This study also came across other people’s alerts, of course, and was picked up by a blog that tries to point out all the horrible things that people do when they breed purebred dogs. This resulted in a blog post called “Shocking new study: German Shepherds die because they can no longer stand up.” I am not going to link the blog, because I have no desire to give them even one click from my work. Google it if you want to read it.
The big problem is: That conclusion is completely wrong. German Shepherds don’t die because they can’t stand up, and the demographic study explicitly says so. But first…
Here is what you need to know:
The cause of death data is coming from a commercial software program called VetCompass. Practices in the UK that use VetCompass get all their practice data dumped into a big relational database that can then be accessed by researchers. This has led to a bunch of what I’d call quick-and-dirty demographic analyses, where connections are made between the various pieces of data the veterinarians or techs input. Virtually all of them are lead-written by one population epidemiologist, Dan O’Neill. He releases a new one every few weeks, which is why I say these are pretty quick and dirty. O’Neill isn’t an expert on GSDs or on musculoskeletal issues or on dogs standing up; he just looks at patterns of diagnosis data associated with breeds. There’s nothing wrong with doing quick epidemiological studies; they’re a great way to identify where serious research effort should go. But they shouldn’t be confused with serious research themselves.
The other important thing you need to know to understand these results is that the words used for the causes of death of these dogs are not words at all. They’re VeNom codes, which are the numerical codes assigned to diagnoses in the UK. Vets are not keying in “inability to stand”; they are looking for the closest description for the reason the dog is being euthanized, and choosing that code.
So what does the study actually say?
First, GSDs are actually a long-lived breed, especially for their size. The average lifespan across all GSDs was 10.3 years, which takes into account puppy deaths, injuries, and so on. Bitches actually had an average lifespan of 11.1 years, which (remember, that also counts puppies, car hits, and so on) is wonderful. Old dogs are dying at around age 12-13, which is a very normal lifespan for all dogs. As the study author himself says, “GSDs are not particularly short-lived given their large body-size.”
Second, and most important, as the study says, “The true underlying causes for inability to stand can only be speculated but are likely to be multi-factorial and to include combinations of musculoskeletal, neurological, neoplastic and other diverse conditions.”
So why is “inability to stand” so common as a reason to euthanize? Well, I’m not a vet in the UK, but I would make an educated guess that it will start to make sense once you consider how we, as owners, describe the reasons we make the ultimate and final choice for our dogs at the end of their lives. I know I’ve said it, and I am sure you have too – “He just couldn’t get up any more, and I knew it was time.” It is extremely normal for owners to continue to care for their dogs for the last weeks of their lives, even though they know the end is very near, as long as the dogs are relatively active and mobile. When the dog stops being able to stand up and move around, either because of weakness or pain, the dog is euthanized. “Couldn’t get up anymore” or “Too painful to stand and move” aren’t VeNom codes, but “Inability to stand” and the very vague “Musculoskeletal disorder” are.
So don’t read this study as “German Shepherds die because they can no longer stand up” – read it as “Old German Shepherds are euthanized when they can no longer stand up.”
Now go pet your dog, whether she’s a GSD or a Cardigan or any other breed or non-breed. That’s a lot more important than demographic data, after all.
Many of you know that we are strong and committed evangelical Christians in this house. We’re very definitely not afraid of speaking out about issues that might be controversial or “not politically correct.” And we believe that the top priority for all breeders must be to ensure that each puppy goes to a home that is, above all, safe, predictable and consistent, supportive, and loving. We also think that it’s very important for owners to be compatible with us as breeders, so they will seek out our advice as the puppy grows and they need us to support them. So, having said that,
No, you colossally bigoted piece of caliginous junk.
And if you try, I hope you get sued so hard you NEVER BREED AGAIN, you enormous used kleenex.
It’s obvious that there is a lot of bad information out there – and a real lack of GOOD information – about breeding merles. What I am going to write is applicable to almost all merle breeds, but I am going to write here as a Cardigan breeder, knowing what I know about Cardigan pedigrees.
I want to get one thing out of the way immediately: I am, personally, very much pro-merle (as a color throughout dogdom) and I am not automatically against double-merle breedings. I think the best breeding rules are the ones that tell clubs to get the heck out of the way and let breeders do the best breedings they can.
Having said that, I believe that every breeder deserves to understand what’s going on so she can make her own decisions, not follow mine. And if genetic information is going to be shared, it has to be accurate.
I am marking this with the year in its title so that, if it is dug up in the years to come, somebody reminds me to come refresh it with the newest information. It is, however, current as of this day, this month, and this year.
What the heck IS merle?
Merle is a mutation in the SILV gene, called PMEL more accurately. PMEL is an important gene area for all kinds of colors in many animals; different mutations in PMEL create white chickens, silver horses, and silver dun cattle, among others.
Merle works by disrupting a certain stage in the formation of melanin. That’s how it changes pigment from its solid state to either white (if the mutation is present in its homozygous state, also called “double merle”), or to an intermediate color somewhere between white and the solid color on the dog. This intermediate state creates the “blue” of a blue merle or the creamy tan of a red/chocolate merle, and also lightens brindle and red/sable.
Every merle mutation carries with it a “tail,” a stretch of about 100 base pairs (a base pair is the linkage between T and A, or between C and G, that you learned about in junior high). That tail is fragile and often breaks. If it breaks shorter than about 65 base pairs, the cell it’s in doesn’t become merle; it stays fully colored.
Because this tail is so long, and it’s quite fragile, it breaks a LOT, and everywhere it breaks becomes a black patch. So when you see those black patches on your merle dog, they’re where, when the cell was first developing, way back when the puppy was an embryo, that tail broke off and the cell looks and acts non-merle.
What about double merle?
