OK, I promised I’d get to the Pekingese and UK Kennel Club situation and here it is. I’ve been stewing for a couple of days about exactly how to communicate what I’m thinking and worried about, and I suspect this will be a very large post, so settle down and get a cup of coffee.
This can’t be told without going back a few years. Across Europe-and this is a situation very unlike the dog breeding culture in the US-there is a feeling that government is responsible for pet animal welfare to a very great extent. There is an expectation for rules-making that would be considered invasive and even unlawful here. For example, in some Scandinavian countries bitches are not allowed to care for more than eight puppies; any additional whelps must be put down. Failure to do this means the “breed wardens” will throw you out of the breed club and quite possibly you’ll be blacklisted. It’s a very interesting paradox; the acceptance of dogs as part of normal life is higher there (for example, dogs are often allowed in restaurants and shops), there is a much lower tendency to perform “routine” procedures on dogs (including spay/neuter, although there are very few unwanted litters), but there’s also a much greater interference in terms of what dogs may be owned or bred and how and when.
Into that culture came the recognition of a term that, across all the countries I can find it, is translated as something like “pain-breeding” or “torture-breeding.” Pain-breeding is the production of a weird dog, basically. It’s when you breed a dog with a very short face, very short legs, long spine, lots of coat, or any other trait that could be seen to interfere with the dog having a “normal” (we’ll get to that later) life. Pain-breeding also means any kind of pairing that could possibly result in dogs that are unhealthy. This particular clause tends to affect those dogs that have possibly deleterious recessive genes but are themselves healthy (like dogs who carry for but do not express PRA, an eye disease), or those dogs that when bred together may produce a disorder relating to color (for example, breeding two merle collies, or two harlequin Danes, or two blue Dobermans).
Germany passed the first pain-breeding legislation that I am aware of, earlier in this decade. It forbade, among many other things, breeding two harlequin Danes or two dapple Dachshunds together, and outlawed a long list of breeds perceived to be either unhealthy or prone to aggression (which was, as far as I can tell from the German breeders, part of the same philosophy-it’s not so much “they’re unsafe” as it is “it’s unfair to the dog to breed them when they have tendencies like this”). The breeds forbidden were done so under the German Animal Welfare Law, which gives an indication of the philosophy behind the decision.
You need to know those three things-that there is a focus on a “natural” dog as opposed to an “unnatural” dog, that there is a feeling that any breeding that could possibly produce an unhealthy puppy (even if that puppy would be put down at birth) should be forbidden, and that there is a greater acceptance of dog-related legislation-to understand what’s going on in the UK right now.
Coming back to the present, this year the BBC sponsored and broadcast a… well, let’s very generously call it a documentary-style program, called Pedigree Dogs Exposed. It was a total piece of schlock journalism that basically can be summed up as “Purebred dogs? Parade of mutants! Kennel club? Moronic eugenicists! Breeders? Money-grubbing builders of gingerbread houses! You know who liked dog breeding? HITLER!”
I watched it and it’s honestly laughably inaccurate, both in facts and in conclusions, but it created a groundswell of dog-show hatred (and breeder hatred, and Kennel Club hatred) especially in the UK but around the world as well. The RSPCA withdrew from Crufts (and this is me being cynical here, but I believe this was their plan all along-the RSPCA’s vet was the one who called a dog show a parade of mutants). People were doing the Internet equivalent of running around waving their hands in the air screaming. And the Kennel Club itself… well, let’s talk about that in a minute.
That program “exposed” three categories of issues in registered dogs: extreme breed traits, inherited disease, and inbreeding.
Let’s define extreme breed traits first. The program pointed out the issues they say are the result of extremes in face, legs, spine, tail, and coat. It strongly alleged that breeding for any conformational detail that took a dog away from wolf-hood was detrimental to that dog to the extent that it deviated from the wolf, and pointed out some specific examples: the brachycephalic head of the Peke, the curled tail of the Pug, the dwarfed legs and long ears of Basset Hounds, the extreme angulation of the German Shepherd Dog, the large eye of several breeds, and the ridge of the Ridgeback (which got an extra helping of hatred because some breeders put ridgeless puppies to sleep at birth).
