Monday 31 December 2018

Happy Birthday Adhara and In the Damp Midwinter

Happy New Year and happy birthday to Adhara and her siblings, who are 5 today!

Adhara (the one in the middle)

Meanwhile, in the dampest, darkest time of year, all we can really do is wait for spring and the improvement of the weather, and for life on the smallholding to come back from winter mode.

I have been passing the long winter nights by learning to weave.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Alpacas in Winter

Olivia isn't allowed in the feeding pen. When she arrived here she was obese and we've discovered that it's very difficult to keep her in correct condition, so she has to make do with grazing and only very occasional concentrate feeds. The hard work to get her weight down last year has paid off and her cria Mango has been sustaining himself from grazing and what she gives him, and has the opportunity to come in the pen and try the food and hay. Mango will not be weaned until next year, firstly because it probably helps Olivia stay in condition, and secondly because he's not very big, although it's difficult to tell as he was the only one we had last summer and there isn't a cria of similar age to compare him with.

Thursday 15 November 2018

The Gene Burglar

Many people seem to have trouble understanding the results of DNA tests for recessive diseases in animals and how to use them. In recent years a number of laboratories have started to offer 'chip arrays' that include a great many tests (e.g. this and this), which can be very affordable and easy way to get several tests. Unfortunately as a result of being able to do many tests cheaply in this way, animals receive results from tests irrelevant to their breed and some breeders are becoming increasingly confused by these results.

If you need help understanding the idea of recessive genetic diseases, please have a look at my earlier blog as it will make understanding this one easier.

DNA tests have limitations because (stay with me even if this doesn't make sense; it will be easier after the cartoon) they are often oversimplifications of complex genetic processes we don't understand and that probably involve many alleles at a number of different loci.

Suppose your house has two locks on the front door, a green one and a red one. To break into your house, the burglar has to have both a green key and a red key. Both the red and the green lock are 'weaknesses' that allow your house to be burgled, but unless the burglar has keys to both locks, he cannot break in. One simple solution to this (assuming in this world the law doesn't work as it does in reality) is to catch the burglar and take away the red key. That the burglar still has the key to the green lock doesn't really matter, because he can't gain entry without the red key.

This is how a great many DNA tests for recessive genes work. Scientists find a gene that is involved with a disease but may not be the actual cause of the disease. The precise genetic cause of the disease remains unknown, but we know enough about it to understand that preventing this one gene from expressing is an easy way to stop the disease. The one gene that has been found is just one 'lock'. If you mate two animals together who are tested as carriers, what you are doing in terms of this analogy is putting together a house with a red lock and a burglar in possession of a red key, and there is a risk the house will be burgled (or some of the offspring will express the disease). In reality the green lock and key are just as much at fault for the burglary, but we don't see them because the test can't find them. This is why we do DNA tests for known diseases in animals, and we never mate an animal who is tested as a carrier, or who is untested, to anyone other than one who is tested clear. It's easy, it works, and if it's done properly, it shouldn't do harm.

Suppose, terrified by the prospect that a burglar might have a red key and in the distant future might find your house, you try to remove the red lock and replace it with a blue lock. Only, there aren't any locksmiths because the government has banned them, and the only tool you have is a sledgehammer.

Your attempt to rid yourself of the red lock has damaged your house so much that it leaks, and looters can fit through the hole and steal your possessions. The house you were trying to protect has become ruined by your efforts.

This is how overzealous attempts to control genetic mutations in a breed can result in harm to the breed's gene pool. If, rather than simply avoiding mating carriers together, you decide that animals who carry a DNA marker for a disease must be eliminated entirely from breeding, or you breed young from your animals and test them, and choose only to keep the young tested 'clear', this is what can happen. Genetic diversity is lost from the breed because of healthy animals being thrown away, or because it was on the same chromosome as the test marker. Remember again that the test marker might not be the disease, just a gene or area on the chromosome that is involved in it or close to it.

Now suppose you have a different breed, and a DNA test that is not recommended for your breed says your animal is a carrier?

What if your neighbour has a house with a red lock and a yellow lock? The neighbour hears of your problem with burglars and is afraid of being burgled, and won't let any person with a red key come near their house.

The neighbour might well be worrying about nothing. The burglar has a red and green key, and cannot bypass the yellow lock. Thinking back to what we said at the start, about many genes being involved in the expression of a disease, this means that a gene implicated in one breed as being involved in a disease is harmless in another if the other parts of the genetic pathway are missing. Meanwhile, as the neighbour is demanding everyone in the street turn out their pockets, a burglar with a purple key breaks in through the single purple lock on the back door.

Suppose another neighbour has an orange lock. Only, in this story, nobody's eyesight is much good, and the neighbour can't tell the difference between orange and red. Our modern DNA tests are rather crude and often can't tell the difference between a gene that is actually involved in a disease, and one that just happens to be very close to it, which is termed a neutral marker. Genes tend to be passed from one generation to the other in blocks, so usually within a breed the marker will travel with the gene and the test is accurate for that breed. This is called linkage disequilibrium. But over many generations it can happen that chromosomes exchange DNA and areas normally in linkage disequilibrium can be split up. Or, if the gene involved with the disease is a recent mutation, it may not be found in a more ancient breed that has the neutral marker but not the mutation. Therefore, the marker gene in a very distantly related breed might not be in linkage disequilibrium with the gene that is involved with the disease.

