An Open Letter To American Spaniel Club 
All Concerned Cocker Spaniel Breeders & Owners

I agree with Connie, anything to do with Cockers affects all of us and should be open for discussion.  ASC is supposed to represent the breed, not themselves.  ASC members account for a miniscule number of registered Cocker Spaniels.  The fact that they restrict membership and keep a stranglehold on this breed's parent club should be acknowledged as the embarrassment it is.  ASC needs to get over themselves and realize that being a member should a right for ALL breed enthusiasts, not a priviledge for the chosen few.  Nor should membership be construed to give the few the right to dictate to the many.  As for the cross-posting to the show list, what are ASC members afraid of?  This was not made public.  It was posted ONLY to members of the breed community, people who will all be affected by any decisions made by ASC.  If your little made up scientific study and the presidents comments can't stand the light of day, then why would they be worth using to determine the course of this breed?  If you are afraid for such to be seen, discussed and evaluated by the rest of the breed community, then one can only assume that you don't have much confidence in the findings and/or the leadership of ASC. 

Unfortunately, I can undertstand not having much faith in ASC.  I have repeatedly seen ASC publish mis-information and gossip about merles as fact. I can see how this must be confusing for club members who believe the ASC is all-knowing and trustworthy as a source for information on our breed. However, common sense must prompt true breed enthusiasts to do their own research and to study genetics, inheritance and our breed as a whole (not just the last 10 years!) so that they can make intelligent decisions regarding their dogs. I do not understand why so many ASC members buy into a few people's interpretation of our breed standard and follow this with no independent thought for themselves.

I was appalled to see the ASC president send out a "scientific" study that purported to give a description of the merle coat pattern, but which actually described the ROAN pattern. How is this possible? How can anyone trust ASC to make appropriate decisions regarding merles when they cannot even identify the pattern correctly? Why would anyone believe anything that ASC has to say regarding merles when they distribute incorrect information that leads their members to believe that merles (which cannot show), have the same coat pattern as a legal show pattern that has been in this breed since before they were a breed?   ASC only adds to the confusion and controversy by incorrectly identifying the pattern they claim to have done a "scientific" study on.  (In a side note here, I must also point out that despite being informed repeatedly that merle is a PATTERN affecting any COLOR dog, ASC continues to refer to merle as a color.)

After acknowledging that there is ample evidence to believe that the merle pattern in Cockers is the result of a naturally-occurring mutation, the ASC then adds to their "scientific" findings that some "individuals" have "theorized" that the merle pattern was introduced into our breed by a cross-breeding with an Australian Shepherd. How is this a scientific finding?? I know for a fact that there is NO evidence to support that there was EVER a cross-breeding which resulted in today's merle Cocker Spaniels! (Connie will support this as SHE is the one that talked to the old breeders and then gave her information to Jeff Wright and the ASC!) The "new" information just put out by ASC and their president contained numerous other mistakes and incorrect information, the totality of which throws ALL of their conclusions and proposed solutions into question. I'm afraid I just do not understand how ASC members do not see all of these inconsistencies as the warning flags they are. There have been numerous merle discussions on the internet and elsewhere over the years and the correct information is readily available to those that make the slightest effort to find it.  So can someone please tell me why it is that ASC members do not seem to be able to weed through the trash to the truth??

I've noted additional inconsistencies and incorrect information included in ASC's "scientific" study and proposed solutions below:

   1. ASC uses the merle study at Texas A&M to try to convince us that ALL merles, of all breeds are the same.  This is FALSE.  Each breed has different incidences of merle-related disease and defects, just as they do with "normal" breed health issues (like dysplasia, cataracts, PRA, etc.). 

      To support this statement: 

      From AKC Canine Health Foundation at the following links:

      "There are approximately 85 dog breeds with reported congenital deafness. Some of these breeds are more susceptible to deafness than others".

      "Anyone who is creating a good breeding program should test their dogs for the specific diseases that may be present in that breed."

