Posts Tagged ‘dog breeds’

Mullock, James Flewitt, 1818-1892; Charles Randell with Greyhounds at Stonehenge

One common trope that exists in old breed histories is an attempt to connect extant dog breeds with ancient ones.  These stories were fanciful, and with the advent of the molecular revolution in biology, almost none of these stories can be taken seriously.

Among these stories are those that connect “greyhounds” with the Middle East. Often cited are the texts in the Bible, which you may have noticed, were not originally written in English.  English Bible translations were done long before we had established breed or a firm understanding of dogs in other countries, so when one reads about greyhounds in the Middle East in the Bible, it is important to understand that “greyhound” was a translated term. The dogs in the original source are not the same as the greyhound known in England and Northern Europe at the time. They are most likely referring to salukis.

Salukis and greyhounds are often thought of as being similar dogs, but having lived with both, I can tell you they are quite different dogs. Salukis are distance dogs. They don’t have lots of round muscle over their body. Greyhounds are sprinters.

Further, if I were going to pick one to train as a pet, I would go with the greyhound. They are far more biddable. Indeed, I find myself losing my temper far less with the greyhounds than I ever did with the salukis.

The reason for this difference is that the two breeds are out of entirely different stock. We know this from study of their genomes. We know that greyhounds–and whippets, Italian greyhounds, and borzoi– are from a root-stock that is most closely related to herding dogs of the general collie-type. This discovery came about through study of genetic markers.

This same study found that salukis and Afghan hounds are in a whole other clade with several livestock guardian breeds. The prick-eared sighthounds of the Mediterranean– the so-called Pharaoh hound of Malta, the Ibizan hound, and Cirneco dell’Etna– are in a different part of this same clade. They, too, are related to livestock guardians. Their closest relative is the Great Pyrenees.

In Edmund Russell’s work on the history of the greyhound in England, there is careful attention paid to the real history of these animals.

Russell contends that there is no real history of the greyhound in England until 1200, when they become common place in Medieval hunting art and literature.  The archaeology of British dogs shows that there was not much morphological variation in them until the Romans arrived. Indeed, the only main morphological variation observed in dogs in Britain before the Romans is that one specimen from the Iron Age had a shortened muzzle.

So Russell spends more time on the “greyhound” as a term that means the ancestors of these various British sighthounds, which we know from genetic data are most closely related to various herding dogs that originated in Britain.

He follows the evolution of these hounds from Medieval hunts, where there were many regional and quarry-specific strains, to the beginnings of club coursing to the modern racing and coursing greyhound. He clearly understands that some of these regional dogs become distinct breeds through political and cultural memes. The dog we call “the greyhound” today is a very specific animal that evolved through club coursing into modern racing and dog showing. The whippet is a subset that evolved from working class racing and rabbit coursing. The Scottish deerhound is a subset the was used to hunt red deer in Scotland on those large estates.

These three breeds have intertwined histories, and their evolution as breeds need to be understood within the cultural and political ideas of the societies that produced them.

Russell’s work is an environmental history, which means that he attempts to understand dog breeds and human tasks within the concept of a niche. “Niche” in this case means exactly what it does in ecology– a particular place or task within an ecosystem.

Hunting cultures will create niches. The gun dog breeds of Britain are all divided into three niches:  pointer/setter, flushing spaniel, or retriever.  We could try to understand their evolution in much the same way as Russell attempted with “the greyhound.”  The spaniel started out as the original dog, but some were good at stopping before the flush. These dogs became the setters and pointers. Later, with the advent of firearms, there was a desire to produce dogs from spaniel and setter stock that were good at picking up shot game. Having large numbers of dogs on a shoot that did different tasks was a symbol of patrician largess, and because British hunting cultures were patrician-based, these breeds evolved in this way.

This basic dog became something different in Germany, where hunting became much more egalitarian following the failed revolutions of 1848.  Commoners were given access to the forests in the various German states, as a way of alleviating class antagonisms. Because commoners could not keep vast hordes of specialized dogs, German hunters bred all-rounders. Even dachshunds have been used to pick up shot game and flush birds and rabbits. The various Vorstehhund of Germany not only did the gun dog’s task, but they were bred to flush and bay wild boar, dispatch badgers and foxes, and to retrieve any manner of game.

Russell might have made his work stronger if he had looked at other Northern European sighthounds. Dogs of this type were widespread across the North European Plain into Russia and Ukraine. Some societies lost their traditional sighthound. France, Germany, and the Benelux are without their traditional sighthounds, but Hungary and Poland have their hounds. Russia has several breeds of these type, including the widespread borzoi.  Of course, Russell’s main area of focus is the British Isles, specifically England, where the coursing greyhound was developed.