I hope this explanation has made it easier for readers to understand what DNA tests are and how they should be used, and how they should not be used.

To summarise:
Use DNA tests that are verified as relevant to your breed.
Do not mate a carrier or an untested animal to anything other than a 'clear'.
Do not discard animals tested as carriers.
Do not test litters and deliberately select offspring that are not carriers. If the offspring you keep is a carrier, simply mate it to a clear and you will not produce animals with the disease. Remember the test may be either for a gene that is involved with other genes to produce the disease, or simply a neutral marker that is close to a gene involved with the disease.
Do not test for conditions that are not verified as relevant to your breed. If using modern 'chip array' type tests suggests your animal carries a gene indicated in a test for another breed, this should be taken with a pinch of salt, as it may be irrelevant. Consult the provider of the tests and geneticists before assuming any relevance.
Remember that our understanding of genetics is still very limited, and scientists do not understand the exact genetic pathways of a great many diseases. Things could change dramatically in the future as understanding changes -- and history shows us they frequently have.

Thursday 25 October 2018

What Collar is Right for My Doggy?

One size does not fit all, and one kind of collar is not suitable for all dogs. Since I started making collars because I couldn't find a collar I liked for my poodles, I've sold around 300 collars or leads and learned a lot about why other people choose particular collars and what needs different dogs have, and sometimes these choices are made for the wrong reasons and a dog's collar doesn't suit its needs. I'm also horrified to find out that some people leave collars on their dogs constantly, even when they go out and the dog is at home without supervision (please don't do this, dogs have been known to get their collars caught on objects or other dogs and be seriously injured or even killed). I'm going to try to explain here which collars are suited to which dogs doing what, and provide some links to other collar makers that are more suitable for specific circumstances.

If you bought a pair of expensive handmade shoes, you would expect them to be good quality and durable. Something you probably wouldn't do is wear them at work if you worked in a garage and spilt diesel and engine oil all over them, wear them in the kitchen while cooking your dinner and spill tomato sauce on them, and every weekend go to the seaside in them and stick them in a rockpool and jump up and down in the incoming tide and then go to bed in them soaking wet. If you did, I don't think you'd really have much cause for complaint if they didn't last as well as they might otherwise, or if they ended up looking like they had just been found in a peat bog next to Tollund Man.

Therefore, if you also bought an expensive handmade leather collar, and you treat it in the same way, don't expect it to last as long as it might, or to stay looking nice. The price you are paying for is to cover the workmanship and materials, and it does not mean the product is indestructible.

This is Adhara's collar that she has been using for around two years. It could do with a clean as she wears it doing agility and the floor is very dirty, and if I have to take it off her it generally gets thrown on the ground. Other than that, it's in good condition and will continue to be usable probably for the rest of Adhara's life. Crucially, Adhara only wears this collar when she needs to (when I need to put a lead on her or she's in a public place). At home and on my own land she doesn't wear a collar.

In contrast, this is Indi's collar, which she has been wearing for two years, and I mean literally wearing for two years. As there is usually someone at home, it doesn't get taken off unless Indi needs to be washed or the dogs are going to be left in the house unsupervised. Indi is my 'collar tester' for a two main reasons: firstly because, before I sell a product, I want both a good idea of how it will last with proper treatment, and an idea of what will happen to it if it's abused, and Mr Brock-o-Dale Rare Breeds takes Indi out in the rain and to all sorts of revolting dirty places. Secondly is because Mr Brock-o-Dale Rare Breeds also frequently confuses poodles for other poodles and if Indi is wearing a collar it makes it more likely he will take Indi out in the rain and not another black poodle by mistake. Indi has been in the sea in this collar and it's never been cleaned or shown any kindness. The linen thread on the inside has rotted and the seam has split. Despite this, the collar is still functional and safe to use. The failed seam is a pretty easy repair, but even with a good clean it isn't going to look new again. Believe it or not it started life being yellow. Good-quality leather that has seen a lot of use tends to oxidise and darken.

Here is another collar showing a fault that can happen. This dog is a puller and this is the second collar he has broken in this way, and instead of a repair this time he received a replacement and a complimentary prototype for him to test for me! Dogs who pull hard over a period of time can cause the stitching behind the D-ring to blow out. This doesn't affect the collar's safety as the ring is still attached to the collar, but you should stop using the collar and get it repaired. If someone returns a collar after having this happen, I resew it and set a rivet behind the D-ring so it doesn't fail again. I've started routinely riveting the larger poodle collars based on feedback due to this, and the Samson collars have always been riveted.

If you have a long-coated dog like a poodle, a quality rolled leather collar such as this or similar is what you need. The collar needs to fit correctly. You also need to remove it when it isn't needed. You'll notice that my collars are made of natural vegetable-tanned leather and have a smooth, moulded seam that stays on the inside. This minimises friction on the coat and the leather becomes softer and suppler with age as it moulds to the shape of its wearer. Good leather is expensive and has to be handstitched and shaped. Cheap rolled collars are frequently made from leather intended for upholstery or handbags, which is chrome-tanned and coated with a sort of plastic colour. The colour tends to last well, but the leather is not as strong and doesn't. This kind of leather can be cheaply machine stitched and a lot of these collars are described as rolled, but are in fact just folded in half over a core and seamed, leaving a rough, crumpled edge that won't mould to the shape of the dog.

