megaeosophagus. 
Due to the situation with SM, I am breeding very few pups and in my update on SM in the BCC Newsletter that is presently with the editor I have said that I have taken two of my dogs out of retirement and will be showing them until I have suitable youngsters to replace them. 
One thing that I can assure you is that I will never show an animal that is suffering with symptoms of SM or indeed any other disease. 
I obviously do not know who contacted you about Harry, but the question that I would ask them is, have they had their breeding stock scanned for SM. The only one of mine, that has shown any symptoms, is Flash, all the others have been scanned and those that were positive are all asymptomatic. 
The fact is that of the 29 Chihuahuas so far scanned under the BVA/SM scheme, 18 scanned positive i.e. 62%, so there is a very great chance that some of their unscanned dogs are affected. 
My reason for being so open with the situation with my own dogs is because I am very concerned that many other breeders are not recognising the extent of this problem, as I have done, and seem to be taking the view that it is all right to carry on breeding. It is obvious from the evidence that I have discovered that this is not simply a problem in my Chihuahuas, but is wide spread in both this country and abroad
 Yours sincerely
 Graham Foote
Now I still yearn for a world where no one would even think of showing a dog that had been diagnosed with SM, no matter how "good" it might look on the outside.. And I am not a big fan of Chihuahuas with their dome-shaped heads, open fontanels and risk of hydrochephalus.

But, boy, I bloody love Mr Foote.


  1. Perhaps it's time that all untested dogs were not allowed to be shown nor bred from, we may see disease being taken more seriously and real action taken by breeders/exhibitors. Well done Mr Foote, maybe there is hope for the beloved pure breeds after all, I for one truly hope so.

  2. Good for this breeder! I love his dedication and hopefully there is (or will be) a breeding scheme developed that can minimize the problem while not creating a genetic bottleneck.

  3. Congratulations Mr Foote. Inspirational to read your frank account of SM problems in your Chihuahua breed. There are however, people like you in other toy breeds but sadly, too many others who are in total denial.

    It must also be noted that prior to the new BVA scheme, the 4 dogs that were grade SM1 would have been 'clear' or even grade 'A' and encouraged to have been used in breeding plans.

    The so called experts have moved the goal posts and now seem to want, practically all scanned dogs labelled as having a form of SM ,be it for having a syrinx, pre syrinx, or anything else that is not regarded as the norm ?

    I also await a genetic test but will not be holding my breath. Vets are making a fortune out of health testing and their prices only continue to rise. Do they not realise that money is short in 2013.

  4. Perhaps the most telling thing of this story is that Mr Foote found this out in 2006 and and acted on it, Pedigree Dogs Exposed was broadcast in 2008, did it feature such stories of breeders who worked in this way?.................No.................did it try to find the many breeders who act in this way? .................No

    1. Margaret Carter doesn't count because?

    2. That would be an idea for a third video, one looking for solutions through breeders like Mr. Foote...

      Mr Foote ought to be acknowledged in a documentary for his openness and foresight. Other Mr. Footes could be found and interviewed. (There are some, aren't there?) Perhaps just the fact of featuring one honest breeder after another sharing their perceptions and plans for the good of their breeds could help others with similar issues come out in more public manner and use the knowledge of genetics that is available today.

      Now my lecture:
      It is time all kennel and breed clubs begin to face the underlying problem of all purebred dogs, the closed registry, a registry with too few founding individuals to be able to compensate for genetic drift and losing genes every generation - in addition to the genes lost by breeder selection to fix traits.

      Heck, when this closed registry thing began, no one even knew what genetic drift was. How many breeders know what it is today? Yet, genetic drift has been weeding out genes in any breed's gene pool since the founding registries closed and there is currently no way to get the heterogeneity in most any breed back without radical outcrossing.

      In fact, the kind of breeding being practicing in a closed registry is a doggie form of eugenics that everyone thought was good, back then, when the kc and breed clubs started showing in the last 150 years. Since then, breed after breed has fallen to the perils of losing too much heterogeneity, with no way to get it back. Weeding out more and more individuals who carry bad genes just decreases the genepool more.

      What is needed is an enrichment of fresh genes that would decrease the statistical occurrence of two bad recessives meeting up in a dog.

      Virtually all the genetic defects now showing up as the result of a closed genepool are in the wolf populations from which dogs arose. And often, one copy of a gene is protective. It is just that in wolves are so heterogeneous, mutts, really, that the statistical chance of two bad recessives meeting up is vanishingly tiny. It is only when too much heterogeneity is lost in the quest for fixing recessive traits, that the statistical odds of doubling bad recessives in a mating becomes far more likely.

      There is always the possibility that ridding a population of the genes that cause SM will also take away related genetic material that helps the immune system, or who knows what. We just do not know how most of those genes work when they are single and deeply buried in the genome until inbreeding-linebreeding, the closed genepool double them up.


  5. Congratulations to Mr Foote for being a responsible breeder. And for being able to explain what he has done in such a calm and straightforward manner. Just hope that they find a way of moving forward in chihuahuas and breeding away from SM without depleting the gene pool at the same time.