So the real histories of breeds are often a lot less fanciful than what we read in old dog books. The truth of the matter is that it is complex, and we should try to avoid putting the cart before the horse when trying to figure out the truth.

Assuming that we can piece together a breed history based upon folklore or what was written in one of those all-breed books from fifty years ago is an act of folly. We need to understand that the molecular revolution is changing how we understand how dogs evolved, and right now, it is tearing away much of our understanding of how dog breeds themselves came to be.



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There aren’t a lot of genetic differences between a golden retriever and a yellow Labrador.

Something funny happens to the gene pools of domestic dogs. Breeders of pedigree Pekineses [sic] and Dalmatians go to elaborate lengths to stop the genes crossing from one gene pool to another. Stud books are kept, going back many generations, and miscegenation is the worst thing that can happen in the book of a pedigree breeder.  It is as though each breed of dog were incarcerated on its own little Ascension Island, kept apart from every other breed.  But the barrier to interbreeding is not blue water but human rules.  Geographically the breeds all overlap, but they might as well be on separate islands because of the way their owners police their mating opportunities.  Of course, from time to time the rules are broken. Like a rat stowing away on a ship to Ascension Island, a whippet bitch, say, escapes the leash and mates with a spaniel.  But the mongrel puppies that result, however loved they may be as individuals, are cast off the island labelled Pedigree Whippet.  Other pure-bred whippets ensure that the gene pool of the virtual island labelled Whippet continues uncontaminated.  There are hundreds of man-made ‘islands’, one for each breed of pedigree dog. Pedigree whippets or Pomeranians are to be found in many different places around the world, and cars, ships, and planes are used to ferry the genes from one geographical place to another. The virtual genetic island that is the Pekinese [sic] gene pool overlaps geographically, but not genetically (except when a bitch breaks over), with the virtual genetic island that is boxer gene pool and the virtual island that is the St. Bernard gene pool (pg. 33-34)

–Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2010)

This passage from Richard Dawkins’s work is really the best explanation of the problems facing purebred dogs today.

No. Dawkins is not necessarily opposed to man creating these “islands.”  He does not make this criticism.

Instead, he uses it as way to show how geographic isolation can create new species. The lack gene flow between related population can create entirely genetically distinct populations that can become unique species over time.

With dogs, the “islands” are  utterly contrived. With the possible exception of giant breeds mating with the smallest toys, dogs are all capable of interbreeding. Dogs can also interbreed with wolves– their wild ancestor– golden jackals, coyotes, and Ethiopian wolves. There are behavioral barriers that normally keep dogs from swamping these other species with their genes.

But there are no behavioral barriers that stop dogs from very different breeds from mating with each other.

Humans have decided that the breeds will remain islands.

The problem is those islands didn’t have a very large founding population.

And what’s more, the mating systems within those islands are not random.

They aren’t really based upon Darwinian selection pressures either. They are bred solely upon human caprice and fashion.

Even working-bred dogs that are used for trials are based upon human selection.

And in most breeds, the real problem is that very few male dogs wind up siring too many puppies per generation. He may not be the healthiest dog in the population. His dominance has nothing to do with his fitness but rather how well he fits what humans perceive as the ideal in either trials or shows.

This is a recipe for genetic depauperation.

But the truth of the matter is that these islands are very new to dogs.

It has been only in the past century or so that a huge percentage of dogs in Western countries have been placed  in genetic islands.

Historically, dogs were bred for purpose. No one cared what they looked like. It was only that they were able to do the task at hand.

In many societies, dogs freely roamed, mating with bitches as they encountered them. The pups born from these populations would then be selected for whether they fit the task or not.

Breeds that existed were developed from very diverse populations, and selected for whether they fit that task.

This is very similar to the way natural selection works to create new species. Sexual reproduction produces variety,  and some of the variety produced has advantages in survival.  Ancestral swift foxes living in the arctic would occasionally produce kits that had lighter-colred winter fur. Lighter-colored winter fur is an advantage in places where the snow is on the ground for much of the year, and over time, these swift foxes became a specialized form that was well-adapted to living in the arctic. We call them arctic foxes.

In the same way, people would select for water dogs that were faster swimmers, and they discovered that dogs that had a bit more webbing between the toes were actually better swimmers. Over time, we developed dogs with very webbed feet and fast swimming abilities.  Thousands of years ago, people selected dogs that were fast sprinters, selecting heavily from dogs with the double-suspension rotary gallop. They created a canine cheetah, just from the variation that dogs were producing in their litters.

But in all of these populations, there was some variation.

It was only with the rise of the institution known as “the dog fancy” in the middle part of the nineteenth century that keeping dogs pure became virtue unto itself. It is certainly true that people kept inbred strains of dog before this time, and there are indeed accounts of people trying to avoid crossing different types of dog hundreds of years before this time.

