Omerta: The Breeders' Code of Silence

Originally published in The Canine Chronicle - April, 2004
“© 2004 Sierra Milton, Stormsong. 
Please contact the author at sierra.milton@ntlworld.com  with comments and for permission to reprint.”


What do most modern-day breeders and the Mafia have in common? What
a strange question, you may say. It is, sadly though, a very real
commonality. The answer is simply what Padgett, a well-known
geneticist refers to as the "Code of Silence" for breeders and
perhaps more commonly discussed as "omerta" for the Costa Nostra.
Both are deadly silences. It's easy to understand the reasons for
the conspiracy of silence when it refers to criminals, but what
reasons can a breeder possibly have for maintaining "omerta"?

The reason most often given for not sharing genetic information is
the fear of being made the object of a "witch hunt." It lies much
deeper though. It begins with ownership and the human need to see
what one owns as being the best. Remember the "keeping up with the
Jones" mentality? Everyone wants the very best and the accolade of
owning the best. Admitting that what one owns or has bred may have
faults is difficult for most people. Also at fault is the huge
financial and emotional investment that breeders have in their dogs.
Discovering that there may be defects in the sires and dams that
breeders have so much of themselves invested in becomes frightening
and causes many to refuse to even contemplate that their dogs may
possess defective genes. Egos and fear of being labeled "poor
breeders" are ultimately the reasons for breeders maintaining this
detrimental code of silence.

Even more dangerous than the Code of Silence though is the refusal
to contemplate defective genes may exist within a breeding program
and be present for generations, quietly meshing through many
bloodlines before manifesting itself. Could it be possible that dogs
which appear healthy can actually be spreading dangerous, sometimes
lethal genes throughout the breed community until finally two
healthy, but gene-defective carriers combine to produce that first
tell-tale affected offspring?

Of course it is and time and again the geneticists tell us how this
is possible.

Simplistically, breeders cannot see defective genes and what they
don't see must not exist. Therefore using that logic, all the
untested dogs must be as beautifully healthy inside as they are
structurally beautiful outside. If only that logic were true!
Unfortunately, far more emphasis is placed upon structural and
superficial beauty simply because it is something that is easily
seen, acknowledged and obtained. It's also something without
any "unnecessary" financial investments. One doesn't need to pay for
x-rays or blood tests or specialists' knowledge in order to evaluate
how a dog conforms to a physical standard.

The real danger, though, comes not from those dogs who are tested,
but from those breeders who keep their heads in the sand and refuse
to believe that their dogs could be less than 'perfect'. We can
begin to fix that which we reveal, but that which remains hidden is
a threat to the future. But here omerta, that "Code of Silence" is
very evident. Not only do these breeders hold fast to the belief
that their dogs are untainted by defective genes, structural defects
or temperament problems, but they also believe that no dog that they
choose to bring into their breeding program through mating with
their dogs could possibly be carriers either. After all, they
only "breed to the best," and of course, that best just has to be
perfect.

Now the truly criminal act occurs. These breeders are quite often
very successful in the show ring; their dogs are thought to be the
best – after all, they have ribbons and placings and titles to prove
how worthy their dogs are! Because of their show ring success, they
are seen as breed authorities, people that newcomers to the breed
trust for knowledge and information. And the information these
newcomers get is that there are no genetic problems to be concerned
with, no need to do that "expensive testing when the dogs are all
healthy." Even more disastrous to the breed's future is that these
breeders' attitudes begin to prevail. The newcomers see the success
of these breeders' dogs and buy them (even though few, if any, have
had even the most rudimentary testing for structural faults, poor
health or defective genes). The newcomers then have a financial and
emotional investment to protect which begins to spread this
attitude, with predictable results. Soon, because these breeders are
the "powers" within the breed (quite often judges, people selected
to discuss the breed at seminars, breeders who command respective
prices for puppies and stud fees, breeders seen winning), they use
this "power" to ensure that it becomes unethical to discuss any
defects, in either health or temperament, found in any of the
pedigrees of their sires, dams or progeny of their sires or dams.
All too often one hears "I don't dare say anything if I want to win"
or "there are three lines with epilepsy (or heart or eye or pick a
health problem), but you don't need to know about them." Of course
we need to know about them, how else are we to make intelligent
decisions about which dogs would best benefit the future we plan for
our dogs unless we consider not only the structural beauty, but also
the hidden genetics that we are attempting to also improve?

