Just back from Crufts

I have just returned from Crufts – the dog show of all dog shows.  Every year I go it seems to get bigger and better.  There are more things for the average dog owner to enjoy such as agility, flyball, training classes, heel to music demonstrations and trade stands by the hundreds.  You could spend all day at Crufts and not see one dog being shown.  I love the buzz, the energy and the passion.  Dog owners from all over the world unite for four days of pure heaven.  But for a few of the dogs that are being shown, I’m not so sure that is the case.

I make no secret of the fact that I come from a rescue-oriented background and have never been a part of the show-dog world, but that’s not to say I’m completely against it, either.  If the dog enjoys the attention, the hustle and bustle, the grooming and the travel, then I have no problem with it.  But I see some dogs at Crufts and other dog shows that look completely miserable, and if we are to be honest, showing that type of dog is not really for the dog at all.  If you asked those dogs what they would prefer to be doing, running outside chasing rabbits would be my guess, rather than spending most of the day in a crate, prancing around a room and having to stand still for long periods being felt up by a person they don’t know.  No, showing holds no benefits for that type of dog at all; it is purely for the owner.

I have an issue with the word ‘conformation,’ which in dog show terms means "overall appearance and structure – an indication of the dog’s ability to produce quality puppies" (American Kennel Club).  Dogs are judged on appearance and form, the winner being the closest to conformation.  The judge examines the dog and then "gives awards on how closely the dog compares to the judge’s mental image of the perfect dog described in the breed’s official standard."  I think the dog world needs to take a closer look at the concept of breed conformation.  Celebrating and perpetuating a strict set of rules constituting breed conformation means that many breeds of dogs live with disabling physical characteristics and hereditary diseases that can cause acute suffering and in some cases premature death.   Many of our beautiful breeds are being bred to destruction such as the Great Dane, the German Shepherd and the Cavalier King Charles, but no breed is more maligned or disfigured than the English ‘British’ Bulldog.

I recall an argument I recently had with a breeder of English bulldogs who took great affront at my concerns about the breed.  She accused me of wanting to ban them – her immediate reaction to questions I asked her that she knew she couldn’t defend.  For example, do you think it is right that 80% of bulldogs cannot be whelped naturally because the puppies’ head are too big?  Don’t you think it cruel that these dogs find physical exercise difficult because their legs are so crooked that their joints tire easily?  How unkind is it that these dogs have been bred to have such short noses that they suffer from brachycephalic upper airway syndrome – difficulty breathing particularly during exercise and in hot weather?  Isn’t it uncomfortable to have so many folds on the face that fold dermatitis and other infections can occur if not cleaned daily?  The breeder told me that facial folds were important because they helped drain the blood away from a bulldog’s face when it was bull baiting.  I didn’t know we still practiced that in this country!  I then showed her a print of what a bulldog used to look like in the 1800’s, a proud, fit, long-legged dog that looked like it could take on a whole empire, not just one raging bull.  I’m not condoning the vicious sport of bull baiting, long since banned (thank goodness), but our English bulldogs these days couldn’t take on a fly let alone a bull.  How can breeders ignore the suffering of their dogs all in the name of conformation?  Why do those championing breed conformation continue to celebrate this breed’s discomfort and deformity?

And it’s not just the Bulldog.  Approximately 500 genetic health defects have been documented in dogs and defects are very high in purebreds because the gene pool is so limited.  There are currently standards in place which require that offspring come from the mating of registered dogs with the same lineage.  Breeding dogs from the same champion will pass on the good and the bad genes, and breeding dogs that are too closely related, which is common practice, means there is more of a chance that defective genes will come together.  There are some breeders who are working hard to breed out defective genes, but many will breed so much to conformity in the hope there will be champion stock, that healthy dogs are rejected in favour of ones that meet breed conformation standards regardless of health.

There are also many breeders that will defend their breeding practices by saying that ‘line breeding’, i.e. breeding grandparent to grandchild, cousin to cousin, uncle to niece etc. is ok as long as you are not ‘inbreeding’ (parent to child, siblings etc.) Geneticists disagree.  Line breeding is still classed as inbreeding and it weakens the gene pool considerably.  How can we as a dog loving nation allow this to continue?  It seems to me that thinking about the dog’s well–being comes second to breed conformation.  Breeders will seek to defend this notion, but unfortunately they can’t argue what is staring them full in the face, ‘in the long term, without the introduction of new and unrelated genes, all living creatures will suffer loss of genetic diversity, leading to weaker animals with health problems.’

The situation is now so serious that scientists are predicting that in the future many breeds will become extinct.  The evidence is there and it’s happening now.  Which breeds?  I’ll leave you with one that has already made it onto the list of endangered breeds.  The beloved flat coated Retriever.  Shocked?  That is just the tip of the iceberg!

