The judges are revolting


Top UK judge Andrew Brace is making a stand. He has announced that he will no longer judge any of the "high profile" Category Three breeds in the UK  (i.e. those dogs subject to the "indignity" of a vet check at champ shows). This is because Brace thinks that breed type is much more important than some trifling fault that  - in his opinion - has only a minor impact on the dog's health and welfare.

On a Facebook page for show judges, Brace explains:
Ever since the initial announcements were made, heralding the introducing of the vet checks for certain BOB winners, there was an understandable resentment on the part of judges that statements which came out from the Kennel Club's press office that by inference suggested that in the past judges had ignored the need for their winning dogs to be fit and healthy, free from exaggerations that caused them any discomfort. This of course was nonsensical as any self-respecting judge had always sought to reward dogs that represented their breeds in a wholly typical manner, yet were happy, fit and healthy and in no way constructed in such a way that they suffered as a result.
Er, you mean like this dog?


Or this one?


Or perhaps this one?



Or how about this one?


Dog shows have been the single biggest driver in reducing some formerly-functional breeds into oversized, over-angulated, over-coated, over-wrinkled, saggy-eyed travesties. For Brace to believe otherwise is delusional (and, indeed, directly contradicts what he himself said in this article in Dog World just a year ago.)

And yet Brace goes on:
"In some cases the BOB had been awarded by judges of the reputation and standing of Ferelith Somerfield and Zena Thorn Andrews, the latter being at the time the solitary all-breeds judge in the UK."
Now that's a reference to Ch Buzz Lightyear at Dereheath - the Basset that Zena Thorn Andrews awarded BOB at Crufts 2012 and which failed the vet check.


This dog (described by Mrs Thorn Andrews as having "superb conformation") failed for an eye problem, not the fact that he had excess flesh dripping from every limb. But look what happened at Crufts the following year? This dog won.  A vast improvement.


Unfortunately, Crufts 2014 saw a regression to this...  a real shame. 


But I still believe that the vet checks are, in the main, making judges more careful about the dogs they reward and that no judge should ever put up any dog that is in less than demonstrably good health on the day. Extreme conformation in and of itself is not (say the rules) a reason to DQ a dog, but because the more extreme dogs are more likely to have accompanying signs of clinical disease (e.g. sore eyes from from ectropion) the vet checks have had a moderating effect.

Brace, though, won't be swayed - and rather than lobby to improve the vet checks, he wants them gone. He thinks the independent scrutiny of these "victimised" breeds are "humiliating" and, further, he denigrates some judges who are willing to continue to judge them as "fault-obsessed" at the expense of type.  He maintains:

"The problem with the vet checks is that they tend to encourage judges to become obsessed with faults and in so doing can overlook a dog’s many virtues. Obviously a dog that is dripping in breed type but that cannot walk should never be considered for any award, but there has to be a degree of leniency shown when faults do not affect a dog’s functionality and comfort."
And he goes on:
"Judging dogs brings with it enough pressures, and enough concerns to do the job right, without the additional worry of finding a dog that not only pleases the judge sufficiently to award it BOB, but will also satisfy some vet who may have no intimate knowledge of that breed as to its suitability to represent its breed in the group ring."
The vet, of course, is not there to judge its suitability to represent its breed. The vet is there to judge its suitability as a dog.

And herein lies the rub. The Fancy wants the right to continue to do what the hell it likes, without outside scrutiny. That it so often finds itself in conflict with the veterinary profession is telling.
Says Brace: 
"Judging dogs should be a pleasurable experience, for the exhibitors, for the judge and for the ringside."
Um. And for the dogs, Andrew. 

For the dogs.

Here's the whole sorry post from Mr Brace.

Andrew Brace
Andrew Brace5:58pm May 28
Since making it known that I am no longer accepting invitations to judge the “High Profile” breeds in the UK as long as the ridiculous vet checks of the BOB winners persist I have had several messages from people asking me to reconsider. I hope that the following will make people understand why I have made this decision. It won’t make a blind bit of difference to the decision-makers in the British Kennel Club but it is the only way I can personally make a stand.
When a few short years ago the Kennel Club in Britain decided to have a number of what it deemed “High Profile Breeds” subjected to the indignity of having their BOB winners at Crufts dog show examined by a vet to determine whether or not they were fit enough to compete in their respective groups, there was outcry when many of them failed and were denied their place in the group. In some cases the BOB had been awarded by judges of the reputation and standing of Ferelith Somerfield and Zena Thorn Andrews, the latter being at the time the solitary all-breeds judge in the UK.
Despite widespread condemnation, the Kennel Club has continued with these vet checks and yet these checks do nothing to indicate how healthy a breed is at large. How can they when, as an example, the same Pekingese has been vet-checked more than thirty times?!
If the Kennel Club is serious about improving the health and welfare of breeds across their whole population there are far more effective ways of doing so and to some extent it has taken steps to develop a system which is more in line with the more logical and general judges’ reports which originated in Sweden. Yet still the humiliating BOB checks persist.
Judging dogs should be a pleasurable experience, for the exhibitors, for the judge and for the ringside. Ever since the initial announcements were made, heralding the introducing of the vet checks for certain BOB winners, there was an understandable resentment on the part of judges that statements which came out from the Kennel Club's press office that by inference suggested that in the past judges had ignored the need for their winning dogs to be fit and healthy, free from exaggerations that caused them any discomfort. This of course was nonsensical as any self-respecting judge had always sought to reward dogs that represented their breeds in a wholly typical manner, yet were happy, fit and healthy and in no way constructed in such a way that they suffered as a result.
The challenge of judging purebred dogs is a demanding one. It requires someone invited to carry out a job, employing their knowledge of a breed and hopefully their inherent integrity which should be such that they are capable of evaluating all dogs shown to them impartially, taking no account of what a dog has won, how it is bred or who is handling it. All judges have their own methods of arriving at an ultimate decision, but at all times they should tend to focus on the positive, acknowledging and rewarding merit whilst at the same time recognising faults which should always be seen in perspective.
Judges of my generation were taught by the old school that fault-judging is the road to nowhere. “Throwing the baby out with the bath water” was an expression that was often used when I was in my formative years, having it explained to me that losing an otherwise outstanding animal on the strength of one obvious, but relatively minor, fault would never result in excellent judging.
The problem with the vet checks is that they tend to encourage judges to become obsessed with faults and in so doing can overlook a dog’s many virtues. Obviously a dog that is dripping in breed type but that cannot walk should never be considered for any award, but there has to be a degree of leniency shown when faults do not affect a dog’s functionality and comfort.
Some of the dogs that have been banned from appearing in a group, despite having won the CC & BOB under a judge who has been approved by the Kennel Club, have apparently been so treated because the acting vet has found an ageing piece of scar tissue on an eye which would not be obvious in a judge’s routine examination, and in some cases because of evidence of "mucous"! Judges are not vets and should not pretend to be. Similarly vets should not assume the mantle of dog judge. Neither has been through the training required of the other.
Judging dogs brings with it enough pressures, and enough concerns to do the job right, without the additional worry of finding a dog that not only pleases the judge sufficiently to award it BOB, but will also satisfy some vet who may have no intimate knowledge of that breed as to its suitability to represent its breed in the group ring.
On a personal level this extra burden I find detracts from the whole judging experience and also negates much of the pleasure that the task should bring. That is why I, and some of my colleagues, have decided that we no longer wish to judge these victimised breeds at Championship level in the UK. That may not be viewed as any great loss in some quarters, but as far as the breeds at large are concerned it may rob them of the opportunity to show under a number of experienced and knowledgeable judges, whilst at the same time seeing the judging ranks augmented by new judges who are fault-obsessed.
Related posts: 