In a double merle dog, the action of the mutation is not affected by the non-merle gene, so you don’t see the intermediate state (the silver/grey in a black-based merle). You see a much more complete interruption of melanin formation = a mostly white dog. But the causative factor is the same; it’s an interruption of the way melanin is formed. It’s not, and never would be, a “bleaching” of existing melanin, a white “spot,” a destruction of cells, etc.
What’s the deal with deafness? Do white ears or white skin inside the ears on a merle or double merle mean the dog is deaf?
What creates deafness in merle and double merle dogs is NOT white skin! That’s like saying that spaghetti causes sauce. You have to go back into the “recipe” to understand where BOTH are coming from.
Melanin-producing cells don’t just create skin color. They also create certain aspects of the ear and the eye. In the ear in particular, they keep the cochlear hairs healthy. When they are malfunctioning, these hairs die and the dog is deaf.
“The deafness, which usually develops in the first few weeks after birth while the ear canal is still closed, usually results from the degeneration of part of the blood supply to the cochlea (the stria vascularis). The nerve cells of the cochlea subsequently die and permanent deafness results. The cause of the vascular degeneration is not known, but appears to be associated with the absence of pigment producing cells (melanocytes) in the blood vessels. All of the function of these cells are not known, but one role is to maintain high potassium concentrations in the fluid (endolymph) surrounding the hair cells of the cochlea; these pigment cells are critical for survival of the stria. “
You can have COMPLETELY WHITE SKIN, including surrounding and inside the ear, and entirely normal hearing – because hearing does not come from skin cells. It comes from the cells that feed the cochlear hairs, and those are not skin cells.
Conversely, you can have absolutely black ears, black hair and skin, and no hearing, because (again) hearing does not come from skin cells.
The fact that skin color is not the same as functional hearing is also why a small proportion of NORMAL merles (single merles, not double) have pigment-related hearing loss. If the merle gene affects enough of the cells that eventually become the ones that feed cochlear hairs, those hairs can be starved and die. Thankfully, it’s pretty rare. Single-merle-related deafness is pretty much invisible in a merle breed, because it’s almost always unilateral and so the dog functions normally. But we shouldn’t pretend that we never have deaf single merles; the evidence is entirely against us.
What creates heavily marked merles versus lightly marked ones?
This is not something that is known for sure, but the working hypothesis is that lightly marked merles have longer and/or more stable tails, and heavily marked merles have shorter and/or more unstable tails. The more often the tail breaks off below that magical 65 base pair length, the more spots the dog will have.
I would also hypothesize – and this is my personal belief, not backed up by research – that the timing of the tail breakage has something to do with it. The cells that will create the skin and hair of the dog start off smaller in number and then multiply, of course, as do all embryonic cells. If the tail breaks when there are relatively few cells, meaning that the broken-tail cell goes on to make many billions of eventual adult cells, that might create the very large patches we see. Tails that break later in the process would create small patches. But, again, that’s my personal guess.
What about cryptic merles?
Well, that depends on what cryptic means to you.
If cryptic means that the dog IS merle but it’s very heavily patched with black, so heavily that the merle is visible only on, say, a cheek or on a bit of one leg – that’s just an extremely heavily marked merle. So you’d go back to the above explanation, where a lot of those tails broke off during the development of the puppy.
There are two other, less commonly used by breeders, definitions of cryptic merle, which deserve to be explained. But you should not take my explaining them as a reason to think that they’re common or they’re going to happen to you. They are phenomena that you are very unlikely to see in your lifetime with Cardigans.
The genuine, real cryptic merle is called Mc (for merle, cryptic) is a normal merle gene minus much of its tail. It occurs spontaneously in multiple breeds when the tail breaks off the merle gene very, very early, even in the sperm or egg cell that eventually goes on to make the puppy. These dogs will be entirely solid, without a hint of merle, but still have the mutated PMEL that means they are merle.
Is Mc the “bogeyman” we’ve all been so afraid of, where using one will result in unforseen double merles? No. An Mc dog will produce like a non-merle in every way, including when bred to a regular merle. A M/Mc puppy may have some additional white, or its color may be a little funky, but often it’s completely normal looking. And M/Mc is not associated with deafness or other issues.
Can Mc revert to a long tail and become merle again? I’ve seen it mentioned in the literature as a possibility, but I think it is a guess by researchers. I don’t believe a reversion has ever been recorded in the literature (if you know of a case study please show me so I can fix this).
Why are some merles so brown and others are light powder blue?
There are a few things going on that can explain this well-known phenomenon.
First, a dog who would have been quite red if it was a non-merle – the tris that have extremely red undercoat and red shafts to their black hairs, or the brindle-pointed blacks that have a lot of brindle visible in the hair – will have very red-tinged merle. The red/yellow pigment – the phaemelanin – is not affected by merle as much as the black pigment. So red will survive the merleing process and look very obvious on the resulting merle dog.
Second, the merle gene itself – and here I am not talking about the tail alone – is an odd kind of mutation called a transposable element, or retrotransposon. It’s not a stolid, predictable, old mutation like “dominant black,” which always does the same thing. It’s a young, rebellious, unpredictable mutation that changes, mutating within itself, creating new and different versions all the time. Those different versions create various shades and effects of merle, from very heavy and muddy all the way to so light that the color between the black patches is actually gone and the dog is white and black instead of silver and black. Some secondary mutations create dogs that are simply grey, no black at all. Others place a patchwork of colors and white that is so striking that it gets its own name, tweed. So when you see a particularly odd merle, especially if it is visibly passed along from parent to puppy, you can often blame one of those secondary mutations.
(By the way, I have seen all of the above – the no-spot, white, and tweed merles – in Cardigans.)
What about “harlequins”?
There are two mechanisms that create harlequin, which is a merle with very little or no color between the black patches. Harlequins in Great Danes are created by the combination of a merle mutation and a completely separate mutation, called H for harlequin. When H is present in a non-merle, it’s invisible, but when it occurs in a merle it erases the color between the patches and creates a harlequin.
