Sometimes you are President of the United States, and sometimes you are just one more confused guy on the bus.
That's what Barack Obama is learning as he struggles to select a dog -- the only Presidential appointment which has a better-than-zero chance of crapping on his carpet in the oval office.
Like most good consumers, Barack and family have gone out and gotten an all-breed book to help them with the selection effort. Because Malia has allergies, and because Barack does not want a small yappy dog, the choice has predictably come down to two breeds: a Portuguese Water Dog and a Labradoodle.
Both dogs are, at their core, curly-coated hunting retrievers of nearly identical lineage.
In 1981 the Portuguese Water Dog was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the rarest breed of dog on earth. It was just about that time that an American vacationing in Portugal discovered the dog, brought a few back to the U.S., bred them, got them registered with the America Kennel Club, and their number skyrocketed.
What happened next is predictable: the dogs became deeply inbred, and a doubling down of recessive genes resulted in congenital defect and disease bubbling to the surface.
The first disease to rear its head was Gangliosidosis, or storage disease, which attacks the nerve cells of young puppies and causes a loss of coordination and body functions which kills the dog.
No sooner was this recessive gene discovered, than Addison's Disease reared its ugly head -- an endocrine disease in which the dog loses weight, energy and muscle mass.
As bad as these two problems are, more health care problems lie in wait for the Portuguese Water Dog as inbreeding within the American Kennel Club's closed registry system is required for a dog with so few numbers.
And yet, the Labradoodle and the Portuguese Water Dog look so much alike than one is hard pressed to differentiate one from another.
Why is this?
The answer lies in the fact a Portuguese Water Dog is little more than an unimproved Standard Poodle, while a Labradoodle is nothing more than a Standard Poodle that has been crossed with a Labrador Retriever to degrade the dog back to its less refined prototype -- a Portuguese Water Dog.
So how are the dogs different?
Simple: their registry (or lack thereof).
While the Portuguese Water Dog is a American Kennel Club registered dog that started with less than two dozen members bred within a closed registry system, the Labradoodle is a planned hybrid, with many scores of thousands of potential dams and sires on each side of its family tree, and no inbreeding at all as a consequence. The result is, by and large, a healthier dog that is unlikely to be burdened by a doubling down of negative recessive genes leading to epidemic levels of congenital defects. The same cannot be said for the Portuguese Water Dog.
The genetic benefits of hybrids -- both in terms of health and production -- are widely known, and in fact most of our agricultural plants and animals on our farms are hybrid animals for that reason.
Why hybrids? Simple: A long time ago, it was found that purebred animals kept in closed gene pools suffered drops in production over time. In some cases, the animals became unfecund, in others they ended up with weak hocks, thin structure, or a propensity to die from minor illnesses. A simple outcross generally put things right again.
But outcrosses are banned in the American Kennel Club which still embraces a "not a drop of foreign blood" theory of breed purity. The fact that this phrase sounds so much like that used by white supremacists, is not an accident.
The U.K. and American Kennel Clubs are built on the eugenics theories of Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin.
The American Kennel Club simply copied the structure and standards of the British Kennel Club and added their own eugenics man to help sell the deal -- Leon F. Whitney, a veterinarian and prominent dog writer who went on to become head of the American Eugenics Society.
Whitney is so important to the history of the AKC that when the American Kennel Club published Our Dogs: A Century of Images and Words from the AKC Gazette in 2003, they specifically included an essay by Whitney despite the fact that the 151-page book was already crowded with more than 100 color photos. Rarely said: Whitney was so focused on eugenics theories that he called for the sterilization of one in twelve Americans -- an idea that was praised by no less a sociopath than Adolph Hitler.
Science, of course, moves forward, and the eugenics theories of Francis Galton and Leon F. Whitney did not survive World War II.
But the American Kennel Club has held on to its closed registry system.
The answer is largely economic.
Let's look at the Dalmatian, by way of example. Here is a dog with very serious health problems, chief among them a jaw-dropping level of congenital deafness, and also a tendency to build upuric acid crystals leading to blockage which often requires veterinary attention. In chronic cases in male dogs, a uresthrostemy is necessary. This is a procedure in which the scrotum of the dog is removed and the urinary tract of the dog is permanently relocated to the base of the penis so that the male dog urinates like a female.
