Wolves and dogs and dogs and wolves

When we were making Pedigree Dogs Exposed, we filmed at the UK Wolf Conservancy Trust near Newbury. We were privileged to be able to film in one pack's enclosure  - under close supervision and with strict instructions on how to act in the wolves' company.

It was a beautiful, frosty early morning -  before the centre opened to the public. Having a young wolf lick your face is an electrifying experience. Every fibre of your body bows in acknowledgment that this is not a dog. Definitely not a dog.

Filming in Feb 2008 - close encounter with wolves
But of course wolves and dogs share a common ancestor and are so close genetically that they can mate and produce fertile offspring.  Every revelation about wolves is of interest to canine genetics buffs because it helps inform our knowledge of/relationship with dogs. And wolves have been in the news this week.

Nature reports a spat between the different teams trying to nail the timing, place and manner of the split that led to the grey wolf on one branch of the evolutionary tree and the dog on the other.
"In recent months, three international teams have published papers comparing the genomes of dogs and wolves. On some matters — such as the types of genetic changes that make the two differ — the researchers are more or less in agreement. Yet the teams have all arrived at wildly different conclusions about the timing, location and basis for the reinvention of ferocious wolves as placid pooches. “It’s a sexy field,” says Greger Larson, an archaeogeneticist at the University of Durham, UK. He has won a £950,000 (US$1.5-million) grant to study dog domestication starting in October. “You’ve got a lot of big personalities, a lot of money, and people who want to get their Nature paper first.” 
The upshot? Hopefully the competition will provide some answers. At the moment, depending on whom you believe, the domestication of the dog happened anywhere between 10,000 and 32,000 years ago.

Also this week, Christopher Landauer who runs the Border Wars blog has written about the Isle Royale wolves - once held up as an example of how inbred populations could thrive; now facing extinction.  Today, this once-proud population sits, cub-less, waiting to die - unless the decision is taken to intervene. It's nature (the wolves have become geographically isolated due in part to an ice-bridge failing to form) but still achingly sad.

A stillborn litter of Isle-Royale wolves
"Inbreeding apologists in the dog world love invoking the notion that wolves inbreed all the time and are just fine and not harmed.  As is clear from the scientific evidence, this once common refrain is nothing more than an unsupported meme that is not backed up by empirical or observational evidence. 
"Scientists are fighting against this misconception because it has major implications on the structure and success of wildlife conservancy programs.  Dog breeders should take note as these same principles are vital for the maintenance and rejuvenation of our breeds as well."

Well written, well researched and well-referenced. Read it here.

Jilly's Jolly Fraud - an update

Click to enlarge

The above image has not been posted on the official Jilly's Jolly Jaunt Facebook page. And we now know that Jilly did not walk "more than 140 miles".  Up to half of the walk was actually done by another Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen called Daisy.

The image is up on Best in Show Daily in the US, though - a scrolling banner at the top of the page here.  My first draft of this post suggested that the Event's organisers sent the image over to BISD before the hullabaloo started here - after all, it looks like official artwork. But it turns out that I was wrong.

According to the comment below, BISD claim to have created the image independently of the Event's organisers. They say they weren't aware that Jilly hadn't walked the full 140 miles - but that it doesn't matter because everyone had a jolly time and lots of money was raised for charity.

I've taken a bit of stick in the past 24 hours for daring to highlight the fact that Crufts Champion Jilly (Soletrade Peek A Boo) did not walk the whole route of her epic walk.

Several people have pointed me to a filmed DogWorld interview from April in which Jilly's owner talks  about alternating dogs.  It is up on YouTube and you can watch it here  (and the relevant bit is between 4 and 5 minutes in). Until it was mentioned in the comment section on my last post (the first I'd heard of it), it had attracted only a handful of views.

But I stand by the story.

All the written publicity/press releases/statements/tweets suggested that it was Jilly herself doing the walking and the walk was sold on this.

The official press release, put out by the Kennel Club in conjunction with Jilly's Jolly Jaunt, was entitled "...Crufts champion walks 130 miles for charity".

