Dog World, 31 December 2010

Traditionally, New Year is a time to look back as well as look forward. As this Friday Essay is due for publication on New Year’s Eve, I am going to take the opportunity to do just that.

History has always been a subject that fascinates and intrigues me – for most championship show introductions my report includes a paragraph or two about the history of the Society as I enjoy raking through any old books or references I can find.

All breeders have a basic interest in genealogy as they always spend hours pawing over pedigrees etc. In fact an exhibitor was telling me how they also spend any free weekends going around graveyards as they also have an interest in their own family history.

Recently I acquired a book where the author had actually been investigating his family history and discovered a relative was a prominent dog judge and breeder in the late 1800’s. He then proceeded to unearth all sorts of historical details about one of our large championship shows – I found this all really interesting.

When we were virtually snowed in the other week I spent some time going through old records for Setters and Pointers and perusing some old pedigrees. Nowadays, we have the benefit of computers and pedigrees can be traced at the touch of a few buttons. Health tests etc can also readily be checked. This wasn’t the case when large kennels of dogs were kept, usually by the landed gentry who frequently had the benefit of servants and staff. Sometimes the staff were relied on when it came to information for recording pedigree details. In The New Book of the Dog an example of the type of conversation between a servant and his master is recorded as: Lord X: How was that litter out of Flossie bred? Servant: You mean the ones born last November? Lord X: Yes, when she had only three. Servant (scratching his head): Well, let me think – yes, I remember. She took Old Ranger as far as I recollect.

Although the book was published in 1938 this extract refers to much earlier times, probably the mid 1800’s. The formation of the Kennel Club in 1873 gives us far more reliable records to work from and the start of pedigree databases as we know them today began.

At that time we discover some mixing of similar breeds, for instance Gordon Setters with Irish Setter blood. It wasn’t uncommon for a brother to sister mating to take place. Records seem to indicate very close matings were fairly common place. I’m sure this would also be the case in other breeds so feel justified in raising my point in this more generally related column.

Over the last couple of years I have noticed there appears to be a rising faction calling for genetic diversity and an ever increasing amount of comment advocating the introduction of cross breeding. The claim is this would be the answer to hereditary health conditions.

I’m probably going to put my head on the chopping block here as I totally disagree with that line of reasoning.

Yes, genetic diversity is required – I have no argument with that belief although recessive genes can still lay hidden for many generations. But in my opinion, the route to get genetic diversity is not through what is in actual fact cross breeding. Surely this is just undoing all the work undertaken in the last 150 years and more to cement the foundation of the majority of breeds as we know them today?

We are fortunate science enables us to check and indeed be aware of many things unheard of back in the period of time breeds were becoming established. Science provides us with tools we are able to utilise to take breeds forward to a healthier future. The internet gives the capability to share and exchange knowledge as well as the wherewithal for spreading information throughout the world.

Labradoodles and other so called designer breeds give an example that cross breeding will not necessarily serve the purpose of improving the health status of our dogs. I can vividly recall my vet telling me he had never done as many hip replacement operations as when this particular mix became popular in this area. There have also been problems with epilepsy. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn of eye conditions either.

However, there may be instances when the introduction of entirely different blood is necessary to counteract a very specific, possibly life threatening, health problem. This would have to be tightly controlled and I’m sure, if it was ever proved necessary, the KC would ensure it was only undertaken within very strict parameters.

The KC is often castigated but I have said it before and I’m sure I will say it again – we have a lot to be appreciative of as far as the KC is concerned. The access to reliable pedigrees is just one example of how we can rely on it to help us move forward to a hopefully healthier future for pedigree dogs.

Surely we have the science, knowledge and capability with breeders working together to ensure a healthy future for pedigree breeds without destroying all the work of dedicated breeders over the last century?