      Additionally, Dr. Strain states:

      "Since not all breeds carrying the merle gene experience the deleterious effects, it is incautious to proclaim that the presence of this pattern in a breed will be injurious to the breed.."

      and " must be careful to not raise alarms at the presence of merle in a breed until experience shows that a true problem exists." 

      Cocker Spaniel DNA from 18 dogs (mostly merles) was submitted to A & M for the merle study.  The results of the Cocker Spaniel testing were NOT included in the study results.   Additionally, when DNA merle testing was done by ASC on merle Cockers, they had inconsistent results - double (homozygous) merles tested as single (heterozygous) merle or non-merle and single (heterozygous) merles tested as non-merle.  Obviously, merle Cocker Spaniels are NOT just like all other merle dogs! There is also on-going debate relating to the accuracy of studies purporting to have determined the percentage of puppies at risk of merle-related defects.  I have included information and a link below from Dr. Strain's article on the merle poms site.  He makes some interesting observations about the merle deafness studies in German merle Dachshunds:

      From the above:

      "Current work in our and other laboratories and the experiences of  many breeders have shown that the actions of merle have usually been over-stated. Reetz et al.4 reported hearing results for 38 dachshunds (Tekels in German): 11 double merles, 19 single merles, and 8 non-merles. They found hearing loss – slight to total, unilateral or bilateral – in 54.6% of double merles, in 36.8% of single merles, and in none of the non-merles. Hearing was tested using the brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER), determining the threshold to click stimuli under sedation. Any threshold above 20 dB was considered to be abnormal, not because that is an accepted standard, but because one of their non-merle dogs had a 20 dB hearing threshold. Only one dog – a double merle male – was totally deaf in both ears (threshold > 90 dB) and none of the dogs were totally deaf in only one ear (unilaterally deaf). Looked at this way, true bilateral deafness occurred in 9.1% (1/11) of the double merles and 0% of the single merles.

      How can the reported hearing loss in the remaining single and double merles be explained? The pigment-associated deafness seen with the piebald and merle patterns typically presents as total deafness in one or both ears, based on all of the histological studies that have been reported, so the partial hearing loss reported by Reetz is not likely to be genetic and associated with the merle gene. Instead, it most likely reflects a combination of poor aural hygiene (dirty ear canals), middle ear infections, and noise-induced hearing trauma. The noise level in institutional kennels is notoriously high, and exposure to high noise levels produces cumulative hearing loss. Dogs in large kennels also usually do not receive regular ear cleaning, leading to build up of excess cerumen and infections, both of which muffle the sound reaching the inner ear. Interestingly, of the 15 “hearing impaired” ears with thresholds between 25 and 50 dB, only 3 were in males. Perhaps differences in kennel housing for females exposed them to greater noise levels in the whelping kennels. Regardless, the hearing loss reported in these dachshunds that can be attributed to a genetic cause is much lower than stated in the published English abstract of this German publication."

      On a personal note, I have only produced one deaf dog (that I know of) in my thirty years of breeding Cockers.  This deaf dog is NOT a merle and has NO merle in her pedigree.  Her deafness is a result of the piebald (extreme white) gene.  She is Champion sired (I do not own the sire), from a dog that has produced numerous Champions and that is NOT known to have produced other hearing impaired dogs.  Her dam is from other well-known show lines (not mine) that are also NOT known to have produced hearing impaired puppies.  The deaf dog was born almost white and had 2 litter-mates that were also nearly white.  This litter was produced by a saddle-backed parti bitch who was out of moderate-to-heavily marked parti parents.  The sire was moderately marked and he is out of a solid dog and an open-marked, half-faced bitch.  There are NO other known extreme-white puppies from any of the dogs in this pedigree.   Does anyone think the dogs in this pedigree should be z-listed since they obviously carry a hidden gene that can cause deafness??

