Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Remembering 9/11 and thoughts on the purpose-bred dog

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.  It is hard to believe as it is still so fresh in my mind.  I can still remember watching the second plane hit that morning as I was getting ready for work and how surreal it was;  later that day I can still remember the patient I was with when the Pentagon was attacked (he is still a patient, but getting pretty long in the tooth!).  That was a scary moment, as my sister was working nearby at the time. 

Facebook has been flooded with images of 9/11 and, on the facebook feeds of my mostly animal-oriented friends, images and remembrances of the search and rescue dogs who were part of the recovery effort.  These very special dogs and their handlers provide such an important service, putting their own lives on hold to go to the aid of others at short notice, sometimes putting themselves in danger in the process.

In looking at these memorial postings, I noticed something that I thought was very important to point out, ESPECIALLY to my friends, neighbors and clients who are animal lovers but not necessarily immersed in the "dog world".  If you look at these photos, you will see that, almost without exception, these dogs are purebred dogs.  It takes a very special dog to be able to perform these services;  in virtually every case, these dogs have been bred for generations, if not specifically for THAT job, to work closely with their handlers in ways that complement this effort, and to develop the skills that are important for this job.  Dogs from the working and sporting, and occasionally herding group predominate, with German Shepherds and retrievers of various sorts tending to be seen the most frequently.  Training a dog for this work involves hours and hours of commitment and literally years of seasoning.  It is important to pick a dog genetically predisposed to excel, from a breeder who then provides the environment early on to foster these tendencies  in order to ensure the best odds that that dog will successfully complete the training.  You certainly would be very unlikely to go to, for example, a pug breeder, to find a dog to train for this type of work (not picking on pugs, but I've never seen one do SAR;  their prominent eyes would be prone to injury, their short noses make them rank well down the list in tracking ability, and their stocky stature,small size, and limited heat tolerance is not the best suited to the conditions these dogs must work under).  It would be equally difficult to go to the shelter and pick a prospect for this work.  Can it be done?  Yes, but you will run through a LOT of dogs in the process which will "wash out" of the system wasting time and resources.  There are undoubtedly mixed breed dogs out there who could do this work well, but in order to consistently identify the dogs most likely to possess that special combination of physical, mental and emotional attributes you will be far more successful in choosing a dog bred for those attributes.

This is not only true just of search and rescue dogs, but also of many, many other working dogs.  Guide dogs for the blind have been bred specifically for that purpose for many generations.  Go to any "border collie" herding trial (aimed at real working dogs and generally considered much more challenging than their AKC counterparts which are more "sport" trials);  these trials are open to any breed, and I even have a friend who has competed in them successfully with a sheltie, beating the BCs at their own game;  but in general if you want to be competitive, you need to go get a border collie.  And not just any border collie, but one that has been bred for generations and literally maybe even hundreds of years, to do that job.  And if you're smart, and want your dog to have a long working life, you will find one whose pedigree is filled with dogs who have the appropriate health clearances so your dog doesn't end up retired at three because he has bad hips, or eye problems.  And before you say "but I just want a pet", remember that a dog's genes greatly influence many things you will have to live with, including how much he barks (boy do I know that!), how much he drools, how quickly he learns things, how much he likes to cuddle etc AND how long he lives and how healthy that life will be.  I found early in my life that I was NOT a terrier person and my personality was not at all suited to that type of dog.  Luckily, I found a perfect fit for me, in a totally different breed from a different group bred for very different personality traits. 

Right now there is a very strong, "politically correct" sentiment that is pushing us towards mandatory spay and neuter policies in our communities and telling us that a rescue dog or random bred mixed breed is ALWAYS an equivalent choice to a purpose bred, pure bred dog.  For my average client, and the pet loving public, this is a very "feel good" position and the "shelter good, breeder bad" feeling is pretty prevalent out there.  Let me first say, I have NO issue with the wonderful mixed breeds out there.  My first dog Winky was a little mixed breed hound and she was a wonderful dog, a very appropriate choice for our family at the time, and lived to be 15 years old (she also had the worst allergies of any dog I have owned, and probably was the least healthy overall).  Many of my favorite patients have been mixes, and all but one of my cats have been.   Mixed breeds CAN be a great choice for a given situation.  My concern is that we are losing the CHOICE and soon either random bred dogs, or dogs from very high volume purebred producers (who generally do no socialization or health screening) will be the only options we have left to us.  Promoting the propaganda that all dogs are interchangeable, that all purebreds are unhealthy,  and there are no advantages and disadvantages to mixed breeds vs purebreds is kind of like going to a college and saying all students are interchangeable and now we will have the PhD candidates play football on the weekends and the football players spend their days in the lab.