Fit is very important. Make a parting in the coat where the collar is going to go and slide it around the neck. When it is correctly adjusted, you should be able to get two fingers comfortably in there, and no more. A properly fitted collar is extremely unlikely to get caught on something, and the dog can't wriggle out of it. Loose collars are dangerous.

What about quick-release buckles? Quick release buckles, sometimes called side release buckles, are not the same as breakaway buckles. They are not guaranteed to break if your dog gets caught on something. However, they are easier to remove in an emergency, so if your dog gets caught and starts panicking, you should be able to get the collar off easily. They are a halfway house for people who insist on leaving collars on their dogs at home, but you MUST still take the collar off if the dog isn't supervised. They are also good for people with arthritis and similar conditions who struggle with a traditional buckle. They are not as strong as a traditional buckle and not a good idea for big dogs who pull hard.

If you have a short-coated dog, or a poodle whose neck is always clipped short, then you don't need a rolled collar. It doesn't have any advantage over a flat collar. I have found Australian company Red Dingo's collars to be hardwearing, quality collars that should be suitable for short-coated dogs. They make really nice tags as well. I also make jingle bell collars and other funky stuff. Although these are novelties, I make them to be just as robust and secure as a normal collar. They should look decent for years as long as you don't leave them on the dog when they aren't needed. Constant use puts a huge amount of wear and tear on a collar. Dogs tend to scratch at collars if they are left on, and this is guaranteed to damage and dislodge decorations however firmly they're attached.

If you have a dog who likes to go swimming or otherwise gets wet a lot, you need a plastic collar. Leather products are great because they're biodegradable and better for the environment (or at least, ones made from the right kind of leather are) but plastic has its place. Choose well-made collars that will last to reduce plastic pollution. One such maker of collars is Dublin Dog Collars, which is in the USA and not Dublin, and makes buckled plastic collars themed after fish. I have a couple of these and they are what I put on my dogs if they're going swimming and I don't want their good collars trashed.

If you absolutely must leave a collar on your dog unattended, you need a collar with a fastening that's designed to fail under strain. There is always a tradeoff with safety features like this, and this type of collar is not as safe or reliable at doing what a collar is supposed to be used for. Most of them have two D-rings that you have to connect the lead to, and if you don't do this properly the collar is likely to come off. If your dog is off-lead and someone needs to restrain it and grabs the collar, again the collar is going to break. This can lead to dangerous situations that would have been prevented by a more secure collar. If you do decide you need one of these collars, it might be better to use a stronger collar when walking your dog and exchange them when the dog is at home. One make of such collars is called Keepsafe. Fit is again important as a properly fitted collar greatly reduces the risk of your dog becoming caught on something by the collar.

Very small dogs need soft, flexible collars that are easy to remove. These dogs can't pull like large dogs, so strength is less important.

There are a few kinds of collar you should not buy. The cheap 'rolled' collar made from plasticy upholstery leather is one of them I already mentioned -- they don't do anything to protect your dog's coat over a flat collar, and they often are sold with customised nasty little metal ID plates threaded onto them that will really shred your dog's coat. I'm often asked if I will make rolled collars with motifs sewn into the leather, and I refuse to do this because it's bad design and defeats the purpose of a rolled collar. The rolled part should be as smooth as an eel and the fastening part in contact with the dog as small as possible. Another collar you should not buy are the cheap ones from the pet shop. They are made from unsustainable materials, don't last long, and likely come from China where welfare for the humans and animals involved in their production just isn't great. Another kind of collar I've found to be no use is the big padded satin collars advertised as coat savers for poodles. Although these look delightful, they just don't work at what they're intended for. The friction from the large surface area encourages matting rather than protecting the coat and a rolled collar works better.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Red Flags

As usual, people are enquiring about puppies and I don’t have puppies available now. I also seem to have had a lot of recent requests asking me what I know about this or that breed, or what I think of some other breeder, and I get occasional questions from people in other countries asking how to find a local breeder. If you want one of my puppies, you’re more likely to be able to have one if you’re prepared to go on the waiting list until the next litter is born. This post is for those people who can’t wait, or who after researching have decided another breed is more suitable.

When I was a child (and I don’t know if my memory has embroidered this story), my mother had a friend who was a salt-of-the-earth sort of person and who circumstances hadn’t exactly been kind to. She worked hard to support an adult child with pretty severe physical and intellectual disabilities whom she was also the main carer of. She owned a Labrador Retriever bitch, which probably wasn’t the best choice for someone with her lifestyle. If I’d met her today I’d have pegged her as a Papillon person as she was a smart lady with a sense of humour. However, in those days the Internet hadn’t been invented and Papillons were something you read about in books and if you had a dog it was probably either a Labrador Retriever, a German Shepherd (which was often euphemistically called an Alsatian because anything German was apparently still too close to comfort to the Nazis), a Yorkshire Terrier, Jack Russell, or if you were a bit more exotic perhaps a Westie or a Whippet. This bitch I remember being like a wild animal and having to be shut in another room when guests came to the house. Once a year the lady went on a cruise as her break from her hardworking life, and the bitch went to stay at a local boarding facility. One time when this happened, the bitch was in season, because in those days dogs weren’t routinely spayed and neutered. When the owner came back, she was told that the boarding facility had put her in with a Labrador Retriever puppy dog they owned because they thought he was too young to do anything, and he had mated her, and they were sorry, but the dog was a trendy colour and the puppies might fetch a good price and it might help the bitch to ‘calm down’.

