A Sporting Gun reader wrote to us, explaining why he feld that Tony’s previous advice – that there is no need to screen Springer spaniels for health issues – was wrong. John, who emailed us, said he “came close to buying puppies from a breeder of champions, who I have since discovered has health issues in his kennels but still refuses to have his dogs’ health checked”.

Tony Price wrote a follow-up piece to address the points raised in the email in the January 2013 issue

It’s encouraging to discover somebody out there actually reads my articles in the magazine and is willing to spend time and effort giving their feedback!

I do not know who John is, nor did he specify what health issues he found in a set of kennels where puppies are bred from Field Trial Champions.

Had he listed the problems then I could have been more specific with my reply. In the circumstances I will have to be more general and hope some of my comments pertain to those he claims to have found. Having said that, care must always be taken whenever accusations are made about supposed health issues in dogs because they can often be misleading, sometimes downright wrong.

In situations of this kind it’s best to disregard the sort of rumour and hearsay that’s unfortunately commonplace in the Field Trial world. Instead we must concentrate solely on fact.

Here, I don’t mind admitting that my attitude to dog breeding has changed and evolved over the years. At one time I would have totally and utterly supported the claim and argument for Field Trial Champions to be accepted as a breed’s standard. Setting acceptable standards is what Field Trials were originally all about.

To quote the Kennel Club: “The overall and stated object of the Kennel Club is to promote in every way the general improvement of dogs.”

However, in my view some lack of control by the Kennel Club has, over the years, led to a number of ills taking root in the Field Trial world. Today I would say that using Field Trial dogs as the yardstick to a breed standard has now become a flawed policy. I could easily launch here into a diatribe on the ills of Field Trials but that is not my intention.

My view
Here at Tawnyhill Gundogs we have spent a great deal of money over the years to ensure the health and integrity of our working dogs and their progeny. This has involved continuous health monitoring by both ourselves and vets, as well as extensive research work into all aspects of breeding. It’s only my humble opinion on the situation but what I can say is that our findings have been based on first hand practical experience. One of my concerns with any health testing regime is that we do not know the extent to which they affect working dogs, as opposed to show dogs. The reason for this is because the Kennel Club has not registered them separately, so the results of any health tests have been grouped together.

Upshot of this can be seen in the many dogs bought from breeders on the basis of health tests and which are then been brought to me for training. All too often these dogs turn out to lack natural ability and trainability, and inevitably the owners are disappointed in the standard their dogs are able to achieve.

Hopefully this situation will improve in time because we now have access to a KC health testing database which contains the results of an increasing number of checks on quality working dogs. In the meantime, all existing and potential gundog owners need to be aware that health problems can manifest themselves in a number of ways, and they are not always breed specific. One of the commonest to crop up in conversation is hip dysplasia.Hip dysplasia
There’s a misconception among some shooters that this is a condition confined to the retriever breeds, particularly Labradors. But this is not the case – Springers, too, can be affected.

Everyone with these dogs’ best interests at heart and is conscientious in their breeding wouldn’t dream of producing pups with hip dysplasia. That said we must look at what we are trying to achieve through breeding and the important thing to consider is by what degree a condition like this makes them incapable of working for a reasonable lifetime? In my estimation ‘a reasonable lifetime’ is one that allows the dog to happily work a minimum of ten seasons with the last one or two, admittedly, comprising lighter retirement duties.

However, if we hip tested all spaniels and discarded those showing even minor signs of hip dysplasia would we be able to extend this ten year working period? Or, to put it another way: would we be able to extend it sufficiently to warrant discarding all those good dogs from the breeding pool that clinically had hip dysplasia but showed no signs and were capable of working into old age?

I think anybody with any commonsense would answer: “No, it will not happen because dogs have a limited life expectancy anyway. We will not increase on that.”

If we did try to follow a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on hip dysplasia all we would achieve would be a substantially narrowed gene pool that in turn would decrease the trainability, natural working ability and temperament of the breed.

You could argue (as a geneticist from the Animal Health Trust did) that if all dogs were tested we could then selectively breed from those that were clear and, over a period of generations, eradicatetheproblem. Forthisto be effective every breeding dog would have to be tested and you must ask: “Who’s going to enforce that ruling?”

Testing, testing
It’s only when you look at the hip dysplasia test and the number of animals involved that you start to appreciate the potential problems that would arise from a ‘zero tolerance’ policy.

Here at Tawnyhill we have had all our Labradors hip scored for several years as a matter of course.
Nationally, 67,000 Labradors were hip scored in 2009, the most up to date record I could find on the British Veterinary Association’s web site. Average score across all these was 15, but only 800 Springer Spaniels scored with an averagepointstallyof14. Bearin mind these are combined show and working results.

In all the time that I’ve been breeding Labradors the average hip score used by vets has only reduced by one point – from 16 to 15.

Now, I’ve been breeding Labradors for 20 years so looking at it logically if this was an effective scheme we should be getting an average score that’s a lot lower than it actually is. Bearinmind the policy should be to breed only from animals with a lower than average hip score.

Tellingly, when you investigate hip dysplasia further it transpires more than 80 per cent of cases are caused by a pup’s environment and feeding!

Veterinary surgeons are aware of this but every time a dog is diagnosed with hip dysplasia they immediately say the condition is hereditary. I can understand this in one way because the paying customer wouldn’t be very happy to hear that they’ve only got themselves to blame for the problem.

I have plenty of personal experience of puppy owners ignoring commonsense advice: in spite of simple, clear, instructions they still insist on giving the youngster far too much exercise. For example I had one chap with a small holding who allowed his young dog to run up and down the field every day, all day, following him on his tractor because it “wore the youngster out and made him sleep.” Thentherewasaladywho constantly let her older dog play with the puppy and then walked the puppy with the older dog each day claiming it was the only exercise the youngster got.
Both these puppies came from generations of hip-tested dogs, but they became lame because the environment they were exposed to.


Point scoring

Another interesting thing in all this is that hips are scored on the same basis no matter what breed of dog is being tested. I can appreciate this is a clinical process but it doesn’t actually take into account the fact that a Labrador moves with a completely different action to that of a spaniel.
You only have to take a look at the considerable numbers of pictures taken of my dogs each month by Sporting Gun photographers to see the very clear differences.

Problem is, you’re not aware of the way both breeds move until they get caught on camera, and it’s particularly noticeable with spaniels – their legs stick out at amazing angles when they’re working! However, a Labrador’s back legs never assume the same acute angles when they are working or turning.

Such photographic evidence convinces me spaniels move in a completely different way to Labradors and so have a great deal more movement in their rear end, and hips.