Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Bad Apples

Find the good apples in this big crate.
Careful of the yellowjackets.

I think it was early this summer that I started hearing it everywhere: someone in authority, someone who is entrusted with the responsibility to keep other people right, minimizing institutionalized misconduct.

It was just a couple of bad apples.

One bad apple.

This was the act of a few bad apples.

I started getting twitchy whenever I heard it.

Do they not know how that sentence about bad apples ends?!

What does "one bad apple" DO, chief?

Most of the bad apple apologetics were coming from police chiefs/commissioners/public safety directors who were attempting to deflect blame after men in their employ had committed an atrocity. Murdered a citizen, say, and then lied about it until (and even after) the video evidence revealed the crime. Or maybe just beat the shit out of someone or shot a pet dog while raiding the wrong house.  (Ha ha. I kid. Shooting a harmless dog is not the act of a bad apple. Those guys get a medal.) With clear impunity, no expectation of any consequences, all evidence pointing to business as usual.

Because if your institution allows rot at its center, then it has made a decision to nurture it there, grow it in the dark, and let it corrupt every apple in the barrel, while relying on the visible halves of the pretty-looking ones on top to hide the putrescence beneath. Pay no attention to that nauseating smell.

When an institution presents itself as an authority, a responsible entity, with jurisdiction over quality, competence, ethics, professionalism, and just one of the people under its aegis abrogates the professed standards without consequence, then the institution is revealed as a liar, as a system for enabling, as answerable to the wrong set of interests.

If your caucus, church, association, or "ministry" professes to hew to a strict fundamentalist "morality" and your ranks are rife with baby-rapers, whoremongers, wide-stancers, serial divorce, and abortion-on-the-down-low, then we know you.

If your professional association, SAR unit, or certifying agency has one set of standards on paper and maybe for regular dues-paying schlubs and another for friends of the Star Chamber or the commandante for life, the self-dealing outs itself, eventually.

And if your dog breed club says it stands for conserving healthy, functional working dogs, but what it actually does is help just about anybody sell puppies whose parents are none of the above, then what you have is a low-rent marketing firm, not an ethical steward.

So let's talk about them apples.

If you go to the English Shepherd Club's website at the moment I am writing this and click through to "puppies for sale," you'll see 17 litters listed. Click on any listing, and you'll see information about the parents of the pups and contact information for the breeder. Each listing is free; the sellers have to be members of the Club, but they don't pay any more than a member who is not a breeder, and one seller can list any number of litters for sale any year. The ESC litter listings are a primary sales tool for some breeders. I've probably gotten about one buyer from the litter listing from each of the four ES litters I've bred, but some sellers absolutely rely on it.

In order to qualify for the free ad, the seller must be a member of the Club, have signed the toothless and unenforceably vague Code of Ethics, and the parent dogs must meet, if I recall correctly, three criteria -- be each over one year of age, not be first-degree relatives, and in the case of the bitch, not be on her third or more litter from a consecutive heat cycle.

Got that?

If you want to start breeding a dog to his granddaughter the day she turns 12 months old, and breed her two out of three estrus cycles until she's 15 and gives out, that's hunky dory. Every one of those litters is eligible for a free ad.

As to the rest of the things you might want to make breeding decisions about -- the dogs' genetic health, their demonstrated working ability, their temperaments -- meh, that's up to you. Whatever you think. We're not going to have any pesky rules and criteria, set norms and enforce them, or in any way be prescriptive about what we agree are legitimate ways to conserve a working breed.

So just a ferinstance.

ES are pretty healthy dogs, overall. Not many genetic diseases to be concerned about, at least, not that occur above the background rate of all dogs. Conscientious people are looking carefully at certain eye defects, allergies, epilepsy, but there seems to be no cause for panic. The MDR1 mutation occurs in the breed, and that is a thing to know about a dog before breeding him.

Then there's their hips. I'm going to use this one as the ferinstance because there's hard data, and because transparency and due diligence are a bit easier to pin down on this one metric.  Keep in mind that my screaming fantods are not about hips. Hips are just a bellwether for all the ethical indolence on display.