In this release, which post-dates the DogWorld video by some weeks, owner Gavin Robertson specifically says: "...Outside of the show ring Jilly is such an active dog, so I know that she'll have no problems walking 130 miles."

And here's DogWorld's front page take on the walk, from April 26th - which uses Gavin's quote from the press release and also very specifically says that pointer Flo will be "completing the entire 130 miles". As we now know, she didn't. In fact, I understand that Flo and Jilly walked about half the trip each in the end. This is still a substantial feat, of course; just not the one advertised.

The official Twitter feed for the event also refers to: "Approx. 130 miles to be walked by crufts Best in Show winner to raise funds for GOSH, Doglost and the KC Charitable Trust".

And here's a more recent DogWorld interview, posted just a week ago, which focuses entirely on just Jilly.

Meanwhile the wording on the official website is entirely unambiguous. It even says:

"...Jilly will be wearing a GPS collar from http:/www.retrievatracking.co.uk/. You'll be able to see where she is and how well she's doing if you use JJJ as the username and password."

In reality, they were taking it off Jilly and putting it on another dog and pretending it was Jilly.

Finally, here's a radio interview done by Gavin on the first day of the walk (download link). The presenter introduces the piece by saying that Jilly is walking 130 miles along the canal to raise money for charity. Gavin does nothing in the interview to disabuse him - or the listeners - of this. He also mentions that Jilly is pulling his arms out during the interview. This is no great surprise - he was photographed with the other dog just a few miles earlier, so Jilly had not been walking for long at that point.

I am sure that at least some people who joined them for the walk knew it wasn't Jilly all-the-way, but everyone else thought it was Jilly doing the whole thing and the walk was sold on it. It is impossible (because I've tried) to find anything anywhere published or printed or written about it on the internet prior to the event starting that says otherwise - apart from that one rather obscure video interview.

The stupid thing is if they'd been more upfront about it, no one would have minded at all. It is a lot of miles. And I genuinely thought it was a great idea. I was delighted to see a functional and characterful dog win Crufts this year. And from everything that everyone says, Gavin is a genuinely nice guy. I recognise, too, that everyone had a good time and lots of money was raised for good causes.

For all the above reasons, I did think twice about blogging the story. But, at the end of the day, the walk was billed as proof that a a pedigree dog was  capable of walking 130 miles and it was wrong to suggest that Jilly was doing the whole walk when she wasn't.  

Can you imagine, too, the derision if it had been me doing the walk to show that crossbreeds could do such a walk and I'd slipped in a Jake lookalike? (That said... if anyone's got one...)

 In truth, I suspect that JJJ will get more donations as a result of my blog - sympathy money from those who will hate me for highlighting it and of course donations from those supporting me on my walk which I will do for the same charities.  Just a few more pledges to go and I will be committed to it...

In the meantime, you can donate to Jilly's Jolly Jaunt here.

Edit 14:58 17 June 2013: the banner image has now been removed from Best in Show Daily.
Edit 20:02 19 June 2013: add of DogWorld article dated April 26th and information received that Jilly and Flo walked about 70 miles each - half the walk.

Jilly's Jolly Fraud

Jilly... and not Jilly... Click to enlarge

Four days ago, the 2013 Crufts Winner Jilly (Ch Soletrader Peek A Boo) set off from the NEC at Birmingham on a 130 mile walk to the Kennel Club in London. This afternoon, owner Gavin and the three-year-old Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen arrived at their destination to much applause.

"Jilly's Jolly Jaunt" is being hailed as a triumph for pedigree dogs... proof positive that they are more than just a pretty face. The event is also raising money for charity with £27,000 raised so far.

But I can reveal that they have cheated.

Owner Gavin Robertson has walked the whole walk and has the blisters to prove it. All credit to him for that.

But Crufts' winner Jilly has not.

For much of the walk, they've used a ringer, while precious Jilly has been quietly transported in a van.

The event has trumpeted the fact that a showdog is capable of walking the distance.

