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Dogdom is dogged by dogma – and entrenched in obsolete practices – but there is a way out & some good examples to follow.

Finland

The meme above popped up on my screen recently and I had to cross-check it with the help of some Finnish friends.

Turns out it’s not completely true – one can buy any dog one likes – but it is true that they don’t have strays in Finland.

How so?

Simple – you can’t buy a puppy – or a kitten – from pet shops in Finland.

They also have an excellent education system – they invest heavily in education.

As a result there is a very high level of social responsibility – and values.

They get maybe a few hundred of dogs that need re-homing every year – but you can’t get them for nothing. Non-pedigree dogs cost almost as much as pedigree puppies. So, people who are interested in a breed of dog have to go through the proper channels  –  breed clubs – to get one. And to find out if they are suitable to the breed and if the breed is suitable for them. And breeders who are not up to scratch are not welcomed by the Breed Clubs – so who in their right mind would rather get a puppy from a non-recommended breeder?

Breeders study and pass exams to earn their breeding diplomas, judges’ education is second to none and the Finnish Kennel Club rewards excellence with breeding awards that every breeder is vying to win. Most breeders in Finland are amateurs, in the true, noble sense of the word:  they proudly declare their hobby – breeder status; professionalism is reserved strictly to the level of expertise & efficiency (there’s that word again) that canine activity is conducted, instead of financial rewards. To be a professional that makes a living from breeding dogs and selling puppies is intensely frowned upon and seen as exploitation, just like breeding too much. Puppies that go to show / working homes often  change hands on breeder’s terms – contracts are drawn, no money is exchanged but both parties enter into an agreement with mutual benefits and obligations; only when these provisions are fulfilled ownership is transferred. This way breeders can exercise control over their breeding, selecting who to breed to whom (or not) and when, whelping the litters themselves in their premises if they want their prefix on the puppies, getting a puppy or two back to breed on, acting as educators for their partners who are junior breeders and prospective breeders; this system allows them to plan their programs as overseers and mentors, utilizing any number of dogs living with others, without having to keep a large number of dogs themselves. That is breeding co-operation and mentoring at its best and works both ways, making sure that dogs are not treated as ‘stock’ but as family members. It also helps to increase the breeding population and therefore help maintain diversity.

Kali

My beautiful “Finnish Hound” – always in my heart 

Breeders in Finland are not free to do whatever the heck they like either – to be a Club member the individual needs to adhere to certain standards of excellence and to accept control and guidance; there are breeding committees that examine the suitability or matings and approve or disapprove breeding combinations submitted by breeders; dogs not only need to be health-tested (heart testing is a requirement) but also suitably matched: you are not going to get approval if you have a bitch with a C Hip Dysplasia score and you choose a sire that also has a C – you are expected to do better and you will be directed to sires with better scores. High inbreeding coefficients are discouraged, as well as the use of popular sires. Each case is examined individually and there are genuine exceptions if and when exceptional circumstances apply. Temperament assessment is encouraged also as well as participation in various canine sports and working disciplines. And they have a real, very thorough and accurate mental aptitude test (MH) that reliably evaluates innate drives, rather than trained behaviors.

So Finnish breeders are self-regulated to a high degree, and the Finnish Kennel Club is constantly updating and upgrading its policies to keep up with the times and with the conclusions of a careful, scientific monitoring of the genetic health of pedigree dogs. Population genetics – science – research – are funded and put to practical use. The aims to breed better dogs, healthier dogs, of a sound mind in a sound body are not empty letter words in Finland. Entry fees are high, dog showing is expensive so people don’t bother campaigning dogs that lack quality, thus, thanks to efficient judging also, ‘cheap champions’ are few and far between, if any. They have the most efficient public pedigree database which also includes date, age and cause of death or registered dogs. They take breeding responsibility seriously.  They also take animal welfare and the European laws and the FCI guidelines seriously (see here and here). The system seems to be working for dogs and humans in Finland. Much better than in other countries that still rely on well-wishing.

I think it has to do with survival in places that – let’s face it – were not really meant for human habitation. Finland is pretty close to the Arctic Circle. Winters are long and sunlight is limited to a few hours a day yet people still have to shovel ten feet of snow out of their front doors and get to work every morning.

That teaches you efficiency.

