Should Crufts be banned?
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 07/03/2007
Dirty tricks and eccentric topiary are one thing. But on the eve of Britain's biggest dog show, Beverley Cuddy asks whether we are endangering man's best friend
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We're all suckers for puppy dog eyes. Maybe that's why the BBC has, for the second year running, allowed Ben Fogle to present its Crufts coverage, which begins again tomorrow. It obviously doesn't matter that he can't tell his Affenpinschers from his Estrelas; most of his audience will drool in any case.
Unfortunately, for the excessively jowled breeds like the St Bernard, Newfoundland and Bloodhound, the drooling will continue long after the credits stop rolling.
I'm far from immune to canine charms, but increasingly I find myself wondering whether it would not be better if Crufts were banned. After all, what good does it do? For me, showing dogs must have some higher purpose than simply accumulating rosettes. I'm no killjoy - the exhibitors can all have their bit of fun with the silly walks and eccentric topiary - but surely someone has to look after our best friend's best interests.
We've all had a snigger over the past few years at the bizarre goings-on in the show world: the poison pen letters that led to the Best in Show judge resigning in 2004; the drugging of rivals' dogs; even the case of the terrier that had three testicles - the owner had implanted a fake one (just one of the dog's testicles had descended into the scrotum and the judges require two on display), only to have the retained testicle drop during the show. As a result, the owner was banned from showing dogs for several years.
But behind the outward eccentricities of the owners and trainers, real dogs' lives are being increasingly affected by this seemingly mad and ferociously competitive world.
Sadly, health concerns seem to be close to the bottom of the show dog agenda for the canine governing bodies in Britain and America. There are just over 200 pedigree breeds in Britain and, shockingly, more than 150 of them have significant hereditary diseases.
At the moment in the UK, testing dogs for health issues is purely a matter of personal conscience. Most people believe all the beautiful dogs at Crufts are perfectly healthy. I'm afraid many are anything but.
Let's put Crufts into a historical context. Dog and man have been best friends for 100,000 years or so. Dogs helped us catch our dinner; they protected us while we slept. In return they shared our food and homes. Over time, the genetically elastic dog was changed into different shapes to help us more. Thankfully, our dabbling with eugenics didn't harm the dog, as we selected for function not fashion.
With industrialisation, the dog's employment opportunities started to dry up. It was around this time that Britain invented the dog show and Kennel Clubs. The face of British dogs was to change as the concept of human beauty became the reason to breed. In an era where bearded ladies were considered interesting, many oddities were prized when they should have been avoided. Physical traits such as hairlessness and squashed faces were encouraged.
When the first Kennel Club was formed in 1873, the gene pools for hundreds of pedigree dogs were soon to be sealed. It wouldn't have taken a genius to predict that there would be trouble ahead as relatively small numbers of dogs were then mated together for the next 150 years.
There are now more than 30,000 genetic defects identified in pedigree dogs, with a new one being discovered every month. As well as the inevitable in-breeding caused by the cult of pedigree, dogs' health has been further challenged by the peculiar fashions and foibles of the show world, which has kept "improving" the appearance of breeds.
The Bulldog is the obvious example of a breed changed almost beyond recognition. Show judges began to favour a massive head, so it grew ever larger, unchecked. However, the pelvis remained the same size, meaning Caesarean births became the norm. Almost every breed has been changed to a degree - the Chow used to have fairly normal eyes, but the judges took to favouring tiny eyes, with devastating results.
Many Chows now have to have their painful in-growing eyelashes removed. The judges liked the Dachshund to have a longer back and shorter legs - unsurprisingly, spinal problems resulted. It has not taken long for 100,000 years of breeding for function to be undone.
If you wanted to breed from a dog that's deaf, blind, crippled with hip dysplasia or suffering from a heart condition, you'd probably expect the Kennel Club to refuse to take your money. Sadly, you'd be wrong. At the moment - I think shamefully - KC registration is no mark of quality. It'll proudly compare itself to Debrett's. It'll say it is paid to record lineage, not intelligence or health. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Twenty or more years ago the Swedish Kennel Club decided to reform its practices and made health tests mandatory. It also ensured that breeders took notice of the results by simplifying the complex systems of testing for hereditary diseases, so people had clear guidelines on what to breed with what.
It even came up with ways of ensuring the breadth of the gene pool was preserved by establishing quotas so that no stud dog could be overused - unlike in Britain and America, where a top winning stud dog can sire an unlimited number of litters, meaning that almost every dog in the breed can end up a half brother or sister.
The Kennel Club (as the British KC likes to be known), however, has left it to the breeders to police themselves. It has softened a few words in the breed standards that constitute the blueprint which the judges are meant to aim for - but hasn't disciplined any judges for continuing to favour the unhealthy exaggerations that make even breathing hard work for many breeds.
Over the past 50 years, our pedigree breeds have been growing increasingly unhealthy, life expectancies have fallen drastically and some breed characteristics have become exaggerated almost beyond recognition. For example, the Bernese Mountain Dog, a breed that increasingly suffers from cancer, is now lucky to reach the age of seven. The Irish wolfhound, selectively bred for its massive size, has been left susceptible to bone cancer and has a similar life expectancy. Your average mongrel will live two or three times as long.
Those who sport the hallowed KC members' badge at dog shows radiate pride. But while everyone wants to wear the badge, few seem to want to reform the system. Maybe history has taught them to keep their heads down. About 20 years ago, the Kennel Club decided to expel one of its members for publicly saying it should do more to prevent health problems in dogs.
That member was Dr Malcolm Willis, probably the world's leading expert on hip dysplasia in dogs. The club has taken him back now, but sadly no one listens to his demands for mandatory health testing in dogs that will be bred from and are disposed to hip dysplasia.
Similarly, no one at the KC seems interested in the British government ratifying the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. To date, 21 countries have signed this, including Turkey.
As well as laying down minimum requirements for good animal welfare, the convention highlights a list of breed characteristics that need to be modified for the dogs' best interests. The KC argues that we don't need Europe telling us what to do - the breeds are safe in its hands, it says; it has got it all under control.
The KC's expensive Clarges Street offices in London are hung with beautiful canine art from an era before the show world distorted the shape of so many of our wonderful breeds. The dogs in those pictures left the destiny of their pups to the KC - and it has let them down very badly.
I'll still watch Crufts. After all, I'm an optimist. I'm just hoping someone will soon stand up and start making Crufts not just the biggest dog show in the world, but the best.
Beverley Cuddy is editor of Dogs Today magazine