Every year at the Welsh Kennel Club championship show in August, the chairman of the United Kingdom Kennel Club  gives what is styled as a “state of the nation” address.

At a dinner on the Friday night of the show weekend, the KC chairman addresses the issues at hand and sums up how the KC sees the state of the pedigree dog scene in the U.K. and the overseas influences that are having a bearing on the U.K.

Well, the WKC show was held last weekend, and for the third time the KC chairman, Professor Steve Dean, spoke to an attentive audience. The chairman’s speech is always much anticipated, and in recent years there has been little to cheer as the pedigree dog world in the U.K. fought back from the damage done by the “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” programme broadcast five years ago. Two years ago, in his first chairman’s address, Prof. Dean called on people to embrace the KC more and to refer to it as “our Kennel Club” and for 2013 Prof. Dean sought to deliver an upbeat message.

On the KC’s Public Perception
The KC, he said, is no longer “the enemy” in the eyes of politicians, veterinary professionals, animal charities and the public. He claimed this perception had been “successfully altered,” and the club was now seen as an important part of any solution designed to address canine health, welfare and behavioural problems. And he went on to discuss other changes he felt had moved opinion “a considerable distance away” from the KC’s previous image as the enemy.

“This past year has seen a number of examples where we are very much on the front foot on an issue rather than on the back foot trying to defend the pedigree dog against inaccurate perceptions,” he told the audience. “This is not an accidental change and has required a considerable degree of hard work by our staff and many breed clubs.”

One significant example, Prof. Dean said, was “the increasing acceptance” that the source of much of the poor health and welfare of recognised pedigree breeds lay outside the KC registration system and the introduction of compulsory microchipping would be a major contribution towards identifying people who bred “with poor attention to health and welfare. On an even more positive note, microchips will help us demonstrate how the vast majority of those who register dogs with the KC are the people to be cherished and encouraged.”

For a number of years now, the Assured Breeder Scheme [the British term for “plan”] has been regarded by the U.K. KC as the jewel in its crown. The scheme was originally launched in 2004 as the Accredited Breeder Scheme and received a lukewarm reception among serious breeders. But over the years, the scheme has been amended and has become increasingly popular. This year it was announced that the ABS was to receive official backing by receiving United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) accreditation, and Prof. Dean told his WKC audience that he believed the ABS is set to become the standard for all breeding in the U.K.

“Despite its critics, signing up to membership of the ABS is an overt demonstration of a breeder’s intention to breed dogs with health and welfare at the forefront of their ambitions,” he said. “ABS breeders put their heads above the parapet and, on occasions, they are shown to fall short of the desired standard and either improve or must withdraw from ABS membership. The vast majority delivers the intent of the scheme, and the numbers grow month by month. The ABS list is increasingly being referred to by the public looking for a new puppy.”

Now, with accreditation, plans are in progress to redesign the scheme to include mandatory inspections of every ABS member “to ensure quality is being upheld.”

“Getting this right is one of our most important current tasks,” Prof. Dean said.

He explained that the KC has invested considerable time and resource in helping breeders to deal with known inherited conditions with a lot of work still to be done. He also highlighted recent research from the U.S. suggesting that as some of the more complex inherited conditions such as hip dysplasia are as common in crossbreeds as they are in pedigree dogs, a change of attitude is required.

“Although this work needs to be taken further to allow us to understand the ramifications of this revelation, there is clearly much more to be done before we can fully understand how we can best continue to improve the health of the pedigree dog,” he said. “The KC is intent on continuing to support research in the field of inherited diseases.”

On the Decline in Show Entries
Prof. Dean then moved on to how the decline in show entries should be halted. The debate in the dog press – including DOG WORLD’s reader survey – was being “closely monitored,” he said.

Some of the key points to emerge so far were the allocation of CCs, selection of judges, champions’ classes, the impact of the big-winning dog, ‘decoupling’ stakes classes from the best in show competition, and benching.

“There appears to be no consensus on why entries are declining, and therefore the solutions are largely speculative and not as simple as some have suggested, but the range of comment is welcome, and both useful and informative,” he said.

“The evidence the General Committee has reviewed suggests the number of CCs available has little impact on the entries at shows. We did suspend the removal of CCs for a time to allow us an opportunity to assess the potential impact of decreasing CC allocation in line with the decline in entries, and the General Committee concluded our version of ‘quantitative easing’ has had no effect on the decline, and other statistics indicate increasing the CC allocation is unlikely to be effective in increasing overall entries and is likely to have a detrimental effect on the status of the champion title in the U.K.