And the Saints go marching on

The St Bernard that failed a vet check a fortnight ago has now passed a vet check just two weeks later.

I blogged last week about the St Bernard who failed the check at the National Champ Dog Show two weeks ago. (See here.)

Vet John Goodyear failed the bitch (Chandlimore On The Bottle) on the grounds of eye pathology which included small eyes and - judging from pictures of the dog - poor overall eyelid anatomy.



But, last weekend, the same dog won the Bitch CC at the Bath Championship Show and owner Tan Nagrecha elected to have the dog vet-checked (it is only mandatory for BOBs but he needs a pass for the dog to be made up to a champion).

Lo and behold, this time the dog passed.

What on earth is going on here?

I have no doubt that many in the show-world will use this to ridicule the vet checks. (The Canine Alliance has already waded in here). That's because most have hated the vet checks from the start, especially those in the breeds effected.

But, though flawed, the vet checks have proved to be be a powerful driver for change. There's a long way to go but we are - in the main - seeing less extreme dogs in the ring among the "high profile" (now called Category 3) breeds.

The answer, then, is not to scrap the vet checks - it's to make them more robust.

Yes, yes, but what happened here?

Here's my take on it:

The vet at the National was John Goodyear - an eye specialist.

The vet at Bath Champ Show was Chris Laurence - not an eye specialist - and, as it happens, a vet with a very long association with the Kennel Club/dog shows.

Did Laurence allow his relationship with the Fancy to over-ride common veterinary good sense?

Before you leap to an answer, here's the confounding factor:

Laurence failed the Best of Breed Saint - a dog called Bernmont Heathcliffe owned by Pat Muggleton - on the same day. 

So here's what I think happened.

First, there is an element of subjectivity in all veterinary opinion. That's always going to be the case.

Second, I suspect Laurence was going by the book more than Goodyear.

This specific book is written by the Kennel Club and it makes quite clear that a vet cannot fail a dog on the evidence of pathology/poor conformation alone (because, let's face it, otherwise whole breeds would fail every time). The rules state, then, that there has to be evidence that the pathology is causing grief to the dog on the day - eg conjunctivitis, lameness etc.

The problem with the BOB dog on Sunday was, apparently, evidence of "mucous discharge" and excess tear production (epiphora). This would suggest sore eyes/irritation.

But if the report in Dog World is to be believed, vet John Goodyear failed the bitch at the National purely on poor eye-conformation.

Laurence appears to have stuck to the rules at Bath in passing the bitch CC. After all, he is pretty withering about the BOB he failed -and St Bernard eyes in general - telling Dog World:
"This dog had epiphora [excess tear production] in both eyes and discharge in one eye,” he said. "The problem with St Bernards is that they all have a degree of ectropion; it is a general issue with the breed, and this makes it more prone to any sort of eye problem. If you put a dog with ectropion in a situation where the eye becomes stressed and vulnerable that dog is likely to fail. 
"When I do these checks I say to some owners to be careful because one day the dog will fail because the eyes are not normal; either there is ectropion or entropion or a degree of both and that makes it prone to eye disease. That’s why we do the checks.” 
Mr Laurence said the KC had set down rules which state that if there is any sign of epiphora the dog should fail. "The real point is that if the dog is showing signs of eye disease it should fail, and if it’s not showing signs of disease it should pass,” he said. "That’s how I understand the KC rules, which are pretty explicit.” 
Of course, if  I was the bitch's owner, I would be inclined to take John Goodyear's opinion as the expert one and think very carefully about breeding from the dog.

But I imagine that Tan Nagrecha is cock-a-hoop with the result.  His bitch now has two CCs... only one more and she she will be made up to a champion and will soon, no doubt, to be the bearer of a new generation of saggy-eyed Saints.

Because that vet check fail can now be erased from history. 

The KC's rules state the following:
  1. Any dog from a breed designated by the Kennel Club as Category Three on Breed Watch will not have its title of Champion confirmed until the dog has passed an examination by a General or Group Championship Show Veterinary Surgeon. The result of the examination shall be final.
You might think that would preclude Chandlimore On the Bottle from ever being made up to a champion. But it doesn't. "Final" only refers to the vet check on the day. There is nothing to stop a dog subsequently winning and passing a vet check at another show and for that to count towards the dog's championship.

It doesn't matter how many times the dog fails. Just one pass is enough.

Of course it's possible for a dog to go lame or bash an eye on the day... but a lame dog or one with a sore eye should be withdrawn from competition.

Just imagine if failing just one vet check was enough to prevent a dog ever being made up to Champion?

