Sometimes I get the feeling that there are two parallel worlds, one that we dog folk inhabit, and one that is occupied by the do-gooders, the academics, the idealists and all those who think they know what is best for dogs without necessarily having had the experience of actually breeding dogs or even sometimes of ever having owned any.
At the present time there are strong indications that things will become far more stringent with regard to the rules surrounding dog breeding. That’s no bad thing, although I suspect that, as usual, it will be those who already do things by the book that will follow new regulations, whilst those that are already under the radar will stay there. Whilst it is quite easy to check how many litters of KC registered Welsh Terriers Mrs Careful has bred in a year, it is more difficult to know whether Mr Greedy is telling the truth about the number of multi-coloured, unregistered French Bulldogs he has sold recently.
It’s not just a numbers game. Mrs Careful may breed several litters each year – pups from carefully thought out matings that are well reared and properly socialised – and she will offer a lifetime of support to their new owners. But the thought of having to be inspected every year under proposed new legislation might scare her a little, and she is worried whether the information about seasons, puppy weights, worming – that she scribbles in her diary – will be acceptable to the authorities. So she might just feel that now is an appropriate time to give up, and one more good breeder will be lost. Mr Greedy, on the other hand, has no fear of bureaucracy. His paperwork is immaculate, as indeed are his kennels. He even discloses to the taxman at least some of his earnings. Of course, nobody could describe him as a dedicated dog breeder. He does not pore over pedigrees; he doesn’t see the need for health-testing – although he is happy to talk for hours about the DNA testing he has done for colour – and if something goes wrong with one of his pups it isn’t his fault, although he will gladly sell the owners another one to take its place.
In fact Mr Greedy does everything the authorities would want – and there are some who would have all dog breeding done by those who have clinical premises and a random approach when it comes to choice of stud dog. For the do-gooders, the idealists and the scientists, this is the better way.
Ah yes, the scientists! That’s where the parallel universe comes in. I wonder if anyone has ever told them (not that they would believe it) that dog breeding is not an exact science. An honours degree in genetics does not make you a good dog-breeder. Understanding and making use of COIs, EBVs, AVKs may help you to produce healthier puppies but all of these are just tools, and there is absolutely nothing that can take the place of years of experience, an in-depth knowledge of the bloodlines within a breed and the instinctive gut-feeling that a particular mating is ‘right’ that marks out the great breeder from the rest. Those of us that have bred more than the occasional litter know that theory and practice is by no means the same thing when it comes to breeding dogs. The theory is that this superbly moving, never had a day’s illness in his life, happy extrovert will, when mated to that healthy, sound bitch, produce a litter of equally happy, healthy puppies with a lower COI than either parent. Maybe their EBVs have been evaluated and the KC’s Mate Select programme has assured both breeder and stud dog owner that this is the best possible combination. But what science can’t tell you at present, because the data isn’t available, is that way behind both dogs – so long ago that it’s fallen off the pedigree – is a common ancestor who was epileptic, had hip dysplasia and was put down at three because not only did he have these health problems but he was also a vicious little brute that bit everyone who came near him. And, theory and practice being what they are, this seemingly random combination has brought these horrid traits to the fore, and the wonderful, carefully planned litter is a complete disaster. Then you remember the old girl who you thought had gone a bit do-lally, because when you told her which stud dog you had chosen for your beloved bitch she shook her head and told you it wouldn’t work. “Those lines don’t mix well” she had said. But you didn’t believe her; this was as near as you could get to a total outcross in your breed and genetic diversity is all.
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Yes, genetic diversity is important. No one knows that more than I do – my breed has none and it’s a constant battle for responsible breeders to maintain what diversity we do have. Health issues are important. Ethical, responsible breeders don’t go out of their way to produce unhealthy puppies. We love our dogs, they are part of our family, and we don’t want to see them suffer in any way. Because of this we also have an understanding of our dogs and their needs from a purely practical point of view. Yes, we want to breed an outstanding dog that can win in the show ring, but most of us are mindful of the fact that the most beautiful dog in the world is of little value to his breed if he is unsound in mind or body.
Only a very small proportion of each generation of pedigree dogs are bred from. Because of this genetic diversity is being lost with each succeeding litter. I suppose you could argue that as many of each litter as possible should be bred from, and certainly in the rarest of breeds that’s a very good starting point, but in those that are numerically stronger is there really an argument for breeding from untypical specimens just because they offer a minutely different genetic profile?
Used sensibly all the tools that the scientists can offer us are extremely valuable – but that’s what they are, merely tools that can assist in making our final choices. This is something that the academics don’t seem to understand. Many have tried to breed purely on pedigrees. All too often they have failed. Put the best to the best to produce the best was the advice in days gone by. Occasionally that may have been translated to suggest that the best was in fact the most exaggerated, or the biggest, or the smallest and we perhaps do need to define exactly what is meant by ‘the best’, but although not scientific it is still good advice.
Can we dare to hope that those who seek to control dog breeding will take time to get to understand dog breeders? Will they step over into our parallel world and try to fathom out what makes us tick. Will they sit up all night watching a bitch panting and straining, share the pain and heartache when things go wrong – and the pride and satisfaction when all is well? We can but hope!