The dysplasia rate is unacceptable.

Worse hips than German shepherds. Than Rottweilers. Worse hips than friggin Labradoodles.

How the hell is that the case with a medium-sized, mesomorphic, non-dwarfed, athletic dog selected for work?

I don't know, but  I do know that if you've got a breed where one-fifth of the radiographs that are not "pre-screened" and quietly shoved in a drawer show malformed, arthritis-prone joints, the ethically and genetically sound response is not to fling one's hands into the air and shout Thank God for pugs and bulldogs and then mildly kind of sort of suggest, in a way that never shames or judges, you know, that best practices just might possibly perhaps include conducting a phenotype test on dogs you intend to breed before you make More Like This*, or maybe whenever you get around to it, and then mayhaps just consider sharing those results as well as culling physically unsound animals from what I am going to generously refer to as "the breeding program," if said sharing doesn't make you feel sad or open you up to questions that are icky and not conducive to a blessed day.

Now, a genetic sophisticate would point out that there are circumstances under which an animal with non-normal hips can be included in an overall breed conservation program, with great care and rigorous selection in the next couple generations, and that, after all, we breed dogs, not hip joints.

Ayuh. Not what we're talking about here. Not in the least, part of incorporating outstanding individuals with one or two major flaws in a conservation or improvement breeding scheme involves identifying the flaw followed by full and open disclosure. Neither chanting la la la I can't heeeeear youuu and never having the dog tested, nor furtively burying the envelope with the bad news while lying to your customer's face meets that standard.

So back to the litter listings.

As of tonight, there are seventeen litters up on the listings.

For only five of them have both parents had hip radiographs taken, evaluated by either PennHIP or OFA, and the results shared by the person selling their puppies.

That's an improvement, or a momentary glitch -- at nearly 30% of the litters listed, the apex of my observations. Recently that number has been lower, at one point two listings out of 18, or 11% of the litters being marketed by the 501(c)3 dedicated to breed conservation.†

(Also, do not assume the set of "breeders who have two dogs with hip scores listed tonight" and "breeders from whom I would consider purchasing a pup in the absence of a grenade launcher pointed at at my left ear" overlap by much, because you would be mistaken in that assumption. That's why the hip example is just one ferinstance. Repeat one more time this is not a rant about bad hips, this is a rant about institutionally promoting feckless breeding practices and used car dealer ethics.)

Remember, it's not 11-29% of the promoted litters that have two parents with great hips, and great hip genetics as shown by their relatives' scores.

It's 11-29% of litters for which the sellers have disclosed any results at all on just the two parents.

So let's talk for a moment about that 71-89% of "guess what you'll get" litters.

Some of them, neither parent has, according the sellers, had any kind of hip phenotype evaluation.

Let us, for the sake of argument, take them at their words. They never bothered to nip down to their veterinarian and drop perhaps $100 for a single radiograph and evaluation by OFA.

Remember, background rate for radiographic dysplasia in the population is a minimum one out of five dogs. In truth, much higher in light of the common practice of screening out the worst-looking films and never sending them in for what the veterinary GP knows will be a failing score.

Why wouldn't you do this? Why wouldn't you check whether your dog was at risk of middle-aged crippling, and at elevated risk of passing that disability on to his offspring?

When I started looking at English shepherds in about 1997 the usual story was, hey, this is a new idea for these old farmers, and they will take a while to get caught up.

This shiny new idea that has actually been around since the 60's has reached voting age since then. There's this thing called the internet, and everydamnone of them uses it. On this internet thing is all the knowledge. Not just cat videos and efficient ways to sell your puppies without paying for ads, but decades of edjimicashun about genetics and health for dogs in general and this breed in particular.

I call bullshit. Farmers are fast as hell to adopt a new idea when it serves their interests.

And while many of these breeders live in rural areas, calling some of them "farmers" is a tenuous stretch.

Grandpa milked fifty cows every morning.  You work at Auto Zone.

I think it's a safe generalization in this breed that pups whose parents have health clearances command a higher price than pups from unknown genetics. The cost of OFA evaluation for both parents would be erased by the enhanced value of their first progeny.