My guess is that it would lead to a very rapid improvement in conformation.

Hilariously, btw, the owner of Bernmont Heathcliffe, the BOB that failed his vet-check, puts the excess tear production down to the fact that it was "windy".

Says owner Pat Muggleton: "I wouldn’t take a dog to a show if it had bad eyes. The vet said my dog’s eye was a little bit wet but it was very windy where we were being judged. There’s nothing wrong with his eyes; his father and uncle were made up."

But here's his dam - Bernmont Sophie (who, incidentally, was bred without ever being hip-scored - a mandatory requirement for all St Bernards under the Assured Breeder Scheme)


I am not sure, then, that Pat Muggleton should be entirely surprised that this dog's son does not have perfect eyes - or indeed perfect hips. Bernmont Heathcliffe's hip score is a high 19 (9/10).

28/5/14: edit to correct that this picture is of the BOB's dam, not sire.

Silky Terrier Club claims *not* docking is unethical

A natural tail? How very dare you!
Nine members of the Silky Terrier Club of America have filed a complaint against three others, claiming that they have violated the Club's Code of Ethics by breeding, registering and showing dogs with natural tails.

The ridiculous case is highlighted in The Dog Press. On an accompanying blog, Maggie Keuser, one of the breeders named in the suit, claims the Club also tried to make the national club specialty judge sign an addendum to his contract to not put up a dog with a tail - "because he had awarded a tailed dog a BISS and they didn't want it at their specialty".

The anonymous author of the Dog Press article is, fortunately, on the side of sanity.
"Is this a frivolous action on the part of the Directors of the Silky Terrier Club of America? The Silky Terrier AKC Breed Standard, approved 1989, says  The Breed Standard does not require docking ...nor can it! According to AKC Rules no standard may require, mandate, or otherwise prescribe docking or cropping of ears or tails. Do you interpret the sentence referring to "docked" as nothing more than an observation that the tail is usually docked? No penalty is stated for natural tails. There is not even the usual disclaimer such as any deviation should be considered a fault, etc. 
"There is considerable debate on the necessity of cropping and docking for the conformation ring. Indeed much of the western world, including Europe where many of our breeds come from, does not allow tail docking or ear cropping. American breeders are exercising their right, preference and choice for natural ears and tails and some clubs have handled the cropping/docking debate better than others. It is hard to fathom that the American Kennel Club would allow a Club with AKC-approved By-Laws and an AKC-approved Breed Standard to entertain a Code Of Ethics violation for failing to crop or dock.

"The current trend toward importing natural ears and tails, coupled with breeder refusal to crop ears or dock tails has affected all breeds that have descriptions of docked tails or cropped ears in their standards. The cropping-docking debate has caused much in-fighting among clubs, destroyed friendships, and generally damaged the reputation and integrity of the sport over an issue which some consider strictly cosmetic and others consider mutilation."
If internecine breed club wars are your thang, you can follow the debate here.

The Dog Press blog reveals, among other gems, that a law suit brought against the Brittany Club of America to amend the breed standard to allow Brittany Spaniels with tails to be to be shown failed four years ago. As a result, the current breed standard in America still states: "Any tail substantially more than four inches shall be severely penalised."

I was also interested to see mentioned this statement from the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association (despite its name, this is the AKC parent club and conformation showing is a big part of it).
"Springer enthusiasts, both field and conformation, dock tails for utilitarian function and to reinforce the breed’s moderate, balanced outline, consistent with proper breed type as defined in the standard. 
'A docked tail is required by the standard, and natural tails are not customary. For this reason, the standard provides no description of the correct carriage of a natural tail.
Judges are advised that the presentation of the English Springer Spaniel with a natural tail is inconsistent with the breed standard. In the United States, therefore, a natural tail is a fault. It is not, however, a disqualification.
"Judges are encouraged to evaluate positive attributes of breed type first and then measure the impact of individual faults on that overall evaluation. 
"Please note: With regard to the length of docked tails typically seen, conformation judges should be aware that conformation exhibitors leave approximately one-third of the tail’s length, while field trial exhibitors approximately two-thirds. Exhibits in field trial and hunting classes may have longer, though docked tails." 
Lovin' the irony in the fact that conformation breeders in the US cling to a shorter-docked tail in the Springer than the working folk on the basis of "utilitarian function". In fact, a fair few working breeders of ESS in the US no longer dock at all (although many do still here in the UK where there is an exemption from the docking ban for working dogs).

I'm a little off-topic here, I know. But if the Fancy wants to survive, it needs to recognise that frivolous lawsuits like this will send it spiralling into the abyss faster than any animal rights activist.

Fish personalities?!

My mobile buzzed: I had a text message from my husband. I’m bored. Call me. He was driving to New England and stuck in traffic.

I called. He asked how my day had been. How was that boring meeting? It was great, I said. I got to talk to a fellow grad student about a project of his during the coffee break. We were talking about a new way of studying fox personalities, using a method he had applied in his study of fish personalities.

ARKive photo - Male three-spined stickleback attacking pregnant femaleHusband: Wait. What personalities?

Me: Fish.

Husband: Did you say fish?

Me (wondering if the connection is bad): Fish.

Husband: The things with scales that swim?

Me: Fish! Yes!

Husband: ...have personalities?

Oh. Right. Sometimes I forget that my world is not other peoples’ world.

Me: Yes! Some are shy and some are bold.

Husband: Oh right. Continue.

I mean, what’s personality, really?  We make it sound like a big deal when we say that fish have them. My boss doesn’t even like me to say that our foxes have them when I am writing grant applications.

When you break it down to these small traits, like shyness and boldness, it makes more sense, though, right? Some fish are shy: when you put food in their tank, they hide a little bit longer before they will come out to eat. Some are bold: not only do they explore more and hide less, they are more likely to attack other fish who try to take their fishy belongings. If you haven’t observed these differences, I assume it's because you haven’t kept fish.


Different personalities are better (“more adaptive,” if we’re speaking Science instead of English) in different environments. An environment with lots of predators? Better to be shy, more cautious, and check out the surroundings before going for some food that's floating out there in the open. An environment with fewer predators, but lots of other fish of the same species as you? You had better go get that food fast before someone else does, rather than waiting to see if the coast is clear.