Another thing is that you are not going to survive in such places just by being strong – you also need education so that you are not thick as a brick, because every stupid mistake is costly and possibly fatal. And you are not going to survive alone – so you need social cooperation. These simple natural survival strategies have shaped societies living so far North and they’ve become embedded in their collective consciousness. Look how the Icelanders dealt with the financial crisis, for example. Survival in  harsh environment also teaches respect – for everything yourself and your social group depends on, and requires hard work, fitness and dedication to keep, alive and well, in that environment – and that includes dogs.

Finns still keep and work a lot of working dogs – like hunting dogs. But they don’t abuse them like these dogs are abused, treated like commodities or inanimate tools in other regions and ‘cultures’. They know that dogs are more efficient (here’s that word again) when they are happy, healthy & sound. They know the true survival value of fitness for purpose: they understand it’s something that needs to maintained and preserved in dogs, in order to keep them healthy and functional, and therefore able-bodied and happy and long-lived. Even breeds that humans made inherently problematic in morphology are consciously and continuously bred towards less exaggeration. The Finns are making a sincere effort to breed dogs better and where that is not possible because a population has become too inbred, they have crossbreeding provisions in place. They embrace realism and progress. That is a direct result of a high level of education.

No, Finland is not heaven on earth and good intentions don’t always work out – but in many respects the framework, not only in Finland but in other countries in the vicinity, is far ahead from other ‘first world’ countries –  particularly in dogs. And they continue to invest and work to improve areas that are not up to scratch. They have pretty decent Great Danes too – and it’s a popular breed in the country. They are rather keen on responsible dog ownership and welfare – and fully conscious that education also means growing up in an environment where there are good examples to follow and in a society that is well-legislated; they reinforce the effects of education by control: regulation and participation. Last time I looked there were more than half a million members in the Finnish Kennel Club – and that with a total population of merely five and a half million people.

If we are serious about promoting and protecting the dedicated conscientious breeder we should campaign, lobby and demand the ban of selling animals in pet shops. And we will equally campaign, lobby and demand that so-called ‘professional’ breeders with huge mass-producing puppy factories are banned too. We should value dogs more – all dogs, not just ours. We should protect the good breeder – but how? Instead of trying to segregate good breeders and bybs or puppy farmers, tolerating the latter, we should strive to change our system from within and raise it to a level where bybs and puppy farmers will no longer exist. We must safeguard the hobby breeder and drive the commercial puppy producer to extinction. We should replace the rule of thumb with real efficiency and competence and education. If breeding dogs is an Art and a Science we should expect qualifications and we should apply the science. We have so much better science today and so much more access to it – yet we seem reluctant to apply it in dog breeding. We are so wrapped up in worship of dogma and tradition, so stifled by conventional thinking, that it’s crippling our dogs and our ability to find a way out of a dead end. The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

I have been seeing a lot of posts circulating in the social media lately, from people proclaiming themselves as preservation breeders. I don’t doubt they are excellent breeders. What I question is this: Can we really claim that title for ourselves, while breeds are dying from widespread, fatal, hereditary disease? Join a Dobermann forum, if you want to understand what utter despair means. Dogs are dropping dead like flies. People are heartbroken to lose one beloved companion after another. The Dobermann breed – and others – are massively affected by population bottlenecks and they are on the brink of collapse. Cardiopathy, Bloat & Cancer are devastating our Great Danes. Breeder / owner Participation in the latest Kennel Club health survey in the UK can only be described as tragically pathetic. I don’t believe that people don’t care – but I believe they’ve lost hope and belief in the system – and not without  reason. Can we really say that our breed Clubs and Kennel Clubs and governing bodies and legislation are as effectively working for pedigree dogs as in the Finnish example? Can we claim that we have preserved breed type, soundness, health and longevity, when so many breeds – like the Great Dane, in Europe at least – look like exaggerated, tortured caricatures of their own standards?