9 weeks later, there were no puppies. The mating hadn’t worked. But, having planned for puppies not originally wanted, and disappointed when there were none, the lady took the bitch back to the boarding facility and paid for the same dog to mate the bitch again on her next season. This time she did have puppies, but they weren’t the trendy colour the sire was, and sadly, whether it was because of the bitch’s poor temperament or the owner’s lack of experience, or a combination of both, the puppies all died save for one bitch, which the owner could not then part with, and kept. And the dam didn’t ‘calm down’ after all and she and her puppy were both crazy together.

This was my first experience of a dog breeder, and probably these sorts of reasons for breeding are not uncommon among a lot of people selling puppies. The lady who bred this bitch was by no means a bad person, and probably most people aren’t. But her reasons for breeding were not the right ones, and it’s unlikely even had she had any pups to sell in the end, that she would be the sort of breeder an owner could rely on for support. If you’d bought a pup from her and four years later developed a serious illness that meant you could no longer keep your dog, it’s unlikely she would have been in a position to take back the dog and find it a new home. If you had behavioural problems with your puppy, or a health issue, I don’t think she’d be much help or have a great deal of knowledge about a pedigree she chose because of an accident and the prospect of pups being a trendy colour. How do you make sure if you are buying a puppy, that your money is going to someone who is doing the best they can to conserve the breed and will give you lifetime support?

Breeders who care about their breed will register all their pups with the Kennel Club, and you will get papers with your pup (or soon after if the breeder hasn’t received the papers yet). It’s a red flag if someone doesn’t register all their pups, or if they are registered with a bogus registry, or on the Kennel Club’s Activity Register (which is so mutts and rescue dogs can compete in agility and suchlike). Someone who is offering pups under the table for cash with no papers on the cheap is likely a tax dodger making too much money out of their breeding. Breed registries are not perfect but they are there to serve as a permanent record for births in a breed for posterity and so we can have statistics and information on a breed. It also enables health conditions to be reported accurately and help researchers who are trying to understand them. It goes without saying that someone who cares about a breed does not disrespect it by using their dogs to produce novelty mix-breed puppies with degrading marketing names like Cockpinscher Bullshitz. Every pregnancy carries a risk to the bitch which has to be weighed against the benefit of the litter to the conservation of the breed. With an educated and vigilant owner, this risk is hopefully small, but it is a risk that a bitch should not be subjected to without a good reason. There is no benefit to any breed when someone is simply fooling around in order to line their pockets. Exceptions to registration are traditional working-strain dogs such as Border Collies, lurchers, and JRTs which often have their own registries.

Sculpture by Patricia Piccinini

Decent breeders will usually carry out health tests of some sort on their dogs. Some common sense has to be applied here because there isn’t always a great deal of choice in stud dogs, and a breeder who has chosen to use a previously unused 10-year-old male in good health with no test results has probably made a better decision for the breed than someone who’s used a two-year-old dog just because he’s had a lot of tests and has already sired 15 litters. There are a few old farts around who refuse to do tests but are very experienced and know their bloodlines like the backs of their hands. Most of those people are dead or no longer breeding now, though. If the breed is known to have recessive genetic conditions in it, at least one parent should have a ‘clear’ DNA test result for each condition. If a breeder talks about COI (coefficient of inbreeding) in most breeds the Kennel Club's COI calculator is not reliable and there are better breed-specific tools available (for my breed, this tool is the Standard Poodle Database/PHR). Particularly COIs generated by the KC's tool should be viewed with extreme suspicion if there are imported dogs in the pedigree.

Peculiar colours: this is a complicated area. In some ways, coat colour is very superficial and easily corrected, and in other ways it’s a serious problem. As a general rule, people who care about their breed try to produce puppies in correct colours according to the breed standard. However, many breeds can sometimes produce ‘wild type’ colours or other harmless faults due to recessive genes or genetic combinations. On the other hand, there are some colours associated with health problems that don’t occur naturally in most breeds, and should be considered aberrations and diseases where there is no precedent for them, such as merle. There are a small number of people who attempt to breed dogs in colours that occur naturally in the breed that are considered incorrect by breeding to correct-coloured dogs and using DNA tests to follow the gene, something which can’t really be argued against from an ethical standpoint, but unfortunately I can probably count the people I’ve encountered doing this worldwide on one hand. All too often when trendy colours are involved, care and restraint go out the window, and with so few dogs existing able to produce the colours, breeders tend to choose dogs based on colour with little regard to more important factors, or resort to strategies like inbreeding. It isn’t necessarily a red flag if a litter has a puppy in it with a colour fault. It also isn’t necessarily a red flag if a breeder keeps and uses in their programme a dog that might not be perfect in terms of its colouration, as the idea is to improve by selecting dogs closest to the standard, and the dog might have been the best puppy in other respects. However, if someone is deliberately breeding incorrect colours, particularly if they are charging excessive prices that far exceed the price of a correct-coloured puppy, and especially if the colours are described as ‘rare’, this is a red flag. Going back to the trendy-coloured dog in the anecdote, it’s also worth being aware that colours that are correct for a breed, used to be unpopular, but have become flavour-of-the-month can be victims of their own success if they’re bred in a way that puts colour before other factors, and the more traditional colours of the breed often have better type. One time while attending an obedience class I commented on the dog standing next to me, which I assumed was a Ridgeback without a ridge. The owner informed me it was in fact a Labrador Retriever in a funky new colour, which they’d likely paid a lot of money for.

