Sound in wind and limb – what do we mean by “sound”?

 Recently, I’ve been having conversations about what is meant by “soundness” in dogs. These were prompted by an invitation I received to make a presentation on achievements in soundness in various breeds over the last 10 years.

For many dog show exhibitors and judges, there is a narrow definition of soundness which refers to movement. For example; “Even movement with a regular cadence or footfall, not favouring one limb”. That’s certainly the way I originally thought about soundness when I started judging. A paper I found from 1983 says “the soundest dog is the one that moves with the least amount of effort”.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) provides a glossary of canine terms which defines soundness as “The state of mental and physical health when all organs and faculties are complete and functioning normally, each in its rightful relation to the other”. They have a slightly different definition in an article on judging which says “soundness must include having in good working order all the parts that are needed for that particular breed’s function”. This clearly links soundness to the dog’s function. The article also says that soundness is breed-specific and related to breed type. 

In his presentation to the 2015 International Dog Health Workshop, Göran Bodegård (SKK) discussed the Nordic Countries’ “Breed Specific Instructions” and said BSI was “aimed at increasing judges’ (and breeders’!) awareness of breed specific anatomical “areas of risks” which can cause unsoundness and deterioration of function and health”. He further said: “The new perspective is to primarily focus the breed specific anatomical characteristics which in themselves contain a potential risk for unsoundness and lack of health if exaggerated”. The introduction to the 2018 edition of the Nordic Kennel Union’s BSI document, states: “The dog show judge has an excellent opportunity to prevent unsound breeding by avoiding giving high awards, and instead merit the specimen with the optimal combination of breed type and soundness”. “The primary task of a dog show judge is to preserve the characteristics of each breed within the frames of the approved breed standard. This must, however, never be done at the expense of soundness”.

Here, in the UK, the introductory paragraph to every Breed Standard says “Absolute soundness is essential” but there is no definition of “soundness” and the introduction goes on to state: “Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed”. Judges awarding Challenge Certificates have to sign the CC to confirm that “Having assessed the dogs and penalised any features or exaggerations which I consider detrimental to their soundness, health or welfare, I am clearly of the opinion that (name of dog) is of such outstanding merit as to be worthy of the title of champion”. You could be forgiven for concluding from this that soundness is something different from health or welfare. I think it’s probably simpler to remember that a dog that has obvious (visible or audible) health or welfare issues cannot be considered to be sound. The horse world talks about animals that are in good physical condition being “sound in wind and limb”.

The challenge for judges

The challenge for judges is to find and award dogs that are both sound and typical. This, of course, means there are 3 other possible situations that judges may come across and therefore penalise: sound but untypical, unsound but typical, and if you’re really unlucky: unsound and untypical.

We actually have a well-established system for defining risks that might adversely impact a dog’s soundness. It’s the Breed Watch system with the 3 categories and clear criteria for visible points of concern. The KC isn’t asking judges to act as veterinary surgeons or to make a diagnosis of a dog’s health. The KC has highlighted a number of breeds as Category 3 breeds on Breed Watch, as these breeds have been considered to be more susceptible to developing specific health conditions associated with exaggerated conformation; in particular problems that involve the eyes, skin, dentition, movement and breathing. Since 2014, all judges at championship shows have had the opportunity to report on any visible conditions or exaggerations that they consider to be detrimental to the health and welfare of dogs.

Interestingly, the points of concern listed in Breed Watch go beyond pure matters of health. For some breeds, they include aspects of the Breed Standard such as excessive hind angulation, incorrect coat texture, and inappropriate temperament  These points are, I suspect, partly to do with recognising dogs that aren’t typical but also potential early warnings about future health issues. The concept of Tipping Points is one I have written about previously. There comes a point where an exaggeration moves from being a feature that has appeared in a breed to one where there are genuine health issues and a dog could then be described as being unsound.

