624 Taking a Healthy Interest

by   David Hancock

 "One day soon, a few brave veterinary scientists will be given a national forum, perhaps entitled The Great Pedigree Dog Scandal, to expose the bad science and propaganda that drives the pedigree dog bandwagon. This will damage the pedigree dog industry and undermine public confidence in it, and damage any credibility claimed by the Kennel Club. It may not be fair and need not happen."  When I wrote those words in Dogs Today in May, 2007, I wasn't attempting to play the soothsayer merely anxious for some coordinated action within the world of the pedigree dog to prevent such a prediction from coming true. But when the national registry for dogs consistently and persistently takes the view that: The KC is faultless, every criticism of it is ill-founded and outsiders really must just leave the KC and show breeders alone to plough their own furrow, then the danger flags need to be hoisted.

 Then August, 2008, surprise, surprise, four distinguished professors and four other eminent highly-reputable scientists, gave a view on pedigree dogs on national TV, prime time. No surprise over the entirely predictable reaction from the KC: it was all distorted, exaggerated, sensationalised, totally biased, one-sided tendentious tosh! The national press didn't think so however, and who suffered the greatest damage? Pedigree dog breeders, not the KC! Good breeders deserve better, pedigree dogs deserve better, and it's not a matter for more professional PR or more weasel words from on high. It needs honesty, the sort exemplified by another scientist Bruce Cattanach, one involved in pedigree dogs, who wrote: '...I think it would be a very negative action to nit-pick and find flaws in the presentation. The wake-up call is the important thing and should not be dismissed.'

 In February 1981, I wrote a piece in Shooting Times, which stated: 'The whole question of the ethics of dog-breeding needs attention from all those concerned, at every level.'  I lamented the lack of health checks in breeding stock and the remorseless advance of exaggerated features. It drew a considerable postbag, all in support. For nearly thirty years, in half a dozen different national magazines, I have pursued the same line, almost pleading for something to be done, if only to protect the good breeders. I am in favour of a national kennel club, dog shows and breeds of dog, but only when the 'goodies' are winning. Some years ago, I acted as the presenter for a commercial video on the Labrador Retriever, interviewing admirable knowledgeable people like Gwen Broadley, Carole Coode and Jo Coulson. It would sadden me if their like were penalised, in the long term,  by the contemporary foolishness of the Kennel Club. How can the 'goodies' prosper when those at the top lose their moral compass?        

 If, because of weak leadership by the KC, sponsors drift away, Crufts becomes an object of scorn and the exhibition of pedigree dogs slowly disintegrates, will our precious breeds benefit? In recent years, I have judged Plummer Terriers and found then better bred than many show ring terriers; I have judged Victorian and Dorset Bulldogs and found sounder dogs than  KC-recognised Bulldogs in the show rings. Pedigree dogs have to be good dogs first, ahead of breed points or features. Looking around the show ring terriers and seeing line-up after line-up of upright shoulders, short upper arms and little rear extension, makes me wonder about breed-blindness, the inability to see beyond the pedigree, the failure to see the dog.

 The ever-vocal KC secretary, in the wake of the devastating TV programme, bleated: 'But we are dealing with the legacy of 100 years.'  Could someone remind her of how just long the KC has been in charge! The KC chairman moans: '...the KC does not have legal or statutory powers' then goes on to state: 'The Kennel Club is going, in the end, to have to step in with both feet...'  His organisation has for some years been striving to convince DEFRA that edicts from the European Council on the ethical treatment of animals such as dogs and cats should not be ratified here. These edicts, already accepted in over 20 different European countries, and listed as ETS 125, could provide the statutory powers he needs. Their whole purpose is to curtail the breeding of animals with harmful exaggerations. THAT is what the BBC programme highlighted.

 If the programme was all tosh, as the dog press vociferously claimed, and shamefully so too did many pedigree dog breeders, why is the KC now, with indecent haste, looking hard at every breed standard and forcing their code of ethics on dog breeders? It really isn't very convincing. When, just under ten years ago, I was a breed committee member, I tabled an agenda item which read:

"HEALTHWATCH. Like most breeds, the Bullmastiff is victim to inherited defects such as lymphosarcoma, leukaemia and hip dysplasia. Unlike a growing number of breeds however there is no official scheme to monitor those defects. This denies both the potential for research and the opportunity to reduce the incident rate of such distressing, often life-threatening conditions. It is therefore proposed that a "Healthwatch" be established in our breed in which all club members agree to allow their veterinary surgeons to record and report all incidences of inheritable defects. Such a scheme is already working successfully in breeds like the Cavalier, the Labrador and Golden Retrievers, the Boxer, the German Shepherd Dog, the Gordon Setter, the Cairn Terrier and the Tibetan Terrier. The work of researchers such as Dr. Onions at the University of Glasgow would be greatly assisted by such a step. It would be a significant advance in breed-care and should attract the support of the breed council. Could this proposal please be tabled at the next committee meeting?"

 It was tabled at the next meeting, but was subsequently outvoted. It was a fairly modest scheme but one rooted in my wish for those with committee responsibilities to anticipate problems and pre-empt a heavier hand. Now increasingly, and sadly necessarily, the KC is going to impose health monitoring on their terms. At the time I also wrote to the breed club chairman with recommendations for the future mandate of the club, out of a desire to contribute, from experience in livestock breeding. A copy of this letter is appended. As readers will soon see the measures proposed did not materialise; it is worth considering how worthwhile even a trial of such proposals might have been. In my book, being a committee member of a breed club means being involved in the future of that breed, moving it forward, making the club members proud of the committee's work. There are plenty of good people in dogs; before the general public loses confidence and hundreds of pups left homeless, it's time for the goodies to win!