  6. There are many Mr Footes out there Jemimma: responsible breeders who care about their breeds. But no doubt you will continue to be highly selective abiut how you portray them

  7. Margaret Carter8 March 2013 at 13:01

    A truly great breeder in so many ways. Perhaps the Chihuahua breed has a chance with someone like Mr Foote leading by example.

    I wish there had been someone of similar standing in Cavaliers, willing to put the future of the breed first, when SM was first identified in our lovely dogs.

    1. I happened to be ringside whilst the CKCS were being shown today. I was watching this dog in the puppy class keep scratching at his neck - on and on and on. All I could think was, OMG does that dog have SM?

  8. Great breeder, a inspiration and role model for others :-)

  9. Outstanding breeder! The world needs more like him!

  10. To mr. Foote, first: thank you! Wish there were many more breeders like you, in all breeds.

    To Jemima - where is the harm in showing a dog diagnosed with SM, as long as the dog is the only one who doesn´t know that? If the dog is asymptomatic, and will never be bred from for reasons made known to everybody, as long as the dog and Mr Foote enjoy showing - let them!
    Showing dogs is harmless. It´s the consequences of showing with no regard for the health of the dog and breed and no regard for truthfulness that does the harm. Good work, Graham Foote!

    1. The stated reason for disallowing neutered dogs is that shows are supposed to be for evaluating breeding stock. If that is the case, then dogs that are not meant to be bred should not be participating as well. Otherwise they should allow neutered dogs.

    2. Annie Macfarlane9 March 2013 at 01:14

      They allow speyed bitches and there is no rule to say a dog cannot be shown that is neutered. You get permission from the KC. The only thing is that the dog won't have the 2 testicles so won't really stand a chance of winning. I did think the whole purpose of dog showing was to show the best of the best for breeding purposes but some people just enjoy doing it. Well done Mr Foote. The sad thing is that even when he is so honest there are people out there still trying to "get" him. Wonder if the "informant" has scanned their dogs?

    3. Anonymous shoudl get the fact right you can show a neutered dog by either asking permissions from the KC (and I have never heard them turn down a request) or you can just do it if the dog has sired a puppy/litter, the same rules apply to bitches too.

    4. They do allow neutered dogs, just alot of judges just wont place one without over one with.

  11. Good for you Mr Foote

    Having lost a Cavalier to SM at the age of 5 I can only applaude your efforts and wish that other breeders had the same morals and sense of responsibility,
    Thank you for showing the way

  12. Annie Macfarlane9 March 2013 at 01:16

    Watching the toy group tonight and seeing the Griffons beforehand...I didn't realise just how flat faced they were. The shape of some skulls were horrendous. Very sad indeed! Noticed it more on the smooth coated's kinda hidden on the longer coated type.

  13. Margaret Carter9 March 2013 at 13:00

    Kate W,

    Thank you for the lecture. In it you repeated one of the excuses cavalier breeders give for continuing to breed with dogs that have not been MRI'd for SM:

    "There is always the possibility that ridding a population of the genes that cause SM will also take away related genetic material that helps the immune system, or who knows what"

    I struggle with the idea that it is deemed better to let cavaliers increasingly suffer with an extremely painful inherited condition just in case removing affected dogs from the gene pool throws up some other problem.

    You have the possible solution:

    "What is needed is an enrichment of fresh genes that would decrease the statistical occurrence of two bad recessives meeting up in a dog."

    Unfortunately Hell will need to be freezing over before breeders of purebred dogs seriously consider outcrossing to another breed as a solution and the Kennel Club does not initiate these programmes unless the breed club requests help.

    1. They never have a problem removing dogs from the gene pool for mismarkings or other cosmetic " faults"
      You only need to look at how much Awful thick coat cavaliers have now to see that dogs with the old silky light feathering have been removed from the gene pool.

  14. Margaret this is very sad isn't it, we have the evidence in this country all ready that this will work with the Dalmatian (whose name has slipped my memory) in a few generations you have exactly the same dog but without illness it seems like pure madness to me not to outcrossing to something like the cocker spaniel (similar dog) do people really care more about the red rosette, ticket and title???

  15. Yes, Margaret, I agree with you. Until breeders recognize that their extremely fearful attitudes come out of the principles of eugenics, it will be true. But, at the moment most people, let alone breeders, do not even have a clue that purebreeding dogs is a form of eugenics, as well as scientifically unsound. Doggie eugenics is as fully discredited as creationism or intelligent design. No wonder AKC registrations keep falling so fast only the giant puppy farms, excuse me, corporate dog breeders’, registrations are what keep the revenues flowing in.

    Eliminating the SM gene is not the way to go, it is just more eugenics. Instead, heterogeneity must be restored to the point that the SM gene or genes have little likelihood of pairing up. All those bad recessives stay buried except in statistically minute numbers when there is enough heterogeneity.

