673 Pedigree Registry Exposed

by   David Hancock

 “Pedigree Registry Exposed” might have been a more apposite title for the now-notorious much-discussed fiercely-debated “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” television programme. In August 2008 the world of the pedigree dog in Britain imploded, after being stunned by a BBC documentary graphically displaying the suffering of Boxers with epilepsy, Cavaliers with syringomyelia and a number of purebred dogs handicapped by exaggerated anatomies. In an often disappointing response, the show-dog specialist canine press carried outraged headlines and near-hysterical letters as the messenger rather than the message became the focus of emotional not reasoned reaction. In the programme, the Kennel Club officials came across as evasive and defensive and show breeders as uncaring, even reckless. Foolishly, the programme-makers were targeted by both the KC staff and those in the show-dog world with wallets to protect. But the programme had been well researched, its presentation had been hard-hitting but factually correct and from a dog-welfare point of view was much-needed. The eminent veterinary experts interviewed in the programme came across much more convincingly than the back-pedalling KC officials. The latter would have exercised greater wisdom if they had displayed humility, conceded that there was clearly work to be done by them and promised urgent action to put matters right. And, since the programme was shown, the KC has taken urgent action – and quite a lot of flak from recalcitrant breeders for doing so. But at no time has the KC stated ‘we are responsible for this mess and we are going to sort it out’; they would have earned our respect if they had done so.

 Every livestock breeder needs a registry; most developed countries have a kennel club. Ours is vulnerable on several fronts. Firstly unlike its counterparts it claims to represent all dogs not just pedigree ones, which is clearly beyond both its mandate and its resources. Secondly it depends mainly on income from registrations and so can be accused of having a vested interest in the over-production of puppies. Thirdly it has an unwieldy structure of committees and lacks clear-sighted direction. In the vital world of public relations it struggles, partly from vain over-confident staff acting beyond their professional capabilities but mainly from a distinct lack of authority. It has lost not just the respect of the general public but of many responsible breeders too. The loss of high profile sponsors and the failure to obtain TV coverage for Crufts in 2009 illustrated their low rating as a national body. This is not good for the pedigree dog world.

 Yet the KC has been striving to act responsibly in the wake of the BBC programme’s exposure – an excellent example of what investigative journalism can achieve. Breed Standards, or word pictures, of many breeds have been amended to reduce exaggeration in anatomies; judges have been instructed to penalise exhibits at shows with obvious exaggerations and breed clubs have been told to appoint health monitors for their breed. Inbreeding has rightly come under the microscope, with inbreeding coefficients receiving unprecedented attention here. In some overseas countries they have long been a tool for breeders of purebred dogs. In Finland for example coefficients of inbreeding have been  published on their kennel club’s web site for some time. The KC has banned mother-son or father-daughter matings and been criticised for agreeing to matings between different sized or different-coated variations within a breed. Breed purity still ranks higher than breed health in so many areas of pedigree dog breeding.

 Breed purity as a breeding principle is a relatively recent phenomenon. Yes, distinct morphological types did come down to us through the ages, as the Saluki so aptly demonstrates, but hunters, farmers and herdsmen bred dogs for performance not appearance and sadly, as the BBC documentary bravely pointed out, breed purity as a goal had links with dangerous thoughts on racial purity in some European countries. The eugenicist Galton in Britain was inspired by the Basset Hound Club’s studbook. Our precious breeds of dog deserve to gain from their unique genetic diversity rather than be punished by imposed genetic isolation. To vilify and attempt to discredit a talented programme-maker, in spite of all the expertise aired on this cathartic programme reflects badly on many in the pedigree dog world. This programme, once analysed in a considered rational manner will do more for our pedigree breeds of dog than Crufts ever could. And I believe many of the wiser heads in dog-breeding acknowledge that.

So where does the KC go from here? There is an identified need for a more powerful body to oversee their activities, concentrating on the soundness of each breed. There is a clear requirement for the KC to see through changes, not just announce them. At shows for example, ring stewards should bar entry for exhibits that breach the new breed standards. This would send a strong message to show breeders. The KC should stop trying to be involved in all things canine and concentrate on pedigree dogs, with the latter receiving their devoted attention. But in doing so, they should stop worshipping at the altar of breed-purity. The health, soundness and well-being of dogs must be placed well ahead of breeders’ interests. If an outcross to another breed can reduce the incidence of bladder-stones in Dalmatians, then this should not just be permitted but demanded. This has already been achieved in the United States through an outcross to the Pointer. There are plenty of breeders, who, with KC support, could produce far healthier Bulldogs and sounder Mastiffs. They need the firm backing of a far-seeing Kennel Club, not hand-wringing and pious words from an organisation in denial. The BBC documentary, and its updating sequel,  has already been a source of good; now it has to be a catalyst for change. The world of the pedigree dog needs leadership, not just resistance to change, reluctance to accept advice. Our dogs deserve no less.