But the fancy came about mainly because two things happened: technological advances meant that industrialized countries were now quite wealthy and democratization had meant that a large percentage of the population could now claim a bit of this wealth.  Democratization had led to policies favoring higher wages and more leisure time, and both of these assets meant that a larger percentage of the population could do the things that had previously been accessible to only the wealthy.

When dog shows became mass activities,  the caprices of fashion took over. Breeds did not remain static.  The fashions of the ring often led to dogs derived from different strains winning prizes at different shows and at different times.

So in many breeds, it was decided that the best way to keep the dogs of a constant type was to close off the registry. I cannot find the oldest example of a closed registry breed, but it surely dates to no later the end of the nineteenth century.

Once the registry is close, the variation is instantly truncated.  A breed club can then divine a breed standard and the breed the dogs to fit that standard.

Consistency of type is maintained over time, but the rigors of selection and the finite nature of the founding gene pool mean that the animals are put at an increased risk for genetic disease. All sexually reproducing organisms have some genetic tendencies toward disease. It is the fact that reproduce through sexual reproduction that keeps many of these diseases from being exposed. When a population becomes closed off in this fashion, the tendency for some of these diseases to come to the fore is greatly increased. It becomes even more so, when the breeding system becomes based upon breeding from elite sires.

In closed breeding population, the descendants do become more and more related over time, but if just a few elite sires are producing a huge percentage of the offspring in each generation, then this process becomes accelerated. When related individuals are bred together, the greater the likelihood of them producing offspring with genetic disease.  In an entirely outbred population, these genetic diseases become statistically less likely.

Typically these described as deleterious or harmful recessives, but they can have a very complex mode of inheritance– see hip dysplasia.

When these diseases started to come to the fore, it was decided that the first thing that should be done is to breed the diseases out.

In some cases they were successful.  Golden retrievers don’t suffer from hip dysplasia at the same rate they did twenty years ago.

But when you select for or against a feature in a closed population, you cannot avoid selected for or against something else.

Dog breeding is like economics– a very dismal science. The notion of an opportunity cost is always there.  If one breeds for something, one automatically selects against something else.  One cannot always see the consequences of selection in phenotype. For example, Western dog breeders have selected for heavy wrinkling in shar-peis, but the exact same gene that causes the heavy wrinkles also causes the periodic fever disease in this breed. When Portuguese water dog breeders funded a program that provided a genetic test for “improper coat”– feathered like a golden retriever, instead of poodle-type–they were warned that it was a bad idea for breeders to select against the recessive improper coat. Selecting against this coat might lead to a selection against an important variant of a regulatory gene in the breed, which would be very bad for a breed that has some issues with genetic diversity.

Domestic dogs have only been relegated to these islands for a comparatively short time, but it’s pretty clear that we aren’t able to control all the genetic diseases or potential genetic diseases within these island.

Dog breeders like to pretend that they are controlling these diseases. I remember reading a website that gloated over how much Scottish terrier breeders had reduced von Willebrand’s disease in the breed within a decade. However, over that same time period, the incidence of cancer in Scottish terriers greatly increased, and the average lifespan dropped to 10.15 years.

It is here the that concept of the opportunity cost appears once again. Von Willebrand’s disease’s inheritance is well-understood, and it is much easier to select away from it. Cancer is much more complex, and it’s much harder to breed out. Maybe they should have worked on reducing cancer rates in the breed through breeding from long-lived studs instead of carefully selecting away from von Willebrand’s.

But in the end, all we’re doing is playing the whack-a-mole game with genetic diseases. We are hitting one, and another pops up.

The only way to get out of this cycle is to change the breeding system.

We can increase genetic diversity within the islands.

We can make sure that elite sires don’t swamp the gene pool.  We can stop rewarding “outstanding sires” in breed clubs. We can place limits on how many litters a male can sire his lifetime.

We can also make sure that more than just a few puppies in each litter winds up producing offspring. In our current system, we want only a few pups per litter having offspring, but if more puppies are being allowed to breed, then more of their parents’ genes will be spread through the population.

But the best way is to do away with the islands altogether.

I’m not saying that we should scrap the concept of breed entirely. I think there is a reason why someone would chose a particular breed over another.

However, one thing we have learned is that the genetic differences between breeds are quite small.

Golden retrievers, for example, are mostly derived from St. John’s water dogs that have been selected for two recessive traits– the yellow to red color and the feathered coat. If one breeds a golden to a yellow Labrador that does not have the recessive long-haired allele, the pups will be smooth-coated. However, they will carry the long-haired allele, and when bred back to a golden retriever, the chances are very high that some of the puppies would have feathering and would be virtually indistinguishable from typical golden retrievers.