The second, and much more common (not in numbers of dogs, but in “how often it has happened in the history of merles”), mechanism is found in non-Dane breeds. In these breeds a mutation within the merle gene itself erases the intermediate form of the color and creates a white and black dog. There are multiple known mutations that do this, and there will likely be many more discovered.
In non-Danes, the mutated merle is passed along by the parent. So an oddly colored merle – whether harlequin or tweed or muddy or whatever – will generally create more of itself. These mutations can therefore be traced through pedigrees… at least until the merle gene mutates again!
Can merle be “carried”? Can it be hidden in a pedigree?
Most breeders use “carry” to mean that the dog is not a color, but has the ability to produce that color. We often say that our reds and brindles carry black, for example, or that our brindles carry red.
If that’s what you mean by carry, then no. Merle can never be carried. Every dog who has a merle gene IS merle. There is never any such thing as a dog who passes along merle to its children but is not merle itself.
The only way merle can hide in a pedigree is if the dog is both merle and ee red. Because merle affects black pigment but spares red/yellow pigment, and ee red dogs have no black hairs and only red/yellow hairs, they can BE merle without LOOKING merle. They are not carrying it; they are still very much merle. But they don’t have the big visible patches.
For this reason, if you have en ee red Cardigan who had one or more merle parents (including ee red merles), it would be smart to gene test it before breeding if you are considering breeding it to a merle. You want to know if your ee red is also a merle, in that case. If your ee red had non-merle, non-ee-red parents, then there is no way it can possibly be merle and you do not have to worry.
What does all that mean? The short story is that if you have bred two known non-merles, the likelihood that a puppy will be merle is INCREDIBLY SMALL. It approaches zero for most breeders.
My dog doesn’t look merle, but he’s got mottled ears. Are these spots on my Cardigan’s white ears, or these spots in his collar or on his face and feet, evidence of merle?
Most likely, no. If your puppy was born without those spots, ABSOLUTELY NO. Cardigans also have a type of marking called ticking, which is spotting that appears on white areas of the hair in the weeks and months after a puppy is born. Sometimes that ticking can be so heavy that it joins together and looks like a merle patch, but merle patches are there when the puppy is born. And, of course, if neither parent is merle, you don’t have to worry even if the spots look a little weird.
Was the Cardigan originally merle or did someone cross a sheltie or collie in?
The original color of the Cardigan was known to encompass “brindle, brown, gold, tri-color, merle,” according to Mrs. Bole, and “yellow,” “blue and grey merle,” and “most frequently a … golden brown merle” (a brindle or sable merle) according to Mr. Lloyd-Thomas. So merle is very definitely an original color of the breed, and was bred frequently in its sable and brindle forms as well as in its black-based “blue” forms.
As a note, isn’t it interesting to see “brown” and “grey” mentioned? From those narratives and from the existence of dogs like Farlsdale’s Silver Smoke, we know that chocolate and slate are also original colors and not evidence of crossbreeding either historic or modern.
Why do people say that merle disappeared and was rediscovered in Cardigans?
Merle never disappeared in the Cardigan, but the black-based blue merle did indeed go away, for about twenty years, from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Since by the 1930s the breed was only ten or twenty years out of the hills from whence it had come, it was very vulnerable to the preferences of the handful of people who had them. There were very few breeders at that time, and they were shouldering the task of keeping the breed going both in the UK and in the US. There was little or no market for show puppies, so generally if the breeders themselves did not keep the dogs for breeding they were never bred.
Mrs. Wylie, in the UK, had been committed to the merle color, and had many lovely dogs. But with her death, especially since she had not spread her dogs around, the black-based “blue” merle disappeared from view.
About twenty years later, the color “reappeared” from reds and brindles.
The key to understanding how this happened is to realize that lumped in with “red” were (and still are) what some breeders called “pale red” and Lloyd-Thomas had called “gold.” In other words, ee reds, which we colloquially call pink. As I said above, dogs who are ee red can also be merle, and still remain (visibly) red. And for those two decades they had indeed stayed red, and thus progressed through pedigrees for several generations.
But, interestingly, the breeders still knew what they were. Those interested in producing black-based merles again were told that these “reds with blue eyes” (ee red merles), when bred to other colors, would make blue merles. So even with the limited knowledge of color genetics of the time, there was no mystery about the fact that ee red and merle could coexist and be used to produce black-based blue merles. And, in fact, that’s exactly what happened.
I’ve heard that “pinks” are a terrible threat to the breed because they hide merle.
You may have a clue about what I am going to say based on the last paragraph – but to make it clear, NO. Pink (ee red) can make merle less visible, but knowledge is all that is needed. Whether you call it yellow, as Lloyd-Thomas did, gold as Mrs. Boles did, light red as is often recorded in pedigrees, or our current pink, ee red is a common and original color in the breed. And it was handled (and, I might add, valued), in concurrence with merle, by breeders without our current gift of easy color testing. Surely we can expect as much of ourselves, especially since we have gene testing at our fingertips.
If you have a pink you think might be merle, test it. If both parents are non-merle, you don’t have to worry.
I still have more questions. How do I get them answered?
Please put them in the comments. If I can answer them, I will. If I need to send you elsewhere, I’ll be happy to do that too.
OK, I am just going to say it: I CANNOT STAND THIS “NOW WE SELL THE RIGHT WAY TO SOCIALIZE” TREND.
Sell toys. Sell whelping boxes. Sell your book. Sell your lectures. Do NOT claim that for a mere $69.99, a mysterious door will open and you are going to make us a better breeder than every other breeder – but you won’t tell us why or how… at least not until we give you our paypal. But once you HAVE the paypal, we can be SchmancyBreeders (TM) and SchmancyTrainers (R) that use InterestBoxes (TM) because InterestBoxes (TM) are so much better than a cardboard box and some empty water bottles.