But that's assuming that the results are good.

If the results are bad, and published, the value of the pups decreases, and suddenly there you are in front of WalMart with a cardboard box. Also meanies say mean things to you about making the puppies.

So with, say, about a quarter chance that Shep's hips are gonna suck, isn't it a better gamble to remain in blissful ignorance? Breeder MsFancyPants does PennHIP on all her dogs, and publishes the results, and gets $600 a puppy. But she spayed two bitches with poor scores who never made her any puppy money, and I can still get $400 without any uppity x-rays, especially with the help of this free ad on the internet machine.

Of course, there's always the slight gamble called Have Your Cake and Eat It.

Both OFA and PennHIP will obligingly hide your shame if your dog's radiographs don't look great.

Of course, a disappointing result on a medical test is not grounds for shame. It is what it is. Data. Culpability comes with what you do with that data.

Our Seller is about to behave shamefully, and these institutions know it and are happy to collude. They've stuffed that rotten apple right into the middle of the barrel.

"Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."
--HD Thoreau

Just radiograph them all. Use the good scores as advertising copy. Shitty score? Say you never did it. Be a lying liar. Nobody at OFA or PennHIP will fink you out.

But, thing is, when a puppy-seller has a two-year-old bitch who is OFA Good, a four-year-old bitch who is OFA Good, and a four-year-old stud who has "no" hip score listed (and of course she is using her own stud because of course), well, who does she think she's fooling?

Oh, we just never got around to doing the x-rays on Banjo.

Of course you didn't. Because that makes perfect sense. We believe you.

Now, in a few cases, someone owns a male that has been hip scored -- because by doing so, he could sell that dog's stud services to more bitch owners and/or for a higher price upon receipt of a favorable score -- and bitches who have not been.

But mostly -- mostly this is telltale trout in the bucket of milk. The visible tip of the iceberg of silence.

So what to do, what to do, if you are the sole institution charged with the genetic and cultural conservation of this population of agricultural assets?

Here's a suggestion: stop enabling the exact people who are destroying it. Stop helping them to screw over their suckers buyers, who I assure you, remember that it was the English Shepherd Club who endorsed the seller who was sooo nice right up until Daisy started limping and you sent him that copy of the radiograph and then he wouldn't return your calls. Stop helping them to screw over Daisy, who gets to live a short, painful life as a cripple, just like her Dad, who sired her at the age of 13 months and couldn't get up from his bed of straw in the barn a year later.

Don't enable that. Require everyone who wants their free ad to have both parents' hips evaluated and provide the documentation. Easy-peasy.

The Club has no special obligation to puppy sellers. Someone who breeds ten litters a year pays the same membership dues as the owner of a single spayed ES from Rescue. I submit that the Club does have a special obligation to potential puppy buyers. It has a positive duty not to mislead a buyer, who is at a disadvantage vis a vis a seller, into thinking that a puppy has been bred and raised with care because it is being sold with the assistance of the Club.

You want free advertising, with the implied endorsement of the Club?

Prove that you are conserving the breed.

Meet some goddamned standards.

Show some respect for the community.

Knock it off with the aw shucks I'm just a simple farmer bullshit.

Earlier this year, a committee member asked me for input into revising the Club's Code of Ethics.

I've ridden in this exact rodeo before, and have limited patience for it. It's demoralizing to put months of work into trying to improve things, only to have all the results shot down because it would be too mean, too snobby,‡ too exclusive to ask anyone to do anydamnthing in order to earn something in return.

Even small things that are of direct benefit to the Club. Why the hell should the Club give free advertising to sellers who refuse to register their breeding stock and litters with the Club registry -- which is the primary tool of breed conservation? These freeloaders are sending money to one or more of the commercial registries, maybe one of the fake puppymill registries, and refusing to pay the small registration fees of the ESCR.

So I whipped out a one-off nuclear critique in about twenty minutes, using the old COE as a template, though it would be more productive to start from scratch.

I believe it was received unfavorably by the Board of Directors. I believe I failed to be shocked.