The 5 Freedoms help define soundness

Many Kennel Clubs use phrases like “Fit for function” and “Form follows function”. However, there are breeds where their original function is either no longer allowed or it is no longer relevant. The function of the vast majority of dogs today is to be a companion. Should we therefore define soundness as meaning fit for life? If we do, then the 5 Freedoms from the Animal Welfare act 2006 would be a good starting point for a clear definition of the criteria against which we judge soundness. In particular, the 5th Freedom is an animal’s need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

If judges and breeders started from the perspective of that 5th Freedom, they would recognise that it has to be a dog first, then considered as a member of its breed. In some cases, being “typical” of its breed might actually be an indication that a dog is inherently unsound (not fit for life). That’s the issue I discussed previously on the conclusions being drawn in the various VetCompass papers on brachycephalic breeds. If a dog isn’t sound, it then doesn’t matter how typical it is of its breed.  

I’ll end with a quote from one of David Cavill’s blogs on soundness: “none of this is rocket science once one’s head has been raised from the sand”.


Are we missing some dog health quick wins?

Since December 2021, the VetCompass team, led by Dr Dan O’Neill, has published 3 open access papers that discuss the health of French Bulldogs, Pugs and Bulldogs. The first of these – French Bulldogs differ to other dogs in the UK in propensity for many common disorders – said that “the health of French Bulldogs is shown to have diverged substantially from the wider non-French Bulldog dog population”. In the second paper – Health of Pug dogs in the UK: disorder predispositions and protections – it was concluded that “the Pug has diverged substantially from mainstream dog breeds and can no longer be considered as a typical dog from a health perspective”. Most recently, – English Bulldogs in the UK: a VetCompass study of their disorder predispositions and protections – concluded that “the health and welfare of English Bulldog is heavily compromised”.

All 3 of these papers attracted attention in the national media (press and TV) as well as widespread discussion on social media. The Pug paper probably generated the most hotly debated publicity because of the choice of words “can no longer be considered as a typical dog”. Needless to say, views on social media tended to be polarised along the lines Kevin Colwill described in his commentary on the recent online discussion between Ante Lučin and Jemima Harrison. To paraphrase, Kevin said one group could relate to the sensibilities of the human end of the show lead, while the other group related more to the dog end of the lead.

There were clearly concerns among the pedigree dog (show/breeder) community that the first 2 papers were published with no advance warning given and no attempt to engage with breed clubs to manage the communication of the results. It also looked like the Kennel Club was on the back foot with these 2 papers and had to play catch-up in responding to the press. Thankfully, a more collaborative approach was taken with the Bulldog paper so that the KC and Bulldog Breed Council were made aware of the impending publication and had an opportunity to develop a more proactive response.

A different tone

I also think there was a significantly different tone to the Bulldog paper and that was largely due to the inclusion of a significant and useful historical context for the breed. I’m sure this was attributable to Dr Alison Skipper who was one of the co-authors. As well as being a veterinary surgeon, Alison describes herself as a veterinary historian and is one of the KC’s vets at Crufts. 

The paper says “during the 1890s, the combined influences of the breed standard and show-ring fashion drove a dramatic physical transformation of the Bulldog”. Additionally, “While these historical accounts are inevitably subjective, lack quantitative data and are largely grounded in superseded understandings of pathology, they nevertheless demonstrate that, over a century ago, the (English) Bulldog was already showing a variety of health problems that correlate with those still reported in the breed today, and that, even then, Bulldogs were widely considered less robust than many other breeds”.

One of the positive aspects of this historical perspective is that the breed changed dramatically in a short space of time which suggests it would be possible to do the same again and create the more moderate phenotype that the paper argues for (and the same applies to French Bulldogs and Pugs).

Visits to the vet

It’s worth remembering that the source data for these VetCompass papers are details of visits to a vet, recorded on electronic patient records. So, while the focus of each of the 3 papers I discussed above is on the differences in health between these brachycephalic breeds and “all other dogs”, we can also learn more about why these dogs visited the vet.

For Pugs, the top 5 reasons, accounting for 43% of cases were: Obesity, Otitis Externa, Overgrown Nails, Anal Sac Impaction and Periodontal Disease. For French Bulldogs, the top 5 (33%) were: Otitis Externa, BOAS, Anal Sac Impaction, Diarrhoea and Overgrown Nails. For Bulldogs, the top 5 (36%) were: Otitis Externa, Obesity, Overgrown Nails, Skin Fold Dermatitis and Prolapsed Nictitating Membrane Gland (Cherry Eye).

