Tuesday, 30 April 2013

KC admits: "We needed to get a grip"

The KC's 140th birthday is celebrated in the current issue of Country Life. And it contains an interesting quote from KC Secretary Caroline Kisko.

In 2008, the unflattering BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed prompted a shake-up of KC breed standards, a clampdown on producing dogs with exaggerated characteristics and the reinforcement of the message that only healthy dogs should win prizes. ‘We needed to get a grip,' concedes KC Secretary Caroline Kisko. 
This is true enough, of course, but you don't often see the KC admit it in print.  Although perhaps Mrs Kisko is misquoted. After all, she goes on to say:
‘The big concern was dogs with breathing problems, but, although it won't happen overnight, we're already seeing very different dogs coming into shows and we've introduced vet checks.'
Breathing problems were - and are - a huge concern. But, actually, the biggest  - which goes un-acknowledged by the KC in this article and more generally - is the long-term unsustainability of closed gene pools. 

On which note, the KC has just released its third Dog Health Group report (unusually without an accompanying KC press release). You have to plough through quite a bit of back-slapping here -  new DNA tests, improvements in hip scores and how the vet checks are discouraging conformation extremes - to get to the really interesting bit. 

And it's this:

Click to enlarge
"Generally," it says, "our results show that most breeds have an effective population size below the recommended minimum to maintain a sustainably low rate of inbreeding."

This is massaged-genetics-speak for BIG trouble. 

It should be headline news, and should be forcing a review of breeding practices. Instead, it's buried in the Annex on page 30 of the report. 

Note, too, how the recommendations are to reduce line-breeding, manage the use of popular sires and to use more dams and sires (tsk... it's almost five years since PDE and still no real measures in place on these points). And no mention of  outcrossing, which is actually what any sane geneticist without the need to keep breeders sweet would recommend.

I have asked the KC for the reports. They say they are going to be distributed to the breed clubs first, then published online.

They will make extremely interesting reading.

The other interesting quote in the Country Life article, btw, is this one:
However, Mrs Kisko points out that the real problem is the underground issue of puppy farming. ‘Our mantra is that you should always buy a puppy from a KC-assured breeder because the rest we haven't got a clue about. We're working on this with the different governments, but they've all got different laws, which is daft. Current measures against puppy farming rely on local licensing authorities and that's not working. Our scheme is voluntary, so breeders are saying "I want to be inspected". The other difference is that we know what we're doing.'
And, of course, the breeders about which they "haven't got a clue about" include the thousands of  dogs the KC registers outside of the assured breeder scheme.

"We know what we're doing," says Mrs Kisko.

Indeed they do. It's called having your cake and eating it.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Pug-lovin' vets...

Announcement just posted on the Pug Club UK's website.

Yeah. That should do it.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Jilly's Jolly Jaunt

Jilly walks off with the big one...

Last year's Crufts' winner was a Lhasa Apso called Elizabeth described by her owner as "far too precious to take for a walk" in case the dog damaged her extreme coat (as detailed here).

It was bad PR for the Kennel Club, trying desperately to convince everyone that purebred dogs were fit for function.

There must have been a sigh of relief when this year's Best in Show was won by a jaunty Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen called Jilly (Ch Soletrader Peek A Boo).  Little reported, however (other than on Karen Friesecke's Doggiestylish blog from where I've nicked with her permission the pedigree below) is that the dog represents the other main problem with purebred dogs: inbreeding.

Jilly is very inbred. According to the Kennel Club's Mate Select, she has a co-efficient of inbreeding (COI) of 20 per cent, not far off the equivalent of a mother-son mating.  She is more inbred than her mother (14%) and her father (6%) and her COI is almost double the breed average of 11%.

She was born 14 months after Pedigree Dogs Exposed raised the alarm about the level of inbreeding in pedigree dogs, so this mating must have been a conscious decision to ignore the warnings.

"Jilly is the spitting image of her mum Dizzy in looks, attitude and temperament," it says on her breeder's website.

Well yes, she would be.  

Her dam's parents are her sire's grandparents. 

Click to enlarge (with thanks to Karen Friesecke)
Also depressing is that there is no mention of the work this breed was developed for anywhere on the breeder's or the UK Club website.  The Club has a page on the breed's history where it neglects to mention that the dog is a hunting hound, bred to flush and track rabbits in the Vende region of France. Instead, it prefers to concentrate on the fact that the Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen (PBGV) was once  interbred with the Grand Basset GriffonVendéen (GBGV) a practice that was banned by the French club in the late 1970s. That put a stop to that useful gene flow, then.

The US Club is better in detailing the breed's history and it even includes mention of hunt tests - although there isn't much evidence that they are wildly popular.

So let's not kid ourselves. Today, these dogs are simulacrums that look like the dogs of yesteryear. They are no longer worked. And the problem with that is where the dog will end up.

Now, the Robertsons clearly breed for moderate dogs.  Jilly is a low-rider, but not excessively so, and she really does move well. That tousled coat doesn't take much to maintain. And there's none of the haw or wrinkling or bonkers-long ears that have ruined her distant cousin, the show-bred Basset Hound. In an article on their website, her breeders do erroneously place way too much emphasis on a level topline - a trait that show breeders obsess about but which is unnatural and bears little relation to function (a blog to come about that...) but no one could accuse them of breeding freaks.