Jilly's owner Gavin Robertson told the Kennel Club recently: "I am so proud of Jilly for winning Crufts and wanted to use the profile that her win gave us to do something for deserving causes. Outside of the show ring Jilly is such an active dog, so I know she'll have no problem walking 130 miles."

The Kennel Club too has sung the event's praises: "We are so proud of Gavin and Jilly for undertaking this challenge and for raising money for good causes, including the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.The dogs that compete at Crufts have to be in great shape so she will be well-prepared for this challenge." 

The fraud was spotted by a photographer on the Stoke Hammond leg of the walk.

"Everyone was waiting for Gavin and the team to arrive at the Three Locks Pub at Stoke Hammond," he says. "They were all waiting outside the pub. But I had parked in the canal car park on the other side of the road and as I walked out of it I saw a blue van parked up the road. The door was open and outside on the blind side of the van there was a dog on a lead that I thought looked like Jilly.

"To be honest, I didn't think much of it. It was only later when I looked at the pictures that I and others had taken along the route that I realised they were using a ringer. The dog Gavin Robertson is walking in many of the photographs is clearly not Jilly.

"I think it's a real shame. No one would really have minded if they'd been more upfront about it - the walk is in aid of three worthy charities and over 30 miles a day is a lot for any dog. But this is cheating."

The two top left pictures on this montage are of the real three-year-old Jilly, showing her markings on both sides. The other pictures have been taken at various times during the walk and are on the event's Facebook page. They are clearly not Jilly, but nothing has been said to make that obvious.   The "double" is the same colour, but the markings are different. None of the pictures of the event show more than one Petit in the picture and the whole impression given is that Jilly herself has done the walk.

The event's Twitter feed too, explicitly mentions several times that it is the Crufts winner doing the 130-mile walk.

Astonishingly, no one seems to have noticed - or are keeping quiet about the ringer. Several people must be in on it. But then the show-world is and always has been more about appearance than reality.

"We are so proud of you Gavin - and all the others who walked with you, raising the profile of pedigree dogs in such a positive way," wrote dog-breeder Sheila Atter on the event's Facebook page, which is being followed all over the world. The comment echoes the views of many in the show world.

Jilly's walking companion, a top show Pointer called Flo (Sh Ch Ch Wilchrimane Ice Maiden), has also not walked the whole route. And yet photographs of the event featuring a completely different Pointer have captioned the dog as Flo.

The event has been sponsored or supported by Royal Canin, Agria, Holiday Inn and Tesco's, among others, and many dog-lovers have donated. It is in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children,  DogLost and the KC Charitable Trust. The money has been given in good faith and surely everyone must have thought that Jilly herself was doing the 130 mile walk given the official announcements.

When the walk was announced three months ago, I thought it was a great idea; an excellent bit of positive PR for pedigree dogs (see my previous post about the walk here). It was certainly a stark contrast to the 2012 winner, a Lhasa Apso called Elizabeth who never got to go for a walk for fear of ruining her show-winning coat.

Amelia and Gavin with the real Flo and the real Jilly outside the Kennel Club this afternoon

The walk has, of course, all been in a good cause in terms of the benefiting charities. But the revelation that Jilly's Jolly Jaunt is not what it seems will further tarnish the reputation of show dogs.

And if anyone believes it is reasonable because it would be unfair to expect any dog to walk 130 miles in four days, here's my offer:

If 50 or more people email me to agree to sponsor me to the tune of at least £10 each,  I will do exactly the same walk with my 10-yr-old GSD x Jake later this summer - all the way, definitely him, and I will also donate the money raised to Great Ormond St, Dog Lost and the KC Charitable Trust.

Jemima and Jake's Jolly Jaunt. 

Please add your pledge below - and make sure to email me privately so I can contact you: jem@pedigreedogsexposed.com

The real Jake
Also the real Jake
Yep, this is him, too.

Is the flood of animals receding?