Ian Dunbar has been giving this stuff away for years. Go read Dog Star Daily. Free yourself from (TM)s and (R)s. Introduce your puppies to at least fifty friendly strangers before they leave your house, and tell your buyers that they must meet fifty more before they’re twelve weeks old. STOP raising them in tiny bare x-pens. Make their world rich and interesting and include at least one new surface, challenge, smell, temperature, or other sense per day. Let them get away from their own feces, for pete’s sake. And get them the heck out of your house when they are puppies. Stop keeping half or the whole litter.
You do those things, and you are doing GREAT. If you want to pay a bunch of money to be in a club of people who discuss those things in greater depth, that is AWESOME. Go for it. But don’t think that a paywall makes you a better breeder, or $200 makes your puppies better puppies, than someone with an empty box, some water bottles, and a lap.
Since I last posted, I’ve been busy every day of the week with these little monsters. Tragically, after I posted their intro pictures we lost Bessie, the little tri girl. It’s a long story that I can’t really tell without getting weepy, but the short version is that we tried very, very hard, and our vet tried even harder than we did, and lots of tears were shed when we couldn’t beat it in the end.
That’s a sad beginning, but what a very happy group we have now, at almost seven weeks. In order, these are Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Etta James.
Once upon a time, we had a litter between two of our favorite dogs, Porter and Eva. And in that litter was a beautiful little girl puppy (above) with very angry eyebrows.
That little girl puppy went into a performance home, and started to do really well in agility and everything else she tried. She did so well, in fact, that we asked if she might be willing to have some babies before she started to work hard on her titles. She seemed OK with that, as did her owners, and when she had her health testing it looked absolutely perfect.
We looked long and hard for the right boy for Lilly, who is small and quick and silly. We wanted to make sure that the dog was moderate in size, with a pedigree that worked well with hers, and we wanted a beautiful temperament. We finally found Gryffin, Merrythought Gingher White Lightning, and we were over the moon.
Gryffin arrived (well, his genetic material did) in April in a white styrofoam box, and Lilly soon found herself in an embarrassing situation.
Lilly came to us in New Hampshire about a week before she was due. And, in short order, she presented us with four puppies, each more surprising than the last.
As you can see, they’ve got something to say about what kind of interesting colors Cardigans can come in.
The four of them: One tri girl, one “funny” merle boy, one pretty weird merle girl, and one stunningly crazy merle boy.
Their colors are so unusual, in fact, that their DNA is going off to a lab to have their merle gene sequenced. The color geneticist that we are working with told me that their merle gene may be mutated, so instead of having silver between their black patches they have pure white. They also have big patches of a kind of badger-colored gray/brown, which is another feature of the mutation they may have.
Lilly is named after Lillian Gish, the silent film star. Since Gryffin is “White Lightning,” we decided to go with a speakeasy theme, and they are all named after important jazz artists.
This (and the picture above) are of CAB CALLOWAY. He’s a merle (harlequin/tweed/mutated) boy.
This is the normal tri girl, BESSIE SMITH.
Bessie again, with Percy the cat. Percy adores puppies and wants to rub against them and purringly stare at them all day long.
Bessie one more time.
Here is the big merle (harl/tweed/mutated) girl, ETTA JAMES. Her black patches have big swirls of badger color in them that get brighter by the day.
Etta’s beautiful head.
Last but by no means least came a boy who – when he was handed to me – made me gasp out loud. He is marked like a show-marked harlequin dane, and he’s the biggest reason we think we definitely have a mutated merle gene and not just “too much white” mismarking in this litter. His name is LOUIS ARMSTRONG, and he even has a registered name already, WHITE RAVEN HEEBIE JEEBIES.
Louis’ other side.
Louis still waiting for his eyes to open (in the two days since I took these, they have opened and it looks like his white side is going to be blue and the spotty eye will be blue or cracked).
When we announced this litter on Facebook, it caused quite a bit of (must be spoken in a fake poncy English accent) CONTROVERSY. I am thankful that most people were as excited to see them as we are, but there are more than a few of our fellow breeders who think that we should be anything BUT happy to have puppies arrive who are of an unusual shade. Instead of saying “Sadly, we had an entire litter of mismarks,” we said “Incredibly happily, we have an entire litter of something very interesting and we’re going to get their DNA studied and it’s going to be AWESOME.” This did not go over well.
Now that their eyes are open and we’re pretty sure they’re here to stay, I will be posting a LOT of these guys, and also keeping you updated on their testing (they will not only have the DNA done, they’ll have BAER and CERF testing). I honestly do think they are going to have a mutated merle gene; I’ve studied color genetics in dogs for twenty years now and they look exactly like the harlequin collies that already have the mutation established. However, it turns out that they don’t have interesting DNA and they’re in fact “just” mismarks, we will say “Incredibly happily, we have an entire litter of gorgeous mismarks and it’s going to be AWESOME.”
– Joanna (and Sarah, and Lilly’s wonderful owners, and Gryffin’s amazing owner)
PS: No, there are none available! Not right now, at least. After evaluations we’ll start the placement process. But the waiting list is like a mile long 🙂
Some years ago a fellow came to my office and insisted that he needed to dock the tail of his dog. I asked, “How will your dog be better when it doesn’t have a tail?” He replied, “Well, that’s the standard of gundog owners associations around the world.” I said, “Who cares?”
(Alan Ashton, veterinarian, New South Wales, Hansard, April 06, 2004)
I have a sixteen-year-old daughter who is just about to breed her first litter. She is entering the dog fancy at the very end of two hundred years of show-breeding-based cosmetic surgery in the United States.
