Connecting the dots

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Why??? Why are you breeding pet quality Danes?? The only point in breeding pet quality Danes is to make money. You’re certainly not contributing anything to the breed or bettering it. A pedigree filled with pet quality dogs means nothing. The only RESPONSIBLE/GOOD reason to breed is to produce a better Dane than you started with, which comes after SHOWING, earning a CH, careful EVALUATION of genetic health histories, GENETIC HEALTH TESTING, then you MIGHT end up with a dog worthy of breeding. Please be responsible, STOP BREEDING and STOP BUYING PUPPIES PRODUCED BY PET QUALITY DOGS” (from a Great Dane Facebook group)

I used to believe this like I used to believe in Santa Claus; while I still agree that we have to breed dogs better – there are also several concerns I have with the well-meant post. In fact I cringe reading it. I cringe because it is wonderfully misguided, I cringe because it is obsolete, I cringe because I was similarly misguided, I cringe because I used to believe that breeders bred good dogs and BYBs bred bad dogs but the truth is of course far more complex; I cringe because it never mentions fitness for function and I cringe because it is so easy to see how wrong it is if you apply the very things that breeders are supposed to apply: common sense and genetics.

Things would be different if by “CH” we meant a dog that earned a title in a performance event, in a discipline designed to prove the dogs’ ability to do the job the breed was developed for. If form follows function that would be the ultimate test of conformation. Sadly we can’t, because for Great Danes a working test does not exist: there’s no working trials for boarhounds – for obvious reasons, and the vast majority of Great Danes don’t work in the original sense: they no longer hunt big game (as for “official” working dog tests wins and titles it’s well known that even they are not 100% ‘clean’ today – in some places, I hasten to add: anything can be bought for the right price – including health test certificates…). Of course a very large number of Great Danes do other activities. But in the context of the post above, when talking about show and pet quality puppies, the “CH” refers to conformation champions. So, let’s think about it a bit:

  1. What is a pet quality dog?

Is it a) a typical dog living in a non-show home

or is it b) an untypical dog ?

If it is “a”, why should it it not be bred from? Just because it hasn’t earned it’s Ch. title ?

OK , let me show you a Champion again.

What percentage of the effective breed population are (conformation) Champions? And how many of these Champions are not “pet quality”? Just the other day I watched a lame dog win a Champion Certificate and Best of Breed. I mean a dog that was totally unsound and therefore unfit for the breed’s original purpose, despite the Breed Standard‘s and the FCI‘s stipulations. I’m sure that somewhere else around the world at the exact same time a dog looking more like a Holstein cow than the Apollo of dogs was winning Best of Breed under another “expert”. And if you think that all dogs in the past were far better than today all you have to do is flick through the pages of old magazines and you will find every other champion or winner is also cringe-worthy. The ones that stood the test of time are few and far between. Sub-standard judging is not a modern phenomenon as mentioned recently on this blog. We’ve seen the most cringe-worthy specimens with glaring disqualification faults and no merit whatsoever win top accolades at the most prestigious shows and in the most (supposedly, at least) cynologically advanced countries.

Just how intelligent, principled, ethical or sound breeding is it to shrink the gene pool  to just 10-15% of the population (if that) – and therefore only the 5-7,5% of males who are champions – effectively cementing the effects the pox of the popular sire syndrome has on a breed ?

Does a conformation championship title guarantee that the dog will be healthy, sound of mind and body, fit for purpose and long – lived? ( Look at that champion again. And look at that other champion, made so famous recently). How do you think the term “cheap champions” came to be?

If, instead, a “pet quality” puppy is “b”, how come untypical dogs are produced by typical pedigree dogs ? Is that even possible ?

