What is the Code of Ethics?

Every Kennel Club registered breed club has to have a Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics covers a range of behaviours and standards that the club and the Kennel Club expect from members. Some of this is generic and dictated by the Kennel Club and some is breed specific and generated within the club but the Kennel expects these sections to be put in place. The full CoE can be found in the Club section of this web site but this page of our web site seeks to enlarge on the significant parts of the Code of Ethics which are concerned with breed health and specifically conditions with hereditary influences causing their appearance in our breed. This means the CoE has a vital part to play in breed health and it may be helpful to expand the relevant sections in this area of our web site. This is a vital area for all breed clubs and finding an acceptable balance between feasible, realistic advice and idealistic, utopian demands is an ever present conflict.

We have to accept that, just like humans, no dog is genetically perfect and will pass on some good characteristics and some not so good features to it’s offspring. As a responsible club the club has to give some advice to it’s members and express a position on where it stands on the relevant issues of dealing with the most common and impactful adverse hereditary features that apply to our breed.

Current Relevance and use

Periodically this advice may have to change in light of developments both within the breed such as changes in genetic knowledge and capability or new diseases and conditions emerging or maybe administrative requirements from the wider world, such as legal changes as with the 2018 Animal Welfare Act reforms or changes in Kennel Club requirements or expectations on clubs. The club has to respond to changes in the world we exist and go forward in and not the world of previous years and occasional updates are essential to keep the CoE relevant and meaningful. The breed specific parts of the CoE have to be in alignment with any other KC breed advice, Assured Breeder Scheme advice and the BHCP.

The Code of Ethics is not only advice to breeding members but could also

  • be used by potential newcomers to the breed and puppy buyers researching advice on what to look for and therefore what questions to ask potential puppy suppliers.
  • be used by existing owners for knowledge of health conditions by looking at what conditions the breed club chooses to comment on and take action upon.
  • be looked at by vets for information or others doing research into the breed.
  • be taken as a good indication of the club’s overall attitude to breed health
  • be used as a benchmark in any legal action involving a Bernese breeder and the club could in essence become the ‘expert witness’ to assist with judgement in a legal process.
  • feed into Kennel Club policy for our breed.
  • influence other clubs either via members or via the Breed Council.

Who Decides?

Just to be clear, the club’s position is decided in discussion at AGMs and any member is able to attend and express a point of view. This will be initiated by a proposal put forward by any club member which is always circulated to all members in advance of the meeting and this may be modified at the meeting by amendments before being passed or voted against. It is a discussion based, democratic process and not, as is sometimes expressed, dictated by the committee or any individuals. Of course, just how wide a democratic process depends on the interest of the membership and how many attend and take part in the AGM. As in the wider world, democracy puts a responsibility on those it serves to get involved and engage in the process if they want processes to reflect their opinions. Even after being agreed by an AGM, changes cannot come into effect until approved by the Kennel Club.

 

Section by Section

This article seeks to expand on the areas of the Code or Ethics that give any health guidance and give the rationale behind the wording. Hopefully this will help some people understand that the overall motive is the improvement of the breed and the Code is not just a mechanism for the club to impose itself for the sake of it on it’s members. Much of this is addressed to breeders but other groups have a part to play in this as well. The heading numbers given are the CoE clause numbers for reference.

“6] (members….) Will agree not to breed from a dog or bitch which could be in any way harmful to the dog or to the breed.”

This is in the compulsory Kennel Club dictated section of the Code and should go without saying really for most people but what does ‘to the breed’ mean when applied to an individual dog or mating? It is an accepted and obvious principle that what helps an individual breeder’s lines become healthier helps the breed by improving the percentage of the breed that is healthier. Breeders help the breed by helping themselves, breeding healthy dogs helps the breed. Every dog bred with a better chance of being healthier than the previous generation is an improvement for the breed. If breeders choose not to engage with a particular aspect of health then the breed becomes poorer in that aspect.

 

“15] Breeders will breed with due attention to general health issues and the most relevant aspects of the Bernese Mountain Dog. This is with particular emphasis to:”

This is the introduction line to section 15, which is the most breed specific section of the CoE health advice, especially section 15.2.