Eye deformity caused by the merle gene in a breed where it naturally occurs. Image credit:luvlethalwhites

A good breeder will take back the puppy they bred later in life and care for it until they find it a suitable new home if ever its owner can no longer keep it. Breeders should care about their pups and won’t want them to end up dumped in shelters or sold on to third parties. If puppies were only ever bought from breeders like this, shelters would disappear and the only rescue dogs would likely come from breed rescues because their breeders had passed away or become too elderly or unwell to honour their return commitment.

A true conservation breeder is honest and transparent about health conditions. Don't confuse this with health testing, as many such conditions can't be tested for. This breeder wants to know if the dog they bred develops a problem, because problems can be genetic and this knowledge will affect breeding decisions they make going forward with the affected dog’s relatives. If your dog develops a condition, the breeder will be knowledgeable and supportive. The breeder will probably ask you to help with research into the condition and will help you to report it to someone in the breed club and to other places where information about disease incidence in pedigrees is collated. I have bred many different animals and I can say with experience that it is unrealistic to expect any species, breed, or bloodline not to have some sort of problem crop up in it from time to time. Living things do that. Health issues have to be weighed against overall breed health and maintaining the gene pool, which is why experienced breeders won’t kill off a bloodline because a relative develops a problem, but they won’t try to hide it and carry on regardless, and will take measures to work away from it and prevent genetics that might be involved with disease spreading uncontrollably. A breeder who claims there are no health conditions whatsoever in their bloodline is likely to be ignorant or lying, and someone to avoid, and a breeder who is more interested in health conditions in other people’s bloodlines than in their own is seriously bad news.

Not a safe and stimulating environment for puppies to grow in
The environment: most of this should probably be common sense. You should see the puppies with their littermates and with the dam. If you’ve reserved a pup and visit at 4 weeks, you should be able to see the dam feeding the pups. If you visit for the first time after 8 weeks, the pups will be weaned and you might not be able to see littermates if they’ve already gone. Don’t be surprised if the bitch just nuzzles the pup’s ears and moves away or growls when it tries to feed from her. Most bitches who have been properly cared for during pregnancy and lactation do not look like a trainwreck afterwards. She might have a bit of a loose undercarriage, have lost a bit of weight, and have a slightly dull coat. On the other hand, some cope better than others and if she isn’t in great condition it’s not necessarily a red flag. The pups and the dogs should be in a house and as there are probably a lot of dogs in the house, there will probably be some signs of wear and tear like chewed-up furniture and grubby walls and doors in the rooms the dogs use. It’s a concern if it’s either pristine or if it’s filthy. A house with several adult dogs and a litter of pups in it will probably not smell like a bed of roses, but there shouldn’t be an overpowering stench and it should never smell of ammonia. Pups being displayed on white lacy pillows surrounded by impossible-to-machine-wash toys in a room looking like a human infant’s bedroom probably means the display is a front and the pups go back out in a shed down the garden once the visitors have left.

"My bitches whelp right here on this seat!" Image: Allan Warren

The breeder should ask questions to determine if this breed is right for you, you’re suitable to have one of their puppies, and which puppy will be the best fit. Even if the breeder doesn’t do a formal temperament assessment, they should have a good idea of the pups’ personalities and strengths and weaknesses from watching and interacting with them. The breeder will suggest a few pups that would be suitable for your needs and explain why, rather than let you pick any pup from the litter on a whim. If you have very specific needs (or other people higher up the waiting list do), don’t be surprised if the breeder doesn’t know which puppy/puppies are suitable for you until 4, 6, or even 8 weeks old. It takes time for their personalities to develop. Please understand that this is for the new owners’ best interests in matching them with the right pup, and do not be demanding and/or mardy about this. If you go to visit the pups and say you want the pup with the pink collar because your kid decided they like that one from seeing a picture on the website, the breeder is probably likely to reconsider if they really want to take your deposit and if the pup they put a little piece of their heart and soul into might be better off with someone else.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Chalk & Cheese pups, the aftermath

Chalk and the cheesy litter have all gone home now. I'm going to miss them, especially Sunny. It was a wrench to let her go as she is lovely, but the time just isn't right for another pup living here as Pandora is only 8 months. This litter was a stopgap of sorts to buy more time after a previous plan to attempt frozen semen on Hobsey had to be aborted as her progesterone profile wasn't right, with the intention that a boy would be co-owned as a future breeding prospect, which has happened, but of course there were nice girls in the litter as well.

It was fascinating and very informative to have a dual-sired litter work out. There are many reasons to attempt a dual sire litter, but what frequently happens is all the pups are from a single dog, or if you're really unfortunate there are no pups from either dog. Chalk was very different to the other pups, both in his personality and physical build. It's one thing to have a litter and speculate that a particular trait comes from a sire because you saw it in another litter you had, or an earlier litter the bitch had by someone else didn't show it, but it's another thing entirely to have a pup from a different sire exactly the same age to compare with!