It is interesting to compare these 3 breeds’ Top 5 with the data for the other dogs used as a baseline comparison in the 3 papers. Periodontal Disease is number 1 (13%), followed by Otitis Externa (7%), Obesity (7%), Overgrown Nails (6%) and Anal Sac Impaction (5%). In other words, more than a third of the vet visits were associated with what most of us would describe as husbandry issues and that picture is not much different from the 3 brachycephalic breeds profiled. One of my veterinary friends commented: “obesity predisposes to anal gland impaction and fat dogs often don’t exercise and wear down their claws”. Another reminder of the importance of systems thinking!

It makes me wonder if we and the vets are missing a trick when it comes to providing “health advice” to buyers and owners of dogs. Thinking of my own breed, our Dachshund Health UK website does have a section on caring for your dog. This includes advice on body condition and grooming which addresses 4 of the top 5 common reasons for a visit to the vet. I do think we could be much more proactive with this advice and make greater use of our social media channels to get these messages out, particularly to new owners. A couple of years ago, we commissioned pictures of Dachshunds to illustrate a bespoke Body Condition Score chart, so we have very clear advice on the evidence of obesity (or undernourishment). Breed clubs need to be proactive in helping people to be “good owners”.

A role for breed clubs

It’s not just the Pug, French Bulldog and Bulldog clubs that are defending their breeds by highlighting the problems of breeders outside the show community and outside the KC registration system. This is an issue that, potentially, applies across many breeds because the UK dog population data tells us that there are at least as many unregistered “pedigree” dogs as KC-registered ones.

There is an opportunity for breed clubs to engage with many more owners than just those in the show community. By doing this, breed clubs can collect data on health issues and offer advice on husbandry to the widest possible group of owners. If we only engage and collect data from the show community, we have absolutely no evidence to support the assertion that our dogs are healthier than everyone else’s. We have to be inclusive, not elitist, if we are truly interested in preserving our breeds and improving their health and welfare for future generations.

Puppy buyers: mismatched expectations?

IMG_2281On the day the UK Covid-19 lockdown was announced, I wrote a Friday Essay for Our Dogs describing some of the potential unanticipated consequences of the pandemic and the government’s response to it. I asked, “what do we think will happen to the current trend in declining registrations of pedigree dogs?”. Even at that point in the pandemic, there was emerging evidence that puppy enquiries were booming and that seems to have continued. Breed Club Secretaries that I have spoken with have seen a massive increase in the number of enquiries. As a consequence, the Kennel Club has been busy providing advice for buyers and breeders to try to head off some of the potential problems that might arise. One of the concerns is that, once life returns to some semblance of normality, many of those dogs may be surrendered to rescue organisations.

We have known for a long time that there is a group of buyers that do virtually no research and appear to buy on impulse. A KC survey in 2017 showed that 1 in 5 people admitted they spent no time researching where to buy a puppy. More than one-third of respondents (34 per cent) admitted they were clueless about how to find a reputable breeder for their puppy and were therefore vulnerable to the scams that should ring alarm bells. Choosing a puppy took 36 per cent of people in the survey 20 minutes or less! It would be surprising if much has changed since 2017 and, with so many people having “time on their hands”, the temptation to buy a puppy on impulse is probably much greater.

Those of you who read my “Best of Health” articles (thank you!), will know that one of my recurring messages is that addressing canine health and welfare problems is actually a human behaviour change (HBC) issue, rather than a veterinary or scientific one. Unless breeders, buyers and owners (and a few others) change their behaviour, we will continue to see dogs suffering.

How hard can a puppy really be?

