by   David Hancock

The Kennel Club has long claimed that its whole reason-to-be is the improvement of dogs, despite widespread criticism from the veterinary profession and welfare groups that the mere perpetuation of some breeds alone amounts to a contradiction of this self-imposed mandate. The club has of course striven to face some of the more pressing problems, such as the domed cramped skulls of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, the respiratory struggles of muzzle-less Bulldogs, the spinal deformities of German Shepherd Dogs and inherited deafness in Dalmatians. But tinkering with the word picture setting out what makes each breed a distinctive breed, or Breed Standard, can never be enough. Crafty breeders and judges pursuing their own agenda can far too easily permit and even reward harmful exaggerations and ill-advised fads. All too often breeders of exaggerated dogs have been allowed to argue 'but they've always been like that'. Excessive wrinkling in the Bloodhound, long ears in the Basset Hound, long backs in the Dachshund and heavy coats in the Old English Sheepdog are regularly defended by fanciers and even breed clubs of today. But there is ample photographic evidence to prove the reality and fairness of criticism of harmful exaggeration. And no sane rational human being can argue that the piggy-eyed egg-headed Bull Terrier of the last half-century is anything other than breeder-whim in breed clubs that have lost their way - and been supported by a kennel club that meekly allowed them to do so! Some of us have been campaigning for decades. 

   "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 be soothsayer just anxious for some coordinated action within dogdom 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 alone to plough its own furrow, red flags need to be hoisted; the ship is destined to hit the rocks.

In 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, although God knows the harm the successive KC secretaries have done! 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, that 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 their ship is being driven on to the rocks?        

Unless there is new leadership and a new philosophy at the Kennel Club, it will, in its decline, pull the pedigree dog business down with it. When a TV programme such as 'Pedigree Dogs Exposed' of a decade ago is such a devastating expose, strong remedial action is required, NOT whining excuses by KC staff. The KC staff must now stop defending the indefensible, take a long hard look in the mirror, then quickly find a more pro-active chairman and a more forward-looking secretary. A KC secretary doesn't have to be an expert on dogs, but authoritative, professionally impressive and possess stature. The current holders of these posts have been found wanting. The pedigree dog business now has an image problem; the KC is part of that problem and needs to become part of the solution.

Who fights best for dogs, the free press or a self-serving Kennel Club? The frenetic press activity from the Kennel Club in anticipation of a publicized TV programme setting out their deficiencies in caring for pedigree dogs was illuminating. When any public institution falls down on its responsibilities then a free press is there to remind them of why they exist. It's a bit lame to realise that you've not being doing your job then squawk loudly when investigative journalists call you to account. Perhaps the Kennel Club should rebrand itself as The Dog Breeders Club if they rate breeders ahead of dogs. There is nothing wrong with any dog club supporting breeders; there is a lot wrong with a club which claims to improve dogs putting some  breeders' interests before those of their dogs. 

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.          

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 KC secretary at the time, 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...'  Are these two conflicting statements at all reassuring or just smoke and mirrors? Leaders must be clear and actually lead! It is far better for the KC to be pilloried for what is does than to be stigmatised for not doing what truly has to be done. Any organisation relying on rebuttal, resorting to denial, whatever the facts, is going to get a kicking, sooner or later. Let's have a new broom, before the whole dog-game gets blown away; the storm clouds are only just gathering!

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 'exhibitors' blindness', dogs suffer. The KC's own dog show, Crufts, no longer shown on the BBC, has to become the vehicle for visible change - and presented by truly expert commentators not TV celebrities'        

   Crufts, with its opening fanfares, fulsome coverage, shameless dumbing-down by over-verbose commentators, and, for the dogs, an endless sea of human legs, comes and goes each year as a national institution, albeit one now with an international following. In 2015, with over 3,000 entrants from over 43 countries, it has been restored to the pre-quarantine days as an international event. With 22,000 entries and 160,000 visitors this is an annual British landmark. But has this been to the benefit of dogs, pedigree dogs in particular? If the best dogs win, are only entered after rigorous health checks and are sound anatomically, it should be an arena for choosing future breeding stock - for the better future of the recognised breeds involved. But, as with many competitive events it has predictable flaws: judges of questionable ability - chosen all too often by reciprocal back-scratching amongst the breeder-judges around Europe, fickle fashion affecting the soundness of some popular breeds (as the sad decline of the German Shepherd Dog illustrates), harmful exaggerations in physique being condoned and cups and coats becoming more important than soundness and vigour. I believe it is entirely fair to state too that dogs are less respected now than ever before, regarded as animated toys or prestigious possessions, never for what they can do.