The good news is that about 30 years ago, a backcross program with Pointers was put in place in order to create a dog that is visually and temperamentally indistinguishable from Kennel Club registered Dalmatians, but which do not have the same deafness and uric acid problems.
Though these dogs are healthier -- and are Dalmatians in every way -- the Kennel Club will not allow these dogs to be registered. Why? Simple: allowing "healthy Dalmatians" into the marketplace would make the less-healthy dogs that are owned by the top breeders of the Dalmatian Club less valuable. What customer wants to buy a dog from an "unhealthy" gene pool? No one!
And yet, today so many Kennel Club dogs are unhealthy that most Americans are now turning elsewhere for pets.
The graph below shows Kennel Club registrations.
Over 15 years, there has been a 53 percent decline. This is due to many factors, but a large part of the problem has been of the Kennel Club's own making.
For decades, the Kennel Club has ignored or stiff-armed critics who point out that dogs that were once working breeds are no longer found in the field.
AKC Greyhounds cannot be found at the track, AKC Huskies are not valued in Alaska, show ring terriers are laughed at by true diggers, no sheep man would think of buying an AKC collie to tend his flock, and entire registries have been developed to preserve working gundogs against the vagaries of show ring pretenders.
At the same that the working ability of AKC dogs has plummeted, rates of disease and congenital defect seem to have leaped through the roof.
Today breed after breed of AKC dog is riddled with serious health problems ranging from congenital heart and liver disease to juvenile cataracts, shot hips, and epilepsy.
Added to this stack of problems are serious health problems caused by intentionally breeding dogs for defect: brachycephalic dogs with faces so flat they cannot breathe (Pugs, Boston Terriers, English Bulldogs, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for example) and dogs suffering from achondroplasia, a kind of dwarfism linked to heart defects and joint ailments (Dachshunds, Bassetts, Glen of Imaal Terriers for example). And then we have the giant breeds, which are cancer bombs on four legs and which routinely die from gastric torsion, as well as the tiny "tea cup" breeds as their associated neurological, bone, and dental problems.
The AKC has fended off all critics, on both fronts, with a single line: "We are just a registry."
If there are problems, AKC officials sniff, then complaints should be directed to the breed clubs.
But the breed clubs are largely powerless within the Kennel Club's structure, and they are dominated by show dog breeders more interested in blue ribbons and green cash than they are in long-term canine health and welfare.
To hear these breeders talk, the health problems of pedigree dogs are never in their own kennels; they are in their competitions.
Oh sure, a dog or two of their own may come down lame, have juvenile cataracts, or die of cancer or liver disease at age three, but those problems are generally waved away. These things happen, they will say, ignoring the fact that they happen a LOT with Kennel Club dogs.
Ironically, the Kennel Club's "just a registry" defense sounded a lot like a business plan to many small-time entrepreneurs in middle America.
Armed with personal computers, and offering nothing more than a scrap of paper and no health guarantees, these new registreis said they would provide exactly that the AKC did -- a piece of paper -- for less.
And they did. And so, as quick as you can say "Bob's your uncle," dozens of new canine and pet registries sprang up.
Today, along with the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club, we have:
- The National Kennel Club
- The Continental Kennel Club
- The American Canine Association
- The American Hybrid Canine Club
- American Rare Breed Association
- The American Dog Breeders Association
- The American Canine Registry
- The American Purebred Association
- America's Pet Registry Inc.
- The World Kennel Club
- The Animal Research Foundation
- The Universal Kennel Club International
- The North American Purebred Dog Registry
- The Dog Registry of America
- The American Purebred Registry
- The United All Breed Registry
- The American Canine Association
- The World Wide Kennel Club
- The Federation of International Canines
- Animal Registry Unlimited
With the American Kennel Club offering no health guarantees for their dogs, there did not not appear to be any reason for the public not to turn to these registries.
Adding fuel to the fire was the advent of the Internet. Dog owners and concerned dog breeders could now find each other through an endless litany of list-servs, breed bulletin boards, web sites, and blogs.
