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February 16, 2010

Dog Breeding: Behind the Best in Show

Tonight, at the 134th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, judges will crown the canine who is “Best in Show.” At one level, dog lovers cannot help but enjoy this pageant featuring these finely coiffed and well trained dogs, who have been groomed in more ways than one for the biggest public performance of their lives. It is quite a spectacle, and highly entertaining, and the marquee event of the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the world of dog fancying.

If that were all the show were about, then not another word need be said. We could all enjoy the event as an expression of the human-animal bond, even if it seems a bit excessive at some level. Sadly, though, there is a back story to this show, and more specifically, to the sport of professional dog fancying that is raising serious questions by scientists and others about the health and welfare of dogs.

A suffering Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in the BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed
© Passionate Productions
A suffering Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in "Pedigree Dogs Exposed."

After the BBC broadcast in August 2008 of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” the BBC decided it would no longer broadcast the British equivalent of Westminster, which is called Crufts. “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” was a controversial but powerful indictment of the world of competitive breeding and showing, revealing that a segment of breeders of purebred dogs, or pedigree dogs as they are known in Britain, had ignored the adverse effects of inbreeding in order to achieve a very deliberate conformation in some breeds. 

These problems are the result of a remarkable degree of inbreeding, with brother and sister or father and daughter being conscripted to breed to achieve the perfect look and to match the standard of the registry. It would be unthinkable to countenance such incest in the human community, partly because of the inherited traits that would result. “We have allowed some breeds to become too heavy, some too short-faced, some too heavy coated, some others short legged, others too short-lived…all in the pursuit of cosmetic points, not sound anatomical points,” commented dog historian David Hancock in the BBC broadcast.

Facts are difficult things to ignore, and the congenital and hereditary problems in purebred dogs are one of the biggest concerns in the entire arena of dog welfare in the United States. Dogs are dying too young, and they are plagued with health impairments that diminish their quality of life. German shepherds have hip dysplasia which cripples the animals early in their lives. Greyhounds, typically killed if they do not race well or chase animals, seemed the model of strength and fitness. But as they get older, they develop serious cancers. West Highland White Terriers are plagued by skin problems and allergies. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have an inherited heart disease and a skull malformation called Syringomyelia that causes intense pain and results in major locomotion problems.

“When I watch Crufts, what I see is a parade of mutants,” Dr. Mark Evans, the top veterinarian with the RSPCA, the U.K.’s largest animal welfare group, told the BBC. “It is some freakish, garish beauty pageant that has nothing frankly to do with health and welfare.  The show world is about an obsession about beauty and there is a ridiculous concept that this is how we should judge dogs.”

A comprehensive scientific report by Dr. Patrick Bateson of Cambridge University, funded by two U.K.-based charities, the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club, concluded that “current dog breeding practices do in many cases impose welfare costs on individual dogs from a variety of causes….”  It is time for the issue to get the same level of scrutiny in the United States and for the AKC and other breed registries to confront these problems head on.

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