Archive for Noiembrie 2011
In 2008 the BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed (director: Jemima Harrison) [torrent it or watch online the full movie for free here; read the blog ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ here] blew up the entire dog world: in just 60 minutes it demonstrated how the breeders were destroying most of the breeds, by breeding dogs with excessive physiological features while paying no attention to behavioral issues and – which is even more outrageous – to health problems. Over the last hundred years, the breeds underwent dramatic physical and temperamental changes and these changes were detrimental to almost every breed. As a consequence, it is not only that champion dogs who win lots of titles in dog shows (especially Crufts) are not capable anymore to do the job they were originally designed to do (hunting, tracing, protection, etc.); but also these champions are full of health problems and, by being extensively bred (or maybe better said: inbred), they pass on these problems to their offspring. This results not only in owners’ spending huge amounts of money on vet fees, but also in breeds falling apart. To make things worse, the officialdom (breeders, judges, the Kennel Club) are simply denying what is happening, in spite of protests from dog owners, dog press representatives and veterinarian and animal welfare organizations.
The reaction to this movie was widespread and dramatic. The BBC, the RSPCA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), Dog Trust, Hill’s Pet Nutrition and Pedigree Petfoods (a major sponsor for the last 44 years) have since pulled out of Crufts (the biggest Kennel Club’s show) (source1; source2). The Kennel Club also took into account changing some breed standards and decided to establish health checks for Cruft entrants – but this was considered to be ‘too little too late’ (source). Finally, the Kennel Club issued a list of ‘high profile breeds’ (the concept being defined as ‘[a] breed from time to time designated by the General Committee as requiring particular monitoring by reason of visible conditions(s) which may cause health or welfare concerns’). The Chow Chow is on this list. How did we get here? This post is meant to answer this question and to warn that if nothing is done, we will lose this wonderful breed.
2. The original and the actual Chow: two different breeds?
Take a look at the two images below and try to guess which breed these dogs belong to. If you’re a dog lover, you may correctly say that the second photograph shows a typical chow-chow – but you may be puzzled regarding the first picture. It looks like a Spitz-type, so… could it be a Giant German Spitz, a Wolfspitz, a Keeshond, an Eurasier or maybe an ancestor of the Volpino Italiano? This time your answer is wrong. It’s a Chow-Chow as well – and again, a typical one. The only difference is one hundred years between the two: the first was shot in 1911; the second represents an actual Chow.
I’m already hearing you saying something like: ‘You must be joking’, or at least ‘You must be making a mistake’. So let’s try it again. Look at the couple of pictures below: don’t worry about guessing anymore, I can tell you that you’re looking at two typical Chows: the first is a champion and the image dates from 1910, while the second is a dog from our days.
(same sources of pictures as before)
It seems that the only common elements of the two very different types of Chow are the blue tongue, the straight back legs, the tail carried over back and forward-tilting ears. Everything else is different. So what happened?
3. A bit of recent history
In order to answer this question, we should take a look at this dog’s Western history. According to the American Kennel Club’s website, the Chow arrived in Europe around 1880 (other sources say 1780, as documented here), and the first speciality club was formed in the UK in 1895. The first exhibition of the breed in the USA took place in 1890. Since we know that this breed is an ancient one, and one of the few which were not designed by humans, we may confidently assume that the first Chows which landed on the European soil looked pretty much as their ancestors did two thousand years before (as the pottery figures from the Han dynasty around 200 BC show us – source). Fortunately, we have some pictures which document the way a typical Chow looked like when they arrived in the Western world.
The first standard of the breed was based on Chow VIII (first picture below), which was born in 1895. Another similar-looking dog was Blue Blood, born in 1893 (or, according to other sources, in 1892), who later became a Champion. In both pictures we can see the general characteristics of the first Chows that stepped on the European soil: the sharp, fox-like muzzle; the clear and visible oriental eyes; the thin bones; fairly long legs; and the lighter constitution of their bodies, compared to actual Chows.
However, in less than sixty years the breed underwent dramatic changes, so much so that it is hard to recognize in the picture below, depicting Chapion Astom (born in 1951), the specific traits of his ‘colonial’ ancestors; Astom had shorter legs, shorter neck, thicker bones, broader and thicker muzzle which did not resemble that of a fox anymore, wrinkled skin, smaller oriental eyes lost in the compressed face and coat in abundance.