I’ve recently been speaking with Justine Williams who launched the Our Family Dog website last year. She’s also interested in human behaviour change and has been applying some of the HBC principles and tools in the design and content of her website and a support forum. Her blog recently featured an article titled: “How hard can a puppy really be?” where she describes the mismatch between the expectations and reality of owning a puppy. She says: “The reality of what new puppy owners have let themselves in for only hits home as the sleepless nights, piles of poo and puddles of pee on the carpet, and having to be on puppy watch 24/7, begin to take their toll”.

An Open Access paper published at the end of April discusses some long-term research into the dog-owner relationship. It found that how owners’ expectations and beliefs changed over time depended on whether they had experience with dogs (owning a dog presently, in the past, or never). In the first six months of ownership, especially for people with no prior experience with dogs, the owners had to adapt their expectations and beliefs. In the subsequent year, only a few differences based on dog ownership history were found. 

Who are the puppy buyers?

A recent study by a marketing communications company, Pegasus, identified 4 core pet owner “behaviour types”:

  • The Nerdie Newbie – New and eager young pet owners who want to be the best owner they can be. They are proactive in safeguarding the health and wellbeing for their pet
  • The Selfie Sidekick – Pet owners who see their pet as part of their lifestyle aesthetic. Likely to refer to their pet as their “fur baby”, they place higher importance on the appearance of their pet over its health and wellbeing
  • The Good Companion – Older, more experienced pet owners who love and value their pet as another member of the family; health and wellbeing is an absolute priority for their pet and they have an established, organised routine 
  • The Practical Caretaker – Pet owners who don’t “anthropomorphise” their pets. Pragmatic in their care, they understand their pet has different health and wellbeing needs to themselves but could have a more reactive approach to health and care

Research by the KC has also identified different buyer profiles and this highlighted attitudes to dog health, in particular. 

Hit the “panic button”

Justine, at Our Family Dog, has identified 4 key buyer/owner problem behaviours which she has mapped to the early stages of the dog ownership journey. The behaviours are:

  • People launch into getting a puppy without any preparation
  • People make impulse buying decisions
  • New puppy owners ‘panic’ and access poor quality information on puppy care during the early weeks (8-12)
  • People use unqualified trainers, feed the wrong diet and leave dogs alone for too long (from 12 weeks onwards)

When I was speaking with her, I suggested there must be something we can learn from the challenges faced by first-time human parents. She agreed and said there’s a lot of HBC thinking behind organisations such as NCT (National Childbirth Trust) where, for example, they have resources to support the first 1000 days (from pregnancy to a child’s 2nd birthday). The peer-support offered through Mumsnet is another example. Our Family Dog has worked hard to collect stories from new dog owners and these help other new owners to realise that a puppy is hard work and it’s perfectly normal to panic or despair. 

Thinking about the dog ownership journey as a series of discrete stages is a really helpful way of identifying the problem behaviours that owners make and for developing practical tools and tips to get them through to the next stage.

The reality is that it’s extremely hard to overcome the impulse-buyer problem but we can make sure that good quality advice and support is available when novice owners “hit the panic button”. 

[Justine Williams’ blog post is here:]

The Dachshund Breed Council’s Advice for Buyers and Tips for New Owners


Breeders, the good, the bad and the future

Question: What’s the definition of a Puppy Farmer? Answer: Anyone who breeds more litters than you do!

The problem with the Puppy Farmer label is that it’s laden with emotion and it’s a term that gets used to brand some breeders who clearly aren’t farming puppies with little regard to their welfare, socialisation or the homes they go to.

As part of our Dachshund Health Committee, we have 3 Pet Advisors. These are experienced owners who are not involved in breed club committees and who don’t show their dogs. They are all experienced owners and their role is to offer advice and support to people thinking of buying a Dachshund and to those who may be new to the breed. Needless to say, they spend lots of their time answering fairly basic questions on the numerous Facebook Dachshund Groups.

Recently, we have been discussing how we can improve the advice we give to potential owners so they can find the most reputable breeders possible. This is particularly important in the case of Mini Smooth Dachshunds where we have seen demand for the breed grow exponentially in the past 4 years. Demand far outstrips supply and, even with the growth in availability of KC Registered dogs, there is a booming market for imports which are often brought into the UK illegally. 