Best wishes to all the pups and their new families.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Sunny Pup

UPDATE: Sunny is now reserved

We had joy, we had fun, we clipped puppies in the sun...

All the pups' owners-to-be have now been to visit. Little Sunny pup has become available as the person she was originally held for has decided the timing was not quite right, and the other people I've had interest from she isn't quite the right fit for. Sunny is a lovely confident pup who will benefit from going to an active home and would probably love to do a sport with her new owner. She shows signs that she will likely be gunsteady and she was fascinated by the washing flapping on the line during the recent windy weather.

If you think Sunny might be the right pup for you and you can offer the loving home she deserves, please get in touch.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Alpaca diary

Mango is doing well despite his small birth weight and still needing to be supplemented with goat milk twice a day. He had to come into the house for a short time to dry off because it was raining so hard, where he made a nuisance of himself.

The female alpacas have now all been mated and appear to be pregnant. Hopefully they will stay that way as soon it will be too late in the year to conduct any more matings. Rather than spending next summer rifling through calendars to check who is due when and remember who mated with whom, I have decided to write it on my blog so I can find it easily. Assuming a pregnancy lasts 11 months, we hope to have in 2019:

Bess is pregnant by Marius, due 2nd May (although the one pregnancy she's managed to carry so far lasted over a year, so could be anyone's guess)
Patience was covered by Costa, due 14 May
Fleur mated with Marius, due 6 July
Olivia mated with Costa, due 19 July
Poppy mated with an outside stud, Rococo, due 21 July

Trident mated with no-one; having been given the opportunity, he turned out to be all talk and no trousers, and as the year was coming to an end there was no time to wait for him to fool around, so he will have to wait until next year to sow his wild oats.

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Letter to James Gray MP

The following is a letter to my local MP. It is not an endorsement or condemnation of the MP or the political party he represents. This is not a political blog, and political rants or comments either promoting or denigrating any particular political party or politician will not be tolerated. I have been asked by other breeders or concerned persons if they may copy my letter in order to write to their own MP, and the answer is yes, you may copy and modify this letter. Please write to your MP if you are concerned about new legislation. Find who your MP is here.

Dear James Gray,

I write to you concerning the recent and forthcoming changes in legislation surrounding dog breeding.

I am supportive of the new moves to ban the third-party sales of puppies and was supportive in reforming the licensing legislation with some reservations. I have some concerns about how this is being implemented and would like to bring to your attention some aspects of dog breeding the government may not be aware of.

I am a conservation breeder of Poodle (standard). I suspect many people, and probably the government going by what has been written in the new guidelines, do not understand what it is that conservation and other small-scale breeders do. We breed in order to keep dogs for ourselves to continue a bloodline, to preserve an historic breed and prevent loss of genetic diversity, which if attention is not paid to it could result in that breed’s population becoming unviable and the breed ultimately becoming extinct. Some people breed in order to compete in the traditional sport of conformation showing or in other sports such as agility and working trials. Each breeder’s dogs (in addition to being beloved family members) and bloodline represents a significant investment of time and research in choosing the best combinations of dogs to mate together and careful selection of puppies to keep and found subsequent generations upon, sometimes for many generations over the breeder's life or even longer. The objective of breeding in this way is not to sell puppies to make money, although as dogs are born in litters the ones that are not kept are sold as pets to carefully vetted persons and the proceeds used to help pay for the costs of running the breeding programme.

I am also a member of the Kennel Club’s Assured Breeder scheme. I joined this voluntary scheme as it is more accommodating of small-scale breeders than council licensing. I was pleasantly surprised that the inspector who came to my premises when I joined was herself a dog breeder with real experience of the issues and what makes a good dog breeder, and not just a bureaucrat.

Small-scale breeders probably account for a tiny minority of puppies that are sold in the UK, but they are almost certainly the best source of a puppy available. The advantages are the lifetime support owners receive from the breeder, the careful selection to develop a fit-for-purpose bloodline meaning that buyers choosing a breeder who specialises in the purpose they want the dog for getting a superior animal, and the enormous time investment small breeders are able to put into socialising their puppies as they have no more than two litters a year and the dogs live in the house.

Firstly, I very much support moves to ban the third-party sale of puppies. Puppies should only be bought from breeders where the buyer can see the dam and the environment the puppy has been brought up in, and the puppy’s owner should be able to benefit from lifetime support from the person who bred the puppy. It is also extremely important to breeders that they are in touch with the owners of their puppies and can be informed if there is a potential genetic issue with one of them so they can take careful steps to reduce the risk moving forward in their breeding programme.

Secondly, I would like to draw your attention to something that the recent legislation seems to have completely ignored, an issue which I can only describe as ‘dog pimping’. Responsible breeders of course are likely to own male dogs and use them for breeding, and breeders tend to allow other breeders they trust to sparingly use their stud dogs by private treaty, and this is necessary so breeders can access unrelated breeding stock. However, some people actively advertise dogs at public stud to anyone. There is a website called ‘pets4homes’ where male dogs are publicly advertised in a disgraceful manner, often with the adverts suggesting the dog is to be made available to any bitch of any breed, particularly to fuel a current fad to produce novelty mix-breed puppies. Unlike Kennel Club registered dogs of a known breed, mixed-breed puppies are not registered and there is no paper trail, and many of these advertisers are likely doing lucrative business under the HMRC’s radar in this way, and it is extremely unlikely they have any interest in breed conservation. It is also a potential biosecurity risk and contributes to ‘popular sire syndrome’ and gene pool collapse. Yet the new legislation seems to completely overlook this issue. I would like to see the pimping of dogs on commercial websites and similar banned, or at least people who advertise this kind of business required to have a licence and to conform to basic standards.