By the time she is the age I am now, most of the states in the US will have passed cropping and docking bans. The few states that remain without laws on the books will have no vets who perform the procedures, effectively ending the practice of cropping. A few breeders will still dock at home, but most pet owners will consider the sight of a cropped or docked dog to be unusual, and many will consider it repulsive.
When Honour goes to dog shows with me in 2015, surrounding her are hundreds of cropped and docked dogs. In 2040, assuming she is still in the fancy, there will be few or none.
I can feel you gearing up for an argument about your breed, its history, what’s allowable and what freedom means.
Shut your mouths.
We are beyond arguing about whether cropping or docking are ethical for breeders to do. The argument has already been settled. The veterinary leadership took the position that cosmetic cropping and docking was wrong in the 1970s.1 Since then, its position has only strengthened.2 The rejection of cropping/docking is not confined to the veterinary profession, either – it has moved into the philosophical,3 legal,4 and public perception.5
The veterinary community had a general feeling in the 70s, but science had progressed enough by the 1990s to make researchers certain that dogs did feel pain from both procedures. Again, if you’re taking a breath to say that baby puppies don’t feel pain when they’re docked, you are completely and totally wrong. 6 It’s also false that it’s less painful to dock during puppyhood than amputate in adulthood.7 And if you insist on either one of these things, you are not only perpetuating a falsehood,8 you just make us look even more stupid.9
By 2008, not only was it certain that the procedures caused pain, it was certain that they did not provide anything close to a compensatory benefit. Undocked dogs have very few tail injuries. 10 Cropping does not prevent ear infections.11 The implementation of cropping/docking on “working breeds” is so inconsistent as to be laughable.12 The jig is up; nobody believes you when you say it’s for a working purpose.13
So in 2009, the AVMA released a new policy, one that did not just advise against cropping and docking but condemned it. This policy change was not initiated by any communication with the animal rights lobby;14 it was the result of a genuine groundswell of opinion among the veterinary community.
The show-breeding community is the only group that still wants dogs to be docked or cropped, and we’ve effectively moved (in veterinary perception) from an institution that is somewhat quaint and set in its ways to a source of active cruelty. 15
When I bought my first Great Dane, there were vets in almost every state who would do a decent show crop. An extensive network of home croppers was general knowledge in the community. Fifteen years later, breeders are traveling across half the country to find one of the few vets who will still do a show crop.
This is not a coincidence.
The vets who support breeders’ desire to crop are older; a huge number of them have retired in the last couple of decades. In the next twenty years, virtually all of the remaining show-cropping vets will retire or die. They will not be replaced. And home cropping is now so universally condemned in vet schools that the story of a show cropper who wants assistance to crop at home is used as a test case in veterinary ethics textbooks.16
No matter how much you may try to deny it, the facts are inescapable. No matter how you feel about docking and cropping, they are no longer going to be an option very soon.
So what are you going to do now – as breeders, as parent clubs, as ambassadors of your breed?
Here’s what is NOT going to work:
1) The “Then I’ll take my ball and go home” solution: If we’re not allowed to dock or crop, threaten to stop breeding.
All this would do is confirm to the entire world that the right to be able to cut off pieces of your dogs is more important to you than the dogs themselves. It would be a very public admission of an extremely unattractive attitude, and would turn the public against show breeders with great efficiency.
2) The “Throw lobbying money at it” solution: Insist that this is just “AR nonsense” and that if you give enough money to the NAIA or push the AKC hard enough this will all go away.
First, the move toward banning docking and cropping is not “Animal rights nonsense.” Not only is it not the result of animal rights lobbying, it is not nonsense. What IS nonsense is saying that cropping and docking don’t hurt dogs. Throwing money at perpetuating nonsense is doomed to failure over the long term, and it should be.
Second, by trying to push this as a legislative agenda, you are positioning show breeders AGAINST the world’s veterinarians and AGAINST the world’s legal ethicists. Is that really a place we want to put ourselves? Or are we dooming ourselves to look abusive and blind when history looks back and considers this question?
Here’s what you SHOULD be doing:
1) Rewrite your standards now, not when you’re forced to.
Parent clubs have a VERY limited window of time in which to represent a standard change as their own idea and not something rammed down their throats.
2) Publicize your club’s decision.
You have the opportunity to gain a huge amount of goodwill among the decision-makers of the veterinary community, the legislature, and pet owners if you are perceived as being ahead of the curve on this topic. This well of goodwill is getting shallower by the year. Do it now and do it very loudly.
3) Stop making excuses, pull your head out of the sand, wake up and smell the coffee, or whatever cliché makes you change your rhetoric.
There is no rational justification for cosmetic docking and cropping and there never has been. The only situation that made it so easy to perpetuate was a lack of absolute certainty about the causing of pain both immediate and long-term. That era is over.
4) Spend the goodwill and the publicity you gained in step 2 to educate vets and the public on something that’s both defensible AND pro-dog.
“We’re glad to get our breed in the news for this wonderful reason. We want to invite everyone to come out to the shows and see how dedicated our breeders are to the welfare of their breeds.”
“We hope this decision encourages more people to get involved in our wonderful breed; if you’re interested in becoming a responsible breeder, visit our website.”
“We hope this decision affirms our dedication to providing the very best care for all dogs. If you’d like to learn more about evidence-based breeding, including what veterinary interventions we support and which ones we don’t, check out our homepage.”
The bottom line: Now is the time to act. Being truthful, humane, and proactive will, in the public’s eyes, earn us the right to continue to have a voice in the national dialog about dogs. If we reject any of those three principles, we’re proclaiming ourselves to be unreliable, and we will be treated as such when it comes to vital dog arguments in the decades to come.