Indeed,  many golden retrievers descend from a yellow Labrador named Hayler’s Defender, who was crossed into the breed in 1929. His descendants don’t have much Labrador in them, but even his closer descendants looked just like normal golden retrievers. In those days, you could interbreed two retriever breeds, and after two generations of them being bred back into one of the constituent breeds, then the puppies could be registered as pure.

Furthermore, golden retrievers are derived from the same root stock as the flat-coated retriever, and detailed analysis of their genomes reveals that they are very closely related. Flat-coated retrievers are quite genetically depauperate and suffer from a very high incidence of cancer.  Consequently, their average lifespans are significantly shorter than those of golden retrievers, which also have a high incidence of cancer.

Golden retrievers also descend from at least one well-known curly-coated retriever. He was black and curly, but all of his golden retriever descendants look like golden retrievers.

For much of their history, retrievers didn’t exist as breeds. There were only two divisions:  a curly-coated retriever and a way-coated retriever/St. John’s water dog type, which included feathered and smooth coats. The dogs that became the Chesapeake Bay retriever in the United States were all interbred short-coated, curly-coated, and long-coated dogs.

Interbreeding was not seen as a disease.

But now it is entirely forbidden– though special dispensation is given to service dog organizations that cross golden and Labrador retrievers.

The modern dog fancy has contrived these islands.

These islands have provided a lot of consistency in type, but over time, they have produced a lot of misery.

Now, we have breeding populations coping with varying levels of genetic load.

It’s not getting significantly better in any of them. In most, it’s getting significantly worse.

So are we going to try to manage these islands, which will ultimately be a losing battle, or are we going to make the common sense changes that are needed?

I would like to think that the latter will happen.

But I know it won’t.

Or rather it will only happen once the kennel clubs are brought kicking and screaming to reform because the law has decided to intervene.

People love dogs.

I mean really love them.

In the past few decades, the status of the dog has greatly increased in the West.

People want dogs that live good lives. They want them to healthy and comfortable.

The vast majority of the dog owning public is appalled when they find out how cavalier breeders are about breeding for unhealthy conformation.  They will be appalled when the find out how many people in the dog fancy deny the concepts of population genetics and hold onto blood purity as a religious dogma.

People are starting to learn these things.

And the dog fancy had better understand it.

The old ways just won’t cut it anymore.

It must adapt. It must embrace science.

It must do away with that which it cannot defend rationally and logically.

It must listen to the real experts– i.e., real scientists and not someone who has “been in Clumber spaniels for 40 years.”

The islands we have contrived are not serving dogs well.

We need something better. We need to allow for greater diversity in genes and a greater diversity in phenotype.

Dogs deserve so much more.

We cannot solve problems by holding onto erroneous ideas of the past.

We can only solve them when we embrace new ideas that are well-grounded in science.

The hope for dogs is that science triumphs over dogma.

And maybe it will.

It may just be a matter of time.

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Chris has a killer post up over at BorderWars.

Just because a dog has “been tested” doesn’t mean that it’s healthy.

Health testing is useful and important, but it’s not the full picture.

That’s why some of the DQ’d BOB’s at Crufts got dismissed, even though they “had been tested.”

It’s simply a red herring to use the ruse that these dogs passed their breed specific health tests to attack the vets for DQ’ing for health purposes.

We’re talking about two different things here.

Of course, it’s a great argument tactic. It muddies the water and further adds to the histrionic, paranoid collective meltdowns we’ve been seeing over the last week.

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Here’s a new way of looking at dog breeds:

This comes from a newly released study that appears in PLoS Genetics.

More than 170,000 SNP’s were genotyped in 46 breeds and wolves.  SNP’s are short for single-nucleotide polymorphisms, which is a DNA sequence variation that occurs when there is a difference in a single nucleotide between individuals in the same species. One can make comparisons about relationships through examining these variations.

The recent studies that found the red wolf to be mostly coyote and found that dogs were mostly derived from Middle Eastern wolves also examined SNP’s, but they examined only around 50,000 of them.

This one examined 170,000 SNP’s, so the resolution, so to speak, is much clearer.

Let’s look at the neighbor-joining tree. Here are some highlights that I think can be confirmed in the historical record.

