Breeding – Who is really responsible for what dogs look like?

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


The Kennel Club has come in for a real roasting over the last eighteen months and anyone who understands the background will long have held the view that the recent furore was an accident waiting to happen.  It is true that Pedigree Dogs Exposed has now been accepted as a valuable catalyst/crowbar for change regardless of the distorted and unfair portrayal of the Kennel Club, those representing it and many other breeders, but there can be no doubt that in some ways Clarges Street was hoist by its own petard and so allowed Ms Harrison (and many others happy to pillory those dedicated to pedigree dogs and the advantages of selective breeding) to exploit its weakness.

But all the Kennel Club has tried to do, like the Royal Society, the Institute of Architects, the Royal Society of Arts and thousands of other organisations, is to attempt to regulate.  And it has been very successful, for most institutions have alternatives while the Kennel Club has a virtual monopoly.  But this success of course, contains the seeds of its weakness: it is blamed for any failure and there is no-one else conveniently accountable.  This will remain the case while it represents but a tiny fraction of those involved.  At one time I estimated that this was about half of one percent put the rise in popularity of activities such as heelwork to music, the Young Kennel Club, Flyball, Good Citizens, Canine Club and the rest has, despite the fall in popularity of formal Obedience, means that this fraction is even smaller now than it once was.  With not many more than 1,100 members there is no chance that government, local authorities and the charities will attempt to lay the blame anywhere other than Clarges Street, even though they are not actually responsible.  Why not I hear you cry?  Let me explain.

Having said all the above let us look at the whole situation through a different window.  If you give it some thought it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that, despite all the fuss, the Kennel Club is not directly answerable for any of this because human beings delight in the extreme.  Whether it is in sport, music, building, faster cars, cooking more complicated food, bizarre artistic creation or the selective breeding of dogs, cats, birds and other animals, humanity is hard wired to strive for difference and ascendancy: it is what makes us human.  The Kennel Club does not and in fact, cannot, control what people ‘like’.

When my wife and I first got a dog, part of the compromise (another part was me going to work for three weeks in a milk bottling factory during my summer holiday to earn the money to pay for her) was that I chose the breed.  I was immediately attracted to the Spitz group and after a great deal of discussion a Finnish Spitz is the breed we selected.  In my view they should be much more popular than they are but many people do not like the style and shape of the dog.  It looks too ‘fox like,’ it can be noisy – it does not have to be – and they are not the easiest to train – doing what you want simply is not their style.  We like that, we like the independence and the smart, alert look of them, the ‘handy’ size and we are lucky to have had excellent dogs and to have subsequently bred some very good ones.

Others have different views: they want dogs to work to the gun, to train to a very high standard, to be every good with children or to be as little trouble as possible. Or, and here we come to the point, they want dogs that are very big, very long, very heavy, very brave, very strong, very delicate or with an unusual shape, head or expression.  The Kennel does not dictate these preferences – the public does and breeders, many of who are interested in their breed and want to win well and breed better dogs only reflect them.  What us more, in just the same way that they like the look of their dogs, so do others who may not want to show or but simply want a pet.  And if there is a market it will be filled – preferably by a responsible breeder who ensures that they only breed the best and take a great deal of time and trouble to feed, socialise and test their puppies.

But more than this, once there is a market, those who are not concerned about quality will come forward to fill it.  Just because we are dealing with a sentient being does not mean others may not treat it as a commodity which will make profits if it can be brought forward for sale with sufficient margin.  Again, the Kennel Club cannot be blamed for this  – and it is not Crufts or dog shows that contribute to the problem either – it is the very media which have turned so viciously on the fancy.

Let us look at the facts. When Crufts was televised it was seen by millions of people all over the world through a four-week ‘window’.  Last year it was web streamed very successfully although if you look at the figures the numbers watching was comparatively small.  But apart from that, the number of pedigree pet owners who attend dog shows as spectators at any level other than Crufts is tiny and although 50,000 plus is a very respectable figure to squeeze into the NEC, it is a small proportion of the total population and many of those are true enthusiasts coming for a second day.  So the exposure of pedigree dogs generated by the Kennel Club and its activities is actually microscopic (a smaller proportion to the population at large even than the membership of the KC is to the number of those actively involved in dogs probably).

So where is the interest in the extremes of dogs propagated?  In the media, of course! How many times does the Churchill insurance advertisement appear on TV, on posters and in newspapers and magazines every day – hundreds!  Children see that cute little Bulldog time after time after time throughout their most formative years and view it as a cuddly, adorable family friend with a sense of humour.  Why is it surprising that when they grow up they like the large head, the wrinkled skin, the turned up nose and the thick set build?  Those children will be exposed to other conformations, it is true, but nothing is telling them that one is preferable to the other.  Then they go into the toyshop and are faced with a fluffy version to take home and sleep with.  Do their parents say, ‘No – you should have this Border Collie instead – a Bulldog shows characteristics which lead to genetic disease?’  Of course they don’t.  Pedigree are currently using a Bulldog in their ads for Jumbone, Eukanuba are using a Boxer – Boxers are very popular – and the Harry Potter films have added to the popularity of the Neapolitan Mastiff.

I am surprised, now I come to think of it, that the RSPCA are not calling for legislation to prevent advertisers from using the ‘at risk’ breeds in advertisements. That sort of legislation would be easy to pass, easy to implement and, I suspect, rather more effective than lashing out at the easiest target – the Kennel Club.

Note to advertisers:  I am not complaining about you.  You are entitled to use whatever images you like to sell your products and you have to use those that will be effective but do not be surprised if the Non-governmental Organisation/Charity searchlight begins to focus on you.

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