Posts Tagged ‘dog fancy’

bassano pointers

I had an interesting conversation a few days ago:

Why is that people who keep fish and exotic pets are so open to new scientific knowledge about their animals?

Why is that the innovative ways of keeping these animals quickly gain acceptance among their owners, while in the world of dogs, the bulk of the culture has stagnated around a bunch of tired ideas (particularly dominance behavior models and the closed registry system)?

I think the answer has two parts two.

People have been keeping dogs for longer than we’ve cultivated fields, while fish and exotic pets are often only just a few generations removed from the wild.

The best ways to keep these animals are often in a somewhat experimental state, and it’s not always guaranteed that the ways that those who came before had the best way of caring for them.

Caring for dogs is pretty much cut and dry, or at least, that is how it seems.

But the world of dogs, unlike the world of exotic pets or aquarium fish, is very much caught up in some sort of tradition.

When you buy a breed, you buy into a  breed history, which may or may not be true, and you also buy into a culture that pays a lot of homage to those “greats” who came before.

Now, maybe those greats had some insight about the animals at hand, but there often gets to be a sort of cult based upon that great’s ideas– even if what that great happens to believe absolute garbage.

Take German Shepherd dogs and the worship of Lloyd Brackett and his cute incest formula. Brackett was an anti-Semite eugenicist who happened to win a bunch of dog shows, so in the world of show GSD, his ideas are treated as if they were wonderful. Of course,  I doubt that very many people in GSD’s share his views that the Jews were a “superior race” because they were inbred, but many people who show GSD’s hold onto that same logic.

Of course, it’s garbage.

But if you follow Brackett, you might win a few dog shows. Never mind that the bulk of the show GSD population is slowly deteriorating into a bunch of ataxic-gaited hyenas.

This never gets questioned, of course, because Brackett leads to success within  the culture.

And when you buy a dog breed, you’re buying into a culture. You’re also buying into a brand, and within a brand, there are all sorts romantic ideals about what that brand should be.

It is not just within show dogs  that people get caught up in the branding. One of the things I’ve always found amusing about the border collie is a belief that this is a traditional farm dog and that its abilities as a farm dog have been made better through trialling. Except that the original collie-type farm dog was not nearly as strongly-eyed or obsessive as a border collie, and in my part of the world, this sort of “collie” still exists in the form of English shepherds and farm collies, neither of which would ever be able to win a border collie trial in the first place.

A border collie is actually a dog created to manage very large flocks. It was never a dog for small farmers, and what’s more, it exists in its current form largely to win sheepdog trials.

But if you buy into the culture, then you accept that sheepdog trials are “traditional dog work,” when they really are something pretty new in the grand scheme of pastoral dogs.

If a dog person wants to think as an aquarist or exotic pet owner does, then one must be willing to go against the grain.

To accept new ideas is blasphemy in much of the world of dogs.

At some point, you almost have to deny the breed brand and also deny much of the wisdom that came before.

Because science tells us that dogs are organisms. All dog breeds are part of the same species, and special beliefs about dogs– like those that deny heterosis exists within crossbreeds– simply aren’t true. No matter what misrepresentations or jun science studies people come up with, the rules of population genetics still work in the world of dogs.

Further, we don’t now everything there is to know about dog behavior, but it is pretty clear that we were wrong in assuming that dog societies and behavior can be modeled on decades-old and somewhat discredited studies on captive wolf packs.

But if you’ve bought a breed where the people most successful in training it in the past have all adopted some form of  what might be called dog abuse axioms, then to question the way the dog is trained is also to blaspheme the breed.

But if we are to do what is truly right by dogs, then we have to be willing to blaspheme.

And if you blaspheme, there are countless numbers of people who will come after you. If your breed exists only as a specialists’ dog, then you might very well be run out of it– just for questioning shibboleths.

The sad thing about the world of dogs is that rationalists and skeptics exist in a very small minority within the various dog subcultures.

To question is to deny.

And to deny is heresy.

We have allowed our relationship with the domestic dog to stagnate.

