Originally posted September 15, 2010
The tabloid type expose of the underbelly of the world of purebred dogs would have you believe that every purebred dog is going to die of a horrid disease or be subjected to the whims of vanity of the well heeled owners who purchase these dogs. As with the “Baby born to two headed woman” type of headline, there is usually more to the story than meets the eye. Yes, there are well heeled owners who are purchasing dogs who will match the sofa and yes, there are people who will dispose of a wonderful, valuable animal just because it no longer suits them. There are also thousands upon thousands, perhaps even millions of people who are devoted to breeding healthy examples of their breed.
The progenitor of the purebred dog is a smallish, motley character called a village dog. The village dog is usually a smooth coated dog between fifteen and forty five pounds. This is the pariah dog, the dingo, the village dog still found on the streets in remote towns today. This is the dog who like the raccoon in North America, often makes a better living by scavenging our leavings than he might by actually hunting on his own. He may be any colour, and he often has spots. His ears will be somewhat floppy, or even tulip shaped (not actually tulip shaped, but in truth, with strongly cupped cartilage and smallish pointed flopping flaps), his tail will often curve upward, perhaps even extending over his back.
The village dog is indeed much less likely to suffer from the genetic conditions that strike down many of his purebred relations. He will never suffer from the breathing and eye problems that plague the short nosed or brachiocephalic breeds. Hip dysplasia will not likely strike these dogs; they are structurally efficient animals. Skin rashes, allergies and gastro intestinal problems are unlikely to hit these dogs. They are usually free from heart problems and progressive retinal atrophy. The village dog, being much closer in type to the ancestral dog, is often calm in the house, active out of doors, a careful eater, and may be aloof from strangers and other dogs.
The village dog is the way he is because he evolved to follow us around, and live in our shadow. The village dog is the way he is because evolution culled and indeed continues to cull members of his tribe who cannot keep up to our niche. Village dogs were once the most common dogs in the world. They evolved to be efficient in following us, efficient scavengers, efficient at avoiding getting close enough to get into trouble. Historically, the life of a village dog would have necessitated being picky enough about his food that he would avoid eating things that would make him sick, but voracious enough that he would be willing to eat a wide range of things. He would need to be tolerant of the person throwing out the remains of their dinner or the night’s slop jar, but not so friendly that he would be injured by an intolerant person kicking his ribs. He would need to be agile enough to thwart efforts to keep him out of the garbage. His sight and his hearing would need to be acute enough to tell him when trouble was coming. Village dogs without these traits could not make an efficient living. Simply put, village dogs come from hardy stock.
We don’t see many village dogs in North America. When dogs are found in our urban dumps, we trap them, we “rescue” them, we shoot them and we poison them. We don’t let them hang out at the dump, eating refuse. We don’t allow them to live stray in our cities, and when a family of them arrives, efforts are made to prevent them from being successful. If a family of village dogs is hanging out near a farm, they need to be very shy in order to survive; farmers are well within their rights to shoot a dog who might be a threat to their livestock. They are here though, just not common.
The common myth of the purebred dog holds that it is the progenitor of the mixed breed. Not entirely so! In fact, the purebred is the result of selection from the progenitor dog; the village dog. First came the livestock guardians, and then the hunting dogs, and eventually, the wide range of breeds we have today. Generally dogs are divided up into one of seven groups. The sporting dogs are those dogs who are used to hunt game with a gun. The terriers are those dogs used to kill vermin. The hounds track and trail with eyes and nose and lead the hunter to the quarry. Some of them do make kills, but this is the exception not the rule. The toy breed dogs are the dogs bred as pocket companions, sometimes used to attract fleas from their person, or perhaps to keep the person warm in the winter. The herding dogs gather flocks of sheep, goats and cattle and move them from place to place. The working dogs do things like pull carts and sleds, guard and go to war. And then there is the miscellaneous group of all the dogs who otherwise defy classification such as the Bichon Frise and the Dalmation.