So it makes sense for a species to have a reservoir of personality types. This way, when an environment changes (there’s a new predator, or increased population density), that variation is there to be drawn upon. Lots more birds around to eat the fish all of a sudden? The fish with shyer personalities will do better, the ones with bolder personalities will do worse, and the population will gradually come to have more shy fish in it, so that the population as a whole can survive the change in environment.

For sure, human personality is a lot more complex than fish personality. But that is exactly why my friend’s lab studies fish: better to try to understand a simple system first before tackling the more complex one. A lesson I don’t seem to have learned, jumping right in with my questions about dog personality. Oh well.

[If you’re a dog trainer or just interested in dog genetics, you can learn about the genetics of dog behavior with me this summer in an online course with the APDT!]

Goodbye Rosie

© Adrian Sherratt
When I first met Carol Fowler, she was in two minds whether or not to be interviewed for Pedigree Dogs Exposed. She was nervous both in general of the media and because the breeders of Bonnie, her first Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to suffer from syringomyelia, had threatened to sue her if she spoke out.

It was, of course, an idle threat - but nevertheless intimidating for a retired schoolteacher from Gloucestershire whose natural inclination is to modesty, to circumspection.

Carol agreed to be interviewed, though, because she thought that speaking out might just prevent other Cavalier owners and their dogs going through the agony she had endured. By then Bonnie had already died from syringomyelia and her second Cavalier, Rosie, had also been diagnosed with it.

Carol's bravery has played an enormous part in ensuring that the genetic health of Cavaliers has become a priority with everyone involved with the breed.

Today, Carol is a formidable advocate for not just Cavaliers but for all dogs... chivvying politicians, vets, welfare bodies, puppy buyers and the Kennel Club to do better via her Dog Breeding Reform Group, her Dog Breed Health website and her Cavalier Campaign.

On Sunday, Carol lost her beloved Rosie. In the end, it wasn't the the sryingomyelia. What  killed Rosie was the 'other' Cavalier problem: heart disease. 

No dog was ever more loved - as is evident from these out-takes from Pedigree Dogs Exposed.

None of you will be surprised to hear that Carol is absolutely heart-broken.

Shar-pei snoring - not so cute



A "meat-mouth" Shar-pei pup demonstrating the the effort needed simply to breathe through all that excess tissue.

Almost half a million views on YouTube and not one comment pointing out how very abnormal this is. 

There are loads of similar videos on YouTube of Shar-pei puppies snoring. I found this one particularly sad as this pup is trying to keep his head up to keep his airways open.

Again, half a million views and only one commenter remarking that the dog can't get comfortable.


St Bernard: snow blindness


From brandy-barrel to drool bib

Last week at the Birmingham National Champ Show, this top-winning St Bernard (Chandlimore On The Bottle) failed her vet check.

According to this report in DogWorld,  examining vet John Goodyear - an eye specialist -  said the bitch's eyeballs "were too small for her eyes". 

In the dog's defence, owner Tan Nagrecha explained:
"The old Standard demands a slightly deep set eye with prominent stop and well defined orbital ridges. This is because the St Bernard’s purpose is to work in blizzard conditions in mountainous terrain and if the eye is full and forward snow would get in them. So it is preferred that the eyes should be slightly deep set to fulfil the breed’s functionality. As a breed we don’t want a big, bold, round eye as that would not serve the breed’s original purpose, plus it would detract from the benevolent expression the breed desires.” 
Oh my. 

Where to start with this Fancy-generated gibberish?

Well, first perhaps to point out that the Snow Leopard has large eyes.


And while this polar bear has smaller eyes, it has tight eyes.


Or how about the Arctic Fox?



The claim that deep-set eyes are advantageous in blizzards is breeder-bollockry on a par with Bulldog owners claiming that the Bulldog's wrinkles are there to "help channel the bull's blood away away from the dog's eyes".

Like most of the show Mastiff breeds, the show-bred St Bernard's eyes are often a disgrace. They have huge problems with entropion and ectropion; the whole eye anatomy is saggy, exposing mucous membranes that would be painful in sub-zero temperatures.  (And while I'm here, those droopy, wet, slobbery flews would be a big problem in the Swiss mountain winter weather, too)

Click to enlarge
I can't think of a single wild animal that has eyes like this. And that's because it's aberrantly abnormal. The eyelids can't close properly and the exposed haw/loose-fit attracts debris which can be painful and lead to damage and infection. It is completely dysfunctional and yet largely ignored by breeders who create nonsensical mythology to normalise it. It is rarely penalised by judges.

And so dogs with dreadful eyes continue to win. And then they're bred from and another generation of saggy-eyed giants are doomed to eyes vulnerable to discomfort at best and blindness at worst.

Here's the modern UK standard (not sure of the exact date of the change - anyone?)

Eyes
Of medium size, neither deep set nor prominent, eyelids should be reasonably tight. Excessive haw must be heavily penalised. Dark in colour and not staring. There should be no excessive loose wrinkle on brow which would detract from a healthy eye. Free from obvious eye problems.

Owner Tan Nagrecha blames the KC for changing the standard:

"We’re trying to keep the breed type while satisfying the KC’s red tape. It’s going two ways: in one the eyes are becoming tighter but smaller with more cause for concern of entropion but yet it appears as a normal generic eye, and in the other the eyes are bigger but along with that comes slacker lower eyelid. That is my experience. 
  "To add to this, sometimes we have non-pigmented lower third eyelid which makes the haw look worse than it would appear in a pigmented third eyelid. The old breeders bred to the older Standard a for a diamond eye. 
  "Because the St Bernard’s characteristics, as dictated by that Standard, are so inherent in the breed they are not going to change overnight. I accept that my bitch has a slacker eye but she is a very, very big bitch and the eyeball is healthy and not affected by lashes, there is no damage and it does not affect her eyesight or cause irritation or lesions.”
I sent the picture to the Barry Foundation in Switzerland The response from their veterinary director Urs L├╝scher was swift and blunt:
"The original Saints did not have such eyes and such lids. These are English inventions. The veterinarian rightly decided to eliminate this dog. These lids are not functional.”
The descent of this once powerful but always functional breed into an over-sized, lumbering, slobbery mess is a real tragedy. Most would be incapable of moving more than a few yards through deep snow. This "very, very big bitch" (as if that's somehow a good thing) is not even two years old.