Modern science has been relegated only toward a celebration of health testing, as if breeding out genetic diseases within increasingly inbred populations is the best way to manage them. As soon as someone who knows better points out that this is not a good long-term solution, it is automatically denounced as animal rights issue or “socialism.”

It’s very sad that so much of the world of dogs resembles a religion, and in the past, I’ve actually called much of the world of dogs a series of ersatz religions.

One of the things that religion often does is it puts mental blocks when understanding is not complete or when accepted truths are contradicted with obvious facts. In the former case, dogma will fill in the gaps, and in the latter case, facts will be denied or dismissed (often in a vast conspiracy theory).

I have had very stupid people post things to my blog and to my Facebook page like “If every time you breed it’s a crap shoot, then shoot the crap you breed.”  The “if” in this case is what you have to accept if you allow for a certain amount of genetic diversity in a breed– some dogs aren’t going to be winners or have the preferred conformation or temperament one wants in a breed. But if you inbreed, you will get lots of dogs that look and behave alike. Of course, such animals might be fine or even quite healthy, but if an entire population of a breed gets subject to such consanguinity, then the chances for higher levels of genetic load will be heightened and the chance of a real inbreeding depression is almost certain.

But no one cares about that when you’re winning the prizes.

You will be rewarded for pissing away the genes, and it will be successive generations who will have to deal with the consequences.

And it will continue up and until one of two things happen:

The real animal rights agenda comes to power and pushes upon dog breeders a ton of regulations.

Or there is rationalist revolution in the world of dogs.

My hope is for the latter, but I am not holding my breath.

There just isn’t enough blasphemy.







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bull terrier and dalmatian

As long-time readers of this blog know, I think we need a new dog fancy.

By “fancy,” I simply mean the cultural institution that sets the mores and values for breeding dogs. The initial fancy was developed in the period from 1860 to about 1885 under the premise of improving strains of domestic dog. This was the time of Victorian science, which had inherited a legacy of the scientific breeding that traced back the eighteenth century agriculturalist Robert Bakewell.

This was also a time when zoology consisted of Europeans with some scientific training going to the far corners of the world in search of new beasts. If someone saw a bear with somewhat off coloration, that person usually declared it a new species.   This was the age of taxonomic splitting to the extreme.

And it was applied to dogs in ways that we would later come to regret. In those days, it was common to apply those taxonomic splitting principles to dogs. Even if you could get several breeds in the same litter, it was generally accepted that one would register each puppy according to its phenotype. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Bedlington terrier and Dandie Dinmont terrier problem. At one time, one could get either breed in the same litter. If it had dwarfism, it was a Dandie. If it had legs, it was a Bedlington. At some point, the Bedlington terrier’s coat was altered through cross-breeding with a poodle, and it became much less likely to have strains in which Dandies and Bedlingtons would pop up in the same litter. In Northumberland and the Scottish borders, there were drop-eared terriers that produced long-legged and short-legged varieties, but the dog fancy decided to split them up.

And now they are quite different dogs.

Fights in breeds about the true type also led to breed splits.

Yes. It was politics. The golden retriever was split from the flat-coat for two reasons:  1. It was believed to be of Russian and not British origin and 2. the yellow dogs weren’t winning prizes at shows.

The last breed split I’ve seen that resulted from a dispute over phenotype was the division of the Norfolk and Norwich terriers. At one time, there was a breed drawn from the little terriers of East Anglia that was called a Norwich terrier. There were two varieties:  one with prick ears and one with folded drop ears.  If you have both ears in a breed, it’s actually pretty hard to breed for consistent ear carriage– just ask the people who breed phalenes to papillons in the US–so they decided to split the Norwich terrier into two breeds in 1960.

Splitting up types and refining them were the main activities of the dog fancy. They didn’t have a good grasp on the science of population genetics at all.

These were social climbing people who wanted to innovate and create. In some ways, their hearts were in the right place.

But they were still stuck in the limitations of the Zeitgeist.

