An outside view of veterinary health checks

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 (www.jacquesamandintl.com) 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.

Horrified

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.

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