Champion Astom (born 1951; source)
Unfortunately the development of the breed since Astom did not bring any improvement, quite the contrary. Looking to the present-day Chow-Chow, one could hardly guess that this is a Spitz breed. Indeed, from a fox-like appearance, as we can clearly see in the pictures taken at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the Chow was transformed in a ‘lion-like’, or ‘bear-like’ creature. Very tellingly, this transformation is written in the actual breed standard (updated on October 2009), which is supposed to illustrate the ideal dog of this breed and which says that the Chow is ‘leonine in appearance’ and its muzzle must be ‘moderate in length, broad from eyes to end (not pointed at end like a fox)’ (see the standard on the Kennel Club’s webpage).
4. The Chow in great people’s time
Great personalities owed and even bred Chow-Chows, and thanks to them we have good testimonies about the physical and psychical characteristics of this breed. Sigmund Freud is known not only for making his favourite chow-chow, Jo-Fi, attend all of his therapy sessions (because he thought that ‘dogs had a special sense that allows them to judge a person’s character accurately’ – source) but also for his loyalty to his dogs. After his flight from Vienna because of fear of the Nazis he went to London and there his chow was quarantined for six months. Freud, whose health was declining, visited his chow as often as he could (source). Below you can watch two pictures with Freud’s chows, both of them being shot probably in the 1930s (Freud died in September 1939); you can also watch a short video of Freud in which his Chow appears as well here. As you can easily observe, these chows looked pretty much as the first ones that came in Europe.
Konrad Lorenz, the founder of modern ethology and the 1973 Nobel Prize winner was also a Chow-Chow lover and breeder. In 1949, ten years after Freud’s death and two years before Champion Astom’s birth he published a wonderful book titled Man Meets Dog. It may be that an image worth one thousand words, but sometimes a few words are more telling than an image as well. If the pictures with Freud and his dogs show us how the Chow-Chow looked like in the 1930s, then Lorenz’s paragraph from Man Meets Dog represent a grieved but accurate testimony of the decade when the breed started to change dramatically:
‘As I have already intimated, it would be quite possible for breeders to compromise in the choice of physical and mental properties, and this contention has been proved by the fact that various pure breeds of dog did retain their original good character traits until they fell a prey to fashion. Nevertheless dog shows in themselves involve certain dangers, since competition between pedigree dogs at shows must automatically lead to an exaggeration of all those points which characterize a breed. If one looks at old pictures which, in the case of English dog-breeds, can be found dating back to the middle ages, and compares them with pictures of present-day representatives of the same breeds, the latter look like evil caricatures of the original strain. In the Chow, which has only become really fashionable in the course of the last twenty years, this is particularly noticeable. In about 1920, Chows were still natural dogs, closely allied to the wild form, whose pointed muzzles, obliquely set Mongolian eyes and pricked ears pointing sharply upwards lent to their faces that fascinating expression which distinguishes Greenland sledge-dogs, Samoyeds and Huskies, in short all strongly wolf-blooded dogs. Modern breeding of the Chow has led to an exaggeration of those points which gives him the appearance of a plump bear: the muzzle is wide and short almost mastiff-like, the eyes have lost their slant in the compression of the whole face, and the ears have almost disappeared in the overgrown thickness of the coat. Mentally, too, these temperamental creatures, which still bore a trace of the wild beast of prey, have become stodgy teddy bears. But not my breed of Chows.’ (Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog, Routledge: London and New York, 2005, pp. 86-87)
5. Health issues
Obviously, this transformation came together with an enormous amount of health problems. The old pictures depict a very active and alert dog, while present-day Chows are rather lazy – should I say ‘lethargic’? I have seen many Chows in shows that could barely move because of their short legs, abundant coat and breathing problems (in some cases, even their capacity of mating is affected). In a commentary to the breed standard Sheila Jakeman, a well-known British breeder and judge, acknowledged the problem and declared that ‘Any Chow should be able to walk the length and breadth of any show ring easily and so prove that it is active’ (see Sheila Jakeman, ‘The Standard; why a Chow is so special’, in Janneke Leunissen-Rooseboom, Anne Russell and Bas Bosch (eds.), The World of Chows in 2001 and 2002,BB Press, p. 18; link). This strikes me dearly: if all that is needed for being declared as ‘active’ is to be able to walk for only five minutes in the show ring without any apparent difficulty, then this is rather a death sentence than an effort to solve breed’s health issues.
