Friday 15 May 2015

Jem's Big Ideas # 1: kiss goodbye to the KC register

Today, I start a series of Jem's Big Ideas: constructive suggestions that I feel have potential to improve dog health/ownership in the UK. They are intended for discussion and debate.

We can call it solutions-based-thinking if you want a fancy name for it. Makes it sound more important, don't you think? 

Indeed, I would be happy to spend half an hour talking about solutions-based-thinking at your organisation's annual conference. (I was top of the class in this module at college and my tutor said I was bwilliant). I can do a power-point presentation incorporating some fancy-sounding but ultimately-meaninglessly-titled slides. I can dress up some no-shit-Sherlock common sense as something new and meaningful. And then everyone can go home feeling much better about the whole thing.

You know where to find me!

Or you could just read the whole thang below with a whole lot less waffle and at a cost to your time of about two minutes. If you can spare another two minutes, please  tell me if you think it's a good or a bad idea and why. And if you think it's a half-good idea, tell me how you would improve it.


Get rid of the Kennel Club register.  Yep, scrap the very thing that brings in £12 million pounds a year into the KC coffers... that funds a whole heap of KC activities, genetic research, education and so on.

That KC-registration certificate? Gone..... That KC-pedigree for every dog the KC registers currently? Asta la vista, baby.

The reason?

• because the KC register has a massive integrity issue

• because there's a better way

Of course I don't mean that we forget about registering dogs. We definitely need a Register.  Indeed, we need to register *more* dogs - and in one place.

Just not under the KC banner.

And here's why.

When Kennel Clubs are confronted by those who feel they should be doing more to protect the health of purebred dogs, the response is often: "But we're just a registry!"

This has been a real sticking point for those who want KC registration to mean more.  They believe that if breeders had to jump through more health-hoops before the KC would register their pups, we'd have healthier dogs and it would set an example that would put the crap breeders out of business.

I argued this myself in Pedigree Dogs Exposed. And there are many other voices - including from within the Fancy - who would like to see their breeds subject to more stringent health-demands as a condition of registration.  But now I'm not so sure.

The Kennel Club here in the UK has resisted this at every turn, anyway. The KC's argument is that that breeders and puppy-buyers would simply go elsewhere and that once lost to any KC influence, things would simply get worse.  Indeed there is some evidence of this in the existence of rival registries which vary in quality from fantastic (individual breed registries) to total scam.

The response from the critics is that what the KC fears most is the loss of registration money which it relies on to survive. 

And the response to that from the KC is that this money allows it to do good things for dogs.

So pups continue to be sold with a KC certificate that in reality means nothing (as indeed the KC's small print now states quite clearly). Some pups will be OK; some won't; some will have been raised by breeders who care; some will have been born in horrific conditions on a puppy-farm.  It can be very hard to tell the difference.

The KC's half-way-house solution has been the Assured Breeder Scheme. The KC now urges people to buy their dogs through the ABS to avoid the risk of buying a puppy-farmed dog, something that has really pissed off breeders who eschew the scheme because they don't think it's good enough. 

So it's a stalemate... with many people thinking it is close to fraudulent that the KC (and indeed the AKC in the US and many others) will register just about anything with a pulse when the public is convinced that KC papers are an indication of quality.  (The KC's general register even includes puppies produced by breeders that have been chucked off the ABS for major welfare concerns.)

I've been thinking about this a lot recently - because we really do need a register of dogs for all kinds of compelling reasons. And, ideally, it needs to be a register that includes as many dogs as possible.

So here's my idea:

The Kennel Club makes the Register a separate entity and gives it a new and neutral name -  devoid of KC-branding and therefore devoid of any implicit value. It becomes simply a record of a dog's birth and ancestry - in exactly the same way as we have human ancestry records.

My suggestions:

Liberated from the KC badging and all the baggage that comes with it (while still copping the income from it), the door is then open to register many more dogs than currently - including crossbreeds/mixed breeds. 

This would  knock-out the competition in the UK - because would become THE place to register every dog and the sheer volume would bring down the cost of registration). And it has the clear potential to build into an international resource that eventually mines data from every other register in the world. 