      I included the story above as I have seen and heard Cocker Breeders express concern related to merle being a potential health risk due to our breed already having the piebald gene.  According to Dr. Strain, this is not a legitimate concern.  Dr. Strain states "There is no evidence to suggest that dogs carrying both the piebald and merle genes have an increased likelihood of deafness. 
The entire article at the previous link is well worth reading as is Dr. Strain's more scientific, "Prevalence of Deafness in Dogs Heterozygous or Homozygous for the Merle Allele"

   2. The merle pattern - Merles do NOT have intermingled colored and white hairs!  Roans have intermingled colored and white coat.  A merle can be any color, or combination of colors and patterns, with or without areas of white.  The merle pattern does not prevent any color or pattern from being expressed on the dog.  Merles can be tan-pointed and may also exhibit the sable gene, the roan gene or a combination of other patterns.  Merles can be identified by the dilute areas in their colored coat.  A merle will have normal areas of colored coat with splotchy or patchy areas of diluted coat.  (Often compared to the effect bleach has if thrown on a dark material.) Merle diluted areas of coat can vary widely in coloring (there can be more than one shade on the same dog), but merle markings are always patches of diluted coat not colored areas mixed with white.  On a black based dog, merled areas of the coat may be silvery blue to brownish black.  On a brown dog the merled coat may be a silvery fawn to light brown.  On a red or buff based dog, merled coat will appear as silvery cream or blonde.  Only the colored areas of a dog are affected by the merle pattern.  Areas of white are not affected by the merle pattern.  Tan-points occassionally show some merling but are not generally affected by the merle pattern.  Merles may also have partial or full blue eyes.  One or both eyes may be blue or partially blue.  The merle pattern may be hidden by the sable and roan patterns as a dog ages but is generally visible at birth.  Merle may be difficult to identify on buff dogs, but is usually visible at birth or may be identified later if the buff dog has blue in it's eye(s).  Merles may also exhibit what are known as "butterfly" noses - random areas of pink pigment on an otherwise dark pigmented nose.  In RARE cases, a merle dog may exhibit little or no areas of merling, making it hard to identify the dog as a merle. (Maybe just a chip of blue in an eye or a small merle spot in an inconspicuous area.)  True cryptic merles (homozygous merles with no merle markings) are RARE and do NOT reproduce the merle pattern.  According to Dr. Strain, "Some merle-merle breedings produce homozygous merles called cryptic because they don't show the merle phenotype, and when bred they do not produce any merle offspring."  Breeders must strive to indentify merles at or shortly after birth as this is when merle coat markings are most visible.  Closely checking eye color in bright light when puppies are 8 weeks of age is also vital in identifying merles.  Blue in the eyes of a puppy at 8 weeks of age, if at least one parent is merle, is a sure sign that the dog is a merle.  Homozygous (double) merles tend to be mostly white with very little colored coat and often have 2 blue eyes.  (A double merle tends to have mostly white coat as anywhere the dark colored coat is hit by both merle genes, it is diluted to white.)

   3. I find it incomprehensible that the Breed Club president does not know the difference between "confirmation" and "conformation".  These words are not interchangeable.  I have seen Charlie use the term confirmation several times when he obviously meant conformation.   Does anyone else wonder how this man could be president of ASC when he does not know that breed competion is "conformation"?

   4. I think a study "free of opinion or bias and strong on scientific fact" requires scientists that have no stake in or opinion regarding the outcome and must include research on the actual breed in question.   I'm afraid no one within ASC fits the "free of opinion or bias" criteria.  Since ASC did no conclusive scientific studies on merle Cocker Spaniels and includes numerous inflammatory comments and incorrect statements, I must also ask, "Where are the strong facts?"

