Monday, 26 September 2016

Vet Checks: the answer to extreme dog breeding

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the purpose and scope of the Vet Checks introduced at Crufts this year.

This article aims to clear up some of that confusion by looking at the origins and aims of these new checks. For many years, those that care for and about dogs, have deplored the exaggerated conformation of some of our dog breeds.

Way back in 1981 an article entitled ‘The Things we Do to Dogs’ by Simon Wolfenson was published in the New Scientist on this very topic. Here is the opening sentence: The squashed face of the Peke, the drooping eye and the long back of the Bassett, the giant size of the Great Dane – careful breeding perpetuates the special features of pedigree dogs in ever more exaggerated form.

Going back even further when I was a child in the 1960s I remember my mother and our vet deploring the state of Pekes and Pugs as they struggled to breath and pant effectively. This is nothing new.

Yet throughout the generations, the views of the average dog owner has been largely ignored. We have been expected to leave breeding to those that ‘know best’ ie, the breeders themselves.

And then along came Jemima Harrison with her hard hitting film Pedigree Dogs Exposed. Concerns about pedigree dogs swept the nation. And as a result, after losing the support of the BBC and its coverage of Crufts, the Kennel Club began to sit up and listen to what people were saying.

Changes to breed standards

In 2009 the Kennel Club proposed a raft of changes to the breed standards of many exaggerated dogs. Many of these changes were adopted, and a now interested public began to watch for a resulting change in the type of dogs being given awards at high profile shows.

There have no doubt been changes in the ways that some breeds are ‘judged’ as a result, but in other breeds it seems clear that the new breed standards have not been taken as seriously as was intended by the Kennel Club. It was time to get tough.

The introduction of vet checks

Determined to ‘get it right’ this time, the Kennel Club has launched a system of vet checks to take place at Championship dog shows.

The purpose of these very focused checks is specifically to search for clinical problems that have arisen as a result of exaggerations in conformation.

Because the checks are specifically concerned with exaggerated conformation, dogs belonging to the many breeds that are not susceptible to exaggeration do not need to be tested. This avoids expensive and unnecessary testing of dogs that do not have a problem. Fifteen High Profile breeds were chosen to be included in the new tests at launch.

This is a unique and clever approach. Unlike any health test previously introduced, it deals ‘head on’ with the problem of exaggerated conformation and the health issues generated by that problem.

But these dogs are already health tested aren’t they?

The failure to discriminate between existing health tests and the new vet checks is causing a lot of confusion. Many pedigree dogs are subjected to a raft of different health checks.

Eyes are checked for retinal problems and glaucoma, hips for poor bone formation, elbows the same. We have tests for diseases like CNM and of course dogs can be checked for soundness of movement, heart and so on.

But none of these previous health tests has addressed the issue of conformation exaggeration. In the past this shortcoming has led to dogs winning high profile awards when they are clearly uncomfortable or even in pain, as a direct result of their poor and exaggerated conformation.

Times change

Thirty of forty years ago, people took little notice of how dogs were treated. Training methods were harsh, and many dogs lived a fairly low quality existence. Nowadays we treat our dogs a great deal more kindly and compassionately.

Times have changed and people are no longer content to turn a blind eye to dogs that are bred with the grotesque wrinkles of extreme Neopolitan Mastiffs, the flattened faces of Pekes and Pugs, and the withered rear ends of the show German Shepherd.

It is just not appropriate anymore.

Change is hard

The new vet checks have undoubtedly upset a lot of show dog exhibitors. Some of these have formed an organisation called the Canine Alliance, and representatives of the CA met recently with the Kennel Club to put their grievances and demand the suspension of the new vet checks.

The Kennel Club has stood firm, and refused to suspend the new system.

Exhibitors in those breeds where unacceptable levels of exaggeration have taken place, will now need to decide on where their future lays. Some will probably give up showing.

Others will learn to adapt and breed dogs with a better conformation. Change is always hard, but these changes are designed with the benefit of dogs in mind, not exhibitors.

A better future for dogs

I find it exciting to consider that in the years to come we may now see Pekinese and Pugs with real muzzles, Bassett Hounds with tight eyes, and legs that give them a bit of ground clearance.

We may soon see Neopolitan Mastiffs, with a skin they can be comfortable in, winning dogs shows. And I am sure there will be more benefits to follow.

Both the Kennel Club and Jemima Harrison are to be congratulated. The Kennel Club for standing firm in the face of some determined opposition, and Jemima for being the catalyst behind many of these changes with her ground breaking film.

I very much hope vet checks are here to stay. Hopefully my beloved working labradors and cockers will never become so exaggerated that they need to be on the list. But if they do suffer from extremes of breeding, it is great to know that this system of vet checks is in place to protect them.

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