Thirdly, there are several issues I have with the legislation and guidelines that have been issued by DEFRA “Guidance notes for conditions for breeding dogs” that will be coming into force in October that have been published. I will attempt to detail them below:

The ‘Business test’ implies that if a person makes a profit of more than £1,000 in a year from dogs, they will need a licence. However, it is more complicated than this in practice. I have not so far made a profit from breeding dogs, but someone might make more than this amount in one year if everything goes well yet in all other years make a loss. People are likely to feel pressured to either increase their breeding if they are forced to pay for a licence year after year, which is not in the interests of the dogs, or to scale down as to avoid having profits.

The way the guidelines are written is aimed at businesses that treat their animals as livestock, and some of the requirements are nonsensical or difficult to achieve for small breeders. For example, it is a requirement that whelping boxes ‘be raised off the ground’. It is totally unclear why this should be. I sleep on the floor next to my whelping box when my puppies are born, and if the box is raised off the floor, it would be harder to check the puppies and the dam. Also it would not be safe if I stood or knelt in such a whelping box when helping my bitch tend to her pups or give birth. The guidelines also stipulate that a particular kind of mesh has to be used for fencing of outdoor areas the dogs use, that ‘each weaned dog has to be provided with a non-slip water bowl’ (I have 6 dogs at present and one of them is a puppy who likes to try to go swimming in the water bowl).

Most concerning to me is the requirement that dogs be vaccinated for leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is a non-core vaccine as defined by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, which means that dogs should only be vaccinated with this vaccine if their circumstances mean they are at risk of this disease. The protection provided by the vaccine is short-lived and dogs who need it have to be revaccinated annually and there appears to be a high rate of adverse reactions. Many people, myself included, do not use this vaccine and instead only use the core vaccines recommended by the WSAVA (distemper, hepatitis, parvo) and elect instead to keep dogs away from areas that may prevent a lepto risk such as stagnant water and places rats may have urinated. It makes no sense why a non-core vaccination should be a requirement.

"Where any other activity involving animals is undertaken on the premises, it
must be kept entirely separate from the area where the activity of breeding
dogs takes place." Many dog breeders keep pets other than dogs, meaning they cannot conform with this requirement.

“A bitch must not be bred from if they (sic) have had one caesarean.” This is a recommendation and not a requirement, but I am concerned about the direction this is going. The decision to perform a caesarian section, an invasive surgery, on a bitch is taken by the owner of the bitch and her vet and weighs up the welfare and risks to both the bitch and any born or unborn puppies. There are a great many different reasons why a whelping might go wrong and a surgical delivery may become necessary. If the bitch is automatically written off as a breeding animal if she is subjected to this procedure, it adds an unsavoury third consideration. There is a risk that a caesarian section will be seen as a last resort only if a bitch’s life is in danger and the bitch left to struggle when the surgery would have been in her interests and those of the pups, and there is also a risk that people will rush to do the surgery with the first suggestion of something not going quite right in fear that if the bitch loses the litter and needs the surgery after she will be written off and the breeder will lose the bloodline, when with a little more patience the bitch might have had her pups naturally. Furthermore the rationale for this is completely obscure. The rationale for not allowing a bitch who has had two caesarian sections to be bred again is because of the damage done to the uterus by two surgeries of this sort and the risk to the bitch in subsequent pregnancies. In this case, if one surgery is required, the breeder will know the reason and be able to plan another litter and how to reduce risks taking this into account.

“No bitch will be intentionally mated when the Coefficient of Inbreeding of the
puppies would exceed the breed average or 12.5% if no breed average exists as
measured from a minimum five generation pedigree.” This is a nonsensical line in the sand. A COI of 12.5% is the equivalent of half-siblings being bred together, or a grandfather to a grand-daughter. Most people would consider this an unacceptable cut-off. What if the breed average is 0.1% – a completely insignificant relationship, and breeding a COI of 0.2% carries virtually no risk? What if the breed average is 25%, the same as full siblings and not acceptable to any reasonable person? In practice, cousin matings (6.25%) are generally considered to be the closest linebreeding that is acceptable. COIs vary depending on how they are calculated, and accurate COIs generated from deep pedigree analysis tend to come out higher, but are the most reliable.

It is a concern to me that the government is trying to force small breeders into a bureaucratic licence system developed for commercial breeders. Small high-welfare breeders who do not make much money from breeding to pay for a licence fee will not be able to compete against businesses that exist to sell dogs for money, particularly if they have to also invest in upgrading their house to be like a commercial puppy manufactory and vaccinate their dogs with vaccines that are unwanted, unnecessary, and ineffective. The government is effectively promoting large-scale dog farming and pushing out small breeders.

Thank you for your consideration,

Dr R.

Friday 17 August 2018

Hobsey puppies

Hobsey had 8 lovely puppies on Wednesday!