“One press commentator said we missed the point, as when a show gains a set of tickets its entry in that breed goes up. We did of course understand this, but the evidence suggests the average entry across all shows usually declines. Thus, although one show benefits, others lose out. This is just one example of the complex arguments we all face.”

The proposal to increase the number of CCs to all breeds at all shows could have unintended consequences, he went on, such as societies incurring additional costs associated with appointing judges and providing ring space, benching and parking, and most minority breeds do not have judging lists capable of supplying the needs of such an large expansion in the number of CCs, he said.

Prof. Dean concluded by giving assurances that the KC would “continue to search for areas” where it could help.

“I’m certain that the all show societies recognise the need to continue to look for innovative ways to attract entries,” he said.

Although it may all seem doom and gloom, that is not the case, Prof. Dean said. Entry fees remained “well below” those in other parts of the world, declining entries compared favourably with those of the large international shows, and magnificent dogs worthy of their titles were being produced.

On Change in the Dog World
Prof. Dean said there were “big differences” in the way people owned and enjoyed dogs today compared to the past.

“The U.K. has always had a significant pedigree dog population alongside a larger crossbred community, and the dividing line between them has become increasingly less distinct,” he said.

“In fact, the core of the crossbreed population was traditionally the ‘Heinz 57,’ ‘bitser,’ or, to use less polite terminology, ‘mongrel.’ These were the days of the so-called ‘latch-key’ dogs, when the ‘stray dog’ wandered the streets. At that time, pedigree dog breeding was dominated by those with large kennels, and the concept of the designer dog did not exist, at least not overtly.”

Today, he continued, the registered pedigree population stands at about 2.5 million, supplemented by what was assumed to be a similar number of dogs not registered with the KC, but bred as recognisable breeds.

“The largest proportion is still considered to be formed of the crossbreeds, but the make-up of this group has dramatically changed and is now dominated by bull terrier crosses, Greyhounds, lurchers and the so-called designer crossbreeds, with the classic ‘Heinz 57’ having been neutered close to extinction,” he said.

“In summary, the pedigree sector is probably around a third of all dogs.”

In addition to changes in the dog population, there has been an increase in the variety of canine activities for owners to enjoy, Prof. Dean went on, with agility, flyball, canicross and rally having been added to the more traditional events such as shows, field trials, obedience and working trials.

“In some of these, the crossbreed competes alongside the pedigree dog, and so the KC has recognised these dogs on its companion dog register for some years now.

“We all know well how the negative view has developed over the past five years and recognise that this has resulted in some major changes.”

In part, Prof. Dean said, change had been driven by an increasing knowledge in genetic science alongside developments in veterinary medicine, “both increasingly revealing the inheritance of some conditions.”

“With the benefit of hindsight, it would appear breeders are not alone in wrestling with this new information and bringing it to bear on the practical aspects of dog breeding and improving our understanding of how genetics have an impact on health,” he said.

“We are still developing strategies, and the underlying information and the series of lectures being provided at this show over the next few days are just one demonstration of this.”

On the Future
It was surprising, the chairman said, that the negative publicity had not decreased the public interest in the pedigree dog; neither had it altered the basic reason why shows existed.

“The majority of pedigree dogs are bred by enthusiasts, and shows are there because a significant proportion of these people enjoy competition and meeting with like-minded others,” he said.

“It may be a revelation to politicians and the veterinary profession, but the majority of us breed and show dogs because we gain enjoyment with any profit obtained being largely realised in terms of pride, reputation and status, but certainly not in terms of money.”

The KC was set up to maintain a register of competing dogs and their genealogy, he went on. And it is also responsible for the regulations governing competitions, and is custodian of the Standards which define the breeds.

“The KC is quite rightly the focal point for the pedigree dog, but the world is changing and others increasingly seek to direct how dogs are bred, kept and regarded,” he said. “If the KC is to retain a strong reputation, to influence the decisions of those who seek to interfere in our interests and protect our world of dogs, then it has to change too.”

Prof. Dean concluded by saying there was still much to be proud of in the world of dogs.

“Although we do face some serious challenges, by working together and taking responsibility for what each of us contributes to the society we live in, we will succeed and prevail,” he said. “Your KC is listening; it is delivering many of the things you have asked for, and it is there to make a difference for dogs.”

Stuart Baillie is the managing director of the British newspaper Dog World, a Best In Show Daily partner.