Pedigree Dogs

spitzSo you want to buy a pedigree dog? Many people buy a pedigree dog because they feel that they “know what they are getting” in terms of size and temperament.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that few, if any, breeders prioritise temperament over looks when breeding, and many will retain their “best” dogs for breeding and the show ring. Some breeds are extremely in-bred and come from very, very limited gene pools. Some inherited diseases may not become apparent until the dog is well out of puppyhood and there may not be  a genetic test available to confirm it. So choose carefully.

Be prepared to answer a lot of questions and don’t be afraid to ask them either. A reputable breeder will probe your reasons for wanting a dog, your lifestyle and your domestic circumstances as well as your level of experience with dogs. Any breeder is worth their salt, will be delighted if you ask questions too – find out about health checks, breeding coefficients, ask for references from previous litters and follow them up, ask about temperament, ask if there will be any support from the breeder after you have bought a dog and for how long.

You may have to go on a long waiting list for a puppy and you might not have pick of the litter. Be prepared to wait for the dog that you feel is right and do not rush into buying. Get help as soon as you feel that you need it. Mistakes involve a living creature who may be irreperably damaged by a bad experience in formative weeks and months.

The UKKC run an Accredited Breeder scheme. It is not perfect, but you can at least see what health checks are recommended for your chosen breed and you can use the information when speaking to breeders. They also run a puppy socialisation scheme which will provide pointers as to how the bitch and her whelps should have been handled. Bear in mind that there are good breeders out there who may not have chosen to register or even be involved in the UKKC.

The UK Kennel Club currently (2015) lists 215 separate dogs on their site which they recognise as pedigrees.[1] The American Kennel Club recognises 179 plus 17 that are on a “miscellaneous” list and a further 49 that they regard as “Foundation Stock”. The Australian National Kennel Club recognises 127. Comparisons across even these three bodies are awkward because they do not even agree on nomenclature. For instance, what to the UK KC is a Cocker Spaniel becomes for instance an English Cocker Spaniel in the USA, but Americans apparently call a Viszla a Viszla and don’t much worry that it comes from Hungary. Presumeably, the Cocker Spaniel on the AKC list is the the American Cocker Spaniel on the UK KC list so what then is the English Spaniel on the ANKC list? Even a plain head count is not straightforward. The Belgian Shepherd is counted as one breed with variations in Australia but has four separate listings in the UK; the Australian Cattle Dog is designated twice by the ANKC because of a variation in tail length (!) but is not recognised by the UK KC or the AKC.

Then there are those of course who do not wish to join the club. Whilst some globally uncommon breeds can be cross-matched across national clubs, some familiar favourites do not even appear on the relevant national list.

Looking up the breed standard isn’t always plain sailing either. The UK KC will tell you on one page of their web site that the Siberian Husky is a large breed and on another that it is a medium-sized breed. If you see “show” Huskies in the ring, you might think that they were heading for the toy group as some of them are so small, they could barely pull a tea tray never mind a sled. The description and image of the breed standard of the Labrador Retriever bears little resemblence to the gun-shy, skittish, stilt-legged creatures that take prizes in the gun dog ring or the stunted Basset-like “Labradors”, breeders’ rejects, that are seen in the companion ring. It is easy to forget that, in order to produce the latest fashion in an accepted breed, many non-conforming dogs will be produced that exhibit extremes of conformation and will, if not culled, be sold as pets.

It is likely that, initially, “primitive” dogs were kept for their inborn abilities to pull sleds, carry loads, guard property, help with hunting and of course provide a source of food as well as for their charm and good looks! Natural mutations and accidental and selective breeding then refined and developed different and more varied traits, but still with the main aim of working alongside man, even if that was just a case of sitting still in a sleeve in the days before central heating.

The major difference in recent times is that, instead of deliberately crossing dogs to breed to work pulling sleds, herding sheep, guarding property, running under carriages, hunting game or a mix of abilities which was therefore done for characteristics and temperament, we have begun breeding dogs where the sole regard was superficial appearances. This burgeoned in the mid-19thC when a growing urban population combined with increased leisure time (paid holidays having been introduced for a few workers) spawned “dog fancying” clubs that vied for membership with other mass-appeal pastimes such as football, rugby and pigeon fancying. The late pioneer in canine genetics, Malcolm B Willis noted that the Golden Retriever, with approximately 80,000 UKKC registrations in the considered year and another estimated 20,000 pets had never the less suffered an 95% loss in genetic diversity since the 1950s.[1]

By 1886, one Charles Cruft, a general manager for Spratts the dog biscuit manufacturer, held his “First Great Terrier Show” with 57 classes and 600 entries and an aim to sell more dog food. A mere five years later, it had become the eponymous “Cruft’s Greatest Dog Show”, attracting 2,500 entries. By 1991, 22,973 dogs were competing for the coveted title of Supreme Champion. [2] In the early years, Crufts was still very much orientated round the working dog and became an unofficial hiring fair for gamekeepers. Soon, instead of judging dogs on their ability to retrieve or point or scent, looks became increasingly important. Faced with row upon row of seemingly identical dogs, judges began to pick out quirks such as a flatter face or larger head or shorter legs. Breeders then pandered to the demand for a dog that would stand out at first glance and, taking advantage of the genetic make-up that enables many differences in dogs to be created very quickly, unwittingly created the congenital problems that so beset many dog breeds today.

There are some fabulous pedigree dogs that will be healthy all their lives, but plenty of others who will not. So choose carefully and ensure that neither you or your dog will have to undergo the suffering and heartache that comes with inherited diseases.

1 Willis, MB (1989) Genetics of the Dog, HF & G Witherby Ltd, London


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