  • Modern flat-coated retrievers fit within the golden retriever breed. As I’ve noted, golden retrievers reflect much of the diversity in phenotype that existed within the old wavy and flat-coated retriever breed.  Goldens and flat-coats share many foundational sires and dams, and one would expect that flat-coats would be closely related to goldens.  The flat-coated retriever nearly became extinct in the Interwar Period, while the golden became extremely popular following the Second World War. This change in fortunes happened after the two breeds were officially placed in their own separate registries. Because the flat-coated retriever became rare, the modern representatives of that breed reflect only those flat-coats that survived that population crash. Goldens continued to reflect much more of the diversity in type and in genes that once made up the entire population– even though they are of a recessive color.
  • Newfoundlands and retrievers are close relatives. I’ve always said that a Newfoundland is just a big retriever, but really, the Newfoundland is an offshoot of the St. John’s water dog that was imported to the United Kingdom from Newfoundland. It was selected to be a much larger dog than one normally found in Newfoundland, and it became a popular family pet for much of the nineteenth century. The golden, Labrador, and flat-coated retrievers derive St. John’s water dogs that were imported from Newfoundland and were selected to be gun dogs. Richard Wolters made the assessement that the large Newfoundland was derived from the St. John’s water dog, and this breed should be regarded as the common ancestor of the retriever-Newfoundland family.
  • Nova Scotia duck-tolling retrievers are more closely related to border collies and Australian shepherds than retrievers. I have said that there is no evidence that they are related to golden retrievers, even though they superficially resemble dogs of that breed. I also suggested that we should think of the toller as a small retrieving collie.  It also suggests that the recent cross-breeding of a toller to an Australian shepherd actually has greater merit than breeding it to another retriever.
  • Dalmatians are related to Weimaraners, which are related to other pointing breeds.  The postulate that the Dalmatian is derived from pointer crosses appears to have some merit.
  • Border terriers are just one of the fancy varieties derived from the fell or Patterdale terrier.  Patterdales are widely acknowledged to have Staffordshire bull terrier and bull terrier in them. But this map suggests that this infusion of bulldog or bull and terrier blood happened before the border terrier became fancy.
  • Gordon setters are widely said to have border collie in them. It now appears that some Gordon setters do derive from border collies or from the ancestral collie that gave us the border collie, but others are more closely related to English.
  • The theory that Large Münsterländers are derived from English or Gordon setters that were crossed with German long-hairs appears to have some merit. They are more closely related to one lineage of Gordon setter than to the Weimaraner.
  • The pug may be more closely related to the spitz breeds because much of its development occurred in the West, particularly in the Netherlands. Spitz breeds were very common as pets in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic, and they were probably used to develop the pug in its present form. There were not likely vast numbers of pugs coming from China at this time, and the Dutch just used a local dog to make the breed more genetically diverse.
  • The boxer is related to the bulldog, and we know that the bulldog was often bred into boxer lines. The boxer lines are longer because the boxer has had its full genome sequenced.
  • This study does not necessarily show that German shepherds are derived from wolves. Rather the authors write:

The most obvious clustering of breeds is exhibited by two wolf hybrids: Sarloos and Czechoslovakian wolf dog, which exhibit a closer relationship to the wolf than other breeds as predicted by their known origin. The German shepherd also clusters with this group, although this is likely to be a result of its close relationship with the Czechoslovakian wolf dog, rather than with wolf. The tree is consistent with previous studies and supports the accuracy and reliability of the array.

Each time more SNP’s are analyzed, greater resolution is provided, and the result will be different. So let’s not assume that these results are going to remain unchanged.

However, I am amazed at how much this tree appears to confirm certain aspects that appear in various breed histories.

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Dalmatian from 1840.

(Source for image)

Check out Pietoro’s “Dog Breed Historical Pictures” album on Photobucket.

I’ve borrowed a few of the images for this weekend’s posts.

One can really see evolution through artificial selection in this album.  Dogs are like fashion accessories. They change with the times.

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No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

–Albert Einstein

With the discussion that has happened on this blog, Border Wars, and DesertWindHounds about inbreeding, dog health, and closed registries,. some have asked me what we should do about it.

Yes. The problems with dogs in this regard are mostly systemic, and systemic problems have certain issues associated with them.

One of these is that systemic problems are often hard to observe. If something has been accepted as virtuous for a very long, then it may be difficult for anyone but total outsiders to see anything wrong with them. I am certain that this is the case with most dog issues, because the Western dog fancy has been around for about 150 years. No can remember when the values of the fancy were established, and very few question whether these values are good. If you do, another aspect of systemic problems comes to the fore.

Systemic problems exist because systems have ways of reinforcing themselves. It is more like the indoctrination system of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. People are simply conditioned to accept certain negative things as good. The best example of this is blood purity for blood purity’s sake it. It is one religious tenant that cannot be touched. It even supplants reason.

And that’s another problem: reason often doesn’t matter when dealing with systemic problems. The values that maintain the system are very much against those who question. Even harsher measures are used against those who actually do something about the problems they see.

These problems are big. They are almost impossible for the average dog owner to see anyway of combating them.