There was no longer any hiding the defects in Kennel Club dogs, even if the general public did not yet know the full extent of the problems.
A game changer occurred in August of 2008, however.
The good news for the American Kennel Club is that it happened in Britain.
The revolution was sparked by a BBC documentary called Pedigree Dogs Exposed. This television documentary did little more than put on film what canine experts had been talking about for decades, but putting it on film made all the difference.
Now the general public -- dog owner and non-dog owner alike -- could see what the Kennel Club had done done to the German Shepherd, a once-proud dog that in its show ring manifestation cannot walk around a ring without a wobble.
A Crufts-winning Pekingese was exposed as being so seriously compromised by its flattened face and excessive coat that at the ringside trophy photo-shoot, it was sitting on an icepack so it did not overheat.
Disturbing pictures of breeds suffering from serious and widespread congenital neurological defects were also shown. And though the producers of the BBC have been castigated by the Kennel Club for being "sensationalistic," the producers, in fact, held back.
They chose not to show the "rape racks" that female English Bulldogs are put into because they and their stud dogs are so grossly out of shape they cannot have sex unassisted or whelp without a veterinarian being present.
They did not show the fox terrier which is now so large in the chest it cannot reach its fox in the hole, nor did they make mention of cancer, which now strikes down over 40 percent of some breeds such as Scotties and Bernese Mountain Dogs.
But apparently they showed enough.
Due to the tremendous public response to the BBC special, the British Kennel Club has found itself reeling and on the ropes.
First denying there were any problems at all, they then said they had long known there were a few problems within a few breeds -- an obvious lie underscored by the finding of their own breed health surveys.
Now the U.K. Kennel Club has come out with mild modification to dozens of breed standards, and has also banned incestuous father-daughter/mother-son/brother-sister matings.
But here in the United States, the American Kennel Club has not taken even these baby steps forward.
Instead, AKC Chairman Ron Menaker has said that the American Kennel Club intends to aggressively reach out to back yard breeders and the puppy mill community.
Menaker says there is nothing wrong with puppy mills or dogs sold in pet stores or department stores -- he himself got started in dogs with a puppy purchased at Macys.
And as for puppy mills, he notes that the AKC has been registering puppy mill dogs "for the past 122 years" and "we have collected millions of dollars" as a result. Nothing new here! Full speed ahead, and never mind if it is into the rocks.
Which brings us back to Barack Obama and his lovely family.
If they choose a Portugese Water Dog, not only will they be choosing a seriously inbred dog at significant risk for health problems, but their choice is likely to speed up the incidence of those problems due to overbreeding which will occur to fill the market of "copycat purchasers".
On the other hand, if the Obamas chose a Labradoodle, they will be stepping outside of the closed-registry eugenics-based Kennel Club system to embrace a dog which cannot be damaged by that system, as it is not a registered breed.
It will also be another signal that the American Kennel Club has to change its business model -- something that the very top of the AKC seems to realize, but which it is nonetheless confused by.
In his missive to the American Kennel Club in September, AKC Chairman Ron Menaker noted that:
Today, we are losing market share at an alarming rate, especially in the retail sector. We are being challenged competitively and financially. The declining registrations and associated core revenues, if allowed to continue, will fundamentally change our organization going forward. Make no mistake, the very future of the AKC and our sport is at risk.
We can all remember some of the premier "name brands" and companies of the past, leaders in their field. The ones that we thought would be around forever. These giants, these household names, held the same standing as the AKC. Companies such as: Westinghouse, Pan American Airlines, Standard Oil Company, EF Hutton, Woolworth’s, Montgomery Ward, just to name a few.
Sadly, Chairman Menaker seems to have no good idea of how to fix the problem,
Put out a better product? You must be kidding!
Only register adult dogs that have passed basic health tests? Good Lord NOoo!
Require lower Coefficients of Inbreeding? What's wrong with inbreeding?
Scrap standards that require deformity? But exagerations and deformities define so many breeds!
Open up closed registries so that healthy genes can be allowed to come in? But then we wouldn't have a purebreed --we'd just be selling .... mutts!
And so it goes, around and around, proving once again that the problems at the Kennel Club are deeper than inbred dogs.* * * *
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