589 Respecting Dogs' Needs

by   David Hancock

 Early in this 21st century, my plea to all those concerned with dogs, whether breeders, exhibitors or just owners, is a simple one: stop saying how much you love your dogs but how much you respect their needs. Dogs have distinct needs and unless we respect those needs we cannot provide a fulfilling satisfying life for them. We should respect them for what they are and for what they can do. Their needs and the fulfilment of them should concern us. There is a memorial to the horses lost in the Boer War at Port Elizabeth, which has the inscription: "The greatness of a nation consists not so much in the number of its people or the extent of its territory as in the extent and justice of its compassion."  Compassion comes from respect in the heart. My father used to speak with sadness of the 'sausage boats' that once conveyed our broken-down horses to the Belgian abattoirs. But the disposal of racing Greyhounds today leaves much to be desired.

 It is vital that those who use dogs for sport possess and display appropriate respect for their dogs. There is a terrible story, for me, of a 19th century fox-hunt, in which a very determined hound, convinced it was on the right line, disobeyed the whipper-in and received such a severe blow to the head that an eye was dislodged. Despite this, the hound nevertheless staunchly kept to the scent he had identified, with the dislodged eye hanging down out of its socket - and was proved right. The whipper-in had seen a fox up ahead but not the one being originally pursued. The severely punished now one-eyed hound had just not been respected, either as a proficient hound or as a sentient creature. Its nose had been more accurate than the human eye but had not been respected by a cruel as well as a foolish handler.

 There is an account too of an early 20th century scene in which a terrier was badly bitten by a furious badger, which was fighting for its own life. The account reads: "...a small white bitch bitten through the chin. She sat hunched up and shivering, while the blood dropped steadily from the wound...the bitch was faint from loss of blood and exhausted - a miserable sight...I approached the farmer and said: 'Your bitch is bleeding pretty freely, why not wash out the wound, it looks almost like an artery.' 'Oh! She'll do till I get home' he replied. Not much compassion and no respect at all for the dog from that owner. We quite rightly condemn badger-baiting or digging but are apt to overlook the cruelty to the dogs involved, both badger and dog are victims.

 The 21st century will in time I hope lead to not just greater respect for dogs but for a more enlightened more humane concept of their needs. It is surely questionable for us to breed dogs purely to a design which pleases us but handicaps them or to breed them so carelessly that their lives are shortened and their quality of life diminished. Which is crueller, knocking a hound's eye out with the stock of a whip or breeding from faulty stock which produces progeny blind in both eyes? Which is less heartless, failing to staunch the flow of blood from a wounded terrier's jaw or breeding a dog with such a truncated jaw that it cannot breathe properly throughout its life? At what stage do we admit that a dog's well-being is infinitely more important than breed exaggerations, so often euphemistically dubbed 'characteristics'? 

 Last year I followed a small child into a championship dog show and heard the child observe, with the insouciant innocence of her age, when walking behind a pair of Dachshunds, "why don't those dogs have legs?" The owner of the dogs turned round, amused, and responded kindly with "It's because they have to work under the ground". But the owner almost certainly knew that in past times the Dachshund displayed daylight under its sternum and that the lack of leg length in the breed is a relatively recent feature. In time exaggerated features exaggerate themselves; but at what stage does a breed club concede that such a degree of exaggeration penalises the dog? Individual dogs are more important than breed features which deny the dog a stress-free spine and a torso clear of the ground. We have to respect the dog before us not the design of the day.

 A few years ago, a neighbour of mine had a charming Basset Hound which used to howl with the pain from its legs. The dog wasn't old and had not been in an accident. The vet's report on the dog revealed deformities of the distal radius, ulna and carpal joint, adding that such disabilities are frequently seen in the breed, together with a high incidence of shoulder and foreleg lameness. The dog had the heavily-boned extremely bent front legs favoured in the show specimens, a breed feature not sought in the hunting Bassets; the English Basset, benefitting from Harrier blood, does not display exaggeration. Which breeder is perpetuating the true Basset?  Does each breed have to tolerate unacceptable exaggerations which inflict distress on their dogs? Modern type doesn't automatically mean true type; in a closed gene pool exaggerations exaggerate themselves. Which should prevail, a loyal if misguided allegiance to contemporary breed-type, or simple humanity towards the dog?

 If you favour evolution as opposed to revolution in achieving change, then action has to come from within dogdom. Breed clubs have to change, registries have to change. The European Convention on the ethical treatment of animals could one day be ratified here and a heavier hand demand an end to harmfully constructed dogs. How much better for a breed club, backed by a visionary registry, to say: this is our breed and we respect it, we have lost our way, it is best if we put things right. Judges can of course play a role too; the degree of exaggeration in any breed soon becomes a fault. But coordinated action will always achieve faster progress than a series of unilateral measures. Time perhaps for the Kennel Clubs of the world to step much further forward! Time too for breed clubs to rethink their role.