But without the work to keep them honest, all it will take is for one successful breeder to start pushing the limits and the road to exaggeration will begin. Do this within a perilously small gene pool that doesn't allow any ingress of new genes, not even from its bigger cousin any more, and you're headed for trouble. The average co-efficient of inbreeding for the PBGV in the UK is, at 11%,  already almost the equivalent of a grandfather/grand-daughter mating (12.5%).

I was also irritated to find that the Club keeps the results of any eye testing to itself - even warning that a booklet listing eye test results that is available (only to member of the Club) must not be reproduced.

Click to enlarge
As it's Jilly's breeder Gavin Robertson who appears to hold the reins on this one (he is Chairman of the Breed Club), perhaps he might persuade them to make the eye test results publicly available on the Club website - as indeed other forward-thinking Clubs do?  After all, Jilly's win is likely to increase demand for the breed among pet owners - who surely have a right to know their dogs' health pedigree?

It would also surely be a good idea, given that there is concern about several eye problems in the breed, for the Club to request mandatory eye tests for Assured Breeders (the scheme currently lists no tests at all for the breed) and, preferably, for the Kennel Club registration of any PBGV.

Here's hoping, too, that Mr and Mrs Robertson will set a better example when they breed Jilly, as is their intention this year, and choose a mate for her that will result in pups with a lower level of inbreeding.

But there's one thing I am happy to praise Jilly's breeders for - in June, the dog will be embarking on a 130 mile walk to raise money for three very worthy causes - Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, DogLost (the brilliant national database for lost and found dogs) and the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.

The walk is also designed to raise awareness of rare and "vulnerable" breeds such as Jilly.  Which is great, as it also allows me to point out that they're only "vulnerable" because a) they're not very popular so not many are bred and (b) they're stuck in tiny gene pools - an entirely human construct that has been foisted on them by breeders and outdated/unscientific kennel club breeding practices.

And although outcrossing is not an easy answer, more breeds are going to have to consider it if they want to survive long-term. But of course they won't consider it until the breed is a genetic wreck - at which point it will probably be too late.

But I applaud Jilly's owners for deciding to do the walk. It's a good idea - and constructive PR for purebred dogs.

Jilly will be walking from National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham - the venue of her Crufts win in March -  to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London between June 10th - 14th. More info on the Jilly's Jolly Jaunt Facebook page.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Mudd the trampolining Bulldog

A Bulldog video to make you smile - not just because it's funny but because this dog is an example of a a longer-legged, longer-muzzled Bulldog - that is still indubitably a Bulldog. You can still hear a rasp in his bark - possibly an indicator of an imperfect airway - and he could do with a tail, but this boy looks pretty athletic and fit.  Love the name, too.

Now, let's see more Bulldogs like this in the show-ring.

A reminder again, of the Bulldog that went Best of Breed at Crufts 2013.

I've been having an exchange with one Breed Club health rep over the past couple of days who feels I am being unfair.  "I just do not understand what your part is, because you seem intent on continuing to bash the minority of breeders in the show world who are doing the most and are already accountable?"

The answer is because, very often, there are so much more moderate dogs being bred outside of the show-ring. That could could be changed overnight - literally. And yet it isn't, because show breeders and judges continue to cling to a warped sense of normal.

Monday, 1 April 2013

World's first striped pug

Striped pug, anyone?

German scientists have succeeded in transplanting a key gene that codes for the zebra's stripes into a dog - to produce the world's first litter of striped pugs. The researchers say they have been inundated with requests to buy the transgenic animals, which will inevitably be a surefire hit with breeders and owners looking for something completely different.

It is the latest in a series of efforts to transplant genes into another species to dramatic effect, most famously the creation of mice that glow in the dark through the insertion of a gene that produces a protein that gives jellyfish a green fluorescence. The German researchers used the same technique to introduce the striping gene into pug embryos - a retrovirus, much like the one that causes AIDS, to deliver the gene into the cells and insert them into the dog genome.

The gene governs the switching on and off of melanocytes (pigment cells) - the process by which stripes are formed in the zebra.

The result was a litter of four pugs -  two males, two females - now a year old and all with distinctive striping.  Such is the demand for the animals that the team are repeating the experiment to help fund further research.

The pugs are, says lead researcher Frans Liebermop, genetically identical to any other pug, other than for the striping gene. And there may even be a real benefit to  pugs who are well-known for overheating... the zebra's stripes are thought to help the animal regulate its temperature by dissipating heat more effectively than solid colours.

In response to the news, a Kennel Club spokesperson said: "Genetically, these are provably pugs. If the benefit to the offspring could be proved, we would certainly consider allowing the registration of striped pugs - we are always looking for ways to improve dog health."

But it's unlikely to go down well with the purists. A couple of weeks ago, there was uproar on dog forums when this ad appeared on Pets4Homes asking £10,000 for the world's first chocolate and tan pug. Chocolate and tan is not a recognised colourway in pugs. In that case, though, it was almost certainly introduced by crossbreeding with another toy breed.

The German team, based at the April Täuschen Institute in Frankfurt, says their research will be published in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.