“15.1] WELFARE AND PRACTICE

Breeders should

a] Endeavour to ensure all stock to be bred from is free from contagious disease.”

Like some other sections this is a fairy obvious statement to make. Mating activity exposes dogs and bitches to the risk of infection and sometimes breeders and stud dog owners have been known to insist on forthcoming partners for their dogs having a course of antibiotics prior to mating. In the increasingly climate of knowledge of the consequences of overuse of antibiotics this is a less likely occurrence than ever now and sometimes a swab and screening process is requested instead. General good health is always a good sign and this is the only requirement for many people. As well as the risks between sexual partners some diseases can be contagious to any subsequent puppies so it is important to only breed from healthy dogs.

 

“b] Not allow puppies to go to their new homes before 8 weeks of age and microchip them prior to this.”

This is influenced more by mental rather than physical health as puppies that leave their mothers and siblings too early can be damaged by the experience and lack confidence in their characters.

Whilst not especially a health issue it is perhaps worth noting that the Animal Welfare Act reforms of 2018 actually require breeders to not only microchip and register puppies but to re-register them prior to sale in the name of the new owners.

“c] Ensure that nervous or aggressive Bernese shall not be bred from. The club encourages all breeders to complete a Character Assessment on their Breeding Stock, and to seriously consider the merits of using an animal in their breeding programme who does not hold a grading of pass or above.”

This clause reflects a concern expressed regularly at AGM discussions over the years that breeders need to seriously consider temperament as well as the physical aspects of any proposed breeding combination. At times too many puppies appear nervous and lacking in the confident and friendly Bernese character. Of course there are many environmental factors to any puppy’s ultimate temperament and, particularly in the early months, management is crucial but these are sometimes used as excuses when there is clearly an hereditary influence at play. Hereditary temperament is maybe the single biggest factor to consider in any breeding decision or puppy purchase and I think sometimes it may be taken for granted. The club makes Character Assessment by an independent (non BMD) assessor available to all members at every Garden Party and really encourages people to undertake this for all breeding animals.

 

“d] Refrain from whelping with a bitch until she is approximately 24 months of age, ensure no bitch shall be bred from in any way that is deleterious to the bitch or the breed and that the last litter shall be whelped before the bitch’s 7th birthday and the bitch’s first litter shall be before her 5th birthday”

Clearly this is about the welfare of the bitch and ensuring she is not used for breeding whilst still developing. Just because a bitch is physically capable of conception and subsequent development of puppies does not mean she is old enough to undertake this without potential consequences to her own development. Bernese do not finish skeletal development until perhaps 15 months and will continue to develop for perhaps another year or so to even begin to reach something like their final appearance. Even then they will continue to mature until perhaps 4 or 5 years old. Whilst there is an old suggestion that a bitch needs a litter to mature properly, often used as an excuse to mate pet bitches, those that are bred too early do not reach their full potential of size or shape and can be damaged by the experience.

 

“e] Ensure that stud dogs are over 12 months of age before being used at stud and not used excessively. The use of a stud dog shall be refused on any bitch considered to have poor health, temperament or quality.”

This clause is concerned with the welfare of the dog and the bitch but places responsibility on the stud dog owner for both. Excessive use of stud dogs is a potential disaster for the breed. If a stud dog is used extensively and then dies of an hereditary disease, what impact does that leave on the breed. Indeed, in some countries use of stud dogs is regulated to prevent this and studs can only have a limited amount of use. This helps ensure genetic diversity. KC figures show that our breed in the UK does have a problem with ‘popular sires’ as the following extract from the KC research within our BHCP shows

“…… A longer ‘tail’ on the distribution of progeny per sire is indicative of ‘popular sires’ (few sires with a very large number of offspring, known to be a major contributor to a high rate of inbreeding). There appears to be extensive use of popular dogs as sires in this breed”

Whilst our breed has a decent CoEfficient of Inbreeding this is an average figure comprised of some very high figures from close matings and use of popular sires and some extremely low ones when people use overseas sires for example.