We now know that splitting up dogs into often contrived esoteric forms called breeds and then shutting off all those breeds from almost all infusions of new blood are actions that are not going to lead to improved health or welfare. We also know that if rigorous selection is performed within those breeds, we are doing nothing more than making the march to misery move at double-quick.


The dog fancy that we have right now isn’t really that far removed from the Victorian days.

It has generally been impervious to new scientific findings that have directly challenged axioms about blood purity and rigorous selection within a closed population.

It has also been impervious to suggestions that breeding for certain phenotypes are directly responsible for creating health problems. The extreme brachycephaly of pugs and the sloping hyena backs of German shepherd dogs can be demonstrated to cause very real maladies, but these criticisms are ignored.

One intellectually lazy argument is to attack anyone who points out these facts about extreme conformation as an animal rights activist. I know the full mantra– “You’re one of those PETA types who wants to end dog ownership!”

Not at all.

When one points out the absurdity of blood purity in this day and age, the other intellectually lazy argument is to say that one wants to end purebred dogs  or selective breeding.

I rather enjoy it when people who don’t wish to debate the issues simply put words in your mouth and intentions in your head that you simply wouldn’t consider in the first place.

No. I actually want to encourage selective breeding, but I want to give breeders more tools and more freedom to correct genetic problems and to innovate. Innovation is the key. People need freedom to think and to experiment.

The problem with the dog fancy is that skills and knowledge were passed on like apprenticeships. A new breeder would hook up with an older established one, and the established one would give out all the advice. That established breeder likely got his or her ideas from earlier one, who in turn got it from an earlier one. In the end, it may be that this wisdom all gets traced to someone who lived either in a time when we simply didn’t know or someone who was trying to peddle a pet theory about how to breed dogs (see Brackett’s formula for a good example of that one).

That’s not a culture of innovation. That’s a culture of tradition– often the culture of tradition for tradition’s sake.

In order to create a dog fancy of innovation we need a new paradigm, and I think this new paradigm needs to be based upon two principles

  1. Science
  2. Empathy

The first principle is oddly lacking in so much of the modern dog fancy.  People use scientific findings. If there is a new genetic test for a disease or a recessive coat type they don’t want, they are excited to use it.

But when science questions the validity of long-standing traditions and ideas passed on from established people to their apprentices, that is when things get ugly.

There is very little critical thought, and critical thinking is key to having science as a main principle.

It can be acceptable for someone to say that if you don’t trim the fur on Keeshond’s feet, its pasterns will become weaker.  (Someone did actually say this!)

If the dog fancy were more science-based as a founding principle, people would not be able to get away with pronouncements that are either not provable or are demonstrably false.

I don’t see why it’s such a scary notion, but a lot of people get nervous when you start talking like this. That’s because you may discover that some long-held shibboleth is nothing more than bullcrap.

Empathy is the other principle that is sorely lacking in the world of dogs.

I don’t know how someone can claim to love a dog and be satisfied with its constant discomfort.

But that’s exactly what you see when people breed extremely brachycephalic pugs that cannot cool themselves efficiently or breathe properly.

As soon as you start down this path, the accusations of confederacy with Ingrid Newkirk come out, and the breeders almost always say “It’s in the standard.”

And this is where the two principles come together. Breed standards are like scripture. They are written by fallible human beings.

They are also interpreted by fallible human beings, and they are misused by even more fallible ones.

At some point, your empathy for the dog has to bring to a critical analysis of the standard and the institutions that claim to be acting in its best interest.

It is at this level that the modern dog fancy has let the domestic dog down.

We can change it, but we have to be acting with the right principles.

Otherwise, we’ll fall into the trap that goes “All we have to do is have working trials replace dog shows and things will turn out fine,” which is followed by the even more absurd variant that goes “All we have to do is make sure our champion dogs pass a working test before they become full champions.”

Both of those statements are acting in the old paradigm.

They simply will not change things enough to make a real difference.

The new dog fancy cannot be the based on the old. It must be based upon principles that are worthy of the dogs themselves.