Unfortunately, size for size's sake is considered desirable in many of the giant breeds - complete madness given the toll on the dogs. (It is no accident that it is the heavy, "big-boned" dogs that top the hip dysplasia league tables - and they die a lot younger, too).

The KC standard for the St Bernard proscribes a minimum height but not a maximum. In fact, the English St Bernard Club still has an older breed standard on its website which demands: "The taller the better." (The newer standard on the KC website has dropped this phrase but still states that "size is desirable".

There is a clear need for phrases such as this to be reviewed. 

The vet-check fail is, says owner Mr Nabrecha.."especially disappointing for the breed."

Indeed.

1906


Breeding - not bitching - for the future

Yep. I failed.
For close on 10 years, I have hung out on canine genetics lists, pages and groups. I've learned a lot and 'met' some smart and inspiring dog people, some of whom have become friends. But, very often, the discussions descend into a bun-fight. (Sometimes it has to be said caused by my presence, although not by anything I say there - I keep the ranty stuff for here.)

On one side are breeders keen to maintain type who have been taught that 'linebreeding' is the only way to achieve it; on the other are those exploring diversity breeding and/or whose priority is function rather than form.  Both camps have keyboard warriors who can be withering about the other. The debates often get polarised, agenda-driven and personal.

In real life we can shrug and accept that it simply isn't possible to agree on everything. But social media fosters a level of jaw-dropping ugliness that few of us would sink to if we were talking to someone in person.

Yesterday, my post on Tickle was cross-posted as follows:


Rose Jay followed it up with a PM telling me I was responsible for the deaths of thousands of dogs. She believes that following Pedigree Dogs Exposed, people with pedigree dogs were so afraid of their gasping, limping genetic time bombs that they took them to the vet to be euthanised or handed them into rescues where they were subsequently killed.

There is no evidence for this other than a couple of anecdotal stories - one a Cavalier apparently PTS because its owners were so afraid that it would develop syringomyelia.

I tried to stand the stories up at the time and couldn't.  And I don't believe many vets would agree to kill an animal on these grounds. If there are other, genuine instances that stand up beyond internet gossip, I would appreciate knowing about them.

Now in posting the above screen-grab and in not blurring Rose Jay's name, I realise I am indulging in the very behaviour that I am criticising above.

But hey. My blog.

I'm posting it mostly to articulate the hurt it has caused at a time when I am crushed over the loss of a dog. Up to 10,000 people a day visit this blog so I can tell a lot of people how hurt I am. Which makes me feel better.

But it also provides a great segue into telling you about someone who is bigger than me; someone who has risen above the social media bitching to do something genuinely useful for dogs and breeders.

Two years ago, as I blogged here, Carol Beuchat set up the Institute of Canine Biology, an online resource designed to bridge the gap between science and breeders in a positive way.

Since then, Carol has been busy. She is running online courses in population genetics for dog breeders; encouraging the setting up of global pedigree databases and bringing in geneticists, conservationists, breeders and other experts to help with breed conservation/rescue plans. There has been huge demand.

And now Carole has taken another important step. Frustrated by the merry-go-round discussions and descents-into-chaos that so often mark online dog-breeding groups, she has set up a Facebook page called ICB Breeding for the Future which aims for a higher signal-to-noise ratio.

Its mission?
The goal of this group is to assist breeders in implementing modern, scientific principles in their breeding programs. This is not a place to debate whether this is worth doing, and I will absolutely not tolerate people who are here just to be disruptive - they will be blocked instantly. This needs to be a supportive, safe, place for breeders need to learn what they need to know, and it needs to feel like a community of collaborators. We are focused like a laser on helping breeders learn how they can breed excellent, healthy purebred dogs.
The page has attracted 500 breeders from all over the world in just two days - representing an extraordinary array of breeds, many mainstream, some of which are new to me.  Remarkable is the appetite to learn and the general awareness from many of those introducing themselves that there is a need for something new.

This is the Institute of Biology's elevator pitch - which will give you an idea of what you're letting yourself in for:

1) All the useful genetic variation your breed will ever have was in the dogs that founded the breed. This genetic diversity is finite.

2) Every generation, alleles are lost by chance (genetic drift) and also by artificial selection by breeders, who select for dogs with the traits they like, and remove other dogs from the breeding population.

3) Because the stud book is closed, genes that are lost cannot be replaced.

4) So,  from the moment a breed is founded and the stud book is closed, loss of genetic diversity over time is inevitable and relentless.

5) You cannot remove a single gene from a population. You must remove an entire dog, and all the genes it has.

6) You cannot select for or against a single gene, because genes tend to move in groups with other genes. If you select for (or against) one, you select for (or against) them all.

7) Breeding for homozygosity of some traits breeds for homozygosity of all traits. Homozygosity is the kiss of death to the immune system. And as genetic variability decreases, so does the ability of the breeder to improve a breed through selection, because selection it requires variability.

The consequences of inbreeding (in all animals) are insidious but obvious if you look - decreased fertility, difficulty whelping, smaller litters, higher puppy mortality, puppies that don't thrive, shorter lifespan, etc. Genetically healthy dogs should get pregnant if mated. They should have large litters of robust puppies, with low pup mortality. Animals that cannot produce viable offspring are removed by natural selection.

9) Mutations of dominant genes are removed from the population if they reduce fitness. Mutations of recessive alleles have no effect unless they are homozygous. So rare alleles are not removed, and every animal has them.

10) Create a bunch of puppies that have a (previously) rare mutation, and the frequency of that bad allele in the population increases, so the chance of homozygosity increases.

11) Genetic disorders caused by recessive alleles don't "suddenly appear" in a breed. The defective gene was probably there all along. Make a zillion copies, and you have a disease.

12) Using DNA testing to remove disease genes will not make dogs healthier (see 2, 5, and 6).