Purebred dogs got to be purebred because humans used the talents of their ancestors in particular ways. Within any population, there are individuals who will be better suited to one task than another will. If you lived in a village with village dogs, and a particular dog followed you around, you might feed him. If his talents as a tracker made you more successful as a hunter, you would feed him more, making it more likely that he would pass along his genes. If you gave the most talented of his pups to your son, who was also a hunter, you would be making the first tentative steps towards becoming a geneticist and creating a breed. If in your family, fathers often gave the best pup from their best hunting dog to their sons, it would not take long for a pure breed to develop through artificial selection. The “best” hunting dog is fed the most and will have the most pups. The “best” hunting dog may not be successful as a hunter at all; he is just the best at helping you to be a better hunter.
Suppose for a moment that the hunting dogs in your family all had a black coat and a white bib, with long floppy ears, and a broad head, a long, square muzzle and large nares. Suppose that your dog could find game more effectively than any other dogs in your village, and suppose that your dog had pale brown eyes. You might breed this dog to every other female dog in the village regardless of her talents. And yellow eyes might begin to show up more commonly in the dogs in your village. Now suppose that yellow eyes happen to be common in dogs who also have a heart problem. As a hunter in a village, you wouldn’t have the tools to determine if your dog has a heart condition. If your dog dies when he is five by falling off a cliff, you wouldn’t know that he had passed on a heart murmur because it had never caused him any significant problem. You would not even necessarily make any connection between your favourite hunting dog and the fact that the dogs in your village tend to die before they are ten years old; young for a village type dog. You would in effect have created a closed gene pool.
Closed gene pools, where only particular members of a species get to interbreed tend to show the problems they carry more prominently than do open gene pools. Thus, we see more Labrador Retrievers with Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) than we might see in any given population of village dogs; the village dog gene pool is open and the Lab gene pool is closed. Because the numbers of individuals that carry the gene for PRA is greater in general within the Lab population, more PRA will show up in Labradors. If you counted all the dogs in the world, and included Labs in that count, and screened all of them for PRA, the overall incidence of PRA would not be higher because of the higher prevalence in Labs; that effect would be offset by some other closed gene pool that did not have an especially high incidence of PRA.
Your hound dog, the black one with the white bib might go on to become the progenitor of the White Bibbed Black-Hound and over generations become emblematic of the type of dog found in your area. From time to time, a stray might appear in your area from another area, and add his or her genes to the loosely defined “breed” of your region. As trade and commerce become more sophisticated, White Bibbed Black Hounds (WBBH) might be heard of and sought in other districts. Around 1850, breed organizations began to form in a manner recognizable by us today. Consider the WBBH; perhaps in the 1850’s the descendents of your original foundation sire might number in the hundreds. A small, fairly stable population, of black dogs with white bibs, not terribly long lived, with light brown eyes, wicked at finding the small game that has evolved into the hallmark dish of your region. Ten villagers get together and form the WBBH hunt club for the promotion and preservation of this special dog. They decide that they will write down all the names of all the known WBBH’s, and from then on, only dogs whose names are on the list or who descend from dogs whose names are on the list will be considered to be “true” White Bibbed Black Hounds. A standard description is written, outlining how tall these dogs should be, how heavy they should be and what makings, ear shape and tail set are considered optimal. Now, the loosely described dog of your region has a registry and a closed gene pool. They are no different than they were yesterday. They now just cannot be considered to be WBBHs unless they are registered with this group.
Initially, nothing will change for this breed of dog. But without the occasional influx of genetic material, there will be no new variation available to offset any problems that crop up. Now, instead of culling dogs that don’t hunt, all of the registered dogs will be kept and many of them will be bred regardless of their hunting ability. Where once the criteria for breeding was solely functional, now the criteria are determined by the written standard. That these dogs were black with white bibs was incidental to the fact that they were good hunters. Now, being a good hunter is incidental to having a black coat and the right amount of white bib. Traits will begin to drift. Light coloured eyes, once described as characteristic of the breed will soon become defining of the breed, along with that old heart defect that came along for the genetic ride. Over time, the ability to hunt will be so rarely used as the criteria for breeding that it will erode and disappear. Eventually the White Bibbed Black Hound will become a large goofy dog, typical of your region, lumped in with the other hounds, but not particularly known as a good hunter. He may however become some graduate student’s gravy train to academic success when that heart murmur is found to be linked to light eyes, and the breed club can argue about trying to breed the heart murmur out, if having light eyes is the defining characteristic of the breed or if they need worry about this at all.