I got a great question from Christopher of Border Wars on my last post. He wrote: “From the data I’ve seen, shelter intakes are dropping in real numbers and have been for decades despite constant growth in both population and animal ownership. So aren't the flood waters already going out?” I answered there, but have been feeling that there’s more to say on the topic.

As I wrote back to Christopher, the numbers of animals surrendered to shelters and the numbers of stray animals are definitely dropping in most (but not all) communities. Does this mean our work is done? Below you will find rampant over-generalization! Enjoy.

Location, location, location
Things are pretty good in the northeastern United States. When I started this blog, I lived in New England. Shelters there certainly had their problems, but they weren’t nearly as overwhelmed as the shelters that I have seen this year in the South. Northeastern shelters often import dogs (particularly puppies) from Southern shelters. So when you’re looking at intake numbers, think about what part of the country you’re in. The problems in the South are still intense, as I can attest from first-hand experience this year.

Dogs vs cats
When I was in New England, I observed that many shelters were managing their dog populations very well. Dogs in most shelters had a very high adoption rate there; healthy, behaviorally stable dogs in New England shelters had little to fear. Cats were an entirely different story. Plenty of shelters were euthanizing cats for space, and the others were stuck holding cats for months before finding homes for them.

Ironically, the tide is turning with the new programs in which cats who have been successfully following a healthy free-roaming lifestyle are simply sterilized, vaccinated, and returned to the neighborhood in which they were living. This has dropped cat euthanasia rates dramatically in participating communities. (See my previous post on leaving outdoor cats where they are.) You can’t really do this with dogs, so suddenly some shelters are finding themselves euthanizing more dogs than cats!

A dog problem or a pit bull problem?
I have been told that New England doesn’t have an unwanted dog problem, but it does have an unwanted pit bull problem. By that, of course, I mean pit bull type dogs, as the “pit bull” designation does not refer to a specific breed and is often used loosely to describe mixed-breed dogs who have a certain look.

For sure, in almost any shelter you go to, you’ll see many more pit bull types than dogs of any other breed. (The exception is shelters in communities with breed specific bans, in which those types of dogs may not be allowed in the shelters, or are immediately shipped out or euthanized.) This type of dog is harder to adopt out of shelters, as many adopters are looking for a different type of pet. They also do poorly in shelters, because they are highly social, smart, and energetic. Many shelters are specifically struggling with how to stem the flood of pit bull type dogs; the various programs that have been tried are a topic for a different post.

Some improvement is not enough

And finally, as I said to Christopher in my answer to his comment, we may have seen some improvement, but it is nowhere near enough. Appalling numbers of animals were euthanized in shelters in the past. Somewhat less appalling animals are euthanized now. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that the numbers have dropped from 12-20 million shelter euthanasias per year in the 1970s to 2.7 million shelter euthanasias today. It’s all guesswork, because there is no centralized reporting for animal shelters; we don’t even know how many shelters are in the U.S., let alone how many animals they process and how many animals survive. Remember, though, that those numbers don’t include animals trapped in inhumane conditions in long-term facilities, sometimes for years (again, this is from personal experience). It does not account for overcrowding at shelters causing welfare problems, even short-term, for the animals who stay there. Nor does it account for animals dying of disease in shelters which do not have the resources to manage their populations. And it probably accounts for spectacular changes in some shelters, but much less change in others.

The trend is in a good direction, but we’re not done, and the trend won’t continue in this direction without more work. So get your animals spayed or neutered, don’t buy animals from pet stores or flea markets or online, take your dog to a training class to prevent behavior problems, exercise your dog for the same reason, and volunteer at your local shelter.

Stemming the flood of animals

This past week I was at one of the largest shelters in the United States. At one point, I was standing by a door chatting with some of my co-workers for ten minutes, and during those ten minutes we saw three sets of people coming in to surrender their dogs. This shelter takes in about 100 animals a day, 30,000 animals a year.

My co-workers and I realized that the biggest problem this shelter faced was its massive intake. Nothing else they could do to solve their problems would be more effective than reducing that. In fact, it has been shown again and again that euthanasia in shelters mirrors intake: more intake means more euthanasia, and less intake means less euthanasia. But how do you reduce intake?

