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Companion Animal: Education can only help pets and owners

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It never fails to amaze me that, for something which encompasses such a large part of our lives—our pets—how little reliable educational material is available for the average pet owner to educate themselves. It is unfortunate that television shows featuring “pet experts” are almost exclusively geared toward entertainment rather than useful education. Today the news is full of information concerning scams perpetrated on folks just seeking to buy a family pet. It is buyer-beware when picking out that doggie in the window.

 In the 1950s and ’60s, when the popularity of purebred dogs soared due to increased post-war prosperity, there was a large increase in dog shows and in the dog clubs responsible for putting the shows on. These dog clubs could be breed specific or encompass “all breeds,” and clubs dedicated to the obedience training of any type of dog became popular. At monthly meetings, guest speakers were commonly veterinarians, breeders, groomers, or trainers, and they would speak on various topics upon which they were knowledgeable. These meetings were generally open to the general public.

Today dog shows are declining in number and size, and dog clubs are few and far between. The most common, the American Kennel Club’s all breed clubs, have as their “reason for being” the supporting and execution of annual or semi-annual dog shows each year. The problem with this is, the average pet owner has no interest in listening to plans about an upcoming dog show or sitting through meetings where members discuss their dog’s most recent show ring wins.

American pet owners would be well served if local dog and cat clubs would dedicate more time and energy into public outreach. These meetings could feature “meet the breed” discussions, allowing breeders to showcase their favorite dog or cat breeds, veterinarians discussing topics of local interest, nutritional experts discussing the feeding of pets, discussions on pet insurance options, and trainers discussing common training issues.

The closest all-breed dog club for those of us in Goldendale is the Yakima Valley Kennel Club (, which is an active club with quite a bit of interface with the community. They hold “beauty-based” dog shows as well as obedience and agility trials. There is an obedience trial scheduled for May 15 and 16 at Fulbright Park in Union Gap. Consider taking the kids to watch the dogs being put through complex obedience routines. (Take folding chairs and cold drinks but leave Fido at home).

The Yakima Kennel Club is active year-round, holding health clinics open to the public where dogs can be screened for diseases. This is not only necessary for responsible breeders who want to clear their breeding dogs from any genetic diseases but can help pet owners catch certain diseases early enough to allow beneficial treatment to prolong life. Members also raise money to help support local animal shelters and the Yakima County Sheriff’s office K9 unit.

Along with all-breed clubs, you can also locate breed-specific clubs dedicated to individual breeds. Example, there is an Eastern Washington German Shepherd Dog Club. With COVID slowly but surely being controlled, more and more events will be held, and summer is a great time to spend some time boning up on dogs, their behavior, their health, and their training.

Public education about canine breeding, health, nutrition, and behavior is an important subject to me. As an animal control officer, too often I saw how lack of even the most basic information concerning dogs or cats could negatively impact the animal, its owners, and even the community.

This week while waiting outside my veterinarian’s office, I observed a couple walking a young Australian shepherd dog along the river walk. It was a pretty dog, about five months old and pure white. The pup was reluctant to walk and stood, looking uncomfortable, squinting to the point her eyes were almost shut. The pup showed no reaction the approach from the rear of a woman walking a terrier. I noticed the dog’s nose was pink, and suddenly I knew what the problem was.

“Can your dog hear OK?” I asked.

“We don’t think so; that is why we’re here. She can’t hear pots and pans banged behind her head.”

I felt sudden real anger toward those who had produced this pup. It took the deliberate breeding of two merle-colored Australian shepherds together—something no ethical breeder would ever consider—to result in this genetic disaster.

You have probably seen red or blue “merle” Australian shepherds, or the striking merle great Dane, dogs with blue and black splotches of color. Several dog breeds come in merle, such as Dachshunds, collies, shelties, and Catahoula “leopard” dogs. With mixed breed “designer mutts” being popular right now, there has a been a trend to mix a breed with the merle gene with a breed known to not have the merle pattern. This has resulted in crossbred dogs being marketed as “rare” merle “purebreds.” This includes merle French bulldogs, Boston terriers, bulldogs, poodles, chihuahuas, American pit bulls—all breeds in which the merle pattern is not found in purebred specimens.

However, that beautiful coat pattern (it’s a pattern, not a color) comes with a terrible risk: if unethical breeders mate two merle dogs together, depending on how the genes align, there is a chance of so-called “double merles” being born. These animals are so significantly handicapped by the double dose of merle genes that their quality of life if very questionable. So serious are the sensory, neurological, and immunological challenges faced by double merle dogs that the British Kennel Club (KC) banned the breeding of two merles together.

The folks with the “albino” Australian shepherd pup had been sold a dog which is for all intents and purposes blind when outside—the eyes are so sensitive to sunlight they can barely open them when outside. Most “double merles” have significant hearing loss all the way to total deafness. For those dogs living in the country, this can be a death sentence, as the dogs cannot see or hear approaching vehicles.

The fact is, whoever bred this pup probably knew the risk of breeding two merles together but felt that it was worth it to go ahead and sell the striking looking dogs as “rare albinos” without a thought to the reduced quality of life of the dogs and the added work, worry, and heartache of their owners. It is just this type of unfortunate situation that increased education about pets could work to avoid.