That’s why so many people get involved in rescue.  Dog rescue does have some inherent problems, but in general, it is nothing quite like the issues surrounding the closed registry problem.

And there is nothing wrong with getting involved in rescue. Each person should participate where one feels most comfortable.

However, the dog owning public can do lots of things to help bring about reform.

One thing should always be understood: The closed registry system is moribund. The AKC has declining registrations year after year. It is on its way out, unless it begins to reform. (Which is unlikely.)

There are other registries, but some of them are nothing more than paper mills. I know of a few that if you breed a jaguar to a dog, I bet they’d register the hybrids. Those registries are not inherently good. They are nothing more than paper mills, and they are part and parcel of the mass production industry. They are not the solution to this problem.

So now that we know that the big institutions that exist to promote the fancy are in trouble, I don’t think we need to waste much more breath criticizing them. Jess does particularly good job at exposing some of the weird belief system that exist within her chosen breeds, and the more those get exposed, the less likely new dog owners are going to pay attention to them.

Logic and reason are your friends in dealing with this mess. Follow this advice from Daria Morgendorffer (I’m dating myself, I know):

Stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked.

Now, use logic and reason when you enter the marketplace in search of a new dog.   Look for breeders who understand issues related to genetic diversity and the long-term health of their breeds or types. You will find that this is a bit harder than using logic and reason, but they do exist. That is because even breeders of working breeds often have a poor understing of population genetics.

That is how the market will sort some of this out.

But the market alone won’t save it. Markets can only work so long as people are informed. My suggestion is that everyone try to get as many people as possible to read the posts Jess and Christopher have put up about inbreeding and closed registries. Those are all very readable. I would also suggest that everyone take a look at The Canine Diversity Project. Some of the links don’t work, but it still a great source for information.

Truth does not set us free. But it is a good first step.

If one has the resources and time, it is probably a good idea for one to consider participating as a breeder. Now, to be a breeder who intentionally produces for genetic diversity is to be really a “man (or woman) in the arena.”  But we need more people breeding dogs. I know that sounds counterintuitive and is against almost all the things we hear from various welfare organizations and breed clubs. However, the only way to increase genetic diversity for the long term health of dogs is to have more dogs breeding– and more people need to be breeders.

Unfortunately, many dog people are simply unaware for the problems that can result from a paucity of genetic diversity. The various cultures do not reward diversity. They reward conformity. They reward top producing sires, and when a male dog excels in some area, everyone wants to breed from him.

If the cultures at large don’t reward diversity, then it is up to consumers to solve the problem. Many people are uncomfortable with this solution, but because the issues with each individual dog population are different and because different breeders have different approaches to solving these problems, we cannot ethically legislate them away.

In the end, all of these problems will be solved. The information continues to flow freely on the internet. People are openly questioning things. The response that these genetic diversity posts have been getting from all three blogs shows that the dog-loving public is deeply concerned.

I don’t think anyone wants to harm dogs, but that which has existed before has been harmful. To think that we can solve these problems without making big systemic changes is a delusion, and it is why I included the Einstein quote at the top of this post. I don’t think we can solve these problems with the current registry systems we have, whether it be the AKC or the ABCA.

And that’s a hard thing to say.

And even harder thing to change.

But people want something better. We just have to work together to find ways of getting there. We have to use what we can to disseminate information and push for reform. If we all keep pushing a little bit, we will get there.

In the past months, I think I can safely say that a large enough percentage of the dog loving public is questioning these issues that we can begin to see things change. People are looking for answers. I don’t have all of them. No one does.

We have to work together to find those answers.

I’m confident that we’ll do it.


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The old-type peke looked a lot like a Tibetan spaniel (compare: http://www.petside.com/breeds/assets_c/2009/01/tibetan-spaniel-thumb-334xauto-291.jpg)

The old type peke looked a lot like a Tibetan Spaniel (compare: http://www.petside.com/breeds/assets_c/2009/01/tibetan-spaniel-thumb-334xauto-291.jpg)

I’ve noticed a common tactic among those who defend the status quo in the dog world is to try to paint their critics as being in league the animal rights extremists. I’m not talking the nice vegans with whom I disagree on certain issues.

I’m talking about the people who support terrorism, theft, and vandalism in the name of liberation. I’m also talking about those who would rather tell other people how to live, rather than working together to try to find ways to reduce animal suffering. (Temple Grandin is a very good example of someone who actually does this work to improve the lives of livestock.)

I’ve always thought liberation was a nebulous term. After all, a Marxist sees liberation rather differently than a libertarian, and in that comparison, I’m talking about two members of the same species.

One can only imagine what liberation would mean to dog, a cat, a hamster, or hippopotamus. Of course, that assumes that these animals know what their liberation means at all.