There is a reason that man has bred dogs selectively for thousands of years, and AKC currently recognizes 161 separate and distinct breeds falling into seven groups bred for specific purposes;  working, herding, sporting, hound, terrier, toy, and non-sporting.  For the average Joe Public who just wants a pet;  doesn't care how big they get or how much hair they have, and has relatively flexible tolerance for various temperament types, a mixed breed may work out fine.  One of the advantages is that there are some great deals to be had on mixed breeds.  Our tax dollars go to support county shelters, where in most instances the pets available for adoption for a nominal fee have been spayed/neutered, microchipped, vaccinated, and maybe even heartworm tested  (remember though, you DID pay for it- just at tax time, not when you walked out the door of the shelter with the dog).  The disadvantages include increased risk of infectious disease exposure to those puppies compared to those of a responsible breeder;  questionable early socialization and exposures which can impact greatly on a dog's future temperament and emotional stability, and difficulty in predicting size, coat, and personality traits.  Some of those concerns can be decreased by adopting an older dog in comparison to a puppy. 

However, the more specific your needs tend to be, the more likely it is that a purebred dog will make a better choice because you can predict many traits with a good degree of reliability.  And when I say a purebred dog, I don't mean any dog from a pet store or Craig's list who had two parents of the same breed bred together without much thought for anything other than availability.  One of the problems is that when promoting the "zero population growth/mandatory spay neuter" agenda, there is no differentiation made between a WELL BRED purebred and backyard breeder or puppymill dogs.  A well bred dog from a responsible breeder has parents who have been screened for the appropriate health conditions common to the breed (mixed breeds are NOT immune to these conditions, it's just harder to predict which ones to look for).  That doesn't mean one dog who has an OFA hip certification in the pedigree, but that the majority of dogs in a five generation pedigree have clearances.  A responsible breeder knows the dogs in his pedigrees, not just by name, but what strengths and weakness they had in structure, type, temperament, and health.  He knows how old they were when they died and what they died of.  Not just mom and dad, but again, back three, five, and more generations.  He knows what he is likely to produce in a given cross.  He breeds dogs who conform to his breed's written standard and not "rare" chartreuse flugglehounds in a breed in which chartreuse is a disqualifying fault (he found out early on that the founders of the breed wrote this into the standard because they already knew the chartreuse color was associated with health defects).  He breeds his dogs with a purpose in mind and has a way of evaluating their suitability for that purpose by outside sources, such as dog shows, obedience, agility, field trials, working farm or service dogs, tracking dogs, etc.  He spends time socializing his puppies, keeps them in clean conditions, and provides appropriate veterinary care.   He interviews his puppy buyers just as if they were adopting a human baby, and keeps in contact with them through that puppy's lifetime.  He takes that puppy back if things don't work out for any reason.  He offers guidance when the puppy goes through those terrible teens, and can be a good source of information when training problems crop up.  He is NOT always easy to find, and his puppies are rarely advertised in the local paper.  He doesn't take credit cards.  You can't go online and "order" a puppy from his website, though he may have a website which shows his adult dogs and proudly displays their health clearances and pedigrees full of more dogs with appropriate clearances.  You probably will be on a waiting list, as puppies like this are not produced overnight, but with much planning, forethought and care.  They will almost certainly cost more than the "great deal" on the Lab puppies that the guy who bred his bitch to the dog down the street and raised the puppies in a muddy stall in a barn.   Think about what you are paying for.  If you are not getting what a responsible breeder should be providing, you probably are better off with a mixed breed than one of the poorly bred purebreds who haven't had any of the planning, health screening, or socialization, because those poorly bred purebreds really offer very few of the ADVANTAGES of purebreds.  Why pay for something you aren't getting? 