Oh but of course it is. Because as you know, all the puppies of a litter have the same parents, but each puppy inherits different genes from mom and dad. So each puppy is genetically different from its litter-mates. You therefore get a whole range of phenotypes. You could get dogs that look like Champion quality dogs of the 1950s – and those would today be considered “pet quality” if not outright untypical; our trends and tastes have changed that much but the genes making up the breed haven’t (thankfully) not yet all evaporated, so there is some phenotypical diversity left – enough to produce a wide range of styles; breed two champions together – as you know the chances of getting an all champion litter are pretty slim*. Such litters are as rare as hen’s teeth (and if that wasn’t the case the breed would have been extinct already because that amount of homogeneity is simply impossible to sustain living dogs).

*Unless of course you live in a country where anything can ‘finish’.

Take a look at that Champion again.

Not to mention that what is one’s “pet quality” is another person’s “Champion”.

Unless we are talking about the Holy Mystery of Color. Ah, that, my friends, is an ecumenical matter.

Most people can see color. Unlike many people, who can’t see bad croups, unsound rears, skittish temperaments, crowded / misaligned teeth, loose eyelids – and a host of other,  far more serious or hidden problems.

So everyone, the world, its grandmother and relatives in a parallel universe, have very strong views about color.

To the point that Biblical Ten Commandments about Color that the Lord revealed to us have become a matter of Life and Death.

Literally.

As if they are more important than Health or Temperament or Fitness or Life Expectancy.

Yes. We. Are. That. Stupid.

(You can replace “Stupid”, if it offends you, with “Fanatical Extreme Religious Fundamentalists”. These terms are interchangeable).

Or is it “c” : an untypical dog produced by untypical dogs (in which case it shouldn’t have been registered in the first place) ?

If it “c” then why aren’t the Registering bodies, dedicated as they all supposedly are (according to their own declarations and statures) to preserving all aspects of pedigree dogs (let alone “improving” them), doing their jobs?

Instead of venting our anger ineffectually lashing out at back yard breeders and puppy farmers – those that we can’t control, as they will breed with or without papers, and with or without our approval, so we would be wasting our breath trying to talk them out of it, as long as there are suckers who want the cheap puppy in the window –  why aren’t we focusing on what we CAN control ? Namely, our own organisations, our own hobby, our own Kennel Clubs – why can’t we put OUR house in order FIRST ?

And if they aren’t doing their jobs because they are more interested in making money rather than protecting dogs and breeders, why don’t our Breed Clubs step up to the task ?

And if we can’t put OUR house in order, why don’t we lobby our governments for more and strict control and qualifications for breeding licenses so that every Tom, Dick and Harry doesn’t get to play God with dogs ? No, it’s it’s not anybody’s God given right to be a breeder ! Last time I looked it wasn’t listed among the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights; to operate a business or a hobby that affects animal welfare and the lives of sentient beings, without some sort of accreditation, training and testing, is neither ethical nor acceptable in so – called civilized and lawful societies.

Breeding dogs is a highly skilled and demanding specialist field. Τhere’s an awful lot of qualified specialists and regulations involved in breeding livestock. Don’t you see what’s coming?  If good dog breeders themselves don’t want to be regulated and don’t welcome the opportunity to prove themselves different than the BYB or the greeder or the puppy mill down the road, then I’d say they’re living dangerously and putting the dog breeding activity itself at a very high risk of terminally falling into disrepute …This laissez-faire attitude is very self-destructive, catastrophic even, because the governments are going to step in and do a hatchet job of it anyway, due to the level of excess, indiscriminate breeding and qualzucht that’s going on, creating real social problems and public pressure.

We should be stepping in and stepping up and self-regulating fairly and efficiently and effectively, offering the governments and legislators a system that works, a system devised by us as we know better and letting them sort out the BYBs and the puppy mills that fill the streets and the gas chambers with strays and unwanted pets. If we don’t, the clueless beaurocrats that have no idea of what ethical breeding means, are not going to spare good breeders: in their thinking a good breeder is someone who has three hundred kennels built to government specification.

  1. Is “breeding from non – show dogs contributing nothing to the breed” ? I’m not at all convinced about that any more. How about genetic diversity, that is paramount for health ? Let’s examine this a bit further.