    I lost my fear of radical outcrossing by observing Bruce Cattanach’s experiment giving boxers the bobtails of corgis. The experiment did not work out for other reasons, but what it shows is that two very disparate dog breeds can be crossed, and by proper selection for 3 generations, will produce bobtailed boxers who conform to the boxer standard. Granted there are a lot of pet quality dogs during those 3 generations, but by the 4th generation, there will be dogs indistinguishable by looks alone from the original stock.

    If this is what happens between a corgi and a boxer, it should be possible to use any breed or dog that has some needed genes to get those genes into another breed by virtually any outcross. It will be messy for a few generations with lots of pet quality pups, but back breeding will restore the phenotype, complete with the needed genes. There is no need for the extreme fear and tension so many breeders display at the thought of an outcross.

    Perhaps the kind of genetic study being done on the two types of sled racing dogs, sprinters and distance runners, is a model for every other breed to use. Only a certain number of genes identifies a breed, the other genes do not affect looks or function, so should retain a certain level of heterogeneity which can be determined by the same kinds of tests used on the sled dogs.

    But purebreeders will have to use science instead of eugenics to get their breeds out of trouble.

  16. Well done indeed Mr Foote. I think it would have been better to expose the name of the informant than the details of a breeder who is obviously dedicated to doing his very best.

  17. Congratulations MR Foote. I think it would have been more appropriate to publish the name of the informant than the details of these obviously dedicated breeder who is doing all he can to benefit the health of the breed.

    1. I disagree that it would have been more appropriate, for I value the chance to read Mr Foote's response. It would however be interesting to know if the person "in Chihuahuas" is a breeder and if they themselves are scanning their own dogs? I'd also like to know what The British Chihuahua Club plans to approach this subject? Guess we shall have to watch and wait?

  18. Let us hope that ALL Chihuahua breeders follow this gentleman's fine example and get their dogs scanned too ... AND let the public see the results. Breeders of Chihuahuas and all breeds of course, should be breeding primarily for health and temperament, standard should come after this. Come on Chihuahua breeders, do the decent thing and let's see you ALL scanning and being open about the results and while you are at at it, get your dogs hearts and knees tested please. The KC may not require these tests, but the Breed Club should be advocating and encouraging it, given the health issues in the breed.

    1. I am a cavalier owner but I would like to respond to this comment. I do not know all the details of what the chihuahua clubs have done but I noticed some time ago a health alert about SM in the breed on the chihuahua club of America page. I was very impressed they actually listed a champion that sm was found (I imagine this was Mr. Foote's). Not only that but I've seen a lot being done. If you look at the CM/SM BVA KC results (excuse me if it is called something else) but the number submitted is 2nd to cavaliers. I was very impressed and expect to see possitive steps forward.

  19. I would like to applaud Mr. Foote as well.
    I would also like to point out that this is a breeder who deserves support. If you are looking for a high-end chi, this is the waiting list you want to be on. If you'd ever consider "sponsoring" a show champion, this is who you should support. And because "names" & "reputations" mean a lot to the judges, this is the breeder you want to talk about in glowing tones, and whose dogs you want to admire on every forum you can think of.

  20. What's also impressive about Mr Foote is that MRI scans, even under the BVA/KC scheme, are not cheap at £250 each. Scan 10 dogs and you've paid £2,500 just to test your dogs.

    I find it very sad that more toy breeds are being diagnosed with prevalent SM and breeders like Mr Foote are having to sort the mess out. I applaud him for his dedication and integrity - it would have been so easy (and far cheaper!) to have turned a blind eye.

  21. Mr Foote sounds like a wonderful breeder who is just what the breed needs. But I do have to wonder why you should imply it is bad for him to show his asymptomatic dog with a positive diagnosis when he is being so responsible and not breeding from it? It's not the dog show that's the problem -- it's just a beauty contest for dogs -- but it's the significance some breeders and exhibitors place upon it. In any other competitive venue, such as obedience or agility, I do not think many people would claim a dog with a medical condition that is not causing it pain or problems in the activity, should not do it. If he enjoys showing and his dog's medical condition isn't causing a problem and he's being responsible about his breeding practices, good for him!

  22. I own a smooth coated Chihuahua Ballybrook from Mr Graham Foote and her name was Sally but when I bought her from him I re-named her Lottie. If Graham reads these comments I'm unsure as the last one is 2013 so 4 years on, but if he does read them or anyone thinking of buying a chihuahua especially from him the BEST breeder and I have 3 dogs now. Lottie is now 14 and half years old, still going strong, blind in one eye due to age and nothing else. I did everything he advised me to do which is 1) do not over feed her. 2) Keep her teeth very clean and regular dental scaling at the vets 3) Don't spoil her and be strict. We have enjoyed her and she has been the best girl ever, spayed because she was a pet not a show dog or breeding bitch. Even though she is blind maybe even a bit deaf i love her with all my heart, she had a sister called Gucci I don't know if she is still with us, but my daughter also has chihuahuas and its a breed next to Affenpinscher & Yorkies we love. My beautiful Lottie will never be forgotten ever. Mr Foote has always been on the end of the phone about anything regarding her health. I will try and upload a photo of her.