In any event, there has been no revision to the Code of Ethics, nor any further conditions placed on those who demand free advertising.

But here's what I humbly suggested. My additions are in bold red, deletions are in strikethrough. My commentary on each item for this blog is in green. Spacing and font freakouts are courtesy of the blogger software, which pitches tantrums when you cut and paste text into it.

I, ______________________ , hereby agree to abide by all of the terms in this code to the best of my ability.
  • I will not knowingly misrepresent the characteristics of the breed, nor falsely advertise, or mislead any person regarding the performance of any dogs or puppies for sale including by omitting any information regarding the health of the animals or their relatives, their behavior history, or their ancestry.

    Lies of omission are very popular in this crowd.  "Why didn't you tell me this puppy's sire was dysplastic?" "Well you never asked." True quote. Breeder is an exhibitionist God-botherer, natch.
  • I will provide an honest representation of my animals and all of their progeny to anyone who inquires about my dogs not limited to potential purchasers
    "I'll provide that information if you put down a deposit."
  • I will make every effort to provide each of my dogs and puppies proper socialization, care, nutrition, and exercise

    Do or do not. There is no "try."
  • I will maintain a safe, clean, spacious and sanitary facility for all my dogs and puppies
  • I will only breed dogs with the demonstrated potential to contribute positively to the breed. I will conscientiously plan each litter of puppies, selecting a stud dog and bitch to be mated based on their pedigrees, working ability, temperament, and conformation. I will not breed a litter only to produce puppies for sale.
  • I will register my breeding stock and litters with the ESCR. I will provide buyers with the paperwork to individually register their dogs. I will not charge any buyer an extra fee for registration paperwork.

    Seems pretty straightforward. You want free stuff from the Club, you use the Club's registry and facilitate your buyers doing likewise.
  • I will test all breeding stock for hip dysplasia prior to breeding, and have the results scored by the Orthopedic Foundation For Animals after age two and/or PennHIP and will publish all scores by providing documentation to the ESCR

    Omigawd did she really say that people will have to OFA or PennHIP their dogs and send the results to the registry?! Even if the results say their hips suck?!
    You bet your sweet ass she did.

    Notice that there's no rule against breeding a dysplastic dog here.

    Because yes, the market will sort that out, provided that all sellers are on an equal footing with one another, and all buyers have the relevant information, and "normal" is not the vast majority of listings being OFA-free.
  • If a dog's MDR1 mutation status is not known, I will test for the mutation and provide the documentation of the results to the ESCR prior to breeding.

    I mean, why would a puppy buyer want to know whether eating sheep shit after they are wormed could kill her dog?
  • If I choose to perform any additional testing for heritable disease, I will publish all results by providing documentation to the ESCR.
  • If I choose to do screening for genetic problems I will honestly represent the results of all genetic and phenotypical health these tests and make copies of all pertinent health clearances available to buyers of adult dogs and puppies for sale. I will provide documentation of the results of all genetic and phenotype health tests to the ESCR for all English shepherds tested that are owned or bred by me, whether or not they are to be used for breeding.

    No more using the good stuff as marketing copy and hiding the bad stuff.
  • I will not breed any male or female until they are both physically and mentally mature,two years of age minimum, nor breed any bitch on two consecutive heat cycles, nor breed a bitch eight years of age or older, nor cause any bitch to produce more than four litters

    Stop breeding fucking puppies. No, you are not such a transcendent judge of dogflesh that you can just know that this adolescent is going to turn out just great when he's mature. You are full of shit if you think this; you are in the main exhibit hall of the Dunning-Kruger Museum. More likely, you claim this, but you just don't care as long as you can sell the pups by December 20. The kids all want a trampoline.