Can you imagine how incredible this would be - in years to come to be able to follow your dog's ancestry back through the generations, regardless of breed or country boundaries? Wouldn't you be happy to pay something for that, in the same way that families love to research their own antecedents?

And, of course, it goes without saying that it would be an amazing resource for breeders, geneticists and other researchers.

It could also include lots more information (and pictures) of individual dogs; not just when they were born or their pedigree, but their health, their temperaments, something about their lives, when they died. This information that could be inputted by owners who would be given a log-in code that allows them access and add to an individual dog's records when the dog is registered; or even (with an owner's permission) link to the VetCompass data already being gathered in the UK. 

At the vets in 2030: "Aha, Jemima... I can see that Jake's grandparents on both sides of his family suffered from Cushing's Disease.. making it all the more likely that the excessive thirst and bald patches on Jake's tummy are due to Cushing's".

What happens to the KC? Nothing. This is just a re-branding  - and of course a commercial expansion that should boost income considerably and allow the KC to spend more money to support its claim that it is now primarily a "dog welfare" organisation.

So the KC continues to do everything it does at the moment; free of the criticism that it affords KC-registration to sub-standard dogs.  And it continues to develop the ABS which becomes more like Debretts for elite dogs - a bit anachronistic in this day and age, but something which should appeal to the Fancy.

Of course, this doesn't solve the solution of sub-standard dogs being sold to a gullible public - you need more than one Big Idea for that. But it does resolve one big current problem,  is a massive boost to dog traceability and has the potential to give us some great epidemiological data/dog demographics - something that all agree is needed.

And the reason I would trust the KC to do this when I'm their greatest critic? Because it is already set-up to do it and because I believe that when the KC's master is not just the purebred dog, but all dogs, everyone - and every dog - will benefit.

Let me know what you think...


* Those domain names? Mine... all mine...

Thursday 7 May 2015

Crossing the rubicon - and no going back

There's a fabulously snobby piece in this week's DogWorld in which Dachshund exhibitor Lee Connor decries a designer-dog breeder for mating a Bichon x Shih Tzu with a Miniature Poodle and dubbing the resulting mix a "Daisy" dog. He writes:
"Yes, the very first litter of 'Kennel Certificate registered Daisy puppies' have been born in the UK. You can take your pick from a range of colours; from the run-of-the-mill blacks and chocolates to the rather more fitting creams and champagnes. 
"The advert, which has certainly caused a lot of interest and comment on social media, states that the Daisy puppies are from a “carefully planned breeding… to produce the highly sort [sic] after hypoallergenic designer toy breed, ‘The Daisy’ (ideal for allergy sufferers)”. 
"The mother it goes on to say is an “F1 hybrid Bichon x Imperial Shih Tzu” (note, in the style of the famous Marks & Spencer adverts, this is not your usual Shih Tzu… this is an Imperial Shih Tzu) and the father is a “KC-registered show-quality Chocolate Miniature Poodle”.

"The advert then assures us that “only the very best bloodlines have gone into this breeding to produce the very best quality… an outstanding litter of non-moulting adorable Daisies”. 
"And, dear reader, you too can buy into this hypoallergenic dream of a dog for a mere £900." 
Now,  granted, the chances of this being a quality breeder are less than the chances of seeing a ridgeless Ridgeback in a show-ring. There's no mention of health-testing and the "Kennel Certificate registered" claim is undoubtedly a scam designed to sound like "Kennel Club registered". I also agree with Connor that their coats are going to be high-maintenance.  And, yes, there's the concern that "Imperial" might mean a tea-cup Shih Tzu as it's a term used by breeders pitching at the teeny-weeny-cute market.

(Been thinking of a coffee mug meme for this... "No tea-cups here... [pic of weeny dog] runts are for ....." What do you reckon?)

So all in all, I'd be hard pushed to make any claims for this particular litter. But wouldn't it be nice if Connor + co expressed the same righteous indignation about shitty breeders of Pugs or French Bulldogs or one of the other purebred dogs du jour?