Interestingly enough, the same author is calling for an ‘square short backed animal’ – but if we take into account the appearance of the original Chow (which is not necessarily square, as documented in both ancient pottery and old photos), this aim that most of the breeders, if not all, are striving to accomplish is rather a fashion requirement and not a step forward in improving the quality of the breed.
Breathing problems seem to be linked to the broader and thicker muzzle covered with wrinkled skin; and the latter, together with the trend toward ever more slanting eyes, also cause eye problems, especially entropion. True, the standard was changed in 1991 in order to push breeders to produce larger eyes, but any visit to a show ring will reveal that actually there is no fundamental change in practice. And even if the incidence of wrinkles has decreased in the last years, health problems did not disappear – only those… responsible for them seem to have changed: to quote again Sheila Jakeman, ‘Humid airless days can still cause a problem if owners [?! my italics] are careless’ (p. 20).
Frightening trends, as Jakeman herself acknowledges, include an ultra short rib from front to rear, which ‘means the protective cavity is being shortened and therefore… vital organs are at risk of being compressed’. Further, ligament problems are caused by the fact that puppies are ‘very heavy at a very young age’. And we can always fear arthritis, hip dysplasia and other bone diseases, major histocompatibility complex (MHC), and stomach cancer. Finally – and this is an issue too many Chow owners are confronted with, myself included – skin problems can be extremely annoying. The unexperienced prospective Chow owner is told by breeders, various books and internet sites that the Chow-Chow is one of the few breeds that do not have the specific ‘doggy smell’ – or, at the worst, that this breed is a ‘low-odour one’. This should be true, but the rather high incidence of skin problems (ranging from abundant dandruff to hot spots) often transform the non-stinky Chow in an awfully smelling creature.
Finally, the temperament of the Chow became in time quite disturbing. To be sure, aloofness is a celebrated trait of this breed – but exaggerated shyness is not its synonym. I have met very few Chows who are not frightened or even aggressive when a stranger in the park tries to pet them. Of course, the owner is often responsible for his or her dog’s lack of proper socialization; however, no person that really knows the Chow could honestly deny the fact that this is a problem the breed in general has.
6. A personal note and some disclaimers
I am neither a specialist in dogs or Chow-Chow, nor a member of the Chow community, worldwide or in my country. My theoretical and practical experience is rather limited and it is strictly related to the dogs I love, the shows I attended to and the books I read. In 2001 I bought my first Chow, Helga (pedigree name: Arizonai Almodozok Faviola), a black female, from a rather obscure Hungarian breeder (I didn’t know at that time anything about the world of breeders, dog shows or puppy mills). I guess it is only a matter of luck that, except for some excess of dandruff (which becomes more abundant and annoying at shedding times) she never had any health problem and is still a very active dog at the age of almost 11. However, although she won some good titles in dog shows from international judges, she is not a dog fit for the champion title if we take into account the actual standard.
On the other hand my second chow, a red female named Olga (pedigree name: Chaitan Legend Chow Charisma), purchased in 2002 from the self-titled ‘best Chow-Chow Kennel in Romania’ quickly became Romanian Junior Champion. However, soon afterwards (at a very young age, before turning two) she was diagnosed with chronic arthritis, skin problems, and pododermatitis (which gave her pains when walking on concrete and made her paws bleed in winter). Add to this serious breathing problems and difficulties in movement. My intention when I purchased her was to breed her and start a kennel – but after I discovered all her health problems I decided to spay her. I tried to explain the breeder that her parents should not be bred anymore, but the only answers I received were rather sarcastic. After this experience and after finding more and more information about the way dog breeds are ‘falling apart’, as one interviewee in ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ said, I had decided not to take part in this and stopped showing. Olga died last year just before turning eight years old.
So because of my limited and subjective experience I do not claim that what I have written here is the absolute truth. I do not have monopoly over the truth, but I am personally convinced that if quick steps are not taken to save the breed, the Chow-Chow is doomed. I do not believe it is too late: I have seen once a non-pedigree Chow which to my astonishment still resembled the original ones – of course, it did not have any chance in the show ring. Maybe there are others: I would be glad, because this would be my only chance to have another Chow. I am in love with this breed – but I would never buy another dog born to Champion parents.
Finally, and most importantly, I dedicate this article to the memory of Olga. She taught me many things, and this article shows that she did not died in vain. Sleep well, my little one. The pain is gone now.