Question of breeding shows seamy side of business
* Henry Chu, Birmingham
* March 7, 2009
A good hair day for an Afghan hound and co.
A good hair day for an Afghan hound and co. Photo: Reuters
IT SEEMS so very British that an ugly row has broken out between those who say they love dogs and those who say they love dogs more.
Such a royal catfight has ensnared the country's most prestigious dog show, Crufts, a four-day extravaganza of four-legged bliss that comes to a climax this weekend and has drawn millions of viewers to the BBC since 1966.
The BBC has dropped its coverage of Crufts after a documentary exposed questionable practices among some competitive dog breeders.
The quest for the perfect look produced Pekingese with excessively mashed-in faces, bulldogs with oversized heads, and dachshunds with unhealthily long bodies.
Crufts, complained one anti-cruelty activist, was nothing less than a "parade of mutants".
The fallout has led to competing claims over who has the best interests of dogs at heart in a country where more than one in five households owns a dog.
Stung by the bad publicity, Britain's Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, issued revised standards of canine beauty in January — modifications it says were already under way but acknowledges rushing into force because of the controversy.
That sparked protests from some breeders and owners, who fumed that the rules were being changed without fair warning before Crufts, which people here call the "greatest dog show on Earth".
The pageant's motto this year, coincidentally or not, is "Happy, healthy dogs", promoting an ideal that, Kennel Club officials huff, they certainly didn't need to be lectured about by the BBC.
"It's almost as if they invented the idea, whereas actually we were very conscious of it, and we were already working with those breeds which we felt to be of the most concern," says Caroline Kisco, the club's secretary.
"But we were taking a more softly-softly approach in getting them to agree to the changes."
The program that spawned the fuss, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, aired on the BBC and was not for the squeamish.
It showed animals suffering from horrible physical problems apparently bred into them by owners intent on achieving contest-winning looks. Some mated dogs with their parents, or siblings with each other — inbreeding that can lead to deformities.
There were pugs and Pekingese bred to have as flat a face as possible, but which left them unable to breathe properly or regulate their body temperature. One champion Pekingese had to be set on a block of ice when it received its prize.
Bulldogs were moulded into such an odd shape that they could neither mate nor give birth naturally. Most painful to watch, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel writhed in agony from a permanent headache because its skull had been bred too small for its brain — like "a size 10 foot shoved into a size 6 shoe", a veterinary neurologist explained.
Public outcry was immediate. Crufts' chief sponsor, a pet food maker, pulled out. And after an internal review, the BBC decided in December to ditch its coverage of the show.
Meanwhile, judges have been instructed to be vigilant for signs of poor canine health.
The revised guidelines for poochy pulchritude, Ms Kisco said, should also help ensure that the dogs are "fit for function, fit for life", as the Kennel Club's slogan has it.
The standards for "only a handful" of breeds have undergone extensive changes, Ms Kisco said, including the bulldog, which is supposed to lose its classic Churchillian jowls and gain longer legs and a leaner body.
That prompted a gripe from the chairman of the British Bulldog Breed Council: "What you'll get is a completely different dog, not a British bulldog."
But many animal welfare activists are glad that questionable breeding practices have been exposed and that public discussion on the ethics of dog shows has been unleashed.
"This dog race of pedigree 'perfection' is destroying its subject," The Times of London said this week in an editorial published under the headline "Ruff trade".
"It is difficult to see dogs as man's best friend when we castrate them, make them commit incest and parade them under bright lights in Birmingham," the newspaper said.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
The home for dog owners and those working with dogs - The Kennel Club
What are your views?
While some breeders cry that activists are going to drive breeds to extinction, It seems some are doing a pretty good job of it themselves