Second, they targeted inherited disease. Here they pointed out the epilepsy that plagued a sweet Boxer and the malformed skull and mitral valve disease in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
Third, they made some really stunning allegations about the vague and undefined evil of inbreeding, which was said to cause horrible diseases and mental defects and infertility.
They served it all up with a big swirly topping of vets decrying deliberately breeding mutations and how terrible inbreeding is, and owners weeping over their sweet sick dogs.
Well, the Kennel Club LOST ITS BOWELS. As far as I can tell, there must have been about twenty people in a board room having a complete fit. I’m tempted to call them naïve, but maybe it really is the truth that they hadn’t ever had charges like this leveled at them. The Brits LOVE their dogs, really adore them. So maybe the Kennel Club felt that it would enjoy the cozy approval of the entire country indefinitely.
And here is where the Kennel Club made what I feel to be a completely horrible decision and perhaps one that will end up being fatal to its role in the UK. It is a move that I feel indicates a genuine emergency on the part of the purebred dog community world-wide.
Instead of responding to each of the allegations of the program and explaining where and how they were incorrect, the Kennel Club AGREED. It not only agreed, it promptly shifted blame to the individual breed clubs and accused them of cruel and inhumane breeding practices.
The breed clubs were, understandably, horrified. This is their parent club; they have always felt not that this was a boss but that the Kennel Club is the very best of what they are. The people accusing them of not caring for their dogs were once (and many are still) breeders themselves; the KC, it is felt, should have had the breeders’ side on this.
Specifically, the Kennel Club announced the following sweeping changes:
1) Each standard (the description of the perfect purebred of that breed) would be reviewed and changed by fiat as necessary. If you’re not in purebred dogs, let me just tell you what an incredible assumption of power this is. Breed standards do change, but they do so extremely slowly and the major impetus behind each change is the breed club (for example, the Pekingese Club), not the Kennel Club. The breed club typically has a Standards Committee and spends literally decades considering whether the breed needs even the most minute changes to the standard. I’ve been in on months of deep and passionate arguments about whether a dog’s elbow should mark half the distance to the ground from the shoulder or if it should be an inch above that. Some people believe so much in the traditional description of a breed that they will talk longingly of the glories of, say, the 1971 standard, which was probably published when they were ten years old and which varies from the 1993 standard by half of one paragraph. The Kennel Club’s normal role in changing a breed standard is to provide input on the correct format of the proposed change or changes, to make sure that the wording will be clear to the judges, to suggest clarification, etc. For it to seize control of standards and change them without breeder input is shocking and unprecedented.
2) The standards would be changed with one goal: to reflect an emphasis on “health.” Now let me assure you that they don’t actually mean health, or longevity. They mean “less exaggeration.” The Kennel Club has totally bought, or is pandering to, the notion that deviation from the wolf equals detriment to the dog, with the extent of the deviation indicating the extent of the detriment. This is TOTALLY INSANE, as I will try to discuss later, but they bought it. And so the Kennel Club has promised to focus on the exact issues that Pedigree Dogs Exposed insisted were problematic-short faces, short legs, curled tails, heavy coat, long spines, long ears, and angulation.
3) The Kennel Club implemented a Code of Ethics for all breeders and forced each club to adopt it. This, again, is a power it has never before assumed.
A Code of Ethics is sort of like the standard for breeders. It describes what it means to be a good breeder of that breed, and is a valuable tool for prospective owners and also for prospective breeders. Most, if not all, breeds have a COE, but aside from some standard statements about humane breeding they vary considerably between breeds. The COE reflects the best practices for that particular breed or responds to a situation the breeders perceive to be an issue for that breed and that breed alone.
So, for example, in the US the Pembroke Welsh Corgi COE mandates that puppies not be sold before the age of ten weeks. The Cardigan COE has seven weeks, but forbids the retouching of show or informational photographs. I don’t even pretend to know what situation led those particular elements to be added to the COE of the breeds, but there they are.
The fact that the Kennel Club handed down a COE that must be adopted by all breed clubs was, again, an implied accusation that the breed clubs could not be trusted to make their own decisions or weigh for themselves which practices define a good breeder.
4) The Kennel Club is currently seeking legislative powers that will make it law to belong to the club’s Accredited Breeder Scheme if you want to legally sell puppies in the UK.
(Continue here to Part 2.)