13) The breed will continue to lose genes (by chance or selection) until the gene pool of the breed no longer has the genes necessary to build a healthy dog.

14) At this point, the breed might look beautiful (because of selection for type), but will suffer from the ill effects of genetic impoverishment.

15) The only way to improve the health of a breed is to manage the health of the breed's gene pool.

16) The health of individual dogs cannot be improved without improving the genetic health of the population. Population genetics provides the tools for genetic management of populations of animals.

17) Breeders can improve the health of the dogs they breed if they understand and use the tools of population genetics.
 
Now be warned: Carol is a straight-speaker. She can be a little schoolmarmy at times. She doesn't brook any messing about in class. And some of what she will tell you turns some long-embraced breeder tenets upside down.

DNA testing won't make dogs healthier? Who knew?

Carol's plan is to ask for a small subscription so that she can afford both to devote her time to it - and be able to bring in the professionals as needed.

But it's free at the moment. And promises to be a genuinely supportive, collaborate venture for those who love dogs and whose breeding decisions shape their future.

Check it out here.

Related post: Dogs - the Elevator Pitch

And Tickle came home



The death of a dog is always an intensely personal experience. But I hope you will forgive me one final post about Tickle - for today has been an extraordinarily special one.

When Tickle was put to sleep on Saturday afternoon, our vet Edward asked: "Are you taking her home with you?"

"No," I said. "Dead is dead."

I really meant this. It's how I feel and, other than with my first amazing flatcoat Freddie (whose ashes still sit beside me here), I have always felt that the best place for a dead dog is in my heart, in my memory. I have never needed any physical remnant of a dog I have loved and lost.

So I walked out of the vets without her on Saturday afternoon. But I soon began to fret about it. And by Sunday night, it had begun to burn inside: I wanted Tickle back; back here with me.

I thought Jon would think I was mad. Instead he said: "No, I understand. She was lost before, and you brought her home. Now she is lost again.

"Go get her."

I called the vets yesterday morning, knowing they would have put Tickle in their freezer after I'd left on Saturday.

"Is she still with you?" I asked.

She wasn't. The veterinary "disposal" company had done their rounds early and had taken her.

"Would you like their number?" they asked.

I would.

I called them: "Do you have her?" I asked. "Am I in time?"

They said that because Tickle wasn't down for an individual cremation, she would be in an unmarked body bag, among several others. It would be hard to find her, they explained. But they asked for a description and said they would call back.

You hear so many nightmare stories about the disposal of dogs. Most of all I feared that, out of sheer expediency, they would tell me that I was too late.

But they called back two hours later to tell me they'd found her. It had meant opening several sealed bags. But they had read the blog and they did it.

For me.

For Tickle.

A lovely lady called Georgie said: "We will deliver her back to your vets tomorrow morning for you."

I sobbed my thanks. The need to have Tickle back here with me had become all-consuming.

So that was yesterday and, this morning, Jon and I went to Hungerford garden centre and picked out a young tree  - a pear tree.  And then I went, on my own, to collect Tickle.

I confess I howled all the way there, filled with foreboding about how difficult it might be to see her dead. Now I am not squeamish, but Tickle had been in a freezer for two and a half days and then, on my request, allowed to thaw.

But the moment I saw her, an extraordinary calm descended. She looked OK. She was still Tickle. So - be warned - I am including pictures of my dead dog here.

Vet nurse Sam and I carried her out to my car in a dog basket. And then I picked Tickle up and placed her on the front seat of my car.

Her place.

I drove home stroking her and talking to her. The movement of the car moved her body. She felt alive under my hand. And then I looked down and saw air bubbles coming out of her nose.  Of course it was just all the movement. But I confess for just a second or two I allowed myself the miracle before chiding myself for being so stupid.

When I got home, I carried her from the car and placed her on a blanket on the kitchen table.  The dogs came and sniffed her. They were very quiet. No doubt in my mind, they understood the significance of what was happening.


I then dressed Tickle in the red Hotterdog fleece that had swaddled her after she had broken her leg seven years ago, and carried her out to the grave we had dug in the garden. I laid her in it on a small foam dog bed and covered her with a soft blanket. We filled the hole and planted the pear tree.


And then, just as we had finished clearing up and were standing by the grave, the skies darkened.

And this happened.


A little later, I drove down to the Plain with the dogs. That darned rainbow tracked me the whole way there, messing with my atheistic, reductionist head.



It was so comforting I laughed out loud.

Whoever or whatever was responsible for that.... thank you.

Tonight, as I take the dogs out for the last time before bed, I will pass Tickle and her pear tree and whisper goodnight to my beloved girl.

Tickle is back home with me.

Where she belongs.

Related post: My friend Tickle

My friend Tickle


Tickle came into my life in early 2007, a young collie x girl who had narrowly escaped death in Ireland.

She was owned by a family who had got her as a puppy for their daughter. Unfortunately, the daughter soon lost interest and Tickle was dumped in the backyard. She was never walked and got little attention - other than from the next door neighbour, a lovely lady who felt very sorry for Tickle. She used to talk to Tickle over the fence; give her titbits.

One day, this lovely lady popped her head over the fence and saw that Tickle was missing. "She's run away," said her owners.  When Tickle didn't reappear, this kind person went looking for her and found her in the local pound - one with a terrible reputation. Few got out alive.

"Oh, her owners are going to be so pleased!" she told them.

"I don't think so," said the pound. "They surrendered her here yesterday".

And then this incredibly kind woman paid the release fee, got Tickle out and found her a space with the wonderful West Cork Animal Rescue, who contacted the rescue I had just started running here in the UK.

This is Tickle the day she arrived with us on Feburary 20th 2007. A pretty, timid girlie.


She grew in confidence hugely over the next 10 days or so and we found what we hoped would be the perfect home for her - a young family from Somerset who came to see her and fell in love. As I put her into their car, I warned them: "She is a bit of an escape artist... please be careful getting in and out of cars/opening doors etc, particularly to begin with."

Four hours later I got a call to say she had run away.  Lulled into a false sense of security because Tickle had sat quietly on their lap all the way home, they didn't have hold of her when they parked up outside their house and opened the car door. Tickle had simply been biding her time, waiting for the opportunity. She leapt from the back seat, out through the driver's door and legged it. She was now loose, panicked, in Misdomer Norton, a town through which lorries thundered.