 The value of Crufts should lie, not in the much-televised competitions of fly-ball, agility, obedience and heelwork, but, as veterinary knowledge and breeding expertise increases each year, the parading of dogs that are true exemplars of excellence in their breeds both for genetic soundness and historic breed-type. It should not be possible for genetically-flawed dogs in breeds where such faults are traceable or breeds altered by influential breeder-whim to triumph - but they do. When a terrier can win with obvious signs of a luxating patella, a Pointer can win despite displaying a Hackney-action barred by its own breed standard, and a Cocker Spaniel can become a champion despite having ears longer than its word-picture or Breed Standard allows, the breeding of these dogs is becoming harmfully casual. Boasts about the huge entry cloud the fact that many of the exhibits do not deserve to be there; every year the Crufts' judges' critiques make the comment: How did some of these dogs qualify?  

  But what do the judges at this most prestigious of shows think of the dogs arrayed before them, dogs which have had to qualify under other KC-approved judges to appear there. In 2010, the Old English Sheepdog judge at Crufts commented: "...all four top honours went to dogs from or bred in Canada, Germany, Russia and Spain, does this not say something about the breed here in the UK? One or two other things concerned me about this lovely breed, quite a few had light eyes, poor under-jaws, poorer-constructed rears to the point of very little deviation from thigh to hocks...Top-lines in many I found totally wrong..." The Whippet judge at this show concluded: "I am concerned that over-angulated hind-quarters seem to becoming more prevalent, too long from the point of the stifle to the hock. Not only does this spoil the balanced and symmetrical outline but is a serious fault as far as the functional capability of the Whippet is concerned." The English Setter judge reported: "I was disappointed to find that there seemed to be a lot of setters with long loins...breeders please take care. I also thought a lot of exhibits were not as well-muscled as they should be, with flabby soft rear ends and no second thigh muscle. An English Setter is a gundog..." For fundamental faults such as these to even appear at such a show tells you a great deal about the knowledge of anatomy of breeders, and indeed in the judges that qualified such flawed dogs for this top show, and this is extremely worrying. But such exhibits get bred from, the offspring of these dogs would have appeared at Crufts in 2015.

   A revised mandate for our KC would not be difficult to set out or indeed to enact. The KC should aim to deregister every dog carrying harmful genes, harmful exaggerations and a flawed anatomy. Pure-breeding should be respected NOT worshipped; when it's not working outcrossing should be arranged with geneticists, vets and Breed Councils. It has already worked well for the betterment of Field Spaniels, Irish Wolfhounds and in the evolution of the Cavalier at its birth as a breed. The casual recognition of purely invented breeds like the Eurasier and the Kromfohrlander (abroad) must not be repeated. If a breed has been improved, as the Dorset, Sussex and Victorian Bulldogs demonstrate, make them the new template for the breed of Bulldog. If the Plummer and Sporting Lucas Terriers, the Sprockers (or Springer-Cocker blend) deserve recognition (if they breed true to type) then enable it - encourage those who want a better working dog. Less heavily-coated versions of over-coated pastoral breeds are easily achieved; they already exist - in the pastures! If the Working Sealyham is more like Edwardes's original creation - then recognise it. Be pro-active, be lively, challenge the status quo, move forward confidently - and earn our admiration! Our dogs need the very best Kennel Club that we can shape. To answer the question 'What is a kennel club for?' it would not be cynical to answer: To protect a registered breed from its own breeders!