What about the breeders who openly discuss the defects found in
their own dogs? Unfortunately, they are all too often labeled
as "poor breeders" and their dogs said to be "defective". They are
shunned and spoken of in whispers and sneers. The very fact that
these breeders are striving to share knowledge openly and to
scientifically test their dogs make these breeders the subject of
witch hunts by the very people who are either too cheap, too
unconcerned, too egotistical, too uncaring about the future to even
test their dogs, much less have the courage to honestly discuss
their dogs. Instead of applauding these breeders who choose to share
information, these breeders become shunned and hounded. As a result,
and because human nature makes us want to be part of a group instead
of outside the group, breeders begin to do what they do best – they
maintain silence and lie or refuse to admit what they do know.

As more and more newcomers join a breed and inexperienced breeders
and exhibitors all jump on the bandwagon of showing, owning and
practicing the art of breeding, they turn to the breeders who are
winning, equating winning with superior quality dogs. The breeders
are, therefore, more determined to have nothing bad revealed about
any of their dogs, further establishing in their minds the
perfection of the dogs they breed and further increasing the
financial and emotional investment that they have in perpetuating
this theory. Winning in the show ring has nothing to do with genetic
health. Indeed, a number of the winning dogs are carriers of genetic
disorders at the least and, in some instances, are known to have
genetic health disorders. While a genetic disorder itself, depending
upon type and severity, should never preclude the dog from the
genetic pool, it is absolutely mandatory that people be aware of any
area of concern in order to breed intelligently. At the very least,
the dogs that the dog is bred to must be tested and their
backgrounds looked at carefully to limit the possibility of
affecting more dogs or making more dogs carriers of the disorder.
Yet, because the winners don't want to be labeled as "poor
breeders" and lose the accolade of being the best (as well as the
possible financial loss in not being able to sell puppies or stud
fees at as high a price), the "Code of Silence" becomes even more
firmly embraced.

The newcomers, because they want to be accepted, avoid talking about
the sires and dams that produce poorly, whether it is structure,
health or temperament problems. Also, they too now have a financial
and emotional investment in addition to wanting to be accepted into
the "winners club." They may even recognize trends in one or more
lines in their own pedigrees, but refuse to acknowledge these trends
and keep them secret for fear of being labeled.

Often, the breeders, while not openly acknowledging that there are
any problems, will attempt to dilute the possibility of the disorder
rearing its head by out-breeding to another totally different line.
Dr. Jerold Bell, a well-known geneticist, has this to say about this
method: "Repeated out-breeding to attempt to dilute detrimental
recessive genes is not a desirable method of genetic disease
control. Recessive genes cannot be diluted; they are either present
or not. Out-breeding carriers multiples and further spreads the
defective gene(s) in the gene pool. If a dog is a known carrier or
has high carrier risk through pedigree analysis, it can be retired
from breeding, and replaced with one or two quality offspring. Those
offspring should be bred, and replaced with quality offspring of
their own, with the hope of losing the defective gene."

Unfortunately, refusing to acknowledge or test for genetic disorders
doesn't make them go away. What we can't see still has a huge impact
on the breed and continuing to breed these carriers of defective
genes allows the defect to take a firmer hold in the breed. Those
breeders who try very hard to breed healthy dogs and take every
scientific precaution to ensure genetic health are shunned for the
very passion that should be applauded; the efforts they take are
trivialized at best and more often ridiculed as "unnecessary"
or "fear-mongering. " As a result, these breeders work alone and,
outside of their own kennel, their efforts make little impact on the
breed as a whole.

Omerta can only be broken by people who have the courage, conviction
and passion to ensure that the breed as a whole becomes stronger and
healthier. Instead of witch hunts for those who have the heartache
of dealing with the problems, the goal of applauding those with the
courage and determination to speak out openly should be taken up by
every breed club in every country. Awards in addition to those given
to breeders who have the most winning dogs should be given to those
breeders who work tirelessly to improve the breed. Prettiness and
beauty doesn't improve a breed; genetic health and the ability to
live a pain-free, healthy life far surpass beauty, but are more
difficult to obtain.