Plus if you're gonna do a three-way cross (something that's often advocated in livestock breeding as there is evidence that it results in the most hybrid vigour), in principle you could do a lot worse than with these three breeds.

It is true that all three can suffer from hereditary cataracts (although may not be the same mutation) and slipping patellas, so you'd need to take that in to account when choosing your stock (and yes, we have no evidence that the breeder in this case has done this). But all three are long lived (13-14 on average) and have moderate conformation.  This is a pic of a Shih Tzu x Bichon - an attractive little dog. Throw Miniature Poodle into the mix and the result should be a really smart, athletic cookie. Kept clipped, pas de problème!

© Sue Thatcher
But this is ignored by Connor in favour of raising a red-herring question mark over this mix's ability to give birth naturally. 
'I would like to see the figures for caesareans among these so-called designer breeds especially among the ‘toy/miniature’ ones like the miniature labradoodle featured on the Jonathon Ross show the other week. Surely if you breed a six pound bitch out of a ten pound mother by a four pound father you are setting yourself up for far more whelping difficulties than the uniformity, that took many years to stabilise now found in our recognised pedigree toy and miniature breeds. Of course the numbers of pedigrees needing such interventions will and quite rightly so be available but is there anyone out there collating figures for dogs such as the Daisy?"
Well no. Although we can get an idea by looking at the C-section rates for the individuals concerned (source) in this three-way cross and their average weights.

Bichon Frisee - 5.6% (3-6kg)
Shih-Tzu - 21.1%  (4-7.2kg)
Minature Poodle - 5.3% (7-8kg)

I think there's a pretty good chance that this mating would result in a natural birth. And certainly a better chance than in Lee Connor's own breed, the Standard Smooth Dachshund, which has a C-section rate of 31%.

The Standard Smooth also has a whopping  risk of back disease (IVDD - invertebral disc disease).  One in four will suffer from this condition which is at best painful at at worst paralysing. (Source)

That's a higher risk for that single health problem than for all the major health problems put together for any of the breeds in the Daisy 3-way cross.

Finally, Connor also gets aerated about the fact that some designer dogs come with a pedigree! 
I mean, how could they when they're mongrels? 

He writes:
I wondered how one would possibly go about creating a ‘pedigree’ for what is essentially a mongrel litter. Surely, by their very nature, the background of most of these dogs would be at best sketchy.
Well no, not always. There have always been selectively-bred crossbreeds with extensive pedigrees (think lurchers and other working dogs). And an increasing number of "designer dogs" are now being bred with care and with their ancestry well-documented.  But of course, in Connor's Fancy-fuzzled head, there is no good to be found in any crossbreeding.  People who breed them know nothing, are nothing, produce good-for-nothings and are only ever in it for the money.

Ah, and it's all the fault of PDE, despite the designer dog trend being enormous in the US where PDE made little impact.

I am depressed by another anti-crossbreed report in Dog World this week, too, concerning the proposal to be voted on at the KC's upcoming AGM re a working party to discuss crossbreed registrations. (Read it here.) There are mixed messages coming out of the KC on this one, no doubt reflecting that on the one hand it sees sense more inclusivity as the way forward while having to cope with the purists who hate crossbreeds and mongrels - so much so that some would rather the KC wound back and the block and didn't recognise them at all, not even on the activities/companion register.

Dinosaur judge Jean Lanning believes that the KC acknowledgement of crossbreeds "is inadvertently encouraging the trend and the public perception of the endorsement this brings. Also, a breeder of these crossbreeds is able to be a member of the KC Assured Breeder Scheme.”

Shock horror! And so very revealing. If you loved dogs... if you truly loved dogs and your professed concern was that the poor crossbreeds were being so badly bred... wouldn't you want them to be produced under the auspices of an initiative that encourages better husbandry/welfare?

Apparently not. 

Also troubling Lanning (and indeed many others) is the KC's registration of imported dogs, some of unrecognised colours ‘such as blue Bulldogs and French Bulldogs’, which she says indicates that another breed had been introduced.