So, you can see by my list above, there are some very real differences between the purebred puppy from a responsible breeder and the mixed breed puppy from the shelter.  Depending on your circumstances, those differences may or may not be hugely important to you.  I would personally not recommend going for the "cut rate" purebred as in my experience they may or may not exhibit the physical and temperament traits which caused you to select that breed in the first place, and they rarely to never have any health screening and early socialization;  I think much of the "bad rap" given to purebreds is because people don't bother to differentiate.  There will always be a market for these dogs in our gotta have it now, looking for a deal society.  Don't be the rube who gets taken.  As far as the current fad of blaming any disease a purebred dog happens to get on "inbreeding",  a lot of it is simply hype.  Many diseases can be controlled or eliminated in a breeding population by screening your breeding stock with appropriate testing.  This is rarely done in the backyard/puppy mill bred purebreds and, not coincidentally, I am much more likely to see inherited disease in them than in their carefully bred counterparts.  The really ironic thing is that if you look at these dogs' pedigrees, they are such a mishmash that they often have zero dogs repeated in a five generation pedigree, so they are about as outcrossed as you can get.  However, dogs are creatures, not machines and even the most carefully bred dogs can have unexpected problems crop up.  In my group of purebreds I  and my family have owned that have passed on, the youngest was not quite 12 and the oldest was almost 17 at the time of their death.  One died in an accident at 14 and was still quite hale and hearty.  All of them were healthy and vigorous into old age, some even competing in agility in their geriatric years, and only one had any prolonged illness the last year of his life (he died at 13).  How many of you, with your presumably quite outcrossed human families full of hybrid vigor, can claim an average age of your family members in their late 80s with no significant illnesses until their mid seventies?  (those of you with highly inbred families need not answer!).  Yet that is my experience with my purebred dog family.  Thankfully I have been very lucky, but I also have been very careful and hopefully very smart in choosing my dogs, caring for them, and on rare occasions breeding them. 

Regardless of which you choose, please, please understand that there is a REASON that we need to have a choice when it comes to our dogs.  Purebred dog owners and breeders are not in it for the most part because they are vain and need a new "toy" or possession to show off (just visit most of our houses, look at our cars and in our closets in order to get over that idea real quickly!).  Our dogs are our passion and our lives, and there is a reason we have chosen to live with the dogs that we do.  It is a reason that can greatly benefit society as well.

Please, familiarize yourself with the difference between "animal welfare" and "animal rights" groups and realize that the animal rights groups are NOT the friend of the animal lover.  Please educate yourselves and don't buy into their agendas, and when the mandatory spay/neuter proposals come up in your town, please DON'T fall into that trap and support them.  (Don't think it will happen?  Check out the situation in Louisville if you don't think so).  These laws will do little to impact the high volume puppy breeders or the careless pet owners, but they will eliminate the majority of responsible hobby breeders which are our BEST source of quality purebred dogs. 

And please, think carefully when you DO choose your next pet.  The BEST way to keep the shelters empty is to CHOOSE CAREFULLY AND APPROPRIATELY THE BEST PET FOR YOUR SITUATION, purebred or mixed.  Disposable/recycled pets make up a huge part of the shelter population.  Please don't get a dog you can't care for, don't know how to/have time to train, are allergic to, are shocked when it gets to be the size of a horse, can't deal with its coat care, can't afford it's medical bills.  Be a responsible pet owner and do your part not to contribute to the shelter population.

And please, unless YOU meet the criteria for the responsible breeder above, please spay or neuter your pet at an appropriate age agreed upon between you and your veterinarian (not your city council).  Breeding dogs is not for the faint of heart, and breeding dogs well takes a level of time, commitment, money and energy that most pet owners are not prepared for.  Saying you "just want to breed pets" is a cop out.  Failure to do the appropriate screening and planning is not conducive to producing healthy pets.  I know, it's my job to see them every day and pick up the pieces.   So many times so much heartache could have been avoided if my clients just stopped to think and choose carefully BEFORE they brought that dog home.

We don't need government to tell us whether or not and when we should be breeding our dogs.  They have their hands full with other things.  Dealing with the aftermath of irresponsible HUMAN reproduction comes to mind.  We DO need to take responsibility for our own actions in our dealings with our pets.  With freedom to make choices, comes responsibility for the consequences of those choices AND we also must have tolerance for those who make other choices we may not always agree with.  Don't know about you, but I like it better that way than having my government "protect" me to death.  Looking at the 9/11 images again just brought home to me once more that I want to live in a FREE country.  I want to make my own choices and live with the consequences of those choices, good or bad. 

Off soapbox now.  Thanks for reading!