Almost three years ago, Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired on primetime television and changed the way many people felt about purebred dogs.
Owners of some of the “high-profile” (ie health-beleagured) breeds even say they have had abuse hurled at them in the street. Where once there was only curious fascination with breeds like the Bulldog or the Neapolitan Mastiff , today there is often pity and sometimes anger. Our eyes have been opened – even if the poor Shar-peis' haven’t.
People are still buying pedigree puppies - KC registrations fell immediately after Pedigree Dogs Exposed but have picked up since. But sales of designer crossbreeds have never been more brisk and taking on a rescue dog is seen by many as a good thing to do.. These are not people who cannot afford the £500 - £1500 for a purebred pup; it’s a deliberate choice – and they are often pet owners who have been burned by the tragedy of a pedigree dog dying before its time or suffering from a health problem that they've found out is too-common in the breed.
The mutts and mongrels are having their day and the purebred dog’s star has fallen. And I strongly believe that it had to in order for it to rise again.
The purebred doom-merchants talk of the “antis” wanting rid of all pedigree dogs. I am often accused of being an animal rights activist, of being a secret agent for groups like PETA which (say some) sees pet-ownership as some kind of slavery and can’t see any justification for anything other than a randomly-bred bitser.
Nothing could be further from the truth. But morally and ethically, we couldn’t just carry on the way we were. It was the moment to call “time” on the way we breed pedigree dogs so that it can rebuild into something better; something of which we can be truly proud.
Of course, since PDE, the KC has introduced an unprecedented number of measures designed to improve health and welfare and I have no doubt that some of these will bear fruit. There is a welcome change of tone in the world of pedigree dogs and some real evidence at Crufts this year that judges were rewarding more moderate dogs (although very clearly not in every breed).
But I don’t believe that anything yet announced has the potential to stop the tsunami of disease and genetic impoverishment that threatens to drown the purebred dog and it’s the key reason why I have not shut up and gone away.
So I thought it was time to put my money where my mouth is - and not least because I am often challenged: “OK, if you’re so darned clever, why don’t you come up with some solutions rather than just constant criticism.”
It’s a fair point.
How do we mend the pedigree dog? Here is my 10-point guide:
1) REFORM THE KENNEL CLUB
Twenty years ago, zoos were too often little more than entertainment venues run by circus ringmasters. Today, the best ones are true conservation forces with a strong focus on welfare and the genetic management of wild species. Scientific evidence has become the bedrock for policy decisions. Call ZSL (the Zoological Society of London as London Zoo is now called) and you will be put through to experts who are passionate and knowledgeable about conservation and welfare.
Additionally, they wouldn’t dream of either playing down the seriousness of the genetic situation in some species; or try to convince you that keeping elephants in a small, barren enclosure is OK. They don’t need to, because the issues are being addressed.
This fundamental shift in focus is what is needed for purebred dogs, too and it hasn’t come yet because of the deeply-entrenched fear that fully embracing science means the end of the purebred dog or dog shows. In truth, it is the opposite: ignore the science and we will lose the breeds and dog shows will die out as they become increasingly frowned-upon and irrelevant.
As with London Zoo, things can’t go on exactly as they were - but they can go on. You can no longer see elephants at ZSL in London, for instance, because it was accepted that the enclosures were inappropriate. But we do still have zoos – and ones of which we can be much more proud.
We need a Kennel Club that sees this level reform as a truly exciting opportunity rather than as a threat. If this happens, so much else would fall into place.
2) INTRODUCE BREED CONSERVATION PLANS
The KC has introduced breed health plans since Pedigree Dogs Exposed, but they’re nothing like enough. What we need are comprehensive Breed Conservation Plans (BCPs) for every breed. They need to include baseline measurements of genetic diversity for every breed, tailored guidance regarding popular sires and a coherent plan of action drawn up with the help of geneticists, epidemiologists and breeders.
The BCPs also need to set targets and incorporate ways of measuring progress.
A matter of some urgency is the genetic management of newly-registered breeds. This is currently often done in a very ad hoc way by breeders without sufficient knowledge – with a lot of inbreeding and the rapid spread of new diseases an inevitable result. There is then often a mad rush to try and get a DNA test. But the real answer lies in breeding the right way in the first place.
3) BIG UP THE BREED CLUBS
Breed clubs need to be bigger and better – to become all-singing, all-dancing guardians of their breeds with a very strong focus on the breed as a whole rather than a group of people with individual interests.
At present, breed clubs are too often dominated by show-breeders who look down on pet owners and are in competition with each other – bad news for transparency, team-spirit and, ultimately, the dogs. Pet owners and working owners need to be actively recruited and club literature and events need to be much less show-focused. Breed campaigners, very often acting outside of the breed clubs, need to be embraced as having a useful perspective rather than seen as the enemy.
Information inviting new owners to join the relevant breed club (or clubs) should be sent out with every KC registration, offering no-obligation, free, emailed breed newsletters for life even if owners do not want to become a formal member. This would instantly give breed clubs access to a huge number of pet and working owners who at present do not belong to a breed club and who never get to hear important breed news – such as a new DNA test or research appeals.
Breed newsletters should also offer very strong incentives to join breed clubs – perhaps discounted health insurance, dog food and other dog goodies, in the same way that many communities negotiate deals by offering business to a particular supplier.