I leapt in the car with Boz, my retriever x boy who she loved, and drove the three hours down there. I caught a single glimpse of her and called her name. But by now she was terrified. She was too far away to realise it was me and she turned and ran.

I walked until it was dark, then drove home in tears.

The next day, a Thursday, she was spotted four miles away, thankfully in a more rural area. I drove down again, put up posters, talked to someone who had spotted her, but she was nowhere to be seen.

The next three days, we were filming at Cruft's in Birmingham for the film that became Pedigree Dogs Exposed. It was agony knowing she was still on the run.  But then on the Sunday morning there was a call. Tickle had been spotted back in Midsomer Norton late the previous night outside the fish and chip shop. She'd taken some food off someone who recognised her from the posters, but ran off when they tried to grab her, very nearly under the wheels of a big truck.  Then later, she'd been spotted outside her new family's house, from where she'd gone missing. As soon as they called her, though, she ran off again.

I had no choice but to stay at Crufts to film Best in Show on the Sunday evening. We left as soon as possible afterwards and drove home to drop off the kit. I then jumped back into the car and drove down to Somerset. I took her friend Boz with me and arrived about 1am. I parked up outside the house where her new family lived and took the advice of an expert who had advised to sprinkle my pee round the car and just wait.  I don't think I've ever felt so ridiculous but I did as instructed, then opened the boot of the car, got in the back with Boz, wrapped myself up in a warm duvet and settled down for what I thought would be a long and probably fruitless night. By then, I wasn't even sure if I had much of a connection with her. After all, she'd only been with us 10 days and had been missing for five.

But it turns out that Tickle had been waiting for me. I saw a shadow come round the back of the car. I held my breath. Then she appeared.

"Tickle?" I whispered and she jumped into the car, rolling all over me and Boz and squealing with delight. I hugged her and cried with relief.

The noise had woken up her new family. We went in for a warming cup of coffee. I sat on the floor and an exhausted Tickle fell asleep on my legs. After a while they said: "Well thank you very much... we'll let you know how she gets on."

I looked at Tickle and then back at them. "I'm sorry," I told them. "But she's coming home with me."

I got home just before dawn. As I walked down the side of the house, Jon poked his head out of the bedroom window and said simply: "She's earned her place here."

And here she stayed, part of the team of assorted waifs and strays.


Tickle proved to be a fun and easy companion - always happy to settle at my side or at my feet in the house, but also the first to tell me it was time to get up, or go for a walk or time for tea.  She loved Salisbury Plain - somewhere we go every day, rain or shine. It is an amazing, quiet, big-sky place with expanses of grassland, copses and deep pools of water for swimming and diving.


Lots of diving.



She was very proud the day she caught this rabbit and brought it back to me. 


Not long after she came back to us, Tickle  ran over a jetty on the bank of fast-running river, dropped a leg between one of the slats and screamed. She was on the opposite bank from Jon and me and she sat there holding the leg up, crying for help. There was no bridge for a quarter of a mile. Jon offered to run round, but she suddenly slid into the river and swam across the strong current holding her injured leg above the water. Jon hauled her out, carried the sodden Tickle in his arms and we drove to the vets.

As soon as we got there, Tickle stopped crying. She was completely silent as the vet nurse manipulated her leg and said she didn't think it was broken. "Come back tomorrow if she's no better," she said. But as soon as we left, she started to whimper again. We took her back. An x-ray revealed the fracture. That was my Tickle. Strangers were not permitted to see any weakness.


She was a nightmare patient; hated the splint, and broke several of them. Eventually we found a neat solution - a cut-down child's welly wedged on the end of it. She loved the Hotterdog fleece she's wearing in this picture - worn because she had to have a mild tranquilliser to keep her a bit calmer- one that reduces body temperature a bit. Well, that was our excuse.


I am not entirely sure why she's wearing it in this one, though.


And probably the less said about the elf hat, the better.


For seven years, Tickle has been at my side, her ears always attuned to the slightest clink of the car keys. She demanded to come everywhere with me and she'd curl up on the front seat of the car besides me. When the weather permitted, she was happy to sit in the car for hours waiting for me.


When it wasn't possible for her to come with me, she'd sneak upstairs and lie on the bed in the spare room waiting for me to return. She was rarely very affectionate with anyone else, never felt the need to impress strangers... but she did love a cuddle with my Jon...


Not always displaying the greatest modesty...


Tickle was brilliant with the many dogs that have come through here as fosters - reassuring and playful with the pups; sharp with older ones that overstepped the mark.



She hated my flatcoat Maisie, though,  and the two had the occasional scrap. Tickle looked unashamedly thrilled when we lost Maisie to cancer in 2012. Tickle was one of the smallest here but became the matriarch; even our Big Jake minded his Ps and Qs with her.

She has also been my rescue's "stooge" dog - coming with me to assess many a dog over the years. She always got it exactly right; able to walk into just about any situation, her reaction always telling me so much about the other dog.  And she was also always with me on middle-of-the-night mercy dashes - an enormously calming influence on a new, stressed dog.

One morning a month ago, I noticed a swelling on the left side of Tickle's mouth. I thought she'd been stung and gave her an anti-histamine. But it didn't go down. The oedema began to spread until my pretty girl's head was distorted into a puffy balloon. The vets were puzzled - particularly as she was clearly so well in herself - exercising, swimming, playing and eating normally. Her bloods were normal too. This is Tickle last Sunday, with the gang on Salisbury Plain. Other than the oedema on her face, you wouldn't think there was  anything wrong.



Tickle is vet-phobic - she never got over that visit with her broken leg - so I have taken the conservative route. First antihistamine; then a diuretic; then antibiotics and finally, three days ago, steroids.

On Friday night, although she seemed comfortable, she was breathing faster. I put it down to the steroids but that was when I began to feel the first knot of worry in my gut. I lay awake listening to her breathing.

