Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Purebred Paradox, part four: What can be done?

(Continued from part three.)

Below are my musings on some of the talks at the recent conference, The Purebred Paradox: on the health and welfare of purebred dogs. Specifically, these talks delve deeper into ways some of the speakers thought we could move forward.

Professor Sir Patrick Bateson: “Problems of dog-breeding and what to do about them”

In his keynote address, Professor Bateson called for for “a public awareness and education campaign.” In his talk and in later discussions, the question of whom to educate was raised. Three interest groups were identified: dog owners, dog breeders, and judges of dog conformation competitions. Again and again, speakers at the conference returned with frustration to the question of how to educate dog owners. Once the bulldog has been purchased and the new puppy brought to the veterinarian for its wellness exam, it is too late. How do you educate people about healthy breeds before they bring home and bond with a new dog?

Patricia Haines, DVM: “Canine Genetics, Behavior and the role of the parent club”

Dr. Haines, a veterinarian and breeder of pointers, talked about parent breed clubs. Both the American Kennel Club (the AKC, the largest registering body of American purebred dogs) and the Kennel Club (the KC, the AKC’s British counterpart) are made up not of direct members but of member clubs, or “parent clubs.” These clubs mostly (but not entirely) represent breed specific clubs, such as the Golden Retriever Club of America.

Dr. Haines made the point that work for change would be more effective with the parent breed clubs, rather than with AKC judges. In fact, she said, many breeders joke that the judges don’t really know their breed well. It is the parent clubs which are the guardians of the breed standards, and, perhaps more importantly, the interpreters of them.

Dr. Haines’ insight highlighted, in my opinion, the usefulness of working with members of the dog breeding community. That community is a complex one which can be difficult to fully understand from the outside.
Gail K. Smith, VMD, PhD: “Efficacy of hip dysplasia screening: An animal welfare imperative”

Dr. Smith is the veterinary surgeon who designed the PennHip screening system for hip dysplasia. The more traditional Orthopedic Foundation for Animals screening system involves subjective judgement of a dog’s hips as poor, fair, good, or excellent. PennHip, on the other hand, provides an objectively determined “distraction index,” a numerical measurement of the amount of hip laxity (where more laxity implies worse disease). Dr. Smith explained that his PennHip system is particularly useful for genetic studies of hip dysplasia because it is a better measurement of phenotype, for use in correlation to genotype. In other words, if you want to study what genes produce hip dysplasia, an objective numerical value describing the individual animal’s anatomy is more useful than a subjective value like “fair.”

Of course, the question arises: can other characteristics be measured using numerical scales? How do you measure the flatness of a bulldog’s face? There is work to be done in this area.

Steve Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB: closing remarks
PhD behaviorist Dr. Sawistowski explicitly identified a fissure between those who breed dogs and those who identify themselves as members of animal welfare organizations. He said, “We are going to have to heal that fissure before we can heal the dogs that we all know and love.” This conference did a great job of outlining this goal and the current situation and identifying priorities to be addressed.


  1. I find it interesting that the TV show aired in the UK three years ago and led to a parliamentary inquiry and much discussion. It has taken that long for interest in these issues to gain any traction at all in the US. Mark Derr wrote a very perceptive article in the Atlantic back in 1990 "The politics of dogs" which covered a lot of this same ground. It seemed like it was going to kick up a storm, but the issue faded. It's tempting to see this as a cultural divide across the Atlantic, but I suspect if a major TV show took an interest things could change in the US too.

  2. There was a little discussion at the conference about a perceived cultural divide, a US resistance to legislation. (Personally, I think this issue can and should be handled without legislation.) Europe does appear in general to be more proactive than the US about animal welfare issues. But I agree, I think TV coverage of this issue in the US could cause some things to change.