Notes on the footnotes: None of the sources are from animal rights publications or from the research arm of any animal-rights-oriented institution. They are from mainstream peer-reviewed journals and AVMA publications. The AVMA is not an animal-rights-friendly organization; it actively supports ownership rather than guardianship language, disbudding and dehorning, the use of animals in research, and so on.
My statements on state cropping/docking bans are based on the rapidly accelerating pace of docking/cropping lawmaking and proposed bans. Test-case laws are being proposed virtually every year, and (as with most sea changes in public perceptions) are likely to succeed in one or more of the New England states, California, or Oregon within the next few years. Vermont already has a sort-of ban, as of 2006 (Vermont didn’t have any vets who would crop, so the ban did not have any teeth, but it was enacted). Once a true ban is enacted, a half-dozen other states will follow quickly, and then the court of public opinion will create a sweep.
I am leaving the comments open but cautiously. Please do not comment that puppies do not feel pain or are not affected by docking/cropping; I’ve already posted the studies that establish that they do. Any statement of fact in a comment must be backed up by a cite, and the strength of the cites must be high.
“Two recent cases have opened the door to successful animal cruelty prosecutions for ear cropping and tail docking. First, in Hammer v. American Kennel Club,a dog owner brought a discrimination suit against the AKC alleging that a docked tail standard effectively excluded his dog from participating in competitions, as the owner believed tail docking to be a form of animal cruelty. Although the court dismissed the action on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted, and this case had no effect on the previous decision in Rogers , the court did specifically state that the anti-cruelty law could be construed to prohibit tail docking for cosmetic purposes as unjustifiable mutilation. Additionally, in a pointed dissent, N.Y. Supreme Court (Appellate Division) Justice Ellerin states, “Assuming arguendo that the protection of hunting dogs against tail injuries justifies docking the tails of hunting dogs, it is not a justification for docking the tails of non-hunting dogs . . . for the purposes of AKC competitions.” https://www.animallaw.info/article/cropping-and-docking-discussion-controversy-and-role-law-preventing-unnecessary-cosmetic ↩
From a very lay-oriented article in WSJ: “Some dogs growl before biting and some don’t; the canine body speaks louder than the voice. That is why dogs whose tails are docked or ears cropped lose some of their linguistic fluency.” http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-is-your-dog-telling-you-1431098919 ↩
Noonan G, Rand J, Blackshaw J, et al. Behavioural observations of puppies undergoing tail docking. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1996;4: 335-342. Also Fitzgerald M. (1994). – The neurobiology of fetal and neonatal pain. In A textbook of pain (P.D. Wall & R. Melzack, eds), 3rd Ed. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 153-163 ↩
“It has also been suggested that accidental tail trauma to the adult dog causes more suffering than amputation early in life. However, puppies are rarely provided analgesia when their tails are docked and the short-and long-term effects of painful procedures in neonates of many species are well documented.” LaPrarie JL, Murphy AZ. Long Term Impact of Neonatal Injury in Male and Female Rats: Sex Differences, Mechanisms and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 2010;31:193-202. ↩
“A survey conducted in Australia in 1996 found that 76% of veterinarians surveyed believed that tail docking causes significant to severe pain, with none believing that no pain is experienced. In contrast, 82% of dog breeders believed that docked puppies experience no, or only mild pain.” Bennett and Perini, “Tail docking in dogs: a review of the issues,” Australian Veterinary Journal, April 2003, vol. 81, no. 4, p. 209. ↩
“Indeed, whereas most veterinarians state that tail docking causes significant or severe pain and should not be continued (despite its potential as a source of income), most breeders believe that docking is not painful or causes little pain, and want it to continue. It is reasonable to assume that veterinarians, being in closer contact with animals that are suffering through being ill or wounded, are better informed on tail damage than breeders. Moreover, veterinarians are trained to recognise typical pain behaviour, and this recognition significantly increases the ability to distinguish between painful and less painful treatments, for instance in rats (44). Such divided opinions raise questions about the vested interests of the breeders, the breed societies which set the breed standards and the information which they distribute to their members and elsewhere.” http://www.health.fgov.be/internet2Prd/groups/public/@public/@dg4/@animalsplants/documents/ie2divers/19097820_fr.pdf ↩
“These justifications for docking working dogs’ tails lack substantial scientific support. In the largest study to date on tail injuries in dogs the incidence was 0.23% and it was calculated that approximately 500 dogs need to be docked to prevent one tail injury.” Diesel G, Pfeiffer D, Crispin S, et al. Risk factors for tail injuries in dogs in Great Britain. Vet Rec 2010;166:812-817. ↩
“Otitis externa incidence, however, is most closely associated with particular breeds within each group (whether ears are hanging or erect), and is especially prevalent in Cocker Spaniels,Poodles, and German Shepherd Dogs. … (But) no group deems a high incidence of otitis externa a valid reason for advocating routine cropping of the ears of Cocker Spaniels or Poodles. … Breeds such as Cocker Spaniels seem to be predisposed to otitis externa due to a greater density of apocrine glands and a predisposition to proliferative ceruminous gland hyperplasia (i.e., proliferation of cells) and ectasia (i.e., dilation or distension).This clustering of risk factors suggests the risk of otitis externa in pedigreed dogs must be considered on a breed-by-breed basis, and that grouping study samples by ear shape (e.g., pendulous or erect) may not be justified” https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Frequently-asked-questions-about-ear-cropping-and-canine-otitis-externa.aspx ↩
“Differences between breeds that are docked and those that are not are often minor. For example among the very similar Pointer, German Longhaired Pointer and German Shorthaired Pointer, only the German Shorthaired Pointer is traditionally docked.” https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Frequently-asked-questions-about-canine-tail-docking.aspx ↩
“Based on current knowledge and ethical considerations, authors of many previous articles, as well as official veterinary associations, have concluded that tail docking cannot be considered as a prophylactic measure to prevent damage caused by practices such as hunting. From an ethical point of view, these articles and opinions examine which item carries most weight: the suffering of the whole newborn population of traditionally docked breeds or the pain felt by the few individuals possibly requiring an amputation in adulthood.” http://www.health.fgov.be/internet2Prd/groups/public/@public/@dg4/@animalsplants/documents/ie2divers/19097820_fr.pdf ↩
“How it came about: The AVMA position on Ear Cropping and Tail Docking of Dogs, most recently approved in 1999, was up for evaluation by the Animal Welfare Committee as part regular reviews of all AVMA policies by their oversight councils and committees. “The reason this came up is because of the review requirement. We were not approached by the HSUS; we were not approached by PETA; nor did anyone else call to ask us to change the policy,” Dr. Golab said. https://www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/090315c.aspx ↩
“I think we can all agree that snipping off puppies ears and tails serves no purpose other than to satisfy some archaic notion of how a dog should look by an out-of-touch institution.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2764515/ ↩
“A local schnauzer breeder with whom you have worked for the last five years wants to buy a bottle of Innovar-vet…” http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-EHEP002754.html ↩
Those of you who are Facebook friends know that puppy exercise has been a bee buzzing around my bonnet for a while now.