I’ve known horses that were raised in stables that seem perfectly okay with that lifestyle.  It is all they have ever known. When such horses are released into a pasture, they seem lost and certainly don’t act as if they are free. It’s only when they return to a barn stall that seem to feel comfortable again.

That said, I do oppose any intentional animal suffering that is necessarily prolonged. The wold is full of suffering. We all experience it.  All species feel pain, suffer, and die. The only thing enlightened and moral people can do is reduce suffering. Veganism is one way to do this. However, it will never become the universal diet of the planet. I don’t do well without meat in my diet. I’ve been at my happiest and healthiest when I reduced my carbohydrate intake and embraced the hunter-gatherer blood coursing through my veins.

The way I justify these two apparently contradictory notions that lie deep within my ethical sense is that I take a Benthamesque approach. I don’t do it exactly as Peter Singer did. I am willing to tolerate a certain amount of suffering and pain so that I can live, but the main goal is to reduce it. I particularly am more opposed to actions that result in prolonged pain and suffering than those that cause the animal suffering for just a very short time.

And for that reason, I can tolerate foxes held in leg hold traps (especially those that have been designed not to damage the fox’s foot) far better than I can tolerate breeding dogs with conformation that makes their whole lives miserable. That fox feels discomfort only for the last few hours of his live, because in most states, the traps must be checked daily. A pekingese that cannot cool itself properly suffers for a longer period of time than that fox does.  The peke suffers from excess heat through its entire life, while the fox got to be wild and free for most of its life.

The animal rights people may have locked onto the issues of purebred dogs.  On some issues, they are correct. On others, I respectfully disagree.

You see, the animal rights lobby doesn’t have the institutional power that the dog fancy has right now. The animal right lobby does have some victories, usually in the industrial farming sector, but in stopping hunting, meat consumption, and dog showing they haven’t been that successful.

In Europe they have been more successful in stopping hunting and even stopping reasonable farming practices (like the use of sheepdogs!), but that happens because most European countries (with the exception of the Nordic countries) have had a long history in which hunting rights were the realm of only the very wealthy. In the US, the hunting culture is more egalitarian, and thus, you don’t have the major center-left parties siding with the animal rights lobby.

In comparison, the purebred dog fancy does everything it can to ensure that reforms never take place here. The registries must operate closed stud books, and breed purity is everything. Those who do try their best to breed for health are often confronted with a general loss of genetic diversity and the sudden appearance of new genetic disorders that were previously unrecognized. Breeders who go outside the strictures of the fancy are pilloried.

It’s because of all of this that I am more outraged by the dog fancy than I am outraged by the animal rights people. I might make common cause with the animal rights lobby on this issue, and I hope that meat-eaters and vegans can at least agree on trying work together to reduce animal suffering. I’m with them on that one, but on the issues of banning hunting, dog-ownership, and the consumption of meat,  I’m definitely not singing off their page.

However, if you group me with the really nutty animal liberationists out there, you are setting up a straw man. And that’s one argument tactic I find particularly exasperating.

The dog fancy defenders like to portray everyone who opposes them as existing within the framework of either being with them or with the animal rights extremists. It’s a nice dualism, and in highly dualistic, melodramatic culture, this narrative certainly helps their cause.

However, the real world is always more complex than this narrative. The world exists in shades of gray, not clearly defined bands of black and white.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to assume those who want a better system for breeding dogs are also in league with those who want to ban dog ownership. It’s called nuance, and it’s something that is apparently much harder for people to see than I thought.

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The "Toy Munchkin" was basically a small Pomeranian with a shaved butt.

The "Toy Munchkin" was basically a small Pomeranian with a shaved butt.

Back in the late 90’s, when we had lots of money to spend trinkets and novelties, a new breed appeared on several shows. This dog looked very much like a Pomeranian in a lion clip.  This breed was called the toy munchkin, and it cost several thousand dollars.

And it was it really nothing more than very small Pomeranian or Pomeranian X Chihuahua with a shaved butt. Here’s a picture of one.

So for several thousand dollars you could get a small Pomeranian or Pomeranian cross with lion clip. Whoever came up with that idea was a genius, a puppy miller extraordinaire. All you have to do is breed very small Pomeranians or small Pomeranians to small long-haired Chihuahuas, which don’t cost that much to buy, house, or feed and can be easily hidden from the authorities, and then charge very high prices for their offspring, which you groom in an unusual way.

I’ve not seen this “breed” advertised in nearly ten years. The web community was smaller then, but I think word got out that this toy munchin business was a scam. After all, anyone who knows anything about dogs could obviously see that all they were doing was clipping a Pomeranian.

But I’d like to know how many suckers fell for the Pomeranian with a shaved butt. I bet they would also fall for that Nigerian bulldog scam.