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How to play this game

sweet puppies having lunch

I’ve played this game of dog blogging for several years now, and I can tell you that there are three ways to play the game:

The first is to be the milquetoast. Write nothing but blog posts in which controversial facts are not revealed.  This game can only be played successfully if you have a compelling narrative about your dog or very good photos.

The second is to be a gamecock:  fight everybody.  You can get a lot of hits from drama, but it only works when you haven’t pissed everyone off. Once you do that, people won’t listen to you. And trust me, there are some bloggers who have learned the hard way about that one.

The third way is to pick your battles.

This is my strategy. There are some people I know who won’t listen to me, and honestly, they don’t care.

I get a lot of comments from trolls. If I feel that I might be enlightening to others by taking down the troll, I take down the troll.

I allow well over 90 percent of all comments to go through, but if I’ve decided that I’ve wasted enough time trying to argue with someone, I just delete the comments.

This is not a democracy. You can easily get your own blog for free and write about how awful I am.

Just don’t expect me to link to it!

I don’t think you can do this right by being a shock jock.

You can write screeds against the AKC all day long, but if your only solution is to get a border collie, a Jack Russell, or a pound dog– or a cat!– you’re wasting your time. The first two breeds are inappropriate for many homes, and not everyone wants a random-bred dog. Not everyone wants a dog that could have behavioral problems as a result of being rehomed several times, and many people do want a specific type of dog that might be next to impossible to get a shelter. (And I don’t want an effing cat!)

This is why if you’re doing nothing but AKC-bashing, you’re not solving any problems.

You’re just intellectually masturbating. Masturbation always gives you some pleasure, but it’s always a solitary process.

And you’re not going to solve this problem by attacking the AKC, which, in all honesty, is low-hanging fruit.

No, you really have to attack the full scale problems of caprice and vanity that have run amok in the domestic dog’s gene pools.

And if you’re only doing that to the AKC, you’re missing out on a whole lot.

You are exculpating the “working dog” people who celebrate inbreeding, even when it winds up failing in them in the long run.

You wind up exculpating the people who mass produce bird dogs, border collies, and hounds in terribly run-down kennels. We would call such people puppy millers if they were breeding small companion dogs, but because they are breeding “workers,” they get a pass.

You also wind up creating a major problem for a breed when you say its own place is doing its work. Ever see any turnspits? What about Belgian trekhonds?

With the US sheep industry on life support, who is to say that the same fate might befall the border collie? Within border collies, there is a near theological belief that they must be used as sheepdogs, but with no sheep to herd, what will they be?

They will become novelties, where people who own them buy them a few sheep for them to herd.

In effect they will become border collies on the border collie reservation.

That’s not a good long-term strategy for any breed of dog, but when these same people tell you that the way trial border collies have been preserved is the way to save all dogs, you know there’s something wrong here.

These people very rarely get called out on it, but when they do, their main retort is back to the get a cat or pound dog absurdities.

This is not a solution.

And never mind that it’s very easy to see the hypocrisy of people railing against inbreeding in AKC dogs, when they never say a word about popular sire issues in a wide variety of trial dogs.

This game cannot be played with the AKC being the cowboys with the black hats and the border collie and Jack Russell people being the white hats.

There are a lot of black and white hats on both sides, but most are actually gray hats.

And somewhere along the line we have to come up with workable solutions.

We can’t do that by constantly ranting against the same people over and over.

It’s satisfying to spin your wheels.

But it solves nothing.

I am for ending the closed registry system, but I’m not for ending selective breeding of dogs. I think people should be able to get the sort of dog they want, and if they want a particular type of dog, they shouldn’t be judged for it.

I am for creating sustainable gene pools in domestic dog populations.  By sustainable, I mean ones where we have enough genetic diversity to control genetic disease. I don’t mean turning all of dogdom into a random-bred free-for-all.

And I am for changing breed standards so we produce physically healthy animals. We shouldn’t be producing a type of dog that is just physically unfit when it meets its breed standard. And here, I’m thinking of Clumber spaniels, Neapolitan mastiffs, and bulldogs. These dogs have physical deformities associated with meeting their standards, and it would be much more humane if we just changed the standards so these features were not selected for.