So, one important health message from this clause is definitely for the breed to not make excessive use of any stud dog and, as the Code says, breeders should be cognisant of the inbreeding co-efficient of any proposed mating. For UK based dogs this is normally easy to check on the KC web site.

“f] Ensure that Bernese Mountain Dog puppies are only bred from Kennel Club, or other KC recognised Kennel Club, registered BMD parents.”

The purpose of this clause is to protect the breed and pure breeding. Only registered puppies are from known parentage and definite BMD backgrounds. Kennel Clubs can only accept registrations from officially registered parents otherwise their whole raison d’etre is pointless. The registration system is the pillar of the established dog world as without it there is no record and no basis to all the breeding we do.

“15.2] DEALING WITH SPECIFIC HEREDITARY CONDITIONS

All breeding must be carefully planned in an attempt to reduce conditions known to be hereditary or have hereditary influences, in the Bernese Mountain Dog such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, Systemic Histiocytosis, DM, ectropian/entropian, ‘trembler’ and elongated soft palate.”

This is the introductory line to 15.2 which is the disease specific section of the CoE and therefore the most impactful and important area. Some of the conditions mentioned are dealt with separately in the subsequent clauses but “ectropian/entropian, ‘trembler’ and elongated soft palate” are not referred to again.

 

Ectropian and Entropian are painful conditions of the eyes in which the eyelids turn in or out. Whilst some forms can be caused by other problems, in the adult dog most incidences are known to be strongly hereditary and fortunately only heard of occasionally in Bernese. Sadly, some other breeds have much bigger problems with these conditions, especially the heavy faced breeds. Whilst they can usually be successfully fixed with surgery these have been almost eliminated with good practice in the past so it would be irresponsible to breed with affected dogs and invite the problem back into the breed.

 

“Trembler’ or to give it it’s correct name ‘Hypomyelinogenisis’ was a condition that appeared in uniquely in Bernese around 1987 although there are several similar conditions in other breeds. It manifested very early, almost always whilst the puppy was still with the breeder and was a problem with the formation of the insulating material, myelin, around the central nervous system, This effectively caused a permanent short circuit and affected dogs muscles constantly trembled or vibrated. It was quickly identified to be caused by a single genetic mutation in an influential imported stud dog from the seventies and most stud dogs calculated to be carriers were withdrawn from use. The problem quickly disappeared from public notice although there were anecdotal stories of instances popping up for several years. Fortunately the breed’s swift action at the time seemed to nip this issue in the bud before it became more widespread. Breeders of the nineties onwards certainly owe a debt to the sacrifices made by the owners of popular dogs who withdrew them at the time for the betterment of the breed as Trembler is something we have to think about nowadays.

‘Elongated soft palate’ is another condition that breeders do not really have to think about today and I don’t believe it was ever a massive problem in our breed. As suggested the roof of the affected puppy’s mouth does not form properly giving problems in suckling and usually the problem would lead to early euthanasia but milder cases may be persevered with. Again there is a strong hereditary influence and any dogs surviving to adulthood should not be used for breeding.

Although not especially problematic today, these conditions have been left in the Code of Ethics as a reminder to breeders that we can never get too complacent about anything and should never forget the lessons and the good work completed in the past.

Specifically:-

a] All breeding stock must be x-rayed for evidence of hip dysplasia and the plates should ideally be submitted to the KC/BVA scoring scheme. Results from any other equivalent officially recognised Kennel Club overseas scheme will be acceptable for dogs born and reared overseas. Breeders shall treat mild cases as they would any other fault and exclude from their breeding programme dogs with more severe evidence of hip dysplasia or with a poor EBV rating for hips dysplasia.

 

b] All breeding stock must be x-rayed for evidence of elbow dysplasia and the plates should ideally be submitted to the KC/BVA scoring scheme. Results from any other equivalent officially recognised Kennel Club overseas scheme will be acceptable for dogs born and reared overseas. Breeders shall treat mild cases as they would any other fault and exclude from their breeding programme dogs with more severe evidence of elbow dysplasia or with a poor EBV rating for elbow dysplasia.