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The white Newfoundland golden

The white Newfoundland golden

We mass produce all sorts of livestock with little regard to their long-term genetic health. Our goals in producing livestock is to get more eggs, more meat, and more milk. We are only concerned with production and marketablity of that product. Marketability does not mean the best quality. After all, most of us have never eaten pork from swine fattened underneath oak trees or tasted eggs from hens that got a varied diet from foraging. Marketability means that we will buy it, and they can still produce a lot of it. The animals are only good to the producer so long as they continue to produce. No one cares that a cow will die of cancer at 8 years of age, when it will either be butchered at 10 months or milked until it is 4. These principles underpin our production of the domestic stock we consume for food. The morality or environmental sustainablity of those agricultural practices are certainly contentious, but not nearly as contentious as the debate could be if the same principles were applied to domestic dogs.

Domestic dogs are not consumed in the same way.  Domestic dogs, whether working animals or pets, are expected to perform a function that lasts their entire natural lives. It matters to us that dogs live at least 10-12 years. It also matters to us whether they get genetic disorders at an early age. We are also willing to pay far beyond the replacement cost of the animal to provide various medical treatments for dogs. This consumption of domestic dogs raises them to a level almost akin with humans, and the principles of mass production cannot produce good quality domestic dogs for their expected consumption.

That’s why puppy mill dogs are usually not as suitable as pets as dogs raised in proper environments. You cannot mass produce well-socialized puppies. It takes too much time and money. You cannot mass produce dogs free of genetic disorders. The cost of screening all the parents for all the genetic disorders in most breeds is very cost-prohibitive to a mass production.

However, fad breeding is much more easy to do with mass-production than with sane breeding practices. That’s why so many fad dogs suddenly appeared on the market in Victorian times. There were lots of dog dealers in those days. On the streets, they hawked all sorts of fads and novelties in dogs. The Industrial Revolution’s efficient outputs combined with social forces of  democratization and imperialism to create a rather affluent middle class, which purchased these dogs with abandon. The middle class was spurring industrial output of rather useless things. Novel domestic dog breeds and strains were but one of the useless things people purchased. The bull terrier, the borzoi-muzzled collie, the giant Newfoundland, and the English white terrier were but just a few breeds offered up by the dog dealers of that day. (All of which were a major departure from their working form.)

The first comprehensive study of these habits came from the economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” in his Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argued that the rising middle classes and the working class were much more willing to buy novel things to make themselves feel like the upper class rather than demand things like better wages and more accountable government.

Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen

So what does all of this have to do with the end of the golden retriever?

Well, the golden retriever was a dog created for a purpose. It was bred for its color, but it was also bred to have a natural body, moderate bone and feathering, strong drive, high trainability, a tendency to show the retrieving predatory motor pattern, a good sense of smell, and very low aggression towards both people and other dogs.  When you breed for those attributes you generally get a good dog. However, it is very hard to mass produce a good dog for the reasons I just described.

When you start breeding the golden retriever to be a pet, though, then you start to select for extraneous things. You start to bred for lots of bone and lots of hair. None of those things are useful in a working dog, which was why they were intentionally bred out of the breed. Then in Europe, you start to breed for extreme light color, not because the absolute best dogs in the breed from the beginning were of that color but because the breed standard was changed for this novel characteristic.  Then Americans start breeding for it because it is a novelty over here. The new dog dealers catch onto this trend and start mass producing very light-colored goldens without concern about their temperament whatsoever.

Then people start complaining when the dogs start showing their breed typical high energy and obsessive retrieving motor patterns. So the dog dealers and pet breeders start breeding that out of them.

And then people start complaining that these dogs shed a lot. So they start breeding them with standard poodles.

And by the time this is all over with, you no longer have a golden retriever. You have a white Newfoundland dog or a white Newfoundland dog with a poodle coat that still sheds regardless of what the breeder told you about its nonshedding coat.

Mass-production away from working characteristics is what will kill the golden retriever in the end. I’ve noticed a very interesting trend over the years. All of the breeds I’ve been told to avoid because of “stupidity” and bad temperaments are those that were among the first breeds to be mass produced. And if you look at the breeds that still exist that were mass produced in the Victorian through the Georgian Eras, virtually every one of these dogs is a genetic basket case or a nasty dog that is hard to train. (Scottish deerhounds are the former; Skye terriers are the latter. Deerhounds may yet be saved through intelligent breeders, but the Skye terrier is probably going to go extinct in my lifetime.)

*Again, I’m not saying all “white” goldens are bad. If someone is breeding for the light color and for the proper temperament and working ability, I say all power to them. But I personally think the darker colors are better reflection of the breed’s historical conformation.

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