What is the percentage of “show quality” puppies that are born in every litter – and how is it even possible to predetermine “show worthiness” with an 100% accuracy at the time of 8 or even 10 weeks when puppies are normally leaving for their new homes? (And when they should be leaving, between between 7 and 8 weeks or at 10 weeks is the subject of a good debate – but at 15 weeks, as is the case under the new problematic pet passport regulations, the early socialisation window is well and truly and firmly closed shut – for ever).

Most puppies go to companion homes – simply because most people are not interested in showing. Showing is not cheap nor is it always fair or even fun. And not supposed to be about spending a weekend at a show venue because we might not have anything better to do and so we take our no-hoper in case the judge hasn’t a clue (which is often true). Showing is supposed to be about selection of breeding stock and getting expert opinions from people who are honest and able breed connoisseurs. Apart from making polite conversation over dinner I personally have no use for the opinion of someone who read the breed the standard in order to advance his or her judging career of adjudicating close to four hundred dog breeds with no in depth knowledge beyond his / her own, at best. So how sound a practice for good breeders is to remove most dogs they breed from the gene pool ?

Let’s say you get one or two “show quality” puppies per litter (if that). If the average litter size for a healthy strain of giant breeds of dog is seven (and ask yourselves why at present we scarcely see the litters of 10 and more puppies we regularly used to expect and see thirty years ago), how is it “ethical and responsible breeding” to throw away 70% of available genes from each litter and demand that these, typical (presumably, if the breeder is responsible and the parents are well-bred) dogs are neutered and spayed? How is that helping health and longevity? How is that even serving welfare, when we know so many adverse effects of early desexing – especially for giant breeds ? Time to brush-up on some genetics – again.

  1. Are only champion quality dogs worthy of breeding? This is another issue that genetics disagree with. Do the maths. Let’s say that you start with a very healthy and diverse breed population – how long is it going to take you to breed the breed into the ground if you only reproduce from one or two puppies from each litter ever born and only from champions? How long before your breed is riddled with hereditary defects due to the depletion of the gene pool and you have nowhere to turn – and the few available males you are left with and are not sterile are going to kill your breed anyway because of the popular sire syndrome ?
  1. Stop buying pet quality dogs? Did I read that one correctly ?

Again, most puppies are pet quality and many responsible and reputable and ethical breeders refuse to offer show potential guarantees to buyers, because not only such predictions at 8 (or 10) weeks of age would require the use of a future-telling crystal ball, it could be downright fraudulent. And most people – very wisely, knowing their own limitations – are not interested in showing or embarking on breeding programs. The ones who overestimate their ability or underestimate the task, and embark on breeding with very little knowledge or integrity, are the problem, not the pet owners. So what is to be done with all these pet quality puppies? Do I hear culling whispered? Is that acceptable? Is it possible that perhaps, for the author of the above post, the term “pet quality” means “wholly untypical” ? I would not agree. Pet quality simply means a dog that still resembles its breed but is missing some aesthetic finishing touches for the show ring. Pet quality does not mean “outside of breed type”. Pet quality puppies are produced in typical well-bred litters from typical and multi-titled parents. It doesn’t mean a dog no reputable breeder would ever let go to a home under the false premise of it being a Great Dane. Actually, many good breeders let top show potential puppies go to pet homes because they rightly put emphasis more on the puppy’s happiness and less on the interest of the owners to show. Some of the most beautiful and typical Great Danes of the past were never shown. Clever breeders don’t limit their choices to titled stock; especially today, when a title is often not worth the paper it’s written on – and getting a championship is more often than not a reflection of the dog’s merit, but of who you know and how much you are preparing to spend.