When I was catching up on my life this morning with my husband, I told him about managed intake: the shelter only accepts owner-surrendered animals that they have room for. If they don’t have space, they don’t accept the animal. The animal may be put on a waiting list, and ideally the shelter offers support during the wait (food if the owner can’t afford to feed the animal, behavioral advice, help finding animal-friendly housing).

In the case of animals that the shelter knows that they will have great difficulty placing (old, sick, etc.), they will let the owner know that they will immediately euthanize the animal. This sounds cold, but the alternative that many shelters practice is to take the animal in and euthanize it without warning the owner that this is inevitable. (No one likes conflict, least of all institutions run by local government.) This approach shifts the responsibility onto the owner. Although many people who surrender animals to shelters know that the animal may be killed, it is much easier to convince yourself that that could never happen to your animal (which you know is so wonderful) if there is some chance that the animal will survive. This puts the choice of euthanasia onto the shelter, and the blame onto the shelter. But moving the decision back to the owner means that the owner has to deal with the decision, and hopefully find another solution, or at least take the experience into account the next time they acquire an animal or have difficulties with a pet. (Is the experience of surrendering a pet to an unknown fate more difficult than the experience of having a healthy pet euthanized? I have my own guess, and you can make yours.)

My husband (kindly playing the foil in the Socratic dialogues of this blog) asked me about the unintended consequences of such a policy. The shelter is mandated by the county to accept stray dogs. Will the policy result in more people untruthfully representing their surrendered pets as strays? Will it even result in more animals being abandoned on the street?

We don’t know; the research hasn’t been done. Some shelters have experimented with managed intake, and their experience has been that this policy does not actually cause very many people to do reprehensible things. Mostly, people will put their animals on the waiting list (perhaps with some yelling at the shelter employees first), and then some of them will surrender the animal when room is available, and some will find other options (like a friend who wants a dog), and some will decide to keep the animal after all. And some will be lost to follow up, so perhaps those people do put the animal on the street.

But here is what I think about it: abandoning an animal on the street is illegal. So if a shelter institutes managed intake, and as a result some people break the law, whose fault is that? Is it the shelter’s fault? In my book, the shelter is behaving very responsibly by refusing to accept animals that they cannot care for, and by being honest that a new animal which is accepted must be euthanized. Some support for owners who need it is essential, and should be considered a part of managed intake. If an owner responds to this policy by breaking the law, I feel that the blame is with them. Perhaps increased enforcement of animal cruelty laws (which include neglect) is the proper answer to this problem.

More and more shelters are considering managed intake. I think there will be anger in some communities at first, but I am very hopeful that if enough shelters institute this policy, there will eventually be a sea change in our culture’s approach to unwanted animals. Whose problem is an unwanted animal? The owner's.

Social epidemiology recommendation

I am totally digging the first week of Social Epidemiology, a course on Coursera. (Quick summary of Coursera: free classes; you don’t have to commit, can just watch the lectures if that’s all you want; entirely online and open.) Epidemiology is of course the study of disease at a population level, and most people think of classic epidemiology cases like Ebola virus (who got it first? how is it transmitted in the population? who’s most at risk? how do we stop its spread?). But social epidemiology is about the social factors in disease — most commonly chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. What social factors cause people to live unhealthy lives?

This is obviously applicable to veterinary preventive medicine (though not directly addressed in the class; it takes some extrapolation). Why don’t people vaccinate their animals? Why don’t they exercise their animals? My personal interest is in how to prevent these sorts of problems, so I’m very much hoping that later in the class it will address preventive medicine and policy (how do we help people live healthier lives?). But if I wait until that happens to recommend it, it will be too late! Take it now! No committment! You can just listen to the lectures (or just do the readings). Only take the quizzes if you want to (though the first one wasn’t difficult). Just learn!

Hopefully a few years from now I will be offering the world’s first Social Veterinary Epidemiology class online. A girl can hope.