   5. "The preponderance of  health issues directly and specifically associated with the merle genetic mutation" - Preponderance?  Most merle dogs are NOT defective!  Merle-related health issues are rarely a concern unless you are breeding merle-to-merle.   Yes, defects can occur in ANY puppy, but not all defects in merle dogs are related to the merle gene.  Any color or pattern of dog can have a defect.  This witch hunt to tie all health issues in merles to the merle gene is ludicrous.  Does anyone honestly believe that any breed with this pattern would have survived or would still be being breed if the "prepondereance" of those with the pattern were defective?  I'm sorry, but 99.9% of people that breed a litter of puppies expect to sell most of the puppies produced.  This includes breeds that produce the merle pattern. No one is breeding merle dogs and just hoping to have one or two puppies that aren't one-eyed monsters!  Nor are breeders moving every time they sell a litter so their dissatisfied puppy buyers can't come back on them after they get that merle puppy home.  MOST merle dogs ARE healthy.  Most merle dogs have no more chance of developing a health issue than any other puppy of the same breed.  As for instances of defective merles, almost all merle-related health issues can be prevented by not breeding merle-to-merle!  In the article  linked above, Dr. Strain states that: "In many breeds carrying merle, breeders know not to breed homozygous merles, and visual and auditory deficits do not seem to be a problem in the heterozygotes."  Even if an accidental merle-to-merle breeding did happen and defects resulted, defects would only be expected in something like 7%-12.5% of the puppies.  (This is a very high estimate at 30-50% of the homozygous merles being defective and projecting that 25% of the pups in the litter would be homozygous.)   Keep in mind that any such defects are generally present at or shortly after birth.  Puppy buyers have much LESS chance of buying a merle-defective puppy than they do of getting one with cataracts, epilepsy, PRA or any one of our other numerous breed issues!

   6. "Tracking" - I cannot believe anyone is foolish enough to believe that the z-list ASC has worked-out with AKC will in anyway impact the presence of merles in the breed or that it will help breeders "track" dogs with this pattern.

          *  First, AKC has no "rules" regarding registering a dog's color/pattern.  Breeder's are supposed to choose the color/pattern THEY believe most closely resembles each puppy.  ASC has CHOSEN to limit the color/pattern choices for Cocker Spaniels.  This is a recent change and is not representative of the original breed standard or registration practices.  Breeders used to be able to choose ANY color, pattern or combination of such.  ASC's current "approved" color/pattern choices do not even include all of the colors and patterns that can be shown (brown roan and tan, etc.)!  In fact, there are numerous "unusual" colors/patterns (dilutes, etc.) that are known to exist within the breed but that cannot be correctly registered.  Additionally, the all-knowing ASC incorrectly listed sable as a color choice!  Sable is a PATTERN, just like merle.  Sables can be brown, red or black (solid or parti-color) and their registrations SHOULD reflect not only the dog's pattern, but it's color as well.   Currently this is not possible.  So, does anyone really believe that adding merle to the list of color choices (or getting it right and allowing it as a pattern) is going to make a difference in pedigree research when our parent breed club cannot correctly identify colors and patterns that have been around for centuries? 

          * How are merles currently registered?  Most are registered as the COLOR the dog is: black. brown/tan, tri-color, etc.  This is currently the only CORRECT way to register these dogs (since the dogs ARE these colors, this IS correct).  If ASC wanted to improve on this, then a choice for the merle PATTERN should be added.  Just as sables should be allowed to be registered as the color they are with a designation for the sable PATTERN.  Just as corrections should be made that would allow all other known patterns and colors to be correctly registered.   Unfortunately, many merles have been registered as roans.  (And even the ASC seems to not know the difference!) This is because ASC would not address the merle issue and, when asked, AKC advised merle breeders/owners to register them as roans.  Now we are stuck with thousands of merle owners and breeders that believe their dogs are roans (through no fault of their own).   These are not people that are going to be going to the ASC web-site or shows for information (education). These owners/breeders are the OTHER 98% of breed owners that do not show and have no interest in showing their dogs; and that ASC and most of it's members alienate by being rude, hateful and derogatory about their "pet" dogs.  These are the people that ASC refuses to let into their precious club (where they might LEARN something) because they don't have sponsors or because they don't have show dogs or because they have different ideas on breeding or because the "right" people don't like them.   Since the average pet owner or breeder is not involved with ASC and most pet people do not even register their puppies, how does one suppose ASC is going to reach all of these people to educate them?  (And knowing the hateful, I'm-better-than-you-so-listen-to-me-and-do-what-I-say-attitude of many within the ASC, what makes anyone think these people will LISTEN, even if they can be found??)

