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 just because some people would rather not but it also has to be realistic and recognise it is not feasible to set rigid criteria in all of these areas.
The UK system places all responsibility for decisions on breeders, in some countries the club has breeding committees that have to approve matings or individual dogs before they can legitimately be used. In the UK the club’s role is to provide information and guidance but not impose regulations, the breeders therefore has to accept this responsibility and take full responsibility for their decisions. Therefore, the club via the Code of Ethics, should encourage breeders to engage with all the important issues in what ever way is appropriate to their own breeding lines. 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 and balanced choice about breeding partner’s for their breeding bitches in order to improve the breed.
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 or elbow score etc. It is not saying that ‘Histio’ testing for example 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 cancers if they do not look and behave like Bernese or suffer pain and infirmity due to avoidable 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. ‘Aspects of breeding’ include much more than health tests or temperament or conformation or size or coat or markings etc etc. All factors of the breed have to be taken into consideration and the Code of Ethics or any other responsible health advice is never about saying health should take absolute precedence over everything else. It is an important part and some aspects of it may need some priority in certain cases to reduce the chance of problems but the whole dog has to be taken into account. Some health tests, and indeed some aspects of size can be put into numbers and are clearly visible to everyone but that does not make them more important than the less quantifiable factors.
Recommending health testing is saying breeders must make considered informed choices based on evidence 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 club has no powers to compel anyone so all responsibility is with breeders.
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 and making informed choices about.
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. Another point to make is that parental scores are not the only factor to consider, sometimes the background has an informative role as well. We are dealing with mother nature here and not a computer controlled production line. There are many possible variables and for Hips, elbows and ‘Histio’ testing the parental scoring is a guide to expectations and not a definitive prediction. Sometimes against all the good practice something can go awry in a single dog in a litter, this may be a throwback to something well back in the pedigree that has skipped a generation or two or so it may be considered as nature having a laugh at the breeder’s expense. Either way the dog’s background may give an idea as to how reliable the unexpected result can be judged to reproduce in further puppies from that dog. We do not have the luxury of being able to automatically discard dogs with lots of virtues for one single negative indicator. This is where breeder’s judgement comes in and enquirers may not fully understand the issues but need to assure themselves that their breeders are likely to be making good choices and not persisting with lines that others might be discarding from breeding programmes.
Just about every breeder (of any breed) will tell enquirers that they are breeding for health if they are asked but sadly this is not always the case so the buyer has to be informed to know the right questions to ask and how to assess the responses. Even with all the health testing in place there can be few absolute guarantees about anything such are the vagaries of nature. DM status can be definite as can CoEfficient of Inbreeding but everything else can only be a matter of improving the odds in your favour.
This is why you will not find anyone prepared to guarantee you a puppy with clear hips and elbows, ‘Histio’ index A – as well as a good outlook for everything else you need to consider. Good responsible breeders will still be using and producing Histio 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 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 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 to 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 becomes 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 several litters every year. Being infrequent breeders or claiming to only be breeding ‘pets’ does not absolve you from responsibility.
All club 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, encouraged and supported as it can involve difficult decisions and compromises. 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 concerned with 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.