In terms of principle, application and meaning the Hip and Elbow processes can be dealt with together. The wording is the same for each scheme and expectations are identical. Many years ago the word ‘must’ was introduced meaning that members are required to X ray all breeding stock for, ideally, the KC/BVA hip and elbow dysplasia schemes. Virtually all breeders do hip score but for some reason a few of these do not elbow score. All club members should be Hip AND Elbow scoring all their dogs used for breeding. Bernese have a particular problem with ‘Elbows’ and due to this were the pioneer breed in the UK for elbow grading having our own scheme which became the BVA scheme.

 

However, there are no specific guidelines set as to scores that can or cannot be used for breeding. A proposal to introduce such a limit to Elbow scoring was discussed at the club 2019 AGM but this was defeated by the vote with numerous reasons being given on both sides of the debate.

 

In 2013 a club SGM was held purely to discuss the principle of introducing some kinds of standards to health scoring relating to aspects of breeding such as hips and elbows but the general principle was defeated before any detailed discussion of how to do this could take place.

 

The lack of specific criteria to conform to within the Code of Ethics is often given as a weakness of the system, this is also a comment made frequently against the KC Assured Breeder scheme. This aspect is discussed further down this page (at 15.3)

 

 

c] All breeding stock should be tested and awarded a Systemic Histiocytosis grading under the scheme developed by the University of Rennes and offered by Antagene. Breeders should follow official advice regarding breeding combinations.

This clause was one of several forming a revision of this entire area of the Code of Ethics in 2018. ‘Histio’ is our single most serious health issue and the introduction of this clause reflects progress being made in the fight against the disease. There is plenty of information on this web site in a dedicated section covering ‘Histio’ so this is only a short summary of the ethos followed here. ‘Histio’ is a disease with a genetic influence, therefore it can be positively affected by breeding practises and it’s spread across the breed can be reduced. There is a genetic test to guide the breeding choices needed and the breed should use the test to fight back against this disease. The club therefore encourages breeders to utilise the test to reduce this cancer’s devastating effect on our beautiful breed. The test is revolutionary and different to all other genetic tests and at the forefront of genetic developments and needs to be understood and applied in a different way to previous tests but it is essential for our breed that it is supported.

Regarding “official advice” in this area from February 2019 this drastically changed with the introduction of HSIMS, which can be read about elsewhere on this web site. Whatever the status of their bitch, breeders should use HSIMS to find a stud dog that maximises their production of A index dogs and minimises the number of C index dogs.

 

d] All breeding stock should be tested, either directly or by parentage for Degenerative Myelopathy and mating choices should ensure not to create any affected dogs, i.e. each combination should include a clear dog.

Whilst there is an constant debate about how serious DM is for our breed as a whole with some people saying it does not occur often enough to be a serious issue, it is devastating for dogs when it does strike. Again there is a separate section covering this on this web site so this is only a quick summary. The dog, usually of an older age, typically 6 or 7 years and older, will slowly lose the use of their rear legs and lower body control with double incontinence being a further symptom. Some owners choose to help their dogs out with little trolleys supporting their rears for a while but the decline continues to increase until the time comes to say goodbye. There are a relatively low number of cases with typically just 2 or 3 % of reported deaths due to DM across the Bernese World but the point is there does not have to be any. There is a straightforward genetic test for this disease, well actually two tests for our breed, which can show the, ‘clear’, ‘carrier’ or ‘at risk’ status of any breeding dog or bitch. If breeders simply ensure each mating combination has at least one clear dog then the condition will never be produced in any of the puppies from that mating, the worst that will be produced is a carrier. Surely it is common sense for breeders to not produce a disease that can be eliminated so the club encourages this as a standard.

 

e] Due consideration should be given to the KC Coefficient of Inbreeding when planning matings and ideally CoI ratings should not exceed twice the breed average.