          * As for the breeders and owners that actually know they have merles, do you really think we are stupid enough to register our merles in a z-registry?  What incentive do we have to do so?  We are ALREADY registering our dogs correctly.  We also make sure to properly identify our dogs' colors and patterns and we educate our buyers on merles and the risks involved with breeding a merle to a merle.  Why do we need to change anything?  ASC has already published (shouted from the rooftops!) that their goal is to stop all merle breeding and to "educate" the public on how unhealthy and worthless merles are.  Despite admitting that merle is an ancient gene in all dogs and having NO evidence to support such a claim, ASC also continues to insinuate that merle Cockers are the result of an impure breeding.  Oh yeah, let me suggest my buyers register their new family pet as a merle so they can open the door for all of ASC's propaganda on merles.  Sure, come on in ASC and convince my buyers I screwed them by selling them a defective, impure dog!  Gosh, please, please AKC and ASC, let me  register my merles in your z-list so I can screw myself!   NOT GONNA HAPPEN!!

          * As for ASC and AKC's infamous proposed z-list, this cock-eyed scheme is NOT, and never will be, a reliable tool for breeders to track merles.  To begin with, the program is voluntary and only applies to dogs that the breeder/owner chooses to register as merle.  This is not retroactive and does not automatically affix a z designation to
every dog known to have come from merle bloodlines.  Since knowledgeable merle breeders have no incentive to use the z list (and lots of reasons to avoid it like the plague!), we all know these dogs will never be included in the z classification.  (It should be noted here that these are the GOOD merles, the conformationally correct ones with lots of well-known Champions and show kennel prefixes in the pedigrees.  The ones most likely to attract buyers with an eye to quality and possible interest in showing/breeding.  You know, the ones that are quite capable of producing Champions that will then go on and taint the sainted show world!)  Next we have all of the breeders/owners with merles that think they have roans.  We've already established that due to the sharp division between pet and show people and the lack of simple, non-judgemental educational resources, most of these dogs are unlikely to ever be properly identified as merles.  So here again we have a large number of merles that will not be appearing in ASC's z list. 
We have now accounted for, I'd guess, more than 3/4ths of the merles being bred and we have yet to be able to say with any confidence that ANY of these dogs would get z listed.  Can anyone explain to me how a reasonably intelligent peson would consider the z-list to be an effective tool for tracking merles when it is unlikely to be used by more than a handful of breeders?  When fully 3/4ths or more of the dogs it is designed to "track" will never be identified or included in the database? 
Can anyone else understand the danger in implementing such a flawed design?  The risk here is that breeders will ASSUME there is no possibility of merle in the pedigree if there is no z on the registration.  This will impart a false sense of security and many breeders will look no further before making breeding decisions.  The false assumption that a dog is not merle because it does not have z registration could quite easily result in accidental merle-to-merle breedings - exactly what ASC says it hopes to prevent! 

          * Another issue with the Z list is that once it is used for the first merle dog, EVERYTHING in the future, from that dog on down, will bear the Z.  Even if those dogs are not merle and are never bred into merle again. Why would we need to "track" all of these dogs when only 50% of the pups from any merle breeding are expected to be merle and those that are not merle can NEVER produce the merle pattern?  Merle is a dominate gene that must exist in EVERY generation to be forwarded to subsequent generations.  Merle CANNOT be "carried", as ASC alleges.  If merle were a recessive gene, then ASC's claims of wanting to track the gene might make sense, but this is not the case.   The only logical assumption for ASC's single-minded determination to identify all dogs with merle bloodlines is that, despite scientific evidence supporting a naturally-occurring mutation being responsible for the appearance of merle in the breed, ASC chooses to use gossip and speculation of cross-breeding (not FACTS) as justification for segregating and derogatorily labeling a legitimate segment of the breed.  (Can anyone say NAZIs??)