3 black boys, 3 black girls, a cream girl, and a brown boy.

At the moment it would appear all the pups are reserved. Occasionally we do get cancellations, and I should know more once the pups are 4 weeks old. I am adding updates and pictures to the litter page on the main site. I have been having problems with the site not loading and images not displaying properly recently and apologise if this is an issue for anyone else.

Monday 13 August 2018

Mangonel the Paca & Trebuchet

Trebuchet was recently castrated and has moved back into the paddock with the female alpacas including his mother and new half-brother, whom I have decided to call Mangonel.

Olivia seems to be doing OK at feeding Mango and he is starting to gain weight. I am still feeding him some goat milk in the evenings to keep him going through the night as he's so small.

Saturday 11 August 2018

Life and Death on a Farm

On Monday (6th) Olivia delivered a male cria in the early hours of the morning without event. The cria was discovered around 7:30 and was sitting up, and got to its feet and tried to run away when approached, and Olivia had already passed the placenta, so it had likely been born at least an hour beforehand. Although the cria was very small at 11 pounds, it was normal and healthy, and clearly trying very hard. The cria has been coming in the porch overnight and having supplemental goats' milk because he's so small and Olivia has a history of poor lactation, and so far looks and behaves completely normal, and is maintaining his weight after an initial drop to just under 11 pounds.

Poppy gave birth the next day. Tragically her cria was born with severe deformities incompatible with survival and has had to be euthanised. Poppy has had two normal, healthy cria in previous years and it is not clear why this has happened, whether something just went wrong by chance during embryonic development, or Poppy ate or was otherwise exposed to something at a critical point of her pregnancy, or a mutation or unfortunate genetic combination. It's an old farming adage that if you have livestock so too will you have deadstock, and breeding animals serves as a regular reminder that it's mere human arrogance to think we can take something as brutal and imperfect in every way as nature and make it perfect and humane.

Poor Poppy was not like the bitches and did not realise her cria was not viable and push it away. She loved it even though it was hideously deformed and didn't seem to recognise her (I suspect there was neurological damage as well, as the cria did not stand nor respond to Poppy clicking at it). I hoped the cria would pass away naturally beside Poppy so she could grieve for it, but after giving them a couple of hours together, the cria was still alive, and although not in pain, it was clear the cria would never survive and was destined for a slow and miserable end, so the decision was made that we needed to pay the ferryman. What should have been a happy and anticipated event instead resulted in taking what would have been a big strong rich-brown female cria to the vet to be euthanised, and poor Poppy was left with no closure. Poppy is gradually getting back to normal, although she still runs up to anyone who comes into the paddock and bleats at them.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Leathergoods Prices and Etsy

Unfortunately I have had to increase the prices of my collars and leads as well as P&P options sold through Etsy. This is because of Etsy's decision to increase their fees and to charge fees on shipping. I apologise to my customers for this change. For people ordering directly (just send an email through the contact page or contact me through the facebook group) and paying by bank transfer, the prices and P&P remain unchanged.

Saturday 14 July 2018

Fleur -- Deflowered

The proper name for an adult male alpaca is macho. While our senior suri stud Marius likes to escape and visit the poodles and eat the garden (see later part of video above) and is perfectly capable of mating with hembras and making them pregnant, he doesn't seem to be feeling very macho at the moment, possibly from a combination of the heat as well as being old and fat, and seems to be more interested in smelling the flowers than instigating matings by chasing and mounting females! To get his last mating a month or so ago, which resulted in Bess finally becoming pregnant, this resulted in putting halters on them both and running up and down the field with Bess in front of him, until it occurred to him to sing his mating song and she sat down immediately for him.

Fleur is now over a year old and big enough and interested enough in boys to have her first mating. The only male suitable to use on her is Marius, but when they were put together into a nice shady pen so they could get on with it, Fleur smelled Marius and rubbed herself against him, and he went and put his head in a food bucket and ignored her! We did eventually get him to mate with her, as this photograph and video shows, but you may well ask, what is Trident doing in the pen spectating?

Trident is our youngest male who it's hoped will become a stud later this year. He's only recently started showing an interest in females, and he is not allowed to mate with Fleur as she's his half sister. Because Marius was so reluctant to cut to the chase, I decided to let Trident practice in front of him to see if some healthy competition might spark an interest. Female alpacas will only mate with males who orgle (sing to them) and often they need to be chased and mounted before they will sit. What Trident has in enthusiasm, he lacks in skill, and his stud behaviour was atrocious. He kept forgetting to orgle, he mounted Fleur from the wrong end, and when she did go down for him, he sat on her head. Once he had pushed her down and squashed her, Marius suddenly remembered he was a macho and was quite happy to orgle loudly and barge the hapless greenhorn off Fleur and get on with his job!

When Patience mates or is involved in a spit off (which is the term used for showing a hoped-pregnant female to a stud male to test if she is pregnant or not by her reaction) her mother Bess is always very concerned about her and comes up to the pen to make sure she is OK. I let Trident chase Patience to spit her off while Fleur was mating, and Bess came up worried that she was being harried about, and spat on Trident on Patience's behalf when she rejected him. Oddly enough, Fleur's mother Poppy never seems to care if Fleur is being chased, and showed no concern that she was being sat upon by a fat old suri.