The dangers of ‘close breeding’ have long been known through the centuries and modern genetic knowledge has discovered that the dangers of poor genetic diversity for breeds are more serious than was ever understood before. As already discussed (15.1.e above) our breed does have a lot of popular sires, this is not anecdotal or opinion but factual from a geneticist’s analysis of KC records. We have a decent breed average CoEfficient of Inbreeding but this is composed of two areas of extremes with lots of close breeding being balanced out by lots of unrelated dogs being used, usually from overseas. The guide figure of twice breed average is only given as a rough guide to focus on. However, many would consider this very generous as the Animal Welfare Act for example specifies no more than breed average. The club felt it was time to mention this factor in it’s guidance to breeders especially as it is really easy to check the CoI of any proposed mating on the KC web site as long as you have a (free) MyKC account which all breeders should really have as it gives easy access to much of the information required to confirm with the Code of Ethics and for research.

15.3] It is accepted that in any single breeding it is virtually impossible to completely comply with all of the advice points following testing raised in 15.2. This makes the setting of meaningful standards of test results impractical. However, for each mating responsible breeders should assess and address their own priorities and needs, as well as those of the breed, and all of the above specific areas should be considered.

This statement was added in recognition of the difficulties in complying with all the above points and is a very important principle to understand. As well as all the general considerations such as character, type, construction general health and longevity etc the club now expects or requires breeders to consider 5 different specific areas relating to health. Namely hips, elbows, ‘Histio’ DM and CoI. Whilst it would be nice to think there were lots of dogs that would help a breeder’s bitch in all of these, in reality such a perfect dog will not exist. It will be an impossible dream. So, in recognition of this the Code of Ethics does not set any standards in relation to the results of any considerations or scoring. The CoE sets out areas it wishes breeders to consider but puts the responsibility for prioritising these depending on the strong and weaker areas of their breeding animal, squarely back with the breeder.

 

For example a breeder may have a bitch to mate with …….

An average hip score, say 5:6=11 with corresponding middle grade EBVs

Clear 0/0 elbows

DM SOD1A Carrier

DM SOD1B Clear

Histio Index C

CoI of 6%

Working to the principles of the Code, in terms of health this breeder should probably be prioritising

1] looking on HSIMS for a stud dog that will minimise the numbers of Index C puppies

2] ensuring this stud dog is DM SOD1A Clear so as not to produce any offspring at risk of DM

3] furthermore try to ensure this stud dog does not make the CoI and higher as it is already above breed average.

4] try to ensure this stud dog is not too weak on hips

Even only thinking about these few categories of health, let alone other health areas on top of other vital areas such as temperament, type, soundness, conformation etc it soon becomes clear how difficult this will be and compromises will have to be made but hopefully this explains how difficult it would be for the club to set rigid criteria in any category. This is why each mating has to be the breeder’s responsibility.

Code has to engage with the relevant areas.

As advice from a BMD breed club the Code of Ethics has to refer to breed relevant areas and not shy away from raising them but it also has to be realistic and recognise it is not feasible to set rigid criteria in all of these areas but encourage breeders to engage with all the important issues. As far as the club is concerned a good responsible breeder will consider all relevant areas in a correct and appropriate manner and then make a considered choice about breeding partner’s for their breeding bitches.

 

Contrary to what some people seem to think the Code is NOT saying to breeders that they HAVE to prioritise ‘Histio’ testing or only accept a certain level of Inbreeding or must not go beyond a certain hip score etc. It is not saying that ‘Histio’ testing is the absolute only thing to consider, this would be ridiculous. To put things coarsely it is no use breeding a dog that will never develop DM if it has a high chance of dying from cancer before it gets to the susceptible age for DM. Equally it is not good breeding Bernese with improved outlooks for cancer if they do not look and behave like Bernese or suffer pain and infirmity due to poor hips or elbows. Many people would say that at this moment in the breed’s development ‘Histio’ is a massive problem and therefore should be given some increased emphasis in the decision process but all aspects of breeding still need to be considered against each other for every potential combination and an informed balanced decision taken.

