Archive for July 2014

An outside view of veterinary health checks

July 17, 2014

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

That government is best which governs least – Henry David Thoreau

John Amand, a very good friend of mine, is very big in bulbs: not the ones you plug into a light socket but the sort you put in the ground. There are hundreds of beautiful flowers which come under this category, many of which are quite different from the tulips we expect from Amsterdam: some, too, are very rare and John ( is one of the world’s authorities. He is on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Bulbs Committee as well as being involved in the recognition of new varieties. He exhibits each year at Chelsea where, in 2014, he and his sister Nesta, who run the company between them, gained their 28th Gold Medal! If you are a keen gardener and you watch the Chelsea presentations on BBC2, you will have seen them featured on Friday evening’s programme. Some indication of his ‘reach’ in this specialised sector of plants is that a few days ago one of his suppliers telephoned to tell him that his growing fields had acquired a virus and the 80,000 black tulips which John had ordered for delivery this autumn would not be available. Some bulbs are extremely rare: there is a variety of snowdrop which change hands for over £75! John holds a position in horticulture equivalent to that of our most senior judges not just in his status but in that he travels the world searching for the very best.

Although not having a pet at the moment both John and his wife, Helen, are very fond of dogs and usually come with us to the Contest of Champions and the occasional show so over the years he has become reasonably familiar of the complexities of the world of dogs. Being an ‘outsider’ it means, too, that he has, perhaps, a less blinkered view of our obsession for even the least liberal of us must surely admit that there is a tendency for our enthusiasm and dedication to develop a degree of tunnel vision.

A curious friendship

Our is a curious friendship in that I know absolutely nothing about gardening or gardens (other than enjoying them) and dislike any form of physical exercise intensely while John sells bulbs to Holland (really he does) and was a basketball player of international standard. But we have a very similar outlook on life and find it both interesting and useful to bounce political, design and business ideas off each other. And we have shared interests too: we both enjoy good food and good wines.

We were recently discussing the different ways in which prizes are given in the world of dogs and in the world of gardening. In the various small general and specific gardening competitions which are held around the country, the judges award prizes as we do to dogs in order of their preference: first, second, third, and so on. There are breed societies (Alpines, Orchids, National Rose) and general societies (Hardy Plants, Cottage Garden, Garden Organic) presided over by the plant equivalent of the Kennel Club – the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). The RHS are responsible for the major shows such as Chelsea, Hampton Court and Tatton Park but unlike Crufts where the judging pattern is the same as that in other shows, there is a panel of judges (note the neat segue from a recent Speakers Corner in which I discuss the difference between ‘first past the post’ and assessment through ‘knowledgeable opinion’) who are entirely concerned with quality rather than preference – a little like the FCI approach of assessing each dog and awarding a grade (‘excellent’, ‘very good’, ‘good’ and the rest). So at Chelsea there can be many Gold Medals awarded for they are dependent entirely on the quality of the exhibit. On the other hand, just because you are there does not mean you get a Gold – most exhibition stands do not. The next level is Silver-gilt, then Silver and then Bronze. The judges determine a Best Show Garden and there are other specific awards such as ‘Plant of the Year,’ ‘Best Fresh Garden’ and ‘Best Artisan Garden’ – perhaps these can be considered the equivalent of winning a major Stakes Class at a dog show.


We recently discussed the furore surrounding the vet checks of St Bernards. I explained (with help from Angela because she is much better versed in the technicalities of the regulations than I am), some of the reasons why a dog might be considered Best of Breed but nevertheless may be considered by a veterinary surgeon to have an obvious physical characteristic detrimental to its well-being. John asked whether this meant that the dog was therefore also not entitled to the Challenge Certificate. We explained this was not the case but that the dog must once again be examined by a vet prior to its being declared a Champion. ‘But’, he asked, ‘does this mean that a champion might be shown again and fail the vet check?’ We explained that this was the case because the characteristic might be temporarily.

He was horrified. ‘But if it is temporary, surely it should not fail. I would have thought that failure should only be about a characteristic which was permanent and, if this is the case and the dog is fundamentally unhealthy, it should be disqualified permanently?’ We explained that this is not how it worked. Different judges and different vets have alternative views (although some, it must be said, seem to have taken the opportunity to make a point) so it would not be fair to entirely dismiss the dog in question. ‘What about the reserve dog’, John asked. ‘The judge has said it is worthy to be a champion so, assuming it would have passed the vet check, would they not, rightly, be upset?’ We explained that the idea had attracted much controversy and he replied that he was not surprised!

John could appreciate the reasons why the procedure had been put in place. As a businessman he understands the importance both of public relations and employing regulation to force and promote change. On the other hand, we agreed regulations themselves, once in place, are sometimes difficult to alter if circumstances change and, in fact, can often act as a brake on progress.

In thinking about all this later (and bearing in mind the various groups which have been set up to examine ways in which important changes to the structure of the world of show dogs and its governance might be implemented) in relation to the recent introduction of breed watch features into the judging process, I wonder whether the necessary sledgehammer of the vet checks has, perhaps, served its purpose. All the evidence which crosses my desk indicates that even in those breeds which were at one time deeply entrenched in their positions and wedded to their traditions have seriously reviewed their attitudes. There may be some way to go but the very fact that there have been changes in direction within breeds could mean that the current veterinary assessment could be set aside, temporarily at least, just to see whether the much less divisive Breed Watch categories will be effective in monitoring breed health. It seems to me that focusing on a much wider range of health characteristics than the narrowly focused, inconsistent, simplistic and divisive vet checks has to be a more rational and ultimately more effective approach.