These are not radical steps, but they are almost impossible to implement.

One reason they are impossible to implement is because the reformers are often too strident to talk sense.

And in this way, they become the mirror image of the dog fancy.

And they are wasting their time.

No one is going to listen.











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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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In the United States, people have a tendency to lionize Winston Churchill, and whenever someone takes a stand on something, it is very common for people to quote him and then compare themselves to him.

Usually, the comparison is so off that the person looks like a fool.

Never mind that Churchill. as the head of government of the  state that was running the world’s largest empire at the time, certainly didn’t have enlightened views about much.

But I was certainly drawn to this quote.

Some enemies are worth having, and in this world of blogging, having certain people throw around  the “animal rights activists” epithet at me only increases my street credit among the circles I’m trying to influence.

I’m quite enjoying the collective histrionic meltdown that certain dog fanciers are having over the fallout from this year’s Crufts. I’ve never seen so many adults act like toddlers.

Everyone seems to have a martyr complex.

But as was told to me when I was a child and started down the path of martyrdom:   To be a martyr, someone has to give a shit.

These crazy dog fanciers are the lunatic fringe of the dog world. The bulk of the dog owning public listens to your whining, your conspiracy theories, and your moronic comments online, and they don’t have any sympathy for your position.

They think you either have severe personality disorders or you’re just a bunch of sadists.  The only dog person they respect less is Michael Vick.

This is not the road to victory. This is the road to marginalization.

So keep throwing shit.  I’ve outlasted people with more skills at this sort of thing than you.  I’ve dealt with people who were much better at putting up misleading propaganda about how I’m the devil than anything these dog fancy cultists could even dream of doing. And I’m still here.

Churchill is way over-quoted by those who don’t understand him at all, but I think this statement from another World War II leader is a bit more apropos:


And if you’ll allow me the spurious analogy, I welcome your hatred.

And keep on melting down. This is the best entertainment I’ve seen online in a pretty long time.




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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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A few days ago, I wrote about what the dog fancy was doing to certain breeds of dog. I argued that a lot of the problem is that dog fanciers are indoctrinated into thinking that exaggeration is beautiful or, as they call it, “correct.”

Well, I think that how one gets indoctrinated is much more like the scenario in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I must confess that I’ve never thought indoctrination in free societies ever resembles Orwell’s dystopia. In free societies, the consequences for going against the flow typically don’t involve terror or government censorship. I’ve always felt that indoctrination typically goes with stripping a person of his or her rationality, intellectual curiosity, and desire for justice, rather than outright oppression of those human aspects.

And the way that is done is much more insidious than outright oppression. It is done simply by rewarding desire. Desire is rewarded until the person no longer thinks about the wrong things.

How this is done in the dog world is actually quite easy to trace.

Let’s take the average person who is just getting started in purebred dogs. He or she is probably not the average pet owner, who goes off to buy the nearest fad dog in the paper. I’m talking about the serious person who wants to get into dogs.

Now, because this person has been taught to think through his or her purchases,  extensive research comes before purchase. Breed books are purchased, along with dog encyclopedias. All of these books say the same things. Buy a dog from a reputable breeder. Reputable breeders breed to the standard. The standard is a standard of perfection against which the dogs are judged. Anyone who breeds dogs but does not show them is a backyard breeder or a puppy miller.

It doesn’t occur to the average person in this position to recognize this obvious fact. The  books are all written by breeders who show their dogs and breed for the standard! Now these books alone won’t turn the average person into a dog fancy flunky.

No, that process really requires the prospective purebred dog enthusiast to actually follow that advice in the books and meet with a show breeder. The breeder most likely won’t let the puppies go to anyone, which is a very smart idea. However, the breeder usually won’t sell a puppy to anyone unless the breeder retains some co-ownership rights or the puppy is sold with an agreement that it be shown. One might be able to get  “pet quality” pup off of the breeder, and if that is the case, the indoctrination process stalls out.  However, if the prospective purebred dog enthusiast wants to breed dogs, then the process really begins to play itself out.