So village dogs evolved into purebreds, but where do the mixed breeds come from? In North America, there has been a long standing battle between the perception of status associated with having a purebred dog, and the salt of the earth mongrel dog. With the known mixed breed dog, you can have the best of both worlds. Breeding a Cocker Spaniel to a Miniature Poodle will give you a smallish dog, likely friendly with most people, likely fairly biddable and likely with a coat you can clip off or leave long and groom as you like. What you won’t get is a dog who is any healthier than his parent were.
Genetics is not like mixing paint. If you mix yellow and blue paint, you get green; an intermediate between the two originating colours. If you mix a Poodle and a Cocker Spaniel, you will not get a dog who is midway between both parent breeds. You will get puppies with a variety of traits; some intermediate and some more like the Poodle and some more like the Cocker Spaniel. And if either of the parents had genetic problems, those problems will be passed along; you won’t necessarily get a moderating effect from the non affected parent.
Taking the Cocker Spaniel and Poodle mix as an example, consider that epilepsy is a fairly common problem in Poodles. If the parent who is a Poodle has a genetic form of epilepsy, he will pass that along to some of his offspring. Lets suppose that fifty percent of his off spring will get epilepsy. If the Cocker Spaniel parent is free from epilepsy, that won’t dilute the effect of the Poodle’s genes. 50% of the puppies will get epilepsy and 50% won’t. It won’t mean that 100% of the pups will get a watered down version of epilepsy.
Several years ago, I got a call from a family who had a mixed breed dog who had terrible problems with resource guarding, being handled and going to the vet. The family had spent over seventeen thousand dollars (Canadian) on their dog’s health over the five years they had him. He was a Shit-zu/English Bulldog cross.
The family had wanted a purebred Bulldog as this is the dog that the father had grown up with. In phoning around to breeders they were being grilled by breeders who wanted to know so many things about the family; how many children did they have and how many did they want? How many other pets lived in their home? Did they live in a house or an apartment? How much time would they spend training the dog and how much exercise would he get? Kyle and Melissa, my clients, felt they were being hassled, not that the breeders were screening for the best possible home for a puppy.
After speaking with several breeders they happened upon someone who wasn’t harassing them, but who did tell them that she was breeding her Bulldog bitch that very week. She invited them to her tidy home in the country where they met Kisses, a sweet and friendly Bulldog bitch. She had a shining white coat with a brindle patch over her left eye, and random brindle markings all over her body. Kisses wanted nothing more than to sit at your feet, leaning on your leg and look adoringly up into your face. Kyle fell in love instantly, immediately connecting Kisses affectionate behaviour to the behaviour of the Bulldogs he had lived with as a child. The lady gushed over how wonderful Kisses was and how expensive she had been; four thousand dollars for this dog, she informed my clients. My clients were a little taken aback at the number, but Kisses was obviously a wonderful dog.
Kisses owner began to tell them about the problems associated with Bulldogs. As a brachiocephalic breed, Bulldogs are prone to heat exhaustion-Kisses had been in to the vet for that very reason earlier that year when she had been running around the yard and fell over, unconscious. “Two days in intensive care at the Ontario Veterinary College hospital” cooed the lady. “Nothing is too good for Kisses.” “Many Bulldogs have to have eye surgery for a condition called Cherry Eye” she went on. “Kisses had to have that in both eyes”, she said. And after she had her puppies, the owner was going to get a special operation to help alleviate her snorting; she has an elongated soft palate, and it flops around in the back of her throat, making it hard to breathe. “I want to breed her first, though”, the owner said.
My clients, sitting looking at Kisses were becoming more alarmed by the moment. This didn’t sound like a healthy dog to them. She oozed charm, but maybe Kisses wasn’t what they were looking for. As they began to make noises about this, Kisses owner got up and opened the back door. In swaggered an over sized Shih tzu. “I know that Kisses has a few problems” said the lady. “And I know that mixed breed dogs are healthier than are purebreds. For that reason, I am going to breed Snuffles here to Kisses. You can have all the things you like in a Bulldog without the health problems.” Kisses owner went into a long discussion of how Snuffles would mitigate all the problems that Kisses had. Snuffles stood in the room about ten feet away from Kisses, and stared hard at my clients. He looked alert, but rigid. Energetic, but restrained. The best part was that the lady would only charge my clients $1800.00 for the puppy.
