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Are dog shows hurting dogs?

The question that has become all the rage in London — but hardly even gets asked in the U.S. — got some ink in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, and with less than a week before the opening of the Westminster dog show.

The woman who was courageous enough to ask it, and honest enough to give the answer — yes — was Christie Keith, contributing editor for Universal Press Syndicate’s Pet Connection, past director of the Pet Care Forum on America Online, and a writer of a “semi-weekly” column for SFGate.com, the online home of the San Francisco Chronicle.

As Keith points out, the BBC documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” got things rolling. The series showed that many purebred dogs are prone to diseases and health problems that have resulted from “the tyranny of the show ring” – breeders selecting their dogs to accentuate specific, often freakish traits that win at dog shows but leave them unfit for living the life of a normal dog.

“If that allegation sounds extreme, consider that the Pekingese dog who won top honors in 2003 at Crufts, Britain’s most prestigious dog show,” Keith wrote. “(He) had to be photographed afterwards while lying on an icepack because he couldn’t breathe well enough to efficiently cool his own over-heated body.”

In response to the BBC documentary, the network’s decision to stop airing Crufts, and the withdrawl from the show of several sponsors, Britain’s Kennel Club revised its standards somewhat, warning breed clubs that the most extreme traits would no longer be tolerated.

In the U.S., the American Kennel Club, and critics of it, were mostly silent. Only PETA stepped forward, as it’s prone to do, demanding that the USA Network follow BBC’s example and stop airing the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. USA Network declined, and the show will air Monday and Tuesday, February 9-10, from 8-11 p.m.

“But should it? Are purebred dogs really in that much trouble? And if so, are dog shows behind the genetic and other health problems that plague our pets?” Keith asks in her column.

“Unfortunately, yes, purebred dogs really are in a lot of trouble. By restricting breeding pools, which is how you create and maintain “pure” breeds in the first place, you limit genetic diversity. Selecting dogs for a single set of characteristics that help them win at dog shows instead of, for instance, how healthy, happy and long-lived they are, limits it even further.

“This in turn can lead to a population that’s weaker, less fertile and in poorer health. Given that many breeds have high rates of certain types of cancer, joint deformities, heart and eye problems, aggression, nervousness and other conditions known to have a strong genetic component, the evidence that’s happening now is clear.”

Keith points out that kennel clubs and dog shows have many positive effects, and that dog show standards aren’t harming purebreds nearly as much as those who are churning out puppies for profit. She also points out that she has bred and shown dogs herself, and that “some of the kindest and most compassionate people I’ve ever known are dog show people; I don’t want to see any of that end.”

Nevertheless, the dog show world, she says, needs “revolutionary change.”

“I want to abandon the concept of “purebred dogs” and return to the day when we bred dogs for their function and type, not their “looks” and ability to win in the show ring, and certainly not based on a piece of paper that indicates both parents are of the same ‘breed’ …

“That’s not to say that such dogs can’t still have a certain look that is readily identifiable as the kind of dog we love. But an emphasis on the most detailed points of physical conformation, the idea that “breed type” requires tails be set “just so” or eyes have some precise shape, is incompatible with the health and well-being of dogs.”

(Photo: Uno, last year’s best in show, Westminster Kennel Club)

Comments

Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time February 4, 2009 at 10:48 am

Ms. Keith has done an excellent job of expressing my own sentiments. Breeding dogs with characteristics that would be fatal to them in nature just doesn’t make any sense–for example, dogs that can’t breathe properly, dogs that can’t breed or give birth naturally, dogs that develop bone or joint malfunctions. This isn’t doing any favors for the dogs, and it will eventually lead to the extinction of the breeds (or “breed types”) that so many of us love. It should be possible to develop a “form follows function” approach that gives priority to vibrant good health and excellent temperament. Form has to follow function.

I also think she’s right about the breeders, people who are passionately devoted to one type of dog. I’ve never known one who was in it for the money. Given the chance, the local clubs that make up the constituency of the AKC could be the antidote to puppy mills. I’d go further and assert that the AKC needs to revisit its registration policies and quit viewing registrations as a profit center.

They also need to revisit some practices regarding modifications to the dogs’ appearance such as cropping and docking ears and tails. There’s no need to do this.

I have loved one particular group of dogs, the hounds, all my life. I’d be more than ready to sign on for Ms. Keith’s revolution. I think it could lead to salvation.

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