Yesterday late morning, we went for a long walk on Salisbury Plain - as we do every day. She ran and swam and leapt into the water after biscuits - a favourite game. But as the walk progressed she began to gag in an attempt to clear her throat. It got more frequent. It didn't seem to bother her much, but I called our vet Edward and drove to the surgery.

It was time to x-ray her chest. Tickle didn't want to go in and once through the door kept making eye contact with me, begging to leave. I so wished I could have done because I knew she was in trouble and I would so loved to have just turned round and taken her home.

But I couldn't. And she trusted me. So she followed me into the prep room (it was out of hours and Edward knows me well). She was quiet and learned into me  as Edward slipped a needle into her leg to sedate her for the x-ray. After a few moments, she slumped into my arms.

The first x-ray showed some lung oedema, but nothing remarkable - until Edward spotted that it looked like her heart was pushed up from its usual place. Two more x-rays - including a dorsal view - confirmed it. There was a large mass that had pushed her heart over to the right side of her chest.

Now it could have been benign - and I will always be a bit haunted by the thought that it was. After all, she seemed so well in herself. But I simply couldn't put Tickle, who hated the vet so much and was always bereft if she wasn't with me, through such a huge op without better odds.

She was already asleep. And so I kissed her head and let her go.


Today every cell in my body is heavy with loss - the horrible, pitting grief that all of us who love dogs know so well.  I hate that she isn't at my feet; hate that there was one less dog bowl in the line-up this morning; hate that when I went down to the Plain this afternoon, she wasn't on the front seat beside me.



But I know this will pass. And then I will take comfort from the fact that Tickle lived her life as a dog should.  She ran and swam and played and barked and was loved unencumbered by a flat face, or an overlong back, or wrinkles or hopelessly-short legs.

Tickle was still wet and muddy from the Plain when she died. I don't think you can ask for much more.

Other than a few more years.


Related post: And Tickle came home

Pug-Ugly


Lifted off the interweb this morning...

Discuss.

On nature and nurture and their interactions to make a personality

My mom called me yesterday because she had experienced some Science and was excited about it. She was watching a TV episode about aggression and how it appears in nearly every species. She called me to say that she thought my lab should look for the gene for aggression. “It should be easy,” she said, “because it should be the same gene in every animal.”

Aggressive silver fox


Yeah, you’d think that there would be single genes controlling bits of our personalities (human and dog — I think dogs are much more interesting, but in this case it’s much the same problem). Only ten or twenty years ago we thought we were in the endgame to find these genes: once the human genome was sequenced, we expected to be able to do a series of big studies to find these answers. Take a few hundred humans and sort them into “violent“ and “not violent.” Then look at markers in their genomes and use computers to find associations: all the violent people should share one marker, which will tell you where the gene for violence is. Done.

But we did those studies and we found, again and again, that these sorts of personality traits don’t give up their answers this way. In fact, in the case of zero personality traits have we found one (or even two or three) genes that control that trait. Sometimes we find genes that we think control a solid chunk of a trait, only to find that it was a statistical error — if you ask enough questions, you’ll find an interesting set of data just by chance. But if you ask the same question of another set of data (in other words, do another study), you’ll see that the first one was wrong. And this is what we have seen, for trait after trait.

Now, occasionally we’ll find a personality trait for which a little bit of it can be explained by one gene. When I say a little bit, I mean that if there is a normal amount of variety in this trait — say, in how violent a person is, ranging all the way from a pacifist to a psychopath — then the genes we find will explain about 0.1 percent of that variety. The rest is — what? Chance? Environment?

It’s a bunch of things, probably. For one thing, it’s surprisingly hard to define a personality trait. What’s violence? In dogs, we diagnose different kinds of aggression: territorial aggression, owner-directed aggression, dog-dog aggression, fear aggression. Are these all the same thing? Probably not. So instead of looking for one trait, “aggression,” should we look for four traits? Maybe. But do we actually know that those are the right four? Maybe there are six. Maybe there are ten. Maybe there are a hundred. We need to understand the traits we study better, and ask more detailed questions about them.

For another thing, yes, environment is important! Genes are important, but they are nowhere near the whole story. And environment is complicated. Certainly the difference between a pet store puppyhood and early life with a responsible breeder is huge. But can you lump early life experience into two bins, “good” versus “bad”? There are all kinds of variables. In the pet store, what kind of crate was the puppy kept in, how much interaction did it get, how young was it when it arrived? At the breeder’s, were there other adult dogs besides the mother to interact with, were there any small children, were there any bad interactions with other dogs or people? And a hundred, a thousand more questions.

I read recently about a pair of conjoined twins with very different personalities. These two had the same genes, because they came from the same embryo originally. And they had the same environment, because due to being conjoined they had to spend their lives in each other’s company. So how could their personalities differ? The article theorized that they reacted to each other, with one taking a bold, outgoing role and the other becoming shy and retiring in compensation.

And finally, the most interesting idea, in my opinion as a genomics researcher: what if we aren’t going to find the answer by looking at the sequences of DNA that make up genes? What if we are going to find the answer by looking at how the genes are regulated? If it isn’t that my dog is more fearful because some gene is a little broken, but she is more fearful because some gene is getting turned on much more or much less often than it should? It’s hard to investigate gene regulation when you have questions about the brain, because to do it you kind of have to get inside the brain, and it’s hard to do that without killing the person you’re studying. But I think looking at regulation is where things are going to have to go, and researchers are working on finding non-lethal ways of doing it.

So, nature and nurture: both important. Personality: super, super complicated. But also wicked interesting.

[If you’re a dog trainer or just interested in dog genetics, you can learn about the genetics of dog behavior with me this summer in an online course with the APDT!]

"Great push-back!"


This creature is the current No 1 Pug in the US - the multi-award-winning GRCH Hill Country's Tag I'm It ("JJ")

Apparently this dog has "great push-back".




The phrase refers, apparently, to the the fact that JJ's nose is pushing back and upwards into his face. It isn't called for in the breed standard but it is currently fashionable in the US - as, clearly, are huge, nostril-overlapping nose rolls.

How much longer before they look like this Pekingese? Oops sorry, Persian Cat.


This, by the way, is a Turkish Angora cat - what the original Persian Cat used to look like before cat breeders decided to improve them.