My clients looked at Kisses and pulled out their cheque book. This puppy would be a lot less expensive than a purebred, and they thought they would be avoiding all the health problems of a purebred too. Four months later, they picked up Sneakers and brought her home. A couple of days after arriving home, they took Sneakers to the vet for her check up. The vet listened to her heart, and looked at her eyes and down her throat. “Well, you know that all the brachiocephalic dogs have breathing issues” sighed the vet. “Yes”, my clients agreed; they knew that when they chose a Bulldog. “I suspect it will be sooner rather than later that we will have to do surgery to remove some of the tissue associated with her soft palate” said the vet. “She has an awful lot of tissue down there, which will make breathing hard for her. You are going to have to be very careful in hot weather to keep her from exercising to exhaustion or she will end up in the hospital.”
It was less than a month later that they ended up exactly where the vet had predicted. It was not a terribly hot day, and Sneakers had recently learned to chase a Frisbee. Kyle took her out in the yard to play and after six or eight throws she refused to chase. He took her in the house, and went back to his desk. Ten minutes later, Melissa came upon Sneakers, collapsed on the floor with her tongue protruding, semi conscious. They did not make the connection between the exercise, the warm day and the collapse; they thought that Sneakers had been poisoned. At the Ontario Veterinary College, they figured out very quickly that Sneakers had over heated when they took her temperature. Sneakers was a very sick dog, and spent four worrisome days in intensive care. While there, the surgeons had a good look down her throat and recommended that she have surgery to remove the excess tissue in her soft palate as soon as possible.
Three weeks later, barely five months old, Sneakers had the first of seven surgeries she would have in her first year. She had the tissue removed from her soft palate and then had her nares enlarged; the holes where air goes in the nose were just not big enough for her to breathe normally. She had three separate operations for cherry eye and entropion, and then she had another operation to remove some of the excess skin on her face as she was getting chronic infections in her nose wrinkles that were interfering with her eyes.
By the time I was called, Sneakers was not a very pleasant dog to be around. She had hip dysplasia, requiring her to take Metacam on a daily basis for the pain. She had gastric issues, necessitating a special expensive diet. She had had several surgeries beyond the ones she had as a youngster to correct knee issues and to remove a sock she ate that got stuck in her intestinal tract. She had allergies and lived on Vanectyl-P for nine months out of twelve. And on top of that she guarded any stolen items she could lay her paws on, and would not allow her Kyle or Melissa to touch her anywhere other than on the top of her head. Kyle and Melissa kept Sneakers strictly separated from their children, a four year old girl and a two year old boy for fear that Sneakers would either inadvertently knock them over or intentionally bite them while guarding a stolen item. Sneakers was nothing like the Bulldogs of Kyle’s childhood!
When I arrived, I was faced with a stocky, wire haired, ginger coloured dog who barked at the door and then stood back about ten feet and stared hard at me. On questioning, it turned out this was something she did with all new people. Sneakers was suspicious of new people and I was warned that she would bite me if I pressed her. I sat in the living room and took a history, learning all about the many medical issues and surgeries that Sneakers had been through. Aside from the fact that Sneakers had a plethora of health issues causing her to protest being handled, she also had a serious resource guarding issue.
Resource guarding is the condition that exists when an animal has an item and guards others against theft. This is a normal behaviour in the context of ensuring that you get to keep your food if you are making your living as a hunter or a scavenger. This normal behaviour can create huge problems though if you are trying to live with a dog in your home. Sneakers would not let anyone near her dish when she was eating, near her bed if she was resting or near any toy she had claimed. She was especially aggressive when she had something like a tissue that she has stolen. Importantly, resource guarding is a trait often seen in lines and families.
Admittedly, some of Sneaker’s behaviour problems could have been mitigated with early puppyhood training. Resource guarding in particular is a behaviour that responds well to training. Over time, Sneakers learned to allow the adults in the home to take things from her and to add things to her food bowl. Although training was carried out with the children, safety measures were set in place to prevent the children from interrupting Sneakers with toys or food. Sneakers never had the flexibility of behaviour that would allow her family to completely relax in the protocols or training that we developed.
