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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