The cost of genetic testing is not high when one looks at the
effects that refusing to test may have on the breed. Ask any
knowledgeable breeder whose breed has rampant heart, blood disorder,
eye or hip problems whether they blame the lack of foresight and the
refusal of past breeders in making a further financial investment in
the breed for the almost insurmountable problems now and the answer
is predictable. In the UK, it is possible to do testing by certified
specialists for hip, elbow, eye, heart, blood, immune disorders for
around a total investment of £295.00 (far less in the United
States), less than a cost of a puppy or a stud fee. It's possible t o
do far less testing, but at what cost? Will the breed suffer from
heart problems in the future because a simple £7.50 stethoscope test
(done through one of the breed-sponsored heart clinics, in this case
the Boxer) was not important at the time? Will the breed be faced
with trying to eradicate blindness years from now because a £16.00
eye exam (done through one of the many eye clinics held each month
or free if done at Crufts dog show at the clinic they hold each
year) was thought unwarranted? Will the descendants be filled with
pain from bad hips and/or elbows because the breed moved well in the
show ring and didn't look dysplastic to the naked eye? (X-rays
necessary for hip and elbow evaluations are the most expensive
testing at a cost of approximately £110 for hips and an additional
£80 for elbows when done with the hips; unfortunately it takes six
different films to evaluate elbows and the cost reflects the number
of films necessary.) Testing for things such as von Willebrand's
Disease (vWD) and thyroid testing (immune system) can be done
inexpensively as blood tests at perhaps £30 and £50 each. Granted,
testing for these genetic disorders won't guarantee that a problem
won't occur in future breedings, but testing will greatly reduce the
chances of problems and that is a good place to start.

If a breeder cannot provide proof in the form of veterinarian- issued
certificates or reports that genetic testing has been done, the
buyer should be aware that they purchase at their own risk! Caveat
emptor! Breeders may claim that their dogs have never limped or that
there is no need to do any testing because the breed is healthy.
Some may even claim that their veterinarians have said that genetic
testing was unnecessary. Those stances are irresponsible. Once
again, genes are not visible and carriers of defective genes may
themselves appear healthy to the naked eye. It is only with testing
that we really know whether our dogs are affected or not and only
then with honest evaluation of pedigrees having tested or affected
dogs that the potentiality for carriers are realized.

What can we do to break the deadly Code of Silence? The majority, if
not all, breed clubs have a code of ethics that require members to
breed healthy dogs. One of the places to start is with the clubs.
Instead of being social institutions or "good ole boy" clubs, these
breed organizations could begin upholding the very real goal of
protecting the future of the breed by demanding and requiring that
genetic testing be undertaken prior to breeding. Far more serious
than breeding a sixteen-month old bitch is the practice of breeding
without taking every possible safeguard that genetic health is a
priority. Yet, in many clubs "poor breeders" are identified by the
age at which they breed or the frequency in which they breed rather
than the very real criteria that proof of health be mandatory. Take
the emphasis off winning – how many clubs determine "breeder of the
year" based on the number of progeny that wins? Are there clubs that
actually require that the breeder also must show proof that they are
doing all they can do to ensure the future of the breed?

We can break the silence by commending those with the courage and
determination to talk about problems, share successes and knowledge
instead of ostracizing them. Omerta fails if every puppy buyer and
stud dog user demands that proof of genetic testing is shown. The
Code of Silence fails when we realize that it is not enough to breed
winning dogs or to command the highest price for puppies or to have
a stud dog that is used fifty, sixty, a hundred times; we must take
back the passion with which we all first embraced our breeds and
passionately work with determination toward a future where the
numbers of genetic disorders are reduced each year.

If those you know breed without testing, ask yourself why – is it
lack of courage in perhaps finding a carrier within their breeding
stock? Is it because they fear a financial loss if they test? Is it
because they truly believe that their dogs couldn't possibly be less
than perfect? Is it because they fear they will lose their "top
breeder" standing if they admit that there are problems that need
working on? Is it because they fear that it will be harder to breed
beautiful and healthy dogs? Or have they lost the passion with which
they first loved the breed while they were climbing the road to
winning success? Or, more sadly, is it because they really just
don't care about that which they cannot actually see?

It's hard work and takes great courage to develop a breeding program
using scientific methods and tests, but the hope of a better future
should drive us all to that very commitment. The key is being able
to work together without fear of whispers or silence. Omerta, the
code of silence, can be broken if more of us decide that we are not
going to tolerate the quiet any longer.

 “© 2004 Sierra Milton, Stormsong. 
Please contact the author at sierra.milton@ntlworld.com  with comments and for permission to reprint.”

 

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