It goes without saying, I hope, that breed clubs need to be at the absolute forefront of data gathering – encouraging the reporting of health problems, running properly designed health surveys and publishing open databases (both health and pedigree information) that are accessible to all. Some are already doing this. More need to join them.
4) BUILD BETTER BREED CLUB WEBSITES
Breed club websites clearly have the potential to be the perfect one-stop shop for everything anyone needs to know about an individual breed but currently range from pretty good to dire. Too few are works of art, design-wise – and too many are works of fiction, content-wise. This is because breed clubs are often run by people who have a vested interest in playing down health problems.
This has led to a proliferation of independent breed websites that often provide more comprehensive information, particularly regarding health, and they sometimes also often offer more in the way of breed databases. It is extremely confusing for anyone trying to get information on a breed.
The newly-launched Karlton Index (http://thekarltonindex.com/) seeks to redress this by highlighting the best and the worst UK breed club websites and encouraging breed clubs to do better.
There is a business opportunity here for dog-loving web designers who could design off-the-shelf website templates for breed clubs – allowing individuality but ensuring some standardisation on what information is provided, developed in collaboration with the Kennel Club and breed clubs keen to offer the very best service to their breed and owners.
5) PRACTICES MAKE PERFECT
Vets have a key role to play in educating the public in all aspects of pet dog ownership and need to step up to the mark. They are trusted as a source of independent advice but at present very often offer subjective, and sometimes just plain wrong, information on particular breeds.
At the moment, very few people would think of asking a vet for advice on particular breeds but this clearly has the potential to change and in doing so to be a useful marketing tool for individual vets, via conventional literature, touch-screen terminals and open evenings.
Vets also need to embrace VEctAR (http://www.rvc.ac.uk/VEctAR/About.cfm) a new disease surveillance system developed by the Royal Veterinary College in association with the University of Sydney. It is already up and running in the UK, with more practices being recruited all the time.. The beauty of VEcTAR is that it will yield useful information about the prevalence/incidence of inherited disease in pet dogs (and cats ) with very little effort on the vets’ part thanks to clever software that will silently “mine” the data.
6) EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION
A schools education programme involving dogs would be of enormous benefit to both children – and dogs. The dog offers an engaging way to teach children many things – evolution, genetics, reproduction, evolution, ethics, citizenship and so on. The upshot would be a better-educated public able to make better dog-ownership choices. This is the sort of scheme that pet food manufacturers should be falling over themselves to sponsor.
7) RE-INVENT THE DOG SHOW
Ways must be found to reward health in the show-ring, rather than just the appearance of it. I would like to see a change to a points system where dogs arrive in the show-ring with a certain number of points already earned for meeting specific health criteria – such as long-lived parents/grand-parents, working qualifcations, taken/passed health tests and so on. This is easy enough to do in the electronic age in which we live.
There needs to be new functional tests introduced for non-working breeds, too – eg evidence that a bulldog is capable of covering a certain distance at a certain pace. None of the tests need to be mandatory and it doesn’t have to be that a dog that arrives in the ring with no points couldn’t win. But show breeders will often go to considerable lengths to give their dog the best possible chance of winning and if being provably healthier is a way, it should become a strong incentive.
8) BREED STANDARDS – PICTURE THIS
Pictures that illustrate breeds need to include not just how the show-dog looks now – but a historical picture of how the breed used to look (often so different) and, where appropriate, an example of the working side of the breed. This will help guard against exaggerations.
Breed standards also need to be rewritten to be much more focused on function rather than form. As Dan Belkin, evolutionary biologist and breeder of salukis, wrote about the saluki breed standard: “The standard says ‘eyes, dark to hazel and bright, large and oval, but not prominent.' It doesn't say anything about whether or not the Saluki can see” (http://saluqi.home.netcom.com/belkin.htm).
9) OUTCROSSING TASK FORCE
Outcrossing (to other breeds) was once part of the good dog breeder’s armoury and many early dog books talk openly about the practice. Today, the idea of outcrossing is met with abject horror by many, but it does offer a potential rescue route for many breeds which have bred themselves into a genetic cul-de-sac, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. I propose an Outcrossing Task Force made up of experts (to include breeders) offering the very best advice to breeds who either want, or need, to consider it as an option.
10) PUPPY CONTRACTS
Every puppy should be sold with a puppy contract that makes demands on both breeders and buyers. New owners need to know that they are taking on a big commitment with responsiblities.
Dogs are not fridges so there can be no absolute guarantees, of course, but breeders need to be able to show that they have done everything possible to ensure that a puppy has every chance of a happy, healthy life.
Puppy contracts need to list breed specific issues, what tests are available/appropriate, whether they have been done and if not why not (there can be very good reasons why not). Formalising this for every breed would take the embarrassment away from puppy-buyers who often find it awkward to ask about health.
If a dog then falls sick or dies from a breed specific health problem that could reasonably have been prevented, breeders should be liable, not just to take back a dog if required, but to assist with veterinary fees up to the purchase price of the dog.
------------------So there it is: ten broad brushtroke steps that I feel would have a truly positive impact on purebred dog health.
It's intended as a discussion document, not a dictat... so comments are invited. And what other practical steps do you think should be introduced to safeguard the future health of purebred dogs?
This article is adapted from the version that appeaars in the June 2011 issue of Dogs Today magazine. Dogs Today is now available internationally for iPad and iPhone for the bargain price of 59p for the app, which includes one edition free.