Generally, anyone who purchases a breeding dog off a show breeder is going to have to show the dog. And it is in dog shows that the rewarding desire bit really starts to get to people. Dogs that “fit the standard” and have “fancy points” win. Desire is rewarded. Covetousness is coddled.

It doesn’t matter if any of these traits is an exaggeration that would encumber the dog’s movement or health or would prevent the dog from doing its original purpose. Follow the standard and the fancy points and the dog will do well.

Soon, the prospective dog fancy person is in the full swing of it. The selective breeding bug has bitten rather hard.  Selective breeding is based upon the standard and whatever wins.  Such behavior is rewarded in the culture of the fancy, and eventually, the person begins to internalize these values.

After just a few years under such a regime, the person begins to think under the strictures of the fancy. Any evidence that suggests that some of the breeding practices in the fancy are wrong is discounted. The evidence is either entirely misunderstood or ignored.

The fancy has trained you what a quality dog is. Don’t let those scientists or even breed historians get in the way.  They don’t know what quality is. Quality is adhering to the standard.

Now, if a breeder begins to deviate from these strictures, there are consequences. There is no torture or jail time.  You most likely will get insane troll comments on your blog, and at the very worst, the breeders in the breed clubs will band together to keep you from ever getting a dog of that breed again. If you are in a rare breed, this can be a problem.

In this system, conformity is rewarded. Conform and you’ll be fine. Going slightly off the program, though, is heresy. And that’s why you find so very few dog breeders who think there is anything wrong with current breed registry system. They have simply been rewarded so many times to accept the current system of how things are that they don’t even consider that something could be wrong.

That’s how we get the Brave New Dog World.

Please note: This is a macro-level analysis. There are breeders of dogs who want to change things. My advice– set up a new registry system based upon health, genetic diversity, and function. Of course, that’s far easier said than done.

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 Photo of a collie from 1915.

Photo of a collie from 1915.

I discovered a rather interesting story about how the collie became a fancy breed. I had always heard that the collie was mixed with the borzoi to make its narrow muzzle, but I was later presented with evidence that this may not be the case. However, I did find that outside blood did indeed shape the collie into a fancy show breed. It was not what I was expecting. It is also a very interesting case study into what happens to a breed once they become “fancy” or, as their breeders call them– “improved.” I am going to directly quote what I found, for it is quite instructive:

The collie was the most popular pet dog of late Victorian England and a  prime example of a breed reconstructed to meet the figurative needs of fanciers. Collies were originally valued for the qualities they had developed as hardworking Scottish sheepdogs–intelligence, loyalty, and a warm shaggy coat. Once they were firmly established in the Stud Book, however, breeders began to introduce  modifications and improvements, which were tested not against the rigors of the Highland winter, but in the fashionable marketplace. [Emphasis mine] By 1895 there were seven independent clubs devoted to the breed’s welfare, many of which sponsored all-collie shows, as well as strong collie representation in the Kennel Club and regional canine associations. The large number of pedigreed collies seems to have been exacerbated the tendency of fanciers to fabricate subtle points of distinction between animals and artificial models to measure them against.  As a result, fashions changed swiftly and collie standards were among the most volatile; breeders redesigned their animals or restocked their kennels in accordance with the latest show results. Plasticity could even take precedence over pedigree; in order to instill some temporarily admired attribute, breeders were sometimes willing to contaminate the strain. In the early days of showing, collies were often crossed with Gordon setters to achieve then fashionable glossy, black-and-tan coats. For decades experts could detect “traces of the bar sinister”– telltale ears, head, and general heaviness– in many show animals.  Even without crossing (which became less common after the Stud Book gained sway), fashion could undermine the character of the breed. The 1890s saw a craze for exaggerated heads with long, pointy noses. In 1891 a Kennel Gazette reviewer complained that show judges had given away all the prizes “to dogs of the greyhound type whose eyes bore an inane, expressionless look.” Critics alleged that such dogs could hardly display the intelligence characteristic of their breed because there was no room in their heads for brains.

Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (1989) p. 113-114.

Now, these developments partially explain why the fancy went to the closed stud book system. That certainly could reduce volatility in type, but dogs have such plasticity in their phenotype (because of tandem repeats) that fad breeding can still lead to massive shifts in type.

I’ve seen it in my own breed in just a the past few years. To me, the most of the goldens that are being offered today are nothing like the dogs I remember. The type has shifted from a more moderate and less exaggerated dog into something more heavily built and excessively feathered. The color range has shifted almost entirely. One can no longer find the darkest mahogany color in goldens, unless one really looks hard and doesn’t automatically assume that light builds and dark colors are indicative of cross-breeding with Irish setters.

So in that piece we see that one breed of dog started out with functional behavioral and physical conformation, and after just a few decades of fad breeding, it becomes a very different dog. So much for the fancy preserving dog breeds. The fancy may have that intent, but as an institution, it is very much susceptible to fads and trends, as well as contrived characteristics that are actually detrimental to the health and function of the dogs. What shepherd would want a collie with such a narrow head and very little herding instinct?

Now, I found it interesting that Gordon setters were used to increase the number of black-and-tan dogs in the bloodline. However, black and tan  and solid black were the most common colors of the British herding landrace that became the collie-type dogs. The Gordon setter got its black and tan coloration from an outcross with a black -and-tan collie. One must remember that Queen Victoria’s collies were all black-and- tan, but that particular coloration may not have been universally evident in all show collie populations. So the best way to remedy that problem was to cross-breed with Gordon setters.

I’ve heard of other such outcrosses with show dogs. Many of these have been clandestine, for the modern institutionalized fancy is based upon a closed stud book.system.  For example, I’ve read that Labrador breeders crossed in golden retrievers to reduce houndish characteristics in yellow Labradors, as well as to increase biddability (which was always a perceived problem in yellow Labradors) and lengthen the coat. As well all know, the yellow Labradors were heavily outcrossed to lemon foxhounds to increase the likelihood of producing that color, which was not evident in the St. John’s water dog. It is also well-known that flat-coated retrievers were heavily interbred into Labradors to make them more competitive in early twentieth century field trials. The faulty black-and-tan color in Labradors has always existed within the breed and within the old wavy-coated retriever, which is the ancestor of the flat-coat and the golden, but I’ve come across more than one person who claims that the black and tan color in Labradors is the result of interbreeding with Rottweilers. However, I think it is much more likely that the color is the result of the founder effect from the St. John’s water dog and from the infusion of collie and Gorden setter blood in the old wavy-coated retriever.

So the early fancy had license to crossbreed for phenotype, and the modern fancy has always had rumors about clandestine crossbreeding. My response is actually quite simple: Why can’t we have license to crossbreed for health reasons?

How could this be accomplished? Well, in the early days in which retrievers were separated into show dog breeds, there was a class called “Interbred.” Interbred dogs were a mixture of two different strains that the KC had declared separate breeds. These dogs would be run as “Interbred,” as would their offspring for three generations. After being bred to a specific breed for three generations, the phenotype of  the descendants of this interbred dog would be examined to allow it to be registered as a purebred.

I don’t see why such a system could not be implemented today, but I do worry that fad breeding would run amok in such a system, as it did with the early show collies. That is why breed standards must be evaluated and written with functional conformation in mind. Such a system is entirely absent in the dog fancy right now.

We also need controls on how often a stud dog is used to keep the gene pool more open. Today, virtually all dog breeds (especially mine) are suffering from a compromised gene pool– most of which can be blamed on using just a few stud dogs to produce a high percentage of the offspring.

I would be very happy if we got some of these reforms. It would mean that we’re finally thinking about dogs are organisms and as creatures that have feelings, emotions, and intelligence. I can’t imagine any conservation organization that would try to breed endangered species under such a weird system. Indeed, in the case of the subspecies of cougar called the Florida panther, the Texas cougar was introduced to Florida to increase genetic diversity.

But dog people don’t think like biologists. They think like proper Victorians.

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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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