Health and welfare above Standards by Kevin Colwill
An acquaintance of mine is a committed Christian and was a regular churchgoer. A few years ago I noticed she stopped attending Sunday services and when I asked why she replied that a new vicar had taken over the parish and was using incense. I found it odd that they could agree on the fundamentals of religious belief but fall out over the use of ecclesiastical air freshener.
It must be something hard-wired into the human condition. Sigmund Freud noticed how groups were often less tolerant of small differences than fundamental ones. We only have to look at party politics to see bitter feuds between those who supposedly believe more or less the same thing.
Andrew Brace (DW, April 6) suggested I got the wrong end of the sick about the Canine Alliance. I have publicly apologised for any offence my column (DW, March 23) might have given. I freely admit I wrote the last Alternative Viewpoint before the video of the Canine Allianceís inaugural meeting became available on YouTube. My column was not, could not, have been a response to that meeting. It was intended as a more general response to some pretty feverish comments flying around the internet.
When I did see coverage of the CAís meeting I found it very impressive. Andrew Braceís opening remarks were everything I would have wanted to hear from a senior judge. He began by acknowledging that problems existed. He went on to openly state that he had made changes to his approach to judging following the criticisms levelled in Pedigree Dogs Exposed. That was a brave move as Iím not at all sure everyone in the meeting would have appreciated him giving Jemima Harrison any credit at all. Andrew firmly nailed his colours and those of the fledgling CA to the mast of canine health.
At this stage I could have imagined throwing what little weight I have behind the CA in a crusade to push the Kennel Club into going much further and much faster on matters of health and welfare. Sadly, I soon started to find reasons why I couldnít follow the band.
Call me prejudiced but calls for legal action almost always put my hackles up. I just donít think sincere disagreements of this sort belong in court. Proving some technical breach of this or that legal point does nothing to address matters of underlying principle. I completely understand that for those directly affected the details of procedure matter greatly. For me, however, itís always been about the bigger principles.
To its great credit the CA has come out in support of independent outside scrutiny. Mike Gadsbyís ĎMOTí idea is not far removed from what Iíve described as a licence to compete. That is a check on all dogs at about 12 months old with those showing signs of clinical conditions barred from showing.
Iíve said before that I feel there is merit in this. There are also some significant problems. First, there is the charge that it could be open to a sort of veterinary nepotism where the exhibitorís own vet waves the puppy through all too easily. Second, there are worries about conditions that are intermittent or reveal themselves only as the dog gets older. I see the licence to compete working alongside the veterinary assessment of winning dogs rather than replacing it.
The KC may be guilty of all sorts of errors of omission but they donít breed dogs, donít take them in the ring and donít reward them with rosettes. If you accept showing has taken some wrong turns in the past then you must accept that exhibitors and judges have their share of responsibility for that. Thatís why I welcomed the vet checks for the 15 high profile breeds. I saw it as a pair of eyes focusing on the dogís health and welfare rather than any esoteric points of breed type or current fashion.
In all conscious I canít support calls for the suspension of the vet checks. For me they are a hard-won precedent we canít just toss away. Obviously everything can be improved on but suspension now sends a terrible signal that matters of health are too hot to handle.
Iíve written before about not wanting to get into a bidding war of suffering Ė Iíll see your red eyed show dog and raise you 20 breeding bitches living in squalid conditions on puppy farm. Of course huge issues of canine welfare exist outside our narrow debate about showing. Iíve never sought to deny that. I just believe we should seek to address the causes of suffering wherever we see it.
The real deal breaker for me was the CA meetingís reaction to the Basset exhibitor when she revealed the vet had assessed her dog Ďas a dogí and not as a Basset. In the meeting there was laughter, confusion and disbelief at the absurdity of it all. When I watched on my laptop the joke was lost on me.
You can talk about moving goalposts and failure to consider the breed Standard. I have a much more basic position. Is it right for a feature that would be seen as totally unacceptable and damaging to the dogís welfare in one breed to be classed as part and parcel of the make-up of another? My answer is a simple Ďnoí and thatís why I believe the vet must assess all dogs as dogs and not as representatives of their breed.
There even seems to be some confusion within the CA on this. On one hand theyíre calling for fairness and universal vet checks across the board and on the other emphasising the primacy of the breed Standards. I donít think you can have it both ways. Vet checks are either breed-specific or theyíre not. Welfare criteria either differ along with breed Standards or they donít. I make no apologies for being absolutist about welfare.
A lot has been said about the fact that dogs were awarded BOBs by experienced judges who are, by definition, authorities on their breed. Those BOBs then failed to be confirmed by ordinary vets who were not specialists or leading experts. How can the KC justify this? How can someone like me seek to defend it?
I donít defend it by attacking the judges or by suggesting the vets have some Solomon-like wisdom denied to ordinary mortals. Every time it comes back to perception; the perception of those inside the show world looking out as compared to those outside looking in. I see the vetís role as focusing on the dog with outsiderís eyes and putting the health and welfare interests of that dog above any concepts of breed type and beauty. You donít need a veterinary colossus for that role. In fact an Ďordinaryí vet may be best suited for it.
There are some who worry that this process will ultimately produce generic dogs devoid of breed character. Itís been suggested that a Basset would look like a Beagle and a Pekingese like a Tibetan Spaniel if we followed the health and welfare agenda to its obvious conclusion.
I think thatís just crazy. The Basset of the early 20th century was very much a distinct breed but devoid of the exaggerated form we see today. Health checks arenít an attack on breeds but a desire to ensure they can have a long-term future.
Coming back to my theme of the church I find the CA, with respect, a curateís egg. Yes, there is much to applaud in the way it has put health at the front of its agenda and much to admire in the way it has developed so quickly from a standing start. It also seems pretty determined to be genuinely transparent and democratic. CA critics point to Facebook comments that display a certain lack of respect for dissenting voices. Playground style debate is common on the internet but Iíve see more over earnest attempts to convert than nastiness.
I keep coming back to two points. The first is that I believe health and welfare are the key considerations that must always be first above any ideas of Standards or breed type. Iím still not sure the CA has been that straightforward and unambiguous about those breed features where one manís core type is anotherís welfare issue.
The second point is the dear old undemocratic, high-handed, not-listening KC has finally done something. It brought in outside scrutiny, it did it! That in itself is an action I feel is worth defending. Not because itís the last word but because itís a valuable start.
Whatever end of the stick Iíve got I can promise Andrew Brace that I wonít knee-jerk to bash every CA proposal nor will I necessarily support everything the KC does. I will, as always, be forthright in putting my own alternative viewpoint.