648 Responding to Today's Challenges

by   David Hancock

  There is a meaningful late 19th century painting by Creswell Desmond, entitled 'The Old Order Changeth, Yielding Place to New', which depicts two Bulldogs, one centre-stage, the other departing. The latter, a white, leggy, athletic, longer-muzzled Bulldog is being replaced by the brindle, massive-headed, pug-faced specimen. This scene illustrates so vividly what can happen to a breed when the KC looks away. In his masterly The Dog Book of 1906, the under-rated Scottish writer James Watson recalls visiting a dog show at Alexandra Palace at the end of the 1870s and being briefed by the famous Bulldog man Bill George's son, Alfred, with the words: "...there has been a great change since you went away. You will see some of the old sort at father's, but they don't do for showing". Where was the KC when the 'old sort' were being upstaged? Who is in the best position to prevent breeds being altered to suit human whim? But you need a breed 'conformation' survey to produce the evidence.           

 I can understand any governing body being anxious not to appear dictatorial or drunk with power. But when both animal welfare and our canine heritage is involved, some body has to take charge. Otherwise, the Bull Terrier will end up with an egg-shaped head, the GSD's hindquarters will be deconstructed, the Basset Hound's ears, with the head lowered, will one day reach the ground and the sheer length of the Dachshund's back will create inherent weakness to the detriment of the dog - as has happened in each case! It is clearly not enough to leave the breeds to the breed clubs and the breeders. Some body has to take responsibility. If nobody does, is it surprising if vets, journalists or, worse still, legislators step forward?  Judges' critiques should not be misused, they lose impact when they are. They should not be the vehicle for social banter or  expressions of gratitude to show organisers or stewards. Every word should serve the breed. An accepted format would help, say, an introductory general paragraph giving an overview of the quality of the entry, followed by the customary report on each class. If, in a breed, in a short period of time, half a dozen different judges report the same widespread fault, does not that demand a response, over and above that from those individual breeders actually striving to improve their kennel? If judges of six hound breeds, seven terrier breeds and five gundog breeds report widescale upright shoulders and short upper arms in the breeds on show, is it only the task of individual breeders to respond? Or, has the problem only become widespread in these breeds because no-one in authority is prepared to take action?

 Do we all just wash our hands of such a wholly unsatisfactory ever-worsening situation? Breeders have investments to protect, but those investments are sentient creatures called dogs, who have, even as subject creatures, a right to expect to be bred soundly. There is a higher responsibility to be exercised here, and the vision to introduce much-needed change. Some show critiques cry out for action by someone. I have in mind this sort of comment in them: Miniature Poodles, Crufts, 2004: "What on earth has happened to this once wonderfully strong and competitive breed..."  Lhasa Apsos, Crufts, 2004: "...but sadly I was very disappointed in the way I feel the breed has deteriorated."  Old English Sheepdogs, Crufts, 2006: "...it is still worrying that we appear to be losing our beloved type..."  Tibetan Terriers, Crufts, 2006: "I was most disturbed by the fact that at least 60% of the exhibits had upright shoulders or short upper arms."

 There are matters being identified here which need breed council attention, if they had any executive authority. The laissez-faire situation in which breed clubs 'run free' might sound admirably democratic, but is it good for a breed where things are going wrong? At Crufts, 2006, the Norwich Terrier judge reported: "...I was very sad to see to see the state of this breed in the UK..."  That is a most damning comment on a breed's entry for our top show, but does anybody respond? Who has the authority to act? The Airedale judge at Crufts 2007 wrote that "...movement is poor and in some cases appalling..." The Airedale judge at SWKA 1997 wrote: "Movement in Airedales has deteriorated to the extent that I cannot honestly say that any one of the ones I judged could be classed as having excellent movement. The best I would rate as passable and the worst as appalling."

 Ten years pass and the same condition in a sporting terrier breed, time for someone to be bossy but it's clear that no-one dares, or cares. But the Crufts judge (from overseas) of 1994, reported on the Airedale entry: "I am sorry to say that the anatomic structure of most of the Airedales shown in the ring, even if they were champions, was more or less incorrect." Four years later, at the Manchester 1998 show, the Airedale judge wrote: "I do feel that if the breed is not to deteriorate still further, light eyes and movement will have to be watched and steps taken to breed it out."  Nine years later, at Crufts, the judge found movement in the breed to be appalling. When I suggested in a BBC studio, at Crufts time 2007, that Crufts didn't display 'the best of the very best' as claimed, the KC secretary pooh-poohed such an idea as weird and out of touch.

 Who was 'in touch' for the 13 years in which a KC breed was allowed to deteriorate? In the United States, the American Kennel Club has already been accused of being 'the registry of sick dogs'. But kennel clubs are obvious targets; the first-post responsible body for any breed is its breed club. Each one has to register with the KC. Straightaway that gives the KC an opportunity to establish ground rules. How about: every breed club is obliged to submit an annual audit of its breed, setting out concerns over conformation and, separately, its genetic health, with a mandatory health survey every five years. The breed councils should be given teeth, executive power, not just a liaison role. It's a cop-out to plead that breed clubs need to be independent, unsupervised and unmanaged. When the welfare, well-being and whole future of a breed is at stake, arguments about sovereignty are a luxury.

 There are many admirable dedicated worthy people at work in breed clubs, but the challenges of our times need to be faced. The days when eminent sportsmen had a major role and took a big interest in pedigree dog-breeding have long gone. They were behind the wording of many breed standards, they were the early judges and they knew the demands of the field. If you take the example of the Airedale Terrier and keep in mind its acknowledged problems over movement, it is worth asking 'what would a Master of Foxhounds do about such a basic flaw?' He would breed out the problem with a firm clear agreed plan for his pack; one sure thing: he wouldn't try to evade the problem.