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SPRINGTIME brings Crufts. Time for a row about dogs in the papers.
This year's argument was prompted by criticism from the RSPCA that dog handlers were pulling dog leads too tightly, causing the dogs distress and risking physical harm.
This accusation prompted a retort by the Kennel Club, which runs the show, to stop niggling away at non-issues. Far better, its secretary Caroline Kisko was reported as saying, for the charity to get on with the important business of prosecuting illegal puppy farm owners.
If Ms Kisko's response is accurate – and there has been no retraction – it wasn't, perhaps, the most diplomatic of replies. But then perhaps she is rather war-weary. Now in its 126th year, Crufts is no stranger to controversy.
The mother of all rows came in 2008, when the BBC dropped its coverage of the competition after 40 years in a showdown over animal welfare. Its documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed had shone light on a range of painful medical conditions and deformities linked to selective breeding – cavalier King Charles spaniels with mitral valve disease and syringomyelia, for example, and German shepherd dogs with hip problems.
The documentary provoked outrage and, although the Kennel Club did not accept all it had to say, it triggered change.
It reviewed its breed standards, for example. These are criteria that set out what dogs should look like and how they should behave (not written by vets) to which breeders must aspire.
Five years ago, despite resistance from breeders, the organisation introduced veterinary checks at its shows for ‘at risk’ breeds to ensure that any dogs with exaggerated features or other visible conditions are barred from competing.
And last year it introduced compulsory training for judges and a ban on double handling – the option of having a second trainer in the crowd to attract the dog's attention in order to keep it looking alert.
These changes show the club is capable of change, and change that is moving in the right direction. But the pace of change is not fast enough. For all the rows about poor handling, dogs being picked up by their tails or coated in too much hairspray, it is the examples of selective breeding and the health concerns that arise from it that have been the club's toughest PR battle. This shows no sign of abating.
Last year, a German shepherd dog with an obvious deformity – an abnormally sloped back – won best of breed. This again sparked public outrage and the Kennel Club was forced to take a hard look at what had gone wrong.
The BVA has repeatedly spoken out about the health problems suffered by brachycephalic breeds – from breathing difficulties to eye ulcers and painful spine abnormalities – and has encouraged potential owners not to buy them. President Gudrun Ravetz has pointed out that vets, who have to deal with breeds such as French bulldogs and pugs every day in their surgeries, regard this as one of their top animal welfare concerns. She says Crufts, alongside celebrity endorsement, is fuelling the popularity of certain breeds.
This year the Kennel Club was presented with a petition signed by 30,000 people calling for mandatory health checks for heart disease and syringomyelia for cavalier King Charles spaniels. Vet and animal welfare campaigner Emma Milne says the lack of action means many dog owners are left distressed by watching the suffering of their dogs.
Many breeders would argue that the main route to unhealthy dogs lies with puppy farmers and imported dogs – not with breeders registered with the Kennel Club.
But such a view does not satisfy the RSPCA, which says laying the blame entirely at the door of backstreet breeders is ‘misleading’. Not all dogs registered with Kennel Club assured breeders are happy and healthy, it would argue.
The reality is Crufts is hugely influential – the biggest shop window to the dog world – and, as such, it has to bear its responsibility for setting trends and stimulating demand for particular characteristics in dogs across the world.
The Kennel Club insists it is making progress on breeding. It says faults have been identified, exaggerated breeding has been tackled and judges have been trained to select less exaggerated animals. As a result, the quality of some breeds at the show – particularly French bulldogs and bassett hounds – has improved in recent years.
However, big challenges remain for some very popular breeds – the cavalier King Charles spaniel and the German shepherd dog remain notable fails. The scale of the challenge in putting this right is significant.
Veterinary consultant to Crufts and chairman of the Kennel Club's Dog Health Group, Nick Blayney is upfront about the top barriers to change: ignorance of dog breeders (by and large they are not well informed and difficult to engage with), scale of the problem (just 3 per cent of puppies come from Kennel Club assured breeders so most breeders are not engaged with the responsible breeding agenda) and the need to play a long game – to change hearts and minds (difficult in a group of people who have been used to doing things their way for so long) (see p 263).
Breeders are inherently suspicious of vets and this has held progress back. In some cases, a virtual wall seems to have been built between the profession and breeders. However, the plea from vets on the inside is to work to engage and build influence.
Where the Kennel Club has enjoyed more success with improving the quality of show dogs, it's been through fostering good relationships with breeders. It understands that breeders need to be won round, educated, led.
The Kennel Club says it is willing and open to working collaboratively. It says vets are finally getting a voice – and being heard. Its governing council now regularly takes evidence from the profession. Call me naive, but for the sake of dogs and their welfare, is this a good opportunity for vets to reach out and become its critical friend?
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