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4 thoughts on “Just back from Crufts

  1. Sarah

    Thank you for writing this (yes I realise I'm 2 years late :P). I know there are a lot of changes going on in the KC right now so I hope that things start to change for the better within our beautiful breeds, especially my personal favourite the German Shepherd Dog.

    I suppose it's too much to hope that the entire world will change their perception on how this breed should look. It breaks my heart to see a roach back GSD who can barely stand and walk nevermind do what it was originally bred for.

    I think dogs should be judged on 'fit for function' ie how well they perform tasks their breed is meant to excell that.

    I'm not sure if you'll get to read this but know that you have a new, but firm fan who believes in the message you are trying to spread.

    Warmest regards,
    Sarah and Sky (AKA the lightening bolt)

  2. Sally Skinner

    Thank you Victoria for all your efforts to educate dog owners and improve dogs lives. Many of my friends involved in multiple dog sports are so appreciative of your efforts too. There are many of us out there also trying to spread the message of positive dog training too! It is hard. As you say, the information exists ("The Culture Clash" reads like a thriller for me! ) I have decided the average dog owner is simply lazy. Harsh but mostly true. Learning takes time, training and exercising a dog takes time. One thing I wish Animal Planet would do is promote more information in a straight forward manner about the science of how dogs learn. Maybe that would trigger peoples interest in understanding and working with their dog from the dogs perspective. People need greater understanding of this truly wonderful species we live with.
    The sport of purebred dogs is a conundrum for sure. I own two Vizslas and love and appreciate their functionality, their form which is beautifully built for function and their temperaments. I went to great lengths to find responsible breeders. I chose a breed to suit my lifestyle. I chose parent dogs with great temperaments. My dogs have been pure joy. I disagree with the extreme physical body types that have been promoted purely for cosmetics though such as bulldogs. I intend to rescue a mixed breed dog in the future but at this time with a young child felt more comfortable knowing the entire background of my dogs. I don't know what will become of the gene pool for purebred dogs but it is certainly at risk. I believe responsible purebred dog breeders generally are trying to improve their breeds, but I hope that outcrossing and even planning mixed breeding into purebreds in a limited manner will become routine to maintain a healthier gene pool. In effect a "perfect" dog will never exist any more than a "perfect" person will. They all should be appreciated for their unique qualities. Well hopefully we get there one day.Thanks Victoria for all you do. I cannot wait to see future episodes of your show and so admire your skills with the dogs and their owners. Bst wishes.

  3. Brittany

    Howdy Victoria,
    Such practices as rewarding and perpetuating conformation that is detrimental to breeding health and health generally is unfortunately not limited to dog shows My family has raised brahman cattle for years and "show characteristics" tend to be detrimental to a cow's healthy, productive life. I know this blog is about dogs and the issues that surround them, but this entry stuck a cord with me and the similarities between what is wrong with the cattle industry that I love so and the dog world (that I love quite a bit as well!) It saddens me that animals that look to us for their health and protection can be so cruelly betrayed in this way.
    I love your show and positive training methods have worked wonders for my Aussie mix, Luke, and me. Thank you so much for what you do.

    Thank you,

  4. Shirley Dodson

    Thank you so much for bringing this to light. I agree whole heartedly with what you've said here. Ironically the very thing that can be an individual's first experience in purebred dogs (a dog show) can also be responsible for bringing on it's demise.

    I have mixed feelings about conformation. Assuming the dog enjoy's what he's doing, it can be a wonderful way to see all manor of dogs that one might not be able to see otherwise. And certainly not in one place. But that the same time, the human desire for respect and fame can cause them to start using bad breeding practices that are detrimental to their breed. And I think that the poster child for bad breeding practices is the world favorite German Shepherd dog. It so strange how drastic most dogs actually stray for the accepted breed standard. But I find the trend towards slopey backs or roach backs to be most bizarre. In the breed standard it clearly states the the shoulders "gently slope into the -- straight and level -- back". And that the back should be -- without-- slope or roach. So how does a change this drastic happen? Then there are the Working Line Shepherds that rarely if ever enter the ring but actually look like a true working dog.

    Sorry getting off on a tangent. I love german shepherds to death and I hate to see what's happened to them. Basically, breeders should only breed to preserve and protect their breed. If they happen to also win ribbons for their efforts, then that's wonderful, but ultimately not what it's all about. And I believe that we should be more willing to cross-breed with other breeds in order to A.) bring in new blood and expand the gene pool and B.) to help correct problems that run rampant in certain breeds if only because nearly every member of that breed is afflicted by it. We should probably pay more attention to "type" and "work ability" than to simply looks and pedigree, as it leaves us with limited options. I actually think that I've heard of Basset hounds being crossed with beagles for just this very reason, but can't remember where it was happening.

    Another great blog!

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