We have, therefore, been trying to categorise the different types of breeder so that potential buyers can look out for warning signs and make more informed decisions. We ended up with an infographic describing 4 types of breeder.

Large Commercial Breeders: They are characterised as ‘high volume; low welfare’ and would typically fit the Puppy Farmer label. Breeding puppies is purely a business. They typically have multiple breeds for sale and advertise regularly online. Bitches are bred from continually throughout their lives, producing puppies that are either sold on-site or via dog dealers. Their puppies generally do not receive adequate healthcare and most receive little human interaction or socialisation. The problem for puppy buyers is that their adverts often look highly credible to novice buyers and puppies may actually be “sold” from a network of respectable-looking premises. The recent case of more than 100 Dachshunds seized in raids across the North-West of England is a topical example of this sort of breeding operation. Hopefully, Lucy’s Law will make life more difficult for this type of breeder but it wouldn’t be surprising if they find a way round it.

Hobby Breeders: These are ‘low volume; experienced’ breeders. They have extensive knowledge of their breed and are up-to-date on the latest health and genetics information. They are likely to be involved in some type of dog activity such as showing, working or obedience. They carefully vet their potential puppy buyers and will usually provide a lifetime of support to their puppy owners. They understand how to rear puppies well and often act as mentors for newcomers to their breed who want to begin breeding. While the term Hobby Breeder may seem to imply ‘amateur’, these breeders are most certainly not amateurs and take their responsibility for their dogs and the future of their breed seriously. Since the introduction of the Dog Breeding Licensing legislation last year, many of these breeders will almost certainly not be having more than 1 or 2 litters per year in order not to require a breeding license. Recent figures from the KC suggest 81% of breeders who register puppies with the KC only breed 1 litter per year.

Professional Breeders: These are ‘experienced breeders running legitimate businesses’. Similar to hobby breeders, they breed more often, with more dogs and are, invariably, licensed by their local authority. They usually show their dogs and may have a grooming or kennel business associated with their breeding business. They may own several breeds and will be very knowledgeable about all of these. Their puppies will be well-reared and will usually have a lifetime guarantee of support. A recent comment in Our Dogs said that these breeders are often frowned upon because of the number of puppies they breed and that this is a misguided attitude. These professional breeders fill a genuine market demand for good quality puppies. Without them, that demand would invariably be filled by puppy farmers.

We struggled to come up with a suitable name for the fourth type of breeder. “Backyard Breeder” seemed too derogatory and didn’t really describe this group, so we ended up with “I’m not (really) a Breeder”. These people breed few litters and have little knowledge or experience. They may be producing puppies for the right or the wrong reasons and everyone has to start somewhere. If it’s their first litter, they may have little or no knowledge or experience of breeding but they may have the support of an experienced mentor who has helped them choose a suitable stud dog. Alternatively, they might just have used a dog down the road, with little thought. If they have bred ‘to make money’, ‘because it would be nice for Daisy to have pups” or “they have friends who have told them they should”, then buyers should think carefully before committing to buy. 

In an ideal world, we would want to encourage more Hobby Breeders because the demand for well-bred KC registered pedigree dogs outstrips supply. Existing Hobby Breeders should be encouraging their puppy buyers to get involved in KC activities, for example, training via the Good Citizen Dog Scheme, and to consider breeding from their dog when it is old enough. Discouraging them from showing or breeding (e.g. with endorsements) simply makes it more difficult for us to bring on the next generation of pedigree dog enthusiasts. Hobby Breeders and Professional Breeders should be helping the “I’m not (really) a breeder” to learn more about their breed and about breeding. Breed Councils and Clubs can do the same. That’s why the Dachshund Breed Council is developing a set of resources for potential breeders. We want to see more, better-bred Dachshunds and fewer puppy-farmed or poorly-bred ones available. It’s also why our Pet Advisors are so important in helping potential buyers decide if a Dachshund is the right breed for them and how to find a really good breeder of KC registered puppies. 

Our challenge is to convert the “I’m not (really) a breeder” people into “Hobby Breeders” who will help secure the future of our breeds.