Recently, there has been a flurry of “shares” for a few puppy exercise recommendations. All of them suggest restricting puppy exercise rather dramatically. Advice is given to calculate a certain number of minutes per day based on how old the puppy is (five minutes per month, for example) or to restrict walks to a few hundred feet or play dates to fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. The strong implication is that you will hurt (injure, even destroy the joints of) your puppy if you do not follow this advice.
My Facebook discussions showed that when I expressed horror and disbelief gentle doubt about these recommendations, the immediate assumption was that I was criticizing the person or people who put them together. Since that’s the last thing I want – I don’t personally know any of them, and they are probably amazing humans – I am not going to go piece by piece through the recommendations and explain or rebut. I’m just going to offer a chart of my own, based on the way we raise our puppies and on the advice we give to our puppy buyers. Clicking on the image will download the graphic as a PDF, which you are welcome to distribute at will.
If I can have you take anything away from my personal feelings on exercise, please let it be this: Puppies do best when they exercise all day long. They really are, biologically, wolves. That means that aside from breeds whose face shapes necessitate more caution – obviously, you know your breed best – once they are past the infant stage they should be hard, fast little rubber bands, who can easily move from a day-long play date to a run by the ocean or a child-paced hike up a mountain. If they cannot make those transitions, they need MORE exercise, not less. A well-exercised puppy is a protected puppy. Soft, underexercised babies who are asked to be weekend warriors (when they are used to barely moving during the week) are the ones who are injured. The only “bad” exercise is forced exercise. Never force, never jump, and never roadwork a puppy. Aside from those rules, the more the better.
If you can draw a straight line from the ears to the front feet, it doesn’t matter how good a layback you have or how nice a return of upper arm. The dog’s front is seriously faulty, and it’s both a functional fault and a breed type fault. We can’t create length or reach by pushing the front up under the neck. A line drawn up from the middle of the front leg should go through the body and into the air. The more it goes into the neck, the more forward and therefore faulty the set of the front is.
Our potential puppy buyers pass the pages around. New breeders, enthusiastic about their membership with the “good guys,” share them too. They are printed and re-printed and gathered by online dog magazines, shelters, even breed clubs.
And they are fatally, horribly wrong.
Let’s take a look at the ten worst “signs of a backyard breeder.”
1. Beware if the breeder doesn’t show their dogs in conformation shows.
Good breeders know the value of peer review, and they seek out ways to prove their dogs and to “take their temperature” as breeders. However, saying that the only definition of good breeding is breeding for the conformation ring ignores a vast and extremely valuable network of performance and working breeders.
Good conformation is important to ALL dogs. No matter what they do. But it’s nothing but hubris to say that the conformation ring is the only place good breeders evaluate their dogs. Remember that the original point of the conformation ring was to judge working dogs against each other. The working came first.
If your breed is one with a working history, the ability to do its historic job should ALWAYS be the boundaries that shape your breeding efforts. If the conformation ring is the best and most demanding place to test whether you’ve done a good job as a breeder, then you should go there. If it’s not – if the best and most demanding test for how well you’re doing as a breeder is the sheep pen or the field trial or the performance ring – then that’s where you should be. And nobody should ever even hint that you’re someone to beware of.
2. Beware if the breeder doesn’t allow you to see the parents. A responsible breeder should be more than willing to allow you to meet the parents of your future puppy.
For the vast majority of good breedings, both parents will not be on site. You may be able to meet mom, but dad is quite unlikely. As a matter of fact, it’s a bigger red flag if all the dads are on site (meaning the person breeds only to her own dogs and never seeks out a good match elsewhere).
It’s also a huge generalization to say that I should be “more than willing” to have you meet the mom dog. That depends entirely on how old the puppies are, how she’s feeling about strangers touching them, and whether she’s in shape to be seen (you know what I mean – there is going to be a time when mom is a naked rat with skin and backbone showing, and maybe I’m not ready to have you, oh sweet puppy buyer, Instagram her all over the world). Mom dogs are individuals, just like humans. It’s not a bad sign, or a signal that she’s not a good dog or that her puppies won’t be good dogs, if she doesn’t like seeing complete strangers mauling her kids.
3. Beware if the breeder doesn’t allow you to visit. It is vital to see where the puppies are being raised.
I used to believe this too – until I began reading the news. I also realized that in every other area of our lives, we take sensible and normal precautions about who comes in the house. But for puppy buyers, it was “Can you type my e-mail address? Then sure, come on over.” I was giving an incredible amount of access to my home, my dogs and puppies, my young daughters, and myself without ever having met the people who were walking in.