photo cropped

I don’t think so. We really need more self-criticism and less living in denial or making unfounded generalizations about our own virtues and about our perceived progress. Our Kennel Clubs are registering millions of commercially-bred puppies, our dog shows are full of glorified puppy farmers and puppy-producers. Our ‘hobby’ or sport is facilitating this abuse. We need to clean out this mess before we can make lofty claims. We need to rediscover collective responsibility. We have to admit and address problems. We have to be rational and sincere about them, look for the causes and honestly work to repair the damage. The individual breeder’s integrity is not proof that the system is working. We need to rely less on trust and hope and wishful thinking and more on proactive action. We are the clubs and the societies and the governing bodies. They are made of people. We are the people. We fund these institutions with our money. We sit on committees. We show – we judge. We are the spinal cord of the system. Why don’t we act ? With more participation, we can make positive change happen. That would be truly something to encourage and worthy to pat each other on the back about. If we stop being economical with the truth, to ourselves and to each other, if we collectively step up to the task and declare war on complacency, apathy and corruption, we could indeed restore and preserve, before there’s nothing left preserving.

We should take heed of what Finland is doing and try to emulate it. Not only to be fair and effective in breeding dogs better but for our sake too, as a species, and for our chances of survival on this planet.

The General Breeding Strategy of the Finnish Kennel Club is a must read. Another must read, from Prof. B. Denis of the FCI’s Scientific Commission, is here.

Some years back I created the Apollo of Dogs – Great Dane Preservation Society on Facebook, to raise awareness about the breed’s distortion and destruction that is taking place in Europe. So naturally I’m very happy to see the preservation banners going up, everywhere, but we don’t need just another mantra like ‘the betterment of the breed’ that is not really practiced by all and not served by our system. We need a revolution – a rethinking and a revival and a revision of the way we breed dogs. Somehow we’ve got it backwards: the mantra about “breeding better dogs” is not working – we need to establish the practical framework for breeding dogs better.

Here’s an excellent article about what we should be doing – and how – if we were serious about preserving breeds, restoring them and breeding dogs better.

First we need to understand this:

“The level of inbreeding in a closed population will increase relentlessly, and as homozygosity increases so will the expression of disease-causing mutations. This is not just predictable, but inevitable.”

And we need to do the following – just like the Finns, and even more efficiently than the Finns, to really “breed dogs better’ and make the mantra about better dogs a reality:

  • “Increase the number of breeding animals
    Smaller populations become inbred more quickly, so the simplest way to reduce the rate that inbreeding is to maintain a larger population of breeding animals. The easiest way to do this without producing an oversupply of puppies is to increase the number of different sires being used in breeding. Instead of a few individuals producing most of the next generation, limit the number of breedings per individual and make use of more dogs.

 

  • Eliminate popular sires
    Popular sires are a double whammy on the gene pool. Not only do they reduce the number of male dogs contributing to the next generation by doing more than their fair share of breeding (see #1 above), they also distribute dozens or even hundreds of copies of their mutations (and ALL dogs have mutations!) in the puppies that they produce. The pups might all be healthy because they got only one copy of a mutation, but a generation or two down the road, those mutations will start showing up in pairs and suddenly breeders will find themselves dealing with a new genetic disease that seemingly came out of nowhere. In fact, the new genetic problem is the completely predictable result of a breeding strategy that creates many copies of a particular dog’s mutations. Blaming the dog (“We didn’t have this awful problem until Fido introduced it to the breed!”) is only an effort to deflect responsibility, because every breeder that used him as a sire participated in creating the resulting genetic problem. (For more about this, read The pox of popular sires.)

 

  • Use strategic outcrossing to reduce inbreeding
    In many breeds, there are genetically-distinct subpopulations of dogs. They might represent bench versus field lines, color or coat varieties, geographic areas, size, or some other factor. Because they carry genes that will be less common in other groups, they can be used to reduce the level of inbreeding in a litter of puppies. The number of loci that are homozygous (with two copies of the same allele) will be reduced, and therefore the risk of expressing a recessive mutation will be less. An outcross every now and then can be sufficient to reset the inbreeding to a healthier level.

 

By the way, you will hear some breeders claim that outcrossing will introduce new genetic disorders to your dogs. But if you understand how recessive genes work and you practice good genetic management, those new mutations are no different than the ones already in your lines – they won’t cause any problems unless you create puppies that inherit two copies in the same one. New mutations will have low frequencies in the population, and sound genetic management will keep it that way. (See Using inbreeding to manage inbreeding.)”

Read the full article by Carol Beuchat PhD (The Institute of Canine Biology) here.

 

See alsoNo Good Dog Goes Unpunishedhere  & “the Dane & the pseudo-danehere

 

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