   7. "AKC can identify all progeny down the multi-generational line back to these two parents. This confirms parentage but NOT carriers of the Merle mutation."  OK, we have two problems here:

          * First, merle bloodlines have been traced to TWO breedings = 3 parents = 1 male and 2 females.  Seems like ASC should have been able to get these facts straight since Connie provided them with the names of all three dogs as well as information on the breedings!

          * Second, merle CANNOT be "carried"!  Merle is a DOMINANT gene and MUST be present in EACH and EVERY generation to reproduce itself!  How scientific can this study be if such a basic FACT is overlooked? 

   8. "The AKC-Canine Health Foundation (AKC-CHF) lists Merle as a disease for which there is a genetic test. The AKC-CHF has therefore concluded that Merle is detrimental to the breeds." This statement is FALSE and misleading.
In actual FACT, the AKC-CHF states:

      "Genetic tests can uncover problems before they arise, or prevent them altogether."

      "Merle Gene -  responsible for a dappled coat color. When two copies are present, it may lead to a white coat color, but also deafness and blindness." 

      ( )

   9. NOWHERE does AKC-CHF state that merle is a "disease" or that it is detrimental to the breeds! 
 In FACT, AKC-CHF does NOT list merle on their Disease page,
nor is it listed under Breed Specific Concerns for ANY breed.  Merle is only shown on the "Genetic Tests" page.  Here again we see ASC making ASSUMPTIONS and drawing their own conclusions with NO factual basis.  ASC is risking a class action lawsuit by merle owners and breeders.  This is likely to include owners and breeders of other breeds and will likely result in AKC becoming a target as well.  In its "education" section, ASC's report states that they intend to target puppy buyers with the following messages:

          * "Potential for puppy to contract certain diseases."
          * "Existence of potential significant health risks involved with Merle puppies."
          * "Practice of breeding Merle cockers is not approved and is strongly denounced by the parent club – American Spaniel Club."

    Really?  And you're surprised that merle breeders aren't cooperative and jumping for joy over this?  Does ASC honestly believe that they can denounce merles in this breed without incurring the wrath of every other breed that includes the merle coat pattern?  Does AKC really want EVERY breed with merle on its back due to ASC's unsupported claims?  How does ASC intend to back up these claims?  There are NO merle Cocker Spaniel health issue studies.  There is NO scientific evidence that merle Cocker Spaniels have ANY higher incidence of health issues than any other color or pattern of Cocker Spaniel.  I have already submitted links to AKC-CHF information that specifies that health issues vary by breed.  This link also lists merle as a coat color modifier with health concerns ONLY when merles are bred to each other.  I also submitted multiple links for articles by Dr. Strain which cast doubt on the accepted incidence of merle-related health issues in other breeds, and that establish the fact that not all breeds have merle-related health issues or the same merle-related health issues. 

    With no definitive EVIDENCE to support ASC's fantasy merle health problems, merle breeders will have ample ammunition to win a lawsuit against ASC.  (In fact, I'll be happy to testify that my merle dogs are MUCH healthier than some of the cataract, cherry eye, PRA, slip stifled, dysplastic and epileptic ridden "show" dogs that I've bought from our breed's "award-winning", "top" show kennels!)

Permission to cross-post INTACT with all of my information included.

Thank You,

Cindy Helvey

Sandcastle Cockers

PS:  I'll be forwarding this to David Roberts and others at AKC

© Cindy Helvey and 

Permission to cross-post INTACT with all of my information included