  1. At the rate pedigree dog breeding has been deteriorating over the last century and a half, we have ended up with the oxymoron of “well breed and show quality” dogs (entire breeds even) being less sound, less healthy, less long lived and less fit for function than a street dog (I don’t want to hear the word “mutt” or mongrel uttered from dog lovers and educated ones at that: all dogs are genetically mongrels and mutts) or EVEN in some cases than the occasional BYB-bred / puppy-mill doggie that was not produced by a pedigree inbred to the hilt and is not a descendant of the x, y, z popular sire who passed on some marvelous aesthetic qualities but also unfortunately some pretty lethal problems. Four out of four puppies from my last litter are dead before the age of 7 years due to cancer and DCM.  They were sired by a beautiful Champion and were out of a gorgeous dam, were typical Great Danes with pedigrees much longer than a human arm and containing many famous names. The litter was what any reputable breeder would consider an outcross and the dam was fully health-tested. I am neither a puppy farmer nor a BYB and I didn’t breed that litter for money. I bred it for love; this disaster broke my heart and I don’t know how or if I will ever get over it the pain of losing these precious dogs at that age. Can we finally begin to mature, admit some uncomfortable truths and move on with the times? Can we please stop hiding our skeletons in the closets?  Can we stop perpetuating the same old myths that serve complacency and bring the demise of pedigree dogs closer? Please read Carol Beuchat‘s excellent summary here. Can we at least stop lying to ourselves ?

I understand the frustration of the fellow Great Dane lover who wrote this post above. It is also my own frustration in the struggle between genuine breeders who are trying to preserve their beloved dogs against a horde of parasitic greeders, unscrupulous puppy millers and clueless BYBs, most of the time with very little help from the powers that be. I understand it perfectly and it’s my struggle too, against those who intentionally harm the dogs I love by breeding disabled, disfigured, tortured souls. But as the ancient Greek proverb goes, “syn Athena kai cheira kinei” : when asking for help from the Gods you also have to help yourself. And to help yourself you first have to accept reality and facts.

The FCI and The Kennel Club in Britain have actually put strategies and guidelines in place (too little too late – but they have) that discourage inbreeding, popular sire overuse and in some instances even refuse to register litters that are too inbred. Health testing is paramount in breeding dogs better. But if managing a breed population via health and DNA testing is simply translated, by some breeders who, frankly, do not understand genetics (so they shouldn’t be breeding dogs in the first place) as merely excluding dogs from breeding, added to the ones that are excluded for minor aesthetic imperfections, added to the ones that can’t be bred together because of the color apartheid, added to the ones that are geographically isolated or precluded by accident and all the other reasons that impact on effective population sizes, is it really a surprise that we have entire breeds on the brink of extinction because of genetic impoverishment ? Constantly removing more and more dogs from the gene pool did not work, does not work and will never work in trying to breed healthier dogs – because it contradicts basic genetic principles. It contradicts Nature. It contradicts Biology. How difficult is that to grasp ?

Some seem incapable to differentiate between population sizes and genetic diversity. This is what springs to mind.

Modern understanding and advancement of genetic science simply means we have have to stop following the same failed recipes that brought pedigree dogs to the huge problems that they are experiencing today. We have to stop denying these problems and we have to stop underestimating what breeders can do to solve them.

So how this new knowledge and new understanding can be reconciled with the no doubt well-meant, but considerably confused advise given by the fellow Dane lover who prompted this blog post in the first place ?

I was ringside recently and a breeder mentioned a puppy with a bit of white on its chest and how such a specimen wouldn’t “do” anything at shows. It was, incidentally, the same occasion when I witnessed a reportedly undershot and unsound Champion win Best of Breed.

And just the other day I was chatting with a friend who was looking for dogs to use on his bitch. He lives in a huge country with a quite large Great Dane population. So I asked ” is there any 6 – 7 – 8 year old dogs to use? ” and the – shocking- answer was “No”.

I don’t think you need a map to see how you arrive from the absurdity of excluding a dog from the gene pool because it isn’t or can’t be shown as it has a bit of white on its chest, to a situation when there are no males alive at 6-7-8 years of age on an entire subcontinent.

These are just cause and effect.

 

You just have to connect the dots.

 

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