 

It is about saying breeders must make considered informed choices and then take responsibility for them. The fact the club does not set specific criteria in any area should not be interpreted as saying these areas are not important nor that the club agrees that people are free to go as excessively high in scores as they can. Each area must be balanced up against others for every individual proposed mating and an informed evidence based decision made with a full understanding of the compromises and potential issues arising from these fully understood.

 

The Code is saying that club members breeding Bernese Mountain Dogs should be properly considering these areas with appropriate test results and making responsible decisions they would be prepared to explain and justify if challenged. It does not seek to tell breeders what to do but to clarify the breed issues they should be considering.

 

Breed Enquirers

Those enquiring about the breed for the first time and undertaking research will often look at the Code of Ethics for information. By including the above factors in the Code of Ethics the club is highlighting these as areas that responsible breeders should be considering and therefore informed puppy enquirers should be asking about. You cannot expect perfect answers in all areas and of course no breeder will ever tell you that they do not breed for health but in asking specific questions and considering the responses you will get a good impression about how high a priority health is for any breeder. Remember sometimes there is not a right and wrong answer but the fact breeders have an answer in each area is a good thing. “I don’t need to bother with that, it’s not necessary” is not a response that should fill you with confidence if you are asking about DM or cancer testing for example.

 

Traditionally for many years the health questions enquirers have been encouraged to ask about have just been hips and elbows but nowadays the above issues mean that enquirers should having some discussion with the breeder about DM screening, ‘Histio’ test and inbreeding. However careful they might be no breeder can give any absolute guarantees about the health of any puppy but you should be satisfied that your breeder has made informed decisions about all these aspects. They may have to concentrate in one or two areas and compromise a little in others, every mating will have stronger more likely safe areas and probably those with a little more risk.

 

You will not find anyone prepared to guarantee you a puppy with clear hips and elbows, DM clear, ‘Histio’ index A and with a low co-efficient of inbreeding – as well as a good outlook for everything else you need to consider. Good responsible breeders will still be using and producing Index C dogs, sometime poorer hip and elbow scores but there is no real excuse for breeding DM At Risk dogs or high Coefficient of Inbreeding dogs as these things are completely controllable. You should talk to the breeder and decide the likely outcome of these things for your puppy. Do not expect to get everything as good as it can be in any puppy, that is unrealistic at this time but if everyone works to the guidance in the Code of Ethics then things will improve for our breed and the outlook for any individual puppy will improve.

 

Whether you are an existing or previous owner, or a new to the breed enquirer, when asking the right questions of breeders when looking for a puppy you have a part to play in the process by encouraging breeders to engage in these important areas. Breeders who do not engage in the ‘Histio’ test for example and mate completely ‘blind’ with unknown status dog and bitch might be producing a litter with an abundance of Index A dogs with a low chance of developing our biggest cancer but this is unlikely. In the UK the most likely outcome is that they are mating a ‘C’ to a ‘C’ and have a high chance of producing a big majority of dogs with poor outlooks in this respect. Breeders are free to do this and you are free to buy their puppies but do so from an informed position and don’t get surprised later.

 

Owners

Owners of Bernese Mountain Dogs still have a responsibility to the breed expressed in the Code of Ethics. The Code asks members to contribute to various health initiatives such as the Death Survey and whilst there is no absolutely pressure health test for hips, elbows, DM or Histio some owners do these things because they feel it is helpful to the breed’s bank of information.

 

Any owners that decide to breed any litter with their bitch become a breeder and should be considering all the things that the Code requests as discussed above. All breeders need to be responsible breeders whether they have one litter in a lifetime or litters every year. Being infrequent breeders or only claiming to be breeding ‘pets’ does not absolve you from responsibility.

 

Summary

All members be they owners, breeders or even future owners of the breed have a responsibility to ‘do the right thing’ for the breed. Good responsible behaviour and practises will not happen by accident, it needs to be worked at and persisted with. The first part of this is deciding what ‘doing the right thing’ actually consists of and this is where the Code of Ethics comes in. This article is only about the health aspects of it but there is much more than this within it that applies to all of us, so, please have a look at it because as a member you should be aware of it and how it might affect you.