Becoming pro-active not re-active by Sheila Atter

Created: 18/04/2012

With all that has been going on with regard to the introduction of vet checks at championship shows it seems that the reason for implementing such a move has been forgotten, and consequently there has been little discussion as to whether this is really a valuable tool in improving the health of pedigree dogs or whether in reality it is merely a knee-jerk reaction that has no valid reasoning behind it.
Let’s go back to basics. The TV programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed was certainly a wake-up call for many dog breeders. Yes, it was highly biased, and yes there were factual errors, but much of what was said made very uncomfortable viewing for many who had become complacent over the years. We could point to the sterling work being done by both the Kennel Club and the breed clubs in raising money for research into canine health problems, and to the amount of health testing done by individual breeders in an attempt to ensure that the puppies they breed are as healthy as possible, but no amount of health testing could compensate for the fact that there were structural exaggerations in some breeds that had been allowed to creep in over the years. In some of these breeds steps were already being taken to correct the excesses but PDE prove to be the catalyst for more rapid changes.

New initiatives

A beleaguered KC, conscious of the weight of public opinion against pedigree dogs in general, and show breeders in particular introduced, almost daily it seemed, more and more proposed initiatives to solve the problems. Most of these ideas never went any further than being mere suggestions and, in any case, it was pretty evident to anyone with half a brain cell that improvements couldn’t happen overnight, but would take several generations to be implemented. Three years on, and where are we now? The announcement last year that the so-called high-profile breeds would in future be subject to vet checks was perhaps not taken seriously enough by the breeds concerned, and one can appreciate both the KC’s reasons for implementing such checks and its frustration at the seeming inability of some judges to recognise the situation and their continued insistence on rewarding dogs of extreme breed type, with little regard to their overall soundness.
But in the overall scheme of things, what good do such vet checks do – other than making it appear to outsiders that the KC is being pro-active on the subject of breed health? The answer is, absolutely nothing. One BOB being disqualified for an old eye injury – or even for something as obvious as serious unsoundness caused by poor conformation – does not have the slightest effect on breed health. If it is indeed a conformational over-exaggeration that is being penalised it might perhaps make the judge of the day reconsider his decision, although no information has been forthcoming on the sanctions that will be applied to those judges whose BOBs do fail the vet checks.
The premise behind the TV programme was that pedigree dogs equate to show dogs and that therefore anyone who breeds from show dogs is automatically perpetuating the worst excesses of any particular breed. This is a totally false assumption – only a very small proportion of KC registered dogs ever see the inside of a show ring, and only a small proportion of those dogs that are shown are actually bred on from. The argument made by those that would like to discredit the show world is that since judging is to the breed Standard, and in their view it is the breed Standards that have led to the most serious exaggerations, show dogs must automatically be the most over-exaggerated specimens of each breed. But is this really true? No, of course it isn’t. You will see far more over-wrinkled Shar-Pei, for example, bred from a line of pet dogs that have not seen the inside of a show ring for generations, than ever you will from a show breeder.

Feel-good factor

Of course we all want our show dogs to be healthy. We also want their siblings who are not shown but placed in loving pet homes to be equally healthy. Testing dogs that are perceived as the best of the best will not improve the lot of those pups born in homes or kennels who think that health testing means a quick trip to the vet for annual vaccinations, but it does give the KC a feel-good factor, because the general public can see that something is being done to prick the bubble of those they think of as snooty show breeders.
If anything is to be done about the health of pedigree dogs, it must start from the bottom, not at the top. The KC has made a start, by introducing the Assured Breeder Scheme, attempting in effect to institute a two-tier system – puppies that are guaranteed to be health tested, and those for which no guarantees are forthcoming, even though they might in fact have been subject to far more stringent health screening but are from breeders that choose, for whatever reason, not to join the ABS. Unfortunately, as in so many other KC initiatives over the last ten years or so, the execution of a basically good idea was flawed at the start, and many of those who should have been included in the ABS were alienated and for whatever reason have not overcome their prejudices. The consequence is that these folk are increasingly being treated as second class citizens, with every utterance from the KC indicating that only puppies bred by an Assured Breeder are likely to be healthy and well-reared. What does this say about the majority of KC-registered puppies, that do not come from Assured Breeders? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it say in the eyes of the general public about a KC that happily registers what it is inferring are substandard litters?
If the KC really wants to be taken seriously by the general public and by the other organisations that consider that they have a right to speak for dogs in general, such as the RSPCA and BVA, they must completely re-think the whole registration system. Start at the bottom, not the top. Instead of carrying out pointless vet checks that only serve to antagonise and humiliate those that are doing their very best to breed healthy puppies, initiate a system whereby every single pedigree dog that is used for breeding must have undergone both a basic health check and any relevant health tests and screening for the specific breed. Then register only puppies whose parents do meet this standard. Yes, it would decimate the KC coffers in one fell swoop, because a lot of breeders just wouldn’t bother. But so what? It would prove to the naysayers that the KC is really serious about the health of pedigree dogs, KC registration really would be a badge of quality, and the general public would know where to go for their healthy puppies, so registrations would start to creep up again long term. It’s time we became pro-active rather than re-active, and proved to the world that show dogs are indeed as healthy as possible.