As you’ve read here at Best in Show Daily over the past week, in our stories about the great Crufts event, the “world’s largest dog show” has been beloved by British dog fanciers and by the average man and woman on the street in the U.K. for decades. The Crufts organizers and the Kennel Club in the U.K. have long done an admirable job of welcoming not only the serious purebred kennel owner to its audience, but also households who have one show dog or even one pet dog.
Indeed the show has been so popular among the citizenry that the British Broadcasting Corporation, better known as the BBC, for many years aired not only the four nights of the dog show, but leading up to Crufts each year included a preview program the weekend before the festivities began. Along with conformation judging, Crufts hosts many activities that celebrate the dog, and the citizens of the U.K. love their dogs. Millions of people watched the Crufts broadcast on the BBC every year and it is estimated that as many as 160,000 visit in person.
Among the offerings during Crufts week are “Friends for Life,” a program much like the AKC’s Awards for Canine Excellence presentation, which honors five dogs that through their support, companionship or brave actions have “truly earned the title of man’s best friend.” The huge International Junior Showmanship competition has also been part of Crufts for decades and the Young Kennel Club further encourages young people ages 6 to 24, whether they have purebred or crossbreed dogs, to be part of the dog world.
Crufts also offers competition in agility, Heelwork to Music, obedience, flyball and Gamekeepers classes. Breeders’ Competition classes are offered for exhibition of multiple generations of a breeding program. Breed rescue groups have stands at Crufts so they can interact with the thousands of spectators. Perhaps most importantly from a public relations standpoint, Crufts and the Kennel Club encourage those who own crossbreed dogs to visit and enjoy the dog show, and to participate in select events, just as enthusiastically as they do purebred dog owners.
But in August of 2008 a program was aired on BBC that changed some elements of the Crufts dog show forever. Taking a very narrow, one-sided view, “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” delivered an alarming message that the majority of purebred dogs are riddled with health problems that prevent them from living normal lives, and further, that the Kennel Club and most breeders associated with dog shows know this and yet continue without reservation to breed these dogs.
The program took more than two years to make, perhaps because it took that long to find and interview a small handful of people who breed and show purebred dogs who, in conversation with a reporter, inexplicably seem to say that a dog’s physical characteristics—such as spots on a Dalmatian, the flat face on a Pug, or the ridge on a Rhodesian Ridgeback—are as important as whether or not the dog can hear, see, breathe or fight infection. Never once during the hour-long program was it mentioned that many people who breed and show dogs also live with and love them, and the majority are often surprised and terribly devastated by the problems cropping up in various breeds.
Within a very short period of time following the airing of the program, the purebred dog world was vilified in the British press, and the Kennel Club along with it.
In the immediate aftermath of the crisis several things occurred that at the time may have seemed insurmountable, but of course Crufts has gone on in spite of them. Various sponsors and trade exhibitors withdrew their participation of the show and other Kennel Club events, and perhaps most surprisingly, the BBC—after broadcasting Crufts for 42 years—withdrew its television coverage for 2009. They have not chosen to renew since then.
As with almost any given situation, there was, however, an up-side to the broadcast of what was obviously a distorted representation of the truth. The truth is that many hobby breeders are deeply devoted to producing only the healthiest possible puppies and doing everything they can to help eradicate genetic disorders in their breeds. As devastating as was the damage to the image of the purebred dog world, changes that came about as a result of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” were positive, and over the long term will in fact help conscientious breeders in the U.K., and force those who are less so, to breed healthier dogs.
The Kennel Club made numerous changes in its practices and implemented new programs in an effort to staunch the tide of criticism aimed at purebred dogs. Individual breed clubs were asked to appoint health committees to monitor all health concerns in each breed. The breed standard of every KC-recognized breed has been studied and necessary changes made to assure that breeders are not encouraged to breed for qualities that might compromise the health and well being of a dog.
The Kennel Club’s “Assured Breeders Scheme,” established in 2004 to support responsible breeders, continues to be part of the KC response to the program. The Kennel Club Genetics Centre at the Animal Health Trust was established to help scientists research inherited disease and develop DNA tests, so that breeders can screen dogs for heritable conditions before they breed them. Health test results for Kennel Club-registered dogs are displayed on the Kennel Club website.
At the Crufts show itself, the “Breeding for the Future” zone is now in operation, where breeders and owners can talk to veterinarians, geneticists, scientists and breed specialists about topics of concern to them as well as health initiatives implemented by the Kennel Club. A list of the initiatives adopted and continued by the Kennel Club is a long one.
Among the interesting implementations that will take place at Crufts 2012 is the requirement that 15 “high profile breeds” will be required to undergo a veterinary examination before they are allowed to compete in the Group competition. These new veterinary checks will also take place at subsequent General and Group Championship shows. In a statement, the Kennel Club explained the establishment of this program thus: “The decision to implement these checks was taken by the General Committee on the advice of the Kennel Club’s Dog Health Group, in order to ensure that the fifteen high profile breeds, some of which suffer from health issues, do not bring the whole hobby of dog showing into disrepute.”
Note that the Crufts 2012 Best in Show judge, Frank Kane, serves on the KC General Committee and also on the Breed Standards and Stud Book Committee. Kane has been deeply involved in helping deter criticism of purebred dogs following the “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” program.
A high profile breed is defined by the KC as “requiring particular monitoring by reason of visible condition which may cause health or welfare concerns.” A list of those breeds is regularly reviewed and updated. Dogs that are selected Best of Breed at Crufts 2012 and subsequent shows “will need to be given a clean bill of health by the show veterinary surgeon before their Best of Breed award is confirmed and before they are allowed to continue to compete in the final stages of the show involved,” according to the Kennel Club.
The KC posts this information on its website regarding what the veterinary surgeons will be looking for: “The vet will be checking for obvious signs of ill health and especially for signs of eye discomfort or inflammation, lameness, respiratory difficulty and skin inflammation.” They further state that, “no special diagnostic aids will be used … so all of these signs of ill health would be noticeable by the judge. Championship level judges have a minimum of 7 years judging experience as well as significant experience as exhibitors and breeders; therefore, the Kennel Club is confident that judges are able to recognise visible conditions which may cause health and welfare concerns, i.e. lameness, painful, sore eyes, skin irritations and obvious respiratory problems.”
The breeds that will undergo this intense scrutiny this year are the Basset Hound, Bloodhound, Bulldog, Chinese Crested, Chow Chow, Clumber Spaniel, Dogue De Bordeaux, French Bulldog, German Shepherd Dog, Mastiff, Neapolitan Mastiff, Pekingese, Pug, St. Bernard and Shar Pei.
Best in Show Daily will report on the aftermath of these examinations regarding whether any of the Best of Breed winners fail to get through to the Group judging. The hope is that, with so much scrutiny aimed at the purebred dog world today, breeders and fanciers are more diligent than ever about breeding for and exhibiting only the fittest, healthiest dogs. It is hoped as well that in due course the American Kennel Club will begin to address this issue as seriously as do the Kennel Club and other foreign purebred dog registries.