Sneakers temperament is the sum of her genetics, her early puppy experiences and the environment she currently lives within. Snuffles, her father, was a tense little dog; stand offish with strangers and not friendly. This could be due to not being introduced enough people as a puppy himself, but there was likely something that he passed along to Sneakers. Sneakers mother, typical of Bulldogs had a lot of health problems. Here is a live case of genetics not working like mixing paint.
In retrospect, Sneakers health and behaviour problems could have been entirely avoided if Kisses and Snuffles had not been bred. Breeding an English Bulldog to a Shih tzu was asking for trouble. Like Bulldogs, the Shih tzu is prone to cherry eye, excess tissue in the soft palate and stenotic or small nares. Shih tzu have back problems and luxating patellas, and Bulldogs have hip problems. By the time I saw Sneakers, instead of avoiding health issues, she had suffered from many of those of the Bulldog as well as some relating to the Shih tzu.
Careful breeding, breeding that takes into account that the offspring are going to have to live with the genes they inherit is the least we owe to our dogs. Choosing dogs that come from healthy stock is entirely possible and reflects the least that our dogs deserve. Choosing a dog who is ill, committing to their veterinary care and supporting the industry of selling these dogs should appall puppy buyers. Puppy buyers need to be willing to ask the hard questions; there future dog deserves not only the best of food and the best of care during their lives, but also the best genetic potential BEFORE they are born.
Purebred dogs are not the only good dogs available. There are many, many dogs of unknown or random heritage available. The key to finding the dog who is healthy, from healthy parents is to find people who are breeding dog on purpose. The whole point of the dog show industry was originally to put dogs on display so that breeders could choose the best and most optimal mate for the dog he or she had. Placing the dogs in rank order in theory gives the savvy breeder information about which dog is closest to the breed standard. Breeding the dog closest to the breed standard is probably a good idea; it is the dog who is most like the breed ought to be. With dogs of unknown breed, it means that the person in charge of breeding that dog has greater responsibility when it comes to choosing which dog is bred to which.
German Shepherd Dogs are my breed of choice. I have lived with a half dozen or so and known scores more. When I am choosing a puppy, I first choose a breeder. The breeder I chose most recently, Robin Winter of Narnia Kennels breeds dogs that are frequently used in police and military work. She imports beautiful, fit and healthy dogs from Europe to improve her stock and she has a well developed breeding plan for her kennel, stretching generations back and projecting generations out.
What impresses me most about Robin’s dogs are that they can all pass what I call the four foot fence test. The four foot fence test refers to the dog being able to do the work that he is bred to do. A German Shepherd ought to be able to easily navigate a four foot fence. Few will be able to grab air over top; most of them will use the top rail to push off, but four feet should be no problem for a healthy German Shepherd. My dog’s father, a dog named Val was competing in Schutzhund at the age of nine. Schutzhund involves being able to navigate a six foot A frame and jump a one metre jump without touching the top rail. His mother was only three, but she too could do this work. German Shepherds were bred to work in three disciplines; obedience, tracking and protection. Eco’s parents were both titled in all three disciplines. This demonstrates that they are trainable and willing to work with people, and that they have an ability to solve problems. This is another “four foot fence” that Eco’s parents cleared. And it is no surprise that Eco is able to navigate a four foot fence, he is highly trainable, he solves problems and he likes working with people.
Every breed has a “four foot fence”. In fact, every non-breed has a four foot fence. The village dog’s four foot fence would be to negotiate the complex life of a village; he would need to be able to find food, to avoid being kicked by intolerant people, and to be confident enough to approach people emptying their garbage. If the dog cannot do this, he is not a village dog.
When looking for a purpose bred breedless dog, you can choose what your four foot fence will be. You can choose if you want an athletic partner to run and race with. You can choose if you want a small lap dog who will be calm and quiet in the house. You can choose whatever you want. The key to finding the parents of a breedless dog is going to mean a lot more looking around than if you chose a purebred dog; there are few if any organizations that will be devoted to your choice. If you are looking for a German Shepherd or a Labrador, you will be able to find dozens if not hundred of clubs that can help you to find the pup of your dreams. If your four foot fence requires that your dog be breedless, you are going to have to do the leg work to find a breeder that will fill your needs of being caring and careful of the dogs they produce. But your dog deserves to have parents that can clear your four foot fence.