    Stop using your female dogs as puppy factories. Brood bitch is NOT a job description.
  • I will show discrimination in the sale of my puppies screen potential puppy-buyers with rigor and discernment and will refuse sales to individuals who are unsuited to provide for the needs of an English shepherd and be concerned with the type of homes in which they are placed. I will make buyers aware of their responsibilities as dog owners
  • I will try to educate potential owners of the potential challenges of the breed in order to foster an understanding of their innate character and prevent training problems

    Frankly, rescue is tired of picking up your mess.
  • I will not sell or donate dogs to commercial dog wholesalers, dealers, brokers, retailers, pet shops, or any other person or organization, for resale give-away to the public including any raffle, auction, or contest, for any cause

    Don't care that your raffle was to help spastic Christian babies persecuted by heathens in sunbaked lands. Raffle a puppy, get kicked out. The ESC has actually been great, very proactive about the pet store rule. They need to apply it to all brokering.
  • I will be a resource for buyers of puppies or older dogs that I have sold for the life of the dog. I will maintain records of the names and contact information of all puppy buyers for fifteen years after their purchase. I will provide all puppy buyers with my up-to-date contact information whenever it changes.
  • I will sell puppies and dogs under a written contract that clearly delineates my responsibilities and rights, and those of the buyer. All potential buyers will be provided with a copy of the contract to review before committing to a purchase.

    No, your "handshake" agreements are not good enough. We've seen you weasel out of them a million times. And no springing a contract that gives everything to you, nothing to the buyer, while the buyer has a cute puppy in her lap and money in her teeth.
  • I will accept return of a puppy or dog that I have bred at any time during the dog's lifetime. I will make every effort to redeem any dog that I have bred should he or she ever be in the custody of a dog pound or animal shelter.

    Again, Rescue is tired of cleaning up your messes. You don't know how much it thrills us to be pouring money and time into some effed-up animal that you sold a year ago, while your latest litter (full siblings of NESR Sir Twitchy McLimpsalot) is listed on the Club website, for sale, sooo kyoot, buy one now for Mother's Day.

    This single provision, relentlessly adhered to, would eliminate 95% of breeder-originated dog problems, whether that problem is genetic disease, crappy buyer screening, overproduction, or just thoughtless breeding.
  • I will permanently identify every puppy or dog I sell with a registered microchip or registered tattoo that includes my contact information as a primary or secondary contact.

    This provision puts teeth into the one above. I forgot to add that this chip or tattoo number must be included in the dog's entry in the ESCR database.
  • I will not deliberately degrade another breeder, their dogs, or their kennel

    In about October of 2008, I had a phone conversation with a breeder who was concerned because some potential puppy buyers had told her they were going to go ahead and buy from a different breeder, one that we both knew to be -- let's say, suboptimal.

    She was distraught because she felt she should warn them, but was afraid of running afoul of this ridiculous clause in the COE.

    That other breeder, who she was afraid of "deliberately degrading," was named Linda Kapsa.

    Oh, and that pup ended up relinquished to National English Shepherd Rescue because of her extreme shyness and reactivity.

    Who could have predicted the levees would fail?

    Fuck this clause. Tell the truth, people. Just tell the damned truth. Did you tell the truth about another breeder only because you are a malicious bitch? Don't care. It was the truth.

  • I will conduct myself at all times in such a manner as a credit to the breed and the Club and will be truthful and transparent in all my dealings with the Club, its members, and members of the public.
    Did I mention, just tell the damned truth.
  • I will comply with all applicable federal, state or provincial and local government laws and regulations concerning the keeping of dogs

By my signature I confirm that I have read, understood, and agree to all aspects of the English Shepherd Club's Code of Ethics. Furthermore, I understand if I choose to violate any part of this agreement I may be suspended from the English Shepherd Club as a listed breeder or member. signature and date As we work together for the betterment of this breed, we are taking part in preserving history. Let us work with each other, not against. Let our goal be to dedicate ourselves for the betterment of the breed not for profit. 

Signature______________________________________________         Date__________________

Yeah, I sure should have done some red-penciling of the blah blah blah in this last paragraph.

So, what do y'all think? Would you have more confidence about buying a puppy if the seller had to meet these modest criteria in order to have that pup promoted to you?

Would you be more or less likely to join a Club that put these conditions on members who are breeders?

What else would you want to see? I wouldn't mind kicking their asses out if they enter their dogs in UKC beauty pageants or make any overtures to the AKC.