The introduction of vet checks has undoubtedly proved its worth as a lever in forcing important changes in judge, breeder and exhibitor attitudes. But I would suggest that the time has come to drop them, not just because they have served their purpose but to enable individuals and organisations to concentrate on the many other important issues surrounding the welfare and the promotion of pedigree dogs.

Is our cynicism overiding our common sense?

July 17, 2014

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently – Friedrich Nietzsche

Apart from war which is always tragically with us, corruption seems to be the current defining social theme of the 21st Century. It has always been there of course, floating silently beneath the surface of society, but the last few years, primarily through the research of journalists on the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, it has been raised Kraken like, generating fear and revulsion as revelations concerning both the Lords and the Commons, local government, newspapers, the police force, the care of the elderly, the sordid behaviour of some celebrities and those involved in the Paedophile Information Exchange have come to light. Conspiracies of silence, cover-ups, lies both in and out of the Courts, and smoke and mirrors are techniques with which we have become all too familiar: this means it becomes more and more difficult for ordinary people such as you and me to trust institutions, organisations and, I am afraid, each other.

The damage to society and to the trust we have in those institutions to which we, through our support, subscriptions or votes are party to, is immense but as a proportion, those who behave unacceptably, whether they are violent, criminals, sexual predators or bullies is, in fact, relatively small. They nevertheless have an disproportionate impact on the cultural health of the country by damaging and distorting personal and public relationships.

During a discussion at a recent show I was told by someone that I was naive and too trusting of people, the implication being that I did not understand the workings of the ‘real world’. I did not see it as a criticism at the time: I tend to trust people until I have evidence (other than hearsay) to the contrary. And if being naive means I believe people are essentially good and their mistakes (if acknowledged and reparations offered and/or completed) should be taken in the context of kettles and throwing the first stone, I am happy to be naive. We are all human and inevitably imperfect but I am beginning to wonder whether my ‘cynical gene’ has not been too deeply buried.

Different views from experienced people

In this context judging has once again become an especially hot topic. Recent articles have led to a great deal of discussion at shows and while at East of England Show I was interested to hear the views of a number of very experienced judges held in high esteem. I was not surprised that they all had very different views both on the current situation, the possible solutions and what might be done to improve the processes of training and appointments. On the positive side I was particularly pleased that one judge, already passed for many breeds, told me she had fulfilled her objectives. But she is still attending as many Judging Development Programmes (JDPs) as she can. She wants to learn about other breeds so when they come into the Group ring or in Stakes classes she can better assess them. The downside is that although she therefore has many credits under the JDP she regularly has to explain to secretaries that although she would almost certainly be passed to award tickets in those breeds she does not want to do so.

At the other end of the scale another judge told me that they did not feel the JDP or breed seminars were of much value because the information provided was so similar. For her it was much more important to go over as many dogs as possible and she felt that working alongside experienced specialists either with them as mentors or with her as their student judge were the preferred options.

Both were critical of many ‘up and coming’, young(ish) all rounders who they did not feel had the depth of experience which came from going over many hundreds of dogs at a wide variety shows. Many experienced all breed judges also feel that their work, experience and knowledge is not appreciated by exhibitors and that the problems we have had with breeds becoming too extreme is entirely down to specialists who lack their broad appreciation and understanding of soundness. There was concern, too, that some judges, both specialists and all breed, continue to judge beyond the point at which they can comfortably go over dogs and it was clear from a brief survey of some of the rings at the show that there was some truth in this.

The crux of the matter

But the crux of this matter is a curious dissonance: over the years every judge with whom I have discussed these issues has been adamant that they judge absolutely to the standard, that they have worked hard to achieve their status as a judge and would, under no circumstances, place any dog other than on merit. On the other hand those same judges believe that many of their colleagues do place dogs for reasons other than of merit or through lack of knowledge of the breed they are judging. They agree, as do many exhibitors, that a good deal of judging is about faces, status, not wanting to be out of step or returning or expecting favours. And even those who cry from the rooftops about the importance of judging fairly and seeking out the very best dogs, whatever their age, are distorting the playing field by promoting those very best dogs: less experienced judges may have their opinion swayed in the future.

Essentially, judging must be about each individual dog and the breed standard. Nothing else should interfere with that assessment. It should be the exhibitor’s expectation too. Mistakes are inevitable (who has not completed a class or handed out a ticket and wondered whether they have ‘got it right’?). But mistakes can only be acceptable if they are the result of lack of experience or knowledge – and are not excusable for any other reason. Even then, if mistakes happen often perhaps the judge needs more training – although it must be admitted that one of the most serious problem is that too many judges would not themselves believe that they lack the basic skills or an eye for a dog.

But who is to tell them that they are wrong? If they have been involved with showing, breeding and judging for a long time, if they have jumped through all the hoops and completed the criteria, might those who disagree be wrong themselves? We columnists are very free with our opinions but these are only opinions however sincerely they are held.

Might the best policy be to be more trusting rather than less? Perhaps we should each accept that there is a broad range of views which may be different but which, because they are honestly held, do still have value? Might the dog which seems to win everything under everyone in reality actually be the best?

Are we, because of the focus of current news stories allowing our cynicism to override our judgement? I hope so.