Yeah, because colour is sooo a bigger issue than the fact that one in four of even the "best-bred" French Bulldogs suffer from Brachycephalic Obstructed Airway Syndrome or that both breeds struggle to give birth naturally.

As you may have noticed, I  loathe the unthinking putting-down of crossbreeds when we've all seen the damage that breeding for purity can do - and the constant fretting about the ingress of foreign blood when an injection of new genes in genetically-depeleted breeds could be of real benefit.  And, boy, the fancy is just so clueless in this respect. Who do they think they are convincing now that the public is so much more aware of the health issues in pedigree dogs? Seriously, you're never going to convince the buyers by trashing the opposition when you need to put your own house in order.

There's also the small matter that it smells like racism.

So while Connor and his ilk tut-tut in their ever-decreasing circles, the public is buying crossbreeds with silly names in their thousands because they think they're fashionable and fun.

Now, some of these breeders are awful. Really, really awful.

But I have to be honest and say that until someone outlaws the crap, fast-buck breeder, I'd much rather they were putting a Shih-Tzu x Bichon to a Poodle than mating together two Pugs or two Cavaliers or two Standard Smooth Dachshunds.

There's less of a chance of producing a short-lived dog that suffers.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Best in Show Daily joins the 21st Century

Link to article

For those that don't know, Best in Show Daily is an online US magazine for show-heads.  It is marked - in my mind at least - for endless scrolling ads for dead-eyed show dogs and an almost total buy-in to the show-world paradigm.

It whinges a lot about those terrible animal rights peeps spoiling their lovely hobby and continues in the main to promote damaging and unscientific breeding practices (top-winning dogs must be the best... nuffin' wrong with popular sires... hybrid vigour in dogs is a myth... line-breeding is good).

As you might imagine, it hated Pedigree Dogs Exposed. 

"Pedigree Dogs Exposed was incorrect, totally and fantastically and horrifyingly wrong, in its conclusions," wrote one of its contributors, Cardigan breeder Joanna Kimbal, who also writes the blog.

In fact, although Joanna clearly disagreed with Pedigree Dogs Exposed, she writes a lot of sense on her blog. I suspect that if we sat down over a cup of tea we'd find much on which to agree.

And it was a real pleasure to see this new article by Joanna who has been off the scene for a while.

In How we must change as breeders and why, Joanna delivers a strong piece arguing for reform in the way we breed dogs. And, specifically, she makes a very strong case for genetic diversity.
"Maximum genetic variation is essential to a population that can withstand stress. If you lose genetic variation, you end up with substantially lower resistance to disease and you stand a good chance of concentrating deleterious genes. Loss of genetic variation is why we have such huge problems with cancers in Flatcoats, or epilepsy in Poodles, or Fanconi in Basenjis."
She continues (with my bolding):
1) If you’re looking at your potential breeding stock, and your potential breeding decisions, you should add a very important criterion: Genetic “otherness.” We all know the mantra – breed for temperament, health, conformation. But we must – MUST – add non-relatedness to our list. This takes two forms: First, if a dog is substantially non-related to a bitch, their puppies will be more valuable to the breed than the puppies of a closely related dog and bitch. Second, families are best used widely, not narrowly. If there are four breedings to be done, using four sisters once is better for the breed than using one sister four times. 
2) We need more people breeding their dogs. If we’re going to make wider breeding happen, we need buy-in and breeding on a much wider scale. Please note that I don’t mean we necessarily need more puppies – we need more mothers and fathers being used, more dogs left intact, more bitches making the babies. WE NEED MORE BREEDERS. We must critically examine how we sell our puppies, how we restrict our buyers’ breeding choices, and how we determine which dogs are breedable. The current model is NOT SUSTAINABLE. Going on as we are doing now is 100% doomed to fail, as our human numbers dwindle and the dogs being shown and bred become more and more closely related. They are two converging lines, and where they meet (where our breed reaches a point at which it is no longer capable of being sustained in a healthy way) is visible. So this is not a choice we have. We MUST change enough to carry our breed forward.
Read the whole thing here.