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I have a Labrador-owning Swedish friend who follows the British field trialling scene with the same degree of enthusiasm and interest as others display for Formula One or Premiership football. He emailed me recently, commenting on the dogs that have qualified so far for this year?s IGL Retriever Championship. (It is being held on the Nevill Holt Estate, Leicestershire, 5?7 December.)

He wrote to say he had noticed that Sam Rowe?s Labrador bitch Fernshot Optimist of Driftaway` is among the qualifiers. She is by FTCh Fernshot Comet out of Edenbrooke Bermuda Princess of Fernshot.
Sam and her dog are to be congratulated. Their success is bittersweet, however, as
Fernshot Optimist has been tested affected by the progressive rod-cone degeneration (PRCD) type of progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). To my knowledge, this is the first Labrador ever to run in the championship that has been tested as not just a carrier of PRA but as affected by the disease. This is an official result that can be read by all who access the Kennel Club?s (KC) webpage.

I feel sorry for both dog and handler, but happy at the same time. The dog is not blind. It may not even have any eye problem at all ? just a diagnosis based on its DNA. Dog and handler are able to live a great and meaningful life together and perform at the very highest level. A great accomplishment. I wish Sam and her bitch every success. I?ll be rooting for them during the championship, hanky in hand.

According to the KC?s website, PRCD-PRA causes cells in the retina to degenerate and die, even though the cells seem to develop normally early in life. Owners of affected dogs first notice that their dog becomes night-blind, but this eventually progresses to total blindness. The age at which symptoms appear varies from breed to breed, but in all cases puppies are born with perfect vision before their sight begins to degenerate later in life, from around three years old or later. The condition results from a single recessive mutation of a gene known as PRCD.

Like my Swedish pal, I hope that Sam and her dog do well; there are few things more heartbreaking than having such a talented dog blighted by this disease. However, the purpose of field trials has always been to find the best dogs in order to improve the breed. Should the KC exclude from trials dogs that have tested positive for certain diseases, such as PRA? Perhaps infected dogs should be allowed to compete in trials, but not qualify for the Championship?
It is a difficult and controversial subject, especially as there?s no current requirement for triallers to have their dogs health-tested.

You can email David at [email protected]