So now, if you ask to come over, the answer is no. Instead, we do group visits at set times. My husband and I make sure that multiple adults we know and trust are there for the visits, so we can welcome you – but welcome you wisely. If you cannot come for one of the group visits, I will meet a potential buyer anywhere convenient for them, and we usually turn it into a group get-together with all the buyers and friends from that area. It’s a great system. And it makes me feel much more secure about what’s coming in my front door.
4. Beware if the breeder breeds several types of dogs. The purpose of a responsible breeder is to better the breed. How are they able to do that if they are focusing on different breeds?
New breeders usually have only one breed in the house. However, one of the truly pleasurable rewards of maturing in your breed is realizing that you have the time and energy and structure to indulge in a breed that you’ve always loved.
(For some reason, this seems to be Frenchies, like, ALL THE TIME. You Frenchie breeders are creating the “big bowl of ice cream for breakfast” of the dog breeder world, I swear.)
Some breeders who have always had big go small. Others have fun with a coated breed when they had wash and wear coats, or vice versa. Sometimes they’ve got kids or grandkids who want a different breed. There’s no “right” reason to get into a second breed, except that you love them and you want to. And the breeders who have a second breed (or a third breed) usually do just as fantastic a job with them as they’re doing with their first breed.
5. Beware if the breeder doesn’t issue a spay/neuter contract. Very few people are qualified to breed. A responsible breeder will issue a limited registration contract and require that you fix your dog by a certain age.
And also elitist. Before we even get into the spay/neuter, any statement like “very few people are qualified to breed” will lead to a polite invitation from me to go soak your head. Breeding well takes commitment and sacrifice and money and incredibly hard work, but it does NOT take some kind of educational or income level and it is not granted along with a silver spoon. Anyone willing to put in the effort deserves to try.
A good breeder will generally insist that you not BREED a non-breed-worthy dog, but they should not be insisting on a spay/neuter contract.
6. Beware if the breeder often has puppies available. Most responsible breeders will create a wait list of people who are interested in their puppies and will only breed when they have enough people to adopt the majority of the litter.
As a breeder, you are breeding for YOURSELF. You are not breeding for the demand of buyers, to impress your peers, to do a favor to the stud dog owner, or anything else. You are putting seven or eight or ten puppies on the earth because YOU believe that YOUR breeding program will be brought forward by this breeding. You are responsible to the dogs and to yourself. Nobody else.
“Only breed when you have enough people” makes it sound like it’s a tap you can just turn on and off – oh, there’s my fourth reservation! DING! Quick, go out there and impregnate Molly!
Dogs do not work that way. The windows your bitch gives you to breed her are going to be few and short. The stud dogs ideal for her are going to be far away and difficult to get. If you can do a breeding that moves your program forward, for heaven’s sake, DO IT. Do it and be thrilled that you had the opportunity.
7. Beware if the breeder isn’t active in breed specific clubs. Membership to any of these clubs shows the breeder is willing to continue learning to help the improve the breed.
This is pretty personal for me, because I am not a member of our national club. I am not a member because I and the entire body of dog-related science believe that the club’s Code of Ethics is bad for the breed. So science and I got together and agreed that we weren’t going to breed that way, which means no membership for me.
For other people, there are any number of other reasons that they are not members of a club. What’s really going on – the root of the matter – is that the IDEA of an AKC parent club is great. The way it is supposed to function and the goals it’s supposed to have are incredibly valuable to good breeders.
If your club has managed to maintain a reality that is close to the idea, then that is awesome and you should be a member. If your club makes you scream at the computer all the time and you can’t go to the annual general meetings because you know you’ll start screaming at real people, then maybe it’s not such a great requirement.
8. Good breeders line up qualified buyers in advance of birth of a litter and rarely ever advertise.
FALSE. Oh my goodness, so dang false. (Links to an old article of mine that is likely to have some broken links and old data, but the point is still valid.) Again, SO SUPER DUPER FALSE.
9. Beware if the breeder offers to ship their dogs to new owners without meeting them first—a responsible breeder meets the new parents before she sends her pups home with them.
Before I get going, my puppy owners are not “parents.” They bought a puppy from me; they are owners.
Now, on to shipping: Shipping is one of the greatest forces for good in the dog world that you can possibly imagine. Before shipping was easy and safe, the regions of the country were islands. There were “West Coast” and “East Coast” styles of the same breed. If you were a breeder, you either bred your girls to the same few boys in your area or you put your bitch on a train and hoped she would be OK when she got off in a week.
Shipping is also an enormous boon for puppy buyers – yes, even pet buyers – because they can seek out many more breeders who are a good match for their needs and their households. As a result, many breeders ship out half or even more of each litter, and they do it to families that they’ve never met in person.
The question is NOT whether a breeder has met a buyer. The question is whether the breeder has done enough homework to determine if this is going to be a good home – whether it is ten minutes away or a ten-hour plane ride away. Shipping has nothing to do with an owner being a good match or a poor one.
10. Beware if the breeder does not reject high-risk buyers: (renters, young people, those with poor track records, low income, other pets, dogs kept outdoors)
FALSE. Also, HOLY CRAP.
The “poor track record” and “dogs kept outside” (for most breeds) are OK. The other stuff – this attitude is why people say “they tried to get a puppy from a good breeder and couldn’t, so they felt like they had to go to a bad one.” This INEXCUSABLE attitude.
Every breeder knows her breed best. Some breeds have very specific requirements from buyers, and tend to not do well in average homes. Rigorous screening is the responsibility of every breeder. But NO BREED requires a list of arrogant garbage like the above. And if you find yourself screening buyers based on qualifications that have nothing to do with your breed’s needs and are just excuses for being a d-bag, STOP. Young broke renters who have scraped together the money for a good puppy and are committed to feeding and vetting it well should be welcomed with open arms.
BONUS: Bad breeders breed their bitches on every season.