No one I knew wanted to attend the two-day meeting on purebred dog breeding with me. Because the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was sponsoring the conference, the potential for a high prevalence of less-than-purebred-dog-friendly attitudes kept them all at arm’s length.

Yet one look at the diverse lineup of presenters convinced me otherwise. Check it out:

  • Welcoming remarks: Andrew Rowan, PhD (HSUS)
  • Context and unifying principles: Science & Policy: Bernard Unti, PhD (HSUS)
  • Problems of dog-breeding and what to do about them (Keynote): Professor Sir Patrick Bateson (Cambridge University, Zoological Society of London)
  • Breed risks for disease in purebred dogs: Brenda Bonnett, BSc, DVM, PhD (Morris Animal Health Foundation)
  • Efficacy of hip dysplasia screening: An animal welfare imperative: Gail K. Smith, VMD, PhD (UPenn, PennHIP)
  • Brachycephalic airway syndrome: Etiology, treatment, and prevention: John R. Lewis, VMD, FAVD, DAVDC (UPenn)
  • The RSPCA report on purebred dog breeding: Conformational selection and inbreeding in dog breeds: David R. Sargan, MA, PhD (RSPCA)
  • Canine Genetics, Behavior and the role of the parent club: Patricia H. Haines, DVM (AKC)
  • Canine behavioral genetics: State of the art: Linda van den Berg, PhD (Dutch geneticist)
  • Unintended consequences of breeding for conformation: Owner-directed aggression in English Springer Spaniels: Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB (UPenn)
  • Concluding remarks: James A. Serpell, PhD (Geneticist, UPenn)
  • Pedigree Dogs Exposed: The Aftermath: Jemima Harrison, Producer (journalist)
  • Ethical issues related to selective breeding in dogs: Randall Lockwood, PhD (ASPCA)
  • The development of dog breeds: Why and how people breed dogs: Frances O. Smith, DVM, PhD (AKC, OFA, private theriogenology practice)
  • The impact of puppy mills on the welfare of purebred dogs: Frank McMillan, DVM, ACVIM (Best Friends Animal Rescue)
  • Closing remarks: Steve Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB (ASPCA)

(Check out their bios if you like, here, or via the link above.)

Still, it could have gone way wrong. I mean, when you get the AKC, HSUS, AVMA, ASPCA, UKC, RSPCA, AHA, breeders, vet behaviorists, trainers, wolf researchers, epidemiologists, geneticists, ethologists, pitbull advocates, controversial filmmakers, theriogenologists and journalists all together in one room, the combo could be explosive … or not … because sometimes people rise to the occasion.

It all depends on the tone and tenor of the discussion, which in this case happened to prove mostly non-acrimonious, incredibly informative, and overall, highly productive.

Sure, half the room was packed with well-comported foreigners (Brits, Canadians and Swedes), but even we outspoken Americans behaved better than I might have expected, save a few unnamed outliers I’m happy to say got put in their place by the end of the meeting. (Some people just can’t be enticed into playing well with others. Big egos, you know?)

Between the luxe vegan meals and the free flow of wine after hours, this was a relatively intimate meeting designed to put people at ease and get to know one another. Only 100 or so attendees made it to the conference, but their pedigrees were impressive.

But it wasn’t really so much about the who as it was about the dogs. That’s what really stood out. This wasn’t a conference that came down hard on breeders and the AKC, as might have been expected from a HSUS-sponsored event. Instead, it reached out across the uncomfortable divide and asked everyone to come together for the love of dogs.

Here are the questions the conference effectively asked and answered:

  • What’s happening to our purebred dogs?
  • What statistical evidence do we have to show for it?
  • What are the genetic underpinning of unwanted traits?
  • How can we use our knowledge of epidemiology and genetics to effect a change in these animals?
  • What are different stakeholders’ perceptions of the purebred paradox? (AKC vs. HSUS vs. AVMA vs. ASPCA, etc.)

These questions, however, were asked … but not so easily answered:

  • How do we arrive at a consensus about what the science shows? (Everyone at the conference, for example, agreed that having a high inbreeding coefficient was a bad thing, but some folks felt inbreeding was still acceptable/necessary under certain conditions.)
  • Does it really matter so much if we continue to disagree on these points as long as we agree on the big ones?
  • What additional science is required to help bring about greater clarity?
  • Who’s responsible for the bulk of the problem? (Puppy millers/pet shops? Ignorant backyard breeders? Delusional show breeders/judges? Consumers?)
  • Who should be the target of our efforts to improve the health and welfare of these animals? (Breeders? Veterinarians? Buyers?)
  • How do we get the message across?

Tough questions indeed, most of which hung in the air at the end with a promise to continue the discussion via the Facebook page and a purebred dog conference in Sweden next year featuring many of the same players. (Sweden in June? Twist my arm...)

The thing that stood out, however, was the fact that there was no storming, no raging, minimal divisiveness and a tolerance for differing points of view. Even where there was strong disagreement (and there was, to be sure), the overriding sentiment goes like this: "I may disagree with you violently, but that doesn’t mean I won’t work with you to get things done for our dogs."

Refreshing. Truly. Which to a large degree, I will credit HSUS chief medical officer Andrew Rowan for. In his opening remarks, Dr. Rowan acknowledged the diversity in the room, the polarizing nature of the issues involved, the passion with which most of us approached it, and yet the pressing need to mine the middle ground in this debate.

Ah, the middle ground. After a couple of days of talking purebred dogs, their genetics, perceptions, pits and puppy mills, it seemed more like we’d dissected it. But then, that’s exactly what any good conference is for.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: love my betsy by Valerie Reneé