When I ranted about the litter listings on Facebook, just to my friends and "friends," lit it up about the puppies having puppies and the unemployed parents and the claims of no hip screening -- either true or untrue -- both damning, the next thing that lit up was my private message inbox. Boiled down, the messages said:

You have to say this in public. I'm so disgusted with the listings. I don't want to be associated with this. Why can't we do better?

(Optional: Insert personal story about dysplastic/shy/reactive/heavily parasitized/rickety pup purchased from breeder found on Club listing years ago, along with subsequent discovery that breeder had lied about a great many things.)

And today, looking over my drafts folder for blog posts, I found an unfinished post about the "caveat emptor" of buying an ES puppy, left behind over three years ago.

It included a quote from an email I received from a stranger looking for advice with her dog's health and emotional problems -- a dog she'd bought based on a listing on the ESC's website.

"Naively I never suspected that an ES might come from disreputable breeders as they are so uncommon and not shown."

And that's the crux of it. A first-time buyer is, almost by definition, naive. How could she be otherwise? A breeder and seller ought to be, by definition, an expert. The relationship is not equal.

If the Club that is incorporated to conserve the breed and serve the community enables experts to swindle naive people, then it is complicit in that swindling. If it treats an activity, breeding working dogs, that ought to be the domain of experts as an appropriate pastime for people who show by their negligence that they are at best ignorant and careless, then it degrades the activity, and degrades the dogs and the people who take it seriously.

The breeders who stand to lose a lot of money if they can't advertise for free at the expense of every other Club member are vocal about keeping that endorsement. Will the ordinary Club members, the puppy buyers seeking guidance, and the breeders who hold themselves to high standards be just as vocal in demanding that breed conservation not be trumped by puppy propagation?

Edit: 10-29-15
There's been some lively discussion of the COE and this post on disparate Facebook threads.
I'd love it if everyone who is comfortable doing so would share their contributions here, where everyone can see it. 
Even more important, share your opinion about the code of ethics and litter listings with the ESC board before their next meeting on November 2, 2015.
If you are --
• A breeder who has high personal standards and does not wish to be associated with those who do not
• An ordinary Club member who is embarrassed by the predominance of indifferently bred puppies-for-profit sold through the litter listings with the support of your dues
• A former ESC member who has left because you were disgusted about these issues, or a former active volunteer who has reduced your involvement for the same reason
• Someone who found a puppy via the litter listings and found that the seller was not what you expected from someone whose dogs are promoted by the breed club
• Someone who consulted the litter listings and was all "What the HELL" when you saw litter after litter that you would not ever consider
• A prospective English shepherd owner who needs help finding a pup from an ethical, competent breeder
• Anyone concerned with the preservation of working breeds, whether or not you own an ES or plan to
Then please let the BoD members know what you think is important in a Code of Ethics and a breeder whose litters are endorsed and promoted on the Club website. 
I don't expect anyone to agree completely with my priorities or my solutions. But I hope that most of us agree that we must do better, and that we can.
The board members' email addresses are all on this page.

* We will not be entertaining any tinfoil-hat theories that canine hip dysplasia -- or, for that matter, a disinclination to work, a shitty, snappy, fearful temperament, the MDR1 mutation, testicular angst, ** missing premolars -- are "not genetic" but completely caused by feeding Kibbles 'n' Bits.

Just because a mode of inheritance is complex doesn't get you off the hook in the due diligence department.

† As of the time I finish writing this, there are 19 listings, still only five for which both parents have hip evaluations. I think maybe the same five as before. And, since I was going through again, I counted six litters in which at least one parent was under two years of age.

‡ I'm a fucking snob and I own it. Use that word as a pejorative towards me, and you'll get a blank stare in return. So? Know what I'm a snob about? I'm a snob about not using your cultivated ignorance as a shield to avoid being accountable for the horrible consequences of the things you freely chose to do for your own selfish gain. I'm also fucking profane and I don't care. I know all the words and I like the ones that I use.

**This is a made-up thing that does not exist. However, it is genetic.