FOR THE first week of January 2014 we decided to have a theme running through our weekly newspaper, it was to be good news week, think positive week, look at the pluses and remember why we all enjoy this hobby.

The problem though for any news organisation is that you have a duty to report the news and sometimes the best laid schemes ‘Gang aft a-gley” as Robert Burns famously wrote and that is kind of what happened to us. Circumstances overtook us when the Kennel Club wrote to the members of its Assured Breeder Scheme about changes to the scheme and the members didn’t like what they read.

I covered the news side of the story last week and make no apology for returning to it this week because without doubt it is the main talking point in the Uk dog scene at the moment. But this week you’re not getting my words I am sharing with you the column that Sheila Atter wrote and which appeared in Friday’s newspaper.

Sheila writes a weekly column called ‘Maintaining the Standard’ and received many plaudits for this column, and she says herself that in all the years of writing for Dog World she has never received the level of feedback she received when this column was published. So with no further adieu I’ll hand you over to Sheila.

Oh dear, oh dearie me! After feel-good Friday last week, it’s back to normal for the start of 2014. The recent letter sent out from the KC to all Assured Breeders certainly caused a commotion in the usually quiet lull between Christmas and the New Year. This column has commented on many a previous occasion about the ineptitude of the KC’s public relations department, but this really has to be a gaffe too far.

Let us actually examine the facts. These are, quite simply, that the fee for membership of the ABS is rising and that, as a result of UKAS accreditation, every member must receive a visit. Put like that, it’s nothing really startling is it?

Taking the question of the fee rise first. It must be obvious to everyone that £10 ($16) is nowhere near an economic figure if the scheme is to pay for itself. I always have to smile when I hear people trotting out the old mantra that the ABS is ‘just another KC money-making scheme’; the newsletters and the ABS wallets alone must take up a good chunk of that £10, without factoring in the office costs and visits. I am given to understand that when the scheme was first introduced (in 2004) a figure of £30 was mentioned as a reasonable fee, but that this was rejected in favour of the lower sum in order to encourage people to join. As the cost of membership hasn’t risen at all in the intervening years it was inevitable that at some time it would have to go up – and being blunt, if a breeder can’t afford £30, which is the cost for this year, then they really can’t afford to be breeding at all.

So if we have to concede that a rise in the membership fee was to be expected, what about the second part of the equation? Every member must be visited. Isn’t that what many of us have been asking for since the inception of the scheme? We have come a long way since the early days when the then Chairman told the audience at a KC Question Time that they had no legal right to visit breeders’ homes! We have been told, ever since UKAS Accreditation was granted last April, that all new members would have to be visited, and that eventually all existing members would also receive an inspection.

So what is the problem? The problem is quite simply that when we were told that all members must be inspected under the terms of the UKAS commitment, the sentence was not actually completed. All members must be inspected before they can register another litter. Not only were those six words not uttered last April, but when they were told, members were in effect given just two days in which to register any puppies they already had on the ground, and were expected to make immediate arrangements for a visit if they expected puppies in the next few weeks, or even had a litter planned in the coming months. Not only is this quite simply unreasonable – and could well constitute a breach of contract if someone were to issue a legal challenge to its implementation without warning – but it is also patently unworkable. There are at present just 13 Regional Breeder Advisors, most of whom are volunteers working in their spare time for expenses only. No wonder that the ABS office has been inundated with callers requesting a visit, best to get in quick or the planned puppies will have long left for their new homes, minus KC registration papers, before a visit can be organised – and where does that leave the Assured Breeder?

We are constantly being told that UKAS Accreditation is ‘a good thing’, but it has never really been explained why this should be so. Yes, we know the theory. Registration and inspection of all dog breeders is likely to become a reality in the foreseeable future, so it’s far better that the KC scheme is acknowledged as the gold standard before the RSPCA or any other interested party gets a foot in the door. The problem is that what we, the breeders, thought we were signing up for is not what we have been given. Graham Osborne summed up the situation very succinctly. “UKAS is all about content and method and nothing to do with a quality product. It is the management that is accredited, not the product. The KC has now taken on a massive task without understanding the end result. Inspection will be about paperwork, method and environment. None of these three factors will guarantee a litter which is full of breed type, soundness and quality.”

And that is the very heart of the problem. The present debacle has absolutely nothing to do with the cost of the scheme. It has little to do with the question of inspection. It has everything to do with the management of the scheme and the perception that those who are members have of what the scheme means to them.

To give people just a few days notice of a very fundamental change in the running of the scheme was irresponsibly poor management. To be fair, the ABS is woefully understaffed, particularly in the IT department, and hampered throughout by a lack of funds. What a shame it is that no thought appears to have been given to investing some of the KC’s £12 million windfall into the ABS. But, while those who remain members will in time get used to the idea that a rain forest must be felled to provide enough paper for the reams of information that now go out with each new puppy, and will have their food bowls and water buckets lined up for inspection and photography by the Regional Breeder Advisor, the fact remains that this has absolutely nothing to do with being a good breeder. It is simply a question of method.

Those of us who joined the scheme in response to the plea that while we might not need the ABS, the ABS needed us, are totally disillusioned. We have given the ABS its credibility. Now we see our experience count for nothing and are instead lumped with Competent Roofers, Pavement Testing Services and Ready Mixed Concrete which all have similar UKAS Accreditation. While we thought that the ABS was a means of showing our commitment to the highest possible standards – using our experience to breed quality puppies, taking our time to choose lifelong homes, deciding when to vaccinate – we now know that it is all about following a formula: issuing guides on grooming, nutrition, breed traits, rather than taking the time to demonstrate how to groom, being on the end of the phone to discuss feeding problems, and actually having chatted at length about the breed’s foibles way before agreeing to add people to our waiting list.

This, not the price rise or the increase in inspections, is why so many are disillusioned with the ABS. There is a very fundamental difference in expectation between the users of the scheme and the scheme itself. The KC may be proud of their UKAS Accreditation, but cannot be surprised if the hobby breeder now walks away from a scheme that holds nothing for them.

Editor’s note: UKAS is the United Kingdom Accreditation Service and its website says it ‘delivers confidence’. The site also says: “Accreditation is a means of assessing, in the public interest, the technical competence and integrity of the organisations offering these kinds of evaluation services. Accreditation, with its many potential benefits for the quality of goods and in the provision of services throughout the supply chain, is underpinning practical applications of an increasingly wide range of activities across all sectors of the economy, from fishing to forestry, construction to communications.

“More and more businesses are voluntarily choosing to be accredited as they recognise the internal efficiencies that it brings and the opportunities to demonstrate best practice.”

The UK Kennel Club sought to have its Assured Breeder Scheme endorsed by UKAS in the light of the Bateson inquiry into pedigree dog breeding. Looking at social networks in the last week or so one of the issues which seems to have inflamed breeder’s reaction is what they see as the classification for their puppies as nothing more than ‘products’.