625 losing the Plot

by   David Hancock

The long-established hobby of exhibiting livestock, whether it's cattle or cavies, parrakeets or poodles, can be both fulfilling and rewarding. For some it can be rewarding to the wallet and in some species beneficial to the exhibit. But as with all human activities it can be spoiled by human folly and even become harmful when 'hobby-blindness' sets in. The show-ring justifies no human activity, it's just a showcase, both for human skill and human excess. Kennel-blindness is a much- used expression; breed-blindness is not so widely acknowledged. When a registry has to step in and instruct breeders to limit excess, manifested as harmful exaggerations, as in the pedigree dog world, then breed-blindness has been at work, in some cases for a century, but becoming increasingly harmful to the dogs with each decade.

The late Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote: 'to do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good. Or else, that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. ' Breed enthusiasts who exaggerate their dogs usually argue strongly that there is nothing wrong in muzzleless, legless, elongated, 'overdone' dogs; some claim to be just 'conforming'; all claim to be doing 'good'. The French have a pertinent expression for hobby-blindness, they term it 'deformation professionelle' or being unbalanced by professional zeal, so close to your obsessive approach that reality cannot get in. I have met Bulldog, Basset Hound, Mastiff and Dachshund breeders with this affliction. When you listen to their excuses for exaggeration in their stock, you don't know whether to laugh or cry -laugh at their self- delusion or cry for their dogs.

 When a Bulldog is carried semi-conscious from a show-ring, given oxygen for respiratory failings and not long later put back in its class, as I once witnessed, it is just shaming. When a Mastiff is so heavy that it disables itself when merely dismounting from an estate car at Crufts, a breed is being misused. When a Dachshund's keel bruises itself on uneven ground at Malvern, a breed is being abused. When a Basset Hound wails all night with pain from its afflicted legs, with the discomfort from design, that is a breed without a guardian. But when both the breed guardians, the breed clubs, and the self-appointed species protector, the Kennel Club, are afflicted by 'deformation', which sees good in quite obvious evil, then Solzhenitsyn's words ring true.

 It is a combination of such deformation and excessive hubris which permits the Kennel Club to persuade itself that it is acceptable to register pups from puppy farms, not to conduct random DNA tests on dogs registered with them, despite knowing some are falsely done so, and not to insist on mandatory health checks in those breeds demonstrably afflicted by inherited conditions. The KC's spokeswoman, its ever-vocal secretary, never concedes that the KC ever gets anything wrong. Her Stalinist doctrinaire approach exemplifies the rather shabby office she holds. Her predecessor, as press secretary, was found against under the Sale of Goods Act, in dog-dealing with a wheelchair-bound customer, in a Swindon court in June 1997. Her father, a KC trustee and general committee member was fined £300 by the KC for ill-treating a puppy in the ring, when acting as a judge. But the Kennel Club does not 'do' humility, or clearly, seek high standards from its staff.

Against that background, it is hardly surprising that an enterprising television production company should find sufficient material to put together an hour-long programme on prime-time national TV. For the pedigree dog world to be 'up in arms' even before the programme came out is another example of 'deformation', although their hostility was orchestrated by a fast back-tracking KC, headed, yes, by their ever-vocal secretary. What did the programme state that was incorrect? Any sensationalism came from the programmers revelations not its approach. TV documentaries should be inquisitive, should inform the public what is going on in the world, have a role in exposing wrong-doing affecting subject creatures. The media, especially the dog press, has a duty to support investigations which can do good for dogs.

The world of the pedigree dog has been accused, if anything, of losing the plot, of becoming so close to the 'dog-game' so as to believe that some clearly bad aspects of their hobby are actually good. This TV programme is a wake-up call, a shot across the bows of the Kennel Club and an uncomfortable public exposure which now needs a measured response not an hysterical mindless over-reaction. If the programme is factually correct, this should be accepted and remedial action put in place. That is how the AKC responded to a devastating Atlantic Monthly piece some years ago. Their balanced reaction brought them many plus points. If there is urgent work to be done in the pedigree dog world, this should be magnanimously conceded and the restoration of public confidence made the priority.

I worked on this programme in a small way and appeared in it. I was impressed by the fair-minded approach of the production company and their remarkably diligent research. For over three decades, with others, I have campaigned for better custodianship of pedigree dogs, especially their genetic health and their anatomoical design.  For me, this programme aired many problems which are just not being faced and I want them to be. In the pedigree dog world the bad breeders are ruining the honest heartfelt intentions of the many good breeders. It is the former who should get a good kicking on TV, along with those bodies who facilitate their acts. It's about time the goodies won! This programme will help them, and do good for dogs. Isn't that what it is all about?