Art by Kevin Brockbank for Dogs Today (May 2010 issue)
Is it time to thin the herd?
It's been said that the dog is the most successful wolf in the world -- the wolf that got man to adopt it, house it, feed it, and protect it.
Relatively docile wolves were fed and bred until, slowly, imperceptibly, they evolved into something different -- the domestic dog.
For 12,000 years, that's about as far as it progressed.
An Explosion of Breeds
Two hundred and fifty years ago, there were only about a dozen broad types of dogs.
Breeds, as we know them today with narrow written standards, were not yet known.
Your breed claims an ancient lineage?
Unless it's a greyhound, I can assure you it's almost certainly nonsense.
The Pharaoh Hound? Invented in the 20th Century to look like the dogs found on the side of the Egyptian tombs opened at the time of Carter.
The Chinese Crested? Not Chinese! Invented in America in the 1930s and popularized by burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
Terriers? Retrievers? Setters? Spaniels? Pointers? Shepherds?
Analysis of Mitochondrial DNA shows that while the type may be old, the breed is -- almost invariably -- of relatively modern origin.
It's not like we created just a few breeds in the blink of an eye, is it? No, we created hundreds.
How did we do that? Mostly by selecting for odd types and then inbreeding to "fix" those types until they bred true.
The first breeds, of course, were created by merely tweaking Mother Nature's process. Herding dogs, for example, were selected because of function rather than looks. Ditto for running dogs, pulling dogs, bird dogs, guarding dogs, and terriers.
Dogs that were best adapted to function prospered, while those that did poorly were culled from the pool. The only difference was that the hand of man was now engaged in unnatural selection -- replacing Mother Nature, which had previously been employed in the task of natural selection.
Form Trumps Function
With the rise of dog shows, however, function took a back seat to form. Now the primary value celebrated was variability. And, of course, to get maximum variability, you had to green-light more and more breeds that were extreme, and in many cases maladaptive, including dogs that were brachycephalic (flat faced) and could not breath well, and dogs that were achondroplastic (dwarfs) and had joint and heart problems.
Added to these dogs were other extreme examples -- massive giants that had weak hearts and intestines prone to twist and bloat, tiny tea cup breeds prone to hydrocephalia and broken bones, hairless breeds prone to dental and skins issues, dogs with extreme skin wrinkles, ear length, and coats, and dogs with various spinal oddities such as over-long backs, roached backs, and spines that ended in a tight mass of twisted vertebrae.
And, of course, through it all you had to inbreed and line-breed in order to set type, and you had to invent ancient histories in order to speed the sales of these new creations.
The result has been a mixed bag. Some breeds have managed to stay healthy, and a few have even managed to be useful for work.
Most, however, have come down with one or more serious health problems, and most have devolved from working dog to mere pets.
There is nothing wrong with pets. There is, of course, something wrong with breeding dogs with serious health problems. Even here, however most genetic problems are manageable and most breeds are salvageable
But is that always the case? Are there dog breeds that are not salvageable?
This is not a small question.
When humans began breeding dogs, we began to act as Gods, but we failed to accept the full mantle of the Gods.
God culls misfits; man puts his in the Kennel Club.
Let's talk about canine failures. They are not hard to find.
The Dandie Dinmont is a good example of a dog that has simply failed in the marketplace. Last year, more Pandas were born in captivity than Dandie Dinmonts were registered by the Kennel Club.
Named after a fictional character in a novel, and forced to compete head-to-head with other poodle-coated mops, this dog has found few customers due to its odd-looking sway back, poor movement, and complete uselessness in the field.
Add in the health problems suffered by Dandies -- cushings, hypothyroidism, and a narrow-angle glaucoma that is unique to Dandies -- and you stand at the cusp of a question.
Factor in the fact that more than 40% of dogs are born cesarean, and the case is made for intervention.
The old working terrier from which the modern Dandie claims descent was not a product of the Kennel Club and did not suffer these indignities.
Perhaps now is the time to release this breed from the inbreeding mandated by a tiny gene pool wedded to a closed registry system.
Perhaps now is the time to release this dog from the bondage of contrived show dog standards.
Yes, let us release this dog "back to the wild" of its working roots. It has not done well in "captivity". De-list this dog from the Kennel Club's roles, and move on.
Other breeds should also be delisted, and for much the same reason -- the Skye Terrier, the Clumber Spaniel, the Sussex Spaniel, the Glenn of Imaal Terrier, the Manchester Terrier, and the Sealyham Terrier.
None of these dogs were created in the Kennel Club -- they have only been deformed, emasculated, and inbred since their arrival. Release these dogs "back to the wild". They have not done well in "captivity", and they have failed in the marketplace.
And what about those breeds that are true genetic wrecks beyond salvation?
There are not many, but let's face the problem head on, and end the nonsense.
There is no reason to try to repair a Disney castle built on sand, with a blown foundation, rotten roof, walls riddled with termites, and a dangerous boiler about to explode in the basement.
Take the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. This was a breed invented at the Crufts dog show in response to a prize offered up by an American by the name of Roswell Eldridge.
Thanks to a bad gene pool at the start, and the incredible inbreeding that followed, more than 80 percent of today's dogs end up with serious heart problems, while more than a third have a genetic brain disorder affecting the nervous system.
With this level of defect, and this thin history, why not sweep it all aside and start again?
Ditto for several other breeds with serious health problems -- the Miniature Bull Terrier (50% cesarean, dead at 6 years), the English Bull Dog (90% cesarean, dead at 6 years), the Scottish Terrier (60 percent cesarean, 45% cancer rate), the Dogue De Bordeaux (dead at less than six years).
Are there other breeds that might be "returned to the wild" through delisting and/or delisting and recreation (i.e. starting again with a healthy gene pool, scientific breeding, and a commonsense standard)?
Sure, but I think I have been controversial enough for one day, don't you?!
The question stands: Is it time to thin the herd? Is it time to end the Kennel Club's preservation of defect and failure?