By Rachel Jenkins, RVC
What is the only way to get a southern vet student to go to Birmingham? Fill an arena with dogs and let them in for free! Oh the power of the puppy.
On the 9th of March 2016, dog lovers everywhere celebrated their passion in the 125th anniversary of the largest dog show in the World - Crufts. This event, broadcast to thousands on Channel 4, boasts over 200 breeds of dog with 22,000 of them competing in the main event, Best In Show. On top of this, there are over 400 stands trying to get you to buy the latest gadget for your beloved pet, and a biscuit shaped like them too. But behind the wagging tails, Crufts has again created a controversy about the health of its breeds, déjà vu anyone?
This year, the Kennel Club and Crufts came under fire for showing what seemingly appeared to be an unhealthy German Shepherd Dog, going on to win the title Best In Breed. Hundreds of complaints were received over the sloping back and deformed gait this dog possessed. The owner of the GSD has recently spoken out and described the drama as, ‘what should have been the happiest day of my show life, has now become the worst nightmare of my show life’. She continued that the GSD had passed the vet checks required to get to this point, and that her dog had just ‘faltered under the heavy media coverage in the arena’. To make matters appear even worse, the footage of the GSD was deliberately cut from broadcast on Channel 4. Not looking good Crufts.
The Kennel Club issued a statement saying that the breed is classed as ‘category three’ under their Breed Watch Scheme. This means that although many under this category have seen major health improvements, it is noted that some breeds still have a long road ahead. They say they will continue to improve these breeds, and review judges that ignore the guidelines they are told to implement. The Kennel Club Secretary has since said, ‘we would question how the dog had been allowed to have qualified for Crufts. Fault cannot lie solely with the judge, but also those who have previously awarded the dog’.
On a more positive note, Channel 4 publically addressed the problem very quickly. Clare Balding interviewed members of the Kennel Club openly, and asked them relevant questions, without sugar coating the clear issue. This is important as it shows a complete turn around in how the Kennel Club are dealing with bad breeding, and will give the public a trust in Crufts that has not been possible in previous years. Another good outcome of this situation, is that the Kennel Club are now funding a study at the University of Surrey, looking into movement of the GSD, with the intention of improving the health of the breed.
Whether or not this dog was too unhealthy to appear on the show, let alone win it, cannot be answered in this article. However, it has highlighted an important issue continually needing improvement in the world of dog shows. Health is more important than a lower back or a longer gait. We need to stop breeding for exaggerated traits that are negatively affecting these animals. The only way to do this is to educate people, whether that is the breeders, judges, owners or the public.
Although this GSD was a more extreme and public case (due to the increase in social media use over the last few years), it begs the question; did this dog highlight a much larger issue that is still going on within the Kennel Club? In 2008 the programme ‘Pedigree Breeds Exposed’ was televised. Up until this point, the BBC had broadcast Crufts for over 50 years. However, even they could not ignore the practices of the Kennel Club for damaging the health of ‘pure breed’ dogs. This lost the Kennel Club several sponsorships, forcing a review of its standards.
There is no denying, many dogs and humans alike take pleasure from this event. The prestige that winning a category gives the breeder cannot be bought, and the coverage given to so many versatile breeds is incomparable to other events. The percentage of unhealthy animals is only going to be getting smaller each year. One can only imagine (and hope) that in 20 years time, Crufts goers of the future will look back to now and will not be able to comprehend how unhealthy breeding was ever present.
Writing this article introduced many questions that do not really have an answer. When looking into these delicate issues, both sides of the argument are bias and you will never get a straightforward right or wrong reply.
One question that kept popping up is should vet students, who obviously have the health and welfare of animals at the forefront of their profession, be attending Crufts? This is left to opinion. It could be argued that to be introduced to these problems, to see first hand the effect they have on dogs, to understand the huge world that is dog showing, and to learn about many different breeds under one roof, is a huge benefit to vets in the making. Crufts is not going to stop, so the involvement of the right people can only be a step forward.